SOUTH BEND — “Every time we play these guys, this happens.”
I glanced over and nodded. The Notre Dame fan, dressed in blue jeans and a green shirt, had scored the best seat in the house — standing beside his pal directly beneath the uprights of the north end zone of Notre Dame Stadium.
The Fighting Irish were preparing to receive a kickoff with a seven-point lead and 3:27 left on the clock. And this guy couldn’t stand it.
“I’m serious,” he said. “This exact thing happens every time. And then two minutes later, you’re like, ‘What the hell just happened?’ ”
He’d seen this before. He saw in 2009: Tate Forcier to Greg Mathews with 11 seconds left. He saw in 2010: Denard Robinson up the gut with 27 seconds left. He saw it in 2011: Robinson to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left. Three straight years, three-point leads disintegrated with under half a minute remaining.
A defeat of Michigan would be another benchmark on Notre Dame’s road to relevance. But for three years, progress had been stalled because of last-minute perils against the Wolverines.
This fan could have been the Notre Dame Everyman. Football there is a religion, he wanted to believe, to restore his faith in the Fighting Irish. But he needed to see a sign first.
“You probably have to be an impartial observer, right?” he asked.
I do my best.
“So this is probably a bad one for you. Well, at least for now.”
After three quarters of some of the most disgusting football you can imagine — eight turnovers, 19 total points — he, like every Notre Dame fan in attendance, still expected the worst.
They had to keep the ball away from Robinson, he said, as the Fighting Irish started their final drive. Tommy Rees couldn’t go “Turnover Tommy” like he had last fall. They had to finish this one. But could they?
Last year, Rees pieced together a touchdown drive in the last minute to go up, but he left too much time. It only took Robinson just 28 seconds to drive 80 yards and win.
So Notre Dame kept it conservative. Rees handed off twice to Theo Riddick. Michigan called a timeout with 2:35 on the clock. Hoke stripped off his headset with his left hand and gave it to an assistant as he sent the defense back onto the field for third down.
Rees, ever-engineered to collapse against Michigan, didn’t. Noticing a Cover-0 look from the defense, he audibled out of a designed quarterback run at the line of scrimmage. He expertly floated a pass to Tyler Eifert down the right sideline for 38 yards and a first down. The celebration was deafening, but it died out within seconds.
There was too much time.
Two more Riddick runs and Notre Dame was facing a third-and-eight. Again, a give to Riddick, and he found room up the middle. Thomas Gordon tripped him up right at the first-down line.
“Why isn’t the clock moving?” the Notre Dame fan beside me wondered aloud. The officials brought the line crew out to measure. Eighty thousand fans held their collective breath.
“FIRST DOOOOWN,” boomed the loudspeaker.
Gordon punched the air in anguish. Michigan was out of time. There were no heroics. Rees never let Robinson touch the ball again.
His back to Touchdown Jesus, Rees readied for the snap. My sideline partner couldn’t stop smiling. His eyes glistened as he turned to me.
“Whenever we go into the victory formation, my grandpa used to always say, ‘Bring out the genuflect, boys, we’re goin’ to church.’ ”
It started in the northwest corner, in the shadow of “Touchdown Jesus,” and slowly flooded around hallowed Notre Dame Stadium, picking up intensity as it flowed through aisles and rows.
A wave of relief ebbed through the crowd of 80,795.
“Oh, what a night, late December back in ’63.
What a special time for me.
As I remember, what a night!”
Notre Dame players made a beeline for the student section. Each wore a smile. Finally, finally, they’d beaten Michigan.
“We did it!” one linebacker yelled as he passed by.
“Yes sir!” answered another.
Three years straight, those players felt the agony of defeat. Again, again and again.
This was the other side of the story. The one you didn’t notice while you belted out “The Victors” and toasted to the night last season, they limped back home with the weight of the largest college football fan base on their shoulders.
This was their long-awaited release.
Manti Te’o, the senior linebacker who intercepted Robinson twice, could hardly hold back his tears after the game. He lost his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, and his maternal grandmother within a span of 24 hours just 10 days earlier. More than 10,000 leis were handed out at the game to support the Honolulu native.
Te’o deserved to beat Michigan.
“I’m just glad on my last one, on my last hurrah, I was finally able to have something to celebrate about,” he said.
Robinson was one of the first to leave the field after the final whistle. No one got Denarded this time; he struggled, admittedly, and Michigan couldn’t get into the end zone all night long. He knew the game was in reach, knew it was his job to bring the team back again. But he couldn’t quite do it.
Behind him, the rest of the 69 Michigan players stared blankly ahead as they trotted toward the tunnel at the north end of the stadium. Hoke hurried behind them.
“Hustle up, let’s go.” Hoke urged when he reached the tunnel. He started to jog. “Here we go. Here we go.”
The page had turned, a new chapter begun. The Fighting Irish had finally finished. Bring on the genuflect.
— Nesbitt can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.