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Blowouts a disturbing trend

Matt Lozar | Tuesday, November 30, 2004

LOS ANGELES – Coming into a game as more than a 20-point underdog.Allowing five touchdown passes to an opposing quarterback for the second consecutive game, after it never happened before in Notre Dame history.Losing by more than 21 points to eight opponents in the past two years. This is what Notre Dame football has become. It’s becoming the standard for the Irish under coach Tyrone Willingham.Since the 8-0 start in 2002, the Irish are 13-15. Bob Davie’s worst 28-game stretch was 15-13 while Gerry Faust’s was 14-14. You have to go back to the Joe Kuharich era to find a darker period. The trilogy of 31-point losses to USC in the past three years is the biggest combined margin of defeat to a team that has beaten Notre Dame in three straight years. The previous mark was 89 points by Miami over Faust’s teams from 1983-85.In those three years, Faust beat USC all three times. Prior to Willingham taking over, the Irish lost eight games by 21 points from Nov. 16, 1985 to Sept. 29, 2001.Take it one step further – the Irish have lost by 31 points or more five times in Willingham’s 36 games as head coach in South Bend. Davie, Lou Holtz, Faust, Dan Devine and Ara Parseghian had four such losses combined in 38 seasons under the Golden Dome. Think back to Saturday night’s game and what was more surprising – the Irish leading 7-3 over the No. 1 Trojans after the first quarter or the end 41-10 result? Matt Leinart essentially wrapped up the Heisman Trophy by dismantling the Irish secondary. Reggie Bush blew past Brandon Hoyte off the line, cut left to avoid Quentin Burrell and outran Dwight Ellick for a 69-yard touchdown. The Trojans eventually cruised to win their 20th straight overall and 21st consecutive at the Coliseum and moved to one game away from playing for their second straight national title. Those events weren’t shocking – they were expected.The talent gap isn’t to blame for these embarrassing losses. The wins over Michigan and Tennessee defeat that argument.The schedule isn’t too difficult. Yes, the Irish have one of the toughest slates in the country, but it’s not unreasonable, and they had two weeks to prepare for USC.The coaches and the players are saying what they’ve said all the time in these blowouts – it comes down to big plays on Saturday. “What I look at is our inability, overall in all the areas, not just one in particular area, to really make big plays and sustain drives,” Willingham said. “That’s where I think we fell short.” But it’s hard to believe only big plays are the reason USC is 31 points better than Notre Dame.More than one player has questioned the attitude and focus of the team in weeks where the opponent wasn’t a big name. Just watching the teams come out after halftime, the Irish showed few signs of life despite being down by only seven points and getting the ball. The Trojans came out fired up, and you could just see them smelling blood. They went for and got the kill. With an opportunity to knock off the best team in the country, the Irish seemed defeated before the second half even started. Not only have the results taken a 180-degree turn since the Return to Glory, but so has the attitude to play four quarters of Notre Dame football. “The attitude, that 60-minute mentality, I think we played a great 15 minutes in the beginning, there were times we pieced 30 seconds of it together,” Irish center Bob Morton said. “We just didn’t have the mentality in here to go the entire game.” How can anyone say progress has been made in the past three seasons? How can the University expect students, fans and alumni to continue to support a team that looks more like a team that belongs in the Insight Bowl and watching on New Year’s than playing on Jan. 1? How can the coaching staff expect top recruits to commit when after this loss an ESPN analyst is saying Notre Dame came to play? Something needs to change. If not, it’s realistic to expect more games like Saturday’s and more seasons like the past two.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