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Irish need to take a look at program

Pat Leonard | Monday, December 8, 2003

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Just where does the Notre Dame football program stand?The Irish lost to a mediocre .500 team in Syracuse – a team that North Carolina took to three overtimes.They lost to a team who lost a 24-7 decision to lowly Rutgers the weekend before.Just when Notre Dame seemed to be salvaging some respect with three straight wins following a 57-7 whooping of Stanford, the Irish ended their season on Saturday with an embarrassing 26-point loss to a team that is not exactly a storied program.Sure, the Orangemen have sent the likes of Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison to the NFL, but this is a team that could not even halfway fill Rutgers Stadium last weekend when the Irish sold out that same venue three years ago in a 45-17 Notre Dame win.So why can’t Notre Dame, a perennial contender for top recruits and one of the winningest programs in college football history, beat Syracuse?Maybe that question is unfair. Teams are allowed to lose games.Then here’s another one: Why did the Irish let it turn into a blowout – again?Like it or not, a 28-21 loss to USC would have looked a lot better than the reality, a 45-14 debacle.And any way you look at it, the Irish suffered a tough loss to Florida State in Notre Dame Stadium. But to not score one point?Improvement needs to happen “across the board,” Irish offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick said in a low tone after the loss.That will come down to recruiting this January. But depending on incoming freshmen to make a surprise impact on struggling teams is not enough to improve in the off-season. The players could have ended this season on a good note.”We felt that this game could have been a good springboard into the off-season,” head coach Tyrone Willingham said. “Heading into the off-season, this could be a very difficult loss.”Notre Dame turned the ball over four times – turnovers the Orangemen converted into 24 points, and the defense watched Walter Reyes run to numerous records on the Astroturf.It was embarrassing.Willingham acknowledged there are many problem areas on the squad. And he even gave credit to a solid Syracuse performance in his post-game press conference.”First of all, congratulations to Syracuse, both the coaches and the players,” Willingham began his press conference in a cold hallway at the bottom of the Dome.More often than not, however, Notre Dame players and coaches emphasize they are beating themselves and not admitting that the other team flat out beat and outplayed them.The humility serves the Irish well in being polite sportsmen, but it is frustrating.They say they didn’t play the way they were capable of playing. They didn’t bring their A-game. And the worst, they just don’t know what happened.”There is no place you can say we’re very pleased with what we’re doing,” Willingham said.The off-season should provide time for promising freshmen like quarterback Brady Quinn and defensive end Victor Abiamiri to make improvements.But you hope the entire team, even the young guys, realizes the significance of this 5-7 season and, especially, this loss.”When you’re young and not playing much, you don’t completely understand your role on the team,” senior linebacker Courtney Watson said.Watson won’t have another go at righting this wrong, but he hopes those who do will take advantage next season.”This program is built on winning,” Willingham said.The program was built on winning and it could suffer severe consequences if it keeps losing.No one wants to say it, because this is not the case yet. But the fate of the program now is in the hands of those who let a late game, and some pride, slip away.The coaches and players have to ask themselves what they want Notre Dame football to be.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Pat Leonard at pleonard@nd.edu.