On a flawless South Florida night, Notre Dame players saw a legend emerge in present time. To their bone-deep disbelief, it was not them.
The eruption of streamers and confetti and joy surrounded them, and their shock and desolation filled the spaces in between. A program lost for a quarter-century might not be directionless, but the top looked far away from here.
A moment the Irish believed they were meant to have ended in a quiet walk out of sight and into another year of what might be. Alabama is the national champion, again, the SEC’s marauding run extended to a seventh straight year with a 42-14 humiliation of Notre Dame in the BCS title game Monday, the Irish’s first loss also their most excruciating.
Most left the field with distant gazes as the Crimson Tide hoisted newspapers with headlines blaring, “BAMA AGAIN.” Nose guard Louis Nix limped off slowly. Tailback Theo Riddick pulled a towel over his head to hide his tears, which then burst forth by his locker stall. Across the room, freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell tried to laugh through crying he couldn’t stop.
Twenty-four years since that last title in 1988, wandering through losses and death and empty promise. When everyone saw the light at the end of it all, what they saw was that crystal football hoisted skyward. It remained far, far beyond their grasp at Sun Life Stadium and claimed by a different reborn college football dynasty.
“They’re back-to-back national champs,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “So that’s what it looks like. Measure yourself against that, and it was pretty clear across the board what we have to do.”
It was an oppressive deluge of unprepared and nerve-racked play from the start, the most yards (529) surrendered by Notre Dame (12-1) all year and the most points ever surrendered by Notre Dame in a bowl game. Eddie Lacy rampaged for 140 yards, AJ McCarron threw for 264 and four touchdowns and Alabama (13-1) did, basically, whatever it wanted.
Alabama players called a meeting shortly after their arrival in Florida, and some mused that it reflected a fracture in the focus of the defending champs. But the stoicism they demonstrated all week turned out to be determination to kick the ever-loving tar out of the nation’s No. 1 team.
“We knew one team would break,” Alabama defensive end Damion Square said, “and it wasn’t going to be us.”
It required only five plays for Alabama to find the end zone. Lacy was the sledgehammer, and it was 7-0 after the longest touchdown drive and the first first-quarter touchdown allowed by Notre Dame all season.
The curb-stomping didn’t end. McCarron threw a touchdown pass, then set up a T.J. Yeldon score with 25- and 28-yard passes, then dumped a short toss to Lacy that the junior hauled into the end zone. It was a 28-0 lead, arrived at brutally, with special indifference to destiny and fortune.
“They did not dominate us,” Nix said. “We just didn’t play our ballgame, man. We didn’t make tackles. Everything we did or had lined up should have worked.”
In whatever context or interpretation, Alabama was destroying everything Notre Dame built over a brilliant season, stomping validation into a million little pieces.
“It felt like we were sinking in quicksand,” guard Chris Watt said. “We couldn’t get out of it.”
It was 35-0 before Notre Dame at last responded with an 85-yard drive to an Everett Golson 2-yard option keeper, ending the Tide’s 108-minute shutout streak in BCS championship appearances. When McCarron answered with another scoring toss to Amari Cooper, all that was left was getting out alive and figuring where to go from here.
After that last title in 1988, the pall descended. Lou Holtz left, and then it was Bob Davie and George O’Leary’s resume and Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis’ decided schematic advantage. Then Kelly arrived, and there was no definable reason to expect a title run to happen this year, and then it did.
It seemed, regardless of the outcome, Notre Dame might be a fully functional college football leviathan humming along. Then came the mighty Tide and a dent in the validation.
So, yes, the Irish making it this far proved a great deal.
“Nobody had us in this position to start the season,” said receiver DaVaris Daniels, a bright spot with 115 receiving yards, “and look how far we’ve come, so quick.”
And yet the Irish absorbing such a bracing setback means they must prove so much more.
“At Notre Dame, you’re expected to win national championships,” Watt said. “A lot of the things we did this season were just unbelievable. Those were all wonderful things. But it doesn’t really mean anything when you don’t win a national championship. You can’t really win anything else here.”
So off they went, dazed and empty-handed. All around them the new college football dynasty celebrated. All around them, Notre Dame saw what it desperately wanted to become.
Off they went, into the tunnels, a brilliant season ending well short of legend. And the Irish would do what everyone before them had done for a quarter-century, and wake up in the morning just waiting to get back.