NOTRE DAME — Fighting Irish senior Cole Luke is taking the next two weekends very seriously when it comes to beating Virginia Tech this Saturday and then beating USC on Thanksgiving weekend to finish the regular season with three straight wins, a 6-6 record and a trip to a bowl game.
That's part of the mission Saturday when Luke and so many of his fellow Notre Dame graduating/graduated seniors enter the stadium for the final time in their football careers, during a season that has strayed wildly from script.
"It hasn't been our best season but you can't shy away from it," said Luke, the steady Irish cornerback who will be recognized during Virginia Tech weekend as part of Senior Day festivities. "Over this season I've learned that you're going to have to deal with whatever situation you're put in. As a senor, it hurts, but there is only one way to respond and that is to move forward and keep doing what I'm asked to do."
With his IT management degree in hand and his eligibility used up, Luke won't be around when this Irish defense fully hits stride and reinvents itself in the coming years. But his absence next season shouldn't diminish his importance this season in helping his young teammates better understand the demands it takes to succeed as a student and an athlete at Notre Dame. And that all starts with making a bowl game, if for no other reason than to earn the extra practice time that comes with one.
"I'm completely comfortable talking about this season because we've learned a lot, we've improved and we've put a foundation in place for the future," Luke said. "The guys on the defense are growing at a tremendous rate and it's just a matter of time before this defense is going to excel on a national stage."
Since Irish head coach Brian Kelly fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder four games into this season, Notre Dame has climbed from 103rd (out of 128 teams) to 39th in total defense, in no small part because of the steady leadership and production Luke has brought to this unit.
Nothing is going to come easily for Luke or any of the Irish defensive players as they spend this week recalibrating from back-to-back games playing triple-option opponents to playing two of the most efficient and talented traditional quarterbacks on the schedule in Jarod Evans of Virginia Tech and Sam Darnold of USC.
And Kelly expects Luke to be plenty up to the challenge to lead this defense on its quest to secure two more wins and a bowl berth.
"He's not afraid of the moment, there is no question, and I think that helps," said Kelly, who has consistently called Luke his smartest defensive player.
Often overshadowed during his Notre Dame career by older players and bigger personalities such as former talkative teammate KeiVarae Russell — a third-round 2016 NFL Draft pick — Luke has played plenty of snaps, often more than 60 per game, yet, he hasn't garnered a lot of headlines during his steady career, despite starting every game (36 straight) since the beginning of his sophomore season in 2014.
"Attention is not what I play for," Luke said. "I play to have fun, which I feel like as a defense we kind of lost sight of earlier this year. I've never been worried about the hype or talk coming my way."
Luke may be Notre Dame's best kept secret but he'll enter the Virginia Tech game ranked seventh on the team and first among cornerbacks with 38 total tackles. His two interceptions and six passes defended lead the Irish statistically, while his example and voice lead the secondary in many other ways.
"It's kind of like a puzzle piece," Luke said of playing anywhere and everywhere he's asked. "We had to try different guys at different positions if we were going to improve and succeed."
And the best way to continue this defensive ascension?
Win out, get to six victories, earn the extra practice time, and play in a bowl game — any bowl game — be it named after a fruit, vegetable, apparel line, or anything in between.
Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame sports.