Notre Dame beat USC, 22-13 Saturday night, in what may prove to have been a best-case scenario for me: the #1-ranked Irish are headed for the BCS championship game in Miami, and USC’s Lane Kiffin might have gotten himself fired — Pat Haden’s previous assurances notwithstanding — thanks to a pair of utterly catastrophic goal-line sequences that cost the Trojans their chance at a fourth-quarter comeback.
More on Kiffin in a moment. But first: WOOOOO!!!! NOTRE DAME!!!!! WOW!!!!!
If you’d told me before the season that Notre Dame would go 12-0 and play for the national title, I would have been utterly flabbergasted. Just like lifelong ND fan and Solid Verbal podcast co-host Ty Hildenbrandt, I thought the very idea of Notre Dame going unbeaten was laughable. I looked at this team’s schedule and figured 9-3 was a stretch, let alone 12-0. So what they’ve done is simply amazing. Unbelievable. What though the odds be great or small…
And for those of you who will now proclaim that the Irish have no chance — zero, zilch, nada — of beating the SEC champion, I suggest you have a chat with 2002-03 Ohio State (given no chance of beating Miami), 2005-06 Texas (an afterthought to questions of whether USC was the best team in history), and 2006-07 Florida (no possible way they could beat those dominant Buckeyes) about predictive overconfidence in a sport where we know far less than we think about the top teams. For that matter, talk to Boise State and Utah and West Virginia and other huge-surprise winners of BCS bowls over the years. Or, hell, talk to Baylor about last week, or Texas A&M about two weeks ago. The point is, upsets can and do happen in college football, all the time, including title games, and including matchups where the very notion of an upset is considered absurd according to the conventional wisdom. Moreover, if you really drill down into their resumes instead of just chanting “S-E-C, S-E-C” over and over, it’s unclear how much Alabama and Georgia have really proven on the field, this year. Notre Dame may very well lose, but you’re a damn fool if you’re talk about that outcome like it’s pre-ordained.
Anyway… I did ultimately decide to root for the Irish tonight, for the reasons I discussed earlier. Once Florida had beaten Florida State — making an all-SEC national title game highly likely in the event of a USC win, and eliminating any possibility of Notre Dame back-dooring into the title game despite a loss — that was the final straw that caused me to stop dancing around the issue and pushed me into the pro-ND camp.
It was very, very weird, though, rooting against the men in cardinal & gold, regardless of the unique circumstances. It felt unnatural. I hope to never do it again.
But I’m very happy for the Irish. What an awesome accomplishment. GOOOO IRISH, BEEEEAT AN S-E-C TEAM TO BE NAMED LATER!!!
Now, about Kiffykins…
The ending of the game was unbelievably disastrous for him. First, he called a late “ice his own quarterback” timeout that appeared cost his team a touchdown (they got a field goal instead). Then, far more catastrophically, a noxious/glorious combination of horrible clock management, unbelievably bad play-calling, and indefensibly poor awareness of the game situation (and, of course, great defense by the Irish) caused USC to somehow turn a situation where they had the ball at the Irish 2-yard line, down 9, with well over 5 minutes left — which was causing ND fans everywhere to #PANIC — into a situation where, after nine shots at the end zone and zero points, they turned it over on downs with 2:33 left, and a Notre Dame victory was assured.
Kiffin, in other words, did not merely lose a second game to an archrival in a week, capping off a 7-5 season for a team that started off ranked #1 in the country. He managed to do so in a manner that drew all the attention to himself, highlighting his glaring weaknesses in the most humiliating manner possible. The alumni pressure to oust him will be intense and unrelenting. He’ll be gone by Tuesday.
If I’m right, like I said, that’s pretty much the best-case scenario for me:
If, the one time I root against USC, it’s the loss that gets Lane Kiffin fired, I’ll feel a lot better about that. #FireLaneKiffin
Back in 2004, when I enrolled at Notre Dame Law School and became an “Irish Trojan,” I wasn’t sure initially whether I would become a fan of Notre Dame’s sports teams. After all, my undergrad alma mater was USC, archrival of the Irish. I figured I’d wait and see how I felt about ND sports once I got there.
One thing I knew for sure, though: at a bare minimum, I would root for USC when they played the Irish.
When I arrived on campus in the land of Domers, I quickly fell in love with the school, its traditions, and yes, its sports teams. My first football game was an upset of a Top 10 Michigan team, which ended with the students — including myself and fellow USC alum Steve Shim — rushing the field. I was instantly hooked on Notre Dame football.
Whatever some Irish die-hards (in particular the reprobates at the ND Nation message board cesspool community) might say in the years to come, I became a genuine fan of the Fighting Irish right then and there. Love thee, Notre Dame. I cheered for the Irish every week, and I cheered hard. Well — every week but one, and there’s the rub. Regarding the rivalry game, I stuck to my guns: when Notre Dame played USC, I would of course root for the Trojans, my first alma mater. Indeed, USC’s epic win at Notre Dame in 2005 became a defining day of my entire decade. I would root for Notre Dame eleven games per season, but in that one game each year, USC-ND, I was a Trojan through and through.
