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Irish need to avoid early letdown

Matt Puglisi | Friday, September 16, 2005

The letdown.

Known throughout the sports world for its ability to turn last week’s Dr. Jekyll into this week’s Mr. Hyde, the letdown has the potential to devastate teams and ruin seasons. Like the unsightly barnacle stuck on the cruise liner of victory, the letdown quietly attaches itself to the end of any big win, waiting for the opportunity to rear its ugly head the following week.

And Saturday’s win over rival and then-No. 3 Michigan in the Big House – a location where the Irish hadn’t won since Lou Holtz was at the helm in 1993 – certainly qualifies as a big victory. The Irish earned their second-straight road victory over a defending conference champion.

But as big as the 42-21 throttling of Pittsburgh at Heinz Field was in establishing the Irish as a remarkably different football team than years past – at least in terms of transforming a solid game plan into results on the field – the upset of the hated Wolverines in the Big House provides the ideal fuel for the following week’s letdown fire.

Indeed, while playing at home in front of 80,000 screaming Irish faithful can provide that extra spark that helps the players dig just a little deeper and carries the team to victory – all the hype surrounding the Notre Dame home opener can be distracting.

Add the unexpected road victories by a new coach in Charlie Weis – the first one to open the season with two road victories since Knute Rockne in 1918 – and the accompanying vault from unranked to No. 10 in the Associated Press poll, and the potential for distraction grows to unprecedented heights, a fact that wasn’t lost on Weis.

“First of all, Michigan State is good to start off with,” Weis said during Sunday’s press conference. “And if that isn’t enough, then we have a problem. Then on top of it, now you don’t have that ‘Let’s get on the bus and get out of here where we can focus everything.’ Now you have all of your family and friends coming into the game. It could be a distraction.”

And with the distraction-factor building, Weis knew Sunday was the time to tackle the topic.

“I won’t wait until Tuesday to bring it up, because Tuesday I want to be talking about game plan,” Weis said. “I want to be talking about Michigan State’s personnel. I want to be all football.”

Heading into Saturday’s contest, the Spartans have won four straight games at Notre Dame Stadium and 11 overall – the highest total of any opponent.

“First thing I did when I got on the bus on the way home was started doing some research to make sure I had the exact numbers [of the Notre Dame-Michigan State series],” Weis said. “Because I, like anyone else who knows the psychology of football, would realize that this would be a perfect opportunity for the guys to feel so good about themselves, they forget to show up to play a team that’s been beating them regularly that they have come here. “

Recognizing the mental impact of the sobering stats, Weis wasted little time presenting the numbers to the team, choosing to do so at the beginning of Sunday’s meeting before any talk of Notre Dame’s big win in the Big House.

“I think by giving them the cold, hard facts; ‘Fellas, this is the way it is,’ kind of slap them back to reality, and I think that’s the most important thing that I could be doing this week more than X’s and O’s,” Weis said. “Make them understand the fact that we need to play our best game if we’re going to beat Michigan State.”

If Weis can achieve the same level of success in keeping the Irish focused on the current week as he’s had not only convincing players of their potential, but then translating that confidence into success on the field, Notre Dame should have little difficulty scraping the letdown parasite off the hull of the ship and continuing the smooth sailing of the 2005 campaign.

But, in the end, if the Irish don’t come ready to play, they can’t expect the hometown crowd to pull it out for them.

“There’s no more obvious, evident case than [the Michigan game] for our players that if you don’t go out and play well enough, it won’t make a difference how many people are yelling,” Weis said. “Whether it’s 80,000 or eight, you can still end up losing the game if you didn’t play well.”

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