SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame puts some streaks on the line today.
The Irish enter their home-opener for the 2021 season winners of 24 consecutive games at Notre Dame Stadium, the longest stretch for the program since 1950. It's been four years and two days since Notre Dame lost at the House that Rockne Built. Then, too, there's Notre Dame's streak of winning games it should win: the Irish have won 33 in a row against unranked opponents, including Week 1's 41-38 overtime triumph over Florida State in Tallahassee (which might not be unranked much longer, if the Seminoles keep playing like that). Those home wins and victories over unranked opponents have made Notre Dame one of the most successful regular-season teams in recent years and the Irish come into this afternoon's contest with a 17-game regular-season win streak to defend.
More than all of that, however, it's a welcome back to South Bend for everyone who couldn't make it to a game in 2020. The crowd today is sure to be one of the more exuberant in the recent history of Irish after no one except students was permitted to watch games in the stadium last season. The scene around the field and on campus is one of the more crowded I've seen in my four years covering the team, which is saying something with a MAC opponent coming in in Week 2. Then again, coach Brian Kelly called visiting Toledo "probably the finest MAC team that we've brought into the stadium since I've been here at Notre Dame," so it's entirely possible this crowd and those who stay in town to watch at surrounding tailgates and restaurants will be treated to a show.
The Irish won in Week 1, but there are still questions about how good this team can be. It seems as though the question mark at quarterback is no longer much of a question mark after Jack Coan proved able to push the ball down the field with regularity against the Seminoles. But the offensive line remains a concern. Notre Dame ran for just 1.9 yards per carry against Florida State and the Irish lost starting left tackle Blake Fisher to a meniscus injury that will keep him out for eight weeks. Michael Carmody will get the start at left tackle with Joe Alt and Tosh Baker also providing depth, but losing the true freshman makes it that much more difficult for this already-rebuilt line to gel. It should be able to push around a smaller Toledo defensive front today and if it can't, That's a significant red flag.
"We're going to run the ball a little bit better," Kelly said. "There's no doubt. But when you're in silent cadence (as we were against Florida State) and you're utilizing tight ends on the perimeter, it makes for a difficult cadence to get everybody moving at the same time. We struggled a little bit with being in unison getting off the ball. Those things are going to get better. I think from a running game standpoint, we did not see any red flags that are going to say, 'Hey, this is going to be difficult this year.'"
Then there's the defense. The Irish are still settling in under new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and his more aggressive, fluid scheme. That showed in Week 1, when Notre Dame gave up touchdown plays of 89 and 60 yards and let an 18-point lead get away in the fourth quarter. The Irish did make some game-changing plays on defense, harassing quarterback Jordan Travis in the backfield for most of three quarters and picking him off three times, but they also missed more than their share of tackles. There are issues to clean up and Notre Dame will get burned today if it doesn't do so. Toledo has some playmakers and like Florida State it has two quarterbacks the Irish must prepare for. Carter Bradley went 8 for 11 for 183 yards and a touchdown in a 49-10 win over FCS Norfolk State last week, while DeQuan Finn also went 4 for 5 passing and ran nine times for 82 yards. The Rockets can hit some big plays against a defense that isn't sound and the Irish weren't sound at times in Week 1.
The biggest goal for Notre Dame today, however, beyond surviving and advancing, has to be staying healthy. The Irish have already lost three players on the two-deep roster to season-ending injuries (Marist Liufau, Paul Moala and Shayne Simon), seen Fisher and tight end Kevin Baumann go down for at least six weeks and had wide receiver Lawrence Keys III decide to leave the team. Their depth has taken a hit after only one game and that can't continue.
Mostly, however, today is a celebration of the return of one of the best atmospheres in college football. An excited crowd might make it feel like a late-November night game in South Bend and that will be welcome enough.