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This game still matters a lot

Joe Hettler | Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Does it even matter?

Does playing in the Copper, er, Insight Bowl matter to Notre Dame?

Should it matter?

Does it matter, even after Notre Dame fired head coach Tyrone Willingham Nov. 30?

Does it matter, even if the Irish coaching staff is a bunch of lame ducks, coaching the Dec. 28 game and then leaving when new head coach Charlie Weis brings in his own guys?

Does it matter, even if the two teams playing are 6-5 and the game is being played inside a baseball stadium?

Actually, yes. It does matter.

Notre Dame does have some motivation when the team travels to Phoenix to face Oregon State a few days after Christmas.

First, they can win a bowl game – even it is a former .com bowl game. The Irish haven’t won a postseason game since the first day of January in 1994, a 24-21 victory against Texas A&M. Since then, Notre Dame either hasn’t played in a bowl game (see 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003) or hasn’t won a bowl game (see 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002). No Notre Dame team since 1993 has ended a winning season with a significant victory. Changing that trend would give the team some momentum heading into the off-season.

Either way, a win would be a positive means of ending a turbulent season.

Notre Dame also has extra motivation by looking at the opponent on the other sidelines. Oregon State, if you don’t remember, embarrassed Notre Dame in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl, creaming the Irish 41-9. This season’s senior class hasn’t forgotten that blowout. A win against the Beavers could make the previous loss hurt a little less.

The Irish can send their seniors off with a win. This group has been through one of the toughest, if not the toughest, stretches on the gridiron in Notre Dame’s storied history. They’ve seen Bob Davie, then George O’Leary, then Willingham and now Weis as the head coach. They’ve faced many obstacles, and they’ve been through many hardships. A bowl game victory would be a deserving way for the class members to end their careers.

A Notre Dame win would, perhaps, help recruiting too. Recruits watching the game may be more attracted to the Irish, after seeing them battle through the controversy of the Willingham firing and then still finding a path to victory in the Insight Bowl.

So there it is, a few reasons why Notre Dame does have something to play for on Dec. 28. Sure, the Insight Bowl isn’t the Fiesta, Rose, Orange or Sugar Bowl. It’s not even the Gator or Cotton for that matter.

But it is a bowl game. It does give Notre Dame a chance to win a football game. To end its season with a much-needed victory. To give the Weis era a little momentum heading into the new coach’s first season in 2005.

The Irish are what they are at this point in the season – an inconsistent 6-5 team that has shown flashes of greatness, and flashes of ineptitude. For all the difficulties this season has presented, Notre Dame can push the negatives away and focus on ending the season on a high note.

With the Irish falling so rapidly from college football’s elite programs during the last decade, it’s critical to begin turning the program around. Lou Holtz’s 1996 team finished the season at 8-3, and turned down bowl bid invitations. Things certainly have changed since then.

But with Weis stepping in, the program can begin to regain some prominence. While a win in the Insight Bowl wouldn’t be, by any means, groundbreaking, it could be the start of a slow, gradual improvement of the Irish football program.

Does this game even matter?

Yes, it does.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Joe Hettler at jhettler@nd.edu