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Football: It was ugly, but it was a win

Ken Fowler | Monday, October 8, 2007

LOS ANGELES – Notre Dame’s offense is in shambles. The offensive line needs seven or eight men in protection to stop a rush, and open receivers are a rarity. The running backs haven’t established proficiency with any consistency; rushes of a yard or two are a welcome change from the all-too-familiar scene of a defender stuffing a tailback for a loss. And Jimmy Clausen is painfully slow going through his reads, missing wide-open safety valves underneath while staring down wide outs.

But, on this Saturday night, none of that mattered.

On this Saturday night, the entire team sprinted from end zone to end zone after the game, even if the starting 11 couldn’t move but a yard or two at a time during the game.

On this Saturday night, a 14-point difference at the end of the ugliest of football games morphed into a beautiful celebration of unbridled enthusiasm for the Irish. A run to one end of the field, to one of two packed and proud cheering sections, and then 120-some-odd yards to the other side of the Rose Bowl for a little more reveling, a little more smiling.

For a team that seemed for five weeks like it had forgotten how to win, Notre Dame sure remembered how to celebrate.

“It’s easy after a win to feel good for yourself, but I tell you what, just looking at the joy in that locker room, it’s been a long time since they got a chance to sing that fight song,” Weis said. “… I really feel happy for them tonight.”

The Irish offense can thank the defense, which caused its own luck, for the joy. Corwin Brown rattled UCLA quarterback Ben Olson with the inside blitzes everyone was expecting all season but had barely seen. With Olson struggling at 4-for-10 and out because of an injury, the Bruins had to bring in walk-on third-stringer McLeod Bethel-Thompson because veteran quarterback Patrick Cowan has a knee injury.

The Irish created six turnovers – including four interceptions – with Bethel-Thompson in, and thus Notre Dame’s defense handed the team its first win since Brady Quinn’s final home game. The last time the Irish celebrated a victory, Notre Dame was still dreaming about a shot at the national championship. The Irish figured they could earn a berth in the BCS title game if they took care of business the next week against USC.

Boy, how times have changed.

Eight games and a single win later, Notre Dame’s chances at any bowl game are little more than a pipe dream. The 1-5 Irish must win this week against No. 4 Boston College or on Oct. 20 against the Trojans, incredibly talented but incredibly underperforming, to become bowl eligible.

Then again, the latter would be fitting.

Within seconds of Mark Bradford’s game-deciding touchdown catch, 78,543 spectators in Pasadena – fans of UCLA and Notre Dame alike – joined in a celebration, knowing that 41-point underdog Stanford was about to beat the rival of both schools.

And who could blame them?

ESPN Radio’s Los Angeles affiliate began its USC pre-game before 9 a.m. – for a 4 p.m. kickoff. Seven hours of blabber about how USC should focus exclusively on the interior running game – because, the hosts said, the Trojans were going to win 50-3 or 56-0 – gets more than a tad monotonous. The lack of any UCLA-Notre Dame talk during the pre-game buffoonery might also have rubbed a few people the wrong way.

And it was right about when John David Booty threw his fourth interception of the night that no-longer Michigan Man Jim Harbaugh turned the kingship of football in Los Angeles over to the Notre Dame defense.

Within seconds of Bradford’s score, Crum ripped the ball out of Kahlil Bell’s hands. The Irish didn’t capitalize on that turnover, but they pinned UCLA at its own 1 – and two plays later, David Bruton’s interception set up a mighty three-play, two-yard touchdown drive.

Smoke and mirrors? More like throwing gasoline on a burning house and running behind the flames.

On a night when Notre Dame’s longest scoring drive was a fumble recovery for a touchdown, on a night when the offense’s longest drive to put points on the board went 29 yards in 13 baffling plays and on a night when college football’s schizophrenic season reached the Southland, that’s A-OK for ND. The Irish were the beneficiary and the victor.

On that kind of a night, an ugly win is all you can ask for.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Ken Fowler at kfowler1@nd.edu