With this post, we begin a weekly series that will take us up to the 2012 season. In each post, we will recount two defining moments from the last 25 seasons in Notre Dame football history, starting in the present and working back to 1987, when the Irish went 8 and 4 under 2nd-year head coach Lou Holtz before heading into their last undefeated season in 1988, their eleventh and last national championship.
The occasion for this series is the 125th anniversary of the Notre Dame football program in 2012. The last 25 years, on which we will focus, have seen Notre Dame rise with dominance to the top of the football world and plunge to what many have called irrelevance, to the losingest four-year period in school history from 2007-2010 and to a time when Notre Dame is struggling to regain its identity, cast its roots again in the fundamentals of the game, in true talent and depth and excellence, and learn how to win consistently week after week, season after season.
And while we look forward, hoping, even with confidence, that the Irish under Coach Brian Kelly are indeed on that arduous path back towards sustained success, we look back now over some of those moments that have defined Notre Dame football over the past 25 years.
1. October 27th, 2010. Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan tragically falls to his death while filming the Irish football practice.
Late in the afternoon on a very windy Wednesday, October 27th, 2010, the Irish football team was at practice on the LaBar Practice Fields when an "extraordinary" gust of wind, recorded at 53 miles per hour, "rocked the practice field and blew equipment, boxes, footballs, clothing and debris across the turf," as Kerry Temple recounts it. Seeing the hydraulic scissor lifts from which three student videographers filmed practice sway, "coaches and trainers . . . yelled, ‘Get down!'"
One of the lifts, stretched 40 feet in the air and manned by 20-year old junior Declan Sullivan of Long Grove, Illinois, tipped and toppled over a fence and into the street dividing the fields from the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. Staff and coaches, and at least one player, hurried to Declan's side. Emergency personnel arrived and rushed Declan to Memorial Hospital two and half miles away. Declan, "a driven, passionate young man who always had a smile on his face," tragically passed away that evening.
This enormous tragedy struck the Notre Dame community deeply - Declan's family, his friends and classmates, his teachers, and all those he touched in his too-brief life.
Because of how and when and where he lost his life, Declan's tragedy also struck Notre Dame football deeply.
The autumn of 2010 had been both exciting and hard on the Notre Dame football team. This was Brian Kelly's first season as head football coach for the Irish. The team labored to learn Kelly's ways; to recover after the disappointments of the previous year, when they ended with four straight losses, all within 7 points, after going 6-2; to succeed with a young, inexperienced quarterback at the helm himself recovering from injury. Just over halfway through the 2010 season, with a 4-3 record, the Irish were decimated by Navy and fell to a disappointing 4-4. The team was plagued by injuries.
Then, just days after their return from East Rutherford, that hydraulic scissor lift toppled from the practice field and Declan died.
When the Irish took the field to play Tulsa in Notre Dame Stadium just three days later, each player wore a green shamrock decal on his helmet with "DS" inscribed in the center. The team stood with its coaches and the crowd, 80,000-strong, for a moment of silence; Father Jenkins led all in prayer.
Then the game began, and it ended, and Notre Dame had lost.
They paused with only four wins on the season, with just three games left to go, including contests against 15th-ranked Utah and USC, and with little confidence that going to a bowl game was even possible. Their starting quarterback was on crutches, lost to injury along with Kyle Rudolph, Armando Allen, and Ian Williams. The program, the team, seemed to bend under the enormous weight of so much unexpected loss.
On November 1st, the New York Post ran an article titled "Sad Times for Kelly, Notre Dame." There, Lenn Robbins began, "There have been some dark days of late at Notre Dame . . . . But never has there been a week like this. And, pray to whatever deity in which you believe, there will never be another week like this." At One Foot Down, Whiskey wondered over "what could just be the worst 7 day period in Notre Dame football history," asking "is this the bottom?"
At that bottom in 2010, the loss of Declan Sullivan outweighed all else. It shaped that weary moment at the heart of Brian Kelly's first season in South Bend, and we wondered whether and how the Irish would rise out of it.
2. November 13th, 2010. Cornerback Robert Blanton blocks a punt and runs it in for a touchdown in the first quarter of Notre Dame's 28-3 victory over 15th-ranked Utah.
Rising out of those three tumultuous weeks from the Navy game to the final home game on November 13th, the Irish marched onto their home field once again, the odds stacked perilously against them.
