Posted: Sunday October 16, 2005 10:10PM; Updated: Monday October 17, 2005 11:24AM
Friday, 2:15 p.m. The GameDay set is located between the north end zone entrance of the stadium and the Touchdown Jesus mosaic. Austin and I walk a few steps over to the stadium entrance, where a flash mob has appeared to, ahem, welcome the Trojans for their walk-thru. The Trojans navigate the rowdy Irish students, some of whom hold up posters of O.J.Simpson's mugshot.
"WE ARE ND! WE ARE ND!" the students shout. The prospect of tomorrow's USC game, today's sublime weather, the rumors circulating that either Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi (or both) will appear at tonight's pep rally, and, finally, the comfort of knowing that next week is fall break (no classes) has them extra pumped up.
The Trojans players, no strangers to hype, mostly smile or raise index fingers skyward. Defensive end Frostee Rucker simply allows, "Guess they don't like us."
Inside Notre Dame Stadium the Trojans get their first feel of the turf. It is long. How long? The last time I saw anything approaching foliage this long associated with sports, Shoeless Joe Jackson was bidding adieu to RayKinsella.
"They gonna cut this before tomorrow?" LenDale White asks administrative advisor Terrel Ray.
"Hell no," Ray replies, laughing.
You have to love the Trojans. They are loo-oo-oose. On the northern third of the field, the linemen engage in a football game that has one hard and fast rule: You must walk. No running or even sauntering allowed. Pete Carroll himself officiates.
"No good," he barks, crossing his arms in the "incomplete" gesture to nullify a touchdown pass. "Ball back here."
Friday, 2:45 p.m. We say a quick hello to GameDay's Chris Fowler, who is looking especially buff in the biceps. BradyQuinn-buff. Chris looks as if he wants to strap on the pads tomorrow. Being the font of info that he is, Chris tells us something we didn't know: "Did you know that if Notre Dame loses tomorrow, it'll be their fourth straight home loss? They've never lost four in a row at home."
I did not know that.
Friday, 3:15 p.m. Over a less-than deafening din of "Who are they?", Austin and I do our appearance on Classic Now from the GameDay set. Fowler can sleep easy tonight. Heck, Tim Cowlishaw can sleep easy tonight.
Friday, 4:30 p.m. I have cajoled, inveigled, flat-out tricked Austin into visiting the Notre Dame Bookstore with me. Picture Wal-Mart or Target at noon on Christmas eve and that's the ND bookstore right now. But it's all worth it. Why? Because Austin and I spot a celebrity recording artist. The Boss? Bon Jove? Regis?
Nope. Marvin Hamlisch. We kid you not.
"You think he's playing the pep rally tonight?" I ask.
"I'm just wondering if he's still got a thing going with Cyndy Garvey," Austin replies.
Friday, 6:30 p.m. More than 40,000 people fill the western side of Notre Dame Stadium for the pep rally. A microphone and podium is set up at midfield and Daniel"Rudy"Ruettiger takes the helm as master of ceremonies.
I look a Austin. "That's, like, the second time he's been on that turf."
Springsteen and Bon Jovi fail to show, but ND legends Joe Montana, Tim Brown and Chris Zorich speak. Montana's the only guy on the field with as many rings as Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis; Brown's the most recent Heisman Trophy winner and likely to someday join Montana in the NFL Hall of Fame. Zorich may seem like the odd man out, but not to me. Nobody played harder -- or meaner -- for this school in my lifetime.
Finally, Weis speaks. He reminds the crowd what he said when he was introduced during halftime of a basketball game last February: "'On October 15, when that team from California comes in here, I hope they're undefeated', "Well, they are."
Friday, 7:30 p.m. The first sign that the Fighting Irrelevance, 11-point underdogs tomorrow, may have a chance: I skulk up to the Notre Dame sports info office to bogart some Internet time and happen upon the athletic director's reception. Whom do I see? Jesus!
You heard me! Okay, not the actual "Son of Man", but the guy who played him in the movie: Jim Caviezel. Apparently, the star of The Passion of the Christ was touched by Coach Weis's gesture toward the boy who was dying of cancer (he called the boy's play for him against Washington, one day after he passed away) a few weeks back and wanted to meet him.
