FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Perhaps the swarm of television cameras on the tarmac gave them a hint, but the Notre Dame Fighting Irish quickly realized upon walking off their charter jet that the BCS National Championship Game is not like any other road game they've had this year.
Notre Dame is used to the big stage, but as wide receiver Robby Toma put it, the national championship game is “the biggest stage.”
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was the first off the plane Wednesday, waving, fist-pumping and smiling for the swarm. Kelly thought he knew what to expect from a BCS game in South Florida, but he too, was caught a bit off-guard by the spectacle and grandeur of the welcome.
But Kelly regained his bearings, and next to a bus featuring an 18-foot-tall image of him and his team taking the field at Chicago's Soldier Field against Miami — a game the Irish won 41-3 — he laid out Notre Dame's plan for the next six days.
Kelly's plan includes practices, team meetings and a period of intense focus before next Monday's game. It also includes something most coaches would consider a danger — especially in South Florida.
“We want to have fun while we're here, too,” Kelly said. “I want our guys relaxed. We've done all the work — we've got some practices we have to take care of — but we want them relaxed and ready to play.”
Toma isn't sure he would describe Wednesday's arrival as “fun.” He was chosen as Notre Dame's player representative to the media, and he described the act of walking the 100 yards from the plane to the Notre Dame buses as “a little overwhelming.”
“It's not like our other road trips, where we just show up and play,” Toma said. “This excitement throughout the whole team is going to carry us this week.”
The last time Notre Dame was in a BCS game was the 2007 Sugar Bowl, so the BCS treatment is new for the Irish players. They'll look to their head coach for guidance.
Kelly was the head coach of Cincinnati when the Bearcats went to the 2009 Orange Bowl, the school's first BCS appearance. Kelly would lead the Bearcats to the 2010 Sugar Bowl, but that coaching performance caught the eye of the administrators of Notre Dame, who hired him for their vacant head coaching position, forcing Kelly to leave the Cincinnati before the team headed to New Orleans.
Kelly's sense upon getting off the plane? The Irish have been ready to play in the biggest game of their lives for days.
“Especially yesterday, you could sense that it was time,” Kelly said. “They were happy just to get on the bus and that doesn't happen very often.”
“Getting on the plane, we finally realized that, in fact, we are going to play a football game,” Kelly continued. “You know, it's such a long time (between the end of the regular-season and the BCS Championship Game), I think everyone was just anxious to get here.”
Toma sensed the same restlessness in both his teammates and himself.
“Last night, I really started getting anxious watching the NIU-Florida State Orange Bowl game,” Toma said. “Just realizing that we're going to play in that stadium on Monday. It's a little nerve-racking, but we're ready for it.”
That tension dissipated a bit on the plane, as the players played the game “Bike Race” against each other (there was no official winner), but it reappeared upon walking into the South Florida humidity.
And that's fine, the senior receiver said.
“This is a huge game. This is what you want to play for when you're young,” Toma said. “If you don't feel nerves, than something is wrong with you.”
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