Notre Dame comes to the Big Apple to face Army
Lincoln Center was picked as the site of Notre Dame's pep rally, featuring the marching band and the leprechaun. A goal post now stands where Alex Rodriguez usually takes his hacks and another is planted in front of the outfield wall.
Notre Dame is playing in the Big Apple for the first time since 1969 and even though the only thing the Irish will be fighting for against Army on Saturday night in Yankee Stadium is bowl eligibility, it's an event.
New York has always been a sort of home away from home for the Fighting Irish. There are more than 8,200 Notre Dame alumni in the metropolitan area and that's not counting the so-called subway alumni, those New Yorkers who grew up rooting for the Irish without ever setting foot on the campus in South Bend, Ind.
So it makes perfect sense Notre Dame would play the first game at the Yankees' two-year-old, $1.5 billion ballpark. It's such a special occasion, the Irish will be wearing kelly green jerseys for the first time under coach Brian Kelly.
''I just think being in New York and having Notre Dame there is going to be a great thrill for everybody,'' Kelly said. ''I'll be a little preoccupied.''
It's the 50th game between Notre Dame and Army, and the 23rd time they have met in the Bronx, the last coming in 1969.
''It's one of those iconic things - Notre Dame football, Army football, Yankee Stadium - that's American sport,'' Army coach Rich Ellerson said. ''All three of those things on the same day? Wow, what a neat opportunity.''
The old Yankee Stadium was the site of some of the greatest Army-Notre Dame games, including the 1946 0-0 tie, dubbed the Game of the Century between the top-ranked Black Knights and No. 2 Fighting Irish.
The rivalry was a college football staple in the first half of the 20th century, but Army and Notre Dame have played sporadically since - with the Irish winning 13 straight since Army's last win in 1958.
The current Black Knights (6-4) are having the program's best season in years and are looking forward to stealing the spotlight from the Irish.
''It's perfect timing,'' senior slotback Patrick Mealy said. ''We're on the up, and it's an opportunity to show everyone on a national stage that we can play with anybody.''
Army is already assured of its first non-losing season and bowl appearance since 1996. Ellerson has turned around the Black Knights in two seasons by bringing the triple-option back to West Point.
Triple-option! Uh-oh. The last time the Fighting Irish faced it was last month against Navy across the Hudson River at the new Meadowlands Stadium - and the Notre Dame defense was helpless to stop it.
The Midshipmen ran for 347 yards, including 210 by fullback Alexander Teich. Navy tweaked its blocking schemes and the Irish weren't prepared for some of what they got.
They insist the second time around will be different.
''You get to know the speed of the game, the pace,'' nose guard Sean Cwynar said. ''How fast the fullback will hit the hole and how the linemen will move.''
Army is eighth in the nation in rushing at 272 yards per game and its leading rusher is fullback Jared Hassin, who averages 5.7 yards per carry.
The Irish should be aided by the return of linebacker Carlo Calabrese, out last week with a hamstring injury.
Notre Dame is coming off its best game of the season, a 28-3 victory against Utah that was about as surprising as the Irish's two previous games - losses to Navy and Tulsa.
Freshman Tommy Rees makes his second start at quarterback for the Irish since taking over for the injured Dayne Crist (knee) against Tulsa.
Rees threw a critical interception in the end zone during the final minute of that game, but bounced back nicely against Utah with three touchdown passes.
''He's got to get into the flow of the game and once he gets into the flow of the game he's a young man who relaxes and gets into it,'' Kelly said. ''I think it will probably be the same way at Yankee Stadium.''
This will be the first of two football games this year at The House that Jeter Built. The first Pinstripe Bowl will be held Dec. 30.
Army has already scheduled three more games at Yankee Stadium, about an hour's drive south from West Point, over the next four seasons.
A football field fits snugly on the playing surface at the stadium. Ball carriers heading out of bounds near the end zone around home plate best keep an eye out for the dugouts, they come up fast. In the opposite end zone, there's only a few feet between the back line and outfield wall.
''That will be an important walkthrough for us,'' Kelly said.
And an important game. Notre Dame needs one more victory to become bowl eligible and would be best served to get that out of the way before the season finale against No. 20 Southern California in Los Angeles next week.
''We have to do the same things we did against Utah,'' Kelly said, ''and we have to do it against an offense and a defense we don't see very much.''