Intangibles define Notre Dame
Talent and game plans are good, but the Irish are made of more
In a game governed by discipline and strategy and hours of preparation, is there room for such a trivial, incalculable thing as heart?
Can one team possibly “want it more” than another when football is the centerpiece of all of these players’ and coaches’ lives? Or are these just lazy tropes leaned upon by sportswriters and broadcasters who’ve grown too lethargic to analyze what’s actually happening?
Usually, I’d say yes. Usually, I’d say that good plays and good games can’t be the result of a player or team having more heart or wanting it – whatever “it” is – more.
There are exceptions. There are times when preparation and planning and strategy yield to something outside the confines of muscle memory and repetition and memorization. There are plays, moments, where we can measure a team’s “heart”, where the cold calculus of advanced statistics and probabilities are overwhelmed by what we see.
These moments are fleeting. These moments are rare.
But they are also unmistakable.
On Saturday night, those moments came when 11 men in gold helmets dug their heels into the turf in their own end zone on 10 separate occasions in the fourth quarter. And, all 10 times, the Irish defenders kept the Trojans from crossing the white line and from potentially snatching away a national championship in the 11th hour of the 12th game of an undefeated season.
Those moments, those 10 plays, were more a test of a team’s will, of its heart, than of its skill or preparation. It was time to push harder than the man across from you. It was time to hit the ballcarrier hard enough to turn his own momentum against him. It was time to sharpen focus to the point that talented receivers felt like they were running in shackles.
The first three of those plays came in the opening moments of the fourth quarter. Trailing by nine, USC advanced the ball to the Notre Dame 4. A Silas Redd run was stuffed for a gain of only two. Another run was repelled for a loss of two as the Southern California line was swallowed by a swarm of gold and white. Then a pass to Marqise Lee missed its target. Only a few feet from seven points, the Trojans had to settle for three because the Irish defense that had carried a team through 11 games wasn’t willing to break under the pressure inherent in the 12th.
Later in the quarter, and far more memorably, the Irish stopped the Trojans cold seven consecutive times. USC tailback Curtis McNeal got three yards, pushing the ball to the Notre Dame four. Then Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell hounded and hacked Lee on consecutive fade routes, gladly taking pass interference calls rather than risk six points while simultaneously daring the Trojans to try and beat that defense up the middle. The Trojans tried to impose their will at the line of scrimmage, where strength and effort matter most, and failed. Two quarterback sneaks were easily repelled. A McNeal rush was snuffed out in the backfield by a pair of Irish defenders converging from either side and a feeble fourth-down Max Wittek pass trickled through the hands of intended target Soma Vainuku.
That stand, those seven plays, were a microcosm of the entire Irish season – a little luck on a dropped pass, some smarts and guile on the intentional pass interference calls and a lot of toughness in the trenches on all of those goal line stuffs.
On 10 plays on Saturday night, 11 men in gold helmets lined up, gazed at the 11 men across from them and thought, “I’m better than you.” On each play, each man proved just that. The odds that the Trojans, with all of their weapons, all of their multi-star, multi-100-pound linemen couldn’t muster the few yards they needed to bring a perfect season into question, tells me that Notre Dame has something more than superior talent or superior coaching or superior preparation. They have something intangible. They have something that seems corny and made-up and that normally makes me cringe when I hear it. But I saw it on those 10 plays. You saw it too.
They have heart. They, for lack of a better phrase, want it more.
And that’s the immeasurable difference between measurable results. That’s the difference between 12-0 and 11-1 or 10-2. That’s the difference between sitting at home in the second week of January and playing for a national championship.
Florida-Florida State lived up to the hype – it was terrific to see these teams play in a game of consequence in HD. The last time both of these teams squared off with so much at stake, we were all adjusting the bunny ears on top of our televisions. (For my younger readers, bunny ears were two metal poles that extended from the top of the television and grabbed whatever shoddy television signals and garbled police scanner chatter they could find.) The Gators stormed out 13-0 on the back of a pair of EJ Manuel picks, and it seemed their defense was simply too good for a talented offense from another conference to handle. (SEC fans were collectively saying “Told ya so” in a slow drawl midway through the second quarter.)
|FLORIDA at FLORIDA STATE|
But the third quarter belonged to the Noles. The Florida State defense flipped a turnover into seven points and Manuel found his composure and took to the ground – he entered the game with only 181 rushing yards on the season, but had 54 and a pair of scores against the Gators. By the time players were holding their fists aloft to signal the onset of the fourth quarter, the tomahawk chop was in full-throat and a 13-point deficit had become a seven-point advantage. Doak Campbell stadium roared to life and the crowd – and momentum – seemed like they’d bury the Gators and their not-so-unrealistic national title hopes. But Will Muschamp’s staff made the right adjustments and the Gators answered back with another run of their own – 24 consecutive points took the life out of the crowd. Turnovers were the Seminoles’ ultimate undoing in the 37-26 loss – they had five to the Gators’ one. By the end of the game, with the Notre Dame result pending for several hours, Gainesville united behind Lane Kiffin, who held the Gators’ national title fate in his hands.
