The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have kicked off a game in primetime exactly 50 times in the last 20 years. Have they shined under the lights or wilted from the attention of a national audience?
If you’ve been a fan of the program since the Bob Davie era, you probably won’t be surprised by the answer.
The Irish are 153-96 (.614) in all games since 1998, but 24-26 (.480) in games that kickoff after 8 p.m. Eastern, which is Nielsen’s definition of primetime.
So the initial answer is: Yes, the Irish have underperformed relative to the overall record in games that kickoff during primetime.
A FAIRER COMPARISON
The 50 primetime games all have one element in common: They are played away from Notre Dame Stadium. Forty-two of those games were played at the opponent’s home stadium; eight were neutral site games.
The Irish are 41-46 (.471) in away games since 1998; they are 22-11 (.666) at neutral sites in the 20-year period. Blended, that’s a 63-57 (.525) record in away and neutral site games.
If we’re looking at the last 20 years, the Irish have been slightly better than a coin flip in games not played in Notre Dame Stadium. Their record in games that kick after primetime is 4 1⁄2 games worse out of 100.
So while the 8 p.m. (or later) kickoff doesn’t help, it’s not making things terribly worse.
When you think of primetime kickoffs, it’s natural to conjure up a “College Gameday”-worthy game: two ranked teams clashing.
That hasn’t been the case for Notre Dame.
Of the 50 games that kicked during primetime in the 20 year period, just 16 have been games in which both the Irish and their opponent were ranked. The Irish have won just 4 of those games — against the 2002 Air Force Falcons, the 2012 Michigan State Spartans, the 2012 Oklahoma Sooners and the 2015 Temple Owls.
There were 6 additional games in which the Irish’s opponent was ranked but Notre Dame was not. Notre Dame won two of those six games, against the 2002 Maryland Terrapins and the 2005 Pittsburgh Panthers. (Both were season openers.)
That means there was 28 games where the Irish played in primetime against an unranked opponent — and Notre Dame was 18-10 in those games. (The Irish were 8-3 in primetime games in which they were ranked and their opponent was not. One of those losses was the 2013 game against the Pittsburgh Panthers, when Stephon Tuitt’s ejection changed the entire outcome.)
Charlie Weis was 8-6 (.571) in primetime games. That record belies Weis’ 1-4 record against ranked teams in primetime, however. In terms of big wins in primetime, Weis’ first game — a 42-21 victory over #23 Pittsburgh — was his peak.
Tyrone Willingham, who preceded Weis, was 3-3. (Kent Baer, who coached the Irish in the Insight Bowl after Willingham was fired, was 0-1 in primetime games, as the bowl game was a 9:30 p.m. Eastern kick.) Willingham beat two ranked teams - #21 Maryland and #18 Air Force in 2002 — in primetime, and lost to a ranked USC Trojans team twice (#6 in 2002 and #1 in 2004).
Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, Kent Baer and Charlie Weis have all moved on. So, as it pertains this year, what is Brian Kelly’s record in games that kick during primetime?
Kelly is 13-10 (.565) in primetime games. Of those games, 10 came against ranked opponents. Kelly is 3-7 against ranked opponents in primetime, beating #8 Oklahoma in 2012, #10 Michigan State in 2012 and #21 Temple in 2015 and losing to the #2 Alabama Crimson Tide in 2013, #2 Florida State Seminoles in 2014, #4 Stanford Cardinal in 2011, #7 Miami-Florida Hurricanes in 2017, #12 Clemson Tigers in 2015, #17 Michigan Wolverines in 2013 and #20 Stanford in 2017.
LET’S LOOK FORWARD
At this point, Notre Dame has just one game kicking off in primetime during the 2018 season: Oct. 27 vs. Navy. The Irish beat the Midshipmen, 49-34, in the only game between these two teams that kicked in primetime during the last 20 years.
It’s a safe bet the Navy game won’t be the only primetime kickoff game.
The season finale against USC is a good candidate for a primetime slot, as it was in even years between 1998 and 2012. The 2014 and 2016 games against the Trojans were played at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, however.
The Irish didn’t play in a single primetime kickoff game during the disastrous 2016 season. The last time it played in just one primetime game was 2007 (3 in 2017, 2 in 2015, 3 in 2014, 3 in 2013, 5 in 2012, 4 in 2011 and 3 in 2010.)
If you wanted to determine whether Notre Dame chokes during primetime, you’d have to define “choke.”
The Irish spotting Clemson 14 points in the first 7 minutes of a big Top-12 matchup in 2015 is a choke. Ditto to the Irish spotting 34 to Miami without an answer last season.
The Irish losing to Michigan in 2011 when up 17 entering the final quarter, sadly, also feels like a choke.
But would you say the same about the 2014 Florida State game? Or the 2013 Michigan game, where the Irish were tied or within a single score for most of the game, but never ahead?
Games that kick during primetime aren’t the only games played during primetime.
The Irish are 42-38 (.525) in games that kickoff during 5 p.m. or later, which means at least one part of the game was played during primetime. That brings 12 home games into the equation, including last year’s games against the Georgia Bulldogs, Miami-Ohio Redhawks and USC.
Road games are problematic, because they involve travel.
All travel, however, is not created equal. There’s 113 miles between South Bend and Evanston, Ill., where the Irish will play the Northwestern Wildcats next Nov. 3.
The week prior, it’ll take airplanes — not buses — to make the 2,156 mile jaunt to face Navy at San Diego’s SDCCU Stadium.
Changing time zones may be a factor in this equation of whether the Irish choke at night. For this article, however, it hasn’t been accounted for.
Thanks to @IrishRoo12 for inspiring this article.