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Football Insider: It’s hard, but let’s be proactive

Bill Brink | Monday, November 24, 2008

I live in Annapolis, Md., about 15 minutes from the Naval Academy. My parents hold Navy season tickets, and in 2003 we had tickets to the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia. Neither team was particularly good, but the tradition and strength of the rivalry made the game interesting every year. It would have been a great experience, in retrospect, to see what the game was like.

I didn’t go. I stayed home to watch Notre Dame lose to Syracuse, 38-12, in the Carrier Dome.

The way the Irish played yesterday reminded me of that game in 2003. The team looked flat and unprepared even for a terrible team like the Orange, who had won two games before Saturday. It’s a good thing the students were preoccupied with trying to hit the TV timeout guy with snowballs to pay close attention to the game, because it was an ugly one to watch.

If there was ever an opportunity to bounce back from a terrible season, this year was it. Combine a cushy schedule, a good recruiting class with some studs who can contribute right away and a quarterback with a year of experience and you get a team who can compete with – if not beat – upper-echelon programs. The Irish fulfilled that idea in the first half of the season, but somewhere along the line the idea became hazy.

Notre Dame’s opponents average just under five wins this season. The schedule worked perfectly to allow Notre Dame to regain its feet and bring itself back to the place it would like to be after last year’s aberration. Despite the soft schedule, the team couldn’t produce.

Last year, the 3-9 team still had enough desire to get a big enough lead over Duke on senior day so that Tom Zbikowski could play quarterback. This year, the team prayed for a gust of wind that would send Brandon Walker’s 53-yard field goal through the uprights to squeak out an undeserved win.

I know Syracuse doesn’t fulfill the formidable-opponent ideal that USC will next week, but the Orange still must be prepared for. The penalties the Irish committed displayed the lack of preparation. A pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter extended a Syracuse drive that led to Syracuse’s winning touchdown. A holding penalty negated a long completion to Kyle Rudolph. Syracuse and Notre Dame both had 50 penalty yards, but Notre Dame’s penalties cut the Irish deep.

How about the possession when Notre Dame got the ball on the Syracuse 23-yard line? A 17-yard sack and two holding penalties later, and Eric Maust couldn’t even punt the ball to the original line of scrimmage because the Irish had lost so much yardage. Three plays, minus-30 yards. A team can’t expect to win a game, no matter who it plays, with possessions like that.

Against a 2-8 team, winning the game can’t come down to two long field goals in sub-zero temperatures in the fourth quarter. A good team has to drive down the field and score. Like it has most of the season, the rush yardage differential helped to decide the game. Notre Dame allowed 170 yards on the ground, 126 of them to Antwon Bailey. The Irish rushed for 41 yards on 28 carries, an average of 1.5 yards per carry. If a team can’t run the ball on Syracuse, who can they run on?

Rather than go on about the examples of terrible play, let’s be proactive. Let’s try to fix the problem. Part of it comes from expectations. Notre Dame’s special place in today’s college football atmosphere stems from the school’s play in years past, which included Heisman winners, national championships and consistent nine-win seasons. Saturday was the first time in school history the Irish lost to an eight-loss team. The special deal with the BCS, the special bowl selection exceptions, the TV deal – all of it comes from a time in the past.

This team is not that team, so let’s separate the two. Let’s also exclude the angry alumni, who whine when the Irish don’t beat Navy by more than 35 points, from the discussion. Those are confounding variables. Let’s look at this as a regular football team without the traditions and expectations, because that’s the only way to solve the problem.

Many things went wrong Saturday, just like many things went wrong this season. Changing one part of the team may solve some of those problems, but the idea is to change the whole program, get it to reverse direction, rather than make a snap decision to eliminate one part of the system.

It might not be quick, it might not be easy, but the school and the coaching staff need to shift the whole system.

It’s like performing surgery. To heal a person, a surgeon must follow a procedure to ensure minimal suffering to the person as a whole. Sawing off somebody’s foot may get rid of the broken ankle, but it causes more pain to the person than he was originally in.

Likewise, Notre Dame can’t just fire a coach, or change quarterbacks, or play its star recruits. The system needs a broader change to bring the parts together again.