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Commentary: Irish need win to regain stability

Michael Bryan | Friday, November 13, 2009

There may not be a more important game in years in impacting the stability of the Notre Dame football program.

What was once a promising season with realistic BCS goals was turned upside down last week with a crushing loss to Navy. And while the Irish have lost three games by a total of 13 points this year, many have already written it off as a failure.

It’s been an odd season to be sure — nine games in it’s still very hard to tell if this team is good, bad, lucky or somewhere in between. Statistically Notre Dame is 13 points from being undefeated, and also 17 points from being 2-7.

But Saturday, Notre Dame has a chance to reverse a majority of the negativity built up by the loss to the Midshipmen. While losing to an unranked Navy team while ranked for the first time since FDR was president will sting for a long time, it could be just a bump in the road if the Irish can beat Pittsburgh and finish 9-3.

It was my freshman year when Charlie Weis and Notre Dame firmly stated that 9-3 wasn’t good enough. Three unexpected years later, 9-3 suddenly is good enough. Not anywhere near good enough to accomplish the goals the history Notre Dame football should demand, but enough to keep his job another year and get one more shot at proving the program is on the road to recovery.

And it wouldn’t shock me for the Irish to take out Pittsburgh Saturday. It also wouldn’t shock me in the least if this team collapsed, as it did at the end of last year.

This Notre Dame team, however, has become experts at changing direction and momentum. The early year was filled with fourth-quarter comebacks; lately, they’ve come up short. The defense originally couldn’t stop the run, then the pass, and now maybe it’s just up to whatever the opposition is most comfortable with.

Could they just reverse these trends again? I could easily see it happening, and I don’t see a team this talented limping to the finish line again.

Despite this, the margin for error after last week has been effectively reduced to zero. The vultures that circled Charlie Weis throughout 2007 and reappeared after the Syracuse game last year are back, and grow in number with every loss.

Negative speculation surrounding Notre Dame’s future in the media only puts more pressure on the team, Weis and for Jack Swarbrick to make a decision. And the media loves nothing more than to cover struggles at Notre Dame. The two ESPN reporters at Tuesday’s press conference were no accident, and they’ll be back after another loss.

This game can go a long way towards reversing all that though. Not a complete 180, but at a lot can change with a win at Heinz Field.

The game would demonstrate that Weis and the Irish are still fighting upward and improving despite last week’s evidence to the contrary. It would go against many of the damning tendencies that have plagued the team and coach over the last five years.

For example, 1-13 against ranked teams. Or 8-19 against teams that finish the season with winning records. Beating the Panthers won’t make those statistics any more acceptable to those who are calling for Weis’ head, but it could go a long way towards beating Connecticut and Stanford. Which would be enough, giving the Irish the 9-3 record most reasonable fans expected this season.

Weis deflected questions about the big picture and his future by maintaining he’s focused only on Pittsburgh. While I think this is not humanly possible, Pittsburgh is his tipping point. With a team that has thrived on the momentum of close wins, I don’t think Notre Dame will lose again if they come away with the upset Saturday.

With a loss, the window on the Weis era becomes inches away from closing, if not closed. 9-3 may have changed from 2006 to 2009 to become good enough; 8-4 or 7-5 certainly have not.

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

Contact Michael Bryan at mbryan@nd.edu