Tuesday, December 13, 2005

the $14 Million Drive | by Jay

Pop quiz, hotshot. Who said this?

I wouldn't be surprised to see a thorough domination, the first complete game we play all year. The last time we played at Stanford Stadium it was a 57-7 rout; except for Charlie's disinclination to run it up, expect a similar outcome.

Spot-on prediction, as it turned out.

Well, except for a couple of interceptions. And missing two field goals. And an extra point. And allowing Stanford to run a kickoff back for a touchdown. And letting them score the go-ahead TD with less than two minutes to play. And the fact that we needed a last-minute drive to win it. Other than that -- total domination.

(Actually, if you looked only at the stat box, you'd have thought it was a rout: 663 to 336 overall yards, held them to -11 rushing, ran 27 more plays, Stanford only converted 1 of 11 first downs, we sacked 'em seven times, we held the ball for almost 10 more minutes. But that's football. You can dominate the field as much as you want, but if you turn the ball over and make mistakes on special teams, any team, even UC Davis, can beat you.)

Down by two with 1:46 to play, a BCS bid on the line. Panic? No panic. As Charlie said:

We had three timeouts left and it was not a panic situation. Even if they scored a touchdown, we still were in position to have plenty of time to go down and score to win the game.
Despite the anxiety, there's something incredibly encouraging about a Notre Dame game coming down to the last minute, with us coming out on top. We lost two of those nailbiters this year, we lost two of them last year. In fact, I think you have to go back to the Navy game in '03 to find an example of us coming from behind to win it just before the final tick.

Now that it's over, and we're going to Fiesta (forever), we can sit back and say that this was a welcome, character-building trial that gives us some invaluable battle experience going into Tempe. As Charlie pointed out:
Something critical happened in that game Saturday night, something critical that happened was in a close game they won. There's definitely a lesson that can be learned in every game, and each week there's a separate lesson to be learned, and the fact that now all of a sudden something bad happened at the end of the game and the team comes back and wins the game, that's just as important as any other lesson that can be taught because a team doesn't start winning those close games until they experience it. Now that they know they can do it, it'll make it a little easier next time it presents itself.
This last-minute drive against Stanford wasn't the best drive of the season -- the go-ahead against Southern Cal probably ranks higher -- but it was certainly the most dire. At the end of the field was a BCS bowl and a $14 million payday; it was more like a Giant Eagle Foods Halftime Challenge ("Drive for a Million!") than an ending to a football game.

But, the team did it, they drove the field, they got the ball in the endzone, thus sealing the win and wrapping up a bid to the BCS. Afterwards, everybody, Domer and Cardinal alike, was invited down onto the field to haul off a piece of turf, which was really akin to tearing down the stadium itself, since the whole structure was nothing more than sets of metal bleachers sunk into a mound of dirt. The original House of Mud. (That's right, Audrey...and when the Stanford developers ran out of sod...they used mud.) I got a nice 10"x10" square of sod for myself, but left it in the hotel bar at the end of the night. (Which is probably just as well. What was I going to do with a piece of turf from Stanford Stadium? I thought about selling it to Dan Fouts, who was also in the hotel bar all weekend, and who clearly was on something during the broadcast of the game. Maybe he'd want to smoke it.)

The whole scene had a friendly, let's-color-on-the-walls-before-we-repaint atmosphere to it, a slo-motion demolition with fans from both sides politely mingling and chatting and every so often pausing to dig at the turf, local contractors hanging off their backhoes, and a few teenagers trying half-heartedly to bring down the goalposts. It felt like the cheery aftermath of a rock concert, which, if you looked back over our whole season, it sort of was.

Top 5 Drives of 2005

1. The Go-Ahead. Last drive versus Southern Cal. 8 plays, 87 yards, 3:05 minutes. To take the lead on Southern Cal late in the game. The streak-breaker. The season-maker. The-- crap, still not enough. Key play: Brady flushed left, Samardzija improvs and Brady does a running jumper to the Shark, complete for 14 yards. Alas, still two minutes left on the clock...

