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Irish Insider: Things just got more interesting

Kate Gales | Monday, November 13, 2006

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – It would be Notre Dame’s biggest win this season, but nobody knew that going in.

It wasn’t big because it was Air Force.

It wasn’t big because Brady Quinn was 8-8 for 150 yards and three touchdowns in the first quarter.

This game was big because it was a win. And in a college football universe where rankings are subjective and comparative and where those rankings and all their human failures decide your postseason fate, this game couldn’t have gone better for the Irish.

When one-loss teams are struggling or losing, a 39-17 win over Air Force can only be good for the 9-1 Irish.

It’s easy to get carried away, to develop scenarios where the Irish make the national title game, where Jan. 8 will be spent in Arizona with “Tradition” shirts. But any football player will tell you that’s premature. Losing to Michigan on Sept. 16 meant the Irish no longer controlled their own destiny looking into the postseason.

Of course, the first part was that Notre Dame had to win out. It’s been doing that so far – in thrilling come-from-behind fashion some weeks, in one-sided domination other weeks. When it comes down to it, these games were wins.

But there was more.

Irish fans had to start rooting for improbable losses, for cannibalistic conferences, for other one-loss teams to lose. At times, it seemed impossible.

But on Saturday, some of them did.

Saturday night, the Colorado Springs Buffalo Wild Wings was full of Kansas State fans wearing Brady Quinn jerseys. They had come from the Notre Dame win over Air Force, and they were euphoric from more than the altitude.

Because while the Irish defense held on for dear life, Quinn coolly shredded the Falcons secondary, Darius Walker ran out the clock and former No. 8 California (then 8-1) fell to Arizona.

Former No. 5 Auburn (then 8-1) was demolished by Georgia.

Former No. 3 Louisville had lost to Rutgers Thursday by giving up 21 unanswered points.

Irish fans were tasting victory, seeing three teams ahead of their own drop in the polls. And then Kansas State went up over former No. 4 Texas.

The fans sat in the restaurant, watching players they’d never watched before, tasting a chance for the Irish to again control their own destiny.

On a perfect day, Northwestern would have pulled the greatest upset of all time and toppled No. 1 Ohio State. Jarvis Moss wouldn’t have blocked a potential game-winning field goal, and South Carolina would have taken down No. 6 Florida.

But for an Irish team that’s fought tooth and nail to overcome deficiencies and weaknesses, this is the kind of lucky break it needed.

Some say that good teams make their own luck. Some think that luck is brought by rabbit’s feet or superstitious rituals.

Luck has, at times, gone against the Irish this year. Two tipped passes against Michigan went for touchdowns in the only blemish on Notre Dame’s record this season. Sloppy, rainy conditions against Michigan State nearly put the nail in the coffin.

But the Irish got lucky this weekend. They beat Air Force because of skill, but they ascended the rankings because of other teams’ missteps.

Suddenly, the Notre Dame-USC game on Nov. 25 just got a whole lot scarier.

You won’t find any Notre Dame players or coaches talking about the Trojans this week. They’re looking at Army. Because this weekend was proof of two things: First, there’s still football to be played. Bowl projections are just that – projections. So much can change from week to week, and that leads to the second thing.

On any given day, any team can fall. California may have looked past Arizona to rival USC. Texas quarterback Colt McCoy fell, and his team went with him. Florida got another scare. Improbably, Rutgers is undefeated.

It is up to coach Charlie Weis and the Irish to keep focused on the task ahead, to remember that for them, the most important part of the season is winning out. Army is beatable (possibly the understatement of the year).

Depending on what other surprises college football may have in store, a win over Army could become the season’s biggest win next weekend.

But for now, beating Air Force and getting a win on that treacherous Saturday is a pivotal moment of the season. The Irish are close to controlling their own destiny again. Beating Air Force gave them that. A little luck helped out.

Contact Kate Gales at kgales@nd.edu

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