Dayne Crist: Three Yards from Glory

Editor’s note: The following is a guest column written by Anthony F. Kahn.

Do not walk next to Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist in a thunderstorm. Do not go 50/50 with him on a lottery ticket. And definitely do not go up with him in a hot air balloon. I’ve met and spoken with Dayne, and he is extremely polite and respectful. But he has to be the unluckiest college football player in America.

As a sophomore in 2009, Crist blew out his knee while doing mop-up duty for Jimmy Clausen against Washington State on Halloween. By all accounts he worked extremely hard to rehab his knee to get ready for the 2010 season. On a team with a new coach, a new offensive system, and a relatively inexperienced offensive line, Crist won his first ever start, giving Brian Kelly a victory to begin his Notre Dame coaching career.

After doing a credible job through the first eight games, he blew out his other knee against Tulsa, almost a year to the day of his previous injury. He would miss the remainder of the season (again) and go through a grueling rehab process (again). To make matters worse, he was “Wally Pipped” by freshman Tommy Rees.

But Crist, a senior, participated in this year’s spring practice and beat out Rees for the starting job in Notre Dame’s opener. Things went downhill quickly from there. But in the quirky world of sports, it would have taken only three yards for Crist to have had a decent chance of being on the Notre Dame top ten list of quarterbacks.

Yard One

The first life-changing (as far as football is concerned) yard came in the second game of the 2010 season at Notre Dame Stadium against Michigan. On the 12th play of ND’s opening drive, Crist completed a pass just short of the goal line. On play 13, Crist snuck it in for a touchdown. The fact that the receiver didn’t break the plane on the previous play, however, proved quite costly, as Crist took a blow to the head during his carry. Experiencing double vision, he did not return to the game until the second half, when ND had fallen behind 21-7. Crist helped put the Irish in front late in the game, but Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson showed the first signs of his greatness, scoring with less than 40 seconds left to give the Wolverines a 28-24 victory.

Yard Two

Notre Dame began this season with a relatively weak schedule, a top-25 ranking, and great expectations. The Irish opened against South Florida that was supposed to serve as a warm-up for the first night game ever at Michigan Stadium the following week. After a touchback, Notre Dame started the 2011 season at its own 20 with Crist at quarterback. Six plays later, ND faced second-and-goal on the South Florida two. After one Irish running back was stopped less than a yard from the goal line, Kelly turned to another to try and punch it in.

But this is “Yard Two” for the unlucky Crist. The Notre Dame replacement back fumbled and a South Florida defender picked it up and ran 96 yards untouched for a touchdown—a 14-point swing to start the season. From there, Crist’s world began to crumble: 5-of-15 passing for 38 yards with an interception after the initial drive, an apoplectic coach, and a 16-0 halftime deficit.

When the second half began, Rees was taking the snaps. Notre Dame ended the day with an 0-1 record and a new starting quarterback. Crist’s hard-earned job had lasted all of 30 minutes.

Crist in the 2010 season opener, one game before “Yard Two.” (Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Yard Three

Fast forward seven weeks. After an 0-2 start, Notre Dame rolled off four straight wins before Southern Cal came to town for the first night game in South Bend in a generation. A win here and the only thing standing in ND’s way of a BCS bowl are four relative cupcakes and a win at Stanford two days after Thanksgiving. But after a little over 26 minutes of play, the Irish have bumbled their way to a 17-0 deficit.

Late in the third quarter, however, ND was down just seven and driving in USC territory. That’s when Rees got hurt and Crist entered the game, leading the Irish to the three-yard line. But for reasons that are unclear, Kelly decided to replace Crist at this critical moment with Andrew Hendrix, who took the ball himself, coming up less than a yard short of the goal line. That was “Yard Three,” and it may have been the cruelest yard of all.

Instead of leaving Hendrix on the field, Kelly sent Crist back in for his second 40-yard sprint in less than 30 seconds. And for the first time in the game, he put Crist under center instead of in a shotgun formation. Disaster was only seconds away. After a botched snap and an unlucky bounce, a USC defender scooped the fumble and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown.

A play you would expect to go against you about once every 20 years had happened for the second time in four home games. It was another 14-point swing, another stadium-deflating play, and another loss blamed by many on Dayne Crist.

Five games remain in Notre Dame’s 2011 season. Where it will end is anyone’s guess. Maybe Crist will get one more chance to get the monkey off his back. And as evidenced above, one can certainly ask how Dayne Crist’s life would be different if even one of the three yards had been gained. We’ll never know.

But in the long run, with a Notre Dame degree in hand, and considering the other positive attributes Dayne possesses, I’m pretty sure he’s going to experience a 180-degree change with respect to his luck for the rest of his life. And no one deserves it more.

—Anthony F. Kahn

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