Will bitter end hurt what Notre Dame started in 2012?

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla – His reaction spoke for a team, its fan base, along with the 30,000-plus that joined him inside a humid and eventually humbling  stadium Monday night.

It took just two possessions for his Notre Dame team to show they would struggle against Alabama’s defense. In the same amount of offensive series, the Crimson Tide proved they would not be stopped on this night.

By the time A.J. McCarron hit Michael Williams for their second touchdown in as many possessions, this fan could only mutter one thing to his fan in the corner of the end zone at Sun Life Field.

“Wow.”

The “Shock and Awe” of Alabama’s start to their 42-14 dismantling of top ranked Notre Dame proved to be the rude awakening that Irish fans feared might happened against a Crimson Tide team that was the champion the year before and just three seasons removed from another BCS Championship. Tackles were missed, runs were stuffed, and dreams of ending a 24-year national championship drought were just about over after 30 minutes of play.

“Maybe Alabama doesn’t come back in the second half,” Irish coach Brian Kelly bluntly told ESPN during his halftime interview when asked how his team could find a way to stop the inevitable.

With the question of the result out-of-the-way for most of the second half the more pressing inquiry became this: Does one loss in the BCS National Championship game negate 12 victories without a defeat in the regular season?

“That was a really good football team on the other side today and we recognize that,” said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick when asked how the loss in Miami Gardens changes the perception of the season. “As Brian (Kelly) said, we’re not there yet, but you can’t let that obscure the fact that no one else is there yet either.

“We used this year to change the trajectory of this program completely.”

Now it may be back at the championship level not seen since the early 1990s. Notre Dame earned its first number one ranking in 19 years in the second-to-last week of the regular season and completed its first undefeated season since 1988-the same year they last won the championship.

“I think it’s easy to look at the positives,” said Kelly of the season. “First of all, it sets a bar for your entire program. We all now know what we have to do to move from where we are, which is a 12-0 football team, pretty darned good football team, but not good enough.”

A number of players echoed similar sentiments following the game, including a number of players from the Indianapolis area. Brothers and former Chatard lineman Zack and Nick Martin each figure into the plans for the Irish in 2013 as they make their way back to this point again.

“Its tough right now after such a bad loss,” said Zack Martin of reflecting on the impact of the season on the program. “I’m sure we’ll sit back and look. We had a great season. We were 12-0 during the regular season. Yeah we wanted to finish it out and be the national champs but it gives us something to work for in the future.”

Motivation, according to former Warren Central player and Irish defensive end Sheldon Day, could be the best thing the team takes from the humbling finish to the 2012 season.

“We know what it takes now to get to a national championship. We know we just have to take it a step farther,” said Day. “We’ll work hard next year and use this as motivation to come back and win and do it.”

Rhetoric, however, won’t make up the 28-point difference between the Irish and the Crimson Tide. Kelly understands this, stressing the importance of building the program on a number of levels in hopes of competing with the SEC. Monday’s victory marks the seventh straight season in which a team from the conference has been crowned the national champion.

“We’ve got to get physically stronger, continue to close the gap there, and just overall you need to see what it looks like. Our guys clearly know what it looks like,” said Kelly. “When I say “know what it looks like,” a championship football team. They’re back-to-back national champs. So that’s what it looks like. Measure yourself against that, and I think it was pretty clear across the board what we have to do.

“And again, I don’t want to minimize the fact that we have made incredible strides to get to this point. Now it’s pretty clear what we need to do to get over the top.”

That way the “Wow” factor can be directed by the Notre Dame fan at his own team.

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