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Monaco: Like last year, Irish can change with one game (Sept. 27)

Mike Monaco | Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Think back to late October of 2012.

Notre Dame was roughly a 10-point underdog to Oklahoma leading up to their top-10 clash in Norman, Okla., on Oct. 27.

Manti Te’o was still crafting his Heisman candidacy. 

Everett Golson was still developing as the first-year signal-caller for Brian Kelly.

The defense had bent but not broke, surrendering yards but not points.

The Irish were 7-0, but people still weren’t convinced that Notre Dame was excellent, or even relevant.

But one game can change everything. Golson connected on a 50-yard bomb with Chris Brown and plunged in for a 1-yard go-ahead touchdown later in the drive. Te’o sealed the victory with a late interception. The defense limited Landry Jones and the Sooners to 13 points. Just like that, Golson was finding himself as the quarterback, Te’o was placed squarely in the Heisman conversation, the defense was legitimate and the Irish were for real.

Fast-forward to Oklahoma week 2013, and a similar uncertainty swirls around this Notre Dame squad. Kelly has talked about his team finding its identity, and he continues to insist the Irish are not a finished product. And if the matchup with Oklahoma in 2012 taught us anything, it’s that a lot can change with one game.

Last season, it was more of a perception change. “Ok,” we said, “Notre Dame defeated the Sooners convincingly. It was 30-13. It was in Norman. It was in primetime. This team is for real now.” But it was, by and large, the same Irish team that had been playing the same Irish football the whole season. People just began to truly believe after the statement win over the Sooners.

This season, it will need to be more than just a perception change to return to a 2012-level of prominence. Notre Dame has legitimate problems and unanswered questions.

Most notably and importantly, the defense has been bad at worst and inconsistent at best. The middle linebacker and safety rotations are still in flux.

Offensively, the Irish have struggled to run the ball. A definitive pecking order in the backfield has yet to crystalize, and the passing game has yet to prove it can carry the load when teams unflinchingly stack the box.

But as we learned last year, nothing is steadfast; performance and perception are subject to change. And, really, that’s the way football always is. Uncertainty and fluidity are the underpinnings of the sport. Michigan looked like a BCS-caliber team in dropping 41 points on the Irish three weeks back. Now the Wolverines look like a low-end top-25 squad after barely squeaking by Akron and Connecticut in consecutive weeks. It’s why more and more coaches and media members alike bash the perceived importance of preseason – or even early-season – polls.

It’s too early to write the final chapter on Notre Dame. The Irish have played one-third of their regular season. The story on Notre Dame can drastically change, for better or worse, by 7 p.m. on Saturday.

The Irish are again seeking answers to some of the same question marks that popped up heading into Oklahoma week 2012.

Will an inside linebacker emerge to lead the defense, or at least the linebacking corps, like Te’o led last season? If so, who will it be?

Will Tommy Rees increase efficiency, limit turnovers and silence critics, like Golson did?

Will the defense be as stout as it was against Michigan State and take a huge leap in consistency?

Uncertainty surrounds the Irish, certainly. But uncertainty should not be confused with finality.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu                            

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