Derailing the Locomotive

Author: Michael Rodio ’12

Editor’s note: Michael Rodio ‘12, former magazine intern, frequent contributor and editor of the Daily Domer, will be covering home Notre Dame football games for us from the press box this season and writing them up in his own take on classic mid-century American sportswriting." Here’s his first entry:

As Tommy Rees strapped on his burnished gold helmet, he heard two roars crashing through the South Bend bluster.

First was the growling chuff of a locomotive. The black-and-gold Purdue defense echoed across the battle lines, snarling in anticipation.

But deeper and more distressing was the dark grumble from the many thousands in the Notre Dame Stadium benches. With the band’s sonorous metal blowing martial sounds, Rees trod through boos that tore the Stadium’s concave.

For three quarters the Irish defense had thrown barrier and brick in the way of the northbound train. Despite occasional brilliance from jackrabbit Irish quarterback Everett Golson, Notre Dame and Purdue were at a deadlock. The Fighting Irish, resplendent in their Madonna blue and papal gold, could not derail the charging steam engine from West Lafayette.

Notre Dame started their fourth quarter drive with a spark of promise. As the stout Purdue defense closed its trap around nimble Golson, however, Notre Dame collapsed into a chaotic series of misfires. When Purdue picked up the football with 10:30 to play, Irish fans saw nightmares of last year’s fourth-quarter failures.

The Boilermakers and the Irish locked, boxers gasping for air, and exchanged three-and-outs. Both defensive lines were the game’s most impressive platoons. Purdue suffered once again at the hands of the Irish front seven. Stephon Tuitt dashed a jailbreak two-step behind enemy lines and reintroduced quarterback Robert Marve to the stadium soil face-first. Mighty Purdue lineman Nnamdi Ezenwa returned the favor to Golson during the next series.

Then dynamite Purdue defensive back Josh Johnson – who gave the Irish offense fits all afternoon – sacked Golson on the very next play, knocking the quarterback’s throwing arm numb and capturing the ensuing fumble to force the Irish defense into a goal line stand.

The fierce battle first turned against Purdue as big Louis Nix III mauled Marve. Danny Hope sent Caleb TerBush back into the conductor’s booth.

Notre Dame Stadium rose to its feet, the crowd urging the Irish defense on as the crazy train’s steam gauges surged into the red. But TerBush slipped a fourth-down dagger through the defense’s armor and Antavian Edison once again lighted into the end zone on a do-or-die pass. Notre Dame groaned as Purdue evened the odds, 17-17.

Golson was still hurting from his recent hit. So with two minutes to play and a battalion of starters waylaid by the black-gold plow, Brian Kelly turned to Rees, his maligned game manager, and asked for a score.

With no timeouts left, Rees lobbed grenades into enemy territory. By seeming miracles he conjured snaps in time and delivered strikes into his receivers’ hands. With luck Rees found John Goodman and piston-legged flanker Robby Toma, who dashed to the 21 yard line. Theo Riddick scrambled to the 10. The Boilermaker defense steaming, Rees nimbly spiked, shuffled and spiked into kicking position.

With the clock stopped, Notre Dame Stadium held its breath. Replacement kicker Kyle Brindza – who had missed his first career field goal that same afternoon – delivered a perfect kick to seal the Irish victory, 20-17.

Rees may have busted the Boilermakers, but the Notre Dame crowd – perhaps selfishly – was yet unwilling to grant him his redemption, regardless of the score.

They had grounds for skepticism.

Rees’s drive was an ugly possession straight out of last season’s forgettable offense. He completed only half his passes, with several sailing past his downfield men. His Homeric pre-snap reads nearly doomed the possession more than once. And while he did effectively maneuver the ball into the ideal position for Brindza’s field goal, one wonders if he could have simply maneuvered past the goal line instead. Notre Dame will suffer if they play this way against Michigan State.

Golson was not perfect either. Yet he concocted two touchdowns, enough to win the day even with Purdue’s titanic defensive front – particularly Kawaan Short and Bruce Gaston – manhandling the wholly mortal Irish line.

At first the Irish offense nearly vanished in the far rim of darkness. But Golson flashed a spark of brilliance as he unleashed a javelin to tight end Troy “Hercules” Niklas. With Danny Hope daring the Irish to pass, Golson flashed a second lightning bolt 41 yards to DaVaris Daniels, who stumbled on a Boilermaker short of the yet-undiscovered end zone still shrouded in a fog of war.

Golson mustered his electric courage once more. He swung around the Purdue edge and careened through space and time and Boilermakers until finally, as if borne upon angelic cantilever, he touched leather to pylon. In dubious battle, a dubious score: only when confirmed by review and copperfastened by Divine Providence did the referees make the touchdown canonical.

Golson’s play was predictably shaky at times. He began the second-half campaign and immediately resumed the uncertain oscillation between forward progress and dropping the football. But then he navigated two rockets to Tyler Eifert and the Irish found themselves in striking distance thanks to the sure-handed All-American end. Slotback T.J. Jones navigated the south end zone, giving Golson a second touchdown man.

Both Purdue quarterbacks found ways to slither like quicksilver through tight Irish fists. Once, mercurial Marve capitalized on butterfingered Irish tackling to reignite his stalled offense. With halftime looming, Marve wrenched the Boilermaker throttle forward, charging into the Notre Dame line. The locomotive leaped to life and chuffed happily through flimsy arm-tackles to the goal. Time after time the Irish blockade withstood the smoking hot locomotive’s advance. But Marve finally punctured the splintering blue-and-gold firmament with his first missile to Antavian Edison.

Saturday’s battle was a grueling endeavor, and Danny Hope can congratulate his men for keeping a plucky Fighting Irish squad on the ropes for much of the afternoon. Purdue has a better team than it had last year.

Hope’s brass beast of a locomotive smashed through the Irish defense frequently enough to keep the contest close. But he may have underestimated Kelly’s feisty reserves. Notre Dame today had the courage never to submit or yield; and after derailing a locomotive, what is else not to be overcome?

Michael Rodio, who was this magazine’s spring intern, writes for the Daily Domer, a new Notre Dame news site.