For the first time in my 173 football games inside Notre Dame Stadium, marching bands weren't the music of choice. And for the first time in those 173 visits, I enjoyed a contest from a variety of seating perspectives.
Notre Dame's most hyped athletic event since the mid-October 2005 epic between the Irish and USC ended the same as has each matchup between the teams when they've knocked heads in South Bend over their last five meetings – with the visitors celebrating at their host's expense. Only this time Axel Rose, The Dropkick Murphy's, Metallica and the White Stripes were on hand for the festivities.
The festivities were partly the result of the opponent; the expected rowdy crowd due to the pleadings of University director of athletics, Jack Swarbrick, who took the streets – well, the dining halls – challenging the student body with this quote: "I need your passion. I travel around with our team, and our stadium is the quietest place we play. I want you guys on that Saturday night at least once to make USC have a false start penalty."
I set out to find out if the students, or as important, the rest of the crowd could respond to said challenge. Thanks to an old friend happy to exchange seats with me for a quarter, and an unexpected field pass for the final period, my 2011 Irish/Trojans experience was as unique as the piped-in music, glistening helmets, and xxx.
The Notre Dame tunnel (Section 36, Row 13, Seat 21); the border of the visitors section (Section 13 Row 48, Seat 10), the press box (a guy has to work) and the Irish sidelines courtesy the school's Media Relations each provided a glimpse of what was supposed to be the loudest, most engaged crowd in several seasons for the school.
Or to be blunt: since the last time Irish fans felt they had a reason to believe.
Below is a look at each experience.
Anticipation ReignsRarely does the Notre Dame student body show up en masse as early as it did for this prime time tussle. Thirty-six minutes before kickoff the section was packed; replete with towel-waving, tailgate-weary students, fresh off fall break and ready to finish their eight-day party with a long-awaited humbling of the Trojans.
I'm a traditionalist, especially regarding Notre Dame sports, but not even the most staunch curmudgeon could suppress goose bumps when 80,000 people bounced to a new sound system, a moment that yielded only when the Irish poured out of the north tunnel with the fight song blaring from the band, new headgear shining on a rare mild October night.
If you've never sat near field level at a prime time major college football game, put it at the top of your bucket list. I've described the Notre Dame Stadium atmosphere of late as temperate, polite, and often quiet. Moments before kickoff, with the Dropkick Murphy's blaring across the walls, the feel inside the House that Rockne Built was electric, almost oppressive from my initial vantage point; the vast majority of the revelers located above.
Then the team's started blocking and tackling, and from 14:35 in first quarter to 10:10 in the second, the home crowd had nothing to cheer.
"Usually good teams don't do well in the beginning of games in this type of environment," said USC head coach Lane Kiffin. The Trojans were nearly perfect, scoring two touchdowns on 128 yards and 19 snaps. "I thought the crowd was awesome tonight, they were electric," Kiffin said. "The crowd was more electric than the times I was here before, even 2005." (Note: Easy, tiger...).
The 8.5-point favorite hosts managed two drive and six snaps that didn't end in punts.
Deflation, levity, and momentary elationA near half-stadium trip to the USC/ND border offered a far better view and far less fervor – Irish fans sitting for the bulk of the uneventful second quarter, rarely catching the roving, wide eyes of giddy USC fans celebrating their early dominance.
Notre Dame fans have generally needed a reason to cheer. Brian Kelly's squad gave them none through 20 game minutes en route to a 17-0 deficit. The Pac-12 officials, on the other hand, did.
"Timeout, UCLA," said referee Land Clark, eliciting derisive cheers from most in attendance. Sophomoric humor aside, with 3:22 my seat mate decided to do what all dejected Irish fans do as the half approaches – beat the crowd for a pit stop. Notre Dame freshman kick returner George Atkinson made him pay, reenergizing the flattened crowd with a 96-yard kick return score into the corner of the student section.
A defensive stop, a 68-yard Irish drive, and a field goal later, Notre Dame headed to the break down by just a score, 17-10 despite just two rushing yards on three carries.
"You can precisely (point out) the times we got in good rhythm, we were running the ball in the third quarter and were very effective in mixing things up. Early on, we didn't get in that kind of rhythm because we got down 14-0, started throwing the ball.
