Nov. 15, 2015
Irish coach Brian Kelly has been at the University of Notre Dame for nearly six full seasons now, so he appreciates the challenge of creating a football legacy at a place where seemingly there’s a sculpture or life-size image of Knute Rockne or Ara Parseghian or the Four Horsemen every time you turn around.
That’s why Kelly made sure his 2015 Irish understood the opportunity ahead of them Saturday against Wake Forest:
“Protect our house,” Kelly told his team moments before they took the field as the No. 4 entry in the latest College Football Playoff standings.
“We talked about this against Texas (before the season opener) and we’re not talking about anything today but playing together. Team 127 (it’s the 127th season of Notre Dame football)—everyone does your job. We are one football team today. It’s a group effort. We are Notre Dame today as one.
“We’ll recognize our seniors today, but this is the last time we play as a unit at home. It’s about how we play as a team.”
And, when it was over, and the Irish had prevailed 28-7, Kelly in the locker room didn’t hesitate to remind his kneeling players of the magnitude of what they had just accomplished:
“There are a lot of players who have been in this locker room, a lot of great teams over the decades, All-Americans and national championships teams.
“And this senior class just became the all-time winningest class in terms of home games with 21 wins.
“You’re part of the great history and tradition of Notre Dame football. You’ve left a legacy. Team 127 made its mark. It’s a great win. They are all hard.”
And, yes, it wasn’t easy.
The 2015 Irish senior class (28 of them were introduced prior to kickoff) over its four years finished 21-3 in Notre Dame Stadium. That group went 6-0 in both 2012 and 2015—and its only losses came against 14th-ranked Oklahoma in 2013 and then Northwestern and Louisville in 2014 when a series of late-season injuries dampened Notre Dame’s November.
Those 21 home-field victories include triumphs over No.18 Michigan and No.17 Stanford in 2012, No. 14 Stanford in 2014, No. 14 Georgia Tech in 2015, plus prime-time wins over rival USC in 2013 and 2015.
The last of those 21 may not have been the prettiest, but it counted just the same. Here’s how it happened:
-- On Notre Dame’s second possession, quarterback DeShone Kizer did most of the damage—completing third-down passes to Amir Carlisle for 18 yards and to Torii Hunter Jr. for nine. Kizer ran once on first down for eight yards and also traveled the final 12 yards for the score.
-- Three plays later the margin went to 14-0 when Sheldon Day pressured Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford into an off-balance throw that Irish lineman Andrew Trumbetti carried 28 yards into the end zone.
-- After the Demon Deacons held the ball for almost eight minutes, only to see linebacker Jaylon Smith snuff out a fourth-down run attempt from the one, the Irish took over 99 yards away from pay dirt. So freshman Josh Adams, filling in for the banged-up C.J. Prosise, weaved his way through the Wake Forest defense for a 98-yard touchdown run that marked the longest run and play in Irish history and tied for the longest play from scrimmage anywhere in 2015 in Football Bowl Subdivision play. That made it 21-0 with 10 minutes remaining until halftime—and that turned out to be all the points Notre Dame needed.
-- The Deacons came well-prepared after an extra week to get ready. Dave Clawson’s crew held onto the football for more than 11 minutes than the Irish and ran off 25 more plays. Notre Dame ran only a combined 18 offensive plays in the middle two quarters.
-- Credit the Irish defense for holding strong when it was most necessary:
* Wake Forest had a fourth-and-eight chance at the Irish 33 on its first possession and Notre Dame forced an incompletion.
* On fourth and goal early in the second period Smith made the stop at the one.
* The Deacons drove to the Irish 11 late in the first half, and then a Romeo Okwara sack (the first of his three that earned him the game ball) and a personal foul penalty pushed Wake Forest back far enough that it could not connect on a 51-yard field-goal try to end the half.
* Wake scored its lone tally midway through the third quarter—and the Irish responded midway through the last period with their final points. Kizer completed throws of 14 yards to Chris Brown and 22 more to Will Fuller—and he ran the final five yards himself. The Deacons then completed a 52-yard throw and another for 15 yards that set them up at the Irish one. But a fumble by Wolford led to another incompletion on fourth and goal from the Notre Dame seven.
The final numbers were nothing to write home about, but Kelly and the Irish won’t spend any time worrying. Adams ended up with 141 net ground yards. Kizer hooked up successfully on 13 of his 19 throws. The Deacons did their best to blanket Fuller though he and Brown both caught three balls.
Smith finished with 14 tackles, Joe Schmidt added 10 of his own—and the defense combined for eight tackles for loss (including the three sacks by Okwara). Dating back to the season-opening 38-3 win over Texas, this marked Notre Dame’s next-best effort in 2015 in terms of holding down the points.
The pregame senior introductions provided their share of emotional moments, as Kelly stood just north of the goalpost in blue pants, a grey sweatshirt and blue visor. There were smiles, embraces, handclasps, pats on the backs and many thanks offered by the Irish head coach to his veterans on a near-perfect, sunny weather day at Notre Dame Stadium.
Stadium public-address announcer Mike Collins referred to safety Matthias Farley as “the gentleman from North Carolina” and noted Day’s mother, Carol Boyd, as “Miss Excitement.”
Late in the game Collins thanked the students for their support, leading to a final rendition of “Sweet Caroline” and a last Irish jig. Collins offered a piece of Irish verse, ending in a fitting line, “ . . . may your winning streak never end . . .”
The seniors returned to the field a half-hour after the game for a group photo and took a victory lap, then gathered with family and friends near the 10-yard-line in the northeast corner of the field. The Irish soaked in every last moment before heading back up the tunnel one final time, signing autographs here and posing for cellphone photos there.
After Kelly’s postgame words in the locker room and one last team “Victory March” singing, Schmidt walked around gathering his fellow seniors to head back to the field.
Schmidt shook hands with Ronnie Powlus, the son of Irish player development coordinator Ron Powlus, and said matter of factly and with a big grin: “One day you’ll have your Senior Day here. And I’ll be here for it.”
And, with that, Schmidt and his mates headed back down those steps, past the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign, to make sure they could revel for a few more fleeting moments in that legacy that Kelly portrayed.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.
Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:
-- Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:
-- Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner—and Moves On
-- Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:
-- Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:
-- Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices: http://www.und.com/genrel/092215aae.html
-- Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium: http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/092315aag.html
-- Sunday Brunch: Daytime Look at Irish Is Revealing
Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father
-- Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: http://www.und.com/genrel/092115aaa.html