Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Great Day to Be Irish

In recent years, the Notre Dame football team and November have not been friends. In 2009, the Irish dropped all four of their November games, while finishing just 1-4 in the month during the previous season. In 2010, however, something changed.

After closing out October with one of the most difficult weeks in program and university history, Notre Dame began November with a bye. While the Irish had the week off, their upcoming opponent #5 Utah saw their BCS hopes dashed by #3 TCU. By the time the Utes arrived in South Bend for Notre Dame's Senior Day, they had dropped to #14. Still, the soon-to-be newest member of the Pac-10 came in as the favored team, as the 4-5 Irish were against the bowl-eligibility ropes and dealing with much larger issues off the field.

Yet the Irish came out with a different sense of emotion as they sought to avoid a third consecutive painful loss on Senior Day. As the class of 2011 watched their final game as students, everyone knew they would leave the stadium through the Knute Rockne Gate, but few expected they would be joined by an entire jubilant student body, storming the field in celebration of a 28-3 victory, Notre Dame's first win over a ranked opponent since 2006.

The following week, Notre Dame took over the Big Apple, as thousands of Domers flocked to NYC for the first football game in the new Yankee Stadium. Renewing an historic rivalry with Army, the Irish stormed out of the first base dugout in green jerseys. While the game lacked the Heisman candidates and national championship implications of past match-ups, it had the feeling of something greater than a contest between two seemingly average teams.

A pep rally in Lincoln Center, a standing room only mass in the city’s most famous cathedral, a marching band concert in Times Square and a crowd of 54,251 for a game played on neutral turf, indicated that the Notre Dame spirit is alive and well.

For the second consecutive week, the Irish defense held strong, allowing just a field goal in a 27-3 victory over the Black Knights. The win secured a bowl bid for Brian Kelly's squad, guaranteeing a postseason berth and earning important additional practice time for the developing team.

As is tradition for Notre Dame, the season concluded with a west coast road trip. Having played Stanford at home in September, this year's post-Thanksgiving game was against long-time rival USC. For Irish fans, no opponent, not even Michigan, is more detested than the Trojans. From the 1977 green jersey game to the infamous 2005 Bush Push, ND-USC is one of the most storied rivalries in college football.

This year, however, the game was put on the back burner. With USC postseason ineligible and ND just 6-5, ABC/ESPN chose to air the Bedlam game between #13 Oklahoma and #9 Oklahoma State in most of the country. As many local ABC affiliates did not carry the game, fans resorted to ESPN3 and other online sources to see the Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

Early in the game, the Irish defense continued to look impressive, but the offensive could not get much going either. After a USC punt with 10:41 to play in the second quarter, the Notre Dame offense ran off a 16-play, 79-yard, 8:02 drive capped by a 1-yd touchdown pass from Rees to junior receiver Michael Floyd. After holding the Trojans on the ensuing possession, the Irish got the ball back with 44 seconds to play until the break. After a long, methodical drive to get on the scoreboard, the Irish used just 7 plays and 37 seconds to reach the end zone again, capped off with another 1-yd TD pass from Rees, this time to senior receiver Duval Kamara.

The Irish returned from the locker room with a 13-3 lead, but things began to unravel in the second half. The offense could not get anything going and as USC capitalized off of costly turnovers, it appeared the Irish might be headed for a ninth consecutive defeat at the hands of the Trojans.

Down 16-13 with 6:18 to play and a visibly rattled freshman quarterback at the helm, the Irish offense took the field from their own 23. Rees completed an 11-yd pass to Floyd, before sophomore tailback Cierre Wood dashed 26 yards to the USC 40. At that point, senior tailback Robert Hughes took over the game. Hughes rattled off three consecutive runs, giving the Irish a 1st-and-Goal from the USC 9. After a 4-yd reception by Floyd, "HUUUUUUUUGHES" barreled into the end zone for a 5-yd touchdown run.

With the Irish back on top, USC needed a touchdown to regain the lead. Though senior quarterback Mitch Mustain was able to lead the Trojans within striking range, a pair of costly dropped passes and an interception by senior safety Harrison Smith sealed the Notre Dame victory.

The win marked Notre Dame's third consecutive victory and their first over USC since 2001. Brian Kelly also became the first Irish coach to beat USC in his first game against the Trojans since Lou Holtz. After finishing the season 7-5, the Irish are assured a postseason bowl, possibly the Champs Sports Bowl on December 28th in Orlando, Florida or the Hyundai Sun Bowl on New Year's Eve in El Paso, Texas.

Notre Dame's victory over USC will not have many postseason implications. The Irish had already qualified for a bowl game with the win against Army, while the Trojans remain bowl-ineligible through the 2011 season. Perhaps the only influence on the bowl scheme is that a 7-5 finish all but assures the Irish a better bowl opportunity than a 6-6 season would have.

But this victory was special. It was the end of an eight-year curse against the Trojans and it provided a glimmer of hope that the Irish can rise once again. Sure, this year's USC team is different than many of years past. There are no Heisman candidates, no national championship or Rose Bowl aspirations, and no Pete Carroll calling the shots.

But that's the way the ball bounces sometimes. The Irish won on Saturday night, and they won by fighting, by believing and by not giving up when the "breaks [were] beating the boys." No one is going to discount Alabama's national championship because Colt McCoy was injured early in the first half and no one is going to take away from the San Francisco Giants' World Series title because they beat the Rangers instead of the Yankees. No one should discredit the Notre Dame victory either.

