Alllllllll aboard! *Cue maniacal laugh*
That’s the lasting memory. All anyone remembers of Notre Dame’s first night game at home in 21 years is Ozzy Osborne’s opening cackle. No one remembers the late George Atkinson running untouched for a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown. Only when seeing a similarly-catastrophic moment does anyone recall the Irish muffing a snap one yard from the end zone and USC returning the fumble for a touchdown.
Even the other primetime amenities are overshadowed by the sets of dual beats following whatever joke Osborne told himself.
For the record, Notre Dame lost 31-17 to the Trojans in 2011, snapping a four-game winning streak and essentially ending quarterback Dayne Crist’s Irish career. Atkinson’s kickoff return score cut into a 17-0 lead, a margin Notre Dame would reduce to 17-10 by halftime before that botched snap ruined hopes of tying the game late in the third quarter.
Also for the record, “Crazy Train” was released in 1980 on Osborne’s debut solo album, “Blizzard of Ozz.” But for Irish fans, “Crazy Train” was born on October 22, 2011, and it might as well have died that night, too.
It wasn’t the song’s fault. It’s a decent song, frankly, an appropriate introduction to ‘80s rock. The University simply did not have enough of an inventory of songs licensed to play in the first instance of piped-in music at Notre Dame Stadium. While the night game had been hyped for weeks and months — including Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick visiting both campus dining halls two weeks earlier, immediately before fall break, imploring, “help us on that Saturday night to make the loudest, most raucous, but safe environment in college football” — the music element was kept under wraps until the speakers opened with the unmistakable bass chords of “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys.
Notre Dame played that new aspect so close to the vest, even the few undergraduate students in the know wondered if something had gone wrong when no music greeted the Irish return team as it took the field before the opening kickoff. Only as they lined up did Notre Dame Stadium set a new first.
Maybe the song choice was a bit on the nose, but it was also undeniably electrifying at the time. Only Atkinson’s return made the sold-out crowd more, to Swarbrick’s wording, raucous. Of course, that length-of-the-field 14-point swing of a fumble return was equally deflating. What was supposed to be a play-action pass to a releasing tight end instead became a debacle.
“I didn’t dribble it,” Trojans safety Jawanza Starling said of his fumble return. “I just had to wait for the perfect bounce because I didn’t want to try and go for it too soon and miss it. I was just taking my time with it. Scoop and score, everything we do in practice and I took it to the house.”
(Jump to the 2:25 mark.)
Yet, there was a full quarter remaining, and after gaining only 14 first-quarter yards, the Irish had put together two consecutive lengthy drives; adding a third of 5 plays and 62 yards for a touchdown on the next possession to cut the margin once again to a touchdown. Notre Dame was in position to come from behind at home, much like it had in 1990 against Michigan when Rick Mirer found Adrian Jarrell for a winning touchdown with fewer than two minutes remaining, the last night game in South Bend.
Instead, “Crazy Train” happened, again and again and again. With only five songs licensed to play in the Stadium, someone designated Ozzy’s laughter as the ideal soundtrack to rile up the crowd before critical USC third downs. In an alternate reality, the Irish defense stopped the Trojans in the fourth quarter, and that boisterous howl became a Notre Dame tradition.
In this world, though, USC went 4-of-6 on third downs in the fourth quarter and held the ball for 12:36, draining away any Irish hopes bit by bit. “Alllll aboard” became a call of desperation, a nod to the inevitable, an audial white flag.
The brief clip never even got to the all-too fitting opening lyrics …
“Crazy, but that’s how it goes
Millions of people living as foes
Maybe it’s not too late …”
For the Irish, it was too late against these particular foes. Two fourth-quarter turnovers were the final undoing, the last an interception thrown by current offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, injured plays before Crist’s lost snap but able to return on the next possession. The Trojans out-gained Notre Dame 443 yards to 267, won the turnover battle 3-0 and averaged 5.0 yards per rush while the Irish ran for a total of 41 yards. Any Rees-led comeback would have been memorable, but the better team won that night, and “A HA HA HA HA” became the lasting memory.
“It was just not executing,” Irish tight end Tyler Eifert said. “You can make all the excuses you want, that we had time off, that we were rusty or that they hyped this game up so much and took our focus off what was really important, but I don’t think any of that. We just didn’t execute and go out the way we had to.”
Fortunately for fans and television broadcast partners, that failure to execute did not dissuade Notre Dame from continuing to play a night game or two every season. That’s also fortunate for nearly any player you ask, past, present or future. (The following quotes are pulled from a 2011 article previewing turning on the lights, written by yours truly, but now lost to the cobwebs of the internet.)
Mirer: “Under the lights is just kind of a bigger stage. I think a lot of guys would agree.”
Jarrell: “When they turn the lights on the field in sports, it kind of adds excitement. Football is already exciting, and Notre Dame football is already exciting, but playing at night creates an extra aura. Everybody gets a little extra-hyped for the game.”
Golden Tate, 2007-09: “I’m jealous they get to play at night against SC. It sucks that I didn’t get to experience that.”
Harrison Smith, 2011 safety and captain: “It’s the kind of an environment that you never see at Notre Dame, a night game. [The fans] are going to be, I don’t know, pretty rowdy.”
Since that loss, the Irish have gone 8-2 in night games at Notre Dame Stadium, including a 4-0 mark against USC, reversing what had been a five-game home losing streak to the Trojans. But since then, “Crazy Train” has been heard in only less-crucial moments, parodying the anguish brought about by its Irish debut.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) April 4, 2020
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