Notre Dame is back, but they still have a ways to go

Those who know me know I am not a pessimistic sports fan. Or a fair-weather fan, for that matter. When the Red Sox were down and supposedly out in 2004, I still believed. I would have been an idiot (no pun intended) to let my faith go down the tubes.

Even the most optimistic Notre Dame football fan would’ve been content with a final mark of 8-4 or 9-3, coupled with a bowl win. Very respectable against a murderous schedule that included road games with Oklahoma and USC, along with the rivalry game against Stanford.

As I sat on my couch bright and early on that season-opening Saturday in September, watching the Irish take on Navy in Dublin, Ireland, my father in law asked me, “do you think Notre Dame will be respectable this year?”

With Manti Teo and Tyler Eifert each returning for their senior year, my optimism was somewhat high, but not that Notre Dame would finish the regular season undefeated and play for a national championship.

Well, that’s exactly what happened.

The Irish ran into a juggernaut known as Alabama in Monday’s championship game, a humbling 42-14 defeat that sent the Crimson Tide to their third championship in four years.

Right from the outset, the Irish looked nervous. And it showed on the field. Missed tackles. Silly penalties. Poor execution. I could go right down the list.

But the simple solution is this: Alabama was more experienced. Their championship pedigree showed. They’ve been there before. They looked relaxed, poised and in control, and their 28-0 halftime lead proved that.

I’ve followed Notre Dame since I was young, going back to the days where my cousins and I would play football in the backyard every chance we got. My cousin Kevin and I watched “Rudy” countless times, and grew up in an era where Notre Dame was always in the national championship chatter. We still remember that near-miss in 1994.

In the twilight years of our 20’s, that hasn’t been the case. Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis could not get the job done, and Brian Kelly was brought on board to turn things around.

Each year has been a building block. The 2012 season was a big one. The Irish got lucky in a few of those wins, needing a last-second field goal to beat Purdue, and surviving a triple-overtime thriller against Pittsburgh that nearly sent my wife out to buy a defribillator and some heart medication.  However, if you want to be a championship contender, you need to win games like that.

With nine starters returning on defense for the 2013 season and a top-notch recruiting class coming in, Notre Dame is close to returning to its heyday. The Irish have a long way to go, however, before they can prove they are ready to bring home their first national championship since 1988. The loss to Alabama showed that. But the hope for the future is certainly bright. That was proven in a convincing win at Oklahoma, in which Brent Musburger proclaimed “Notre Dame is relevant again.”

The Irish overcame a lot of adversity this year, both on and off the field. They came together after Teo lost his grandmother and girlfriend within hours of each other. They fought as one. That has been the Notre Dame way for 125 years, from the Four Horseman to Rudy, from Montana to Rocket, from the Bus to Golden Tate.

What will 2013 bring? Well, the Irish finished the year ranked No. 4 in the country, a ranking nobody – not even my optimistic self – expected in September. The building blocks are there. Now it’s up to Kelly, his staff, and the players to keep growing on a yearly basis.

In the meantime, my optimism will remain high, and the wife and I are still planning that road trip to South Bend at some point during the 2013 season.

Ryan McLaughlin

About Ryan McLaughlin

BDN sports reporter Ryan McLaughlin grew up in Brewer and is a lifelong fan of the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins. In "The Boston Blitz" he'll be sharing his perspective with BDN readers about what's happening on the Boston professional sports scene.