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Irish need something to change

Pat Leonard | Monday, November 15, 2004

The down was third-and-one.

Notre Dame had one timeout left. Pittsburgh needed a field goal to win. And as the Panthers lined up at the Notre Dame 24-yard line with 29 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the Irish defense showed confidence.

They waved their arms to pump up the crowd. They dug in their cleats. They waited for the snap. And then they gave up a 13-yard run straight up the middle to Pittsburgh tailback Marcus Furman.

That play told the story of Saturday’s ballgame. It told the story of Notre Dame’s current season. And it told the story of the despicable state of this program.

Granted, there were some legitimate excuses this time.

Josh Lay’s second interception of Brady Quinn came after a blatant pass interference penalty that was not called. The flag thrown on Preston Jackson for a fourth-down pass interference penalty was a bad call that all but handed Pittsburgh a go-ahead touchdown.

But Notre Dame players said they did not let the bad calls bother them.

“You’ve just got to keep fighting through it and not focus on officiating because playing 11 guys plus those guys is even harder,” Irish linebacker Derek Curry said. “So you’ve just got to play against the 11 [offensive players] that are out there.”

So Notre Dame’s offense kicked a field goal to tie it and gave the defense another shot. But Pittsburgh received the ball, put its 11 players against Notre Dame’s 11, and in six, penalty-free plays of 55 yards gained, the Panthers shoved another loss down the collective Notre Dame throat.

This one hurt, and Furman’s run epitomized the reasons why.

The run showed the continuing failure of Notre Dame coaches to manage game situations. Furman found a gaping hole in the middle of the Notre Dame defense even though the situation dictated that exact play call.

Pittsburgh had third-and-one, two timeouts and a 12-of-17 field goal kicker already one-for-one on the day. The Panthers wanted to center the ball and get the first down to run out the clock. Pittsburgh had to run the ball up the middle, and everyone in Notre Dame Stadium knew it. But Notre Dame was not ready for it.

Meanwhile, Furman’s run also showed the inconsistency of the players on the field.

On a crucial fourth-quarter play, Notre Dame’s defense gave up the 13-yard run in a ‘running’ situation to a team that averages 107.8 rushing yards per game against opponents like Temple, Syracuse and Furman.

But most of all, Furman’s run erased any pride Notre Dame could have salvaged to finish the season.

Pity the seniors. Carlyle Holiday, Carlos Campbell, Kyle Budinscak and others made differences in their final career home game that still did not put a desperate team over the top.

Pity players like Darius Walker.

As Notre Dame players raised their helmets to the crowd, the freshman running back walked off the field well behind his teammates. Coach Tyrone Willingham called to Walker.

“Darius,” he said. Walker did not answer. He was in a daze. “Darius,” Willingham said. Walker heard him this time and broke into a trot. But Walker did not hear his coach’s first call because his helmet was still on. Chinstrap, still locked tight. The message was clear. Darius Walker wanted to keep playing until he won.

But he couldn’t, because the Pittsburgh Panthers had just made his team 6-4 staring straight at a season finale with the No. 1 team in the country.

Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko used an expletive to describe his excitement after the win. A Notre Dame assistant coach used the same expletive to tell the officials how he felt about their performance.

And that is what it has come to. Right now, expletives define Notre Dame football.

The inconsistency is frustrating, the home losses debilitating and the excuses, tiresome.

At least two people used that same expletive while standing on the Notre Dame Stadium turf Saturday. Right now, nothing is sacred.

“We just didn’t play,” Derek Curry said.

It might take one more drubbing at the hands of a left-handed quarterback to convince this team that something needs to change.

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