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Seniors set tone; others take note

Douglas Farmer | Monday, November 15, 2010

Saturday’s celebration started slowly. Fittingly, the seniors set the tone, and everyone else followed suit.

First, the yellow-coated ushers opened one stairwell for the Class of 2011 to run down to the field.

Then, a junior dressed as a cow leapt out of the stands near the 10-yard line. As he crossed the painted sideline to reach the playing field, an usher and two members of the Indiana State Police tore his costumed head off to prevent him from going further.

If the cow had waited 60 seconds, he could have joined the juniors in the lowest rows of Section 30, who convinced the ushers they were seniors, and took to the field in rowdy, hat-waving fashion.

The rest of the junior class followed without hesitation. Before long, wave after wave of underclassmen found their way to the corner of the end zone.

For the previous three hours, the seniors on the playing field led Notre Dame in its rout over Utah. Apparently, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, these seniors had been leading the Irish for a few weeks now.

“I don’t want to get too philosophical other than to say that our seniors really provided great leadership over the past few weeks, and it was evident even in our bye week,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s a time where generally at 4-5, seniors check out.”

All season long, the Irish appeared to lack leaders on the field. By naming captains on a game-by-game basis, it can be argued Kelly robbed the team of designated leadership.

But, when a team loses two games it expected to win, someone within the team must step up, designation or no designation. Apparently, these seniors did so. They set the tone.

Then junior cornerback Robert Blanton provided proof that the proper tone can yield results, giving Notre Dame both the lead and the momentum with his blocked punt and subsequent return for a touchdown.

Sophomore running back Cierre Wood started to evade tacklers once he sensed a hint of Utah discouragement.

Freshman quarterback Tommy Rees shook off his initial jitters in his first career start once he had a lead to work with. Each of his three touchdown passes was thrown with precision accuracy, and the Irish, freshman through seniors, were rolling.

“It was a collective effort from the seniors all the way down to the freshman,” said senior linebacker Brian Smith, who led the Irish with 10 tackles to close his career at Notre Dame Stadium. “It just feels great to get a win today.”

The tone set by the seniors resonated most loudly with the freshmen. In addition to Rees’ performance, Bennett Jackson energized the crowd with 53 return yards on only two kickoffs, including a run to the Notre Dame 44-yard line to open the game. Austin Collinsworth and Daniel Smith collaborated to force and recover a fumble, respectively, on the opening kickoff of the second half. Even when junior linebacker Darius Fleming left the game with a concussion after only a handful of plays, freshman Prince Shembo filled in with five tackles, two quarterback hurries and one sack.

“[Getting the seniors a win] was our number one goal,” Rees said. “The seniors have done an unbelievable job all year. Whether it be preparing us, keeping us focused, especially in the last two weeks. To send them off with a win is truly special.”

There it is again — the seniors set the tone for the rest of the Irish, same as the Class of 2011 as a whole, breaking past the ushers first, only to wait for the rest of the student body to join them.

In reality, the past four years have included more disappointment than satisfaction for this team’s 36 seniors. Yet, by leading the way to Notre Dame’s biggest win since a victory over No. 3 Michigan in 2005, they set the stage for the coming years. Last week, senior receiver Duval Kamara — two touchdown receptions Saturday — said the strife of the past will be worthwhile, once Notre Dame reaches a national championship, and he can say he “was part of building that.”

Notre Dame took a big step toward that lofty goal Saturday. The seniors, the same ones who have suffered through a career 20-26 regular season record, provided the beginning push which led to that big step.

As senior safety Harrison Smith said after recording his third career interception: “Leaving [Notre Dame Stadium] with a win is like turning the page.”

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

Contact Douglas Farmer at [email protected]