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Commentary: Irish season now four games long

Bill Brink | Friday, November 6, 2009

We’ve been told 9-3 is not good enough.

Is 10-2?

Because that’s where the Irish could be. But it’s going to take the same kind of focus that dragged them back from fourth-quarter deficits earlier this season.

Because last season, if you’ll remember, Notre Dame had a 5-2 record, then dropped four of its last five and finished the regular season 6-6. That stretch included an overtime loss to Pittsburgh, a four-interception goose egg against Boston College, a game-that-shall-not-be-spoken-of against Syracuse and a beating out behind the woodshed against USC.

True — the Irish can win some and lose some and be bowl-eligible and go to a bowl at 8-4 and win, but with what this team has shown itself to be capable of, that would be a disappointment.

It could also be a reality.

Look at who they face. Navy has had, um, success at Notre Dame Stadium recently. Pittsburgh proved last year how tough it plays (granted, the Panthers lost LeSean McCoy to the Eagles). Connecticut presents the easiest potential win for the Irish but we’ve seen what overlooking a Big East team on senior day can do. Toby Gerhart has 994 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns for Stanford and Andrew Luck has passed well so far this season. On the road, that’s going to challenge the Irish.

But they’ve been challenged. Last season, I wrote that winning wasn’t necessarily the be-all end-all of the game, that in a blowout win over Washington the Irish needed to find other positives besides the W. I’ve clearly never claimed to be the smartest crayon in the box because this season has shown that winning supercedes everything. The Irish squeaked out five wins in the final minutes. It doesn’t matter that they had defensive lapses or poor offensive execution because they won.

No one, not the fans or the players or the coaches or the BCS, should care how the Irish got here. They’re 6-2. That’s the important part. They have the potential to win out, go 10-2 and be eligible for a BCS bowl.

This would give the Irish something they desperately need: success under Charlie Weis with players he recruited. He orchestrated great wins with Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija and Darius Walker running the offense. Then they left and the Irish went 3-9 and 6-6.
Now Weis has his players running his system.

Fans and critics heap tons of criticism on Weis’ performance, not all of it undeserved. He’s won one bowl game in five years, he coached the team to 15 losses in 2007-08, the highest two-year loss total in school history, and his team lost to the first eight-loss team (those pesky Orange) in school history. He hasn’t beaten USC in five tries and is 3-11 against opponents ranked higher than the Irish.

Uninspiring, right? At face value, yes. But that’s not the whole story. The nice thing about the fact that sports follows the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately doctrine is that it works both ways. True, 2007 was awful and 2008 failed to live up to expectations. But it’s 2009, the Irish are winning and they’re clearly not the same team as before.

He’s got a chance this season to burst out from under those stats, to prove to fans and the media that he can coach a team to success using his players. He’s done it so far this year. It’s that time, his fifth year, when he put all of his players in position and refined his system and defined his role in the coaching staff.

My hunch says the Irish do it.

They certainly have the talent. Jimmy Clausen, Kyle Rudolph and Golden Tate can throw and catch against anybody. Robert Hughes’ increased performances enlivened the offense and countered Armando Allen’s speed, and if he gets a head of steam he’ll uproot the defenders in his way. The defensive line’s increased penetration and the emergence of Manti Te’o as a playmaker solidified a defense that was shaky at the start of the season.

Which brings me back to my point. As Rick Moranis said in Spaceballs, the Irish are at now now. They shouldn’t be worried about then, about what happened, about how they got here. They’ve got four teams to beat to capitalize on the opportunities this season presents, of which there are many: postseason awards, a BCS bowl, vindication of Weis’ recruiting and playcalling, erasure of last year’s poor finish.

But the cliché “clichés art true” is true for a reason, and the one-game-at-a-time approach must still guide the team. The Irish must use what’s worked for them all season to beat Navy. They’re going to need Te’o to break up the option and they’re going to need the defensive line to plug the fullback’s hole. They’re going to need that passing game against a Navy pass defense that ranks 23rd in the nation.

The Irish season is now four games long. If they focus and play like they know they can, the after-party could be pretty exciting.

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