Okay, so whether or not Notre Dame has God on its side may depend upon your brand of faith, but they definitely have "The Guy Who Plays Him in the Movie" on their side.
Saturday, 12:30 p.m. Fellow SI.com and SI On Campus wordsmith Arash Markazi joins our tailgater. Arash is a USC alum and a good friend and our relationship illustrates how the rivalry between Notre Dame and USC is a case of "When Opposites Attract". Arash and I could not be more different:
Arash is young. I am old.
Arash is Persian. I am Caucasian.
He says Sa-MEER-ja. I say Sa-MAR-ja.
Arash pulls out his Sidekick and checks email and updated college football scores. I'm still having trouble text-messaging "I LUV U" to Cyndy Garvey.
"Good luck today, buddy," Arash says. Seriously, I love Arash. He's so cute, so friendly. And he's the only person under 25 who gets my Carson (Johnny, not Daly ... or Kressley) references.
Saturday, The Game
You saw it. By now you have read all about it. A few observations from someone who stood in Section 131, Row 24:
The awesomeness of Reggie Bush cannot be overstated. As Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart previously secured their Heisman campaigns with masterful performances against the Fighting Irrelevance, so too did Bush on Saturday. At least in my eyes. Plus, he is at his most dangerous when he reverses field.
I was at the last game when Notre Dame welcomed a No. 1 team, September 11, 2000, against Nebraska. Although that Fighting Irrelevance squad also gave the visitors a scare (the Cornhuskers won in overtime), the vibe for that game was completely different. First, many Notre Dame ticketholders had sold their tickets to Nebraska acolytes. The stadium was a sea of red that day, and the Huskers fans definitely made more noise. Not on Saturday. While the Trojans were well-represented, the Irrelevance fans, led by a student section filled with kids who could have already gone home for fall break if they wished, were as loud as I've ever heard them.
I cannot recall a single successful USC rushing play that was not run to the left. Correct that, I remember one: Bush's 22-yard scamper. But that play began to the left and when ND overpursued, Bush reversed field and headed right.
Leinart's fourth-down audible may be the gutsiest and most memorable play in the history of Notre Dame Stadium.
Speaking of which, it was 357 days ago in South Bend when Notre Dame's four-game home losing streak began. On that afternoon, the Irrelevance also had the visitors, then Boston College, on the ropes late in the fourth quarter. The Eagles faced a fourth-and-13 late in the final period with the game on the line. BC quarterback Paul Peterson completed the play, but anyone who saw both games witnessed a wide disparity in the level of cohesion and coordination with which the Irrelevance responded to that crisis as opposed to today's.
Speaking of which, How many sportswriters last December, while castigating Notre Dame for firing Ty Willingham, made mention of the fact that the Fighting Irrelevance no longer are able to attract the elite athlete to South Bend? That it was asking too much of any coach to expect him to succeed there? With the exception of David Grimes and Asaph Schwaap (both playing minor roles on offense), every one who suited up in the green jerseys and got some playing time Saturday was on this team last year, too.
You may not agree with how the Willingham-Weis transition was made. And this is by no means saying that the end justifies the means (if you don't), but, to borrow a quote from Big Ten officials, "We now have indisputable video evidence" that a dearth of talent was not the problem in South Bend.
The best part of the game? Besides the perfect autumn weather, the mood-enhancing full moon, the herculean efforts on both sides that already have sportswriters musing as to whether it was the best college football game they'd ever seen? The best part of the game is that nobody lost it. The refs didn't blow it. The coaches didn't blow it. Certainly the players did not. No goat to be found. From Quinn's stretch toward paydirt to Leinart's touchdown tango minutes later, every big play (I'd be remiss if I failed to include TomZbikowski's punt return or Jarrett's catch) was more about heroics than about ignominy.
Someone had to lose. But nobody who was at Notre Dame Stadium, from the players to the coaches to the bands to the fans, should have any regrets. I know I don't.