HONOLULU - Through the wedges in the antique Aloha Stadium stands, you could see low-hanging clouds drifting across lush green mountaintops. The sun beat down. Coaches wore aloha shirts. "Blue Christmas" hummed over the sound system.
Notre Dame players showed up on the field with names on the back of their jerseys, reviving a bowl-game tradition dormant for two decades. Then Charlie Weis and his rickety knees settled into the press box to observe a program at the end of, he hoped, a 4,000-mile escape route from the doldrums of the previous two seasons.
'Twas the night before Christmas, and the scene at the Hawaii Bowl seemed blissfully odd, not that anyone in favor of short sleeves minded much. And maybe this was a jolt the Irish needed.
"We have something to hang our hats on," Irish wide receiver Golden Tate said. "We're trying to get Notre Dame back to where it's supposed to be."
An explosive 49-21 win over Hawaii on Wednesday night could be the gift that keeps on giving. It ended Notre Dame's dreary nine-game bowl losing streak. It allowed the Irish to sneak above the .500 mark on the season at 7-6. It provided some desperately needed momentum for a critical off-season.
A 401-yard passing day from Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen was the catalyst for a performance that incinerated the record book. Notre Dame set new bowl-game standards for points scored, total yards (478), passing yards (413), passing touchdowns (Clausen's five), completion percentage (Clausen's 84.6 on 22 of 26 passing), individual receiving yards and touchdown catches (Tate's 177 and three) and longest kickoff return (Armando Allen's 96-yarder for a score).
"That dang quarterback, he's going to be a Heisman Trophy guy," Hawaii coach Greg McMackin said of Clausen. "Every throw was right on the money."
The offense, with Weis calling the shots from the press box, was more crisp and diverse and imaginative than it had been in what seemed like eons. The result was 327 yards of offense in the first half alone - good for 9.1 yards per play.
"It felt good," said Clausen, who shared the game MVP trophy with Tate. "It's real easy for me to throw the ball to guys like Golden, Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, the list goes on. We were clicking."
Tate was the central beneficiary, notching another Notre Dame bowl record with his 137 yards receiving in the first half. His first touchdown catch, a 69-yarder, was the longest play from scrimmage for the Irish this season.
The offense's dominance overshadowed a stout performance by the Irish defense, which recorded eight sacks. It's a good thing the Irish decided to renew a tradition from the Ara Parseghian years, stitching names on the back of jerseys for bowl games after leaving them off during the regular season. This way the Warriors could properly identify the truck that demolished them.
It demonstrated no sign of abating in the second half. On the Irish's first possession of the second half, a six-play drive, four of the plays went for 13 or more yards. The biggest one was a 41-yard catch and run by Allen, setting up another 18-yard catch for a score and a 35-7 lead.
Hawaii fumbled the ball away on the ensuing possession, and Clausen found Tate for a 40-yard TD pass on a third and 20, a play that set the Notre Dame bowl record for points scored and tied the record for total yards.
After Hawaii's Greg Alexander and Aaron Bain hooked up for a 21-yard touchdown, Allen returned the kickoff 96 yards for another big-play touchdown.
As if that weren't enough, a rainbow shone in the distance. That was fine symbolism for the day, but a victory in paradise will mean little if Notre Dame don't build on this next season.
"This was a great step forward for us," Weis said. "It leads us into 2009 with a good taste in our mouths."