MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – After the debacle, the stages of grief were personified in the Notre Dame locker room.
Louis Nix III was denial and anger.
"They did not dominate us," the Fighting Irish nose guard insisted, after Alabama had pummeled the Fighting Irish 42-14. "Go back and look at the film. … I think they did have the best offensive line in the country, but they did not dominate our line. We just missed tackles.
"I wasn't shocked at them. I was shocked at us, how we performed, on a national stage, biggest game of our lives."
Theo Riddick was depression.
The senior running back sat in front of his locker and sobbed. He wept so long that it seemed he would never stop. He cried into a towel. Then he put the towel over his head, rocking back and forth, still crying. Then he took the towel off and cried some more as coaches and teammates consoled him, before walking into the showers.
Finally, Mike Golic Jr. and Kapron Lewis-Moore were acceptance – and with acceptance came a glimmer of perspective.
The two fifth-year seniors shared an embrace. Minutes earlier, Golic had spoken with a quavering voice, battling emotion at the end of his Notre Dame career. Lewis-Moore's final game with the Fighting Irish ended with him on crutches, after a second-half knee injury.
"Hey, Kap," Golic said, wrapping his arms around his teammate. "Hell of a ride."
"We were at Syracuse, brother," Lewis-Moore responded.
Syracuse was the low moment of their time in gold helmets. It was November 2008 and the two were redshirt freshmen when the Irish lost at home to the Orange as a 19-point favorite. The Notre Dame students showed their anger over the perpetually underachieving state of the program by pelting their own players with snowballs.
Fast-forward from that ugly day to Monday night, where the weather was 50 degrees warmer and the attitude was 180 degrees different. The Irish fans couldn't love their undefeated, No. 1-ranked team enough, buying up more than half the 80,120 seats in SunLife Stadium to see them play Alabama for the national championship.
It was a great moment for the Notre Dame faithful.
Right up until kickoff.
Then it was an absolute nightmare.
After all the hard work to reach this point, playing for a national title for the first time in 24 years, Notre Dame's dream was crushed by a stampeding herd of crimson elephants in mere minutes. After five offensive snaps, Alabama led 7-0. After 15 offensive snaps, it was 14-0. After 23, it was 21-0.
"Alabama came out with their hair on fire," safety Matthias Farley said.
Notre Dame responded by running a Chinese fire drill. The Irish were too sloppy tackling, too slow to the ball, too soft shedding blocks and too bewildered by everything Alabama hit them with.
The Tide toyed with the No. 1 scoring defense in America. Eddie Lacy ran at will. Then T.J. Yeldon ran at will. And when the Tide got bored with that, AJ McCarron passed at will.
The Irish looked like they thought this was two-hand touch instead of a contact sport.
"It was just awful," Farley said of the team's tackling.
Conservative estimates placed the number of missed Notre Dame tackles at 124. Or maybe it was 224. Shockingly, the worst offender might have been Notre Dame's best player, linebacker Manti Te'o. The Heisman Trophy runner-up was credited with three solo tackles and seven assists, but he seemingly missed as many stops as he made, diving vainly at ankles or grasping at air.
"I had a lot of opportunities to make certain plays," Te'o said, "and I didn't."
The Irish defense made so few plays that it bore virtually no resemblance to the unit that led this team to 12-0.
Notre Dame's defense didn't give up long touchdown drives – until this game. Then it watched 'Bama march 70 or more yards for scores five different times.
Notre Dame didn't give up red zone touchdowns – until this game. Then 'Bama showed ruthless red zone efficiency, going 5-for-5 scoring TDs inside the Irish 20.
Notre Dame didn't give up rushing touchdowns – until this game. After surrendering just two scores on the ground all season, Alabama equaled that total in the first 15:04 alone.
Notre Dame routinely took the ball away from opponents (23 times) and sacked quarterbacks (34 times) – until this game. The Irish had zero takeaways and zero sacks.
"It definitely sucks, to be honest," Te'o said. "But I wouldn't trade this team for anything."
After just a quarter, the viewing public wished very much that it could have traded Notre Dame for someone – anyone – who could give Alabama a decent game.
Nick Saban has thoroughly squeezed the drama out of this event, turning two consecutive hugely touted championship games into boring routs. But if you thought last year's 21-0 skunking of LSU was a bust, it was nothing compared to this year.
So here's the deal: If it snows on your campus, you're no longer invited to play for the BCS national championship.
Notre Dame? Beat it. You can join Ohio State and any other cold-weather northern team in playing some lesser bowl, against some lesser opponent from outside the league where they pick their teeth with the splintered bones of Yankee intruders.
That would be the Southeastern Conference, which has won seven crystal footballs in a row and clearly is never going to lose again in a title game.
Alabama is in full-on dynasty mode, winning its third title in four years. Florida, LSU and Auburn have all contributed to the SEC's crystal football haul as well.
(You fans of Tennessee, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas? Shut your mouths. Your teams have contributed nothing to this historic run. Stop bragging on other teams' work.)
But this is increasingly becoming the Crimson Tide's world more than an SEC-by-committee dynamic. Next season – the last before the advent of a four-team playoff format that, had it been in place this year, likely would have exposed Notre Dame in a semifinal – looks like another Saban sack dance. His team is a cinch to start 2013 ranked No. 1.
As for the Irish? They proved this year that the program is not dead, as many had suspected and argued. But the mismatch Monday night proved that the program is not yet championship caliber, either.
That painful truth was worth grieving in the shell-shocked Notre Dame locker room when this beat down was over.
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