Tuesday, January 8, 2013
All goes wrong for Irish in title-game rout
By Matt Fortuna
"Pretty darned good football team," coach Brian Kelly said of his Irish, "but not good enough."
MIAMI -- The "Rudy" theme is playing over the loudspeakers. And when the Rudy theme is playing over the loudspeakers, it is usually playing late in a tight game to inspire Notre Dame to pull out one more thriller in a season full of them.
This was the case two months ago against Pittsburgh. The Fighting Irish defied everyone by winning at Oklahoma a week earlier, got off to a lethargic start against Pitt and fell behind 14. But this was Notre Dame and this was the Irish's year, and so the Notre Dame Stadium speakers blared that famous tune less than a minute into the fourth quarter. Notre Dame scored 23 of the game's final 29 points, won in triple overtime, extended its perfect campaign and marched onward.
Now the song is playing inside Sun Life Stadium, Notre Dame again needing another miracle. The Irish have just failed to convert on fourth down. Alabama has gotten the ball back. The Crimson Tide have had the ball plenty already, and they have scored every single time they have had it.
This is with 13 minutes, 20 seconds left in the second quarter.
This is with Alabama boasting a three-touchdown lead, well on its way to a 42-14 victory in the Discover BCS National Championship.
This is reality crashing down hard on a team amid a renaissance campaign, no history nor luck nor year-three magic on its way to the rescue.
"Maybe Alabama doesn't come back in the second half," an almost-resigned coach Brian Kelly says at halftime. "It's all Alabama. I mean, we can't tackle them right now, and, you know, who knows why? You know, they're big and physical; I guess I do know why. It's just that our guys have not tackled the way they have all year. We've got to go in there and we've got to get after it and play with some pride in the second half and try to get this thing closer so we can try to find a way to win."
Notre Dame gets the ball back first, and its offense finally gets something going. A 6-yard run here, a 21-yard pass there, nine more yards on a completion and here the Irish are at the Alabama 36-yard line, the closest that they have come to the end zone all night.
Everett Golson takes a shot deep down the right sideline to DaVaris Daniels, and Dee Milliner is ready to pick it off, except he doesn't. No matter, because Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix is close enough to dive and catch the tip while falling out of bounds, one more blow to a Notre Dame team that has already taken all it can handle.
Manti Te'o couldn't find the momentum-shifting play that marked his, and Notre Dame's, run to Miami.
This was the case all night for the Irish, from a highly questionable kick-catching interference call on Matthias Farley that took away a chance for early momentum, to Manti Te'o's diving attempt at a second-quarter interception going just off his fingertips -- or the exact opposite of what happened to him in a season-defining pick at Oklahoma.
Breaks? There was Davonte Neal's fumble of a second-quarter punt return bouncing out of bounds, allowing the Irish to keep the ball. Or AJ McCarron's inches-too-long throw to Amari Cooper, who had outrushed two Irish defenders and fell just shy of a ball that would have accounted for a 59-yard score and a 28-0 Tide lead.
Instead, the Tide simply scored on their next possession to make it 28-0. They rushed for 265 yards against a defense that had allowed 92 per game. They had scoring drives of 82, 80, 97 and 86 yards; Notre Dame had not allowed one longer than 75 yards entering Monday night.
"I think Coach Kelly told us before the game that there are eight minutes that are very important in the game," said Te'o, whose legendary career came to a close. "The first two minutes of the game, the last two minutes in the second quarter, the first two minutes of the third quarter and the last two minutes of the game."
Alabama scored on the first drive of the game and on the last drive of the second quarter. The Tide picked off Notre Dame in the first two minutes of the third quarter, and by the last two minutes of the game the "S-E-C" chants were making their final appearance of the night.
Just before then, a pin drop could be heard on the Irish sideline, players staring everywhere and nowhere at once, the hopes and dreams of capping this magical season with a crystal football all but officially dead for three hours now.
"Pretty darned good football team," Kelly would say, "but not good enough."
Robby Toma walked off the field first, helmet on, a stoic stride into the tunnel. Everyone soon followed, and when the locker room opened Theo Riddick was crying all by himself in front of his stall. Roommate and backfield mate Cierre Wood eventually appeared, tapping his left hand on Riddick's head every now and then for comfort during interviews. Eventually the emotions of this season and a four-year, whirlwind career gave in, and soon a towel was covering Riddick's face in its entirety.
Kelly was the last to emerge from the locker room, his mission to fulfill the third-year destiny of great Notre Dame leaders falling short, the coach stopping to thank a couple of men in orange jackets for their hospitality while a fan's cry of "Get 'em next year, Coach" faded in the background.
There were 25 teams ranked ahead of his in the Associated Press preseason poll, and there were 23 mostly unfulfilling seasons preceding this year's outfit.
Loss No. 1 came four months later than anyone had expected, and it was on to 2013 and finishing the gap-closing that the 125th team in the history of Notre Dame football thought it was so close to completing.
"There are 121 FBS schools," Kelly's boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, would say, "and we're in pretty good shape relative to all but one of them."