Magical run for Irish ends in rout

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — On a flawless South Florida night, Notre Dame players saw a legend emerge in present time. To their bone-deep disbelief, it was not them.

The eruption of confetti and joy surrounded them, and their shock and desolation filled the spaces in between. A program lost for a quarter-century might not be directionless, but the top looked far away from here.

A moment the Irish believed they were meant to have, a perfect season driven toward this, ended in a quiet walk out of sight and into another year of what might be. Alabama is the national champion, again, the SEC's marauding run extended to a seventh straight year with a 42-14 humiliation of Notre Dame on Monday, the Irish's first loss also their most excruciating.

Twenty-four years since that last title in 1988, and 24 years spent wandering through losses and death and empty promise. The light at the end of it all was that crystal football hoisted skyward. It remained far, far beyond their grasp at Sun Life Stadium and claimed by a different reborn college football dynasty.

It was an oppressive deluge of unprepared and nerve-racked play from the start, the most yards surrendered by Notre Dame (13-1) all year and the most points surrendered by Notre Dame in a bowl game ever. Eddie Lacy rampaged for 140 yards, AJ McCarron threw for 264 and four touchdowns and Alabama (13-1) did, basically, whatever it wanted.

Alabama players called a meeting shortly after their arrival in Florida, and some mused that it reflected a fracture in the focus of the defending champs. But the stoicism the Crimson Tide demonstrated all week turned out to be determination to kick the ever-loving tar out of the Irish on Monday.

It required Alabama only five plays to find the end zone. Lacy was the sledgehammer — and the Irish helped by leaning into the swing with two penalties — and it was 7-0 after the longest touchdown drive and the first first-quarter touchdown allowed by Notre Dame all season.

The Irish's answer was a three-and-out. Then it was more Lacy and more evisceration, with the junior's 20-yard run setting up a 3-yard McCarron touchdown pass to tight end Michael Williams to make it 14-0. Then another punt, then more curb-stomping, this time 25-yard and 28-yard McCarron completions setting up a T.J. Yeldon touchdown run.

One play into the second quarter, Alabama had evacuated nearly all hope from the building for Notre Dame. It was a 21-0 lead, arrived at brutally, with special indifference to destiny and fortune. Alabama was destroying everything Notre Dame built over a brilliant season, stomping validation into a million little pieces.

Just before halftime, McCarron clinically moved Alabama down the field, lofting a 27-yard pass to Christion Jones and then dumping one off to Lacy, who spun and spun and rumbled into the end zone for a 28-0 lead. The resilient Irish had no answers, the stout defense had no chance.

There was a flicker of promise to begin the second half, and Alabama safety HaHa Clinton-Dix snuffed it out with an acrobatic interception. From there, a bad night for the Irish defense got worse. Alabama started a 92-yard march that ended with McCarron hitting a completely uncovered Amari Cooper for 34 yards and a 35-0 lead.

Notre Dame finally responded with an 85-yard drive to an Everett Golson 2-yard option keeper for a touchdown to make it 35-7, ending the Tide's 108-minute shutout streak in BCS championship appearances. When McCarron answered with another scoring toss to Cooper, all that was left was getting out alive and figuring where to go from here.

After that last title in 1988, won by another unlikely champion in the third year of an energizing coach's tenure, the pall descended. After Lou Holtz, it was Bob Davie and George O'Leary's resume and Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis' decided schematic advantage, and it was nothing but false positives and failed plans.

Then Brian Kelly arrived in the winter of 2009. If the cloud lifted, it was still hazy at times. There was Matt James and Declan Sullivan and Lizzy Seeberg and sideline tirades and temporary fractures in the locker room amid two passable eight-win seasons. There was no definable reason to expect a title run to happen this year, and then it did.

It seemed, regardless of the outcome Monday, Notre Dame might be a fully functional college football leviathan humming along. Then came the mighty Tide and a dent in the validation. The Irish making it this far proves a great deal. The Irish absorbing such a bracing setback means they must prove much more.

So off they went, dazed and empty-handed. All around them the new college football dynasty celebrated. All around them, Notre Dame saw what it desperately wanted to become.

Off they went, into the tunnels, a brilliant season ending well short of legend. And the Irish would do what everyone before them had done for a quarter-century, and wake up in the morning just waiting to get back.

Twitter @ChiTribHamilton

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