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FOOTBALL: Irish have made big strides in one full season under Weis

Mike Gilloon | Monday, December 5, 2005

Anyone who said Notre Dame would be even close to a BCS bowl at the end of Charlie Weis’ first season as coach probably would have been ridiculed back in September.

Forth Worth, Shreveport or some other low-budget December destination looked like a safer bet for the Irish.

Fiesta? That sounded more like an SYR theme than a realistic possibility for Notre Dame.

But here they are. The Irish are headed back to Tempe, looking for their first win there since dismantling West Virginia for the 1988 national title.

Of course, the team is thrilled. But not just because of the $14.8-million paycheck that is on its way to South Bend.

This game is about much more than money. It’s about the Irish being officially back. A strong performance in Tempe, win or lose, sends the message to the rest of the college football world that Notre Dame isn’t a program content with its golden past. It’s a team eager to add to its tradition.

This program is on a roll. And a win over Ohio State, whether by one point or 50, would erase any doubts that the near-upset of USC on Oct. 15 wasn’t a fluke. It would also propel Notre Dame toward the front of the pack of a wide-open national title race next season.

Texas quarterback Vince Young will more than likely return, but Mack Brown and the Longhorns have never been known to play well when expected to.

Southern California will likely wave goodbye to the one player that kept it from losing in South Bend this season – Reggie Bush.

And who knows if Penn State coach Joe Paterno can keep his Nittany Lions at the high level they’re playing now.

Just the fact people are talking about the problems other teams will have next season, and not worrying about whether the Irish will be able to beat Navy or North Carolina, shows how far Notre Dame has come.

And this matchup with the Buckeyes is a symbol for just how far the Irish have traveled.

Last season’s Insight Bowl, when the Irish were whipped by Oregon State 38-21, was played in Phoenix’s Bank One Ballpark, only 14 miles from the site of the Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.

But the Notre Dame teams that played and will play in those two venues might be a thousand miles apart.

The Irish began this season with enough question marks to fill up the current phone book-sized playbook.

A quarterback who had thrown just one more touchdown pass (26) than interceptions (25) in two years as a starter.

A wide receiver unit whose most talented player, Maurice Stovall, looked like he might graduate as one of the biggest underachievers in recent Irish history.

And finally a head coach with as many years of collegiate head coaching experience as the Irish have bowl wins since 1994 – zero.

Yet this season the Irish have proven they can throw, they can catch, they can hit and they have a coach who has adjusted to the college game as flawlessly as Stovall has hauled in Irish quarterback Brady Quinn’s passes. They seem to have all the answers.

As Quinn alluded to in Sunday’s press conference, the Irish are focused on a serious run at the national title next season. And the perfect runway for them to take off from is in Tempe.

Yes, sending off Brandon Hoyte, Corey Mays, Matt Shelton, D.J. Fitzpatrick with a win in Sun Devil Stadium is a wonderful way to cap their dedicated careers.

But it’s also the best way to set the Irish up for next season as well as validate their efforts this season.

Is it a failure if Notre Dame doesn’t win the national title next season?

Not at all.

There’s too many factors that go into that.

However, a win on Jan. 2, 2006 couldn’t do anything but help the Irish make it to Jan. 4, 2007.

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

Contact Mike Gilloon at mgilloon@nd.edu