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Football Commentary: Game depends on Irish psyche

Bill Brink | Friday, September 26, 2008

Tomorrow’s game could go either way, and which route it takes depends on how the Irish recover from their loss.

Last season, the losses eclipsed any hope of improvement. There were few redeeming qualities, and it became tough for Notre Dame to pull itself together after losses. So the question isn’t really how good Purdue is or how good Notre Dame is. The question is how Notre Dame responds to its loss.

After the 38-0 loss to Michigan last year, Irish coach Charlie Weis said he started the season over. There’s no need for that this year, but the team, both as individual units and as a whole, must regroup to have success in the rest of the season.

The offensive line could regress after Michigan State nullified its effectiveness. It could lose confidence. Should that happen, the running game will once again fail to produce yardage. The offense will again become one-dimensional, forcing Jimmy Clausen to throw. Interceptions follow, and there goes the game.

Or the offensive linemen could buckle down and play like they did in the first two games, when they didn’t allow a sack and helped the running backs rush for more than 100 yards. They’re bigger, stronger and better than last year, and they know it. The only question is how this loss affected them compared to last year.

What about the running backs, the horses who couldn’t shed their reins against Michigan State? Will they believe the stat sheets’ indications of their utility to the team?

They might.

Or they could remember the holes they’ve hit and the touchdowns they’ve scored in the first two games. They could force the defense into the box and move the chains. This opens the field for the play-action pass, which Clausen showed he can throw well against Michigan.

Clausen may let his interceptions get to him. He could have them in the back of his mind all game, forcing him to throw the ball away. Or he may remember his effectiveness in the four- and five-wide sets and continue to pass effectively. With the five-wide set spreading the field, the defense follows suit, and here comes the run again.

Michael Floyd could think about his fumble every time a ball comes his way. Or he could realize that he needs to move on and learn from his mistakes.

What’s important to remember about tomorrow’s game is the relative equality of the two teams. Both are 2-1. Notre Dame beat an injured San Diego State team and a Michigan team that gave it the ball six times. Purdue beat up on Northern Colorado and barely snuck past Central Michigan. Notre Dame lost to a Michigan State team that played better, and Purdue, who hasn’t yet played on the road, lost in overtime to Oregon.

Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter can still run the spread offense effectively, but he lost two of his primary weapons, speedy wide receiver Dorian Bryant and tight end Dustin Keller. Clausen has budding stars at receiver in Floyd and Golden Tate. Purdue running back Kory Sheets has a shade under 20 carries per game and averages 5.7 yards per carry. Notre Dame averages 2.6 per carry.

The game is, for all intents and purposes, a toss-up. One could make 10 arguments for both sides and wouldn’t be able to declare a definitive winner. So it’s up to the way both teams execute to determine the game. No one can execute without having confidence in what they’re doing. And to have confidence, Notre Dame needs to believe – actually, to know – that last week was an aberration, a fluke, a one-time thing.

The offensive linemen need to know they will flatten their opponents. The running backs need to know they have the ability to hit the holes, move the chains and score. Clausen needs to know he can hit his receivers.

And they do. This isn’t like last year, where each loss sunk the team deeper and deeper into despair. This is this year, where the team has proved it can produce on offense and halt production on defense. Michigan wasn’t crunch time, and Michigan State wasn’t crunch time. This is. Notre Dame has already proved it has moved on from last season. Now it needs to prove, by recovering from a loss, that the transition is complete.

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

Contact Bill Brink at wbrink@nd.edu.