NOTRE DAME — It wasn’t just the loss for Notre Dame, it was how it lost.
The sting was deep but, for the most part, is gone. Memories, however, remain vivid.
Eleven weeks ago Monday, March 25, ND football players were left reeling in the “what might have beens” and “what should have beens” amid the wreckage of Alabama’s runaway BCS National Championship victory.
After the dust cloud settled, T.J. Jones was as direct and to the point as any Fighting Irish player in an otherwise shell-shocked post-game locker room.
I asked him if ND’s remarkable season being remembered — and, more importantly, measured — by the loss was fair.
“They always say you’re as good as your last game, because that’s what people remember,” Jones said after the Jan. 7 contest. “They don’t remember how you won against Navy at the beginning of the year. People, at least some, base our season on how we played this last game and overlook we were the No. 1 team in the nation for a couple of weeks leading up to the game. You can’t separate this.”
Jones also said that after the prescribed grieving period, he and his Irish teammates would jump right into offseason workouts and play “with a chip on your shoulder.”
“Use it as motivation. Use it as this feeling you don’t want to feel again,’’ Jones said in January. “It’s been played. We lost and lost how we lost.
“Losing like this, getting blown out,” Jones said, “after the preparation from last spring, all the workouts, all the early mornings, the diving in the snow where you can’t feel your hands, to the intense heat during the summer ... it hurts. You didn’t play as well as you should have. All that hard work and preparation didn’t show.”
The Irish are out to change that. Right away.
As spring drills opened last week and Irish players were opened up Friday to the media, I reminded Jones of those comments.
He says nothing has changed.
“I still think it was great to go 12-1, but if you make it to the championship, it isn’t enough,” the senior wideout said. “So we’ve got to use that as a chip on our shoulder, to be that much more motivated for next year, to prove all the haters wrong.”
For that reason alone, Jones and the Irish were more than ready to get right into spring workouts.
Bennett Jackson, a senior DB who is sidelined following shoulder surgery, still remembers the BCS frustration. It lingers.
“Obviously we were disappointed. Everybody was disappointed. I took it to heart,” Jackson said Friday. “I was aggravated. I didn’t think we showed up the way we should have showed up. That’s on us.”
Jackson’s bitterness — then and now — is real, though far from consuming.
The Irish needed to separate the fine line of motivation from obsession.
“Now it’s more of a motivation ... you have to. At one point you have to adjust,” Jackson said. “You soak up all the misery from it and whatnot, but once you get back into it, you have to put it in the back of your mind and carry on.”
Players move forward in different ways, with alternative mindsets.
The goal, though, hasn’t changed. All sets of eyes are focused on another shot at a national title.
Spring ball isn’t a very big window, but seeing things clearly is a must.
“For me, it’s a great way to cleanse your mind. You get back to a new start ever spring,” Jones said. “There’s new things to work on, there’s new players in the locker room, new leadership roles.”
“Honestly, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a refreshing time. A lot of guys are over it,” Jackson said. “Now this is building new chemistry. That’s what we’re striving for — a new identity.”
DaVaris Daniels loves the idea of jumping back into the college football fire.
“I’m definitely ready for a fresh start, to come back and build up that hunger again,” said Daniels, a junior receiver. “The feeling to be around he guys, be zero and zero and hopefully get back to 12 and zero.”
Contact Bill Beck at email@example.com or Twitter @eTruthSports.