Corvallis was unsuccessful in its attempt to secede from the state of Oregon. Its rebellion, which had been gaining steam all season and seemed to pose a legitimate threat to the state capitol at Nike headquarters, was snuffed out with relative ease by the well dressed army from Eugene. Despite an early scare in the first half of this Civil War – Oregon State was down only three midway through the third quarter – the Ducks restored order and rolled off 28 unanswered to take any drama out of what, a month ago, looked like it might be one of the best games of the year. But given Oregon’s defeat at the hands of Stanford and a recent pair of Oregon State losses, Oregon’s 48-24 blowout win was ultimately of little consequence. Beavers’ quarterback Sean Mannion may have put an end to next year’s quarterback controversy before it could even start – he tossed four more picks on Saturday, effectively handing the starting job back to Cody Vaz.
Congrats, Ohio State…I guess? You’re 12-0, now please use the exits in the back – we’ll see you next year. Most teams finish undefeated seasons amid a glorious shower of confetti and Brent Musburger-isms, not after winning a noon game in the season’s penultimate week with fans outside America’s most important swing state offering a resounding “meh.” But that’s precisely what happened on Saturday when the Buckeyes capped their perfect 2012 run with a 26-21 win against Michigan. First, kudos to the Wolverines for leading this one until eight minutes remained in the fourth quarter despite Denard Robinson’s continued physical inability to throw a pass. But his 122 rushing yards, including yet another shoelace-eviscerating 67-yard scamper, certainly didn’t hurt. In the end, though, Ohio State was just too talented, and Urban Meyer had them too focused for this overmatched Michigan team to hold on in the Horseshoe. Brilliant season by Meyer by bringing this team back from seven losses to 12 wins, but, in my mind, it’ll always have a little asterisk next to it. The Buckeyes played in quite a few close games – I don’t think they would’ve triumphed in each one if they’d been playing for a shot at the crystal football, leaving them playing without that pressure can make muscles loosen up and the game slow down. Still, nice job, Urban, I hope you have room in your already well-stocked trophy case (rich mahogany, of course) for about five consecutive Big Ten championships.
Bedlam is defined as “a scene of uproar and confusion.” Does 51-48 qualify? I’d say yes. Good job, whoever named the game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State; I have no qualms with your rivalry naming decision, carry on. You want confusion? How about Oklahoma State’s third-string QB Clint Chelf leading the Cowboys to a 17-3 lead on the road against the Cowboys’ big brother? You want uproar? How about Oklahoma never holding a lead until Brennan Clay’s 18-yard run in overtime sealed the Sooners win? In the interim – between the 17-3 deficit and the walk off win – the Sooners trailed on four separate occasions and rallied back to tie the contest all four times. Landry Jones didn’t disappoint in his last game in front of the Norman faithful, who have oscillated from frustration to reverence of the formerly mustached signal-caller with seemingly every throw through his four years as the Sooners’ starter. Jones capped his Bedlam-laced home career by throwing for 500 yards on the nose and tossing three scores on 71 (71!) attempts. Plus he led Oklahoma on a 16-play, six-minute drive to send the game to overtime.
No Connor Shaw? No Marcus Lattimore? No problem. All South Carolina needed was a visor and a caustic wit. Without their two best offensive players, it seemed the Gamecocks would be doomed against their in-state rival, which had won seven consecutive games by double-digits. Instead, Shaw’s backup, sophomore Dylan Thompson, eclipsed 300 yards through the air and tossed three scores. The Gamecocks were able to piece together a decent rushing attack, but the 10-point win in one of the day’s better matchups belonged to Thompson and the underrated Gamecock defense. Clemson had scored more than 40 points eight times this season, yet the South Carolina defense held the nation’s No. 8 offense to only 17 points, 14 of which came in the first quarter, and pitched a shutout in the fourth. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. That’s typically what happens when an elite offense from another conference runs headlong into 11 men who play defense in the SEC every weekend.
