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Football Commentary: Close wins show team’s heart

Michael Bryan | Sunday, October 4, 2009

There was nowhere for Robert Hughes to go.

After Jimmy Clausen and Kyle Rudolph connected for a crucial late touchdown (again), the equally important two-point conversion looked to be stuffed. The Washington defense hadn’t been fooled on the play-fake, and there was no hole in the line for Hughes to run through.

But in a play that epitomized the resiliency and toughness of this Notre Dame team, Hughes charged into the mass of bodies blocking him from the end zone. And with his legs still moving and the scrum of offensive linemen pushing the pile forward, Hughes and the Irish picked up two game-saving points in another display of heart and determination.

Maybe Hughes and the linemen were just following the example of the defense, which managed to stop the Huskies at the goal line again and again in the second half. With Washington up 24-19 after the Irish offense stalled in the red zone again, the defense was able to keep Jake Locker from scoring twice on runs from inside the one.

The Huskies offensive line simply couldn’t get any push on the Notre Dame defenders with their backs against the wall. Then in the fourth quarter, in case anyone thought the first stand was a fluke, the Irish did it again. And then, thanks to a bizarre penalty, a third time.

With the home team still down 24-22, Locker again drove down to within inches of the Notre Dame end zone. After the Irish caught Chris Polk in the backfield for a loss, forced an incompletion and brought Locker down at the two, it seemed like another vital goal line stop was complete.

After Nick Folk apparently put Washington up 27-22, Ian Williams was flagged for roughing the snapper, a violation that despite its rare appearances is apparently real and enforceable.

For most teams, that penalty would have been the end of it. The defense had seemingly done its job and held the opponents to a field goal, saving the team from an impossible two-score deficit. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to be told they would have to go do it again.

For the third straight time though, the defense stood strong backed up as far as possible. Polk couldn’t gain any ground up the middle. Kyle McCarthy and Harrison Smith combining on a perfect tackle to keep fullback Paul Homer from six points. Another stop of Locker on a quarterback sneak forced another Folk field goal try.

In total, Washington had 10 plays within five yards of the end zone and came away with just three points. Seven times the Huskies were at the Notre Dame 1-yard line and were stuffed.

No one will assert that this is the most physically imposing version of an Irish football team, as anyone who saw them try and tackle Polk will attest to. But in terms of mental toughness, desire to win and leaving everything they have on the football field, it’s hard to find a worthy adversary.

After four games in a row with endings like Saturdays, some critics will say this team has underperformed and is lucky. Luck, however, does not make goal line stands, last-minute interceptions or fourth-quarter drives. No matter how it has happened, Notre Dame is 4-1, and given the team’s battles with injuries and how easily many of those games could have gone the other way, I think it’s difficult to say that record is underachieving.

How many of these games does the 2008 team win? The value of this team’s maturity and confidence is critical – the confidence level going into overtime Saturday compared to last season against Pittsburgh is night and day.

And while not a great team yet, it seems like the Irish get closer with every game they play. They have evolved from a team that believes it can win to a team that in any situation believes it will win, and will fight for every inch.

The bye week will be a huge asset to a team battling injuries all over the offense and probably happy to have a weekend without an emotionally draining fourth quarter (I know I am).

And for all the talk of close games, if the Irish are in it at the end of the game in two weeks, I don’t think anyone will be complaining.

Contact?Michael?Bryan at mbryan@nd.edu

The views expressed in this

column are those of the author and not necessarily those of?The Observer.