Unlikely cast writes happy ending for Irish

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- When the first students poured out of the stands, Notre Dame receiver Duval Kamara reacted with trepidation.

"I didn't know what was going on," he said. "I had to get away from there."

The senior had never seen a scene quite like this. It's a tradition for senior to take pictures on the Notre Dame Stadium field after the final home game, but usually they'll stroll down the aisles. On Saturday, they raced out of the bleachers, underclassmen and non-students following suit to mob the players. The last time anyone remembers that even developing was the 2005 USC game, when the Bush Push sent disappointed students scurrying back into the stands.

There's no other way to describe it: Notre Dame fans stormed the field. Against Utah. What would Rockne and Leahy think about that?

Releasing pent-up frustration can cause intense and unexpected celebration. The Irish's 28-3 upset of the No. 14 Utes was their first win against a ranked team in 12 tries, dating to 2006. They played easily their best game of the season while evening their record at 5-5, keeping previously unlikely bowl hopes alive. It was the first Senior Day victory since 2007.

And after three weeks of nothing but losing on and off the field, no team or school needed a moment like this more.

"Since I've been here, we haven't beaten a ranked opponent, and we really never put a game together like we did today," senior safety Harrison Smith said. "Just seeing ourselves do that is going to be good for the whole program moving forward."

Forget the names on the jerseys. Utah has had a much better program the past decade than Notre Dame. The Irish played like the underdogs with nothing to lose.

"We were taking a huge load off our shoulders and going back and just being college students and football players," coach Brian Kelly said. "Not carrying all the burdens of everything that goes along with being a Notre Dame football player and the great tradition and championships."

The Irish shrugged off their recent tradition of getting physically manhandled and wilting in the fourth quarter with a thoroughly dominant performance. That seemed wildly unlikely, given that their best team might have been wearing sweatpants; Kyle Rudolph, Armando Allen, Dayne Crist, Ian Williams, Theo Riddick and T.J. Jones were among the many walking wounded on the home sidelines. What kind of odds could you have gotten in August that Notre Dame would beat a Top 15 team in November behind the strength of guys like Kamara, Tommy Rees, Jonas Gray, Austin Collinsworth and Prince Shembo?

Kelly gambled with a risky pass-play call at the end of the Tulsa game that cost the team a victory. With true freshman Rees making his first start at quarterback, Kelly simplified things this time.

"Our theme this week was get it into the fourth quarter, and let's put this nonsense to bed that you can't win games in the fourth quarter," he said.

Instead of spreading the field, the Irish kept two tight ends in for most of the game, running the ball 29 times while passing it only 20. Kelly said he called "powers" -- running plays with two tight ends -- 18 times against Utah after using it only five times the entire season.

Notre Dame owned the trenches; Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said his team "never had any semblance of control of the line of scrimmage." The Irish forced three Utes turnovers while giving away none. Robert Blanton blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone for Notre Dame's first non-offensive score of the season. Utah, looking punch drunk still from last week's 47-7 loss to TCU, failed to score a touchdown for the first time in 45 games.

The killer instinct that the Irish lacked all year? Thirteen seconds into the second half, they increased their lead to 21-3 by forcing a fumble on the kickoff and then pouncing for a touchdown pass the next play.

Kelly didn't have three of his top four receivers, his leading running back and his starting quarterback. But Rees threw three touchdown passes, and Kamara -- who had seven catches all season coming into Saturday -- caught two scores for his best game since his freshman year.

The rainy day seemed fitting for the home finale, as a black cloud had hung over Notre Dame for the past weeks. The stunning losses to Navy and Tulsa, the tragic death of student videographer Declan Sullivan, calls from some quarters for Kelly and others to be fired because of the Sullivan incident -- they all took their toll.

Players for the most part steered clear of talking about that adversity and said Saturday's win was about sending the senior class out on the right note. The past two senior classes suffered the indignation of losing to Syracuse and Connecticut in their final home game.

"Just knowing we got a big win on senior week when we haven't won one in years feels good," receiver Michael Floyd said. "That's what we really wanted."

This win was about more than that, though. It was about the pain from years of frustrating setbacks and oh-so-close losses finally releasing its grip. It was about embracing the possibility that maybe things will change -- and that it won't be so long before students storm the field again.

"That's how it should be," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "We should give our fans what they want."