Those early failures served as a portent heading into the break.
The Press Box PallAn odd dynamic strikes Notre Dame's usually professional press box when USC comes to town. People: writers, workers, hangers-on…they all, cheer. Or gasp, or critique with running, audible commentary.
Aside from the requisite "ohhh" when backup quarterback Dayne Crist fumbled a snap at the shadow of the Irish goal, then stumbled in his attempt to recover the seemingly slippery pigskin, few media members raised more than an eyebrow when Trojans safety Jawanza Starling scooped up rolling miscue 18 yards later and returned it (officially) 80 yards.
"He was going to fake it to the back and throw a pop back to the tight end," Kelly said of the odd series that saw each of Notre Dame's three quarterbacks play (due largely to a knee injury from which starter Tommy Rees later returned.)
After Rees injury, it was Crist who moved the Irish half the field to set up 1st and Goal; third-string Andrew Hendrix (a dual-threat) who nearly breeched the Trojans goal, then Crist returned for what could be his final play in an Irish uniform – the full-field fumble and subsequent 14-point swing that saw a 17-10 edge turn into a commanding 24-10 advantage.
19 plays, 71 yards, 7 points the other way.
Ball game…but with a quarter remaining.
"To turn the ball over in the ridiculous fashion that we have," Kelly said in reference to the second crippling full-field touchdown return of the season vs. his Irish. "I just – just makes me crazy. In terms of," he stammered, "I just don't understand how something so easy can come out the way it does."
ResignationMy fourth quarter on the field offered one memorable scene: after Notre Dame's only offensive touchdown, a 25-yard run by senior Jonas Gray cut the score to 24-17, the revitalized crowd – one that collectively took a shot to the gut just 1:06 earlier – responded rightly to Metallica's Enter Sandman as the Irish kick-off team took the field: waving their (then)-prized towel souvenirs wildly – bouncing and dancing for the roving sidelines cameras in anticipation of an Irish Moment that has eluded the school for the better part of the Millennium.
It was the exact moment Kelly and Swarbrick (and James Hetfield, I suppose) envisioned with the first step of piped in music to aid the crowd's cause.
Any momentum gained was quashed shortly thereafter: two Notre Dame turnovers – No.'s 17 and 18 on the season through seven games – applied the final nail in the coffin; the South Bend celebration ruined by the still-potent Men of Troy.
Rarely capable of passing on a wide-open jab, Kiffin noted. "The night added to it," he said of the game atmosphere "All the energy, and playing the music when we were at the line of scrimmage when we were on offense really helped us a lot."
Speaking of which: kudos to the standard stadium choices that highlighted the debut of the new sound system: Welcome to the Jungle, Enter Sandman, Seven Nation Army, Shipping off to Boston, and of course Crazy Train…actually, maybe there's a bug or two to work out.
(Note to those in charge of firing up the previously staid crowd: Not every 3rd-and-1 situation calls for Ozzy Osbourne to scream "ALL ABOAAAAARD"…the baseline and drums will suffice to bring the crowd to its feet.)
But the music for the most part added to the prime time experience. The towels gave non-students – long the root cause of the Stadium's low decibel level – a common bond; a reason to stand up and attempt to intimidate rather than observe the foe.
And a Jumbo Tron is next, of that I'm certain, as Notre Dame's scoreboards have already joined the masses posting various cheesy slogans such as "Wave Them Towels" and "Stand up and Cheer!"
(Consider ND's current scoreboards to be the equivalent of your kitchen television, relatively speaking.)
With the 31-17 defeat, Notre Dame's season-end dreams will once again not come to fruition – there'll be no BCS Bowl berth. Their immediate goal will be to survive Hell Week, courtesy Brian Kelly.
"I told our guys, ‘Listen, every time we try to take a step forward, we seem to want to take one step back. I'm not going to tolerate it," he said. "It's not going to be pretty this week in practice. If we have to go back and tackle every day, we'll tackle every day; because they know how I feel about the way we played."
Up next for Kelly's Irish: Navy – three score conquerors of the Irish last year and winners of three of the series last four.
After the inevitable letdown that follows USC week and an ugly loss to boot, Notre Dame fans are going to again need a reason to cheer next Saturday.
It's up to Kelly and his middling Irish to provide it.