30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: The Irish fell, but more importantly, football returned after 9/11

Notre Dame 9/11
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The last time the United States parted with sports for a week, the reasons were obvious. After a few days, it was clear when the distractions would be welcome again. College football, in particular, would reschedule only one week of games after the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. No. 23 Notre Dame would return to the field against Michigan State on Sept. 22, postponing a trip to Purdue until the week after the scheduled season.

This week without sports differs from that in nearly every way. The absence of balls, pucks and bats will last longer than a week, possibly longer than a month. For now, the only accurate description of this barren sports landscape’s timetable is indefinite. The source of this pause is not an external act of aggression, but rather Mother Nature’s uprising in a cruel, discreet manner. Its threat is most felt when congregated, particularly for extended periods. In other words, at a sporting event.

But when sports do return, the surge of relief accompanying the first games will be reminiscent of how Notre Dame Stadium greeted the Spartans, albeit perhaps with a broader sense of community than the pure patriotism of 2001.

Then again, that patriotism was interrupted by Irish fans as Michigan State took the field, raining down boos upon the Spartans as proof that some ways-of-life persevere through tragedy, a fact that would come back around by the end of the day.

Soon after, though, the entirety of Notre Dame Stadium held up newspaper cut-outs of the American flag as the band first played “America the Beautiful” and then “The Star-Spangled Banner.” NBC broadcast both songs.

University President Rev. Edward Malloy addressed the crowd, offering words that could also apply today: “At such a time we draw upon the innermost resources of our lives and of our faith.”

It was a record crowd of 80,795, the Stadium with 140 freshly-installed seats in the end zone. That was not to accompany a larger crowd specific to the month’s events, but rather a planned small expansion.

The most excitement that crowd would enjoy before halftime was a 53-yard punt return from Irish running back Julius Jones, setting up a six-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Matt LoVecchio to Javin Hunter on the next play, one of Hunter’s game-high six catches for 57 yards. That score, with just 45 seconds left in the half, created a 10-10 tie that reflected much of the series’ history.

But perhaps the most-remembered moment of the game, even more so than the ending yet to be discussed, came during halftime when NBC broadcast the Notre Dame and Michigan State bands joining in “Amazing Grace.”

Things went downhill for the Irish from there. Spartans quarterback Ryan Van Dyke connected for his second touchdown pass of the day halfway through the fourth quarter, hitting freshman receiver Charles Rogers on a seemingly-innocuous slant for a first down, only for Notre Dame cornerback Vontez Duff to blow the tackle and spring Rogers for a 47-yard score.

A year before, Michigan State had beaten the Irish in an eerily-familiar fashion, a late defeat that had kept Bob Davie winless against the Spartans despite playing them every year.

Notre Dame would have two chances to answer Rogers’ touchdown, but Davie squandered the first with a fake field goal attempt with 4:12 remaining. Down a touchdown, struggling to move the ball all day (the Irish would finish with 280 total yards, along with two turnovers), at the 17-yard line, Davie fooled only himself by lining up junior Nick Setta for a 34-yard attempt. Michigan State tackled Setta before he ever had a chance at gaining the needed six yards.

When Notre Dame got the ball back after a Spartans’ three-and-out, LoVecchio’s first-down pass bounced off Jones’ hands and landed in Michigan State’s, ending LoVecchio’s day at 12-of-22 for 119 yards as well as any Irish chances.

The poor coaching decisions, the ineffective offense, the 0-2 start and the emotions of the month all played a part in Notre Dame fans proving once again some traditions take priority over displays of unity: They booed the Irish.

“To get booed, it’s a hard thing, especially at your own stadium,” senior right guard Kurt Vollers said.

It undoubtedly was, and the season would not get better as 2000 had, instead recording the first 0-3 start in program history, finishing 5-6 and sealing Davie’s firing.

"Fourth and Inches"
“Fourth and Inches” by Tom Keely, The Observer, Dec. 3, 2001.

But for one week, the football struggles were welcomed. Hopefully this fall, the game can serve as that distraction once again as the country and the world piece back together normalcy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully.

To pull from Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” about the other football, as his sentiment applies to all sports, “Be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.”

Too often — once a century is too often, twice in two decades exponentially worse — real life robs us of that delirium. Here is to its return, both soon and in the fall.

30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC
Godsey heroics provide Davie hope
Last-minute Golson-to-Koyack TD beats No. 14 Stanford in the rain
A dramatic, Pyrrhic victory over LSU in 1998
Beginning with ‘ultimate greed’ in 1990 and Indiana in 1991
Honorable Mentions