SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Braxston Cave is named after the fullback from Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship team. He’s a lifelong fan of the school, growing up not far from campus, and signed with the team after it posted a school-worst 3-9 record in 2007, convinced his class would help bring the storied program back to glory.
“We knew with the group we had that we could do something special,” Cave said. “There’s six of us left now, and it’s finally coming together.”
The fifth-year senior center has been through a lot during a mediocre first four seasons, a time in which the Irish went a combined 29-22 and saw coach Charlie Weis get fired.
But Cave heads into today’s game against Wake Forest (5-5) knowing the third-ranked Irish (10-0) are in the running for a national championship this late in a season for the first time in nearly two decades. Notre Dame hasn’t won it all since Braxston Banks was part of the championship squad led by coach Lou Holtz 24 years ago.
“Every guy knows what’s at stake,” Cave said. “We just have to come out and execute and do what we’ve been doing all year.”
The Irish have been dominant on the road this season but have struggled at times at home. They needed overtime to beat Stanford, triple-overtime to beat Pittsburgh and have won their other three home games by a combined 13 points.
The problems are obvious: Notre Dame has committed 10 of its 13 turnovers and 33 of its 56 penalties at home, and averages 78 fewer rushing yards at home while allowing an average of 50 more yards on the ground. Throw in the emotions of senior day, and it could be a concern for the Irish.
Coach Brian Kelly is reminding his team not to get caught up in the moment.
“In other words, ‘Yes, it is your last home game, but we’ve got a lot in front of us,’ ” he said. “What you’ll remember most is whether you win the game, not that it was your last home game. So make sure that you keep the distractions to a minimum. And if there is any emotion, let that be after the game. Let’s have the emotion after the game celebrating a great victory.”
Kelly’s focus has been on Notre Dame trying to go undefeated at home for the first time since 1998, avoiding all talk with his team about the BCS standings and national championship possibilities.
“The only thing we’ve talked about in terms of goals is they want to go undefeated at home. That’s really important to this group. They don’t talk about 11-0 or 12-0 or national championships or bowl games or any of those things. They want to win this last home game because they want to be that group that went undefeated at home. That’s important.”
What’s important for the Demon Deacons is winning another game so they can become bowl eligible. Wake Forest right tackle Colin Summers said seeing Pittsburgh and Boston College play the Irish tough the past two weeks give the Demon Deacons confidence.
“All teams start to wear down toward the end of the season, what with people being banged up and stuff like that. But there’s no taking away from Notre Dame how great a team they are,” he said.
Wake Forest free safety A.J. Marshall said the Deacons know the Irish can be beat.
“We know they’re human, they make mistakes. They’ve had a lot of miscues, and we’ve had a lot of miscues as well. We just have to limit our miscues, limit our mistakes, make less mistakes than they do, whether they’re penalties or things like that. We have to execute better than they do in all phases of the game,” he said.
An Irish team caught up in emotions could help. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who said one of the main reasons he returned for his senior season instead of turning pro was so that he and his parents could share in the joy of senior day, said he knows it’s going to be an emotional day.
“We’ve got to rise together and make sure we take care of business at the end of the day. I’ve experienced senior days where the team has lost, and it doesn’t feel so special after that,” he said.
Cave said the Irish need to finish the season strong.
“My goal coming here was to get things back to the glory days and the way things are supposed to be. I feel like we’ve done a good job of finally doing that,” he said.