The battle for the golden cactus – pardon me, I meant the Territorial Cup – lived up to the billing on Friday night in Tucson (I have yet to spell that city’s name correctly on my first attempt). The Territorial Cup overflowethed (that’s the past tense, right?) with points in the Sun Devils’ come-from-behind 41-34 win. Though, you didn’t know that because the game was on until about 1 a.m. Eastern on Saturday and you were deep in the midst of a coma triggered by excessive gravy intake and making semi-uncomfortable small talk with the 37 family members you’re contractually obligated to see once a year. Well, too bad, gravy monger, because you missed a good one. Fortunately, I’m contractually obligated to avoid small talk and watch football, so I got to watch the Sun Devils put up 24 unanswered in the fourth to turn a 10-point deficit into their biggest win of the season. Both teams finished the season 7-5, but the loss will leave a bitter taste in the Wildcats’ mouths after a 3-0 start this year. On the bright side, Ka’Deem Carey, only a sophomore, added 172 more yards to his rushing tally and seems to have sealed the regular-season rushing title.
For the love of whatever deity you may or may not believe in, don’t poke the Bears. In Week 12, Baylor had its way with the top team in the nation. This past week, after falling behind 21-7 early, the newly mighty Bears chased the Red Raiders down and proceeded to maul their 24th-ranked defense. Thirty-one second-half Baylor points pushed the contest to overtime. And after an OT touchdown, Baylor cracked the 50-point plateau for the fifth time this season. The win marked Baylor’s third in four tries and garnered the Bears a well-deserved bowl berth. Conversely, the Red Raiders, who ranked among the nation’s top teams in both offense and defense through the first half of the season, have unraveled, dropping four of their final five games, all against conference opponents.
Remember two years ago when the Iron Bowl was the most compelling game of the season – Auburn erased a 24-0 deficit on the road – and essentially decided who was going to win the national championship? A lot can change in two years. By a lot, I mean Cam Newton took his Heisman to the NFL and Auburn’s coordinators subsequently fled. In their wake stands a 3-9 team and a 91-14 Alabama advantage in the previous two Iron Bowls. Saturday’s was the uglier of the two, as Alabama blanked its in-state rivals 49-0. AJ McCarron tossed four more touchdowns, no picks and may have earned himself a trip up to New York next month, even if he’s got no shot at coming home with the trophy. After the loss to Texas A&M, which may have been LSU-fatigue-induced, Alabama looks to be back in form heading into next week’s national semifinal/SEC Championship for all of the sweet tea.
Johnny “Football”, I know college is new to you, you’ve got homework and are likely wrapping up a few of your orientation courses, but you might want to squeeze in some time to write a speech. No, you won’t be graded on this assignment, but a few million people will be watching – the Heisman Trophy ceremony, after all, is not just a freshman speech class. Think I’m jumping the gun? Think a freshman winning the award for the first time is preposterous? Not with what Manziel has done this season. The Aggie quarterback passed Tim Tebow and Cam Newton – both Heisman winners – and now holds the SEC single-season total yardage record. He set the SEC single-game yardage record twice this year. On Saturday, he added 372 passing yards, 67 rushing yards and five touchdowns to his gaudy totals in A&M’s 59-29 win against fellow SEC newcomer Missouri. He’s the first SEC player ever to eclipse 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 on the ground. He’s the quarterback of a 10-win SEC team that gave LSU a scare and knocked off Alabama. I don’t care if he’s a freshman; he’s the best player in the country. Get that speech ready, Johnny.
Somebody please get me Will Smith. Right now! No, I don’t want his autograph and I’m not in the mood to hear any tired catchphrases or bad rap songs. I need him to use the flashy thing from Men in Black that erases your memory on me ASAP. (I’m sure they were contractually obligated to give him a real one, right?) I’d ask him to set it for about three months, so that I could forget the entire 2012 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets season. The school my father attended, and that I would have if an engineering degree was the path to a sports column, fell 42-10 to Georgia on Saturday. The Jackets finish the regular season with six losses, including several blowouts and a loss to Middle Tennessee State, and fired their defensive coordinator midseason, but, somehow, they’ll still have a chance to play for the ACC title next week. “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?” Maybe I’ll hold off on the call to Mr. Smith for another week.
