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Big win not as big as it seems

Bill Brink | Tuesday, October 28, 2008

No disrespect to Vin Diesel, but Notre Dame must take issue with his words of wisdom.

“It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile,” he says in ‘The Fast and the Furious.’ “Winning’s winning.”

Sort of.

In Notre Dame’s case, winning isn’t exactly winning. At least not over winless Washington, whose terrible season got no better Saturday. Notre Dame needs to heed the reverse of what Diesel intended: winning by a mile doesn’t mean you’re miles ahead of your opponent. Nor will you be miles ahead of future opponents.

Washington had three first downs in the first half. At halftime, Huskies quarterback Ronnie Fouch had completed just one of his nine passes for five yards. Not to put the passing game’s struggles all on him, let’s discuss his receivers, who dropped passes that hit them in the hands. The defense, which was in the bottom 10 in the nation in rush yardage entering the game, let Notre Dame run at will. Washington rushed for only 26 yards. Notre Dame sacked Fouch four times. The list goes on.

Beware taking these facts to signify a great performance by the Irish. Rather, they displayed the true woes that have befallen the Huskies this season.

The Irish can still use this game as a confidence boost, but they have to exercise caution in the process. The game has two meanings, one in the short run and one in the long run. When taken together, the experience can create optimism and momentum. If not, a false sense of security and cockiness could envelop the team and impede its progress.

The really positive sign? The players know the difference.

“The only thing we can control is how we play,” Irish running back James Aldridge said. “If everybody focuses on the task they have in front of them they’ll be successful.”

That’s where the short-term benefits will come into play. The Irish must focus on their performance. Certainly, the 252 yards the Irish gained on the ground will boost their confidence in the running game. Aldridge’s 84 yards and two touchdowns must have pleased him. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen struggled compared to his recent performances but showed improvement in successfully evading the pass rush to keep plays alive and prevent sacks.

The defense stifled both the run and the pass. Before Washington’s final drive against Notre Dame’s backups, Fouch had passed for 23 yards in the game. Washington possessed the ball 10 times in the game. It scored on its final drive – but punted at the end of the first nine.

Short-term prognosis: the Irish played great. Long-term prognosis: the Irish played great against a terrible team and, should they get too full of themselves, will set themselves up for failure in the future.

Like Aldridge said, it comes down to focusing on the team’s own play and how that translates into the coming weeks. Irish receiver Golden Tate said mistakes need correcting despite the final score.

“I don’t think Washington was terrible,” Tate said. “I feel like we made some mistakes.”

Both Aldridge and linebacker Harrison Smith said the performance helps drive the team from week to week. Aldridge spoke of a “flow,” while Smith called it a momentum, but the idea was the same: It doesn’t matter who they beat. The win alone, and the quality of play, create all the confidence the team needs. With confidence, however, can come arrogance, but Notre Dame knows to leave arrogance alone.

“Anytime you can win the game with a score like that you gain confidence but at the same time you don’t want to have arrogance,” Tate said. “Thinking we’re good, we’re good, whatever we do we’re going to win.”

The mantra that will bring the most success to the Irish in the rest of the season mirrors Tate’s train of thought. Focus on what you do. Forget about who you play. Don’t get complacent based on the final score. Remember that every opponent won’t roll over so easily.

But don’t completely write the win off to the quality of competition either. Smith summed up this principle best.

“To be good you have to know you’re good,” Smith said. “That’s not arrogant or cocky, you just have to know that.”

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

Contact Bill Brink at wbrink@nd.edu.