Written by Justin Prince.

As my father and I headed down the road passing corn field after corn field on the way from West Virginia to South Bend, Indiana, on Friday ahead of Marshall’s Saturday football game, we talked about the history of the University of Notre Dame. We talked about coaches like Knute Rockne and WV-native Lou Holtz. We talked about all the great players that had suited up for the Fighting Irish like Joe Montana, Paul Hornung, George Gipp, Jerome Bettis, and Tim Brown. We talked about the national titles that have been won by the “Golden Domers” and how the 77,622-seat Notre Dame Stadium was one of the cathedrals of college football. We even talked about how arguably one of the greatest football players of all time, Randy Moss, was very nearly a part of the Fighting Irish instead of the Thundering Herd.

Photo by Justin Prince.

We were excited to get to go to the game and soak all of that tradition and pageantry up in person. We also talked about our chances of a victory and how we felt that Coach Charles Huff had reinstilled the fearless swagger that Thundering Herd football had under coach Bob Pruett. The kind of attitude that propelled Marshall to victory over No. 6-ranked Kansas State in 2003 and pushed bluebloods like Ohio State and Georgia to the brink in 2004. We felt Huff was building that back, that this team had pieces to keep the game competitive, maybe even steal an upset. However, we both agreed that we would feel better about our chances if star running back Rasheen Ali, who led the nation in touchdowns last year, was available. Either way, we were going to be there and we were going to root on the Herd. But, first, we wanted to enjoy some of the local offerings of South Bend.

Our room was in a Quality Inn located a few miles from Notre Dame’s campus in the adjacent town of Mishawaka, Indiana. This was a room I had booked back in June as already hotels were beginning to fill up in the area on the weekends of Irish home football games. Because of the demand, the room was more expensive than typically expected for a Quality Inn at just under $200 a night. But, the Hotel was clean and the location was perfect. The clerk at the front desk pointed us to the Linebacker Lounge as a great place to grab a bite to eat and some drinks if we wanted an authentic Notre Dame experience. So, we headed there to spend our Friday night.

The spot was jumping with a mix of both Irish and Herd fans which was the first sign of how well the Herd faithful had traveled for this one. Inside the Linebacker Lounge, framed pictures and jerseys of Notre Dame greats lined the walls. The whole vibe of the place reminded me of The Union Bar and Grill back in Huntington. We made our way to the bar and ordered some drinks and a couple of burgers. Even with the heavy crowd, it didn’t take too long to get service and the burgers were absolutely fantastic. Some Notre Dame fans made small talk with us, asked about the accuracy of We Are Marshall, thanked us for making the trip and wished us good luck in the next day’s game. Despite the pleasantries (and there were lots of them, Notre Dame fans were by far the most hospitable and friendly opposing fan base I’ve ever encountered) it was clear that none of them felt truly threatened that Marshall could spoil their home opener.

Photo by Justin Prince.

The next morning we were joined by a couple of my long-term friends and fellow Marshall graduates and we made our way back down near the stadium to begin some tailgating. After finding a spot in the parking lot of a liquor store (is there any better location for a tailgate?) just across from campus and we took some drinks on the go and decided to sightsee. The Notre Dame campus is sprawling and beautiful with every building being uniform so that even the newer and more modern facilities have a vintage feel.

We saw the iconic “Touchdown Jesus” mural and walked through the Main Building, which was constructed in 1879 and is adorned with an ornate golden dome. Atop the dome is a 19-foot statue of the Virgin Mary. Inside everything about the building has a grandiose feel, fitting for an institution that carries the prestige that Notre Dame does.

Next door to the Main Building is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. To me, this was a highlight of the pregame festivities. Ground was broken on the church in 1870 and Vatican artist Luigi Gregori completed the intricate paintings on its ceilings over a period of 17 years. It’s a gorgeous piece of neo-gothic architecture and feels more like something you would see in the heart of Italy than it does a chapel in Northwestern Indiana.

