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Commentary: Peaks and valleys define four years

Michael Bryan | Friday, November 20, 2009

Four seasons ago, Notre Dame was ranked as the second-best team in the country. Brady Quinn, Travis Thomas and Tom Zbikowski were on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The Irish were a true national championship contender, had the Heisman frontrunner under center and a top-tier recruiter and playcaller on the sidelines.

Four seasons later, the Notre Dame football experience has been nothing we thought it would be. This senior class has been through a whirlwind of improbable successes and sudden failures, and we’ve learned to take nothing for granted.

Our first home game was a 41-17 stomping of No. 19 Penn State. This followed a shaky opener at Georgia Tech, but after routing Joe Pa and the Nittany Lions, the title talk was reignited — only to be doused by Michigan a week later.

And even though 2006 was largely a disappointment, we took for granted everything that was good about that team.

Sure, we were dismantled by our two biggest rivals and against LSU in the Sugar Bowl, but we were ranked in the top-10 all year.

We had the comeback at Michigan State in the rain and, subsequently, a celebration in Stonehenge. We enjoyed a last-second win against UCLA and yelled “Beat SC” for half an hour after an unbelievable senior class played its last game in green at Notre Dame Stadium.

And more than anything, we had hope and optimism. We were 19-6 and in BCS bowls during two seasons with Charlie Weis, and while we would definitely take a step back with Brady, Samardzija and Co. leaving, our junior and senior years looked to be full of promise.

But our sophomore year, we fell a lot further than expected. We were humiliated by our biggest rivals and became a national punch line. We lost to Navy for the first time in 44 games, and we couldn’t keep the game close at home against Air Force. Our coach suddenly seemed a little lost and confused, but we still had some hope left. So we blamed it on the poor recruiting of the last coach.

At least we had talented young players, we thought, and as gifted a quarterback as anyone in the nation. It looked like we would start to put it all together again, and prove sophomore year was a fluke on the way back to prominence. There was a win over Michigan for the first time, and a 4-1 start to begin that junior campaign.

Everything quickly went downhill again, though, beginning with small disappointments in the close losses to North Carolina and Pittsburgh, and ended with the Senior Day loss in the snow to Syracuse and yet another crushing at the hands of the Trojans.

Then, suddenly three years had flown by. For this group, and for us students, it was the last try. The last home opener, last chances at beating Boston College and USC and now the final home game in these seats — although I’m not discounting sneaking back in the student section the next few years.

This season again hasn’t been what we expected, but I think by now we’re starting to get used to a little disappointment. A program like Notre Dame should have higher standards than its performance over our four years and the last decade, but we’re a new generation of students.

The last year Notre Dame won a national championship was the same year many of us were born. We shouldn’t tolerate lowering the standards of the greatest college football program and tradition in the country, but we’ve grown to accept that that was long ago, and we’re a long way away from the days where we expected to compete for titles every year.

Instead of looking back at this season in frustration and calling it another failure, I want to remember the great parts of Notre Dame football we were a part of. We saw two of the greatest quarterbacks at a school with a history of great quarterbacks. We had numerous last-second wins and have seen some of the most phenomenal receivers in program history.

And really, in the end, I just want this one to end on a good note. One of the worst parts about the Syracuse loss was thinking how terrible it would be for the seniors that were on the field and in the stands to have that be their last home game as students.

This could be the last home game for a few players that aren’t seniors, too, and I hope as a team they just get this one. As a gift for the seniors playing their last game on that field, and for the seniors standing together one last time.

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

Contact Michael Bryan at [email protected]