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Hit the lights

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, October 20, 2011

When Rick Mirer found Adrian Jarrell in the end zone for the winning score over Michigan on Sept. 15, 1990, nobody thought Notre Dame would wait 21 years, one month and seven days to host another night game.

In fact, the majority of current undergraduates were born after Mirer’s fourth quarter heroics under the lights in his first start.

The wait is over.

Tomorrow night Notre Dame will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium to add another chapter to its rivalry with Southern California, just as the Irish did in 2005, 2007 and 2009. This time, there will just happen to be lights on from before the warm-ups to after the postgame Alma Mater, just as there were for Mirer.

“Honestly, it’s kind of hard to believe … it’s been that long,” Mirer said. “Under the lights is just kind of a bigger stage. I think a lot of guys would agree.”

When the Irish, led by their sophomore quarterback and his sophomore target, Jarrell, took the field 21 years ago, playing a night game was not all that out-of-the-ordinary.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” said Mirer, who finished the 28-24 victory with 165 yards and one touchdown. “We played at night at other places.”

Even the players who, like Mirer, had not yet played much in their careers had played under the lights before in high school, a sentiment even more true of this year’s team.

“It kind of takes you back to your high school days,” said Reggie Brooks, a sophomore in 1990, when he intercepted Michigan quarterback Elvis Grbac’s final pass attempt. “You always played Friday nights around 7:00. It had a high school feel to it to some degree, but there was a different vibe from an atmosphere standpoint playing under the lights.

“It was kind of like playing ‘Monday Night Football’ at the professional level. There was certainly a little more to it than just another game.”

Mirer and the Irish offense started strong against the Wolverines that long-ago evening, but Michigan held a 24-21 lead with only 4:33 remaining when Notre Dame took over at its own 24. Nine plays, 76 yards and 2:53 later, the Mirer-to-Jarrell pass provided the winning margin.

“When they turn the lights on the field in sports, it kind of adds excitement,” Jarrell said. “Football is already exciting, and Notre Dame football is already exciting, but playing at night creates an extra aura. Everybody gets a little extra-hyped for the game.”

In 1990, Notre Dame’s next three home games all began at noon, a full nine hours earlier than the Michigan encounter. The lack of activity throughout the afternoon and evening led to some anxiety in the team hotel, Jarrell said.

“You go stir-crazy sitting in the hotel,” he said. “Instead of checking out first thing in the morning, you’re there all day … You try not to watch too many games of other teams playing, but you have to peek at them. Nervous energy can make you tired. You’re going to be watching those games for eight hours.”

While today’s Irish are accustomed to 3:30 p.m. kickoffs, the four-and-a-half hour wait will still pose many of the same challenges Jarrell’s and Brooks’ nine-hour wait did.

“It takes a little bit of an adjustment,” Brooks said. “There is some level of discomfort you could say, not having played at that time. Most athletes are creatures of habit, so it throws your scheduling off more than anything else.”

Even if schedules are thrown off and habits disrupted, the consensus among the last 20 years of Irish players is they would have loved to enjoy the night game atmosphere.

“I’m jealous,” said Golden Tate, Irish receiver from 2007-09. “I’m jealous they get to play at night against SC. It sucks that I didn’t get to experience that. I wish I could have played in it.”

Tate’s former teammates feel the same way. Tom Zbikowski (2003-07) was a pivotal player in the 2005 encounter with USC, returning a punt for a touchdown shortly before halftime.

“It should be fun,” Zbikowski said of the return to the primetime hour. “We’ve been looking for a night game at Notre Dame for quite some time. It’s a good audience, a good stage for a university to be on Saturday night.”

Even Irish senior captain and safety Harrison Smith — the same Harrison Smith who sealed last year’s victory over USC with an interception in the closing seconds a la Brooks in 1990 against Michigan — didn’t hide his excitement for the first night game in more than two decades.

“It’s the kind of an environment that you never see at Notre Dame, a night game,” Smith said at a Wednesday press conference. “[The fans] are going to be, I don’t know, pretty rowdy I think.”

Sitting next to Smith was junior linebacker Manti Te’o. Four years ago, Te’o was expected to sign with USC. Te’o himself expected to sign with USC. But when National Signing Day came around, Te’o changed his mind that morning and committed to Notre Dame instead.

“I told the story a lot of times,” Te’o said. “I was going to go to USC. I prayed about it. I was directed here. I think that was the only thing that could persuade me to come here. I was all sold on USC. I grew up a USC fan.”

But now, Te’o will take the field under the lights to face the Trojans for the third time in his career.

“It’s something new,” he said. “It’s something that I’m looking forward to. It’s something all the guys are looking forward to.”

Perhaps the fresh nature of the night game is why the players, past and present, are so excited about the opportunity.

“Clearly our players are looking forward to being that one game at night at Notre Dame Stadium,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “They haven’t experienced anything, so this is a first-time experience. You know, like anybody else, they love those first-time experiences.”

As usual, NBC will air the home game, but even the broadcaster is not treating the occasion as a normal one. An NBC spokesman said there will be about 20 cameras at the game, including a blimp, three slow-motion cameras and one in the student section.

The camera in the student section should have some interesting shots if Mirer’s expectations are correct.

“For the fans, the gameday activities and preparation and all that, that affects the fans a lot more than it does the players,” Mirer said. “There is more of a buzz, more of a buildup, thanks to the length of the day.”