Musick: Notre Dame whiffs on the biggest stage

Caption
Alabama's Eddie Lacy tries to get past Notre Dame's Manti Te'o during the first half of the BCS National Championship college football game Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Big stage, this is Notre Dame. Notre Dame, this is big stage.

You two have met before, right?

Let’s hope that you don’t part ways for another generation after Monday’s lopsided BCS title game.

On the biggest stage in college football, Notre Dame had a chance to return to greatness in the national championship game against Alabama. But by missing tackle after tackle (after tackle after tackle), the Fighting Irish missed a golden opportunity to prove they belonged.

The final score was every bit as one-sided as the matchup: Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14.

That’s too bad.

Because college football is better off when Notre Dame is a legitimate title contender. The sport is much more exciting when the squad from South Bend, Ind., can stand up to the studs of the Southeastern Conference.

In the run-up to kickoff Monday, I was foolish enough to think Notre Dame would provide Alabama with a great challenge, if not a stunning upset. You know, great defense, luck of the Irish, and so on.

Then a harsh reality arrived faster than an alarm clock at 4 a.m.

On the game’s opening series, Alabama sliced through the middle of the top-ranked Irish defense with a five-play, 82-yard touchdown drive in less than 3 minutes. It got worse before it got better.

Just kidding. It never got better.

Imagine how much fun a hard-fought game could have been between the sport’s Nos. 1 and 2 teams. Imagine Notre Dame trailing by a point or two and lining up for a potential game-winning drive.

At this point, all we can do is imagine.

Those who despise the Irish will have plenty of chances to take their shots in the coming days. They were outplayed and outcoached in every phase of the game – except punting, maybe.

But admit it: Even if you hate Notre Dame, you’d prefer that they matter.

No team in college football is more polarizing.

The Irish are like a political party or a favorite brand of toothpaste (wait, you don’t get fired up about toothpaste?). College football fans tend to love the Irish or hate the Irish with no space in between.

Yet after the mid-1990s, it became harder to love (or hate) a so-so Irish team. Apathy crept in.

For nearly 20 years, Notre Dame watched at home like the rest of us while teams mostly from the southeast and the west coast battled for championships. The most recent team from the Midwest to win a title was the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes – it now has been a decade and counting.

Before kickoff Monday, I reflected on my first and only trip to see Notre Dame play.

It was 1995, less than two years after Notre Dame’s narrow loss in the NCAA championship game. The Irish were hosting Navy as part of the schools’ storied rivalry.

Before kickoff, the stadium’s public-address announcer told us the wind-chill factor: 7 degrees.

Everyone in the stands went crazy. Then again, they were crazy.

The next three-plus hours were mostly a blur. Players crunched into each other. The band blasted the fight song. Students raised each other in the air for push-ups after every Irish touchdown.

In the second half, Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus broke his arm. The Irish won without him.

Everybody went home happy.

That memory is almost two decades old.

Against Alabama, the Irish had an opportunity to play like champions once again. This wasn’t a Knute Rockne speech in black and white or an old VHS game tape starring Tony Rice and Tim Brown.

This was Notre Dame football in the 21st century. This was Manti Te’o on your 1080p LCD screen.

And they blew it. Big time.

Write to Northwest Herald sportswriter Tom Musick at tmusick@shawmedia.com or follow him on Twitter at @tcmusick.

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