Even way back in 2004, however, I do remember repeatedly articulating one nagging thought, distant and unrealistic though it seemed then, back in the glory years of Pete Carroll and the waning days of Ty Willingham: what the heck would I do if Notre Dame ever played USC in a situation where the Irish were undefeated and in the running for the national title, while USC was out of the BCS hunt, playing a game that’s essentially meaningless to them (outside of the rivalry itself) and simply attempting to play spoiler? Would I still root for USC, even though it meant destroying an Irish dream season for no tangible gain beyond the simple satisfaction of doing so? Or would I, in that unique situation, make an exception and root for the Irish?
My answer then, when I occasionally pondered this issue, was: “I’m just not sure.” That situation, I acknowledged to myself (and I’m pretty sure I said aloud on one or two occasions), would be genuinely difficult, and I really did not know how I’d handle it. And, in the more than eight years since then, I’ve never had to decide.
Well, now I damn well have to decide.
Next Saturday, Notre Dame will play USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It will be the marquee game of the post-Thanksgiving weekend, College Gameday will be there, and with good reason: the Irish will come in as the #1-ranked team in the country, thanks to tonight’s losses by Kansas State and Oregon. Win, and Notre Dame is going to the national championship game, probably to play Alabama or Georgia. Lose, and they’re almost certainly out of the title hunt (and we get into a situation of total #CHAOS that could result in the nightmare of an Alabama-Florida BCS title matchup).
USC, meanwhile, is 7-4, and bound for some crappy third-tier bowl regardless of Saturday’s outcome. The preseason #1 Trojans will be playing for pride, and to be a spoiler — nothing more. Arguably, a loss to Notre Dame could even be beneficial to USC’s longer-term prospects, as such a disastrous end to the Trojans’ season against their two hated rivals might force Pat Haden to fire Lane Kiffin, whatever he says now. Regardless, the Trojans have essentially nothing to gain in the big picture by beating the Irish, whereas Notre Dame has everything to gain, and an enormous amount to lose.
All these years, since I became an “Irish Trojan” in 2004, I’ve faithfully rooted for USC over Notre Dame every time they’ve played, indeed I’ve rooted EXTRA HARD for USC when the Trojans were playing the Irish, really living up the whole dual loyalties thing. I’ve said “I root for Notre Dame in every game but one” more times than I can count. Over and over, I’ve proclaimed that I always root for my first, original alma mater, my undergrad over my law school. Always.
But… but… in this unique situation… where Notre Dame is playing for a shot at the national title… and USC is playing for nothing (except for the mere fact of beating Notre Dame, which is, of course, never literally “nothing”)… is it justifiable to make an exception? …
I know that, if root for ND, I’ll be tarred and feathered by a “bandwagon” fan, probably by both USC fans and to some extent ND fans as well. But let me just say, the issue is NOT which team is “better.” If USC were 2-9 and Notre Dame were 9-2, there’s no question I’d root for the Trojans. Likewise, if Notre Dame were 11-0 … and USC were 10-1 and ranked #5, but still had a shot at the title if they beat ND and other dominoes fell, I’d definitely root for the Trojans. The only reason this is an issue is because ND has a shot at the national title while the game is effectively meaningless for USC.
Right now, I sort of feel like, when they kick off, my heart is going to be with Notre Dame. But I’m not sure. And I feel like I should feel guilty about that. Maybe.
I asked for people’s comments on my dilemma, and the reactions were fascinating.
Wow, it’s been more than two weeks since I blogged anything?!? Not counting my November 2008-June 2009 hiatus, that has to be a record dating back to 2002, no? Anyway, sorry, I’ve been really busy, and what free time I’ve had for the Interwebs has been going toward Twitter instead.
But look! A pretty picture of Notre Dame Stadium at night! (And here’s a panorama!) This past weekend, as a 30th birthday present from the Best. Wife. Ever., I returned to Notre Dame for the first time since graduation, and attended the USC-ND night game (sitting in the USC section this time). It was a glorious weekend in all respects. And despite the perhaps slightly inflammatory t-shirt I wore to the game…
…I was otherwise on my best behavior, and more than anything else, spent the weekend (aside from tailgating and the game) soaking in Notre Dame, indeed posting so many #LoveTheeNotreDame tweets that David felt compelled to express some #PANIC and to remind me who I was rooting for. Heh. He needn’t have worried; my rooting interest was never in doubt. But I do love Notre Dame, and it was wonderful to be back, if only for a couple of days. It’s hard to express this sentiment adequately without sounding like a complete sap, but it’s a very special place, and I missed it more than I realized.
