Monday, September 19, 2005

Bittersweet Non-Victory, That's Life

When they fired Ty Willingham last year, there was all of this talk of Notre Dame losing its luster and becoming “just another” football program. I think that it’s partially true, as we did sacrifice a small amount of moral superiority in buying out Ty’s contract before it was over, but it would take more than firing a sub-par football coach (for that reason alone, his race as much of a non-factor in his firing as it was a factor in his hiring) to completely tarnish the Golden Dome. After taking in all we had to offer yesterday, I’m thinking Our Lady is glistening just fine.

Saturday was the first time I sucked in everything that goes on around this campus on a football Saturday, trying to find the heart of the tradition here. I was up at eight in the morning, running on only six hours of sleep, pounding out my blog prediction and getting ready for Gameday with Patrick. Flanagan and a couple of other Dillon graduates showed up to crack open a few and watch Mark May make a fool of himself with us, and we were all feeling pretty good, albeit pretty nervous about the game. Michigan State was the great unknown, and we were bound to be overconfident playing at home for the first time.

After Lee, Kirk and Chris were done dropping the knowledge on us, we grabbed a quick brunch from the incredibly crowded SDH and started our tour/photo essay of the campus. Sean, Patrick and I hit every place you could hit. Grotto, Touchdown Jesus (see my new Facebook picture), Tailgating with the Omaha-Erie connection and finally the band performing at Bond Hall. We got to the stadium nearly an hour early, nestled into our new seats and got ready for christening Notre Dame Stadium for the first time in 2005, the Sea of Green replaced with a splotchy hodge-podge of green and gold. Our cheering section was the bastard child of the Celtics and Boston College, no one really sure what to do about the whole Shirt situation.

I’m sure everyone reading this is familiar with what happened, but we’ll run through it again just for posterity’s sake. The Spartans thoroughly outplayed us in the first half, but we somehow managed to keep it tied going into the final minute, thanks to some crazy fourth down conversions. Spotty play-calling at that point (a draw on third and ten, Darius goes out of bounds, missed field goal, good field position and plenty of time for Michigan State) put them up a touchdown at the half.

Sadly, Tommy Z wasn't pulsing on this particular play.

Still manageable, but Brady Quinn continued the Least Efficient 487-Yard Passing Game Of All Time, throwing a pick right into the arms of the Michigan State secondary and promptly putting the Spartans up two touchdowns. A flubbed drive and bubble screen later, and we’re now down 38-17 and people are filing out of the Stadium, a major no-no in South Bend.

But there was a lot of time left, and Charlie Weis’s offense could score some points, so we just started bombing away. The Spartans went way too conservative on offense, the Irish defense made some plays and MoSto, Samardizja and Fasano all blew up, despite Quinn’s best efforts to under throw every deep ball and gopher every out-route.

(I know I’m harping on Brady without having watched the Tivoed version of the game, but did 41 points ever have contain many miscues on offense? He’s underimpressing me at the moment, despite the fact he’s on all the Heisman watch lists. And yeah, I just made that word up.)

I keep telling myself "Five touchdown passes, quit nit-picking", but it's hard.

But you’ll do crazy things as a sports fan to try and help your team. Matt and I took to singing “All I Want For Christmas Is You” when we were on defense, loudly yelling the lyrics to Mariah Carey’s finest carol, adding our own extra flare to the din coming from the crowd. Combine that with John L. Smith reining in Drew Stanton, and the comeback was on. Bomb after bomb, D-Walk scamper after D-Walk scamper, and we were slicing into the lead. All the momentum seemed to have come to crashing halt when we ran a freshman on 4th and one and were stopped, but the defense clamped down again, and with a little over two minutes left, The Definition of An Athlete caught his third touchdown of the game, fifth of the season.

At that point in time, we were done high-fiving and celebrating. Everyone just started throwing themselves into the center of our section, palm-on-palm not being enough contact for the exuberance everyone was feeling. It was like a moshpit in the section 33 of Notre Dame Stadium, only the band playing the music was Charlie Weis’ highly tuned offensive instrument. Then we realized that our defense, which now was playing a Spartan offense not intent on sitting on the ball, had to get one last stop.

