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Coaches must find answers

Joe Hettler | Tuesday, October 28, 2003

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Irish coach Tyrone Willingham thought his team responded well in practice following its 45-14 blowout loss against USC last week. After watching the Irish make the same mistakes they have all season, a good week of practice didn’t make a difference.

The Irish had the same miscues and got the same result this weekend, losing their fifth game – this time against a very average Boston College team.

At this point in this dismal season, you have to question what the Notre Dame coaching staff is doing to improve their team, because it’s obvious their tactics are failing.

Give them credit, the team did make a nice comeback and looked solid for much of the fourth quarter before allowing Boston College’s game-wining field goal. Much of that credit should go to the coaching staff for putting the team in a position to make plays and overcome an 18-point deficit.

But before that comeback, Notre Dame once again came out flat and went into halftime trailing for the fifth time this season. Once again, the Irish ran the ball for negative yardage on numerous first downs and couldn’t convert a third-down play. And once again the special teams return coverage, which has had a tendency to give up big yards this season, gave up another one Saturday and put the Eagles in great position for a game-winning field goal.

Were the Irish prepared for Boston College? No. Did the team make the same mistakes as they did in losses to Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and USC? Most definitely.

While it’s easy to criticize the coaches and players for their struggling season up to Saturday, you have to give them a chance to right the wrongs. But it’s been too many consecutive weekends without improvement or positive consistency, and the coaches are mostly to blame.

An example of the poor coaching was when Willingham and defensive coordinator Kent Baer said after Saturday’s loss that neither knew why starting defensive tackle Darrell Campbell had not played in the second half. How those two could not know Campbell’s status and ability to return to the game is beyond any comprehension.

A few weeks ago, things didn’t seem so gloomy for Notre Dame. After the dominating win against Pittsburgh game, it seemed like this team had turned the corner. They had just beaten a top 20 team on the road, and done so convincingly. But then USC came into town and cut up coordinator Kent Baer’s defense like a butcher slicing meat, and the Trojan defense made the necessary adjustments after a rough first quarter to baffle coordinator Bill Diedrick’s offense for the remainder of the game.

This week, while quarterback Brady Quinn did throw for 350 yards, the offensive playcalling was very questionable at times. Have the Irish lost so much confidence in their offensive line that they have to fake a punt to tight end Jared Clark on fourth-and-1 in hopes of getting a first down? Apparently, because that’s exactly what Willingham had his punt team try – and fail – on Saturday.

After scoring late in the game to take a one-point lead, Diedrick called for a formation with three receivers right, one receiver left and one tailback, Julius Jones. Instead of throwing the ball, which the team had done successfully for most of the game, the Irish tried to run the ball behind the three receivers. The result of the play? Jones getting pummeled well short of the goal line. If you’re going to run, why not simply go off-tackle behind 300-pound lineman, instead of 200-pound receivers?

Give them credit, the team fought back to nearly beat Boston College after trailing by 18 points in the second half. But when some parts of the team did well, other units couldn’t respond. This time it was the kick coverage team.

On the kickoff following the Irish go ahead touchdown with under four minutes to play, Boston College’s Will Blackmon caught D.J. Fitzpatrick short kick at the 8-yard line, then cut to the right and saw a clean hole. The Eagles blockers successfully sealed off Irish defenders and Blackmon did the rest, racing down the Notre Dame sideline for a 42-yard return that set up the Boston College offense for a game-winning scoring drive.

It’s always been one thing or another that’s ruined Notre Dame’s games this season. After every loss the coaches say the same thing – they will get better in practice and prepare for the next week’s opponents.

But talking about getting better and actually getting better are two very distinct concepts. Until the Irish coaching staff figures out the latter, the Irish will continue to not execute and not win.

And their season will continue to go from bad to worse.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Joe Hettler at jhettler@nd.edu.