The trip “woke up the echoes” of what almost feels like a completely different life, even though it ended only 4 1/2 years ago, because upon leaving Notre Dame, I not only entered the “real world” but also promptly started having kids, such that my time under the Dome is now something akin to a distant, long-ago dream. Being back was almost like an out-of-body experience. (It also made me really, really look forward to the day — in 3 or 4 years, perhaps — when we go back for a game, not against USC, with all three girls, and do the whole “Notre Dame football weekend” thing as a family. Can’t. Wait.)
[A]s if any Irish-Trojans confrontation required a more electrified backdrop, there was this bombshell out of South Bend on Wednesday: Notre Dame will host its first home night game in 21 years this fall, and the opponent will be USC.
The Oct. 22 matchup between the teams will kick off at 6:30 p.m. CDT. It’s the first Notre Dame Stadium night game since Michigan visited under the lights in 1990.
Ronald Johnson is as good a man as you will ever want to meet. He dropped a ball on the final USC drive that would have changed the outcome of the game. He felt the cruel reality of sports tonight just as the Boise State kicker did yesterday. I feel for him and the Trojan family should support a senior, who did it the right way for four years.
“It’s just part of the game. You drop balls,” said Mitch Mustain about the unforgettable play. “That one probably would’ve changed the outcome, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t know if there’s a worse feeling than that.”
This morning, in response to some reporting by the New York Times — money quote: “Does Notre Dame become the 12th team in the Big Ten or does it risk being forced to later join the conference as the 16th team?” — and SportsByBrooks (which summarized things thusly, in a tweet: “Notre Dame AD: No current talks w/ Big 10. Scene appears set for Big 12 demise, Pac-16.”), I wrote:
Notre Dame’s preferences, in order, are: 1) Status quo. 2) Join a 12-team Big Ten. 3) Join a 16-team Big Ten. 4) Be “left behind” in superconference era. It’s hard to believe they’d be so short-sighted as to reject #2 in hopes of preserving #1 when that makes #3 or #4 overwhelmingly likely.
Now, an article by AOL Fanhouse suggests that, indeed, ND is not that short-sighted:
According to sources, the Big Ten officials and Notre Dame officials have entered into talks that could drastically alter the realignment talk which has dominated headlines in recent days. One insider told FanHouse on Tuesday that the two sides are talking about the nation’s biggest independent joining one of the most influential conferences to give the Big Ten its desired 12 members.
The source said the talks “could not necessarily” be described as negotiations but said if Notre Dame can be convinced to give up its long standing independence that things could move rather quickly. Another source familiar with the back-and-forth between Notre Dame and the Big Ten over the years believes all of the Big Ten expansion talk which began with commissioner Jim Delany’s announcement last December has always been aimed at getting the Irish to join the conference.
The realization that the Big Ten’s threat to add five members could trigger a reaction that would create four super 16-team conferences, and effectively put the squeeze on Notre Dame scheduling, has convinced Irish officials to again sit down at the table with the Big Ten.
This would appear to contradict the seemingly fairly strong denial by Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick in the Times article:
Swarbrick…said he had not been engaged in any discussions with the Big Ten.
“First of all, there haven’t been any sort of deliberations,” he said. “Internally, we talk about this stuff all the time. We have not entered into discussions with anyone.”
I could parse that statement for Clintonisms, but that might miss the point, because I’m not sure there’s much reason to believe that anyone is being remotely honest in public statements about this. (In other words, we may be in Saban territory, rather than Clinton territory — why distort the language with non-denial denials, when you can just flat-out lie?) This whole thing is all one gigantic high-stakes poker game, with athletic directors and conference commissioners trying to figure out who’s bluffing and who’s not. Notre Dame, above all, has every incentive to bluff, creating the impression that it’s totally uninterested in joining the Big Ten, right up until the moment when it becomes utterly convinced that Big Ten isn’t bluffing about triggering superconference armageddon. And we’ll only know Notre Dame has reached that realization… if and when Notre Dame joins the Big Ten.
Here is where things apparently are, from what I understand of what’s being reported:
• From the Pac-10’s perspective, everything hinges on Texas. The Pac-12 thing (add Colorado and Utah) seems unlikely to happen; not enough upside. It’s Pac-16 or status quo, because Pac-16 is the only way to get Texas, and Texas is what the Pac-10 really wants.
• From Texas’s perspective, everything hinges on Nebraska. Nobody cares whether Missouri leaves for the Big Ten; they can be replaced easily enough. (Hello, TCU? Or perhaps Utah?) But if Nebraska leaves, Texas believes that would kill the conference. However, the Longhorns don’t want to leave the Big 12, because: 1) their TV-related rights in the Big 12 are better than what the Pac-10 is offering; 2) they don’t want to be the Big Ten’s southern outpost; and 3) they don’t want to join the far less academically prestigious SEC. So, at the moment, keeping the Big 12 together is Texas’s preference. However, they’ll bolt rather than stay in a Nebraska-less Big 12. And, if they must bolt, the Pac-10’s offer is the best available option. So, if Nebraska leaves, Pac-16 happens, with only side details like Colorado vs. Baylor to work out.
