Religious experience gone bad

SOUTH BEND -- Given to superstition and desperate for some explanation to Saturday's calamity watched round the nation, it seems easily as plausible as anything that came out of the post-game locker rooms to ascribe the Cougar giveaway to the irreverent Wazzu fan sitting high up in section 117 of Notre Dame Stadium.

For it was he -- with the Cougars leading 19-0 -- who ordained linebacker Will Derting "the Lamb of God."

He could have said the sophomore from Okanogan is the second-coming of Dick Butkus, whose number (51) and style of play (bone jarring), Derting mimics quite nicely. But instead, right there in the face of Touchdown Jesus, and within earshot of a brave Spokane priest who chose to pull for Notre Dame amid a sea of crimson shirts, Derting was proclaimed to be from on high.

While many a Cougar fan --- and perhaps Carlyle Holiday, too --- would agree with that assessment, saying it out loud in a place that sits maybe half-a-mile from The Grotto seems akin to putting out the welcome mat for bad karma. For ye unwashed, The Grotto is a solemn spot where hundreds of candles, all lit in the name of faith, burn in a cave identical to the one in France where the Virgin Mary --- as in THE Virgin Mary -- appeared 135 years ago.

Talk about holy. This really is the Mother lode.

Now add to the mix the phrase emblazoned on the most popular t-shirt spotted in the Cougar parts of the stadium --- "The Pope is a Coug" --- and you have a recipe for a karmatic disaster of Biblical proportions.

And that's pretty near what transpired. For the series of events that brought the Irish back from oblivion to overtime victory seemed so improbable as to have been divined by a higher authority.

Higher certainly than the officiating crew, which played a controversial role in the outcome (and, contrary to popular opinion, was not staffed by the Holy Cross Fathers).

Higher, too, than the considerable second half decibel level that no doubt contributed to some of the Cougars' stifling false start and illegal formation miscues.

Higher even than the octane coursing through the veins of Irish players who refused to surrender despite a good ol' fashioned first-half fanny kicking that saw them go into intermission with the largest halftime deficit a Notre Dame team has seen at home since 1980.

WSU was so dominating for most of the game's first 30 minutes that the 4,900 Cougar partisans who traveled here ignored the telltale signs of pending doom --- a missed PAT, two possessions inside the five that yielded but a field goal each, a big kickoff return by Vontez Duff --- to express gratitude that destiny was on their side in this first-in-a-lifetime match up.

The Domers seemed resigned to a loss for only the 18th time in 114 home openers.

Yes indeed. The story line was shaping up like a Hollywood script: Wise old coach, finally the top cat, returns to his birthplace, the cradle of the game itself, and serves notice to the nation that he and his team belong at center stage.

Whether the Vatican or The Virgin Mary knew that the Cougars and Fighting Irish were squaring off is anybody's guess. So too is the power John Paul II may or may not have in communicating upstairs on such matters and, similarly, Mary's in going the other direction to effect change.

But facts are facts: If the second half of Saturday's game was converted into Swiss cheese, the Cougars somehow managed to toss the slices in a way that every hole lined up for the Irish. While not pretty in the least, Tyrone's lads came charging through, one personal foul, false start, missed tackle and underthrown ball at a time.

It was hard to believe the team that built the 19-0 lead was the same one that turned the second half into an excruciating march to infamy. Last year's Apple Cup giveaway was torture. This somehow seemed worse.

Drew Dunning missing a 35-yarder in overtime? Given his flawless crunch-time work last year against USC and Washington you'd have thought it impossible.

What about Holiday's fourth fumble of the day? D.D. Acholonu recovered it, plain as day. But he tried to scoop it up rather than fall on it, giving Holiday just enough room to sneak an arm in and grab it away. Two plays later he tosses his first TD pass since the Nixon Administration and suddenly it's 19-16.

How many Notre Dame possessions stalled, only to be revived by a WSU personal foul?

Conversely, how many Cougar possessions died tantalizingly close to the first down marker. Make two of 'em, or even one, and how does the complexion of the game change? How much more rest would it have afforded the blasting and blitzing WSU defense?

The wouldas, couldas and shouldas go on and on and on.

A game which truly could have been a blow out turned into death by a hundred little cuts -- most of them self-inflicted.

How do you explain that?

This thing was epic. Penalties, conservative play calling, bad kicks, you name it. All contributed to the meltdown. But just how could all those things have happened, in just the right sequence, in one half of football?

And to think a nifty two-minute drill orchestrated by Matt Kegel and capped by Sammy Moore's remarkable TD catch, was thrown in -- in hindsight, almost cruelly so -- for good measure.

It boggles the mind.

Maybe the answer to it all can be found in Florida, where the Gators blew a 23-point lead Saturday night to lose to Miami.

Maybe it's as simple as the football gods not appreciating that Cougar hat perched on top of beloved old coach Leahy's bronzed head outside the B entrance.

Or maybe the answer is more ethereal -- found somewhere way north of section 117 in a place only Touchdown Jesus can see.

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