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Bucks can’t bury Irish optimism

Mike Gilloon | Wednesday, January 18, 2006

TEMPE, Ariz. – It might not have felt like one, but Notre Dame left Tempe with a win.

No, the Irish didn’t earn a victory over Ohio State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Troy Smith, Ted Ginn, Jr. and A.J. Hawk made sure of that.

But Charlie Weis’ team came away from Arizona with something more important than a victor’s trophy and a tan – motivation.

All that was needed for Notre Dame to be everyone’s preseason No. 1 pick in 2006, besides the early departures of Vince Young and Reggie Bush, was a convincing Irish victory over the Buckeyes in the final Fiesta Bowl to be played at Sun Devil Stadium.

But Weis’ first season didn’t end like it was supposed to.

Maurice Stovall’s final game came to a conclusion without a touchdown.

Mark LeVoir and Dan Stevenson’s dedicated careers hit a scarlet-and-gray dead end.

Despite the frustration of many underclassmen for not giving the seniors a better going-away party, this loss could be the best thing to happen to the Irish.

With Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija and most other starters returning, the team will be as talented as any in college football next season.

After the loss, that talent is much hungrier – 617 yards hungrier, in fact.

That’s the amount of total offense Jim Tressel’s Buckeyes racked up on Notre Dame.

The Irish coaches’ task of keeping egos under control suddenly became a little easier after Ohio State blew past Notre Dame in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.

Irish strength and conditioning coach Ruben Mendoza should send a few thank-you notes to Columbus, Ohio, especially to Hawk and Ginn, Jr., who reminded Notre Dame that simply showing up doesn’t win football games.

It will take a passionate performance to march into Atlanta in the 2006 season opener on Sept. 2 and beat Georgia Tech. It will take plenty of execution to topple Joe Paterno and Penn State one week later. And Reggie Bush or no Reggie Bush, winning at USC in next year’s regular-season finale will require intense focus.

Regardless of how well Smith ran the Buckeyes’ offense and how effectively Hawk stopped the Irish running game, it was the lack of passion, execution and intensity that clouded Notre Dame’s experience in the Valley of the Sun.

As he has insisted all season, Weis says the play of the team rests mostly on his shoulders. He is not a genius, a miracle worker or a messiah – just a few of the names for the coach thrown around by Notre Dame fans in 2005.

Weis is a football coach, a very good football coach, but too often the media and fans tag Weis and others in his business as miracle workers before a miracle is performed.

There was no miracle in Tempe.

Instead, one team was outplayed by another in a game that could have had a different outcome if the Irish had played like they know they can.

Now they have a spring and summer to think about the loss and re-dedicate themselves to playing up to their potential every week.

They have just over seven months before their next game. That’s 227 days the Irish have to work toward a 2006 season with a happier ending than 2005 – a long time to wait for a team hungry for a chance to show it’s better than it looked on Jan. 2.

Weis will surely give them plenty of food for thought.

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

Contact Mike Gilloon at mgilloon@nd.edu