They faced the Utah Utes, a team ranked 15th in the country and averaging 41 points per game on offense. The Irish defense was then ranked 79th nationally against the run and 80th against the pass. The Utes were 8 and 1 and had held opponents to an average of just 14 points per game outside of a single crushing loss to undefeated, Rose Bowl-bound TCU. The Irish ranked 100th in the country in rushing offense going into this game. True freshman Tommy Rees was making his first start at quarterback.
Against Utah, the Irish were down starters Dayne Crist, Armando Allen, T.J. Jones, Theo Riddick, Kyle Rudolph, Ian Williams, and Carlo Calabrese - at that point in the season, their starting QB, top rusher and top punt returner, top 3 pass-catchers after Michael Floyd, starting nose tackle and middle linebacker, plus an outside linebacker (Anthony McDonald) and a safety (Dan McCarthy) who had played in almost every game in 2010. In the days before the game, OFD's Eric Murtaugh wrote warily, "We're approaching miracle victory territory I believe, with so many star players out of the lineup."
The seniors in the stands that night had seen more losses at home in their 4 years than any students in ND history, and the senior class on the field had lost 26 games in their 4 years in the Irish uniform, making theirs the losingest 4-year stretch in Notre Dame football history.
The Irish had not scored on special teams or defense all season long. They hadn't scored on special teams or defense since a punt returned against Pitt on November 14th, 2009. They hadn't scored on special teams or defense outside of that punt return and a kickoff return in the 2008 Hawaii bowl since a blocked punt against Navy on November 15th, 2008.
The Irish hadn't won a game at home in November since 2007. They hadn't won a game over a ranked opponent since 2006. They hadn't beaten a ranked opponent as an unranked team since 1997.
Every preceding loss in 2010 had been bitter for the Irish: leads surrendered in the final seconds against Michigan and Michigan State; unexpectedly bruising beatings from Stanford and Navy; defeat snatched from the jaws of victory against Tulsa.
Everyone was certain that Utah would trounce the weary Irish.
Then the game began.
The Irish offense stumbled through their first three drives, gaining 9 yards in 4 plays on their opening possession, then punting the ball away after a 3-play, 5-yard second drive (all penalty yards) and a 3-play, 0-yard drive after that. Rees was 1-4 for 3 yards; Cierre Wood had gained just 9 yards on 5 carries.
Then the Utes, with three points on the board, began their 3rd drive at their own 13; they worked up to their 25 and a pass fell incomplete on 3rd and 8. The punt team took the field.
Robert Blanton ran towards the hapless Utah punter entirely unblocked. He knocked the ball to the ground and scooped it up, in stride, as he streaked across the field, confusion behind him. Clasping the ball to his chest, Blanton ran into the end zone for a touchdown, and the score was 6-3, Notre Dame. The crowd erupted.
Utah never re-gained their lead. Utah never gained another point that night. The game ended, and Notre Dame had won. They had won by almost four touchdowns.
The Notre Dame team that took the field against Utah was changed, was reinvigorated and fierce. The Irish defense held Utah to a season-low 265 total yards and just 71 yards rushing on 29 carries. Until the score was 28-3 well into the 3rd quarter, the Irish defense allowed Utah no drives longer than their first of 24 yards. They stood the Utes up at the Irish 6 and again at the 12.
And though the Irish held the ball for 10 minutes fewer than the Utes; though they had fewer first downs, fewer passing yards, half as many passing attempts, 11 fewer completions, and fewer total yards than the Utes; though they punted 6 times and converted only 2 of 10 3rd down attempts; the Irish won that game. They scored when they were in the red zone, they didn't turn the ball over once, they forced three turnovers, special teams made game-changing plays, and most importantly, the Irish put points on the board and kept the Utes out of their end zone. What though the odds.
After the game, Coach Kelly remarked on the path his team had travelled: "Through the last three weeks, we certainly have had a great deal of adversity that we've had to overcome together as a group. In those times, to steal a quote from Coach Parseghian, adversity elicits traits sometimes that we didn't think we ever had."
In 2010, with this cathartic and entirely unexpected triumph over Utah, the Irish somehow recovered. The defense became one of the strongest and stingiest in the country, allowing only 3 touchdowns in the year's final 4 games, 2 of which came when the Irish were up 30-3 against Miami in the final quarter of the season. The Irish would go on to defeat Army and USC and Miami. They would end with a 4-game winning streak and a forgotten kind of hope.
And no turning point is clearer than that victory over Utah - no moment more defining of that shift than Robert Blanton's blocked punt and touchdown to turn the game - and the season - towards the Irish.