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Feeling a sense of urgency

Matt Lozar | Friday, September 19, 2003

The glory feels so far away.

Dating back to the end of the 2002 season, the Irish have lost three of their last four games, been outscored 136-48 and seen the offense reach the end zone only twice, both in the fourth quarter against Washington State.

All of the anticipation and buildup during the 2002 Return to Glory season survived the one-sided losses to USC and North Carolina State. Students, fans and alumni – actual and subway – talked about Notre Dame football all summer and felt this team realistically had a chance at another double-digit win season. The miraculous comeback against Washington State to open the season made it appear as if the magic carried over from last year.

But then came the Michigan game. In front of a national television audience, the Irish did what they did in 2002 – get an early opportunity, courtesy of a Courtney Watson forced fumble, to take the crowd out of it. But this time, the offense couldn’t convert and the Wolverines took over the game and rolled to an easy 38-0 victory.

Standing at 1-1, the Irish are already at a crossroads in their season. After Saturday’s game against Michigan State, three of the next five games are on the road and three of the next five opponents currently sit in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll. All five teams qualified for a bowl in 2002.

Combining the disappointing start to this season with the quality of the schools in the upcoming weeks, the Irish know Saturday’s game most likely will determine how the tone for the rest of the season.

“After what happened on Saturday, as a player and a coach, the pressure and sense of urgency is at a level it hasn’t been for awhile,” linebacker Courtney Watson said.

A long season

Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham loss to Michigan brings back memories of a loss from a four seasons ago.

In 1999, Willingham’s Stanford team lost its first game of the season to Texas 69-17. The Cardinal defense, in current Notre Dame defensive coordinator Kent Baer’s first game at Stanford, allowed 178 rushing yards and 380 passing yards. Texas was ahead 48-10 at the half. Last week, the Irish gave up 38 points, 188 yards rushing and 251 yards passing.

Willingham’s coaching philosophy then, just as it is now – don’t dwell on it too much because it is only one game.

“What we did is the same thing we do with any loss – you’re very positive about the things that were good, and you really try to make quick and decisive adjustments about the things that were bad,” Willingham said. “Then, you move forward because one game, if that’s the only game we lose, I think that will be an excellent season. But what you have to do is focus on the next game. You can’t stay in the past nor can you get ahead of yourself to the future.”

While his Stanford team did lose four games during that 1999 season, Willingham lead the Cardinal to its first Rose Bowl appearance in 27 years.

That line of thinking might appease Notre Dame fans more if the Michigan loss wasn’t part of disappointing Irish showings against their past three ranked opponents. After starting his initial season 8-0, fans began to believe everything was back to the way it’s supposed to be under the Golden Dome. The past seven games has changed their way of thinking, but not Willingham’s.

“I would prefer to look at it from the total. I know there are those who prefer to look at individual parts of it,” Willingham said. “There are some that will probably focus on, what is it, four of the last seven? That’s a preference.”

It may be a preference, but Willingham and the players know things at Notre Dame are better than they should be when the team is winning and worse than they actually are when the team is losing. Right now, it feels pretty bad.

A difficult stretch

Only at Notre Dame is an opponent like Michigan State considered easy. The almost impossible beginning of Notre Dame’s schedule this year has given Saturday’s game must-win status.

The players know coming to Notre Dame brings the kind of schedule where week-in and week-out the team on the opposite sideline is rarely a cupcake. The Irish’s recent up-and-down play doesn’t bode well for a slate as difficult as this one.

“It’s obviously a concern to play inconsistent especially when you play a schedule like ours when you have ‘warm-up’ games,” Watson said. “Every game we play counts, and we are going to get everybody’s best shot. That’s definitely a problem. We need to get it straightened out of why can’t we play at a high level every time.”

Notre Dame goes to West Lafayette, Ind. next weekend to face a Purdue team returning 18 starters. The Boilermakers will have revenge on their mind after losing to the Irish last year while not even giving up an offensive touchdown.

Two weeks later, the Irish travel to Pittsburgh and face a Panthers team everybody is choosing to challenge for the Big East title with Miami and Virginia Tech. Just like the Boilermakers, the Panthers have a vendetta against the Irish after they outgained Notre Dame 402-185 last year but still lost.

Then the major rivalries begin. USC comes to Notre Dame Stadium one week later and the Irish travel out to Boston College seven days after that. To close out the grueling stretch, a reinvigorated Florida State team comes to South Bend 10 years after the famous Game of the Century and one year after being embarrassed at home.

While the difficult schedule is expected, even this year it appears harder than usual. Seven of the first eight games against bowl opponents – three of them BCS teams – to open the season means this weekend is the only game against a non-postseason team from 2002. That’s why it is so important.

“That’s part of being a Notre Dame player. At Notre Dame every game is a big game,” linebacker Derek Curry said. “We come out every game like we have to prove something, like we have our backs to the wall. Every game is like that for us.”

A must-win game

A loss like last Saturday’s will never leave a team. Not this week, not this year, it probably will never be forgotten in the Notre Dame-Michigan series. The difficulty comes in not dwelling on the loss but keep that memory inside to stay motivated. That’s why not only Willingham, but leaders like Watson are trying to get this team to never forget what it felt like when it walked off the field.

“I think what you do is you try to move on and learn from it and get ready for a next team,” Watson said. “You never forget about how poorly you played.

“You never forget about how you were embarrassed on national television.”

According to Watson, correcting what went wrong in the Big House isn’t up to the coaches. He said after the game the team has to do some soul-searching and look inside to see what each individual can do to prevent something like last week from happening again. Just strapping on the gold helmet every week is going to strike fear in opponents the quality the Irish are playing.

“I think all of the pressure should be put on the players, from the players, because at this point, it’s the players, not the scheme, not the coaches,” Watson said. “After the victory against Washington State everything was feeling good. We need to put the pressure on us. We can’t get back into the old forms of going out there and thinking we can win games just because we are Notre Dame.”

Even Willingham, who from the first day always has emphasized not putting too much importance on one game, acknowledges the importance of winning this weekend. He knows the team could find its spark this weekend, win 10 straight games and qualify for a BCS bowl. He also knows his team could drop its fourth of five games, stay dejected and be in for a very long season.

“There is a great sense of urgency because that game left a more bitter taste in the mouth. If that’s the only game we lose and we finish the season strong, it’s a good year. But at the same time no one likes to not have a good performance, none of these guys do,” Willingham said. “Michigan State would love to have us thinking about the game we just played.

“They would come in here and beat our brains out. We are not going to feel sorry about what happened.”

As he always does, Willingham has his team focused on the task at hand. The Irish know if they think too much about Michigan, the season is all but over.

“I think great competitors and great teams don’t look back on the past whether they win or lose,” Curry said. “You still have to move forward. If you focus on the past, you will never be able to move forward.”