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Irish totally embarrassed

Andrew Soukup | Monday, September 15, 2003

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – What’s the only thing worse than hearing the Michigan student section chant “Houston’s better” to Notre Dame?

Hearing them chant it in the third quarter – twice.

Then again, maybe the Michigan fans had a point. After all, Houston – the team Michigan pancaked 50-3 the week before Saturday – at least managed a field goal.

That’s more than the Irish could say after they got bageled Saturday, after Carlyle Holiday threw for exactly one yard in the first half and after a defense that worked as well as a broken condom allowed Chris Perry and John Navarre to do anything they wanted.

“For the first time in a long time, I really can’t think of any words to explain how I’m feeling right now,” said Bob Morton, Notre Dame’s center and one of the most quotable players on the team.

A team claiming to be Notre Dame ran out of the tunnel at Michigan Stadium Saturday, but they didn’t play like Notre Dame. They donned gold helmets and jerseys that read “Irish” in tiny letters on the front, but they certainly weren’t the Fighting Irish.

Who would have thought Notre Dame’s 38-0 drubbing would have made the poorly organized Michigan ticket lottery look like a stroke of genius.

So, Tyrone, are you humiliated?

“Next question,” the Irish coach evenly replied, his steel gaze doing more damage than anything the Irish tried Saturday.

Whatever magic the Irish had left over from their 8-0 start has totally disappeared. Dating back to last season, the Irish have been outscored 136-48 in their last four games. And that includes a 19-point comeback against unranked Washington State a week ago.

Sure, the Irish have played top-ranked opponents. And Notre Dame Nation shouldn’t get caught on the rollercoaster of emotions that often follows tough losses by criticizing anything and everything Notre Dame-related.

But after Saturday’s embarrassment, it’s hard not to.

An inexperienced offensive line plagued the Irish all afternoon. If it wasn’t jumping early on fourth-and-short (like some did to kill a third-quarter drive), they were allowing Michigan’s front seven to pitch tents in the Irish backfield. And the rest of the Irish offense wasn’t much better.

A sorry performance by a highly-touted defense didn’t help, as Michigan’s offensive line manhandled one of the best defensive lines in recent Notre Dame history and allowed Chris Perry to stake his claim for the Heisman Trophy. But Carson Palmer knows Perry wouldn’t be the first to make his case for the college football’s pre-eminent award on national television against the Irish.

The coaches weren’t much better. Like the chicken and the egg, does offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick lack the personnel to implement the vaunted West Coast offense or is the Irish offense handicapped by questionable, conservative and predictable play calling? And how many more times will the Irish have to take timeouts on fourth down because it takes too long to send in a play?

When a team comes out as flat as it has against ranked opponents like Notre Dame did, you can’t help but wonder what happened to the well-prepared, well-disciplined squad of last year.

“We look at Michigan and we realize what kind of team we could be now,” Morton said. “We do have that talent. We do have that capability. Today, we didn’t play.”

Nobody wants to bring up the “Return to Glory” campaign of last year, but the way the Irish looked Saturday, you couldn’t help but wonder if this year will be the “Return to Davie.” Notre Dame looked more dejected after Saturday’s loss than they did against Boston College or USC or North Carolina State last year. Players tossed around words like “disgusted” and “frustrated” and “shocked.” Linebacker Courtney Watson, whose fumble-forcing hit on Navarre marked the high water point for the Irish Saturday, all but called out his teammates by saying the Irish have to do some “soul searching, or it’s gonna be a long season.”

But after those other big losses, when the Irish had to search their souls, nothing happened.

The Irish have to find the killer instinct that helped propel them into the upper echelons of college football last year. The Notre Dame team that crawled out of Michigan Stadium wasn’t the same one that edged the Wolverines at home last year. In fact, the Notre Dame team that suffered its worst loss since 1985 and the eighth-worst in school history wasn’t a Notre Dame team.

“We’re not that bad of a football team,” Holiday said. “Trust me.”

Can Irish fans believe him? After Saturday, nobody knows.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Andrew Soukup at asoukup@nd.edu.