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Fourth straight win would do a lot for Irish

Matt Lozar | Friday, December 5, 2003

A win Saturday could go a very long way to making the 2004 season successful.

Defeating Syracuse gives Notre Dame its fourth straight win to finish the 2003 season after starting a disappointing 2-6. The win brings the Irish back to even at 6-6 and will allow them to remember throughout the off-season that the last time they walked off the field, the Irish won.

It’s important not only for the players returning next year, but also for the seniors donning the blue and gold for the last time.

“It’ll be really big for the seniors to go out with a victory,” Notre Dame linebacker Courtney Watson said. “As far as next year, it’s all about momentum going into the next season; heading into the next season, with a win, it’ll have a different feel for you.”

These seniors, like Watson, are the ones who bought into Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham’s message of not giving up on this season and trying to get something positive from all of their hard work when all that was left to play for was pride.

The Irish, especially the young players with seasons ahead of them, easily could have mailed in the 2003 campaign after three embarrassing losses by more than 30 points. But Willingham went to his seniors to lead this team and keep them focused on what the head coach has focused on since day one – winning.

“I think it’s pretty easy to focus when the goal is to win,” Watson said. “This has always been a team that prides itself on winning ballgames. Sometimes you can lose sight of that during a bad season when things aren’t going your way.

“Inside, the character of this team just wants to win. That’s starting to come to the surface.”

Another characteristic from the 2002 season starting to show up is the scoring ability of the defense. At Stanford last weekend, the defense reached the end zone twice and continued its impressive play of late by holding the Cardinal to 20 yards rushing.

It took 11 games for this defense to put points on the board, and it looks to build off that production not only at Syracuse, but next year as well.

“It felt real good. If we could have started off earlier in the season, then who knows what could have been,” Irish safety Quentin Burrell said. “We just need to keep moving forward and build on that.

“We’ve got one more leg and just want to let you know that things next year are going to be like what we are doing now.”

It seems kind of backwards that a team could be more successful after a 6-6 season than after a 10-3 year. Last season, the Irish lost three of their last five games and were embarrassed in their last two. That feeling stuck with them throughout the off-season.

But the task at hand is for Notre Dame to finish its goal of winning four straight to close the year and complete the mission the coaches set out after the loss to Florida State.

“We didn’t get off to a good start. But the most rewarding part has been the way that our guys have hung in there. They have never stopped working,” Willingham said. “They have never stopped being focused on winning, and I think we’ve been fortunate that we’ve done that these last three ballgames and hopefully we can continue to work and believe in ourselves and teammates and hopefully good things will happen.”