Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly hugged an assistant coach and Irish players stormed the field in celebration over ND’s 22-13 victory against USC, cementing a spot in the national title game in Miami. I watched the scene transpire in silence. I would say I had envisioned a more animated response upon the realization the Fighting Irish would be playing for a national championship, but that would imply I had entertained the notion previously. I hadn’t. Instead, I watched in a shock that has yet to dissipate.
Heading into USC weekend, anxiety was high. I believed in the 2012 Notre Dame squad and knew the Irish’s rise to 11-0 was no fluke or one-hit wonder, but there was still ample room for concern. Could ND truly sneak by two demons – a 24 year title game drought and a decade-long pummeling by the Trojans – in just one game? After all, disappointing season or not, Southern California was preseason #1 for a reason. The Fighting Irish decided sneaking was too inefficient, instead opting for an “as the crow flies” approach, kicking down the doors to the Coliseum and running amuck amongst the natives. While the score was close and USC had its opportunities, the real story is in the numbers, something even USC’s players concede.
Notre Dame dominated the line of scrimmage, opening up enough holes that senior running back Theo Riddick appeared set to run to Miami and wait for his teammates to join him in January. Riddick had 146 yards on 20 carries with one touchdown for an almost incomprehensible 7.3 yards per carry. But the domination wasn’t relegated to just the offensive side of the ball. Big play wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, though both had their moments, were largely contained, and the Irish defense held rival USC to less than 100 rushing yards and a paltry 3.6 yards per carry average. While pundits may once again bemoan style, USC’s players were too busy moaning about their bruises.
“They let you know you’re not coming through the middle,” USC running Curtis McNeal said after the game. “We were trying. It just wasn’t working. Our linemen were doing the best they could. We only had five linemen on the field. It was like they had about nine D-linemen on the field.”
Trojan superstar Marqise Lee admitted to the media post-game that Notre Dame was worthy of its number one ranking, and he wasn’t alone in that opinion. USC linebacker Hayes Pullard also informed a member of the media that the Irish deserved to be number one, and he took it a step further. When asked if Notre Dame was even better than Oregon, Pullard answered in the affirmative. “Yes. Better.”
The hours since Saturday night’s events have been a chaotic mix of celebration and disbelief. As a relatively younger Notre Dame fan that was too young to comprehend or recall 1988, true understanding of the significance is a gradual progress. No longer do I have to hear the only way I’ll ever see the Irish win is to turn on my Xbox and play the NCAA football series. I no longer have to watch Notre Dame’s “greatest games” DVD box set I received as a gift several Christmases ago with underlying resentment toward glory I have never witnessed on my own. While I appreciate, respect and love the history of Notre Dame (with its uniqueness shining as brilliantly as its golden helmets), I was tired of the ghosts – it was time to focus on the living.
So this is what number one feels like? The hatred that goes along with Notre Dame atop college football – something I was warned about – has begun to surface, with the likes of ESPN’s Bryan Curtis having written recently, “The new way to hate Notre Dame is not to hate them at all. It’s more like disappointment that they aren’t worthy of hate.” Or ESPN writer Rick Reilly tweeting before the USC game that he was so confident the Irish would lose that he would paint Notre Dame’s helmets gold himself should they win. To most Notre Dame fans, comments such as these would spark instantaneous outrage.
I’ve waited my whole life for that hatred, the biased accusations and cheap shots that have no bearing on reality. I hear the criticisms that Notre Dame doesn’t belong, that they played a weak schedule, that the officials offered games on a silver platter, and the increasingly loud cacophony of opposing fan frustration is some of the sweetest sounds to have ever reached my ears.
There will be a lot of negative talk regarding the Irish over the next several weeks, and I plan to welcome it with open arms. I’ve been waiting to hear it for far too long.