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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Wide receiver Miles Boykin said he came to Notre Dame to graduate and win a national championship. The Irish play Clemson today in the Cotton Bowl. The winner goes to the national championship game.

Saturday, December 29, 2018 1:00 am

Writing new chapter in Irish lore

Since January, team's focus on winning national title

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Who: Notre Dame vs. Clemson

Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

When: 4 p.m. today

TV: ESPN

Records: Notre Dame 12-0, Clemson 13-0

ARLINGTON, Texas – It has been almost six years since Notre Dame last got this close to a national championship. The Irish's 42-14 shellacking at the hands of Alabama in the 2013 BCS Championship Game still hangs over the national perception of the program.

The No. 3 Irish have a chance this afternoon at the Cotton Bowl to erase the bad memories from that performance and write a new chapter in the history of one of the most storied programs in college football.

A victory over undefeated No. 2 Clemson would catapult Notre Dame to its second national title game this decade and firmly re-establish the Irish among the nation's elite programs.

Of course, for this Irish team, the concerns are less about the big picture and more about finishing what they started in January. For those within the Notre Dame program, the sting of the loss to Alabama was gone long ago.

“I put that to rest the next day,” coach Brian Kelly said of the loss to the Crimson Tide. “That's why we're back here, building our football team, to get an opportunity to compete for a national championship. We put that behind us because you can't move forward unless you are building your football team.

“Our goal has been to win a national championship and get back to that. We are back here now. We've got to win a football game. We got a really good opponent in Clemson.”

Kelly is correct about the quality of the opponent. The Tigers (13-0), playing in their fourth straight College Football Playoff, won a national championship in 2016. They've been here before. Their offense and defense each rank among the top five in the nation in scoring. The Irish will need to play their best game of the season to have a chance.

“Our players are confident, they're excited,” offensive coordinator Chip Long said. “They've put in a lot of work to get to where they are. A lot of different guys have had to step up for us, so they can play. And we've had to play in a lot of big games – games they won and found a way to win.”

Notre Dame (12-0) players and coaches have expressed confidence that this team is different from the 2012 group that fell short on the biggest stage.

They insist they're bigger, stronger, faster and more balanced than they were then, that they have the talent to compete with the nation's best.

The rest of the college football world doesn't seem to be buying it. The Irish, despite four wins over ranked opponents, are 121/2-point underdogs, a huge spread for a game between two undefeated teams.

Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi, whose team lost to the Irish and the Tigers this season, said there is “no comparison” between them and that Clemson will probably win the national title.

That's all background noise for the Irish. 

“All that matters is the people in (the locker room), and that's what coach Kelly has stressed since Day One,” cornerback Julian Love said. “What we've been focused on is the opinions of our brothers, the guys next to us, the guys who are actually on the field, and that's all that matters.

“So I don't feel slighted by (doubters). We don't feel slighted by it by any means, but we're just happy to be in this moment.”

This is a moment the Irish have been working for since the day after last season's Citrus Bowl victory. From that point, a national championship was the goal, the purpose of all the work. From offseason workouts with strength coach Matt Balis to fall camp in Culver to practices in South Bend, it has all led to this.

“What else can you come to Notre Dame for?” wide receiver Miles Boykin asked. “There's no conference championship. Yeah you play rivals, but one win isn't going to make your season. When you put things in perspective, I came here to graduate and be a national champion.”

Notre Dame can't win a national championship today, but it can take one giant step closer. For this program, a win would erase a lot of tough memories.

dsinn@jg.net