When any team in college football team plays an opponent from the Southeastern Conference – as Notre Dame (2-0) does this week when Vanderbilt (2-0) comes to Notre Dame Stadium (2:30 p.m. EDT Saturday on NBC Sports) – it seems to attract attention.
Yet there is a handful of individuals connected with the Irish program who already appreciate what this means.
No introduction to Vanderbilt is required for Clark Lea. Or for Ron Powlus – or Autry Denson.
Or for Alex Bars or Justin Yoon.
Not to mention Golden Tate, Harrison Smith and Gerry DiNardo.
Here are details of why those individuals particularly appreciate the Commodores’ visit to South Bend:
- Lea is the second-year Irish assistant coach (in his initial year as defensive coordinator) who is a Nashville product, a Vanderbilt graduate (2004, plus a master’s degree in 2007) and a former Commodore fullback (2002-04). Lea, a former assistant football coach at Wake Forest before he came to South Bend, will have a similar connection next week when the Irish play their first 2018 road game at Wake Forest (noon EDT Sept. 22 on ABC).
- Powlus, currently Notre Dame’s associate athletics director for football, was the starting Irish quarterback in the two previous meetings between the Irish and Vanderbilt. In 1995 in Notre Dame’s 41-0 victory in Notre Dame Stadium, he threw for 200 yards (13 of 18 passing) on a day the Irish also ran for 293 yards. In 1996 in a 14-7 Notre Dame win in Nashville, he threw for 216 yards (19 of 32) in the season opener.
- Denson, currently in his fourth year as Notre Dame’s running back coach, was an Irish tailback in both those games. In 1995 he ran 12 times for 38 yards, including a five-yard second-period touchdown run. In 1996 he had 19 carries for 59 yards.
- Bars, one of Notre Dame’s 2018 senior team captains and starting left guard, played high school football at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, the same school Lea attended. Bars was a second-team USA Today prep All-American as a high school senior and ranks as a 2018 preseason first-team All-America offensive lineman by Sporting News.
- Yoon, on the verge of becoming Notre Dame’s all-time best scorer and field-goal kicker, was born in Nashville before attending Milton Academy in Massachusetts.
- Tate, now with the NFL Detroit Lions, is from Hendersonville, Tennessee (Pope John Paul II High School). He played as a wide receiver for the Irish from 2007-09, catching 157 career passes for 2,707 yards and 26 TDs. As a senior for the Irish in 2009 he was a unanimous first-team All-American and won the Biletnikoff Award after making 93 receptions for 1,496 and 15 TDs. Golden’s brother Wesley played football at Vanderbilt (2010-13 at running back).
- Smith, now with the NFL Minnesota Vikings (and a three-time NFL Pro Bowl selection from 2015-17), is from Knoxville, Tennessee (Knoxville Catholic High School). He played linebacker and strong safety for the Irish from 2008-11, starting 47 games and making 309 tackles and seven interceptions. He made three first-half interceptions in the 2010 Sun Bowl victory versus Miami (Florida) and served as an Irish team captain in his final year in South Bend.
- DiNardo, an All-America Notre Dame offensive guard for Ara Parseghian from 1972-74, served as the Vanderbilt head coach in 1991-94.
Meanwhile, the Irish are out to upgrade their execution after an eight-point home-field victory against Ball State last Saturday after which Notre Dame’s players and coaches acknowledged was not their “A” effort.
“We didn’t play our best,” says Irish coach Brian Kelly. “But what we did well in that game is that we won the game.
“What we need to do better is certainly I’ve got to prepare our football team better.
“What we learned is that we have to be so much more intentional in our process during the week.
“We’ve already addressed that. We’ve watched the film. We’ve made our corrections.”
Kelly has made sure his charges this week understand what it means for an opponent to come to town with SEC talent:
“We have an SEC opponent coming into town — good personnel and a physical, good quarterback. Kyle Shurmur has done a nice job. Their defensive structure is really solid, sound. As you would expect, they have personnel that can play with SEC opponents. So it’s certainly a challenge for us here this weekend.
