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Notre Dame Downers
I went to the Happy Valley.


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Last weekend as a birthday present to myself I drove with a football friend up to Pennsylvania for the Penn State v. Notre Dame football game. Phil (an alumnus of Notre Dame) and I drove two hours north from Washington and then stopped to spend the night at one of America’s great inns, the Mercersburg Inn.

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There we enjoyed a marvelous (and expensive) dinner. We were upgraded to two huge, magnificent rooms, each with a high, canopy-covered king-size bed — with enough space to make going into the john part of a daily exercise plan. The next morning, after an enormous breakfast, we drove another two hours up to Penn State.

Mrs. Novak is not a believer in sports. Despite all my prayers and fasting for her, she doesn’t have the faith; she doesn’t get it — and she thinks spending money to go long-distance to a Notre Dame game is a bit collegiate, and not exactly acting my age. Fortunately, I have a lawyer friend who loves the team as much as I do.

Phil and I parked our car in the lot of another lawyer friend up in State College, and then were packed in with his family to drive a mile or so to one of the country’s greatest tailgate parties. There seemed to be mile after mile of them — but luckily our friend’s tailgate was tucked up quite close to the stadium. The game was not until 6:00, and we started feasting about 3:30. We didn’t make much of a dent into the abundant supplies.

Our lively and friendly hosts intended to return to the tailgate for another party after the game, and while eating and drinking, wait jovially until all the traffic moved out. In the shadow of Mount Nittany, it truly is Happy Valley!

Now to the game itself. After seven and a half glorious minutes of holding a 7-0 lead, Notre Dame began to be steadily, slowly, but inexorably ground down. The young offensive line was greatly improved over the week before. But, promising as they are, several were simply outmatched play after play. Notre Dame just could not run the ball at all, and freshman Jimmy Clausen, the most heavily recruited quarterback in the nation, dodged a heap of sacks and fell to a number of others.

Some of these sacks were due to Clausen’s own self-discipline, it seemed to me. When his receivers were not completely open, he didn’t pull the trigger and let go. He took few chances. He saved his fire, mostly, for sure things. He seemed to have a number-one priority: — no interceptions, no fumbles. I kept criticizing him during the game (my friend Phil chastised me: “Michael, he’s only 19”). Later, I thought back and admired his intense self-discipline. Clausen can throw quick, and he can throw long. He dodges blitzers pretty deftly. And he runs quickly when he spots an opening.

By the end of the game, the score was 31-10, Penn State. After the first half, it wasn’t really that close. Notre Dame never did score an offensive touchdown. Their one TD was a 70-yard run on a hard-won interception, a long and spirited run helped along by superb down-field blocking. That was about it, except for a great punt-return by Zbikowski down to the Penn State 7. The only score to come from that was a field-goal.


As you can see, those of us who love Notre Dame football are bracing ourselves for the possibility of eight straight losses during the first two months. Still, it could amount to Charlie Weis’s best year of coaching — to keep teaching the young guys, watch them improve tangibly week by week, hold their spirits high, and press their efforts to the hilt. It’s going to be very tough on him. The “offensive genius” has been lacking an offense for almost twenty quarters now, going back to the end of last year. Talk about dark nights of the soul.

Alas, Phil and I could not join the tailgaters at the end of the game. Instead, in pitch darkness we had to drive over the mountains for another two hours back to the Inn. Hair-pin turns, very slowly descending big rigs coming down the mountainside. As if in recompense, the innkeeper was still awake, and brought us each a cold beer and a sandwich to take the stiffness out of our bones. Two newlyweds sneaked upstairs while we were sipping the last of the beer, and we shouted congratulations. Not sure they even heard.

It was a fantastic weekend, despite the (expected) loss. My friend Phil even suggested that we stop off at his family’s new winery just south of Frederick, Md., at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain. It is called the Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, and if you ever get a chance to buy a case of their 2006 Circe, walk away with one of the classic red wines. Almost as good to my taste was the Comus (Comus is the son of Bacchus), mostly a merlot, with a bit of cabernet sauvignon.

I am not normally a lover of Chardonnay, but Sugarloaf’s is so light and clear that it is a “chardonnay for people who don’t like chardonnay.” I liked it better than their Pinot Grigio, although that, too, is no slouch. I liked the tasting so much that I bought a mixed case of all four of my favorites. The lineage of most of these is from the Bordeaux wines of France, and the rolling hills of Maryland on which the vineyards are planted bask in the sun all day.

Visiting the winery would make a superbly colorful October trip, and the tastings alone are worth it. The country views are extraordinarily refreshing to the soul.

Back now to my daily worries. For one thing, I am a bit worried about this Saturday’s game at Michigan. I will not be surprised if the team’s play improves yet again. Their spirit seems higher than Michigan’s, even if they lack Michigan’s experience and abundance of offensive talent.

“Improving” is not nearly as sweet as “winning.” But there are years when talent and character are hardened and burnished by adversity for a later break-out. Not unlike grapes being crushed for a very good wine.



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