While this weekend's forecast calls for weather perhaps more like South Beach than South Bend, there is a sense of excitement surrounding Notre Dame football that has been absent for several years. Much of that anticipation is a result of the thrilling finish to the 2010 campaign, in which the Irish rattled off four consecutive wins, including a Sun Bowl victory.
With kickoff almost 24 hours away, it is a great time to revisit last season's thrilling finish. The following is an article that I wrote for Scholastic, Notre Dame's student magazine. It first appeared in the February 10 (2011) football review issue.
A Hollywood Ending Sets The Stage for a Promising Sequel
The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Irish that day,
The record stood four and five, with but three games more to play.
Borrowing from Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat," it is safe to say that a once promising year looked bleak for the Notre Dame football team as it prepared for the final stretch of the 2010 season.
The Irish could not have endured a more difficult conclusion to October. For the third time in four years, the Navy Midshipmen had gotten the better of Notre Dame, and this time, they made it look easy, 35-14. On the following Wednesday, an unusually blustery autumn afternoon, tragedy struck the Notre Dame community when junior videographer Declan Sullivan died following the collapse of the tower from which he had been filming practice. Just three days later, the Irish faced the difficult task of playing a football game, a 28-27 loss to Tulsa that left many people scratching their heads and searching for answers.
A bye week gave the Irish a chance to recover from the on- and off-the-field heartache before they set out to defeat No. 14 Utah. It was an opportunity to send the dejected class of 2011 out with a landmark win and a celebration of Notre Dame's first victory over a ranked opponent in more than four years.
As they sought to avoid a painful third consecutive Senior Day loss, the Irish came out with a different sense of pride, an emotion that seemed to have been missing for much of the season. As my classmates and I watched our final games as students, we knew we would be leaving the stadium through the Knute Rockne Gate, but few of us expected to be joined by the entire student body jubilantly celebrating a 28-3 victory. No tailgate or post-game Finny's celebration could have topped the ecstasy of storming the field, rain-soaked and marshmallow-covered, finally experiencing Notre Dame football at its finest. Little did we know, however, that the fun was just beginning on the evening of Nov. 13.
The following week, Notre Dame took over the Big Apple as thousands of Domers and "subway alums" made the trip for the first football game in the new Yankee Stadium. I have lived in the Albany-area my entire life and I have never been a New York City person. Yet there was something electric, something magical about being 700 miles from campus, in the nation's largest city, but still surrounded by green, blue and gold. The Basilica was swapped for St. Patrick's Cathedral, while the steps of Bond Hall were traded for Times Square. Far from South Bend, the weekend still featured many of the traditions that make Notre Dame special.
From the 1977 green jersey game to the infamous 2005 Bush Push, ND-USC remains one of the most storied rivalries in college football. With USC ineligible for postseason play and ND just 6-5, however, many ABC affiliates did not carry the game, forcing fans to ESPN3 and other online sources to watch the Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.
The Notre Dame defense continued its impressive play, but things started to unravel in the second half. As USC capitalized on costly turnovers, it appeared that the Irish might be headed for a ninth consecutive loss at the hands of the Trojans. Down 16-13 with 6:18 to play, the Irish took over on their own 23, beginning an unforgettable drive that was capped by a 5-yard touchdown run by senior tailback Robert Hughes. With the Irish back on top, USC needed a touchdown to regain the lead, but senior safety Harrison Smith sealed the Notre Dame victory with a key interception near the end zone.
The win marked Notre Dame's third consecutive victory and first over USC since 2001. A 7-5 finish earned the Irish a Sun Bowl date with Miami, but it also marked the end of an eight-year curse against the Trojans, lifting a weight off the shoulders of the program (and its fans) and providing a glimmer of hope that the Irish could rise once again.
Closing out 2010 in El Paso, Notre Dame jumped out to a 27-3 halftime lead and never looked back. A trio of second quarter interceptions by Smith demoralized the Miami sideline. Ultimately, the latest installment in the Catholics vs. Convicts rivalry belonged to the Irish.
The 2010 football season will be remembered for many reasons, including the start of a new coaching era, the seesaw recruiting class and the tragic and premature loss of a member of the Notre Dame family. Prior to my arrival on campus in August 2007, I had heard so much about the incredible memories of football victories and championship seasons. Three months ago, I thought I would graduate with few of my fondest Notre Dame memories being football-related. Looking back, Hollywood could not have written a more "Rudy-esque" (read: perfect) script for the final four games of 2010.
What makes the four-game stretch from Utah through Miami special is how so many unsung heroes stepped up when it mattered most. Fellow senior classmates, student-athletes who have overcome personal setbacks both on- and off-the-field, made crucial plays in the closing moments of their careers. Duval Kamara caught two touchdown 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 came through with numerous clutch interceptions, and Hughes, on the final drive in Los Angeles, seemed to carry the Irish on his back into the end zone.
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout.
But unlike mighty Casey of the Mudville Nine, the Fighting Irish did not strike out. In fact, with four key victories in a row, they hit a grand slam.
To the delight of Domers everywhere, there is joy in South Bend. Even as the wind continues to howl and snow piles up, the sun is shining a little brighter over Our Lady's campus as we anticipate the arrival of the 2011 season and the opportunities that await the revitalized Notre Dame football program.
- Josh Flynt