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Irish need to rebound after loss

Joe Hettler | Friday, November 5, 2004

If the 2004 football season has been like a boxing match for Notre Dame, the opening-game loss to Brigham Young was a hard body blow.

The loss to Boston College two weeks ago may have been the knockout punch.

If it wasn’t, No. 9 Tennessee and No. 1 Southern California are eagerly waiting to take their shots at turning a once promising season for the Fighting Irish into another all-to-familiar nightmare.

Notre Dame sits at 5-3 with arguably the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the country. Just a few days ago, things looked bright for Tyrone Willingham’s third team. Notre Dame was 5-2 and knowing a win against Boston College at home and another victory versus Pittsburgh would be enough to likely put the Irish in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1.

The team would be back on track. The fans would believe in Willingham and his coaching staff again. And Notre Dame would once again make some noise on the college football scene.

Oh, how things have changed.

Now Notre Dame must somehow, someway, look within themselves and knock off one of two top-10 teams on the road in the next few weeks. Two more losses and a not-gimme-anymore win against Pittsburgh puts the Irish at a mere 6-5 and heading to some .com bowl in the middle of nowhere.

If there was ever a time for Notre Dame’s players to pick themselves up after being knocked down, it’s now.

After losing to BYU, Notre Dame was mad. The team wasn’t letting that defeat negate all the hard work and dedication they put in during the offseason. A week later, Notre Dame came out and spanked a top-10 ranked Michigan team to get the season back on track.

After the latest loss, the Irish players are trying, once again, to look forward, not behind.

“What’s really glaring to me is how many guys come around on Sunday or Monday,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Kent Baer said. “A lot of guys are around that don’t have to be. So that tells me a lot right there. Sometimes when the guys are real down, they don’t want to be around and going to stay as far away from the coaches as possible and that wasn’t the case. After a few hours, you get over it, I don’t know if you ever get over it, but you move on.”

Moving on means traveling to Neyland Stadium where the Irish will be greeted by more than 100,000 screaming orange-clad fans singing “Rocky Top” as loud as possible. That’s the unappealing difference between the Brigham Young and Boston College losses. Bouncing back at home is manageable. Bouncing back against a top-10 team on the road is infinitely times more difficult than doing so in the comforts of Notre Dame Stadium.

Yet, there aren’t many options at this point for the Irish – besides pulling off a huge upset. Any way you slice it, Notre Dame is in grave trouble.

“As I said after [the Boston College game], in that locker room, those kids were devastated,” Baer said. “As I told them, the thing I feel most badly about is a lot of those kids don’t play much football after this year or after two years. You learn from it and it’s always the case. It’s unfortunate, but it’s part of life. Things don’t always work out the way you want.”

Knocked down after the Boston College loss, Notre Dame must slowly stand up and prepare for another round. They’re weary, beat and disappointed. People have quit on them. Few, if any, believe this group can rise up and conquer Tennessee or USC on the road.

But Willingham hasn’t given up on his downtrodden squad.

“This is a big-time environment, and you are always under scrutiny on the eye of the media, in the eye of the Notre Dame family,” Willingham said. “So our young men are prepared for that.”

With their backs on the canvas, Notre Dame has only one choice to save their season -stand up again and start swinging.

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

Contact Joe Hettler at [email protected]