UCLA and Stanford entered Saturday’s contest with identical 9-2 records, identical five-game winning streaks and nearly-identical, impressive wins against USC. So it seemed we were going to get a treat that might be a preview of the Pac-12 title game. Well, it was a preview of the Pac-12 title game – Stanford’s win ensured Oregon would be locked out of the festivities and that the Cardinal would host the Bruins this weekend. But it was no treat. After the teams played to a 7-7 stalemate in the first quarter, Stanford won 35-17 after going on a 28-3 run through much of the second and third quarters. Now, what’s the takeaway here? Is Stanford, which had to travel down to Pasadena for this one, really that much better than UCLA? Perhaps. Or did the Bruins keep their cards close to the vest (or baby-blue windbreaker, in this case)? Maybe so. UCLA came in knowing its spot in the title game was secure and that a win would mean a trip to Eugene. Did the trek to Palo Alto seem like the better option? We won’t know until next week. If Stanford handles its business again, there’s no doubt it’s the better team. But if the game goes down to the wire or the Bruins pull the upset, I’ll have the hunch that UCLA didn’t quite mind losing on Saturday.
Horned Frogs can’t fly. After freshman midseason replacement QB Trevone Boykin went only 2-4 through his first six starts, TCU decided it was time to focus on the ground attack. Against Texas, TCU ran the ball 48 times and three backs eclipsed 50 yards, paced by Boykin’s 77 yards on 10 carries. But the TCU defense, not the offense, was responsible for the 20-13 win on Thursday night that you certainly didn’t see because of the aforementioned gravy, small talk and the fact that as you read this you just thought, “There was a game on Thursday night?” The Horned Frogs’ defense forced four turnovers on the night, including three by Longhorns’ starting QB David Ash, who was once again pulled in favor of Case McCoy. McCoy didn’t fare much better in the second half, tossing a pick of his own and averaging only 6.5 yards on his 17 attempts.
Might it be safe to say that Rutgers was looking ahead to this week’s matchup with Louisville that will decide who takes home the Big East crown? That’s the only explanation for yielding 21 unanswered to a four-win Pitt team to start the game. The Scarlet Knights didn’t even get on the scoreboard until 1:43 remained in the third quarter and mustered only six points through the entire game against a Pitt defense that has been giving up about 23-points-per-contest. Despite the disappointment, it was only Rutgers’ first Big East loss and it’s still in the mix for the Big East title and a trip to a BCS bowl.
Well, Louisville, at least basketball season has started. You guys are supposed to be pretty good this year, I hear (Note: I’m not a licensed college basketball analyst.) Remember when the Cardinals were undefeated and the Big East title seemed all but assured? Well, Saturday’s loss to UConn was their second consecutive. After struggling all game, Louisville scored in the final moments of regulation to send it to overtime. After getting knocked out with what looked like a nasty knee injury in the first OT, QB Teddy Bridgewater tossed a touchdown on his first attempt of the second extra period. But the hero quickly became the goat. In the third OT he forced a pass to the corner of the end zone that was easily picked off by UConn’s Blidi Wreh-Wilson. After the pick, all the Huskies had to do was hit a chip-shot field goal to seal their biggest win of the season and send everyone in Northern Kentucky straight to Rick Pitino’s waiting, white linen-laden arms.
Speaking of Huskies, Washington had a chance to put the finishing touches on its quietly strong season in the Pac-12. The Huskies had already notched wins against Stanford and Oregon State and were riding a four-game winning streak into Friday’s matchup (another one I know you missed; shame on you) with Washington State for the “Well, it’s raining again, I guess we should sit in the dark and listen to Nirvana” Cup. Yes, I know it’s the Apple Cup, but I’ve long wanted to be in charge of these obscure, regional trophy names and this is my chance. Given Washington State’s 2-9 start and the recent turmoil surrounding the program, it seemed the Huskies would finish their season in style. Instead, Washington State outscored their in-state rival 21-0 in the fourth quarter and overtime and earned, by far, its biggest win of the season along with a cup full of juicy apples and grey iPods filed with Nirvana tracks. Given the recent issues, this one was a pleasant way for Mike Leach and the Cougars to end the season.
1. In my first Breaking the Huddle, way back when I was just seeing some peach fuzz poke through the skin on my upper lip, I noted that I’d developed an affinity for Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell’s bruising style and durability. After all, in a season-opening win against Boise State, he took his 50 touches for 265 yards. He’s had a tremendous season since then, never seeming to wear down despite carrying the ball more than any back in the nation. But he never quite matched that level of output … until Saturday. His 35-carry, 266-yard day propelled the Spartans to a 26-10 win against Minnesota and, more fittingly, completed his set of 250-yard bookends to his tremendous season. Bell wasn’t the best back in the country this season statistically, but he may have been the most dependable given his heavy workload and heavy frame (244 pounds). Only a junior, it’ll be interesting to see if the big back decides to endure more punishment at the collegiate level next year.
