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5-7 year brings motivation

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Nobody in the locker room wanted a third losing season in five years, but when the Irish failed to take care of a 5-6 Syracuse squad, it became a reality.

Coaches and players hope the team can rebound in the offseason and in the future from a 5-7 campaign in 2003.

After an 8-0 start with the Irish last fall, Tyrone Willingham is just 7-10 as head coach. His total winning percentage at Notre Dame is .625, and his winning percentage since last season’s 14-7 loss to Boston College is .412.

Below .500 is not where the Irish want to be, and a 38-12 loss to Syracuse Saturday only made matters worse.

Notre Dame realizes a lot must happen this off-season, starting with the basics.

“The first thing is we must get healthy,” Willingham said. “Injuries [to defensive end Justin Tuck and offensive guard Jamie Ryan] kind of set you back a little bit.”

The health of the football team is important, though this past season the Irish were unable to even stay in games regardless of injuries.

In its three losses to Michigan, USC and Florida State, Notre Dame lost by a combined score of 120-14 – a stark contrast in points allowed to the stalwart 2002 defense that included the same personnel as this year and seniors Ryan Roberts, Gerome Sapp and Shane Walton.

After an overtime win over No. 19 Washington State, Notre Dame dropped three straight games to Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue.

After a much-needed bye week, Julius Jones carried for 262 yards and two touchdowns lifting the Irish to a 20-14 victory over Pittsburgh. It became a trend that success on the ground translated into a victory, as Jones carried for 221 yards in a 27-24 win over Navy, 161 yards in a 33-14 win over Brigham Young and 218 yards in a 57-7 win over Stanford.

The loss of Jones could have severe consequences on the Notre Dame running game, the brightest spot of the team’s season.

“You lose a weapon like Julius and it hurts, but you hope to replace him,” offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick said. “Losing Julius will give Travis Thomas and Ryan Grant an opportunity to step up, and whoever the young man is who comes in as a true freshman [will have an opportunity].”

Coaches will look for players at all positions to step up, players who will not only give the Irish a shot not only at beating the top teams on its schedule next season [Michigan, Tennessee, USC], but winning the games it has to in order to finish as a top program in the country. Notre Dame cannot afford losses like its 27-25 loss at Boston College or the season-ending debacle at Syracuse.

“It will probably be the hardest off-season in Notre Dame history,” cornerback Dwight Ellick said. “We [will] come back next year ready to be on top and be the best team in the country. We’re going to hold everyone accountable for the things they have to do to become a better player and a better person so this team can step to the next level next year.”

Notre Dame’s off-season starts immediately, and the players welcome the challenge to improve.

“We must improve in everything,” freshman quarterback Brady Quinn said. “Obviously we have to get back to winning games, but we need to have a good off-season and make sure for the first game against Michigan that we’re ready.”

“After the [Syrcause] game I could see in a lot of people’s eyes that this motivated us,” Ellick said. “We’re tired of losing like this.”