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.

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