It’s been a long minute since Notre Dame has been on this stage. They last appeared in a National Championship Game in season one and it’s their first playoff appearance in the modern playoff era. The players from that season one National Title? They’ve all graduated and moved on. This is a new experience for these members of the Fighting Irish, but they’ve had some defining moments to their season that brought them this far.
WEEK two vs. ohio state
This game kicked Notre Dame into high gear. Well, the outcome anyways. Notre Dame lost 48-47 on a rainy afternoon in Columbus. And it certainly wasn’t the fault of quarterback Leo Asiata who put up 506 passing yards and six touchdown passes with only one interception. Nor was it the fault of receiver Dijon Swann who caught seven passes for 197 yards and two of Asiata’s six touchdown passes. The dynamic duo of South Bend were waylaid by a missed field goal in the rain. Heartbreak at it’s purest led to what would follow for the Fighting Irish.
WEEK FOUR VS. OREGON
How quickly things changed. Coming off the loss to Ohio State, the Fighting Irish beat Nebraska by nearly 20 as wide receiver Dexter Jackson returned to the fray and helped to give another viable target for Asiata. And certainly, the win against Nebraska helped the rebound, but there were questions about Notre Dame going up against the Ducks. How would they perform against a team who was vying for a playoff spot? Turns out, they’d take care of business really well. 45-19 well, in fact. Asiata threw five more touchdown passes, Swann caught three of them to go with another 163 yards receiving. I could go on all night about this offense, and while I’ll reference them later on, linebacker Shoto Pence showed how capable he is of being the replacement to Aaron Davis. Pence was a big reason for grinding the Oregon offense to a halt, with 14 tackles and three for a loss. Pence would be the focal point of the defense, at least for a little while.
week seven vs. usc
Following the Oregon game, Notre Dame would go 1-1 over the course of the next two weeks. They’d fall short against Texas, but show the Wolverines who would wind up in charge. Then came the USC game. A critical game for both teams, where a loss could have seriously damaged the chances for the Fighting Irish to make the playoffs. And Notre Dame came out of the gate swinging for the fences. Halfback Kaiden Saint III broke out of his shell to the tune of 176 yards and five rushing touchdowns, safety Alastor Jericho was a one-man wrecking crew both on defense and special teams. The man took a kick return 102 yards for a touchdown. For what appeared to be the first time all season, Asiata and Swann didn’t have to carry the load, even though they did connect for a touchdown. It was a statement win. At the time, we thought it meant playoff bound. We would later it find that it meant “We’re Big Ten Champions.”
SEMIFINALS VS. ALABAMA
Alabama worked through round one, and were hoping to roll onto the National Championship stage. While they knew it would be difficult, they certainly weren’t expecting Notre Dame to do…well…that. The scoreboard tells us 37-14, Notre Dame advances. The tape tells us of a performance unlike any we have ever seen in the postseason. Defensively, holding Alabama to 14 points after their showing in the first round was almost as impressive as how often Minkah Solo found himself in the backfield, recording six tackles for a loss. Notre Dame signal-caller Leo Asiata was nearly flawless, 336 yards, four passing touchdowns, no interceptions. He did fumble, and wasn’t exactly a rushing threat, but he lit up the night sky in Pasadena. It was Dijon Swann, though, who put on the show. Five catches, 220 yards, and three receiving touchdowns. Dominance in its purest form. One that reflects the talent and the motivation of Swann. And below, you can see the sheer power of that talent and motivation on the field.
Notre Dame was counted out along the way. They were scoffed and laughed at for calling their shot before the season, claiming before week one that they would win it all. And now here they stand. One win away from bringing that claim into reality. When the lights go on, and the crowd roars Trojans and Irish will collide. And for Notre Dame fans, when the dust settles, they hope to see a National Championship trophy soaring high above the crowd, much like Rudy did so long ago.