Irish Fan Reaction (IFR): ND 24, USC 17 - In
Man, that Flyers game was brutal Saturday night. Yet for some reason I'm happy. If only I could remember why...
Oh yeah, that.
HOW 'BOUT THEM IRISH BABY!
This may primarily be a hockey blog but if one of the other sports teams I root for does something special (or really stupid), you know I HAVE to write about it. And I'd say qualifying for the College Football Playoff meets that criteria.
Because the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (deep breath) WINNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN, 24-17, over the USC TROJANS, ESSENTIALLY CLINCHING THEIR FIRST EVER BIRTH IN THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF!!!
The all caps isn't for anger, it's for UNAPOLOGETIC EUPHORIA!
My dad graduated from Notre Dame in 1981, and ever since I was born 20 years later, he has raised my sister and I as two of the biggest Notre Dame fans out there. We have lived and breathed Notre Dame football since I can remember, gone through the triumphs (the undefeated 2012 regular season, trouncing USC last year, going to countless games in person) and the tragedies (blowout losses to Alabama in the national championship and Miami a year ago, the 4-8 2016 campaign), just like I have with the Flyers (and the other Philly teams).
But a lot of that heartbreak could be erased with a title this year, much like what the Eagles did in February. The Irish may not be quite as good as an Alabama or Clemson, but they are still a formidable team. Led by QB Ian Book (who was the backup for our first 3 games), RB Dexter Williams (suspended for the first 4), and a vicious defense led by linemen Khalid Kareem and Jerry Tillery and cornerback Julian Love. The Irish have put together a solid season, with wins over 4 ranked teams including #4 Michigan (who will fall after a blowout loss to #10 Ohio State Saturday), but have turned things around since Book was made the starter over Brandon Wimbush in Week 4. The Irish were 13-3 under Wimbush as a starter, but the offense is clearly better with Book.
The Irish had to finish their season against rival USC, which is never easy. However, USC is on a down year - entering play Saturday the Trojans were just 5-6, in danger of having a losing record for the 1st time since 2000. But when you're playing a team you hate, it's incredible how much your effort and compete level ramps up.
That was evident right from the get-go - USC marched down the field against a passive Irish defensive (learning from the Flyers, I see) to score a touchdown on their opening drive. The Trojans added a field goal early in the 2nd to take a 10-0 lead, the largest deficit Notre Dame has faced all season. There was little doubt USC had the better of play in the first half.
But despite that, USC was only up 10-7 at halftime. The Trojans fumbled twice in ND territory, the 2nd at the Irish 15-yard line right before halftime as they were going in for a score. After a few rough drives, Ian Book was able to convert several 3rd-and-longs before finding former walk-on Chris Finke for a perfectly thrown 24-yard touchdown to the front left pylon. The Irish were almost able to take the lead, too - Book's hail mary at the buzzer was caught by receiver Miles Boykin at the 3-yard line, but he couldn't break the goalline, and so the Trojans kept their slim lead.
However, announcers Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit made sure to keep stressing that the Trojans had consistently struggled to finish games, often giving up large chunks of points in the 2nd half of games. Notre Dame's run game finally broke out in the 2nd half, as the speedy Dexter Williams (or Sexy Dexy, as I like to call him whenever he breaks a big run off) ran for a 52-yard touchdown to give the Irish a lead they would never relinquish. Kicker Justin Yoon set an all-time ND record for most career field goals (58) with a 46-yarder that barely had the legs to make it over the crossbar and give the Irish a 17-10 lead going into the 4th quarter.
Fifteen. Minutes. Away.
It looked like the Irish were going to cruise in the 4th quarter too - after a stop on defense (nearly an interception from Love), the Irish defense marched down the field and seemed primed to extend their lead to 2 goals. But on 3rd-and-long, Book made a rare ill-advised throw into coverage in the endzone that was picked off by Jordan MacMillian, giving USC hope and possession. Gulp.
Yet through all this stress I managed to stay positive. Something good was going to happen, I knew it. That came in the form of 2 sacks on the next 3 plays from Julian Okwara and the aforementioned Tillery despite the fact the Irish defense had failed to record a tackle for a loss going into that series. USC was forced to punt and the Irish went to work again.
Once again, Book was able to move the offense a little bit, but faced a critical 3rd-and-6 from just shy of midfield. Sensing pressure (the Trojans had brought it all night), Book found 3rd-string running back and birthday boy Tony Jones Jr. wide open in the flat. Jones BARELY held on the football, but once he secured it he was off. A 51-yard score, 24-10 ND, 3:09 to go. Oh my god, is this actually going to happen?
Uh, not so fast my friend. The Irish dropped back into their passive defense again and let USC march right down the field, scoring a touchdown with 48 seconds left. With 2 timeouts, USC had one chance - an onsides kick - to save their season.
All I did was watch. The ball took a big hop past the first group of Irish players, and right into the big, reliable hands of Miles Boykin. Irish ball. Ballgame over. Season over. P-E-R-F-E-C-T-I-O-N.
Emotionally, this meant so much to me. Sports are usually filled with heartbreak for me - after all, I'm a Philly fan. The Eagles Super Bowl victory was amazing, but that just makes you want to win more. You know that rush of euphoria and jubilation that overwhelms you when your team wins a title, a sensation far greater than any drug could provide. And you want to feel it again. So you wait. And cheer. But mostly wait. Until something magical happens. And this ND season has been exactly that.
There's still a good chance this year ends in heartbreak. Alabama and Clemson are formidable opponents, and the Irish will likely have to go through at least one, probably both, to win a national championship, which would be their first since 1988. But just getting to the Playoff is a major accomplishment in itself, one the Irish had come painstaking close to in some years since its inception, and others had fallen embarrassingly short. Not this time.
Whatever happens, I'm just glad we get our shot. And glad I'll be there to see it (in person, nonetheless!). I have complete faith in this team, that they will give whoever they play everything they can handle, and hopefully a little bit more than that. Make no mistake, ND will have to play much better than they did Saturday in order to win a national championship (or even get the chance to play for it). But I have no doubt they will do just that.
Notre Dame is undefeated.
Man, that feels good to say.