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Irish don’t make the big plays

Matt Lozar | Monday, October 4, 2004

It started with the 100-yard kickoff return where Ambrose Wooden whiffed on a spin move by Purdue’s Jerome Brooks. It continued with Darius Walker fumbling at the Purdue 3-yard line with the Irish only down 13-3. A 97-yard drive later and it’s 20-3 Purdue at halftime.It ended on third-and-10 from that same 3-yard line early in the second half with the Boilermakers backed up against the student section. All-world quarterback Kyle Orton hit his favorite target, Taylor Stubblefield, in stride for a 97-yard touchdown pass that featured Stubblefield giving the “Boiler Up” motion for the last 60 yards of that game-sealing third quarter score. What is “it?” “It” is making big plays.Saturday, the Irish didn’t do it, and Purdue did.”We didn’t make enough plays anywhere. We had opportunities on offense. We didn’t cash in,” Tyrone Willingham said. “We didn’t step up and make some plays defensively and they did. They made some big plays.”Remember in the Michigan game earlier this season the Irish were the team making the big plays. Think about Matt Shelton making the acrobatic catch to get the Irish on the board, the game-changing blocked punt and Darius Walker breaking tackles at the right time to find the end zone twice in his Notre Dame debut. That’s how a team wins a big game.The Irish had a chance Saturday to get their fans, and most importantly, their students back into believing this team can get on a long-term run. Coming in on a three-game winning streak had everyone ready for this game all week, but just like in the past, the game was over before the 1812 Overture.That’s what the Irish have become under Willingham – if they don’t make the big plays against a quality team, it’s a blowout loss.Seven losses of at least 20 points in the past 19 games isn’t an anomaly, that’s a disturbing trend. Gerry Faust had four such losses in a 47-game stretch – all on the road.Bob Davie had three in 38 games – all on the road.Of Willingham’s seven, three have come at home. But as much as people want to blame the coaching staff, the players are putting it on themselves.As soon as Mike Goolsby heard his first question Saturday after the game, he defended his coaches before answering. “First off, I want to say our coaches put us in a great game plan all week. I don’t think we’ve been more prepared as odd as that may sound,” he said. “I think a huge part of our defense is creating turnovers, and we didn’t get any today. “That was something we usually fall back on, and we didn’t have it today.”It’s easy to blame the coaching staff. But the players have to go out there and make the plays. The coaches can’t do that.That’s not a defense of Willingham and his staff, who are ultimately responsible for the team’s performance on the field. It’s unlikely any evidence of change will show up until the game at Tennessee in four weeks, unless the Irish inexcusably lose one of their three games prior to the trip to Knoxville. That brings up a whole different issue.This one thing is true – the Irish didn’t get it done Saturday.And they were embarrassed again.Something that’s becoming an all-too-common theme in the Willingham era. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.Contact Matt Lozar at mlozar@nd.edu.