Notre Dame is going to the National Championship to face the winner of the SEC title game. Ricky O'Donnell asks SB Nation Chicago's resident Irish fan Z.W. Martin about what it's like to see your favorite team go undefeated.
Zach! It is with not much honor that I wish you a sincere congratulations on Notre Dame securing a trip to the BCS title game. Seriously: who ever would have thought this could happen? The Irish started the year under precarious circumstances: unranked in the AP preseason poll with incumbent QB Tommy Rees
getting into trouble with the law for being drunk and stupid. There were other issues too, like starting cornerbacks who were recruited to do anything *but* play corner. The Irish caught a bit of a break on the schedule when it turned out Michigan State (then No. 10) was worthless and USC was much less than the Juggernaut most expected -- and that was when they had Matt Barkley in tow. We can talk about the Irish barely scraping by against underwhelming Purdue and Pittsburgh squads, or how they might have gotten lucky against Stanford. Even as a bit of a Notre Dame hater -- an uninvested party, at best -- I don't really feel like this is the way we should turn. This team went undefeated -- 12-0 -- in the regular season, and that's not a result that 'margin of victory' can mitigate. And besides, the Irish's true worth will be gauged in the title against a big and mighty SEC school, most likely Alabama. Until then, let's talk about the journey.
I want to know a few things, mostly about the experience, man.
You started this season off writing about "Xanax Threat Levels" in your Notre Dame posts -- presumably, you weren't convinced this was a title team from the beginning. I guess why would you be convinced of that? Anyway, at what point did you realize what was starting to take shape in South Bend? At what point did trepidation and prescription pills give way to whatever the Catholics call 'swagger'?
Watching last year, it was clear that if the Irish had a functional quarterback, they would have easily won 10 games. Considering the only two losses -- granted, major losses -- Notre Dame dealt with were safety Harrison Smith
and star wideout Michael Floyd
, both NFL starters, I felt confident the 2012 version would reach that fairly easily*. However, factoring that Floyd represented approximately 98.3% of the Irish offense last year and the preseason rumors hinting that Tommy Rees would continue to be their -- gasp -- starting QB, I was fairly certain they had no real shot at anything more. Their offense would simply be staler than Jesus' body during Communion.
Then Everett Golson took the field for a suspended Rees and Stephon Tuitt
outran a running back for, like, 60 yards in Dublin, and I knew this team not only had some serious defensive weapons, but an outside shot at maybe an average offense. When they held MSU to three points, it was confirmed their defense was something special. However, every bit of me was doubting what I was seeing because, after all, this is Notre Dame we are talking about; my yearly ritual of crushing disappointment and sorrow.
But something happened that changed things. I mentioned this before
, but after Notre Dame dismantled Denard Robinson
and the Michigan offense, I knew
they would be undefeated heading into Norman, OK. The entire season rested on that game. And, because of everything I've known about Notre Dame football, I picked the Sooners to win. I was very wrong. Notre Dame destroyed Oklahoma 30-13. That's when I knew things would be different in 2012.
But that never really changed the lump-in-throat, pit-in-stomach, the-world-ending awfulness I went through every Saturday. Ulcers, bro. They be real. (It could also be the Jesus blood I be chugging, y'all.)
PS Catholic swagger is called alcoholism.
*Despite the consensus toughest (preseason) schedule, I honestly believed MSU and Michigan were giant pretenders, especially with Sparty losing their starting QB. Stanford didn't scare me either, but that mostly had to do with their now benched QB, who ND was lucky enough to face. Basically, I figured the Irish would lose to USC and Oklahoma. A very good, but not great team.
Ricky: The typical Notre Dame fan -- I choose to believe you're pretty typical -- seems hardened by the haters, if only because they are so numerous. That's not unnatural: fans of any team -- no matter how self-aware -- don't like people shit-talking about their squad. But forget about the detractors for a moment. In your heart of hearts, how do you objectively rate this Notre Dame team? Obviously you'll already remember them for the rest of your life, but there's occasionally a certain threshold -- an eyeball test, if you will -- before a fanbase really starts bubbling with arrogance. Are you there yet?
I will say this: the Irish have the ability to play up or down to any team in the nation. Brian Kelly did everything in his power to ensure they did not turn over the ball on offense, particularly in the red zone*. That meant, unless the defense held each opponent to 10 points or less -- something they did six times -- games were going to be close. His play calling was extremely unimaginative: run, run, mix in a safe pass eight yards or less, run, run. The Irish really only went deep a handful of times all season, solely against their weakest opponents.
However, this also guaranteed their opponents would have the ball for fewer possessions than they were used to, making every drive extremely meaningful. Trying to score on a defense with a front seven littered with future NFLers on a limited number of attempts is no small feat, and something Notre Dame used to their advantage.
I'm not sure I answered your question, but the answer is probably "no". Great teams can dominate both sides of the ball. I'm not convinced the Irish offense is there yet, not until they start scoring touchdowns in the red zone, at least. But what college team can actually say that? I can't think of one, Alabama included. (Fun fact: Alabama and Notre Dame have thrown for the exact same amount of yards in 2012: 2,226.)
*Converting touchdowns in the red zone was the Irish's biggest flaw this year, mostly due to Kelly's conservative play calling. If you look at what the Irish did on offense between the twenties, they were actually pretty damn good.
Tell me everything about how you watched that USC game.
I went to Zella's on Clybourn with a pair of non-Irish supporting brothers. I was pleasantly surprised to find a few kids I went to high school with -- and fellow Golden Domers -- already there. One of them I went to a game with in South Bend in, like, 1998 and watched Ron Powlus get benched for Jarious Jackson against West Virginia. There was also a marshmallow fight. We reminisced, then I went to the bar and ordered a 32 once Guinness they were serving in giant green ND mugs. (I had also chugged a coffee cup of Jameson before we left for the bar. You know, to calm my nerves. Seriously though, I was pacing my apartment for about three hours. It was needed.)
The mug was replenished with fresh Guinness a few times before kickoff and then a few times more while Notre Dame kept converting first downs and settling for field goal attempts. However, for most of the game, the Trojans were no more than six points behind, a scary number with USC only an extra point away from stealing all my joy.
When the Irish pushed the score to 22-13 on a humongous filed goal, I figured the game was over. How would the Trojans score a touchdown, recover an onside kick AND kick a game winning field goal agains this Irish defense with under six minutes left in the game? A 53 yard pass to Marqise Lee
on the first play from scrimmage is, apparently, the answer. My life circled the drain for a moment.
Then Lane Kiffin took over. After calling some weird shit, USC had wasted about three full minutes and had yet to score. When Max Wittek's pass fell short and the Irish held on fourth down, something unnatural came out of my mouth. Arms in the air. High fives. Long, near-tear fueled hugs were given out. Notre Dame was #1 and playing in the BCS National Championship game.
12 hours later, my dad and I had purchased round trip tickets to Miami.
The game -- and season in a larger sense -- is still vaguely unfamiliar to me, even though I've watched it sober twice since on my DVR. (It's still really hard to believe this is happening.) The Irish did everything I expected: short passes, lots of running and dominated on defense. It's still weird for me. I'm left thinking about all the shitty years that is my working knowledge of ND football. Bob Davie. Charlie Weis. The Bush Push. Michigan's 28 second comeback last season. A 3-9 record in 2007. Nine bowl losses in a row. Eight straight losses to USC... Fuck it. Third times a charm.