Joseph: Notre Dame displays newfound confidence (Sept. 3)
Allan Joseph | Monday, September 3, 2012
DUBLIN – There are plenty of reasons to see Notre Dame’s season-opening victory over Navy as some sort of fluke. The Midshipmen are young and not at their best. The Irish secondary showed some glaring holes. The Irish benefited from turnovers on lucky bounces. To look at the game that way, however, is to miss the forest for the trees.
Saturday’s contest was a promising step for the rest of the season and beyond. Two years ago, in the midst of Brian Kelly’s first season at the helm, the Irish played sloppily in every facet of the game. Simple run blocking was nearly impossible, the defense missed an astounding number of assignments and you could forget about the quarterback consistently throwing catchable passes. The Irish had their occasional moments of brilliance – such as a gutty win at USC – but overall, they were in a pretty sorry state.
If the 50-10 victory over Navy was any indication, this season promises to be a different experience. It started in the trenches. The Notre Dame offensive front used to be not much more than a speed bump for opposing defenders, and a small one at that. Now, led by captain Zack Martin, the line seems to relish pushing defensive linemen around; running backs Theo Riddick and George Atkinson can attest to the width of the holes they got to run through this weekend. The Irish defensive line a few years ago was supposed to be impressively strong and quick; it turned out to be neither. Now, athletes like Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore can go both through and around blockers – and as Tuitt demonstrated, they’re pretty fast too.
The success of the offensive and defensive fronts meant the Irish could establish a rhythm in the rushing attack, and the ability of Notre Dame receivers to block on the perimeter meant Riddick and Atkinson had room to break big plays open like Atkinson’s 56-yard touchdown scamper. With a talented line leading the way, the Irish defense could pressure the quarterback, stop short-yardage runs and even force turnovers. None of these were regular occurrences just two years ago.
Obviously, Notre Dame has a bevy of aspects to improve upon as well. The secondary has to do a better job of adjusting to new wrinkles. There were too many dropped passes. The special teams were positively atrocious, with two missed extra points and some scary moments on both ends of punts. But this time, Irish fans can start believing those things will actually get better, because for the first time since 2005, Notre Dame is playing with true confidence.
Last year’s squad thought it had the potential to win every game, but it didn’t expect to. There’s a different vibe coming from this group. Whether it’s Navy or USC, Wake Forest or Oklahoma, this team will go into the game expecting to win; they’ll work on everything and anything to do so. It’s been too long since that type of atmosphere pervaded the Irish locker room.
It’ll still be a year filled with ups and downs. The schedule is too tough to expect the nascent confidence to translate into a BCS berth. Mistakes will be made, weaknesses will be exposed and the Irish will lose a few games. If you replay the Emerald Isle Classic in your head, though, you’ll see a swagger about the Irish you might not recognize. They’re not back yet, but they’re on their way. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.
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