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Masoud: This is what college football is all about (Sept. 12)

Chris Masoud | Monday, September 12, 2011

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — That’s all you needed to see. If you knew nothing about college football, Irish football or the rivalry between Notre Dame and Michigan before, Saturday’s game at Michigan Stadium is all you needed to see.

Granted, I’ve never been to an SEC game under the lights, a Texas-Oklahoma shootout or a hundred other college football masterpieces, but there was something mystical about Saturday’s contest that I’ve never experienced before and never will again. And it wasn’t the throwback jerseys or the history behind a rivalry that has gone stale.

The first night game at the “Big House” certainly won’t be the last. As predicted, Michigan fans filled the bowl until the stadium was just a sea of maize interspersed with the occasional blue or green. The Seven Nation Army chant raised the decibels to a new level, and I found out over 114,000 fans really do make a difference.

But who could have predicted the way the jumbotron lights danced off the student body’s maize like lightning, or the full moon offset by a clear sky in place of expected showers or the final 72 seconds of a game that sent Notre Dame to an 0-2 record?

Take yourself and this game out of context. Two unranked teams met on the second Saturday of September and produced one of the greatest finishes in college football history. Saturday night is the reason this sport exists. It’s the reason fans sit through eight months of offseason workouts, booster-led scandals and recruiting updates — a chance to witness history.

But ultimately nothing can be taken out of context. After Saturday’s loss, Notre Dame is headed down a very dangerous path that could send a season that began with BCS hopes just 10 days ago into an irrecoverable tailspin.

The quarterback situation couldn’t be clearer. Rees looks awful throwing on the run, and as Kirk Herbsreit said Friday, “he can’t move.” Yet when Rees avoids throwing into triple coverage and feeds the ball to Michael Floyd, he’s a very capable college quarterback. Most Irish fans will remember the sophomore’s resiliency and leadership as he marched the team down the field 61 yards to what many thought was the game-winning touchdown in the final minute, following an inexplicable fumble on the prior series.

My moment of conversion came in the third quarter. Rees dropped back and waited, went through his progression, stayed in the pocket and led a cutting T.J. Jones with a throw that directed the receiver to the only available path to the end zone. Credit the offensive line, but also credit the patience of a quarterback who looks at ease in the pocket.

On the other side of the ball, I’m comfortable with eight (the front seven included) of the 11 starters on a defense that looked like the team’s strength in week one, but turns out just isn’t good enough.

That’s ultimately what makes the first quarter of Saturday’s loss — the best quarter I’ve seen in 40 games as a student — so painful. Notre Dame abused Michigan’s defense, took a vacuum to the Big House noise and made Denard Robinson look like a Pop Warner quarterback for 15 minutes. But successful teams find a way to win (and sometimes struggling teams find a way to lose).

As Irish coach Brian Kelly said, the failures of this season don’t stem from a lack of effort or desire. Robert Blanton and Manti Te’o don’t chase down opponents from opposite sides of the field without that desire to win. The team, from the coaching staff to the players, just isn’t good enough.

Right now.

As we move on to mid-September and a Michigan State team that could easily throw Notre Dame into an 0-3 hole and officially dash its BCS hopes, swallow the bitter pill of Saturday night, but don’t forget it. That’s how rivalries lose their passion.

Instead, remember the first night game in the Big House as it was. Remember every touchdown and blown coverage, remember the exhilaration and the heartbreak. Remember why you’ll do it all again next week.

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

Contact Chris Masoud at cmasoud@nd.edu