The Notre Dame football team has made enough noise on the national scene with its No. 7 national ranking and 5-0 start to lure ESPN’s College GameDay crew to South Bend Saturday for a critical tilt against rival and 17th-ranked Stanford. Once Fighting Irish students wrap up midterm exams, they might eventually match analyst Kirk Herbstreit’s enthusiasm when, from the Hesburgh Library Mall, the show goes live at 9 a.m. ET on ESPNU and an hour later on ESPN.
Notre Dame has a 3-4 record when the College GameDay crew has been in town
“It’s awesome. Anytime Notre Dame is up there in the rankings, it’s good for the sport,” Herbstreit said Tuesday in a teleconference. “They’re a polarizing team; you either love them or hate them it seems like around the country. For us, and people who love the sport, when you have teams like Notre Dame or USC or Texas — the high-profile schools out there — that have great years, it obviously makes it a lot of fun. To have our chance, selfishly, to have GameDay back in South Bend, it’s great. It’s been way, way, way too long since we’ve been there. I think it’s nice to see they have a high-profile game at home that allows us to come in there and just add to the atmosphere there hopefully in South Bend on Saturday.”
It’s the first time in seven years GameDay has made Notre Dame a destination.
“They’re very deserving,” Herbstreit added. “I had a chance to call the game in East Lansing in Week Three. I think their defense up to that point — they played very well against Navy and Purdue — but I think they really took the nation by storm [vs. Michigan State]. I think a lot of people that night walked away from that game saying, ‘Wow, maybe this Notre Dame defense is one of the top defenses in the country.’
“To follow that up with the way they corralled [Michigan quarterback] Denard Robinson and the way they played against Miami, their defense and their front seven, I guess specifically their front seven, is now playing as well as anybody in the country.”
Herbstreit believes “without a doubt” the Fighting Irish will be part of the BCS bowl discussion, but that there are several potholes remaining on the slate, beginning with the Cardinal.
“There are other games like on the road against Oklahoma and then there is the game at USC that stand out,” he said. “I know all Notre Dame fans are kind of pointing to those three as the most challenging. If they’re able to get through Stanford, it’s time to start bracing yourself if you’re a Notre Dame fan, because then you’re just a couple games away.”
Unaware that ND students’ noses were buried even deeper in their textbooks this week, Herbstreit expects a raucous crowd ready to blow off some steam.
“They’re going to be out of their minds,” he said. “That will be fun.”
Herbstreit thinks Notre Dame's offensive line play will dictate how far it can go this year
Pointing out the improved play of the Irish offensive line, Herbstreit underscored how vital that group’s performance is moving forward. Against Miami last week in Chicago, the O-line opened up lanes for Notre Dame’s backfield trio of Cierre Wood, George Atkinson III and Theo Riddick, as well as quarterback Everett Golson, en route to 376 rushing yards — the most in 12 years.
“While everybody was paying attention to Everett Golson, I was really looking at the offensive line,” he said. “Like any offense, you’re only going to be as good and productive as those guys are going to let you be. To be candid, I thought Purdue beat them up pretty good up front.
“I thought going into the Michigan State game, boy, on the road, at night in East Lansing, this will be interesting to see how they perform. That’s another great defensive line that the Spartans have. It wasn’t as if [ND] blew them off the ball, but they held their own. They allowed the offense to execute. From the Michigan State game, the Michigan game was okay, not great, and then the game last week coming off a bye week, clearly the best game they played as far as dominating the line of scrimmage.”
Now, Herbstreit said, the offense is primed to start piling up points on a consistent basis.
“The one thing that I think people nationally don’t get about Notre Dame, and I said this before the game against Miami, is how much athletic ability they have on the offensive side of the ball,” he explained. “Again, I’ve been pretty critical about what’s been lacking in that area for years. Outside of occasionally having a Kyle Rudolph or a receiver like Michael Floyd, outside of that there has not been a group where you had five or six offensive weapons.
“I think now you can see that this Notre Dame team, through the efforts of Brian Kelly and his staff and what they’ve been able to do in recruiting, now if the quarterback situation gets settled — whether it’s going to be Golson, and it seems like it’s going to be Golson, and Rees stepping in — you start to look at that backfield with Cierre Wood, when Riddick is back there and with Atkinson, the receivers they have [with] this young kid Daniels … [tight end Tyler] Eifert and [receivers] T.J. Jones and Robby Toma, and [John] Goodman has made some plays for them, it’s a whole different look.”
Still, the offense will only go as far as the line will take it.
“The line you’re referring to, they are the No. 1 key to Notre Dame being a, ‘Hey, Notre Dame is a fun story; they’re a BCS bowl team,’ and truly being a threat to beating teas like Stanford, on the road at Oklahoma, on the road at USC,” Herbstreit added. “The development of the offensive line, because of the skill they have on the offensive side of the ball, how far they come up front will dictate whether or not they can truly become a threat to try and push to get into the top two at the end of the year.”
Diaco making a name for himself
The undeniable driving force behind Notre Dame’s rise this season remains a dominant defense. Herbstreit has Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco penciled in as one of the hot commodities for head coaching positions that open up after the 2012 campaign.
“I think he’s got to be one of the coordinators who kind of become those hot, trendy name at the end of the season. How could he not be? I think Bob has done a very good job, not just at Notre Dame, but when he was at Cincinnati they had a good defense. He is a football guy; he’d be a great representation of any university when he has the chance to step to the podium. I think people would be impressed with him when he interviewed with him. When you can put down his background as a player, who he’s been around as an assistant coach and now as a coordinator and some of the success he’s had, I think it’s just a matter of time until he becomes a head coach. And with Notre Dame having the kind of year that they have, it would not shock me at all at the end of the year to have his name being talked about quite a bit.”
Kelly’s quarterback philosophy
Irish head coach Brian Kelly, whether it was at Division II Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati or at Notre Dame, has never worried about making unpopular decision regarding the quarterback position. And with a 192-67-2 career record, the results are an indication that he knows what he’s doing.
Though junior Tommy Rees was inserted in both the Purdue and Michigan games in place of starting sophomore Everett Golson — controversial moves to some — Herbstreit explained it’s not a deviation from how Kelly has operated in the past.
“That’s Brian Kelly; he’s not real concerned with quarterbacks and their confidence and what they think about some of his decisions,” he said. “He just kind of goes with his gut. If he feels like Tommy’s going to help him in a certain situation then he’s going to go with him. It’s nothing personal towards Everett Golson. He looks at quarterbacks very differently than most coaches. He doesn’t treat them with kid gloves; he just treats them like football players like anybody else [at another] position.
“If you’re Everett Golson and you’re a young [rookie], you have to understand that part of [Kelly’s] personality, whether it was at Central Michigan, Cincinnati or now at Notre Dame. You can’t take it personally. I think Everett Golson, personally, watching this team grown, I think he’s the answer; I think he’s the future. I think he’s the guy that has to get it done for them this year. The reason I feel that is because his ability to run and throw within this offense. As long as he avoids the disastrous play of turning the ball over at a crucial moment in the game … Notre Dame has been very fortunate after the year they had last year, to not be a part of that again this year. That trend has to continue for them to win games like this Saturday against Stanford, and as we said earlier, down the road against some of the teams they’re going to be playing on the road like Oklahoma and USC.”