November 26, 2012 2:30 GMT By Brian Burnsed
In a game governed by discipline and strategy and hours of preparation, is there room for such a trivial, incalculable thing as heart?
Can one team possibly “want it more” than another when football is the centerpiece of all of these players’ and coaches’ lives? Or are these just lazy tropes leaned upon by sportswriters and broadcasters who’ve grown too lethargic to analyze what’s actually happening?
Usually, I’d say yes. Usually, I’d say that good plays and good games can’t be the result of a player or team having more heart or wanting it – whatever “it” is – more.
There are exceptions. There are times when preparation and planning and strategy yield to something outside the confines of muscle memory and repetition and memorization. There are plays, moments, where we can measure a team’s “heart”, where the cold calculus of advanced statistics and probabilities are overwhelmed by what we see.
These moments are fleeting. These moments are rare.
But they are also unmistakable.
On Saturday night, those moments came when 11 men in gold helmets dug their heels into the turf in their own end zone on 10 separate occasions in the fourth quarter. And, all 10 times, the Irish defenders kept the Trojans from crossing the white line and from potentially snatching away a national championship in the 11th hour of the 12th game of an undefeated season.
Those moments, those 10 plays, were more a test of a team’s will, of its heart, than of its skill or preparation. It was time to push harder than the man across from you. It was time to hit the ballcarrier hard enough to turn his own momentum against him. It was time to sharpen focus to the point that talented receivers felt like they were running in shackles.
The first three of those plays came in the opening moments of the fourth quarter. Trailing by nine, USC advanced the ball to the Notre Dame 4. A Silas Redd run was stuffed for a gain of only two. Another run was repelled for a loss of two as the Southern California line was swallowed by a swarm of gold and white. Then a pass to Marqise Lee missed its target. Only a few feet from seven points, the Trojans had to settle for three because the Irish defense that had carried a team through 11 games wasn’t willing to break under the pressure inherent in the 12th.
Later in the quarter, and far more memorably, the Irish stopped the Trojans cold seven consecutive times. USC tailback Curtis McNeal got three yards, pushing the ball to the Notre Dame four. Then Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell hounded and hacked Lee on consecutive fade routes, gladly taking pass interference calls rather than risk six points while simultaneously daring the Trojans to try and beat that defense up the middle. The Trojans tried to impose their will at the line of scrimmage, where strength and effort matter most, and failed. Two quarterback sneaks were easily repelled. A McNeal rush was snuffed out in the backfield by a pair of Irish defenders converging from either side and a feeble fourth-down Max Wittek pass trickled through the hands of intended target Soma Vainuku.
That stand, those seven plays, were a microcosm of the entire Irish season – a little luck on a dropped pass, some smarts and guile on the intentional pass interference calls and a lot of toughness in the trenches on all of those goal line stuffs.
On 10 plays on Saturday night, 11 men in gold helmets lined up, gazed at the 11 men across from them and thought, “I’m better than you.” On each play, each man proved just that. The odds that the Trojans, with all of their weapons, all of their multi-star, multi-100-pound linemen couldn’t muster the few yards they needed to bring a perfect season into question, tells me that Notre Dame has something more than superior talent or superior coaching or superior preparation. They have something intangible. They have something that seems corny and made-up and that normally makes me cringe when I hear it. But I saw it on those 10 plays. You saw it too.
They have heart. They, for lack of a better phrase, want it more.
And that’s the immeasurable difference between measurable results. That’s the difference between 12-0 and 11-1 or 10-2. That’s the difference between sitting at home in the second week of January and playing for a national championship.