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September 18, 2013

Home edge slim but improving

If the Irish defeat Michigan State in Notre Dame Stadium this weekend, it will mark the 10th straight victory at home for a program that has not had a distinct advantage in the venerable venue for quite some time.

Notre Dame’s 6-0 mark at home last year was the first time the Irish went unscathed on Notre Dame Stadium turf since a perfect slate against Michigan (36-20), Purdue (31-30), Stanford (35-17), Army (20-17), Baylor (27-3) and LSU (39-36) in 1998 - Bob Davie’s second year as head coach.

From 2003-11 - nine seasons - the Irish were a mere 33-25 (.568) in Notre Dame Stadium. Among the more notable setbacks were:

a 31-point loss to USC and a 37-point loss to Florida State in 2003.
a 25-point loss to Purdue in 2004.
a 26-point loss to Michigan in 2006.
30-, 38- and 38-point losses to Georgia Tech, Michigan and USC respectively in 2007.
a two-point, triple-overtime loss to Navy in 2007.
a one-point loss to 3-9 Syracuse in 2008.
two- and three-point losses to Navy and Connecticut in 2009.
a 23-point loss to Stanford and a one-point loss to Tulsa in 2010.
a three-point loss to South Florida in 2011.

With a victory Saturday over Michigan State, it would represent the first 10-game winning streak by the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium since the late ‘90s.

Davie’s first Notre Dame squad dropped two of its first three home games before winning the final three of the ’97 campaign against Boston College, Navy and West Virginia. The streak reached nine in ’98 with the perfect 6-0 mark, and then went to 10 with a convincing home-opening victory over Kansas on Aug. 28, 1999 in the Eddie Robinson Classic.

Michigan State, which defeated the Irish all five of Davie’s seasons at Notre Dame - including three in Notre Dame Stadium - ended the 10-game streak three weeks after the victory over Kansas. (Davie, despite his 35-25 overall record with the Irish from 1997-2001 had a 24-7 home mark.)

Now the Irish are on a long-awaited home winning streak once again with an average margin of victory of 14.1 points. But that is deceiving because of a 42-point victory over Navy in 2011, a 38-point win over Wake Forest last year, and a 22-point margin of victory over Temple three weekends ago.

Is it a home-field advantage when you’re home victories are by three points in triple overtime versus Pittsburgh, three points over BYU, seven points in overtime against Stanford, seven points against Michigan, three points versus Purdue and two points over Boston College?

“We’ve learned how to play the game,” said head coach Brian Kelly, who was 8-5 at home in his first two seasons with the Irish. “I’ve always wanted our teams to play hard for four quarters and just fight really hard and we’ll figure out a way to win the games. We’ve managed to do that by and large in terms of the way we play.

“I’d like to play better football at times, mistake-free. We’ve learned how to play the game. We prepare very well. We’ve been able to manage game week at Notre Dame very well. That’s a big, big part of it as well. There’s a lot that goes into game week at Notre Dame.”

Kelly has tweaked the weekend format for his players on home weekends. Luncheons, pep rallies, the walk to the stadium and even the weekend Mass have been adjusted to make it easier for the players to focus their attention on the game.

“The way we’ve spaced out Friday and Saturday has really helped our kids a lot,” Kelly said. “It’s given them the opportunity to regroup a little bit, focus in on the game and not all the other things that are going on around the campus.

“Friday has been more of a focus day, and it’s allowed us now to really embrace the pep rally. Go over there and have some fun. We want to have fun at the pep rally because it’s a great event, and I think that’s helped us a lot.”

The atmosphere in Notre Dame Stadium has changed a bit as well. Piped in music is appreciated by the players because of their involvement in the process and the “extra energy” that now exists.

“Those are all little pieces where (the players) feel like they are part of that and part of the tradition,” Kelly said. “Having a little bit of say in that, they really take some ownership in it.”

Ultimately, however, it comes down to playing better football than the opposition in Notre Dame Stadium. It hasn’t always been pretty. Sometimes it has taken an overtime (or three), a goal-line stand, a missed chip-shot field goal, or an overlooked penalty.

But nine wins in a row in Notre Dame Stadium represents the longest streak in 14 years. Style points would be nice; victories are better than the alternative.

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