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November 20, 2013

The senior day saga

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Whether it's the culmination of a brilliant collegiate career or a welcome turn of the page, running out of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel for the final time is a memorable event in any football player's career.

This Saturday, more than two dozen seniors - some of which will return for the 2014 season - will run out of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel and take on BYU. How that impacts key participants in the lineup will be on the mind of Irish head coach Brian Kelly.

"It's always a concern," said Kelly Tuesday in anticipation of Notre Dame's clash with 7-3 BYU. "The emotional impact is always measured because you certainly don't want your players playing emotionally. You want enthusiasm.

"We'll be talking about that balance between the emotions of the last game and the enthusiasm of playing in your last game. We have to make sure we balance it because we've got quite a few seniors like BYU."

In BYU, the Irish will be taking on a better-than-normal senior day opponent. At 7-3, the Cougars - with a game at Nevada the following weekend to conclude the 2013 regular season - likely will finish with a better record than most of the opponents that have come into Notre Dame Stadium to conclude the home portion of the Irish slate.

Since the Lou Holtz era began in 1986, the Irish have played 27 home finales, 13 of which have come against opponents that finished with a sub-.500 record. Notre Dame's last 27 home-finale opponents had a combined 149-169 record. Last season, Notre Dame's seniors went out on a high note with a 38-0 victory over 5-7 Wake Forest.

In fact, of the last 12 home finales, the Irish have played eight games against sub.-500 squads, including 4-8 Boston College in 2011 (a 16-14 Irish victory), 1-11 Duke in 2007 (28-7), 3-9 Army in 2006 (41-9), 1-10 Syracuse in 2005 (34-10), 1-11 Rutgers in 2002 (42-0) and 0-10 Navy in 2001 (34-16).

Notre Dame has won 10 of its last 13 home finales and 19 of 27 since the start of the Holtz era. Six of Holtz's first eight home finales came against ranked opponents (see chart).

Charlie Weis lost his last two home finales - 24-23 to a 3-9 Syracuse team in 2008 and 33-30 in double-overtime against an 8-5 Connecticut squad. Tyrone Willingham's final Irish squad (2004) lost, 41-38, to 8-4 Pittsburgh.

Here are the home-finale records of the last five Irish head coaches: Holtz 7-4, Bob Davie was 4-1, Willingham 2-1, Weis 3-2 and Kelly 3-0, including a 28-3 victory over No. 15 Utah, which would go on to finish 10-3. Only 12-0 and No. 3-ranked Penn State (1986) had a better record than Utah among the last 27 Irish home finales.

The last ranked squad to come into Notre Dame Stadium for the Irish senior day prior to Utah was No. 25 Boston College in 1999 (a 31-29 loss).

Two of the more memorable home finales came in back-to-back years (1992-93). With snow covering much of the Notre Dame Stadium field, the Irish trailed Penn State, 16-9, on Nov. 14, 1992 during the pre-overtime days. Rick Mirer's short touchdown pass to Jerome Bettis with 20 seconds remaining pulled the Irish to within one, and Mirer's two-point conversion toss to a diving Reggie Brooks gave the Irish a 17-16 victory.

A year later, on the heels of a 31-24 victory over No. 1 Florida State, the Irish made a furious comeback against No. 16 Boston College, only to lose, 41-39, on David Gordon's 41-yard field goal as time expired. The loss ruined Notre Dame's perfect season and cost the Irish a shot at playing for the national championship.

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