“Our players and coaches know we have to play much better football.”
Kelly expects some of the same defensive approach from Vanderbilt as his offense saw against Ball State.
“I think there’s some similarity, some crossover in terms of the defensive structure. They play three down, they like to play 3-4. Multiple coverage looks. They do a really good job defensively. That’s what (head coach) Derek (Mason) has done all of his career.
“I don’t know (defensive coordinator) Coach (Jason) Tarver very well, but he’s got a great résumé and they’re off to a great start. We have a lot of respect for what they do. We’ll
have to be well-prepared.”
Vanderbilt after two games rates seventh nationally in scoring defense at 8.5 points per game, ninth in turnover margin at plus-four and third in sacks at 4.5 per game.
And what exactly does Kelly have to do to ensure his team is well-prepared and better-prepared this week?
“Everything. Everything from tying their shoes to the food that we feed them. Preparation is what I’m responsible for. We’re going to do a better job this week.
“It starts with respecting your opponent, and it carries itself into the way you practice. You have to have that buildup throughout the entire week. I think our players really understand that the whole week cumulatively gets you ready for Saturday, not 24 hours prior to the game.
“So we all learned. We have to coach better, prepare them better, I have to prepare them better, making sure that today is a great day, a physical day, then we build on it each and every day.”
Here’s Kelly’s take on the Vanderbilt offense, with the Commodores having won eight straight non-SEC regular-season games:
“I like the backs. Shurmur has been really efficient, he throws the ball well. There’s the cohesiveness of the offensive line, it’s a group that’s played together. I don’t think you can ever feel like a good offensive line that plays together is not a strength of your team. That stands out to me.
“Kyle Shurmur has played a lot of snaps in the SEC. He’s a guy that’s going to come in here with a lot of confidence. This entire team will. They have played in a lot of tough locations.
“Ke’shawn Vaughn, the transfer running back, he does a lot of really good things. He can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, he’s really an outstanding back. With (Khari) Blasingame and (Jamauri) Wakefield, they can go pretty deep at running back.
“The tight end I think is a pro prospect. Jared Pinkney is a guy that Shurmur looks for. Kalija Lipscomb, the wide receiver, is shifty — maybe he’s not a burner, but he routes and runs extremely well. He goes and gets the football.
“Our guys know that what we’ve learned from last week is that we’ve got to be locked in on our process. If we’re not locked in our process, this is a difficult game. You can get beat any week. This is a good opponent coming in to Notre Dame Stadium. We’ll have to play well.
“If you prepare the right way, then you shouldn’t be thinking on Saturdays, you should be reacting.
“If our preparation and coaching is such that in practice they see it, they’ve reacted to it, then on Saturday it should be second nature. You can’t be standing around on game day waiting for things to happen. You have to flip the switch into competitive mode and play, trust your teaching, trust what happened in practice, then react.
“That’s why the preparation was not what it needed to be (last week), because our guys were standing around.
“I take full responsibility for that. We’ve got to get better.”
Here are details of presentations and introductions that will take place Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium when Notre Dame and Vanderbilt face off:
- The national colors will be presented before the game by the student body leaders from the tri-campus community: Notre Dame president and vice president Gates McGavick and Corey Gayheart; Madeleine Corcoran and Kathy Ogden, the Saint Mary’s College president and vice president; and Holy Cross College president and vice president David Napierkowski and Caleb Mishler.
- There will be a pregame flyover by four U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolts flown by the
- “Blacksnakes” from the 163rd Fighter Squadron: Lt. Col. Brian “Mad Dawg” Frazier, Maj. Rod “JOBU” Metzler, Lt. Col. Kurt “Kid” Martin and Maj. Travis “Spades” Walton.
