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Big game worth waiting for

Matt Puglisi | Monday, September 5, 2005

PITTSBURGH – Notre Dame fans, players and coaches had been waiting almost nine months for this game.

It was worth the wait.

In front of a standing-room-only crowd of 66,451 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, quarterback Brady Quinn and the Irish offense showed everyone exactly what Notre Dame had in mind when it inked offensive mastermind Charlie Weis to a six-year deal in December.

For as high as preseason expectations have skyrocketed in recent months – at least within the Notre Dame community – few expected the Irish to display such utter dominance right off the bat, no less against a ranked opponent, at night, celebrating a homecoming of its own in the return of alum head coach Dave Wannstedt.

Methodical and precise, the Irish carved up a young Panther defense, racking up 35 first-half points – the most since the Irish hung the same first-half total on Rutgers in November 1996. Notre Dame found pay dirt on six of its first seven drives, only failing to reach the end zone on a Quinn interception during the team’s second possession.

By the time the Irish headed back to the locker room at the end of the first half, a game that most predicted to be a nail-bitter resembled more of a lopsided high school game than an overtime-bound slugfest between two even squads.

As impressive as the Irish looked in the 42-21 opening night romp, the contest had ominous beginnings.

When Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko found Biletnikoff Award candidate Greg Lee on a 39-yard touchdown strike not five minutes after kickoff, ugly memories of last year’s defensive struggles invariably came to mind – the Irish yielded 14 passing touchdowns in the season’s final three games, including a Notre Dame opponent record five to Palko at Notre Dame Stadium in November.

Would the defense rebound or would Palko be gunning for six this time?

Despite its youth and inexperience, the Irish defense shook off the first drive, and while the Notre Dame offense was busy moving the ball at will against the Pittsburgh defense, the co-captain linebacker Brandon Hoyte and the Irish defense were holding the Panthers to 153 yards and 13 first-half points.

“That shows defensive backbone,” Hoyte said. “We came together as a defensive unit, and the coaches did a great job to put us in position to make plays.”

The implications of Weis’ show-stopping opening night performance are stunning.

Mere hours after analysts debated possible 1-5 or 0-6 starts to the Notre Dame season, talk of Heisman Trophy candidates and BCS bowl games dominated student discussion on the quad, in dorm rooms and in cars traveling back to South Bend.

While rabid Notre Dame fans are known for their optimism, it might be easy to forget that the last time the Irish knocked off a defending ranked conference champion on the road wasn’t too long ago – former head coach Tyrone Willingham accomplished the feat in a 22-0 shutout of Maryland to kick off the 2002 season.

Nevertheless, while Willingham’s fate is well-documented, the 2005 Irish have reason to be optimistic.

“I think by halftime, I think that our players were starting to realize that they’re better than they thought they were,” Weis said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell them all along, that a lot of this game is confidence, and if you don’t have confidence that you’re going to go out there and play well, then usually you won’t.”

Faith in both Irish coaches and themselves coupled with results on the field should only produce a perpetual cycle of success.

“We just wanted to come out and have fun, that was the biggest thing – it wasn’t about being nasty,” free safety Tom Zbikowski said. “You’re nasty when you’re having fun because you’re flying around.

“Football is supposed to be fun.”

If Saturday night was any indication, there will be plenty of fun to go around this fall.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Matt Puglisi at mpuglisi@nd.edu