• From Nebraska’s perspective, everything hinges on the Big Ten. Namely, whether they get an offer from the Big Ten. It’s all talk thus far; no offer has been made.
• From the Big Ten’s perspective, everything hinges on Notre Dame. If the Irish join, the Big Ten will simply add the Irish, split into two six-team divisions, and that’ll be it for expansion. If the Irish refuse, only then does the Big Ten possibly make an offer to Missouri and Nebraska (and some Big East teams).
• From Notre Dame’s perspective, everything hinges on… everything else. The powers-that-be in South Bend don’t want to give up their independence unless they feel that massive national realignment is “forcing their hand,” potentially “leaving them behind” if they don’t join a conference. But, ironically, the best way to prevent massive national realignment from happening is… to give up their independence! If the Irish join the Big Ten, the rest of the dominoes probably don’t fall. If they refuse to join, then Nebraska probably gets invited and probably accepts, in which case Texas bolts, the Pac-16 happens, the Big Ten expands to 16 as well, SEC probably follows suit, etc. etc. Basically, Kyle Whelliston’s “Phase I” happens. Also known as (in rough outlines, anyway) the Staples Solution, or the end of college sports as we know it.
It’s unclear in what order these decisions will be made. Nebraska has apparently been given a Friday “stay or go” ultimatum by the Big 12. That may force the Big Ten’s hand, which may, in turn, force Notre Dame’s. We shall see. Bottom line, this promises to be a very eventful week. (And that’s without getting into the whole USC / Reggie Bush / Infractions Committee thing.)
P.S. The New York Times adds a key detail I didn’t know:
If the Pac-10 swiped six teams from the Big 12 and Missouri or Nebraska went to the Big Ten, the Big 12 would become defunct. Under N.C.A.A. guidelines, a conference needs at least six universities that have played together for five years. The Big 12 would lose its Bowl Championship Series bid and automatic bid to the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament.
My initial reaction was “meh,” but I watched it on my new iPod Touch, which makes everything seem more cool / less lame, and I had the volume low. The Domersphere as a whole, meanwhile, is dying of embarrassment. Here is Her Loyal Sons’ take. See also the comments here. ND Nation threads here, here, here, here, here and here.
It’s been almost four full months since my series on Brendan’s Defining Days of the Decade — of the previous decade, that is — came to a screeching halt. We’re now almost a third of a year into the 2010s, which means 3.2% of this decade is already over! And yet I’ve still got four “Defining Days” posts to go. This is what happens when I don’t have a concrete deadline. :)
But hey, better late than never, right? Anyway I figure I’d better get on with it, before the NCAA decrees that the topic of this post, Defining Day #4, never happened. Ahem.
You may ask how a mere football game — albeit an epic, instant-classic clash between two archrivals who also happen to be my co-alma maters, which I personally attended as a Trojan fan embedded in the Irish student section — can possibly rank so high as a defining day of my decade.
Or, you may not ask; indeed, if you know me well enough, you may be surprised it’s not number 1. :) I certainly talk about it enough, probably more than any other single day in the 2000s.
The answer calls for a quick review of the principles underlying my list. At the outset of this project, I said I’d be using an unscientific, Potter Stewart-esque “I know it when I see it” standard to rank my Defining Days, based on a mishmash of criteria involving some amorphous combination of contemporaneous memorableness and noteworthiness, emotional significance, historical importance and future implications for my life.
Admittedly, October 15, 2005 barely registers in terms of those last two categories. But with regard to “how contemporaneously memorable and noteworthy each event was,” October 15, 2005 is — crazily, irrationally — very, very close to the top. I was there, watching this overwhelmingly engrossing, epic, I’ll-tell-my-grandkids-I-was-there game, from a totally unique perspective. It was incredible. It was unbelievable. I’ll never, ever forget it.
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A fuller explanation of October 15’s overwhelming, outsize memorableness, noteworthiness and emotional significance to me, personally, must necessarily begin with an understanding of my unusual position as an “Irish Trojan” — i.e., a USC alumnus and, at the time, a Notre Dame law student.
Whatever my intentions may have been initially, in terms of my rooting interests, Notre Dame ensnared me as a fan in my very first game as a Domer, when the Irish upset a Top 10-ranked Michigan team and we rushed the field in jubilation afterward. The pomp, the pageantry, the camaraderie, the tradition: I couldn’t help but love the Irish.
But of course, I was a Trojan fan first and foremost, having attended USC from 1999 to 2003 — suffering through the last throes of the miserable Hackett years, then riding the wave as the Trojans rose to national glory in my senior year and beyond. Traveler, Conquest, the Olympic torch, Tommy Trojan. Pete Carroll, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush. There was just so much to love about USC, and my loyalty was unwavering.
Hence, I became a Notre Dame fan who roots for the Irish 11 out of 12 games each year. USC, I always root for.
