Notre Dame played Georgia Tech last week, and that meant the movie “Rudy’’ was on somewhere. Rudy’s big game was against Georgia Tech. I found it on cable. It still gets me, especially with the crowd chanting his name and his coach telling him to stay on the field, which probably never happened. And the scene with the jerseys on the coach’s desk, which definitely never happened. It’s a little embarrassing being stuck in the past, and by that I’m talking about still having cable.
But Notre Dame’s entire past is sort of stuck now. It has stopped. It’s hard to know what Notre Dame football even is anymore in the modern time, or what time it’s living in.
They don’t make movies for the really, really good. If Notre Dame isn’t a national champion contender but is still about Rudy and the Gipper, Rockne and the Four Horsemen, then the Irish are just a museum piece for college football.
Notre Dame does not win big games anymore. Never. The Irish get to the big games, play on the mountaintop, but lose when they get there.
On Saturday, they’ll play No. 1 Clemson at home. Another big game. Clemson is without superstud quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who’s out with COVID. This is Notre Dame’s big chance to emerge from its own shadow.
Someone asked Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly at his weekly media conference about saying that this game is a measuring stick for Notre Dame’s program.
“Did I say it was an important measuring stick or did you?’’ Kelly interrupted.
The writer said that Kelly had said it was a game he was looking forward to.
“Thank you,’’ Kelly said. “Now we’re accurate.’’
Kelly doesn’t want any measuring sticks anymore. Every time Notre Dame gets one, it comes up short.
Notre Dame used to get all worked up over coaches not winning, or even contending for, national championships. It seems as if Notre Dame has actually faced up to its reality now that the heartbeat of the sport has moved from South Bend to the southeastern corner of the U.S.
Kelly arrived in 2010 and stabilized the mess that former coach Charlie Weis left. He brought Notre Dame back to the national stage. But was that all?
This season’s College Football Playoff seems already set with Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama and some other fourth team from the next tier.
That’s where Notre Dame comes in. The next tier, trying to sneak back in to the top. At some point, if you don’t get there, then you’re haunted by your own past. Mocked by it.
It’s great that Notre Dame is playing a team from the South, as the Irish used to actually stand as the symbol of Northern football. Its classic games against Alabama in the 1970s were a culture war of South vs. North. It wasn’t just about football pride, but about regional pride.
Alabama got Notre Dame back with a 42-14 win in the national championship game in January 2013. Kelly was still new to Notre Dame, and everything was on the rise. Notre Dame went into the game ranked No. 1, but Alabama physically pushed them around the whole night.
Afterward, Kelly made it clear he had seen that one as a measuring stick, saying at the time that he had learned “what it looks like’’ to be a champion. “We’ve got to get physically stronger.’’
Notre Dame football never recovered from that game. In 2014, the Irish played No. 2 Florida State, and before the game Kelly said, “That’s how you’re measured as a program when you’re talking top five teams.’’
Florida State won 31-27.
Two years ago, the Irish got to the College Football Playoff, where they lost to Clemson 30-3. At the time, Kelly said that game felt different than the Alabama game, that this team is “on the brink.’’
So now it’s time to prove it.
“People fail to realize the next game they (Clemson) absolutely blitzed Alabama,’’ Kelly said this week. “And nobody talked about the talent gap there. Nobody talked about the coaching gap there. They just talked about the talent gap and coaching gap (in) the Notre Dame-Clemson game.’’
Well, it’s true that Clemson beat Notre Dame by 27 and then beat Alabama by 28. But Alabama had been winning national championships. So there are no doubts about whether Alabama is in the elite. With Notre Dame? Doubts.
So it’s another culture war Saturday, with the Irish ranked No. 4 and undefeated. Ohio State has replaced Notre Dame as the symbol of northern football. Last year, Notre Dame lost 23-17 to Georgia.
This one is for Kelly, for Notre Dame, for a culture. Time for Notre Dame to get back up and show the heart of Rudy, assuming that was real.