Thursday, October 16, 2008

I'm Happy That I'm Miserable | by Pete

I had the opportunity to watch the UNC game with my family this weekend, which is always a Rockwellian experience, but only if you replace the whimsy and nostalgia with a series of expletives. At least that's how it ended up

During the first half, it appeared to be a relatively in-hand, almost pedestrian game against UNC in which we would match their field goals for touchdowns and stroll out of Chapel Hill with a smile and a win. My older sister (ND '04) and I were able to watch the game while still maintaining some semblance of civilized decorum, engaging in casual conversation about our lives and other banalities. My father (ND '77) would poke his head in from time to time for a score update, and things were generally genial. I cavalierly considered the rankings ramifications of a 21-point vs. 14-point win on the ready-and-waiting to be seduced pollsters.

Then the second half began, and as I was standing in front of the refrigerator reaching for a drink, I heard my sister loudly proclaim that Jimmy Clausen done f*cked up and thrown a 'Pick Six.' Being a relative optimist, I thought, 'No worries. We've still got the lead, and we get the ball right back and our once-again Viking offense will pillage their defense and leave no survivors. Things are still well under control.'

Of course, as Notre Dame continued to fail to put UNC away, and as the sun dipped below the stadium's upper deck, and as the crowd began to become more and more raucous, that confidence began to slowly slip away, and I found myself sharing her frustrations by engaging in the colorful art of hurling expletives. While I was expressing my frustration, I still maintained in the back of my mind a confidence that the team would right its own ship, bail out the remaining water, and put away UNC for the 'W.' Maybe we won't blow anybody away, but we can still snag the win, and that's what really matters at the end of the day.

James Aldridge scored a touchdown, Notre Dame resumed a two-score lead, and all was well within the family unit. My father finished his errands and sat down to join us.

Then UNC scored again, bringing the margin back to 2. Ah ha, but the two-point conversion failed, perhaps providing Notre Dame with just enough breathing room to escape these pesky Tarheels! Hope, while now sweating and looking a little faint, remained alive. After all, there was more than an entire quarter left to play, plenty of time for Notre Dame to put some more points on the board.

A turnover later, UNC's backup quarterback hurled himself into the end zone and UNC assumed the lead for the first time of the evening. The household confidence was shaken, and while nervous, I thought this could provide an excellent opportunity for this young, talented ND squad to prove its mettle and muster a fourth-quarter comeback; you know, really show off their stuff. It would be exciting and fun, a real barn-burner.

Minutes ticked away, plays came and went, and Notre Dame, for some reason, failed to prove its mettle. After driving down the field and tossing another interception, it looked like UNC was going to chew up the rest of the clock and deprive Notre Dame of its UCLA-esque dramatic finish. But the Notre Dame magic woke up a few echoes in the form of a questionable review concluding an incomplete pass, and Notre Dame was going to get a real chance to make some magic. The high-octane offense was going to kick it into overdrive, and steal victory from the jaws of defeat.

It looked like it was going to happen. Come on, we all were thinking it. But one bizarre catch/pitch/fumble/oh god there's not enough time/spike/review play later, it was all over. Notre Dame had lost. To a ranked opponent. On the road. Again. It sucked. Expletives abound. Not exactly a moment custom-made for a Hummel figurine.

I was miserable, and spent the rest of the night and good bit of the next day grumbling around like Charlie Brown's slightly more abrasive cousin.

Now, a few days later, I realized it's a great thing I was/am so miserable about the UNC loss. If you had asked me at the beginning of the season, with last year's Hindenberg-crashing-into-the-Titanic debacle fresh/seared into my mind, if I would like to have a team that would be 4-2 halfway through the season, beaten Michigan, and had its two losses come in competitive games to ranked opponents on the road, I would have enthusiastically shook your hand and thanked you for the outstanding opportunity.

Now, a few games watched and a few months later, I was miserable as a result of that exact same scenario. And that's fantastic news. My misery is a great reason for optimism.

If 2007's team had earned that result against UNC in the same situation, it would have been the highlight of the season. In 2008, it's a hair-tearing case of 'What If,' as we all recount the thousands of little ways the game slipped away from the team like so many grains of sand. Simply put, we've seen enough in these first six games to believe that Notre Dame could beat a ranked opponent on the road. One year ago, we would have taken not being embarrassed, and now we want wins. That's a very important and significant transition; my grumbling is the sound of a hump being cleared.

Make no mistake about it: Notre Dame, even with its -5 turnover margin, was in a position to beat UNC. I'm not taking away from UNC's win, they played a great game and made our defense look downright foolish at times, and did it all without their top playmaker for essentially the entire game, but Notre Dame could have won this game. Last year, the closest Notre Dame would have come to winning this game would have been just before they strapped on their helmets. How's that for a transition?

Notre Dame lost last Saturday, and I'm miserable about it. Last year, I would have been some combination of numb, nauseous, and bemused by the spectacle of it all. I'll gladly take miserable. Let's just not make a habit of it.