Irish Ready For Big Apple
Seemed as if, months ago, Notre Dame took steps to make sure this particular road game would be special. Walking onto hallowed baseball ground in the Bronx, the Fighting Irish unveiled uniforms that will make them look more like the 27-time World Champions that call Yankee Stadium home than they will perhaps the most iconic team in all of college football. Pinstriped sleeves on their blue jerseys. Pinstriped pants. A blue helmet with an interlocking “ND” on the side, encircled by those famed Yankees pinstripes. Clearly, a tip of the ballcap to the fan base that will likely flood 161st Street and River Avenue on Saturday. Not that they needed to ingratiate themselves. “I do one event out there a year, and one was in a huge alumni club in Staten Island,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said this week. “I remember doing it a few years back approximately, and we were doing a poll; ‘Raise your hand ... How many Notre Dame graduates are in the room?’ There were 250, maybe 300 (fans there). And when I think there were about a half dozen Notre Dame grads in the room, it just goes to show the support for the university and for the values of Notre Dame. Especially in places like Staten Island, New York City, Jersey City and all the areas that have been staunch supporters.” Might be why, if you try to get a ticket for Notre Dame’s return to the House that Jeter Built on Saturday, you’ll be paying close to $150 on resale websites for standing-room only; it’s going to cost close to $200 for a seat in the nosebleeds. So when someone tells you this, understand it’s true: Saturday is Syracuse’s home game. New York is Syracuse’s prime recruiting territory. But as far as fandom is concerned, New York City is Notre Dame country. By the end of December, it might be that way pretty much everywhere again. It’s a rare fall Saturday when the biggest game in the Northeast isn’t the one in which Penn State is playing. But a mere 47 miles to th e northeast of where Rutgers will entertain the Nittany Lions on Saturday afternoon at HighPoint.com Stadium in Piscataway, N.J., perhaps the biggest test standing between Notre Dame and the College Football Playoff will be proctored in the Bronx. Two wins away from what is looking like a certain trip to college football’s answer to the Final Four, the Fighting Irish and No. 12 Syracuse both have a lot to play for Saturday. A few months ago, this game might have looked like just another fun pit stop for the Irish on the way to a major bowl for the third time in the last 11 seasons. However, as good a season as Syracuse has put together, and it has rebounded from close losses to No. 2 Clemson and Pittsburgh to post four straight impressive wins, the Irish have been even better. They’re 10-0. Their season-opening 24-17 win over current No. 4 Michigan is probably the best win any of the top four teams in the College Football Playoff rankings have on their ledger. It won that game with a quarterback, Brandon Wimbush, who is now the backup; without a running back, Dexter Williams, who is now their starter. He ran for 202 yards last week against Florida State. Nobody has touched Michigan since that early September night, and most who follow the Big Ten for a living don’t think even Ohio State will be able to trip up the Wolverines next Saturday in the regular-season finale. Wimbush was benched for junior Ian Book, and in six starts, Book has 1,811 yards passing and 14 touchdowns. Williams reclaimed the starting job a few weeks after coming back from a four-game suspension to start the season, and he’s averaging 128.3 yards and nearly two touchdowns per game. Notre Dame lost a dominant starting guard, Alex Bars, to a knee injury in September, but sophomore Aaron Banks has stepped in to keep a group that has allowed just 14 sacks playing at a high standard. Then, there’s a defense that has been solid up the middle, with defensive tackle Jerry Tillery emerging into a dominant force. “One way to look at it is, the same 11 guys that started against Michigan on defense are the same 11 guys we’re rolling out against Syracuse,” Kelly said. “There’s a good start right there. Offensively, we’ve been able to add pieces to the offense, and we’ve lost a really good player in Alex Bars, but we seem to be growing on the offensive line. So you’re adding pieces as the season goes.” So many believe this is Alabama’s national championship to lose, and they may be right. But the Irish are put together well enough to give them a run. Book can get the ball down the field to a dangerous receiver, Miles Boykin. The offensive line has stood up against strong defensive fronts. The running game is solid. The defensive front has been strong all season. Why not the Irish? This weekend, at Yankee Stadium in a big game nobody expected would be big and in front of a road crowd paying to see it move on, Notre Dame has the perfect opportunity to answer that question in front of the nation. DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.