2. Did everyone circle Duke-Miami (Fla.) on their calendars? No? Me neither and it pains me to say I missed what may have been the day’s most exciting game. How do I measure exciting? The game featured four touchdowns of 65 yards or more. Yes, four. And, no, Miami didn’t score all of them; Duke mustered a 99-yard catch and run. Three of the long scores – a 65-yard Duke Johnson scamper, a 72-yard Mike James catch and run and the aforementioned 99-yarder by Sean Renfree – came consecutively during only eight minutes of game time. I’m not going to dig up the history books to see how often something like that has happened, but safe to say that such a sequence is as rare as a good song by Taylor Swift. It was a down year in the ACC, but there were a slew of entertaining contests – Miami’s 52-45 win against Duke on Saturday was one of the best.
3. West Virginia's year was a tad unconventional. Remember when they’d stormed out to a 5-0 start, climbed all the way up to No. 5 in the nation and Geno Smith’s name was already being engraved wherever the college football annals are? No, that wasn’t three years ago; it was October. Then the Big 12 hit the Mountaineers with the subtlety of a guillotine, the Mountaineers suffered five consecutive losses and in-game Heisman graphics no longer featured Mr. Smith’s picture. But, finally, after nearly two months of torment, West Virginia is back in the win column with a 31-24 victory against Iowa State. With Kansas on the schedule this week and a bowl game looming, the Mountaineers could scrape together eight wins and finish in the middle of the Big 12 pack despite their long losing streak. Three consecutive wins to close the season could have the same soothing effects of the Will Smith flashy thing – a short memory will be an asset before the Mountaineers second season in their new conference.
Welcome to championship Saturday. Follow these games this weekend and you'll be better for it:
No. 3 Georgia
vs. No. 2 Alabama
4 p.m. ET
Welcome to your seventh-annual national semifinal, once again held in the beautiful Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga. Some would scoff at my characterization of that facility, but I’m admittedly biased. Once again, whoever walks out of the Dome with the SEC title in tow will have earned the right to play for the national championship. The Dogs reached Keanu-Reeves-in-The-Matrix levels of dodging bullets this year by not having to square off against LSU, Alabama, Texas A&M or Mississippi State in the regular season. They haven’t squandered their good fortune, dropping only one game all year. But all UGA fans knew that, come December, facing one SEC West juggernaut would be unavoidable. On Saturday, we’ll find out of Georgia’s high ranking and impressive season are more a result of the lucky schedule or if the Dogs are worthy of competing for a national championship.
No. 17 UCLA
vs. No. 8 Stanford
8 p.m. ET (Friday)
I certainly hope that Jim Mora was playing as vanilla as possible on Saturday and the second installment of the battle of teams from the West with atypical mascots will be more compelling than the first. The SEC title game is really the only one that matters from a national standpoint, but the Pac-12 championship tilt is the highlight of the undercard. A USC-Oregon title matchup seemed preordained, but the conference has beaten up on itself all season. These two squads survived runs through what may be the nation’s second-best conference.
No. 23 Texas
at No. 7 Kansas State
8 p.m. ET
Yes, Kansas State is still around. It may have been easy to forget about the Wildcats after Baylor tore their hearts out in Waco, Texas, and they spent rivalry week licking that gaping wound. Still, this is one of the best teams in the nation. On Saturday, the Wildcats have a chance to lock down their first conference title since 2003. It’s not the championship they wanted in Manhattan after a 10-0 start, but is a worthy consolation prize for the team that was the biggest surprise in the nation outside of South Bend.
No. 14 Nebraska
8 p.m. ET
The inaugural Big Ten title game was a thriller. Wisconsin pulled it out 42-39 after watching its big first-quarter lead slip away against the Spartans. This year, the Badgers, only 4-4 in the Big Ten, have a chance to defend their conference crown in Indianapolis thanks to Ohio State’s postseason ban. Nebraska only has two losses on the season – just one came in conference – and knocked off Wisconsin 30-27 in September. The Huskers should win their first title in their new conference, but if Gus is in the building yet again I wouldn’t rule out five overtimes and Lucas Oil Stadium taking off and flying into space at halftime.
Views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.
Follow Brian Burnsed on Twitter at @brianburnsed