I remember the first time I cried as a Kentucky basketball fan. The 2009-10 Wildcats lost to West Virginia in the Elite Eight on a night where seemingly nothing went right (a 4-32 three-point shooting performance sunk any chance at a win).
I’m old and withered with cares enough to no longer cry at a sports team loss as a fan. But deep down in my soul, the little kid in me is once again sobbing his eyes out on the comforter in his bedroom.
That one hurts. It really hurts. Not as much as it’s going to once the disbelief fades, because it’s obvious that Notre Dame should have won that game in any number of ways.
Sam should’ve reached for the first down.
Spencer should’ve hit the field goal.
DJ should’ve intercepted two passes, one of which could have sealed the game.
Xavier and Thomas should’ve reeled in that fluttering ball they only managed to tip.
Benjamin should’ve made an All-American play and intercepted one ball thrown his way.
Sam shouldn’t have kept the ball on first-and-ten and taken a sack when they needed to stay on schedule and run clock.
A lot of should haves and should have nots. In a battle between heavyweights, it comes down to winning moments, and Notre Dame lost more than they won. To be sure, they won some, specifically two fourth-down stops in the red zone for a defense that was atrocious in red zone defense last season.
They just needed one more. And they left the left side of the offensive line open just enough for a last-second score.
As has become a recurring theme in big time games where the Irish have fallen just short, it was the offense that came up lacking. The defense did more than its fair share to win the game. But once again, it wasn’t enough.
2022 Ohio State.
2023 Ohio State.
We can dissect Gerad Parker’s playcalling — inexplicable as it was at times — and the use of various personnel, or the lack of use in the case of Audric Estime. But at a certain point, even after bringing in the heralded Messiah Sam Hartman to resurrect the Irish, we have to ask if Notre Dame’s roots are dug too deep to evolve with college football.
Times have changed in this sport. Offense is the name of the game now. That’s what wins big games and championships. But all Irish fans know all too well that times change and Notre Dame doesn’t.
The last time Notre Dame was at the forefront of college football innovation was when Knute Rockne invented the forward pass. Ever since then they’ve tried to do things the Notre Dame way. That worked for a long time. It hasn’t for the last 30 years.
Notre Dame won that 1988 Catholics vs. Convicts game against Miami on a last-second pass-breakup on a two-point conversion.
Notre Dame won that 1993 Game of the Century against Florida State on a batted down pass at the goal line.
But Notre Dame couldn’t make that defensive play against USC in 2005, and it couldn’t make it against Ohio State on Saturday night, as valiant an effort as the Irish put forth.
We’re all aware of the inherent “disadvantages” to winning at Notre Dame, the institutional characteristics that make it more difficult. The Irish were always going to need to catch a few breaks to be able to get back to the heights of college football. They got one when Hartman — who would be out of collegiate eligibility but-for the COVID-19 waiver — transferred in. They had several opportunities to catch a break against Ohio State and they let them slip through their fingers, hamstringing Hartman and trusting that the defense would save the day like it did in days of old. Turns out times change.
Notre Dame’s 2023 College Football Playoff hopes aren’t dead, but the outlook is pretty dire. Georgia is a virtual lock and Florida State might as well be after a win at Clemson. It would be just Notre Dame’s luck if this is the year that Texas actually is back, because there goes another spot. At that point, you have to hope and pray that the Big Ten East and Pac-12 eat themselves alive to open up that fourth spot.
That Notre Dame’s reality, all because of a few more missed opportunity. For each of them, my inner child gently weeps.