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Sep. 11—Five years of debate will be put to rest Saturday.
Toledo and Notre Dame will finally play, and the Rockets, a proud program with immense expectations in 2021, will have a barometer on where they stack up nationally. If the internal and external projections on Bancroft Street are aligned, the eighth-ranked Irish should be nervous in the late afternoon.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has been complimentary of UT in the leadup to the game, assuring the fan base that Notre Dame is not taking the Rockets lightly. The Irish opened as a 19 1/2 -point favorite, with the line falling to as low as 16 1/2 , proof that bettors like what they see in Toledo.
"We've prepared them for a really good Toledo team," Kelly said. "They get your attention."
In particular, he singled out center Bryce Harris, left guard Vitaliy Gurmon, and left tackle Mitchell Berg as "Power Five offensive linemen."
The respect is mutual, as UT coach Jason Candle lauded Notre Dame's past and present multiple times this week. Questions about Notre Dame have been persistent since last season ended. And even prior to the spring of 2021, curiosity about the Notre Dame game existed.
But there was no looking ahead inside the Toledo locker room. Multiple times during the summer and again last week, Candle deflected any mention of Notre Dame and inserted Norfolk State into the conversation. The Rockets took care of business last week in a 49-10 win.
"I think it was a non-issue, to be honest," Candle said about his team looking past Norfolk State to Notre Dame. "Throughout the summer and the spring, there's buildup to the season. But there's also buildup to these types of games. This is why you come to Toledo. This is why you come to a place that historically has these types of games on the schedule and gives you a chance to be on a national stage in front of a great audience."
Last Saturday night at the Glass Bowl wasn't 60 minutes of perfection. The one glaring miscue — or 12 — was Toledo's penalty count. After one game, the Rockets' 140 yards of penalties is the worst in the country. And it's an issue that has plagued UT throughout the Candle era, never ranking better than 99th in his five seasons as head coach.
"We have to correct a lot of mistakes that we made on Saturday night," he said. "We have to be more disciplined in our approach and be airtight on the details in putting a game plan together and executing a game plan for 60 minutes, not just 30 minutes or 42 minutes. We have to respond to adversity the right way and put a complete football game together."
Notre Dame is 5-0 all-time against Mid-American Conference opponents, and its last home loss came four years ago.
Plenty is stacked against Toledo, a theme Kelly wants nothing to do with, especially as UT gets the Irish coming off a short week and an overtime game.
Notre Dame didn't arrive back in South Bend until 4:30 a.m. Monday after beating Florida State 41-38 Sunday night.
"We're really going to have to rely on getting the right preparation and rest to play our best," Kelly said. "We're playing a really good football team in Toledo. In my estimation after watching some of their film, this is probably the finest MAC team that we've brought into the stadium since I've been here."
Toledo has four quarters (and perhaps more) to prove it.
A win would elevate the program to heights not seen since 2015, and even a respectable showing would stimulate some of the juice that has been missing in recent seasons.
College football's grandest stage is waiting.
"We're playing a great football team," Candle said. "They're talented across the board. Very well-coached in all three phases. [I] have a ton of respect for coach Kelly and his staff and what they've been able to do. This is historically a top-five place and somewhere that wins consistently.
"This is the first Notre Dame home game in a long time [with full capacity], so this is a big deal, not only for Notre Dame and Toledo fans, but for college football. We're looking forward to going out and playing a great football team and giving it our best shot."