Monday, October 13, 2008

Trail of Tears

While we can certainly talk about both the positives and negatives to come out of Saturday's loss to UNC, I think we can all agree that the way it ended was painful. With that in mind, I started thinking back to other Irish heartbreakers I've endured over the years (Note: in the interest of space, I am not including any of last season's games). I did this, not to wallow in misery but, instead, to remind myself that tough losses happen to even the best of teams. Hopefully, if there are Irish fans still bemoaning Saturday's outcome, this will give you a little perspective (or push you into a suicidal frenzy - you know, whatev).

11/21/87, Penn State, 21 - Notre Dame, 20: This was really one of the first truly gut-wrenching games I remember as a kid. Notre Dame came into this game 8-1 and ranked 7th in the country, fresh off a 37-6 throttling of Alabama. Penn State, conversely, was 6-3, unranked and coming off a loss to Pitt. What's more, earlier in the season, they had lost to the same Alabama team Notre Dame had just dismantled. Surely, I figured, Notre Dame would win comfortably. Instead, Blair Thomas ran all over ND's defense to the tune of 214 yards and a touchdown to lead Penn State to a late 21-20 lead. Then, with 31 seconds left, Tony Rice was tackled short of the endzone on a two-point conversion attempt sealing Notre Dame's fate.

10/6/90, Stanford, 36 - Notre Dame, 31: As I've already reviewed this debacle in my Stanford preview, I will not force either myself or my readers to endure another retelling.

1/1/91 (Orange Bowl), Colorado, 10 - Notre Dame, 9: This game will always rank highly on the list of devastated losses because of Rocket Ismail's 91-yard punt return touchdown being called back due to a "phantom" clip being called on Greg Davis. That touchdown would likely have sealed the game for the Irish. Instead, five plays later, Rick Mirer threw his third interception of the day and, Colorado, playing without starting quarterback Darian Hagan, would claim the national championship. To add further insult to injury, exactly one year earlier, Notre Dame had thumped Colorado 21-6 on the same field in the 1990 Orange Bowl.
11/9/91, Tennessee, 35 - Notre Dame, 34: It's been 17 seasons and I still have a difficult time with this loss. Maybe that's because Notre Dame had a 31-7 lead at one point, before Vols quarterback Andy Kelly led a furious comeback to put Tennessee up 35-34 late in the 4th quarter. The Irish still had the opportunity to win when Rob Leonard, who was replacing the injured Craig Hentrich, came in to attempt at 27-yard field goal with just four seconds on the clock. Sadly, the kick was partially blocked resulting in a Leonard miss as time expired. This might just rank as the most devastating Notre Dame loss I've ever watched.

11/20/93, Boston College, 41 - Notre Dame, 39: In the annals of Irish football history, perhaps no villain has been more cruel than David Gordon of Boston College. It was Gordon, you see, who kicked a 41-yard field goal as time expired to snatch Notre Dame's national championship hopes from their clutches. This game was, in some ways, the anti-Tennessee game. Notre Dame, clearly in let-down mode after the previous week's win over Florida State, were dominated all day by BC, who led 38-17 early in the fourth quarter. Then, in a flurry of scoring, ND rattled off three touchdowns in 11 minutes to take a 39-38 lead. And, that's where the miracle died. Enter, David Gordon. Exit, the 1993 national championship. Yet another insult to injury moment, Notre Dame had beaten BC 54-7 the previous season.

