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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Toledo at Notre Dame

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We finally got the Notre Dame football experience back and the game almost ruined it

It was a stressful day that I’m still happy that it happened — kind of

Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s 6:30 AM eastern time on Saturday morning and I pull into my driveway after a 12 hour shift at the job I hate. I have exactly two hours before I need to get up and get around to leave for Notre Dame Stadium to put in more than 12 hours at the job I love. Throughout the night I tried to stay mellow and not think about the game too much, and thought I did a really fine job of it all — but now it was go time.

I crept into the house quietly. The last text I received from my wife that night had something to do with the kids and movie night, so I was confident all or some of them were camping out in the living room — and they were. A quick shower was all I needed before I jumped into bed, but I felt more awake and more alive just moments after I got out. Using some mental sorcery that I’ve developed over the course of my life, it’s probable that I finally fell asleep around 7:10.

The 8:30 alarm hits, and my wife who has been sleeping soundly since around midnight, gives me a slight nudge to help me out. I’m up, dressed, and out the door by 9:10 — but not before I stopped my youngest son from trying to smash the leftover sushi from dinner as his breakfast.

I’m up on the 80/90 turnpike now with a cup of coffee and one 12 oz can of blueberry Red Bull in my system. Scooting right along, I decided a solid shuffle on my Apple Music catalog would serve me better than listening to ESPN’s College Gameday. I’m pumped and re — I’m at a complete stop on the highway. Because someone in power decided that massive construction along the turnpike for the start of college football season was a good idea, the normal 90 minute jaunt turned into about 150 minutes.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless... I’m excited, and despite the heat increasing by the minute, the walk up to campus with Brendan from Innovation Park was emotional enough to give my stomach a few twists. I decided to opt out of covering Notre Dame football in person in 2020, and this is the first game back at Notre Dame Stadium since November of 2019. As someone who enjoys college football in its total experience, my adrenaline poured into my veins and lifted my excitement to a level that has usually been reserved for those big rivalry games.

Speaking of my stomach and my veins — we made a quick dash over to Pole 3 where @NDirishwonder had my tall boys of PBR waiting, and @JAK0107 had brisket sliders with shells and cheese on the menu — tailgate cuisine at its finest. Fattened up and lubricated, it was now time to finally head up to the press box to begin the day’s work. It wasn’t until we sat down that I regretted our arrival time.

Usually I take a lap around campus, light a candle at the Grotto, and try to meet up with at least one new person. It’s in that hour that I’m able to spread my wings as a fan and take in the game as more than just a work thing. My job actually requires it in a sense. While OFD operates in the same space as the Athletic, South Bend Tribune, Irish Illustrated, Blue-Gold Illustrated, and others — the mission, focus, and product is supposed to be different. On Saturday, I effectively failed in that regard, which means I did a bad job of being me.

Maybe it was an omen.

As the team prepared to come out of the tunnel is became quite obvious that Notre Dame Stadium was going to have a lot of open seats — like a lot. Be that as it may, Notre Dame opened the windows up in the press box which is something that almost never happened pre-2020. It was nice to sit in there for a change and get a better sense of the feel of the game thanks to the sounds of the crowd.

Working a game inside the press box provides you a pretty sanitized version of college football. As someone who has done their fair share of time in one, and done more than their fair share of time in the crowd, I’m still amazed how well I can dull my visible emotions. It’s three (and more) hours of watching, tweeting, and taking notes. For this game against Toledo, I took way less notes than a normal game, and they were also about as general as it gets.

My main concentrations were on the offensive line and the secondary. To be honest, the frustrations of the day were quite noticeable, and I didn’t need to keep writing about mistakes via the guards. It was also a day to check what personnel was checking into the game and doing what. Notre Dame’s injuries — and other attrition — meant a larger scope of the roster was needed to win against the Rockets, and not just as appearances.

As the game melted into the middle of the 3rd quarter, I played around with a few scenarios as I — at least mentally — prepared for what I may be writing about after the game. The 3rd quarter drug on like that long enough that by the start of the 4th quarter, I had yet to start piecing together the quick recap of the game.

