SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A golden dome glistened in the distance under a wondrous fall backdrop. The song about cheering for old Notre Dame and awakening echoes and shaking thunder from the sky played time and again.
The officials kept raising their arms to the heavens.
Or was that Touchdown Jesus?
UNLV’s football team Saturday experienced all that is playing the Irish at Notre Dame Stadium, all the history and tradition and pomp and circumstance.
The Rebels also learned a valuable lesson: One half of competent football won’t beat many folks on the road.
This isn’t your father’s or grandfather’s Notre Dame, but remains good enough to take advantage of the types of miscues UNLV offered. Most teams are.
The Rebels had consecutive punts blocked, for goodness sake. When does that happen?
The Irish sent UNLV away with a 44-21 loss before a massive green wave 73,165 strong, a game that was decided by halftime but not one the Rebels rolled over for those final 30 minutes.
They would compose themselves well the last two quarters, perhaps readying for by far the season’s most important handful of impending games.
Their goals are still more than attainable.
Their dreams of a postseason berth still very much alive.
A heavyweight fight
“The message for us is that we’re now in position where we wanted to be from stepping into our building on Jan. 1 and coming back from last season,” said Rebels coach Marcus Arroyo. “The goal was to write a special story, and now we have that opportunity. We have to understand what it’s going to take.
“We’re in the middle of a heavyweight fight. You’re going to take some blows. You have to be able to get up and fight back.”
They couldn’t get out of their own way early here, trailing 30-7 at halftime. They had more penalties (four) than first downs (three) at intermission. They wouldn’t covert a third down over 12 tries all day.
Few teams need a bye to get healthy like the Rebels, who will take next week off before traveling to San Diego State on Nov. 5. Few teams need their starting quarterback more.
It would have been interesting had Doug Brumfield (concussion) played Saturday instead of missing his second straight game. It wouldn’t have changed a final outcome — Notre Dame was just bigger, stronger, better — but fascinating all the same to see what he might have accomplished.
As it is, he and starting running back Aidan Robbins (knee) sat and watched.
As it is, UNLV desperately needs Brumfield back. It’s just not good enough without him.
This is where things stand: The Rebels are 4-4 and have lost three straight by a combined score of — ouch — 126-35. They end with games at San Diego State, home to Fresno State, at Hawaii and home to UNR.
All winnable games with Brumfield.
Two wins from being bowl eligible.
From realizing those goals and dreams.
What’s at stake
This wasn’t meant to be from the jump. Notre Dame spent the final quarter imposing its physical will, and UNLV’s defense — which played admirably that first half when handed numerous short fields — predictably wilted.
The Irish — who would throw just three passes over their last two drives, all of the shovel variety — scored a final touchdown with 2:55 remaining.
And then the song played again. The one about cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame, wake up the echoes cheering her name, send a volley cheer on high, shake down the thunder from the sky …
And then the Rebels began to smartly look ahead.
“There’s not much rallying to do,” said UNLV linebacker Austin Ajiake. “Our guys are fired up and ready to go. We know what we’re fighting for these last four games. It has to be our best brand of football in all three (phases). Guys are ready and prepared. We know what’s at stake.”
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at [email protected] He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter