For college football fans of a certain age, there is perhaps no stadium that serves as a cathedral for the sport more than Notre Dame Stadium. It is Knute Rockne and “Touchdown Jesus” and “Play Like A Champion Today” and even “Rudy.”
It’s hard to imagine a Saturday there bears many similarities to a Tennessee State University football game day.
But on Saturday afternoon, TSU will be at Notre Dame (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC), the first HBCU team and first FCS program to play the Fighting Irish.
Even Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman noted during his Monday media conference that the schools don’t have much in common in terms of environment.
“I know that they are different universities,” Freeman said. “But they’re both distinct at celebrating their own way. But the core values that both universities possess, they align. It’s going to be a great experience for both schools.”
It’s a chance for Tennessee State, coached by Eddie George, to play on the national stage, a place not many HBCU football teams get to inhabit. Even if in this case they represent that lower-level team many big-time programs play early in the season, a matchup that usually means an easy win for the big guys and a nice payday for the visitors (in this case Tennessee State will get $1 million).
Let the record show, however, that Notre Dame was upset by last year’s alleged easy win guest, Marshall.
But Tennessee State is going into this with eyes wide open. In a statement at the time the matchup was announced, athletic director Dr. Mikki Allen said, “We are setting the foundation for long-term success under Coach George’s leadership. The goal is that TSU will be a destination program for the next generation of student-athletes to come.”
Tennessee State also has its eyes on stepping up to the FBS in the future, though it’s unclear how soon that will happen. Right now it doesn’t have the basics that so many teams have. Earlier this year, George said he’d like to have a football ops building that would centralize the team’s activities; currently locker rooms are in one building, team meeting rooms in another and the practice field on a different part of campus.
“Personally, I think it’s a great opportunity,” George told HBCU Gameday this week. “I look at it as a wonderful opportunity for our team, for our university, and for me personally, I’ll play somebody, anytime anywhere. It’s going to be a great learning experience.
“When I pop their tape on, it’s like, that’s what we need to look like, in some form or fashion. That’s the standard, across the board, in terms of how you operate, how you play with intentionality, and details, and discipline. Focus. That’s the standard. That’s the quality that we’re going after.”
Freeman and George have known each other for some years, brought together by their ties to Ohio State, where George was a running back from 1992-1995 and a Heisman Trophy winner his senior season, and Freeman was a linebacker from 2004-2008 and a two-time second-team All-Big defender. That connection will be part of the backdrop of Saturday’s historic game.
“The chance to be across the field from Eddie George, I’m looking forward to that,” Freeman told reporters this week. “I grew up in Ohio and watching Eddie George play for Ohio State. I have gotten to know him throughout the years. Really looking forward to this opportunity to go against him and his football team that has talent.”
While Notre Dame has never played an FCS school before, TSU has stepped up and played FBS schools in the past, though Georgia State (2017), Vanderbilt (2018) and Middle Tennessee State (2019) don’t hold the same cachet as Notre Dame.
And none of those teams had a quarterback like the Irish’s Sam Hartman. A transfer from Wake Forest where he threw an ACC-record 110 touchdown passes, Hartman had a great showing against Navy in last week’s season opener, completing 19 of 23 passes for 251 yards and four touchdowns, sparking talk of a Heisman candidacy.
Defense has been TSU’s strength, as it led its conference in passing yards allowed last season (190.1). But with all due respect to those quarterbacks, Hartman poses a very different challenge.
“We went back and looked at [Notre Dame] last year and you could see they were just a run-heavy football team with just adequate quarterback play,” George said this week. “Now you throw in the element of a Heisman-caliber quarterback in Sam Hartman, who has a ton of experience football-wise playing in real games. Him with the ability to make every single throw, an elite arm, he’s being protected by the best offensive line in the country — no, we have never seen that before.”
As you’d expect, Freeman was sure to highlight some of the Tigers’ strengths.
“They’re a good team. They have some playmakers,” he said. “The running back [Jalen Rouse] is a good player; you see his yards after contact are impressive. Their defense … really good in the red zone. The other thing I noticed is they don’t turn the ball over and they take the ball away, and that’s the sign of a well-coached team.”
Can Tennessee State win? Anything can happen. But George seems determined that no matter what the final score, the Tigers will come away better.
“Regardless of the outcome, we’re going to learn to be champions,” he said. “This is part of the process.”