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Joseph: Irish finally able to win an ugly game (Sept. 26)

Allan Joseph | Monday, September 26, 2011

PITTSBURGH — Last week, the Irish took down a ranked team at home, completely shutting down a prolific running game and executing well on offense.

This week, Notre Dame struggled mightily to even break 10 points against a Pittsburgh team that came into the contest ranked 119th in the country against the pass.

Yet this week’s win is more encouraging than last week’s, and it might even be more important — because this week, the Irish displayed a quality too often missing in the last few years: the ability to find a way to win despite playing extremely poorly.

Notre Dame teams of the recent past have been talented. When that talent was in sync, the Irish could compete with nearly any team. But when an opponent unveiled an unexpected defense, or concentrated on taking the primary offensive weapon out of the game, the Irish were flummoxed. When a game got ugly, the Irish fell apart and rarely found a way to win despite poor play.

After showing flashes of changing that attitude at the end of 2010, Notre Dame opened 2011 looking like it had regressed. Despite over 500 yards of offense in each of their first two games, the Irish could not find a way to make a play when they needed one. While 90 percent of the plays went very well for Notre Dame, all of their mistakes happened in the most critical 10 percent.

Not so this week. It was an ugly game, especially for the offense. Tommy Rees struggled to find receivers all day, displaying very little of the trademark accuracy that had earned him prolific passing numbers in each of the first two games. Facing blitzing schemes it had never seen on film, the offensive line struggled to adequately protect Rees for much of the game.

Yet when 90 percent of the plays went very poorly, the most important 10 percent were the best snaps the offense took all game. Needing a touchdown to retake the lead, the Irish marched down the field and got the critical points. It wasn’t pretty, but they got it done. After struggling all game, the offense clicked into gear at the most critical moment.

The defense also got in on the act. Two weeks ago, the defense only needed to hold Michigan scoreless for just 30 seconds and couldn’t do so. Saturday was a different story. Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri had had some success throughout the game, but he had no chance of succeeding late, when it mattered most.

This is an encouraging sign for the Irish. For too long, Notre Dame has struggled in ugly games. It has had difficulty gritting out wins through sheer willpower. Yet that is what elite teams do.

Rarely do top-10 teams breeze through every game on their schedule. There comes a time when every top-tier team must find a way to win in spite of poor play against an inferior — or sometimes superior — opponent.

The Irish are not an elite team. But it cannot become one without the instinct to win. Notre Dame always finds itself in close games. Less-talented teams always play their best against the Irish, even if the Irish don’t. These are the games Notre Dame lost in the past — Tulsa and Navy from 2010 come to mind.

Now it seems things are changing. Notre Dame can grit out an ugly victory. It will have to do so again for this season to be a success. Talent is not enough. Recent history shows that.

But if the Irish can continue to play their best during the most critical points of the game, look out. They will find a way to win a lot more in the future.

Contact Allan Joseph at ajoseph2@nd.edu

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