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A chance to make a Senior Day count

Sam Werner | Thursday, November 11, 2010

When these seniors signed their letters of intent to play for Notre Dame in February 2007, the Irish were coming off back-to-back BCS bowl appearances and had gone 19-6 over the past two seasons.

Four seasons later, it seems that nothing has gone according to plan.

Despite their struggles on the field, 15 of those 18 seniors that signed on 3 ½ years ago are still on the Irish roster today. Going through the worst season in Notre Dame history and a tumultuous coaching change would have made it easy for players to transfer elsewhere. Frankly, who could have blamed them?

Transfers are usually a staple of coaching changes and, especially given the poor performance on the field it would have been easy for players to look at other schools. Two players transferred when Brian Kelly took over for Charlie Weis as Irish coach — one for reasons unrelated to football. While Kelly himself probably played some role in that high retention rate, this senior class banded together through the adversity. That attitude permeated throughout the rest of the team and, hopefully, laid the foundation for stability and success down the road.

This senior class proves the axiom on which Notre Dame most prides itself — that it’s different from all other football programs.

When things aren’t going well on the field, there’s somewhere else to turn here. If football were all that mattered, most of these players would have hit the road years ago. More importantly, they wouldn’t reflect glowingly when asked about their experience at Notre Dame. Talking to players over the past week, the most common theme is how they’re going to miss this place when they leave.

“[What made Notre Dame special] was just the things [it] offered to better myself as a human being, better myself as a student, to challenge myself,” senior running back Robert Hughes said.

Even though these past four years haven’t been what any of us — players, students and fans included — had hoped for, there’s still the possibility to end it on the highest note possible. It would be poetic, almost, if these seniors earned their first win over a ranked team on Senior Day, a day that has recently become an embodiment of Notre Dame’s struggles.

No, I don’t think it’s likely that the Irish will beat Utah on Saturday, but both teams will still have to take the field for 60 minutes, and — if we have learned anything over the past four years — anything can happen. If the Irish do manage to pull off the upset Saturday, it would become a vindication for everything this class has worked for over the past four years and lay the groundwork for future victories, a common theme in recent interviews with both coaches and seniors alike.

As important as the future is, though, it’s even more essential that these seniors take ownership of their Senior Day Saturday.

The most disappointing part of previous Senior Days wasn’t even the losses to mediocre Big East teams, but the lackluster demeanor on the Irish sidelines on what is supposed to be the most emotional game on the schedule. Maybe it will help that Notre Dame will be playing a top-25 team, but these seniors, and the team as a whole, need to play like Senior Day means something to them. If they can harness that emotion, maybe, just maybe, this class will finally experience an elusive “Notre Dame moment.”

No, a win over Utah wouldn’t be the same as beating a top-ranked USC team, but you can only play the games in front of you. After everything this class has been through, though, a win over a ranked team is something to celebrate, regardless of the logo on its helmet.

The Class of 2011 won’t win a national championship at Notre Dame. The seniors won’t even graduate with anything close to a winning record, but that doesn’t mean they can’t go out with a bang.

It’s hard to say they don’t deserve it.

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

Contact Sam Werner at swerner@nd.edu