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Things To Learn: Notre Dame seeks third straight unbeaten season at home, a testament to the seniors

Ian Book Clemson

Quarterback Ian Book (12) drops back to pass in the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium between No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 1 Clemson.

Notre Dame Athletics

Notre Dame has not finished a regular season at home since 1993, fittingly also the last season the Irish beat the No. 1 team in the country. Even that second stanza of Lou Holtz’s tenure (21-2-1 in 1992-93) could not achieve what Notre Dame might this weekend. To find a stretch where the Irish went unbeaten at home across three consecutive seasons, one must go back to Holtz’s peak, winning 19 straight home games from the beginning of 1987 into the first month of 1990.

No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) has already smashed the longevity of that streak, looking for its 24th straight home win, but tying the bow on a third year of South Bend perfection remains the Irish focus this weekend against Syracuse (2:30 ET; NBC). That did not change with the unexpectedly-abrupt end to the scheduled season courtesy of the ACC canceling their Dec. 12 trip to Wake Forest, sealing Notre Dame’s spot in the conference title game on Dec. 19 in Charlotte.

“The announcement as to being part of the championship game doesn’t really change how we prepare for our performance on Saturday,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “It’s still important for our football team because it’s so many things going on.

“Number one, the chance to win all of your games at home for a third consecutive season, to send our seniors out on a winning note has always been important here at Notre Dame, regardless of the season. And certainly solidifying your résumé going into the College Football Playoffs.”

No excess disrespect to the Orange, but no margin of victory against this paltry opponent will bolster the Irish résumé. Any multi-possession win will suffice, and with a 33.5-point spread favoring Notre Dame, Syracuse would have to outperform it by three possessions to begin to corrupt the optics. Of course, it did just that against Clemson in October … and lost by 26.

But finishing the season unbeaten at home has been a staple of this four-year Irish resurgence, across which they have gone 24-1 at Notre Dame Stadium. In the order of team goals, it usually ranks behind an early-season victory against a specific opponent (Michigan, 2018) and ahead of winning the national championship. This year added a conference championship to the latter half of that agenda, and the specific opponent was also the primary threat to the home slate, but rest assured, Kelly has harped on running the table in South Bend since the summer.

And when it comes to the home finale, that want narrows to essentially defending the seniors’ honor.

“You always want to stay undefeated at home, so that’s a big deal to us,” junior tight end Cole Kmet said after last year’s 40-7 win against Boston College, which turned out to be his final home game, as well. “Obviously winning on Senior Day was icing on the cake for it.”

For these fifth-year players, in particular, the Irish want to hand them one final happy moment at Notre Dame Stadium. Not only will the post-game ceremonies with family be a bit stilted if the Irish do not wallop Syracuse, but those seven players — Ian Book, Liam Eichenberg, Tommy Kraemer, Javon McKinley, Daelin Hayes, Ade Ogundeji and Shaun Crawford, the last of these actually a sixth-year player — have been around since before this 42-6 resurgence, soon to be 43-6.

They did not play in the 2016 debacle, but they all felt it. As much as anyone can suffer through a college football season, they did. Since then, they have done as much as anybody, including their classmates who left after that win against the Eagles, to right that wrong.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Notre Dame at Boston College

CHESTNUT HILL, MA - NOVEMBER 14: Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) rears back to pass during a game between the Boston College Eagles and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on November 14, 2020, at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A two-time captain, Book has gone 15-0 at home as the starting quarterback. Kraemer has moved positions and started for four seasons. Eichenberg bided his time to become the next in a long line of starring left tackles, wrapping up his third season as a starter. McKinley overcame injury and incident to shockingly become Notre Dame’s most reliable receiver.

Hayes took injury and turned it into an opportunity to lead the Irish in ways few players ever think to. Ogundeji developed from middling recruit to pass-rush menace. Crawford, well, words do not come close to encapsulating his six-year journey.

Current senior linebacker Drew White praised last year’s seniors, and his words still ring true for those seven, and to a lesser degree for his own class.

“When you look at these teammates, you look at the way they started their college careers, 4-8 season their freshmen year, they battled back to hopefully three 10-win seasons,” White said last November. “The seniors have done so much for this program, whether it is on or off the field. Showing me, showing the younger classes what it’s like to be a Notre Dame student-athlete. They really propelled this program to an ascending place that’s exciting.”

By now White (likely back in 2021), four-year starting right tackle and two-time captain Robert Hainsey, and the defensive tackle pair of Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa all deserve hefty credit, as well, for propelling the Irish toward their fourth straight 10-win season.

That type of veteran leadership always eventually shows itself, and it is most crucial this late in the year. Notre Dame has not played a regular-season game in December since 2003, a loss at Syracuse of all places, but the lessons of November naturally apply to this month.

“November is hard,” White said last year. “Any college football player would tell you that. It’s the end of the season. It’s the end of the semester. You have school work, your body is hurting, mentally you are worn down. What has really gotten us through this is the captains have taken charge, brought people in at practice, telling us we have to keep fighting.

“Great teams win in November.”

Javon McKinley Clemson

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 07: Wide receiver Javon McKinley #88 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts after a catch in the third quarter agains the Clemson Tigers at Notre Dame Stadium on November 7, 2020 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)

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Add on top of all that a mere pandemic leading to increased isolation from the rest of campus all semester, a regular season lasting two weeks longer than classes and all the stressors we are all unfortunately familiar with in 2020, and “November is hard” can understandably become “December is harder,” aside from this weekend’s opponent.

In that one respect, Kelly has found a silver lining to the challenges of the pandemic. Despite his relaxed-as-a-yogi demeanor the last few seasons, Kelly remains every bit the control freak as the other 129 head coaches across the country. It is innate to every football coach.

The pandemic allowed for that idiosyncrasy to flex a bit initially and with time, even relax, intentionally or not. Kelly had to lean on his roster to behave vigilantly in a way he would not normally be able to, and as the Irish have returned clean set of tests after clean set of tests in recent weeks, he has been able to trust his roster is as committed to this cause as their coaches. That commitment yields dividends in discipline in more football-specific aspects, too.

After all, these are college students. They are not usually spending every waking moment thinking about football, it would not be healthy, but when any waking moment’s lapse can induce a positive test, now they are.

“They are confronted with the biggest distraction,” Kelly said. “You can get COVID and miss considerable playing time if you are not maintaining excellent habits. You have to be on top of that 24/7. I don’t get the luxury to control 24/7 in most instances, as much as we would like to. We get them for a short period of time.

“But because of the climate we’re in, they have to avoid these distractions that can cause them to potentially lose playing time, so they’re building strong habits that you’re seeing play out on the football field.”

It does not take a logical leap to assume that diligence began with the upperclassmen, knowing this was their last chance at a national championship. The fifth-years carried this program from a national laughingstock to beating a dynasty. The seniors have been a part of nothing but 10-win seasons.

To be more accurate, they will be able to claim a fourth 10-win season when they see their families after Notre Dame does away with Syracuse. The Senior Day festivities have to wait until postgame during a pandemic, but that only gives the win preceding them a chance to add more jubilance to a season otherwise void of excessive fanfare.

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