Things weren’t looking good. Stanton scrambled close to a first down. The clock was ticking, Sparty was muscularly celebrating. Another strike across the middle, and the Irish backfield was looking more sieve than secondary. But a big hit by impact player Tommy Z and the ball was loose!! We recovered, and the mosh pit resumed, again, there being no way for us to possibly celebrate the proper amount with simple high-fives. We had the ball on our own thirty-five, a solid thirty yards away from outer Fitzpatrick range.

At this point in time, I figured it perfect. A 21-point second half comeback. 90% of my closest friends at ND within hugging or celebratory distance from me. We were going to complete the comeback, bounce to 3-0 and keep on rolling. Everything that wasn’t quite right, wasn’t quite as good as we thought it would be about sophomore year would be corrected. Bigger problems in life seem a lot better when you’re rallying around something remarkable, and a 3-score comeback in twenty minutes was decently remarkable.

But alas, Brady Quinn missed on two straight passes, and we came within half a yard of a game-winning safety before time ran out. Overtime came, the action taking place right in front of us, and again, it felt perfect. Those final forty-five push-ups were going to be fantastic. But again, two more incompletions, with a sack thrown in for good measure. Fitzpatrick knocked in a field goal, and I resign myself to the fate. “Those 6-3 scores never look good in the overtime box score,” I noted to Matt.

And so it is...

And that’s how it ended up. A sick option pitch – in which we killed Stanton – gave Michigan State the touchdown and the victory on the second play of their possession. We were heart-broken. Some girl behind us started hysterically crying, only increasing her sobbing when the MSU team took their huge “S” flag and planted it into the middle of the field. Bordered on completely classless, but since they had won a half dozen straight in the Stadium, they probably had a right to paint the damn helmet at midfield.

But we stayed for the band to play, because we are ND, and that’s the sort of luster we carry that doesn’t make us “just another program”. You see other schools booing their teams all the time, but we wouldn’t consider it. Didn’t even consider it last year when Purdue knocked us around by twenty-five, and that’s something to be proud of. The band started playing, and that’s when things got really classless. Drew Stanton, who was pretty tough throughout the game, lost all respect he would have earned for his performance by trotting right through the middle of the band, holding up his helmet and drawing the ire of everyone left in the stands. If he wanted to direct his band or dance with Sparty, that was his business, but coming through the middle of our band on our field? At that point in time, I started thinking what bowl we would have to make to get another shot at the Spartans. Another shot at Stanton. Another shot at 3-0.

We couldn’t really believe we had just lost the game, but it wasn’t a feeling of total dejection. It wasn’t like when Marino went down by fifty points to the Jaguars, or when my senior season of volleyball cheering-section ended (easily the worst I’ve ever felt). Nobody was going to take anything away from the fact we’d made the comeback, and even though I agree with Charlie that you still have to win the game, it’s not the end of the world. These delusions of Rose Bowl trips and knocking off USC (I’ll take a hit on that one) were out there, but a quality football team still resides in South Bend, and it’s still got a shot at doing some nice things. So we’ll buckle down, wail on Tyrone, take out the overrated Boilermakers and then settle in for USC, who may have the greatest offense I’ve ever seen.

It’ll probably be another loss, and it might take another five hours, but as long as it’s as fun as Saturday, I’ll take it. Michigan State might have the win, but they’ll never have the tradition, never have the class (or classes) and never have the Notre Dame spirit on their side. It might not feel like an even trade today, tomorrow or the rest of the season, but I think at some point down the road, this loss won’t hurt anymore. It’ll be the game everybody looks back on to know that the swagger was back, the pride was back and our offense had reached a level never seen before.

But yeah, as of now? The loss still stings pretty bad. Seems to me pummeling some Huskies would ease the pain a little bit…

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