So, flash back to October 2005. In the season-and-a-half of football since my arrival in the land of the Golden Domers, I had embraced this strange role with gusto, enthusiastically straddling two diametrically opposed worlds of fandom. Indeed, the week of each year’s ND-USC game, I would wear nothing but Trojan apparel to the law school each day, talk trash to my friends about the team I otherwise root for, and generally relish my glorious, irritating status as an “Irish Trojan” with unabashed, unrestrained impish glee.
But October 15, 2005 was always going to be unique. It was the day — the one and only day in my three years at Notre Dame — when my two worlds would collide right there in South Bend. So the date was circled on my mental calendar pretty much from the moment I enrolled at ND.
As the big day approached, it became clear that, for the first time in a while (and, as it would turn out, the last time in a while), Notre Dame had a really good team capable of challenging the mighty Trojans. I joked that if USC lost, I’d have to drop out of law school, the (richly deserved) ribbing from my classmates would be so intense. Rarely, if ever, have I been so emotionally invested in a sporting event, even before it began. An absolutely enormous amount, in terms of pride and bragging rights, was riding on this one game.
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If the game was overwhelmingly hyped in my own mind, the hype in the wider sports world was only slightly less intense. I’m not sure there was another single regular-season college football game in the 2000s that had the same level of national build-up. Maybe Michigan-Ohio State 2006, but that’s about it. Regardless, this game was huge, and the crescendo of excitement on Notre Dame’s campus was simply tremendous. Would the Irish wear green jerseys? Would Notre Dame bust up another huge winning streak? (USC came in on a 27-game tear, stretching over three seasons.) Would Charlie Weis wake up the echoes? The game was the only thing that mattered — everything else in the wider world was secondary.
The closer we got to Saturday, the more it felt like South Bend had become the undisputed gravitational center of the sports universe. GameDay was coming. Bon Jovi was rumored to be coming. Maybe Bruce Springsteen, too. The Goodyear Blimp was there (from, like, Thursday on). ESPN personalities and sports celebrities were everywhere. Digger. Rudy. Joe Montana. The Trojan horse. The pep rally was held outdoors — and it was televised live on national TV. The pep rally!!
The evening before the game, I went out to Corby’s and the Backer — a classic Notre Dame night — with some of my law-school classmates. I distinctly remember that one of my friends, a committed Irish fan who shall remain nameless (NOT the one pictured at right), confided, after more than a few drinks, that he didn’t think Notre Dame could or would win the next day, but he was looking forward to the game anyway because it would be great to see USC’s amazing athletes up close and in action. And hey, you never know.
This is, of course, the sort of thing you don’t admit when you’re sober. But I think the underlying sentiment — the Irish can’t really win, but dammit, let’s hope against hope they do — was probably pretty common in South Bend that night, and all that week. The pre-game excitement around campus was more like a giddy, suspended-disbelief hope than actual solid, confidence-based bravado. It’s a bit like how UConn fans felt heading into the 1999 title game against Duke. Sure, we’re a good team, and sure, we’re putting on a brave face, but can we really stop the juggernaut? Probably not. But, as the Domers would say, “what though the odds be great or small…”
Naturally, when Kirk picked ND, the crowd went wild; when Corso put on the Trojan helmet, less so. But whoever they might have picked, no one could have predicted the amazing game that was now just a few hours away.
We headed back to our apartment after GameDay to, among other things, unload my camera’s memory card and recharge batteries. We also met up with Adrienne, our friend and fellow Trojan for whom we had secured a ticket in the Irish student section, alongside our regular ND season tickets. About an hour before kickoff, at 1:30 PM local time, we headed out to the tailgate lots. After a brief pit stop there, we took our seats in the stadium — creating a little island of red (or rather cardinal) in a sea of gold.
We got there in time to watch the tail end of the teams’ warmups. (When they exited to head into the locker room, Notre Dame was wearing its usual blue jerseys.) Then, out came the Trojan Marching Band. It was an absolutely perfect, gorgeous day for football, as you can tell from the photos:
A while later, the Irish emerged from their locker room. But wait, something was different about their jerseys. My double-Domer friend Lisa and I had just been conversing about the USC Song Girls’ shoes, which Lisa observed were bright red, when I spotted the Irish players and, almost at a loss for words, momentarily confused Lisa by shouting, “GREEN! GREEN!” Then they came out of the tunnel, Lisa grasped what I was talking about — and the crowd erupted.
It was the first real sign of what a special day this would be. For the first time in ages, Notre Dame had busted out the “lucky” green jerseys, and the crowd reaction was absolutely electric.
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I won’t bore you with a play-by-play account of the game. You can get that elsewhere. Instead, here are some pictures from the first half, followed by a slightly modified version of my first-anniversary account of how I experienced the contest that unfolded before my eyes.
The game was tense throughout, a real back-and-forth affair, and man, was I nervous. Never in my life had I been so emotionally invested in a sporting event. I spent much of the afternoon and early evening with my hands clasped together in front of my face, as if in prayer, only removed when it was time to cheer — and then right back to the prayerful pose. I felt like my personal pride was at stake on that field — and I also just really, really, really wanted the Trojans to win.
