Notre Dame Stadium has had an FBS record 206 consecutive games sold out in a row. Over 80,000 of the Fighting Irish Faithful for football Saturdays in South Bend for nearly 20 seasons. Stanley has been there for all of them. He’s quiet as he sits in his corner seat next to the front of the tunnel. At 91, he’s a seasoned veteran of Notre Dame football, having been to over 400 games, carrying with him a leather bound book with tickets to every one. The first page has eight that pop in their blues, oranges, and reds. In the top left, game number one: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA vs. NOTRE DAME. $2.20 (with tax). It’s not even the cheapest ticket on the page. It’s from 1941.
Stanley doesn’t say too much, but he doesn’t have to to see that he’s as energetic and passionate as the 80,742 cheering by his side. Touchdown Jesus is behind him, a humble scoreboard ahead. All around, the truest embodiment of tradition I’ve ever seen.
Notre Dame was founded in 1842, and after what I imagine were 45 unexciting, touchdown-less years football began in 1887. Since then their history has been written by excellence: 97 consensus all-americans, eleven championships, eleven undefeated seasons, 7 heisman trophy winners and the highest win percentage of any school in college football history. Names like Lou Holtz, Joe Theisman, and Knute Rockne surround the campus and you find yourself hard pressed to turn a corner without seeing or hearing their names. But you don’t want to (at least speaking as a non-student). It’s a reminder of the greatness that Notre Dame has been able to produce consistently. Their history becomes yours.
But not all history is good. In recent years, Notre Dame has had a tough time stopping the triple option and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have been running it to near perfection at the start of the 2015 season, at least well enough to put up 134 points in their first two games. Down 5 starters, Notre Dame entered the game as the home underdog; the 26th time in the last 25 seasons, a top ten ranking in jeopardy. The college football postseason is an unforgiving beast. A full schedule looms ahead for both teams and an early season loss would be a major setback for two programs with perfect seasons on their minds.
It would take more than late game heroics to beat the fast-paced Yellow Jackets and their FBS leading offense. Keeping with their Catholic school roots, many resorted to praying at the Basilica. Others took to making signs that asked the Holy Mother to bring success to their boys. Hail Mary, Fuller Grace.
By kickoff Saturday, the Stadium was full of Shirts (capital “S” intended) that hark back to Notre Dame’s Golden Tradition of football pageantry. A strong sun that glinted off the Golden Dome in the distance. There were concerns that all of the thunder had been shook down the night before, but by days end Notre Dame would still have enough in her for a stand against Georgia Tech.
But questions remained: Would the backup players be able to continue their high level of play? Would the offense keep pace? Would the defense be able slow down a team averaging over 400 rushing yards per game?
Tech’s first time on offense would provide some early insight. It would last just 2 minutes and cover only two yards; their first three and out of the season on their first drive. Notre Dame responded with a 46 yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller and then stopping the Yellow Jackets offense again on their second drive. Their second three and out. Go Irish go.
No one likes to be an underdog at home, least of all when “fighting” is a literal part of your identity, and Notre Dame would not be counted out of this game. The first quarter ended with a missed 34 yard field goal by Georgia Tech. 7-0 Irish. 7 push-ups from the crowd. The student section keeps it simple, yet effective. A few arm pumps, a jig or two, and maybe a few “suck its;” a perfect balance between support and ease of learning that never seemed to dissipate, even when Kizer threw an interception in the endzone that, four plays and 80 yards later, turned into Georgia Tech’s first score of the game.A triangle of pale yellow which gradually turned into section next to section of white erupted at the opposite endzone. The Yellow Jacket faithful were not resigned to a game of silence.
The small size of the school creates a unique sense of community and support where students aren’t simply part of the masses, but valuable members of the environment. Giant “COUNT ON US” banners held by the student section welcomed their team back on the field to start the second half in a clear indication that, whether the odds by great or small, they could count on each other to overcome them.
The game should have ended with a final score of 30-7, maybe 30-15 though I would argue that the Notre Dame defense had already let their guard down when Justin Thomas threw his first of two fourth quarter touchdowns, a 24-yarder to Patrick Skov that was backed up by a successful two-point conversion. The disappointment from the crowd was clear, but it didn’t quiet them down too much. The successful onside kick recovery did that, with help from the Skov’s second touchdown reception 22 seconds later (his third touchdown on the day). Fortunate to still be up a score, the hands team made sure to recover the second onside attempt.
The final read 30-22 in a game that was dominated by Notre Dame both physically and vocally. They would hold Tech to 337 total yards (212 rushing) while putting up 457 of their own, 91 of which came on Prosise’s third rushing touchdown of the day (his second was a one yard push early in the quarter).
In a season that has already been characterized by surprise endings, upsets, and missing expectations, Notre Dame has shown early that it can play consistent football at multiple levels of its depth chart. With this important marquee win, the Irish are set up for what could be a very successful season. They have three games remaining against ranked opponents, but Clemson struggled in their first real test last week, USC showed its vulnerabilities, and Stanford to end the season.
The Irish will continue to fight. It’s in their blood. It’s embedded in their tradition and her loyal sons will be there every step of the way, cheering her name no matter the odds. The 2015 season is young, but it’s never too early to see positive trends and Notre Dame continues to trend up. They deserve our attention this season. Keep on eye on them. Here come the Irish.