2. The $14 Million Drive. Last drive at Stanford. 6 plays, 80 yards, :51 seconds. Key play: Charlie brings a crossing pattern out of mothballs, Brady hits Samardzija for thirty yards on the first play of the drive, and the table is set for a BCS berth.

3. The Opener. First drive at Pitt. 6 plays, 78 yards. It took Ty three games to score an offensive touchdown; it took Charlie six plays. First drive of the season...first drive of a new era, and a revelation for all of us. Key play: Darius' 50 yard ramble for a TD on a screen pass, with a convoy of blockers around him.

4. Putting the Big House to Sleep. First drive at Michigan. 12 plays, 76 yards. Five wide, no huddle to start the game, drive right down and score. The rest of the day was much tougher, so that early cushion was crucial, and we never relinquished the lead. Key play: Brady picks out McKnight from an array of receivers for a five yard TD, an early indication that the QB coaching might be just a little bit better this year.

5. Choo Choo at Purdue. A 40-play, 324-yard demolition resulting in a 28-point touchdown. The first half against the Boilers was as thorough a beatdown as you'll see: four consecutive drives for touchdowns, with only 1 incomplete pass through that whole stretch. Key play: too many to name.
But back to that last drive. It really was the lynchpin to the entire season, a last-ditch effort that came up aces. Jason Kelly had a great recap:
Eighty yards from the end zone, one point down, with 1:46 to play and an ailing kicking game that made a touchdown feel like the only way to win, Charlie Weis improvised. He went away from the elaborate game plan on the laminated sheet in his hand and the crib notes on quarterback Brady Quinn's wristband. Forget those connoisseur's selections from his expansive playbook based on meticulous study of Stanford's tendencies. To generate momentum on the drive that would define the 2005 Notre Dame football season for better or worse, Weis went sandlot.

"It was definitely an in-the-dirt type of play with a stick," Irish wide receiver Jeff Samardzija said.

Everything Notre Dame built in the previous 10 games, not to mention the promise of Bowl Championship Series revenue and respect, teetered on a perilous fault line. Instead of a play the Irish worked on all week, Weis called one that required a refresher course right there on the sideline with the season on the line.

"About five seconds before we went on the field," he said, they went over assignments that sounded familiar enough from the last time they practiced it over a month ago. Quinn, channeling Weis, even had time to offer some Jersey sarcasm about the preposterous idea of blowing the dust off a shelved play in that situation.

"Brady goes, 'Thanks a lot for bringing one out of the archives,'" Weis said.

Samardzija ran his ad-libbed route and the cool quarterback with the one-liner for his coach threw a pass with the poise and precision of an ER surgeon. Chewing up a 30-yard chunk of precious Bay Area real estate, Samardzija moved Notre Dame to midfield and put his coach's mind at ease.

"That was the one that changed field position," Weis said, "and now all of a sudden, I kind of felt good about our chances."
Another slant-in to the Shark, a scramble around right end by Brady, a long jump ball to Stovall, two runs by Darius, and we were back on top (capping it off with fun 2-point conversion: shotgun, four receivers spread wide, and a direct snap to Walker, who darted left and hiked right in).

And that was the $14 million drive.

Oh, and about that $14 million. Isn't it nice that we negotiated a new BCS deal just before the season that severely reduces our payout going forward? Impeccable timing, as we seem to be on the verge of multiple BCS appearances over the next decade. Like us, you've probably sifted through all the various conspiracy theories, examined the rationales for accepting this agreement, and heard all the justifications, both official and non-. Whatever the reason for reconfiguring our payout participation, the fact remains that we reduced our benefit at the worst possible moment in time. And it's especially bitter considering the destination of all that BCS lucre:
The estimated $14.5 million share will go toward undergraduate and graduate financial aid, library acquisitions and scientific instruments for the new Jordan Hall of Science that will open in mid-2006, Father Jenkins said.
I just have one line of questioning for Kevin White: 1) Prior to this new deal, did the AD run a projection on how many times we'd be in the BCS? And 2) How has that projection changed with the advent of Charlie Weis?