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Celebrating the end of a nine-year drought

Bill Brink | Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Click here to view a slideshow of images from the game
The mix of emotions on the field after Notre Dame’s 49-21 win over Hawai’i in the Hawai’i Bowl on Dec. 24 stretched from bewildered to jubilant to comic.

And who can blame them? The players had just ended a nine-bowl game losing streak in a convincing fashion.

The bewildered: quarterback Jimmy Clausen, whose 401 yards passing and five touchdowns in about three quarters of play electrified Notre Dame’s offense. He walked around with the giant Sheraton Hawai’i Bowl trophy with a confused look on his face, shouting, “Where do you want me to put this?” to no one in particular. Whether he was bewildered by his strong performance or the fact that he got stuck with the heavy trophy was anyone’s guess.

The jubilant: pretty much everybody else. As soon as the final whistle sounded, senior safety David Bruton screamed, “I’m free! I’m on longer Irish.” Running back Armando Allen donned the leprechaun’s hat, and Bruton waved the Irish flag.

Defensive back Sergio Brown, disappointed with his view of the celebration, hopped on freshman Mike Golic Jr.’s shoulders. “I come to Hawai’i to do two things,” he says, channeling his inner Duke Nukem: “Kick some ass and chew bubble gum. And guess what: I’m all out of bubble gum.”

This prompted a round of makeshift Hawaiian cheers – ‘aloha’ and ‘mele kalikimaka’ were really all anybody knew.

Dan Wenger wanted a better view too, but nobody had the power to get him up high enough.

The comic: who else but defensive tackle Pat Kuntz, signing autographs near the tunnel before heading to the locker room. While signing helmets and shirts, he made sure to protect his name. “These better go for at least 50 bucks,” he shouted to the fans.

The players’ reaction came as no surprise considering the end of Notre Dame’s regular season. The Irish lost four of their last five, threw up a goose egg at Boston College, fell in the final minute on senior day to Syracuse and couldn’t cover the 31.5-point spread against USC. Coach Charlie Weis’ job hung in limbo for a few days, and the Irish, who looked like they had erased all memories from last year’s 3-9 season, slipped closer to their previous persona.

The perception that little had changed stayed with the fans and made Hawai’i a trendy upset pick. Some questioned why Notre Dame should go to a bowl at 6-6, let alone get a week in Honolulu.

But after the game, Weis said Clausen’s success stemmed from the bowl bid and the extra time the team had to practice.

“One of the reasons for going to a bowl game at 6-6 is all those extra practices,” Weis said. “Things that in the hectic schedule of a normal week, you don’t have time to focus on, you can work on.”

Clausen said he worked on the little things, like footwork, during the three weeks Notre Dame had to prepare for the bowl game. It showed: 22-of-26, 401 yards, five touchdowns, and new Notre Dame bowl records for completion percentage, yards and touchdowns.

And the celebrations continued. Weis’ Hawaiian-style Notre Dame shirt looked suspiciously damp and red, as if someone had dumped a cooler of Gatorade on him. Linebacker Brian Smith stole injured freshman Kallen Wade’s crutch to use as an oar on top of a bench. Players, families, coaches, coordinators, cheerleaders, assistants and managers embraced left and right, happy to be, as Kuntz said, part of “the team that did it.”

The Irish fans, about 150 of them, stayed well after the final play and watched the celebration. Then they honored the team with an impromptu alma mater.

But receiver Golden Tate seemed to want more. Not more celebration, but more success. “I’m going to enjoy Hawai’i,” said Tate, who had six catches for 177 yards and three touchdowns and shared the MVP with Clausen. “I don’t want to come back here for a bowl again.”