Irish task at hand: Forget history, focus on present

Notre Dame must discount late-season stumbles from past that derailed perfect seasons

Before quarterback Carlyle Holiday took two steps into the campus bookstore that Monday morning 10 years ago after a big road victory made his team 8-0, he realized this would be no ordinary week. Not at Notre Dame, where almost everybody majors in football history.

"Everyone I bumped into was, 'This isn't going to be like 1993, we're going to beat Boston College this time,''' Holiday recalled Thursday over the phone. "I was like, 'What?' That wasn't on my mind until that stuff came up wherever we went. It got into your head.''

A decade later, perhaps Notre Dame players can relate. They welcome an unranked opponent, Pittsburgh, into Notre Dame Stadium one week after upsetting No. 9 Oklahoma on its home field. On Nov. 2, 2002, Holiday's Irish hosted Boston College seven days after beating No. 11 Florida State in Tallahassee. Both victories earned Notre Dame a No. 4 ranking and invited inevitable national-championship blather.

"It is crazy how similar the circumstances are,'' Holiday said.

It seems even crazier to continue debating whether a 12-0 Notre Dame team would deserve a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game. Way too much football remains. We can wait before seeing how much sympathy to give America's least sympathetic program for being slighted.

Notre Dame indeed can beat anybody with a defense that daunting. Or an offense led by redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson could offer its version of Catholic charity and commit five turnovers the way Notre Dame did in '02 in its loss to unranked B.C. Therein lies the weekly unpredictability that makes college football special.

Brian Kelly insisted his players will pay no attention to the past but, at Notre Dame, that is like asking astronomy students to ignore stars at night. Historical evidence suggests success following landmark victories can be harder to handle for Notre Dame than any opponent. Sometimes trying not to acknowledge something only makes it more significant.

Now Kelly's biggest challenge becomes preparing Notre Dame to keep intensity high and mistakes low as the temptation of a letdown looms. Forget 1988 comparisons. Overcome fears created by the horrors of 1993 and 2002 and then we'll talk national title.

"I do not use history lessons as much as I want them to realize what it takes to win week in and week out,'' Kelly said.

As long as Kelly keeps history from repeating itself Saturday, nobody will question that approach. If he can, the task for a 9-0 Notre Dame team only will toughen — mentally, if not mathematically.

Study the computer projections of Alabama, Oregon and Kansas State until your hard drive overheats but, at this stage, bad memories of David Gordon seem more relevant to Notre Dame than any math by Jeff Sagarin. Gordon, as Domers who have recovered from college football's equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder recall, kicked a last-second 41-yard field goal Nov. 20, 1993, to help Boston College stun No. 1 Notre Dame. Fresh off winning the "Game of the Century,'' over Florida State, Notre Dame suffered a mental lapse that affected its program into the next millennium.

Institutional memory of that loss hounded Holiday and his teammates nine years later. The closer the 8-0 Irish got to that Saturday in '02, the more players were reminded of '93. Signs declaring South Bend "Ty-tle Town'' in honor of coach Tyrone Willingham helped make focus the real foe. So much attention paid the past and future obscured the present.

"Concentration can be very tricky, especially at a place like Notre Dame, where the fan base remembers every big moment and tries to compare it to future moments,'' said Holiday, a recruiter at McKinsey and Company near San Francisco.

Yet the biggest distraction came from Willingham, who inexplicably had Notre Dame wear green jerseys. The gimmick backfired, motivating Boston College and messing with his own team's psyche. Memo to Kelly: Stick with navy blues against Pitt.

"It only added more fuel to the fire for Boston College,'' Holiday said. "We were excited but some guys were like, 'There's no need to change anything.' Maybe it shouldn't affect you but it does affect some people.''

To stay unaffected from the noise that an undefeated Notre Dame team generates, Holiday offered advice he wishes his team would have followed 10 years ago Friday.

"With this team, form your own path,'' Holiday said. "Continue to do what you do. Try hard not to let the pressure build. Take a mindset of us against the world. Keep a chip on your shoulder. It's hard to do after you get that big victory but that has to be the mindset. Always go in like you're the underdog.''

Or risk being part of national-championship-caliber team remembered most for underachieving.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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