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Irish incomplete in victory

Joe Hettler | Monday, October 11, 2004

On the scale of “good” wins, Notre Dame’s victory against Stanford on Saturday ranks near the bottom.The Irish got the ultimate job done by winning. For that, the team and coaches should be congratulated.But the road Notre Dame took en route to the 23-15 victory is a little unsettling. For yet another game, the Irish couldn’t do what they must do with their upcoming schedule – start a game strong and finish it stronger.In a home game, with the sea of green students cheering them onto the field, in front of a nationally-televised audience on NBC, with so much on the line, coming off an embarrassing home loss, Notre Dame started the game flatter than a pancake.I will never understand how that can happen – ever. Does the team need more motivation than playing against a good Stanford team? How can the Irish not be excited to play at Notre Dame Stadium?After this game, a disgruntled offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick was searching for answers as to why Notre Dame had little excitement.”I think if anybody knew that answer they’d probably be a genius,” Diedrick said. “I have no idea. That’s probably a very disappointing fact that, as a team, we’d come out and not have a great deal of energy to start with.”Linebacker Derek Curry wasn’t sure, either.”I don’t know,” the senior said. “There are a lot of factors that go into it. I can’t put my finger on it now. Probably after watching film it will be as clear as day. [After coming out flat] we just tried to raise the emotional level.”Against Stanford, Notre Dame got away with “picking up the energy” as the game progressed. They did a good job in the second half of taking control of the game and playing opportunistic football. They did what they wanted to do – win. Again, one cannot overlook that fact, and the team should be credited with finding a way to victory.But in tough upcoming games against Navy, Boston College, Tennessee and Southern California, Notre Dame won’t have the luxury of waiting until the second half to play its best football.Consistently good teams know how to start and finish a game. The Irish have yet to master that concept this season.They were flat the whole game against Brigham Young. They struggled with Michigan in the first half, trailing 9-0 at the break.They couldn’t put away a less-talented Michigan State team and, after scorching Washington’s defense for 31 first-half points, managed just one touchdown in the second half.Stanford was the same story. “I just don’t like the way we started,” Irish defensive coordinator Kent Baer said. “I don’t know if it’s anything, and I just don’t know if we had a lot of energy when we started. It’s something we talked about, and it’s certainly something we’re going to have to address going into next week.”With a 4-2 record, the Irish players are still focusing on a possible Bowl Championship Series berth. They point to the five teams that made the BCS with two losses last season. They keep talking about their potential. They keep working towards their lofty goals this season.But for any of those accomplishments to be possible, Notre Dame must start games strong and finish them stronger. Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham knows this.”We were not playing in the manner that I think our football team should play,” Willingham said. “For whatever reason we couldn’t get it going. We were lucky enough in the second half, we were able to make some plays and put ourselves in good position but I’m still uncomfortable with how it came about.” The Irish play Navy next week, a team that wants nothing more than to beat Notre Dame and end a 40-year losing streak. The Midshipmen, with two weeks to prepare, feel this is their year to upend the Irish.Starting with Navy, Notre Dame must bring its highest level energy for every game left on the schedule. Besides a weak Pittsburgh team, every remaining game will be a challenge, and every team will bring its ‘A’ game.If Notre Dame doesn’t play a complete game, its goals will change in a hurry.The BCS may take two loss teams. It doesn’t accept those with three losses. Or four. Or five.

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