A funny thing happened in the final minutes of the game, though. As intense as it was, I went from being a nervous wreck to being remarkably sanguine about the game’s outcome. I know that’s counterintuitive, given how incredibly close and exciting the final minutes were, but the closer we got to the end — especially after Brady Quinn scored the go-ahead touchdown and the entire crowd went so unbelievably crazy that I was literally hearing static because it was too loud for my ears to really process the level of sound — the more I realized, you know what, no matter who ends up winning this game, it is just so freakin’ cool that I am here.
As I watched the full moon rise over the eastern side of the stadium, and listened to the crowd scream its collective lungs out, all the while witnessing a truly epic battle unfolding on the field below, I realized that I would literally someday tell my grandkids that I had been at this game.
And then it got better.
I don’t need to remind y’all of what happened in the final minute-and-a-half of the game; you already know. A few phrases should get the point across, like: 4th and 9. Leinart to Jarrett. Holy s**t. Then, 0:00 on the clock. The crowd rushes the field. The crowd rushes off the field (amazingly fast). A season saved by the luckiest fumble in the history of the universe. No timeouts. No spike. No fear. The Bush Push. A touchdown. A USC victory. Somehow, a USC victory. Holy f**ing s**t. Not quite Cal-Stanford, but… wow. WOW.
That’s (mostly) from my October 15, 2006 post, looking back on the game. For those who don’t know the final sequence, here’s how it unfolded.
The Irish trailed by four points with just over two minutes left, but Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn — Mr. Two Minute Drill — was leading them down the field on a perfectly executed, Elway-esque drive. As it turns out, it was too flawless and efficient; he needed to take a little more time.
But when, amid an explosion of flash-bulbs like I’ve never seen, he scored the go-ahead touchdown with 2:04 left on the clock, few of the 80,000 screaming fans — and I mean screaming; I wasn’t kidding when I described the noise level as “static” (and Notre Dame Stadium is not an acoustically intimidating place) — were thinking about that.
They were just thinking about the score:
The Streak was almost over. Just play a little defense and Notre Dame would have its biggest win since 1993, or maybe 1988. And voila, they’d instantly be in the hunt for the national championship.
And they did play a little defense. In fact, they played a lot of really good defense. They got USC down to 4th and 9 from their own 26 with 1:32 left. I was convinced it was over, and turned my camera toward the Notre Dame students all around me, simply wanting to document their reactions when — not if — the Trojans were stuffed and the Irish clinched their epic upset.
And then, Leinart-to-Jarrett happened.
That video clip — which gives me goosebumps whenever I watch it — gives away the ending (“TOUCHDOWN USC!!! With 3 seconds to go! The Trojans have scored! Matt Leinart has scored! And the Trojans will win the ballgame!”), but leaves out a key piece.
In between Leinart’s out-of-bounds fumble with 9 seconds left and his game-winning, “Bush Push”-assisted touchdown with 3 seconds left, there was the totally bizarre, unbelievable, unforgettable moment where the clock erroneously kept running and time expired, Notre Dame thought it had won, and thousands of Irish fans rushed onto the field, only to just as quickly get off the field when the public address announcer said the Irish would be penalized if they stayed. (I’ve often joked that this was the only possible threat that could have worked in that moment. “The National Guard will come out and beat you up” wouldn’t have been nearly as effective as “Notre Dame will be penalized.”)
In my compilation of video clips from the game, below, you can hear nearby ND students screaming and pleading with the field-rushers to “GET OFF THE FIELD!!!” The NBC cameras missed almost all of this, but let me tell you, the scene was absolutely freakin’ crazy. Totally surreal. The relevant sequence starts at around the 2:53 mark.
As you can see in both of the video clips, time was (correctly) put back on the clock, USC was allowed to run one more play, and — at around the 4:20 mark of the clip directly above — Reggie Bush pushed Matt Leinart into the end zone (technically illegal, but as numerous knowledgeable folks have attested in the years since, that call is never made), and the Trojans won the greatest game I’ll ever see, 34-31 over the Irish.
Ever the consummate nerd, immediately after Leinart’s touchdown, I turned to Becky and said, “You do realize, we just witnessed one of the most amazing moments in college football history, right?”
Her response? “THAT WAS SO F***ING AWESOME!!!!!”
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We were, as I’ve mentioned, embedded in the Notre Dame student section — I was, after all, a Notre Dame student, and Becky had a season ticket right next to mine — and there had been a fair bit of good-natured trash talking throughout the game. That it remained “good-natured” (well, mostly) is a testament to the general friendliness of Notre Dame fans, and also to the fact that graduate students understand the whole dual-loyalties stuff better than undergrads; if we had been in the senior section, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have survived.
But after the final sequence, and our initial celebration, Becky and I realized we needed to sort of quiet down and lay low. People all around us were literally crying. The die-hard Irish fans were crushed… absolutely crushed. And these were my friends. I’m not usually one to feel bad for the vanquished foe, but in this case, I did. I was glad USC won, very glad, but at the same time, I felt bad for my friends, and the Irish players. It’s hard to imagine a more heartbreaking way to lose, particularly in that setting, with everything that had lead up to the moment of their… near-victory.
