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This time around, things are different

Heather VanHoegarden | Tuesday, October 25, 2005

It was nothing like last year’s game against BYU, when Notre Dame put up just 17 points in a tough opening loss. And that loss was really the season opener, unlike Saturday’s game, which was just the second half of the season, despite what Irish head coach Charlie Weis said all last week. But the bitter taste that was left for the Irish after that one was erased on Saturday with the win, thanks to Weis’ offense.

“This team plays with more confidence, this team is more efficient, this team is more determined and they execute at a higher level,” Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.

All week, Weis got the players to put the loss behind them, deeming the BYU game the “season opener.”

“I think that the players bought into it very quickly, and I think that’s what got their attention, the fact that we were starting the second half of the season,” Weis said.

And Weis’ methods were successful for the Irish in their “home opener,” mostly due to the Irish offense, especially wide receiver Maurice Stovall.

After catching his 14th pass, a Notre Dame record, Stovall walked to the sideline, and Weis smiled, an in-game rarity for the Irish head coach.

But Weis had reason to smile.

Stovall had shown just how valuable he can be after dropping weight in the off-season to become a leaner receiver.

“I think it greatly helped him,” Weis said. “I think he was eating himself into a tweaner at 237 pounds.”

The leaner Stovall and Quinn dominated the Cougar secondary Saturday, completing passes and scoring at will. Stovall’s 6-foot-5 frame proved too much for the significantly shorter BYU secondary.

“We wanted to start fast and come out strong to show people that we weren’t going to feel sorry for ourselves after the tough loss,” Quinn said.

And this type of dominating performance is just what the doctor ordered for the Irish, coming off a heartbreaking loss to No. 1 Southern California.

“Losing to USC was a very emotional loss for us,” Stovall said. “But at the same time, good teams can’t allow themselves to let that overcome.”

And so in the “home opener,” it was the connection between Quinn and Stovall that set the tone. Throw in Jeff Samardzija’s 10 catches for 152 yards, and you don’t have a bad threesome. Add 511 yards of total offense, and you’ve got an offense.

“This is our season opener, so I’m glad to have this win under our belt,” defensive end Victor Abiamiri said.

But it wasn’t just the 49 points that was put up by this Irish offense – it was the way they did it. It was the timing of the dominance.

Notre Dame needed a game like this – one in which its quarterback and his receivers played almost flawlessly and the rest of the team played well enough. One in which Stovall showed the kind of dominating player he can be because of his size and speed.

Notre Dame needed a big win to get over USC, and that’s what it got.

And so now the Irish can move on. Matt Leinart’s fumble won’t be the main topic anymore. Nor will what is being called the “Bush Push.”

Now, Notre Dame can talk about the final stretch – four games it needs to win if it has BCS aspirations. Four games it can win. Four games that were started with a big win in the “season opener.”

Weis is focused. In the postgame press conference, he was more interested in the score of the Tennessee-Alabama game than talking with the media.

And so the Irish are off to a good start to the second half of the season or the beginning of a new season. But no matter how you look at it, the way the Irish finish will show just how good this team is.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Heather Van Hoegarden at [email protected]