- The Presidential Team Irish Award will be presented to the Irish Compass team. That group teamed up to harness its power so that University students and alums could better network and engage with each other in the pursuit of their professional and career development goals. This team launched Irish Compass, a new and vibrant online community for mentoring, networking and hiring experienced graduates.
- The Notre Dame band will perform at halftime.
- The Notre Dame faculty recognition goes to Michael Wiescher, a national leader in nuclear physics research who directs Notre Dame’s Nuclear Science Laboratory, which recently celebrated its 80th anniversary. He was instrumental in establishing and then building the lab’s program in nuclear astrophysics, a subfield of nuclear physics focused on the inner workings of stars. The author or co-author of more than 300 papers published in peer-reviewed journals, Wiescher is currently leading Notre Dame’s involvement in a project that’s exploring fusion reactions in stars through experiments conducted a mile underground.
- The Notre Dame student-military recognition Saturday goes to Griffin J. Bonnema, U.S. Army veteran and 2019 Notre Dame MBA candidate. Griffin is originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and attended Notre Dame on an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship. He earned his bachelor of psychology degree and graduated with military honors in 2012, commissioning as an Army field artillery officer. Griffin first was assigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, then next moved to Fort Polk, Louisiana, where he was assigned to the 5th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment, part of the storied 10th Mountain Division.
- He deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom shortly after his arrival. There, he coordinated airspace for U.S., coalition and civilian aircraft. Upon his return to Fort Polk in 2014, Griffin became the platoon leader for 2nd Platoon, Bravo Battery. He became the senior fire support officer for Charlie Company, 2-30 Infantry in 2015. Deploying with his team for a second time to Afghanistan as part of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, Griffin served as a fire support officer for Special Operations Task Force (Afghanistan).
- After returning to the U.S. in 2016, Griffin was promoted to the rank of captain and served as the operations officer for the 5-25 Artillery Battalion before leaving the military to pursue his MBA at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Currently in his second year, Griffin leads the MBA Ambassadors and directs veteran outreach for the MBA Military Veterans Club.
- The official game program for the Notre Dame-Vanderbilt game will include feature stories on the evolving history and tradition of Notre Dame’s pre-game flag ceremony and how it fits into the University’s military tradition (by John Heisler), Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea, a Vanderbilt graduate (by Denise Skwarcan), the 100th anniversary of Knute Rockne’s first season as head coach in 1918 (by John Heisler), Irish receiver Chase Claypool (a Strong of Heart profile by John Heisler) and Irish kickers Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome (both by Denise Skwarcan).
- The Notre Dame-Vanderbilt pep rally will be held at the Hesburgh Library Quad from 6-7 p.m. Friday
- Fans coming to campus this weekend also can attend these Irish home events: the National Catholic Invitational cross country meet Friday (3:30 p.m. EDT) and volleyball Sunday vs. Michigan (1 p.m.).
- NBC Sports’ Notre Dame Football on NBC coverage is off to its most-watched season in eight years, producing a Total Audience Delivery average of 4.837 million viewers through its first two games, according to data provided by The Nielsen Company and Adobe Analytics.
Through two games, NBC Sports’ Notre Dame viewership on NBC is up 65 percent versus the first two games of the 2017 season (Temple and Georgia, 2.923 million), and marks the best viewership since 2010 (5.360 million), when Notre Dame opened the season at home with rivalry games against Purdue and Michigan.
The 2018 Notre Dame Football on NBC campaign opened with the network’s most-watched Notre Dame game in 13 years, as more than 7 million viewers tuned in to NBC to watch the Fighting Irish defeat then-ranked No. 14 Michigan 24-17 on Sept. 1, to rate as the most-watched college football game of Labor Day weekend.
The No. 8 Fighting Irish 24-16 win against Ball State on NBC last Saturday produced a Total Audience Delivery average of 2.473 million viewers, up 55 percent vs. last year’s comparable afternoon game on NBC (Temple; 1.594 million).
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series