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Broncos give Irish a chance to shine

Matt Gamber | Thursday, October 14, 2010

As I considered a topic for this column, there was so much temptation to write about, well, pretty much anything except for the game itself. After all, what does Saturday’s game against the Broncos really mean for the 3-3 Irish?

I thought back to when this year’s schedule was announced and so many fans were up in arms that Western Michigan graced the Irish calendar: “How dare Notre Dame play a team from the MAC, especially when the schedule already looks soft?” Well, ask anyone about the schedule today, and the uproar is about the difficulty of Notre Dame’s first six games, and not the perceived softness of this week’s opponent.

Similarly, I thought of those first six games, and how Saturday’s date with the Broncos marks a turning point in an Irish schedule that now includes three straight winnable games before battles with Utah and USC are sandwiched around the Army game at Yankee Stadium. After a 1-3 start, the Irish now have a real shot at 8-4, or even 9-3, so Notre Dame should use Saturday as the first of three tune-ups before the going gets tough again.

There are several other stats and statements being thrown about this week, and most of them have to do with how the Irish should be able to sleepwalk through this game on their way to the five-game win streak many seem to be ready to hand to them. There’s no doubt Notre Dame is the more talented team, so there is that inclination to take this game as a given and look ahead one, two or even three weeks.

It’s one thing for us, as onlookers, to have this attitude, to gaze weeks into the future, and to check out the other major storylines around the country on weeks like this.

But the Irish can’t afford to do that Saturday, and for what it’s worth, Brian Kelly is saying the right things to make us think they won’t. Kelly’s been in games like this from the Western Michigan perspective, and it sounds like he’s demanded his team’s attention all week.

The Irish know where this game fits into their schedule and what it could mean as some big games approach. But at this point, I hope they aren’t taking anything for granted. As much as we want to think about where this team is going, let’s not forget where it’s been; while Western Michigan certainly wouldn’t qualify as a “signature win,” Notre Dame hasn’t won enough lately to be satisfied with playing anything less than its best game, even against an inferior opponent.

Saturday’s game doesn’t have the “measuring stick” potential of several the Irish have played this season, but in some ways, I think we could get our best look at just how hungry this team is.

This game doesn’t have the added excitement of the opener against Purdue or the bitterness of the rivalry with Boston College. We aren’t asking, “Can the Irish slow down Denard Robinson’s Heisman campaign?” or “Will Notre Dame shut down future first-round pick Andrew Luck?” We’re not talking about Kelly’s coaching ties with Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio or the way Pittsburgh’s Dion Lewis torched the Irish last year.

From the Notre Dame perspective, there’s no extra build-up, magical storyline or bulletin board material heading into a game against Western Michigan. If the Irish win, they’ll still be unranked, and we won’t have a much better picture of how they stack up with the best teams in the country.

So, as much as we as outsiders want to take this game as a given or find some added meaning to the matchup, Saturday gives us a unique chance to just learn about the Irish, and especially their attitude and identity as a team.

Is donning the blue and gold at Notre Dame Stadium enough to get these guys fired up? Do they want to not only beat, but dismantle, a team trying to come into their house and pull an upset? Are they ready to take advantage of every opportunity to improve and perform on Saturdays?

Most importantly, do these guys just love to play football?

Saturday’s game may not tell us much about Notre Dame’s offensive capabilities or defensive speed in relation to the nation’s best, but it could give us our best look at the intangibles the Irish will need to compete at that level.

That’s what Saturday’s game means.

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