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Fans must keep the faith for now

Bill Brink | Tuesday, September 9, 2008

For the first time in three football seasons, I went to a midnight drum circle performance. I got there early and still stood behind throngs of eager fans ready to hear the cadences. A friend told me the pep rally was sick, that it was the first time he’d ever left one more excited about a game than when he’d come. In the stadium the fans were cranking the team up, chanting and gesturing with the best of them.

Then the game started, and people turned into Debbie Downers.

Girls in front of us left after Jimmy Clausen threw his second interception. People started calling for Dayne Crist and Nate Montana. My friend from home texted me midway through the second quarter asking if I’d left yet. Support for Charlie Weis was shaky during the “1812 Overture” in the fourth quarter.

Suffice it to say the fans weren’t enthralled with the team’s production.

They have reasons to be stingy with their praise. The team is on a short leash after last season, and based on Saturday’s game, there are reasons for it. Clausen didn’t look off his receivers and threw two interceptions. The “pound it” run game amounted to much ado about nothing: The Irish averaged 3.1 yards per carry and fumbled twice. The field goal unit went 0-2 with a botched snap. Penalties extended multiple San Diego State drives. The fancy blitzes produced one sack.

The game left us asking questions. Why was John Ryan the down lineman in the nickel set for the whole game instead of an actual lineman? Where was Duval Kamara looking when Clausen’s pass was intercepted over his head? Will we be able to convert third-and-shorts against teams that don’t have its entire defensive line injured like San Diego State did?

And most importantly, shouldn’t we have blown out San Diego State?

Plenty of reasons to be skeptical. But there are also reasons to rejoice in the fact that, at the very least, Notre Dame wasn’t embarrassed in its first game.

The offensive line didn’t allow a sack. Clausen threw three touchdown passes. Michael Floyd looked good in his first time out, and may have had two touchdowns if Clausen had unglued his eyes from Golden Tate. Kyle Rudolph didn’t get beat pass-blocking. Asaph Schwapp made two or three big blocks to open running lanes.

So what does this mean? It doesn’t forecast another 3-9 season, but it also doesn’t lock up a BCS bowl for the Irish. It means the team’s improving. The offensive line didn’t get great push, in the running game, but kept Clausen on his feet. That’s an improvement. Clausen threw two interceptions (neither of which were really his fault) but led an effective no-huddle offense. That’s an improvement.

Robert Hughes and Armando Allen each fumbled, but gained decent yardage on the ground. That’s an improvement.

At this point it’s all about improvement. The storm clouds are still swirling overhead, but the lightning bolts are becoming less frequent and sun is shining through in the distance.

Let’s not forget the effect a win has on a team. Notre Dame can begin to rid itself of the macabre atmosphere it must have carried last season. The team has confidence now. Confidence doesn’t necessarily translate into production, but it translates into emotion. Whether the Irish can channel emotion into production remains to be seen.

The outcome of Saturday’s game doesn’t indicate a win over Michigan, nor does it predict a defeat. But when you take the good with the bad, it says the Irish have their problems, but they have improved and will continue to do so as the season progresses.

When that sun pokes through the clouds is up for debate, but the sky in the distance look much friendlier.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily of The Observer. Contact Bill Brink at wbrink@nd.edu.