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Notre Dame could be on the right track

Matt Gamber | Thursday, September 16, 2010

I try to avoid comparing Brian Kelly to Charlie Weis, and I’d rather not reference “last year” after every win, loss, practice or press conference.

But the fact is, the Irish are 1-1 and coming off a heartbreaking loss to Michigan — just as they were a year ago — which, as hard as we may try, makes it difficult to ignore the parallels to last season.

Your individual degree of optimism or pessimism will dictate how you view Notre Dame’s first two performances under Kelly. If your glass is half full, you might argue that tackling has improved, the offensive line looks stronger and with a healthy Dayne Crist under center, the Irish would be 2-0. If your glass is half empty, you’ll say that “improved” tackling allowed an opposing quarterback more than 500 yards of offense, the line couldn’t spring the run game when Notre Dame needed it most, and that whether Crist is healthy or not, there should be a quarterback capable of running the offense.

I’ve been staring at my proverbial glass all week, and I’m still not sure how I feel, so I won’t argue for either view. The truth is, we won’t know how this Irish team is different from the last until they step onto the field in East Lansing on Saturday night.

There’s no doubt the Michigan loss stung, especially because of how eerily similar it was to last year’s shocking finish at the Big House. So while I’m hesitant to say the Irish will recover this season as they were largely unable to a year ago, I must admit I have a completely different feeling following Notre Dame’s first loss this season.

I traveled to Ann Arbor to cover the Michigan game last season, and I was on the sideline for the Wolverines’ game-winning score. When Weis walked to the podium for his postgame press conference, I didn’t want to listen — I could barely even look up, I was so disgusted by what I had witnessed moments prior. As we all know, we saw similar moments throughout last season, when every Irish loss seemed to come down to the final possession.

After each of those losses, Weis delivered the same kind of message: he felt bad for his players and was proud of them for fighting until the end, but he was disappointed they couldn’t make one last play to secure a win.

I’m not trying to blast Weis here, as I can surely understand those sentiments and appreciate how difficult it is to stomach a series of gut-wrenching losses. But after hearing Kelly’s comments in light of Saturday’s loss, I can’t help but feel like this team is much more equipped to turn a tough defeat into a speed bump, not a roadblock.

“It’s not good enough to [say], ‘Well, Notre Dame plays hard for four quarters.’ You have to play hard, and you have to win,” Kelly said. “There won’t be any more smiley faces around here until we win.”

Not exactly a revolutionary statement, but when was the last time we heard that point made so bluntly? Perhaps more importantly, when was the last time you heard people commend teams like Alabama, Texas and Ohio State for “playing hard?” Shouldn’t that be a given? Isn’t it?

It appears that now, at Notre Dame, it is.

Two weeks into a season that began just as the last, it’s far too early to pass judgment on where this team is going. But if the vibe Kelly gives off is any indication, I’d have to say the Irish aren’t done yet.

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

Contact Matt Gamber at mgamber@nd.edu