After our sightseeing of the campus was finished, we managed to greet the team as they came off the bus. That’s when my Dad made a statement that turned out to prove prophetic. “These boys are focused,” he said. “They’re locked in, they aren’t here to lose.” After the team made their way inside the stadium, we decided to make our way back to our tailgate to prepare for the start of the game.

About twenty minutes before kickoff we made our way inside the stadium, which has a sprawling concourse and reminders of Notre Dame’s illustrious history hanging from the rafters. The stadium was originally constructed 93 years ago, and you can tell. That’s not a knock, I just mean that its history totally encompasses you the moment you enter its gates. Our seats where in the upper rows of the Marshall section, some may refer to them as the nose bleeds, but there is really no truly bad seat inside the stadium. If there were a complaint, it would have been the unrelenting sun that hammered our party for the duration of the game. Although, we only felt the effects of it afterwards when the adrenaline (and perhaps the alcohol) wore off.

Photo by Justin Prince.

As kickoff neared and the Notre Dame team made their traditional run from the tunnel with the Irish marching band forming an N and D on each side it was hard not to get chills. The Marshall crowd was easily 5,000 strong, probably larger and was raucous from the opening kickoff.  That energy from the fans only grew with each minute that passed and the Herd hung around. When Marshall broke the 0-0 tie with a Khalan Laborn touchdown run at the beginning of the second quarter the Herd faithful erupted with a “Let’s Go Herd” chant. Marshall wasn’t just beating Notre Dame; they were looking like the better team, dominating both lines of scrimmage and coming up with big plays.

The moment that I, and I think all the Marshall fans around me really thought we could win the game was after the Herd response to Notre Dame’s first touchdown. The Irish held a 7-6 lead and had stolen momentum with just three minutes to go in the half. Led by transfer quarterback Henry Colombi, Marshall calmly drove down the field and kicked a field goal in the waning seconds of the half to retake the lead. Notre Dame had punched in the mouth for the first time all day and the Herd didn’t flinch. They just punched back.

In the third quarter Marshall added to its lead 12-7 before a reeling Irish team finally landed another punch. Notre Dame took a 15-12 lead on a Tyler Buchner touchdown run in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter. Just like before, when Marshall got punched, they responded by punching back. After each team traded punts, The Herd pounded Notre Dame with body blow after body blow before Laborn delivered a haymaker on an electrifying 42-yard run that got Marshall inside the five-yard line. A couple plays later Colombi scrambling to his left, found tight end Devin Miller in the end zone for a touchdown putting the Herd back in front with just over five minutes to play. It was an impressive 94-yard drive that very well may go down in Herd history along with “The Kick” and Chad Pennington’s game-winning drive versus the Clemson Tigers in 1999.

Photo by Justin Prince.

The next possession for Notre Dame would seal their fate and the Marshall victory when Buchner’s pass was picked off by Steven Gilmore and returned 37 yards for a Thundering Herd touchdown. The Marshall section was in hysterics and many Notre Dame faithful headed for the exits as the Herd went up two scores 26-15. After another interception and a subsequent Marshall punt, Notre Dame would get a garbage time touchdown with 14 seconds left to make the score look better at 26-21. However, for those that watched the game, it was clear, this might have been an upset, but it was far from a fluke. It was one of the most complete efforts from a team I have ever witnessed and one of the most exhilarating victories.

To the credit of the Notre Dame fans, their hospitality didn’t end because of the loss. Several Irish faithful congratulated us on our way back to the car and wished us safe travels for our next day’s trip home. I know this trip and this game will become one of the most valuable memories of my life. I am thankful I was able to share it with great friends and the world’s best dad. As I get older, I find that these moments with my father hold greater and greater significance. In a place with so much history, on Saturday, it was the Thundering Herd who made their own and gave Marshall fans like me an unforgettable experience.

 

Facebook Comments