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So, who’s confused?

Pat Leonard | Monday, November 8, 2004

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – In the next chapter of a college football novel that has defined inconsistency, Notre Dame beat its second top-10 opponent of the season Saturday.The Irish victimized Michigan on Sept. 11, and Saturday they downed Tennessee. But as the Notre Dame players galloped off the sidelines and onto the field in celebration, I paused and thought: if only.If only this team had not fallen apart against a mediocre-at-best Boston College team. If only the Irish were prepared for their season-opener against BYU. If only Notre Dame had come into Neyland Stadium with a 7-1 record to beat the red-hot Volunteers.Because if all of those hypothetical situations were true, Saturday’s win over Tennessee arguably would have been the biggest victory for Notre Dame since Lou Holtz beat Florida State in 1993. And coaches, players and fans everywhere would be talking about taking care of Pittsburgh, knocking No.1 USC off its pedestal and going to a BCS bowl.Students would be dusting off their “Return to Glory” T-shirts. Notre Dame, in every way, would be back.There would be no more cries for a coaching change, no references to Irish futility like the one in a Rick Reilly “Sports Illustrated” column: “Against Notre Dame, I’d take us and the points. But that’s just me.”But inconsistency has cost Notre Dame dearly this season, and even a 17-13 statement win over Tennessee cannot elevate the 2004 Irish to their traditional goal – greatness.Yes, Notre Dame is only one of two teams to have beaten two top-10 teams this season along with Auburn.Yes, the win makes Notre Dame bowl eligible. And a split in the season’s remaining two games against Pittsburgh and USC will have the Irish at 7-4 in a position to, at worst, reverse their 2003 record of 5-7. But the fact is no Division-I NCAA football team should be able to beat Notre Dame with its third-string quarterback.Make no mistake, though. That takes no credit away from what the Irish players have done.Notre Dame showed it had guts Saturday.Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer cost his team by running the final first half play out of shotgun, but it was Brandon Hoyte who made Fulmer pay by knocking his starting quarterback out of the game.Tennessee third-string quarterback Rick Clausen made the wrong decision to force a pass in the third quarter, but it was Mike Goolsby who converted the mistake into six points.All the same, the 2004 Notre Dame football team remains an enigma.The run defense has been consistent and superb. But the pass defense has been woeful [see Purdue]. The passing game has made not only strides but leaps, yet the offense sputters. The running game has been inconsistent, congruent with the play of the offensive line.”I would hope our football team has the ability to be successful in all situations,” Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said. “We have to work hard to get to that level of consistency where we have this kind of energy in every game.”What Notre Dame’s defeat of Tennessee indicated was that the Irish are a good team with talented players on the field.What the win could have said, had the Irish taken care of business against Boston College and BYU, is that Notre Dame is great, again.But right now, that status belongs only to an Irish opponent now just three weeks away on the schedule.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