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Ty’s been down this road before

Heather VanHoegarden | Monday, September 6, 2004

PROVO, Utah – He’s been here before and thrived. But it might not be as simple as it was at Stanford.Five years ago, Saturday, Tyrone Willingham was the head coach of a Stanford team that was coming off a 3-8 season. Rumors placed his job in jeopardy. When the start of the 1999 season rolled around, Sept. 4 would be a test, a way to see if he was fit to lead the Cardinal to victory. And it was a disaster; much like this year’s Sept. 4.In 1999, Stanford was dominated by Texas, losing 69-17 in Austin. Kent Baer’s defense gave up more points in a game then any other Stanford team had. The season wasn’t off to a good start – much like this year.This Sept. 4 brought Willingham more troubles, this time in the form of blitzes, deep balls and punts inside the 20. It resulted in a loss to BYU in Provo, and once again, Willingham’s job status is questionable, with Notre Dame alumni waiting in the wings to demand a new coach again.But wait, what happened five years ago? Willingham didn’t lose his job. In fact, it was quite the opposite. He got his team motivated, prepared and – perhaps most importantly – ready to win. And win they did.The 1999 team went on to win eight of its next 10 games, defeating the likes of USC and even Notre Dame. Willingham took his team to the Rose Bowl with an 8-4 record, 7-1 in the Pac-10, where then-No. 22 Stanford lost to then-No. 4 Wisconsin, 17-9.But this isn’t 1999, and this isn’t Stanford. This Irish team has a lot of work to do. The offensive line needs to pick up their game, the secondary can’t get beat on the deep ball and the running game has to improve. After the game Saturday, offensive lineman Dan Stevenson was searching for answers on why his line, comprised mostly of returning starters, didn’t get it done, as the Irish rushed for just 11 yards all game.”I don’t really know what happened, we just came out here and didn’t perform as well as we could, as well as we should,” Stevenson said. “We just didn’t do what it took to win.”And at Notre Dame, that isn’t good enough. Winning is a way of life, and it is expected. The 2004 Irish and Willingham must turn things around very quickly if they want to improve on last year’s 5-7 finish. The loss in Provo is over. It’s done. Now the Irish can go two ways. They can concede the season, or they can fight. If they choose the latter, there are numerous improvements they need to make before they face a potent Michigan offense that scored 43 points Saturday.The secondary must get better. BYU’s 6-foot-3 receiver Todd Watkins had five catches for 115 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown. Freshman Austin Collie broke free for a wide-open, 42-yard touchdown. “Those two plays, we didn’t get the job done,” Baer said.These big plays can’t happen if this team is to have success. The big plays must be minimized, and this will be especially challenging against Michigan.Brady Quinn must be able to throw the ball deep. Without a deep threat, the Irish offense will sputter, just as it did Saturday. They must be able to run the ball. Without a run game, nothing will open up, and Quinn will be forced to throw short even on third-and-long situations, just like he did Saturday, resulting in the Irish converting just 3-for-16 on third down.The man behind all this is Willingham. And he knows he’s under a microscope. But he’s been there before.It’s a matter of whether or not he can get it done at Notre Dame, because there are still 10 games to play. Can he turn a loss to BYU into a positive, some sort of motivation for next week? Or will it just be what it is now – the beginning of the end of Willingham’s career at Notre Dame.The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Heather Van Hoegarden at hvanhoeg@nd.edu.