I love the number 41, I hate the number 47, and my favorite number is 40.
Forty-one is the number of points scored by Notre Dame in their win over Penn State. The number I hate is the number of points Michigan racked up the next week in killing Notre Dame. And 40 is the miraculous number reached by Notre Dame in the rain at East Lansing barely three minutes before the final whistle, after having trailed a fast, powerful Michigan State squad 31-14 at the end of the first half, and 37-21 at the end of the third quarter. Until those last furious minutes, ND was being as soundly thrashed as they were the week before.
I was privileged to be on campus for the Penn State victory — on my birthday, a very satisfactory victory — and on the next weekend, also, to take my son and two marvelous grandchildren to the very unpleasant 47-21 debacle against Michigan. Five turnovers — twenty-four gift-wrapped points to a driving, passionate, intense Michigan team. O misery, O sadness.
Then, at the end of the third quarter in East Lansing just this past Saturday, with the score at very nearly the same place, 37-21, and Michigan State seeming unstoppable, I felt the darkest fears of a terrible, terrible season coming on. And to think that this year had started out as “Notre Dame’s year.”
One guy whose hostility to Notre Dame comes right out of his mouth is Craig James of ESPN. At half-time he was mocking those early sunny prognostications and glorying in Notre Dame’s humiliating collapse. But I did not yet feel ready to give up.
My view of life has always been, “Okay, you’re down by 19 points, 15 minutes to go, lower your head and play good football.” I call it Slavic optimism. “Down nineteen points? Yeah, and for the last thousand years. So what’s new?”
But I didn’t see how this Notre Dame team was going to do it. Michigan State seemed fresher, harder charging, with two extremely tough and fast runners, three great receivers, and a superb passer. Notre Dame was playing hard, but seemed outmatched except at quarterback — yet Brady Quinn at sub-heroic was not going to be sufficient.
The rain was driving hard, the ball was wet and muddy, predictions were broadcast from the booth of very strong, 35 mph winds coming in (but no tornado threat, they said blithely, forgetting the Spartan offense). I really wanted to go to bed, to catch up on much-missed sleep. Couldn’t do it.
Glad I stayed.
There was first a heartbreak in the darkness: quite suddenly, after dropping a punt, the indomitable Tom Zbikowski recovered the ball, wove a few times and ripped off one long, unimaginable punt return for a touchdown. At least one thing to cheer about. Or maybe not. It was called back because of a penalty, an unnecessary push-in-the-back, after Zbig had shot by that spot. Out, out, damn luck!
The heroics started in earnest when an 80-yard march in five plays ended with a 43-yard TD pass to Notre Dame’s Samardzija, with eight minutes left to play. There soon followed a Michigan State fumble, and another couple of lightning plays ended in a short pass to the corner by Brady for a touchdown.
You can read the rest at www.ndnation.com. Suffice it to say that the turnovers that had doomed Notre Dame in their previous seven quarters of football started going the other way.
With 2:53 left, Notre Dame stole a last touchdown on a difficult interception, and suddenly Notre Dame was on top 40-37. Moments later, an even more improbable interception on a triple bounce in the air, landing on top a prone player’s back, brought an end to MSU’s last possession, and the clock speedily ran out. (I call this sequence the two immaculate interceptions by Terrail Lambert).
The suddenly silent, soaking wet crowd in East Lansing looks on in disbelieving shock. Nineteen straight points have slipped away to Notre Dame in the final eight minutes.
My father always told me: “Never bet against the New York Yankees, Notre Dame, or the United States of America.”
But to get there one still has to live with a lot of heartache.
— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.