Dec. 28, 2017
By John Heisler
He is likely to provide a politically correct response.
He is likely to suggest in public that this is just another football game, just another big challenge in a season full of big challenges for the University of Notre Dame’s 14th-rated football team.
He is likely to consider the Citrus Bowl matchup against 17th-ranked LSU par for the course in a year in which Notre Dame already has won nine games against a schedule currently ranked as the third most difficult among Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
But what Irish captain, consensus All-American and fifth-year offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey doesn’t say suggests that, for a variety of reasons, this football game means much more to McGlinchey and his Irish teammates who will be making their final appearances in Notre Dame gear.
Consider that McGlinchey was recruited to Notre Dame on the heels of the Irish appearance in the Bowl Championship Series title game following the 12-0 regular season in 2012.
Consider that the Philadelphia-area product has been a starter since the 2015 campaign. Ironically, his first start came at the end of the 2014 season in the Music City Bowl against, of all teams, LSU.
Consider that McGlinchey has been the face of the program for multiple years and often serves as a primary spokesman for the Irish.
Consider that he and his teammates, having combined to win the Joe Moore Award as the best offensive line in the country during the 2017 regular season, would like to use the Citrus Bowl as a showcase to show that designation was deserved.
Remember that a year ago McGlinchey and his teammates sat home throughout the holiday season following a frustrating 4-8 record.
Remember all the work that McGlinchey, head coach Brian Kelly and his rebuilt coaching staff did to put the Irish back on track.
Remember how all their direction put Notre Dame in a position to win eight of their first nine games and spend two weeks ranked third in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Then, after that attention-grabbing start, the Irish faltered in November, losing two of their final three regular-season games and going a combined minus-seven in the turnover category in losses at Miami and Stanford.
That leaves McGlinchey and Notre Dame in a critical position.
Win the Citrus Bowl against LSU and the Irish will have knocked off an eighth opponent that qualified for a bowl game in 2017. That would give Notre Dame its second 10-win season in three years and might vault the Irish into the top 10 in the final standings.
Lose to the Tigers and the naysayers will point to three losses in the last four games and mitigation of whatever progress Notre Dame made in 2017 in terms of re-establishing itself in the national conversation.
So, for all those reasons and more, the Citrus Bowl likely qualifies as the most important football game McGlinchey has played in an Irish uniform-even if he’s not likely to say it.
“It’s huge for us,” he says. “LSU is a great opponent with a great defense. It’s a great challenge. It comes full circle for me because the LSU game was my first start three years ago. It’s a special moment to close out my career and it’s the last time we’re going to play together as an offensive line that was the best in the country. So we’re definitely excited for LSU.”
McGlinchey likes the idea not only of finishing the season on a positive accent but also passing the torch.
“It’s an opportunity to finish strong, to finish the season the right way, get the next crop ready to start next season on a high note,” he says. “It’s important for us as a team, as a university, as a program moving forward that we get the opportunity to play against a very talented and very good LSU team and end the year the way we set out to finish it and dominate our opponent.”
McGlinchey has been taught to take the challenge of each game in stride. Will this one be more emotional? McGlinchey says yes and no.
“It’s my last time in a gold hat, my last time in a Notre Dame uniform,” he says. “It’s definitely going to be emotional, but we’ve got a job to do and until that job’s done I don’t think I really have time to reflect on what’s going on. But it is special. I’ve had a great five years and every time I’ve gotten to put on this uniform it’s been very special to me and knowing this is the last time it’s my job to lay it all out there.”
But, even in their down moments, McGlinchey claims he and his teammates don’t spend any time considering the nostalgic end of their seasons and, for some, their careers. And they know they can’t go back and change what happened in November. “We don’t really dwell on that stuff too much,” he says. “What happened happened and there’s nothing we can do about that now. The way you get better in football is by controlling what’s in front of you. We’re worried about LSU, we’re worried about the great task at hand and we’re worried about finishing the season the right way.
“Obviously the two out of three games we lost were tough moments for our team and for us up front. We’ve put in the work, we’ve had a great experience thus far this year and we’ve got to finish our job and focus on the work and the preparation and on getting better every day.”
Just another football game Monday afternoon in Orlando?
McGlinchey’s head tells him that’s so.
His heart may tell him otherwise, even if he’s loathe to admit it.