Ninety-nine times out of 100, Ronald Johnson would have caught the sure-thing TD pass from Mitch Mustain, but uncertainty and unpredictability are what make sports interesting. The Irish may have gotten a bit of luck on Saturday night, but the Trojans certainly got their share of it in 2005.

What make this victory and three-game winning streak special are how several unsung players have stepped up when it has mattered most. Student-athletes who have overcome personal setbacks both on and off the field have made crucial plays in the closing moments of their careers. Duval Kamara caught two TD passes in the win over Utah, Darrin Walls returned an interception for a touchdown against Army, Brian Smith made several key plays down the stretch against USC, Harrison Smith sealed the victory with an interception near the goal line, and Robert Hughes, on the final drive, seemed to carry the Irish on his back down the field and into the end zone.

The final three games of the 2010 regular season will be remembered for how they instilled hope for the future of Notre Dame football, sending the senior athletes and their fellow classmates out in celebration.

For many college football fans, the Notre Dame-USC game was insignificant - merely an obstacle preventing them from seeing the night's premier matchup. But for those cheering on the blue and gold, the victory lifted a weight off the shoulders of a coach, a team, and a fan base. For the first time in nearly a decade, Irish eyes were smiling after the USC game. Let's hope it's just the beginning of things to come.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Scholastic article: November 11th issue

The following is an article that I wrote for the November issue of Scholastic, Notre Dame's student magazine. I would like to think that it was the turning point in the team's season ;). In all seriousness though, things were looking pretty bleak for the Irish at that point in the year. While the future remains in question, the final three games of Notre Dame's 2010 campaign demonstrated that the Irish are headed in the right direction for the future:

Wake Up The Echoes: Mending a Football Program Fallen on Hard Times

As my classmates and I stock up on marshmallows in preparation for our final home game in the student section, I reflect on four years of Notre Dame football with mixed emotions. From the first game against Georgia Tech in 2007 to the emotional loss against Tulsa during Halloween weekend, football has been a significant part of our college experience.

Yet when we gather to reminisce at our alumni reunions, few of the good memories will relate to games played int he hallowed Notre Dame Stadium.

Though we will graduate with the most losses in a four-year period in the university's history, losing is only a small reason why we were often shaking our heads in disbelief during candlelight dinners - it is rather the stunning nature in which many of these games have been lost.

During our freshman year, we watched Navy celebrate a triple-OT victory and the end of a 43-game losing streak in the yearly series. USC and Michigan each scored 38 points, while Notre Dame could not muster up a single point against either rival.

Sophomore year brought new hope. The season ultimately ended in Hawaii, with Notre Dame first bowl win since 1994. Although the bowl victory was an enjoyable early Christmas present, many students remember the 2008 season for the agonizing four-OT loss to Pittsburgh and the defeat against low-ranked Syracuse in the final home game of the year.

As juniors, the outcome of nearly every game came down to the final possession. Looking back, it is not out of the question to suggest that if a few plays had turned out differently, the Irish may have finished 12-0.

Unfortunately, it was another season marred by tough losses and missed opportunities.

With three games left in the 2010 campaign, this season has not lived up to the great expectations and high standards that Notre Dame fans have for the Irish. Barring an extraordinary upset of Utah on Saturday, the class of 2011 will graduate without ever witnessing a noteworthy home victory.

No matter what happens, 2010 will be remembered as one of the most difficult years in Notre Dame football history. With the arrival of a new head coach and the departure of Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, few expected this to be a stress-free year. Still, no one anticipated that so many key players would be sidelined with serious injuries, and no one could foresee that the Notre Dame community would be struck by such a tragedy as that which occurred last month.

As demonstrated by the wonderful Mass celebrating the life of Declan Sullivan, I have no doubt that the spirit and tradition of Notre Dame is alive and well. The passion that Domers share for this university will not fade. Amid the recent stretch of football mediocrity, what remains to be seen, however, is if football Saturdays will continue to have the same magic of decades past.

As losses have piled up, the student body has developed a sense of apathy. Though we still look forward to the weekends, the reasons why we get excited stray from the core purpose of why thousands of people flock to South Bend on Saturdays in the fall - to watch the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a team once considered the best in the nation. The tailgating, reunions with family and friends, and the incredible pageantry of the college football atmosphere continue to attract visitors to campus, but many wonder if the aura of the golden helmet is losing its luster.

By no means do I believe that football should be the be-all and end-all of life at the university. Notre Dame is about much more than football - that is what separates it from many other BCS schools. At the same time, Notre Dame's Catholic atmosphere and traditionally successful athletic teams, particularly football, are traits that differentiate our university from others of similar internationally recognized prestige.

Having a competitive and successful football team is essential to maintaining the university's unique character. Football always has and always should be part of what makes this Catholic university in northern Indiana like no other place on earth. Today, Notre Dame football is at a crossroads. There has not been a truly great Irish team since Lou Holtz's tenure, and no Notre Dame undergraduates are old enough to appreciate the 1988 national championship run.

Coach Brian Kelly is a proven winner in college football, but he has arguably never been presented with challenges like those he faces both on and off the field today. Although his first season has had its share of disappointments, now is the time to rally behind him rather than call for another rider on the 15-year Irish coaching carousel.

There is no guarantee that Notre Dame football will return to the level of football excellence that once helped build the university's tremendous reputation. For now, however, all we can do is hope and wait. We can hope that Kelly is able to improve a damaged Irish program in the same way that he developed the unheralded Grand Valley State Lakers into national champions and a Division II dynasty.

And maybe part of this process is to wait for my classmates and I to receive our diplomas next May. Perhaps only then will Notre Dame be able to make progress towards becoming a dominant football powerhouse once again.