9/9/00, Nebraska, 27 - Notre Dame, 24 (OT): Notre Dame came into the 2000 season unranked after a craptacular 5-7 1999 campaign. After dominating #25 Texas A&M, 24-10, in Week 1, however, the Irish moved into the polls at #23. Still, few thought ND had a chance when the #1 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers, led by star QB (and 2001 Heisman winner) Eric Crouch, came to town. Midway through the third quarter, it appeared that Nebraska had the game well in hand as Dan Alexander's 28-yard touchdown run gave them a 21-7 lead. Then, on the ensuing kickoff, Julius Jones raced 100 yards to paydirt to bring the Irish within seven. Later, in the fourth quarter, with the score still 21-14, Joey Getherall fielded a punt at his own 17, stepped right and then blasted up the middle for an 83-yard touchdown to tie the game. Sadly, the overtime session proved to be Notre Dame's undoing. After Nick Setta's 29-yard field goal gave them a brief lead, Crouch took it in himself from the 7-yard line to give the Huskers the win and Notre Dame fans some heartache. 11/2/02, Boston College, 14 - Notre Dame, 7: If ever anyone wants to know how truly useless a coach Ty Willingham is, they need only look at this game. Notre Dame entered the game 8-0 and ranked #4 in the country after beating down Florida State in Tallahasee, 34-24, the week before (note to ND's athletic department: STOP scheduling BC after Florida State!). BC, on the other hand, was unranked and just 4-4 on the season. Ty, in his infinite wisdom, opted to provide the team with new, green jerseys prior to the game. Sadly, the jersey's material caused them to be rather slippery which made hanging onto the ball rather difficult. As a result, ND fumbled the ball eight times, losing three. In spite of the miscues, Notre Dame completely dominated BC, yet, thanks to Ty, somehow found a way to lose. The Irish outgained the Eagles, 357-184, led in first downs 22-9 and held BC quarterback Brian St. Pierre to 9-20 for 77 yards. Only a coach like Willingham could manage to lose a game like this in the manner the Irish did. The list of errors in both coaching and execution in this game by ND is practically endless. Yet another insult to injury moment - after the game, showing all the class they could muster, BC's players vandalized the visitor's locker room at Notre Dame stadium.
9/17/05, Michigan State, 44 - Notre Dame, 41 (OT): Until the disastrous 2007 campaign, this game had to be considered Charlie's worst loss. Not because of the score, but because it came at home to a team that would finish the season 5-6 and which was coached by John "The 'L' stands for 'Lunatic'" Smith. One could argue that this was really something of a letdown game. The previous week, Notre Dame had traveled to Ann Arbor and knocked off, then #3, Michigan. Notre Dame was dominated in this game right from the get-go and it appeared as though they would lose rather badly as they entered the 4th quarter trailing 38-24. From that point, though, Brady Quinn (who would finish with 487 yards passing and 5 TDs) would hit Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija for scores to tie the game and send it into overtime. It was there that ND ran out of steam. After a 44-yard DJ Fitzpatrick field goal gave the Irish a 41-38 lead, Michigan State's Jason Teague took an option pitch 19-yards to the endzone to give the Spartans the win. As with most of these losses, there was the obligatory insult to injury moment as Michigan State players planted their flag on the field at Notre Dame Stadium in one last taunt to the Irish following the game.

10/15/05, USC, 34 - Notre Dame, 31: With under 2 minutes left in this game, I remember thinking to myself, "Oh my God, they actually did it. They actually beat SC." Who could blame me? Brady Quinn had just snuck into the endzone to give ND a 31-28 lead and now, USC was looking at 4th-and-9 from their own 26. What could possibly go wrong? As we all know, it was on that play that Matt Leinart launched a 61-yard pass to Dwayne Jarrett, just past the fingertips of Irish defender Ambrose Wooden. From there, the Trojans moved down to ND's two-yard line. On the next play, Leinart was hit by Notre Dame's Corey Mays, fumbling the ball out of bounds. The timekeeper however, let the clock run and Irish fans were able to briefly and erroneously celebrate victory until seven seconds were added back to the clock. The subsequent play is one that will live in infamy as long as Notre Dame players take the gridiron. Matt Leinart attempted a QB sneek into the endzone, but was met by a wall of Irish defenders and was stopped short. It was at that point that teammate Reggie Bush literally pushed Leinart over the goalline into the endzone. This should have resulted in a five-yard penalty; however, due to inattention and general stupidity on the part of the refs, it instead went down as the winning touchdown. This was easily the most sickened I had been by an Irish loss since Boston College in 1993. To this day, I still root against both Bush and Leinart as a result.
So, Irish fans (myself included), cheer up. We've been here before and, on most occasions, with much more at stake. While I'll admit, I was disappointed by a number of things about Notre Dame's performance on Saturday, progress is being made and I feel confident that they'll be more than ready to face down the Tyrriers in two weeks.
One last note from Saturday's game. I haven't seen it mentioned much but, in retrospect, I can't help thinking the biggest moment of the game was Notre Dame allowing UNC to get their field goal right before halftime. Notre Dame had just scored to take a 17-6 lead with less than a minute to go before the half. UNC, with about 45 seconds left, marched down into Irish territory and nailed a field goal to make it 17-9. In addition to making it a one score game, it also gave the Heels a little bit of momentum going into the half and, conversely, took a bit away from the Irish. In practical terms, had UNC not gotten that field goal, they would only have been up 26-24 after Cam Sexton's 4th quarter touchdown. This would certainly have been a factor in the Irish decision making later in the game. Instead of going for it on 4th down (when the pass to Grimes came up short), a field goal may have been attempted. Then, in the frantic final drive, ND would only have had to get to about the 20-yard line to have a fair shot at a game winner. Obviously, no one can know what the outcome might have been, but it does show how important it is to maintain defensive discipline throughout the whole game.

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