When the game ended and Notre Dame came off the field, it was a really touching and memorable moment, as there were thousands of students on the field (having prematurely rushed it, then retreated to the sideline), greeting them and applauding them for their incredible effort. Becky and I cheered and applauded, too. The Irish played a great game.
And when the band played the Alma Mater, I tapped my friend Dmytro on the shoulder and asked if I could link arms with him and sing along, as is tradition for ND fans –and players — after games, win or lose. I knew that the emotions were perhaps too raw for some of the folks around me to allow a Trojan to participate in that ritual, but I knew Dmytro would understand, and he did. After all, once the clock hit 0:00, I was back to being both a Notre Dame fan and a USC fan. And I was proud of “my” Irish.
It was a really weird moment, and threw my dual loyalties into sharp relief. I’m not sure how to describe it. Bittersweet jubilation? Is that even possible? In any case, I don’t know that I’ve ever been prouder to be both a Domer and a Trojan.
* * * * *
For those who still don’t quite understand how all of this adds up to a “defining day” of an entire decade, perhaps this excerpt from my October 15, 2007 post, written exactly two years after the game and two-and-a-half months before my firstborn daughter entered the world, will help:
I’ll never forget October 15, 2005 — and, specifically, the USC-Notre Dame epic that was the centerpiece of that madcap day of football mayhem — as long as I live. If I ever go senile, it’ll probably be one of the last things I remember: I might forget my own name, what year it is, and where the hell I am, but you can be sure the employees at the nursing home will know all about Leinart-to-Jarrett and the Bush Push.
More imminently, you can bet that eighteen years from today, our teenage daughter will roll her eyes as her 43-year-old dad starts waxing nostalgic again about the Greatest Game He Ever Saw, 20 years ago that very day: the hype and build-up; the pep rally with Joe Montana and Rudy (but not, alas, Bon Jovi); the green jerseys; the nail-biting first three quarters; the full moon rising over Notre Dame Stadium in the fourth quarter; the surreal, larger-than-life, echoes-awakened atmosphere of those final minutes, like something out of a movie and yet so much better than any movie; the flash bulbs popping from one end of the stadium to the other; the impossibly loud, ear-shattering screams of eighty thousand Irish fans when Brady Quinn scored the go-ahead TD; the insanity of 4th and 9; the delirious, premature field-rushing; our jubilation and the crushing heartbreak all around us moments later; how we stayed put and let the stadium clear out before we left, and then steered clear of Turtle Creek on our walk home, lest our USC sweatshirts provoke drunken Domers like a matador’s cape provokes an angry bull; and so on, and so forth. I know, Dad, I know. You’ve told me all about it a million times. Can I borrow the car?
If this happens, it would seem to sound the death knell — albeit going out in a blaze of glory, of course — of one of my favorite silly blog/tweet memes, perhaps best encapsulated by this graphic:
Once Mike Brey is no longer Notre Dame’s coach, if indeed that comes to pass, how can we continue to blame him for totally random things, and call for his head at nonsensical moments in unrelated discussions? Thankfully, kcatnd has stepped up to the plate with a much-needed inspirational speech worthy of (I blame) Obama:
I’m not worried – my favorite Loy-meme will still be applied nonsensically to anything as we see fit.
I think about all that we’ve seen throughout his career at ND – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told he couldn’t, and the fans who pressed on with that Irish creed: FIRE MIKE BREY.
When there was despair in the Joyce Center and depression across the campus, we saw a green nation conquer fear of itself with a new refrain and a new sense of common purpose: FIRE MIKE BREY.
When Butler narrowly missed a Goliath-slaying shot in the final seconds, we dropped our raised arms in disbelief, only to whisper the words that could bring comfort: FIRE MIKE BREY.
When controversy and passion ignited in the wake of an iPhone theft, we reached no easy conclusions, but knew who to blame. FIRE MIKE BREY.
Whenever an Irish Trojan prediction proved to be incorrect or the frantic pace of blogging exposed a momentary weakness in judgment, his readers were there to remind him of that stirring call: FIRE MIKE BREY.
FIRE MIKE BREY, Living Room Times readers. Fire him as often as needed. Thank you. God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.
In all seriousness, let’s hope these shady rumors/quasi-allegations prove to be nothing more than unsubstantiated Twitter chatter. If Notre Dame is going to Fire Mike Brey someday, I want it to be over basketball, not this sort of nonsense.
