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Owens: It was not perfect, but a win is a win (Sept. 19)

Andrew Owens | Monday, September 19, 2011

It wasn’t perfect but a win is a win, and that’s exactly what Notre Dame needed to prevent a stunningly disappointing start from turning into a lost season.

“We just had to find a way to win,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said after his team’s 31-13 win over No. 15 Michigan State on Saturday. “By any means, just find a way to win the football game.”

Kelly’s words couldn’t be truer, as the Irish mixed-and-matched its way to a crucial victory with changes in personnel.

Freshman running back George Atkinson scored in his first game handling the kickoff return duties and punched Michigan State in the stomach, a blow from which it never recovered.

Freshman linebacker Troy Niklas and senior linebacker Steve Filer replaced starting sophomore Prince Shembo, who was absent due to a family emergency. The two did well enough for a unit that pressured Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins all day.

Junior punter Ben Turk pinned the Spartans deep in their territory a couple times after switching to the rugby-style punt midway through the game. His performance in the first two games put the defense in difficult positions and the team could not afford to continue to lose valuable field position.

Kelly said he was impressed with the performance of the six true freshmen who contributed Saturday, highlighted by Atkinson and defensive end Aaron Lynch’s sack and forced fumble in the first quarter.

Now that the Irish seem to have found some answers at a few puzzling positions and some playmakers have sparked the team at others, the team finds itself at 1-2 and with an opportunity moving forward.

The next three opponents before the pre-USC bye week are Pittsburgh, Purdue and Air Force. The Panthers and Boilermakers have struggled mightily in September and the Falcons are simply not a team that should give the Irish headaches.

But before Notre Dame fans prematurely place a ‘W’ next to those three dates, they should remember what happened in 2010.

After a 1-3 start, Notre Dame seemed to be rolling again with wins over Boston College, Pittsburgh and Western Michigan to improve to 4-3. The next two games, Navy and Tulsa, were assumed to be a cinch for Kelly’s inaugural squad.

Long story short, the Irish lost both games to fall to 4-5 on the season, before reclaiming its consistency and finishing 2010 on a four-game winning streak.

While Notre Dame should (soundly) defeat its next three opponents, nothing can be taken for granted by a team that has a tendency to take two steps forward and one step back.

At this point in time, that cannot happen. Notre Dame needs to take the next step forward and roll over the teams it should roll over. It cannot expect to rejoin the top-25 and truly belong there until it does so.

Kelly described Notre Dame’s play down the stretch Saturday as “outstanding.” For the team to continue to rehabilitate its 2011 campaign, it will require more mixing-and-matching and more sparks from the playmakers.

When a kickoff returner sparks the squad by bringing one back or a freshman defensive lineman forces a turnover in a key situation, it removes some of the pressure from an offensive unit lacking consistency.

Contrary to what many people believe, the 2011 squad will not be defined by the first two games. Sure, they will not be forgotten whatever their final record may be, but it is how the team responds to the 0-2 start that will determine how they are remembered.

If Notre Dame takes care of business, as it should, the next three weeks, it will enter the USC game with a 4-2 record, which, while not perfect, would mark a shift in the right direction for the program.

And that’s exactly what Notre Dame needs right now.

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

Contact Andrew Owens at aowens2@nd.edu