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Thomas: History says Purdue battle is a pivotal moment in the 2021 season

| Friday, September 17, 2021

Notre Dame has felt like a program on the brink of elite status for years. They are one of the winningest over the past four years, with 10-win seasons in every campaign since 2017. The Irish have appeared in two Playoffs, beaten No. 1 Clemson at home, and effectively stormed all the way back from a disastrous 2016 campaign that bottomed out with a 4-8 record. 

Yet, still, Notre Dame can’t quite seem to break through. Yes, there were losses from the 2020 Playoff squad, but elite teams suffer losses to the draft with regularity. Just look at Alabama, who lost most of their starting offense but dominated a ranked Miami team by 31 points in the opener. That’s to say Notre Dame fans shouldn’t accept 2021 as a rebuild, despite the shakiest 2-0 start imaginable. The Irish have had close calls before, and if history tells us anything, it’s that the next game after a loss or closer-than-desired contest will tell us a lot about Brian Kelly’s squad in South Bend. 

2016 and 2017: Underwhelming wins lead to crushing losses

This is the avenue Irish fans hope the 2021 edition of their team avoids. In 2016, the Irish actually started with a devastating loss — falling to Texas on the road. That overtime loss felt much like the Florida State battle to open this season, except this time the Irish had the necessary gumption to escape in overtime. The Irish never recovered that season. After a 39-10 win versus Nevada, Notre Dame dropped clashes to Michigan State and Duke en route to a dismal season. They lost six games by one possession and never seemed to be able to throw the final punch. 

In 2017, Notre Dame was much better, starting the season off 8-1. A home loss to Georgia prevented them from being No. 1 in the country. Then, the Irish went to Miami and were thumped in a game worth forgetting. That loss eliminated them from playoff contention, but the Irish could have still manufactured a New Year’s 6 bowl game appearance. But, that didn’t happen either. Instead, the Irish squeaked by an unranked Navy squad 24-17, to set themselves up for a big road game at Stanford. The Irish simply didn’t have four good quarters of football in them, as they gave up 21 in the fourth quarter, en route to a 38-20 loss. That relegated the Irish to a Citrus Bowl appearance, a disappointing finish for what looked like a potential playoff team. 

2018: A changed mentality

In recent years, the Irish have had a different mentality about them. The hunt for a national championship has kickstarted in earnest, and Notre Dame feels close. Their response to adversity these past three seasons has been remarkable. Quarterback Ian Book, for all the flak he received about his lack of a deep ball or inconsistencies in big games, was an absolute gamer. En route to becoming the program’s all-time winningest quarterback, Book led the Irish to a pair of Playoffs, as the boys in the blue and gold embraced an “us against the world” mentality. 

That started in 2018 when Book took over as the starter after three closer-than-desired wins to start the season (that part sounds familiar). For a while, the Irish looked like world-beaters, but inevitably, Notre Dame had a scare. Facing Pitt at home, the Irish trailed the pesky Panthers after three quarters. They eventually won 19-14, but they didn’t look like a top-5 team. However, the response was different than in years past. Notre Dame thumped Navy 44-22, convincingly beat a red-hot Northwestern squad on the road by 10, and then slammed Florida State 42-13 on Senior Day. Polishing off the season with a 33-point win over No. 12 Syracuse and a road win against USC, Notre Dame made the Playoff for the first time.

2019: 2017 — but better

In 2019, the Irish had to recover from some losses and were pretty much out of playoff contention by midseason. An early loss to Georgia put them on the edge, and a bad blowout loss to Michigan sealed the fate. Much like 2017, however, the Irish had the potential to salvage a top-tier bowl game appearance. Unlike in 2017, Notre Dame did their part. After Notre Dame barely escaped Virginia Tech 21-20, fans were calling for Book to be replaced as a starter. But those calls faded quickly, as Book elevated the team to another gear down the stretch. No game was closer than 21 points, as the Irish averaged 41.6 points per game in their final five contests. They gave up just 12.4. Although Notre Dame was snubbed and put into the Camping World Bowl against a sneaky-good Iowa State team, the Irish continued their second-half drubbing of opponents, beating the Cyclones 33-9. The 2019 season had every look of one that was falling apart, but Notre Dame has elevated itself from programs like USC, Texas, Miami, Auburn and others that let a bad loss derail their season. Notre Dame instead won out and entered 2020 with a lot of momentum. 

2020: The New Normal

Last year, Notre Dame felt like the best team in the country some weeks. One of those weeks was not their home game against Louisville. It was a sleepy performance in what felt like a guarantee-win against a really bad Cardinals’ defense. Notre Dame won just 12-7, needing a fourth-quarter touchdown to beat one of the ACC’s worst teams. With Clemson on the docket in just a couple of weeks, the Irish looked anything but ready. To even get to Clemson unbeaten, Notre Dame had to beat a traditionally tricky Pitt team on the road. However, the Irish came out and walked all over Pitt’s outstanding defense, winning 45-3 on the road. They followed it up with a nice 31-13 win in a tuneup against Georgia Tech and turned that momentum into the double-overtime victory against Clemson. While the season ended poorly in postseason play, the Irish again overcame midseason adversity to reach that point. 

What Path Will 2021 Irish follow?

There’s no question that Notre Dame has not gotten off to an ideal start. The three-game stretch of FSU-Toledo-Purdue was supposed to be a nice warm up. With Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, USC and UNC to follow, these three games were supposed to help Notre Dame find an identity. And while 3-0 is the ultimate goal, a less rocky road to that record would be appreciated. And 3-0 doesn’t even feel like a guarantee, as Purdue went from a fun in-state rivalry game that Notre Dame would certainly win… to a viable opponent with a legitimate chance to beat the Irish. 

So, how will Notre Dame respond? 

If Notre Dame comes out lackluster for the second straight week at home and ekes out a win — or worse, falls short — against the Boilermakers, the 2021 season will certainly feel less promising. But if Brian Kelly and his team have proved anything in these past few seasons, it’s that midseason bumps in the road don’t concern them. Four or five years ago, they may have derailed a season. Now? They’re learning points on the way to 10 or 11 wins. These 2021 Irish are learning how to win — albeit in a closer fashion than most fans would like. But don’t give up on Notre Dame yet. If they come out and throttle the Boilermakers with a convincing performance, it’ll be a great sign that that alpha-dog, grinder mentality has not gone away. 

Being a Notre Dame fan has never been a smooth ride, and the 2021 squad has so (kindly?) reminded everyone of that. But now, with basically the whole country counting out the Irish, they have a chance to do exactly what they’ve done in this situation the past three years. 

Will they?

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About Aidan Thomas

A senior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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