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Irish closer, but not close enough

Matt Gamber | Sunday, September 26, 2010

After a pair of close losses to Michigan and Michigan State, I kept hearing two comments I didn’t buy at the time, one of which I mentioned in my pregame prediction in Friday’s Irish Insider. (I’d say “I told you so,” but I still picked a Notre Dame win, so that wouldn’t really be fair.)

The first: Notre Dame was a play or two away from beating both the Wolverines and the Spartans, and with a lucky break and a fortunate bounce, the Irish could have been 3-0. So, once Notre Dame got one of those opportunities, the team would show that it is, in fact, much improved over a year ago.

Well, the Irish got a few of those breaks Saturday, as Stanford muffed a punt deep in its own territory and the Irish made two interceptions off tipped passes that could just as easily have fallen harmlessly to the ground.

Of course, the circumstances of each game are different, and the Irish will always accept any fortune that comes their way. But after Saturday, it’s clear Notre Dame is more than just a lucky bounce away from beating, and being, one of that nation’s best teams.

The second cliché we heard after three weeks: The Irish just need to learn how to win.

I understand the point that a confident attitude is an extremely important trait for a college football team to possess. I also understand that after going 3-9, 7-6 and 6-6 in consecutive years, Notre Dame needs to alter the program’s direction and redevelop a winning tradition.

The Irish need to know how to win, but how the heck are they supposed to “learn?” I’ve thought about this question for hours over the past three weeks, and the only reasonable answer I’ve come up with is that to learn how to win, Notre Dame just needs to win.

What else can the coaches or players do? There’s no “on” button. There’s no crash course, online tutorial or how-to guide that can teach these guys how to win. I know Kelly is doing his best (and I’m confident he’s doing a good job) of delivering his message and explaining what he believes his team needs to do to win. But the way fans use the term, you’d think this is something that’s just going to click, and we’ll immediately see the difference on the field.

That’s not to say I don’t believe the Irish can get there — in fact, I do, and I think we’re in the early stages of that process.

But it is a process, and developing that attitude takes time. Knowing how to win is undoubtedly important, and I think it’s fairly clear that Notre Dame struggles with that to some degree.

But let’s be honest: That’s not why the Irish have lost the last three Saturdays. There’s plenty of actual on-field evidence that suggests Notre Dame, while needing a few bounces and the knowledge of how to win, has plenty of other things to work on.

Start with the turnover on downs at midfield early in the fourth quarter, which you could call the turning point, but that I would call a microcosm, of the game. You could question the play calls on third and fourth down, or even suggest the Irish should have punted. I won’t.

The bottom line is that good teams convert in those high-pressure, short yardage situations. No. 1 Alabama did late in the game against Arkansas to secure a win Saturday. If you’re going to become one of those teams, you better be able to get a yard when you need it most.

Notre Dame isn’t there yet.

The same could be said for a number of other specific plays and situations in Saturday’s game. In short, the Irish were dismantled in all three facets of the game. The offense couldn’t run the ball or attack the middle of the field through the air, which Stanford did at will. The defense couldn’t get off the field on third downs and put no pressure on Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck. The special teams didn’t generate a field position advantage with either punts or kick returns.

I know this column sounds negative, but I want to end by reiterating my point that I think the Irish can get there. The foundation is being built by the current coaches and players, who believe success is coming. I believe it too, and for each negative I’ve presented, I could name several things I’ve liked about this team’s play thus far.

Admittedly, I was as guilty as anyone in expecting a complete 180-turnaround from the get-go. Despite a 1-2 start, several of those expectations remained intact because of what we had seen.

If anything, the Stanford loss can serve as a reminder that this team isn’t there yet, and in truth, it’s not as close as we may have believed. But they’re coming.

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

Contact Matt Gamber at mgamber@nd.edu