Toledo v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

These quick recaps are a bit tricky because a college football game can change so quickly. In the case of Notre Dame vs Toledo, that’s exactly what happened as the two teams put up a combined 31 points in the 4th quarter.

With about 7 minutes left in the game, I decided “to hell with it” and we went down to the field. The quick recap, while always a bare bones piece, was really thin. I had let the day’s disappointment affect my schedule — but I had waited long enough to be submerged into the action inside Notre Dame Stadium... it was time to go.

Going down onto the field always has a fun “rush” to it, and despite the close game against a MAC opponent, this wasn’t any different. The difference, however, was that this game was still very much in doubt. Usually if a game is in doubt, I stay in the box until it’s over. I had not been on the sidelines for a close game like that in the 4th quarter since the 2017 game against the Georgia Bulldogs.

We watched Dequan Finn scamper 26 yards into the endzone we were standing behind, and Toledo held a 29-24 advantage with 1:35 left in the game. Of course the argument can be made that if Finn goes down on the 5 yard line instead of the endzone, the Rockets win the game — because that’s exactly what would have happened.

Things really felt bleak at that moment.

I didn’t know much about Jack Coan’s finger until before Brian Kelly’s post game press conference. I didn’t see the trainer “pull his finger,” but we did see the Mayer touchdown, and almost as important, the Avery Davis reverse pass.

Thankfully the field isn’t like the press box, and Brendan and I had much rejoicing to partake in at that moment. For over a year, we have discussed THAT play on the OFD Podcast. Just a few weeks ago I said that I doubt we ever see it, because if they were going to run it, Notre Dame would have done so already. Brendan never gave up on the play, and still felt it would happen. So... when they rolled it out and it actually worked — we were over the moon with joy.

Against Toledo.
Very late in the game.
To help seal the deal.

As the game essentially ended after the Myron Tagovailola-Amosa strip sack, I looked around this stadium that I had been in hundreds of times, and was incredibly surprised. The place was going nuts, which just was never a thing before when these close games happened against lower level schools. Not like this — and it was even more impressive given the large number of empty seats in the stadium.

Maybe it was just a giant collective sigh of relief, disguised as a real roaring crowd, but whatever it was — it helped heal the day’s disappointment if only for a few minutes. We finally got the full college football experience back inside Notre Dame Stadium, and it was almost ruined by a MAC attack. For me, I had already felt like I had wasted away some moments before the game, so there was an eagerness to feel good about the ending.

Plus I was operating on a little more than one hour of sleep since 9 AM on Friday morning.

Kelly’s post game press conference was one of the more revealing pressers that I had been at in quite some time. I was there when Notre Dame lost to Duke in 2016, and Brian Kelly’s post game press conference included a moment where he said Brian VanGorder did a “great job today,” so I’ve seen some strangeness. So when I see BK up on the podium really thinking about his answers and, at times, being honest with his frustration about the issues at hand, it took my good feelings and threw them in the trash. I didn’t lose all confidence in this team’s ability to win a lot of games this year, but I definitely allowed thoughts about real limitations for the season.

It wasn’t what I had expected at all at 1:45 PM when we walked into Notre Dame Stadium.

After Kelly was done, I decided we would make a run back to the box rather than be present for the players after the game (which is common for me). I had things to finish up, and really began dreading the drive back home. It didn’t take long after I was back in my seat that I finally said that I had enough. I really didn’t feel like producing anything more at that moment, and to be honest, I hadn’t quite processed the game as well as I normally do an hour afterwards.

Once I was on the road I allowed myself to really start thinking about the game scenarios, which helped pass the time with construction delays and helped keep me conscious. I came to the conclusion that I was giving Notre Dame a free pass on the day because I got the college football experience back in my life for the first time in a year and a half. Is that wrong? Of course it is, but NOT ruining things is always better than ruining things. There are real problems on this Notre Dame football team, but I’m giving it one more week before I start making any kind of concrete statement.

I’ll have more sleep for the Purdue Boilermakers, and that is both a joke and a true statement.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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