On the first Saturday in November, Tom Seeberg found himself watching part of Notre Dame's comeback victory over Pittsburgh with his son, the first time they have watched a game since Lizzy's death. He was not enthralled by the victory and no longer charmed by the traditions. His son once had a PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION poster, but that's been taken down. Here, as the cameras focused on students singing Notre Dame's alma mater, he felt himself tearing up, knowing that his girl would have been sitting in the seats. But instead she was gone.
WINNING AS FULFILLMENT
One afternoon last summer Notre Dame players were slogging through an overheated session of preseason conditioning. Te'o (right) called them together. "You feel that pain?" he said to his teammates. "It's gonna be gone in a day. It might be gone in a couple hours. That loss to Michigan [35--31 the previous September]? I still feel that pain today. So do the preparation now." A few days later the Irish worked so hard in the heat that strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo told them to skip the weightlifting session. Nearly all of the players lifted anyway.
The Year Three Phenomenon notwithstanding (Parseghian and Holtz each went unbeaten in their third seasons), Notre Dame's re-emergence has been a surprise. The Irish were ranked 24th in the preseason coaches' poll and did not make AP's preseason Top 25. The staff of the campus Observer compiled predictions before Week 1 and none had the Irish better than 9--3. Now they are 11--0 and maybe it's truly the fruit of all that summer's work. It's also a mix of underrecognized talent, a world-class defense, a wiry redshirt freshman quarterback on a steep learning curve and, it must be said, a healthy dose of very good fortune.
Much of the roster was recruited by Weis, 11 starters in all, though several have matured into solid players only under Kelly. An NFL executive who attended a November game was asked if the Irish have good players. "A boatload of talent," he said, and then ticked off several names. "Best tight end in the draft [Eifert], Te'o is a first-round guy who might struggle a little in space, but he's good, finds the ball. The left tackle [Martin] does a great job. They look more like football players, physically, than they did with Charlie."
The Irish have allowed just 10.1 points per game, tied for best in the nation with Alabama. In their signature win, 30--13 over Oklahoma, they held the Sooners to 15 yards on the ground. Oregon would not score 60 on this bunch; Johnny Manziel would not run wild. The offense has forced Notre Dame to win ugly. It ranks 50th in total offense and 71st in passing efficiency. That falls on Everett Golson, a 6-foot, 185-pound quarterback from Myrtle Beach, S.C., whose offensive system in high school was, according to Kelly, "Drop back, look around, make something happen," and who is now trying to guide a major college attack.
Kelly pulled Golson just before halftime of the Pittsburgh struggle and replaced him with junior Tommy Rees, but Golson led the fourth-quarter comeback that kept Notre Dame's unbeaten season alive. A week later he was solid against Boston College, completing 16 of 24 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns, without a pick. Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said, "They're trying to win with an offense that's adjusting to a young quarterback. They struggle with that sometimes." Come spring, they're preparing to do something else, by opening up the quarterback job to competition, including freshman Gunner Kiel, who was highly recruited. "I hope we always have somebody breathing down Everett's neck," says Kelly. "You'll never hear me say somebody is secure." Surely Golson is a little more secure after throwing for 346 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Wake Forest. Everett Football, anyone?
The charm of the autumn in South Bend is no better measured than by the good luck three times afforded Notre Dame during the season. On Oct. 13 Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor appeared to stretch the ball into the end zone to score a tying touchdown in overtime (assuming the extra point was successful), but officials ruled Taylor had been stopped and inexplicably did not reverse the call on review, preserving a 20--13 Notre Dame win that sent the Irish to 6--0. Three weeks later in the Pittsburgh win, a desperate fourth-quarter drive was extended by a terrible fourth-down pass interference call on Pitt. In the overtime, when Pitt senior Kevin Harper missed a 38-yard field goal that would have won the game, Notre Dame had two uniform number 2s on the field. It should have been a penalty on Notre Dame that gave Harper another shot from five yards closer, but it wasn't called.
Te'o hadn't heard of the double deuces even three days later, and when told by a reporter, his eyes widened and he said, "We did! Chris Brown went out there. Oh, man. Oh, man. I'm glad they didn't catch that. It would have been bad." Te'o, the leader and the soul of the Irish in an autumn for the ages, threw his arms behind his head. "The Lord," he said, "works in mysterious ways." Of course, that is one explanation that always works here.