SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame will do something unusual Saturday after the final whistle of its matchup Saturday against Navy in San Diego. The Fighting Irish will load their buses at SDCCU Stadium and go back to their hotel, where the players will go to sleep. Their game will end about 8:30 p.m. Pacific Time. Their wake-up call will be 7:30 a.m., and they’ll arrive back in South Bend on Sunday afternoon.
Typically, a team playing a road game will bus immediately to the airport and fly home. In Notre Dame’s situation, that would mean a takeoff past midnight Eastern Time, and players would get back to their own beds around 6 a.m. (As a semi-frequent red-eye flier, that next day usually is an absolute waste because plane sleep is not bed sleep.) Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly wants his players to get a full night of real sleep and then relax during the four-and-a-half-hour flight home. This may seem like a little thing, but Kelly and his staff are trying to make the logistics of Notre Dame’s unusual stretch run as easy as possible on the players.
“I think that’s really the most important thing,” Kelly said. “Getting out there hydrated, staying on the Eastern Standard clock, playing the game, staying over, getting a good night’s sleep, getting on the plane, using that as an opportunity to rest so when we get back here we’re not feeling the effects of the West Coast trip.”
Notre Dame is 7–0 and eyeing a trip to the College Football Playoff. It’s possible the Fighting Irish could make the playoff at 11–1. (Especially if Michigan, a team Notre Dame beat in its season opener, is 12–1 and the Big Ten champion. This could be a recipe for both teams getting in.) But going 12–0 would remove all doubt for Notre Dame. To do that, the Fighting Irish must win the following games:
• vs. Navy in San Diego on Saturday
• at Northwestern on Nov. 3
• vs. Florida State in South Bend on Nov. 10
• vs. Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in New York on Nov. 17
• at USC on Nov. 24
Notre Dame likely will be favored in every game, but playing four of five away from home increases the possibility of an upset. Kelly knows this, so he’s making every tweak he can to the travel schedule because he can’t control the actual schedule.
Notre Dame sports information director Michael Bertsch had some fun with Google Maps to describe exactly how much the Irish will travel for the season’s final five games. They have round-trip flights to San Diego, Newark and Los Angeles that will total 8,522 miles. That would be the same distance as a flight to Yangoon, Myanmar, and 92 miles short of a flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. It also would be enough for a round-trip flight to Stockholm.
The trip to San Diego was going to be a road game regardless. This is Navy’s home game, and the academy chose to play it in one of America’s most important Navy towns. The trip to Northwestern is a few hours on a bus, and given the crowd population of recent games at Ryan Field, it might feel more like a Notre Dame home game. (Plus, the tall grass at Northwestern should give Notre Dame fans pangs of nostalgia for Notre Dame Stadium’s former playing surface.)
Football coaches would always prefer as many home games as possible, but Notre Dame works differently than most places. In Laken Litman’s story on the Fighting Irish in last week’s issue of SI, Fighting Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick relayed the advice Knute Rockne got from Jesse Harper almost a century ago: “Take the team to the largest venues in the country because you want the world to know who Notre Dame is.”
That’s a big reason why the Irish are playing Syracuse—which is 5–2 and may wind up being Notre Dame’s toughest remaining opponent—in The House That Jeter Built instead of at Notre Dame Stadium. Aside from following historical advice that has served Notre Dame (the football program and the university) well for decades, the Shamrock Series game is a solid bit of fan service in a place with one of Notre Dame’s largest alumni clusters. So Notre Dame wasn’t going to back out or change anything just because a playoff berth might be at stake.
Of course, none of that matters if Notre Dame can’t beat Navy. The Midshipmen are 2–5 this season, but the teams have split their past two meetings with a point differential of only five. So Kelly is taking nothing for granted. He’s just hoping that his team will be able to celebrate a win with a good night’s sleep instead of an immediate cross-country flight.