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Fulfilling the Irish potential

Mike Gilloon | Monday, September 12, 2005

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – This is what he came back for. This is why he left his East Coast roots to return to his Midwestern alma mater. This is why he left the Patriot powerhouse he built with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and the job security he had earned.

Charlie Weis came back to beat Michigan.

Michigan and all the other schools who have bullied Notre Dame around the past few years on the college football playground, taking its bowl money but never its potential. The Notre Dame potential – its tradition, its spirit, its financial power – was always right there, stuffed in its back pocket. No one could take it. Notre Dame just needed to realize what it had.

Weis knows what he has – and it has nothing to do with offense.

His best weapon – the reason the Irish are 2-0 – is defense.

An Irish defense that lost the memo informing it of its inexperience, its lack of talent, its knack for giving up four touchdown passes to Oregon State.

Well, Tom Zbikowski might have received that memo. But he probably ripped it up, or at least knocked the messenger around. The Irish strong safety, who was compared to a kamikaze pilot by defensive coordinator Rick Minter last week, helped knock the Wolverines out. He stuck his helmet in the chest of every Maize and Blue receiver in his sight Saturday. And his interception at the Irish 1-yard line early in the third quarter let Notre Dame breathe easier.

A coach can only do so much. Weis may be one of the best offensive minds in the sport, but he needs an enforcer, a fighter, a competitor like Zbikowski to grind out a win.

And Zbikowski loves it – the attention, the rush, the feeling of stopping one of the nation’s best teams on the biggest home turf of all.

“Coming into the Big House and getting a win, it’s just unbelievable,” Zbikowski said. “I’m just happy we won.”

This was supposed to be a game of offense, a nationally televised opportunity for Henne and Quinn to show off their talent; another chance for Weis to cement his reputation as an offensive wizard.

But, as usual, this Michigan-Notre Dame clash was anything but predictable.

The offense, besides an opening touchdown drive as smooth as a Don Henley tune, struggled against a gritty Michigan defense.

Quinn looked jittery, his timing slow. And the Michigan defense was too fast, too talented, too good for the Irish signal-caller to have an off day and still be successful.

Paging the defense.

Linebackers Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays joined Zbikowski in smacking the Wolverines and saving the day for Notre Dame. `

Chinedum Ndukwe showed a Shane Walton-like sense for the football, and Maurice Crum Jr. showed poise in his first year as a starter.

Notre Dame couldn’t have asked for any more. The offensive success overall, with ten starters and Darius Walker returning, is no surprise.

The defense is what had Irish fans buying extra bottles of Tums before the season started. Don’t put them away yet – some guy named Pete Carroll is bringing a pretty good team to South Bend next month.

However, Zbikowski and friends have already exceeded expectations and aren’t planning on a letdown.

With Michigan State visiting Saturday, Weis will do everything he can to prevent a mental lapse that seems possible considering the hype his rejuvenated program is receiving.

The Spartans are one of those teams that have bullied the Irish around in the last decade. They’ve won the past four contests in Notre Dame Stadium – reason enough to give Notre Dame heartburn.

The Irish are the stronger squad and should win on paper. But this game, just like Saturday at Michigan, could turn ugly.

That’s fine for this defense.

They like to be the bully.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Mike Gilloon at mgilloon@nd.edu