Bubble guru Andy Glockner says Notre Dame’s win over UConn yesterday gives the Irish some much-needed “wiggle room” — and means UConn is in “a lot of trouble”:
Notre Dame (20-10, 9-8, RPI: 61, SOS: 54): The Irish’s unexpected push without Luke Harangody continued on Wednesday with a so-ugly-it’s-beautiful home win over bubble rival UConn. Now even if the Irish can’t get it done at Marquette in the finale, they have guaranteed a .500 league finish and have a shot to pick up a couple more wins (and KO some bubble contenders) in New York next week. …
Connecticut (17-13, 7-10, RPI: 49, SOS: 2): The Huskies have beaten three top-10 teams (yes, Texas has faded badly), but also have 13 losses and a 7-10 Big East record after losing at Notre Dame on Wednesday. Winning at USF on Saturday is now mandatory, but how many more in a row will be needed in the Big East tournament? Feels like three.
ESPN’s Mark Schlabach points out that UConn played the country’s second-toughest schedule, while Notre Dame’s non-conference slate is ranked #224, so that explains why the 17-13, 7-10 Huskies are only a hair behind the 20-10, 9-8 Irish in the pecking order, and that only because of a head-to-head result yesterday.
Anyway, with USC out of contention due to Mayo-gate, and Notre Dame left for dead at midwinter, I had figured Gonzaga was the only one of “my” top three teams — Trojans, Zags, Irish — with a realistic tourney shot this year. Suddenly, it looks like I might get two out of three. Now I just have to hope they aren’t matched up in the first round: currently, Lunardi has Gonzaga as a #5 seed, Notre Dame as a #11. If either team slips a seed line, it could be Brendan Loy First-Round Armageddon.
On Facebook yesterday, one of my law-school classmates made an observation about Charlie Weis’s then-imminent departure that I suspect will be heard in certain corners the sports media this week, as Weis’s firing is used to advance the evergreen storyline of Notre Dame’s fall from grace. (The only story the sports media likes better than “Notre Dame’s fall from grace” is, of course, “Notre Dame’s return to glory.”) The observation is:
What coach would want to come to ND, considering that the moment they walk in the door, there’s pretty much going to be a number on their head?
My response? Bollocks:
That’s true at EVERY high-level program. If you don’t win within 3-5 years, you’re done. Do you think Florida regrets firing Ron Zook after 3 years and replacing him with Urban Meyer? Do you think Alabama regrets firing Mike Shula after 4 years and replacing him with Nick Saban? Do you think USC regrets firing Paul Hackett after 3 years and replacing him with Pete Carroll? I could go on.
There’s nothing wrong with firing bad coaches. The key is to find the right replacement. The reason Notre Dame has had three consecutive relatively quick firings (within 5 years) is because it’s had three consecutive bad coaches. It’s the hirings you should be criticizing, not the firings.
All coaches at the top programs have “a number on their head…the moment they walk in the door.” They get paid handsomely to deal with the pressure, and they have the potential of huge rewards if they succeed. Again, see Meyer, Saban and Carroll, all of whom have basically become gods among their respective fan bases, and have the potential to become living legends (a la Joe Paterno) if they decide to stick around for a few decades.
So, in conclusion, there is nothing unusual about ND in terms of the “number on their head” thing, and it’s no reason for coaches to run away screaming. Now, the recruiting difficulties caused by high academic standards might be such a reason — but if Charlie Weis proved anything in his tenure, aside from the fact that he’s a bad head coach, it’s that you CAN recruit top-level talent at the skill positions to Notre Dame, academic standards notwithstanding. ND will never be USC or Texas or Alabama or Florida in terms of its recruiting, but it also isn’t doomed to become Northwestern or Duke or (current ephemeral success notwithstanding) Stanford.
Pat Forde has more on this topic. He concludes: “Notre Dame football can rise again, no question about it. But to do so, the school has to make its first good hire in nearly a quarter of a century.”
Irish-haters can snark as much as they want about the frequent firings of recent years, but at worst, those just mean that Notre Dame is behaving like all other major programs routinely do. Does this translate to “Notre Dame is no longer special,” as some claim? I don’t know what the hell that even means. But it seems to me that, if Notre Dame started not firing coaches with sub-.600 winning percentages after giving them a fair shot, that would be a sign that the program has given up all aspirations of greatness and has officially become mediocre. If self-enforced mediocrity is considered “special,” then okay. I think most Irish fans would rather win.
(We can debate whether Willingham was given a fair shot — though his subsequent flop at Washington seems to suggest he was a lost cause anyway, as some intuited at the time — but I don’t think you can argue that Davie and Weis weren’t. They had their chance; they failed. Next!)
Brendan Loy is a 31-year-old attorney, erstwhile journalist, and veteran blogger in Denver, CO. He formerly blogged as the "Irish Trojan." Brendan's wife, Rebecca Loy, also 30, is a stay-at-home mom in Denver. Brendan and Becky have three daughters, whose blog nicknames are "Loyette," "Loyacita" and "Loyabelle." More info here. Several others blog here in The Guest Room.
The Living Room Times is named after Brendan's old school newspaper, circa 1993-1999. All viewpoints are welcome and vigorous debate is encouraged, but to combat spam and trolling, you must be registered to comment. You can read the "blog rules" here. View alternate mastheads here.