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1988, 1993 … the Irish can do it

Pat Leonard | Friday, October 14, 2005

It was only yesterday. On second thought, it was five years ago.

No. 1 Nebraska had fallen on its heels, and on Sept. 9, 2000, the Irish were on the verge of toppling the best team in the country.

More than half of the fans in Notre Dame Stadium were draped in red. Some Notre Dame fans – you know who you are – had despicably sold their tickets to the trekking Husker faithful. And when Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch scampered into the left corner of the endzone for the overtime clincher, hearts sank.

Fans walked to their cars, heads down. I even remember saying to my father as I exited the Stadium, “We had ’em, Dad.” People were furious, frustrated and perhaps most importantly, disappointed.


Because Notre Dame was good enough to do it. They had the talent and the opportunity to beat – and be – the best.

That was five years ago.

Now, on campus, in experts’ predictions and in the rational thought of Irish fans everywhere, Notre Dame has a chance. The talent and opportunity are back.

“No team is unbeatable,” Irish defensive end Chris Frome said.

The team believes. No matter how many answers Irish players give about Saturday’s contest being “just another game,” it’s not. They know it’s not.

On Saturday, a team Notre Dame uses as its barometer for success comes to town with a 27-game winning streak, the defending Heisman Trophy-winner and an attitude that says, ‘We know we’re good.’

When asked Tuesday about playing in Notre Dame Stadium, USC quarterback Matt Leinart said: “It’s fun. I’m excited to go back.”

It’s fun? How the Irish detest losing to Southern California.

In 2003, Tyrone Willingham’s team lost 38-0 to Michigan. Irish fans were distraught, but they had excuses: it’s Michigan; they play well at home; the series always goes back and forth.

But on Oct. 18, 2003, when Southern California walked into Notre Dame Stadium and beat the pants off the Irish in a 45-14 clubbing, seats emptied early. It had been the second year in a row USC had won by 31. So when it happened the next year, Willingham lost his job. And now, coach Charlie Weis has Notre Dame on the verge of accomplishing more than he promised in his first season.

“When I think about Charlie Weis, I think about confidence,” defensive tackle Trevor Laws said.

“I think our team is starting to reflect the attitude of our head coach,” defensive end Victor Abiamiri said. “We’re buying into what he’s trying to teach.”

Not athletic director Kevin White, not Weis himself could have had expectations of greatness. Weis only promised his team would be prepared week-in, week-out.

If anything, though it sounds pessimistic, a 7-, 10- or even 20-point loss Saturday will be a stride in the right direction for a Notre Dame team that, for almost a decade, had lost its way.

USC is on pace to break the average yards per game record in Division-I college football by 15 yards. The Trojans average 52 points per game. They are so good, Irish nose tackle Derek Landri said he believes they beat some teams before they even take the field.

But there will most likely be a large following of Notre Dame fans who will have their heads down in disappointment if the Irish lose Saturday.

“People hesitate to say that we’re a great team this year, and ya know what?” said defensive end Chris Frome. “They have every right to be.

“They say, ‘Oh, you know, Michigan is a three-loss team. They’re not that great this year. Pittsburgh wasn’t a great team.’ They were ranked when we beat them … We feel like this is our chance to put a lot of the naysayers down and prove that we belong in the top ten, where we are right now.

“And I believe we belong at the top.”

For the first time in six years, the Irish have the opportunity to prove it.

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