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Football Commentary: Unfulfilled, but still pleased

Jay Fitzpatrick | Monday, September 8, 2008

Like most people who watched Saturday’s game, I left Notre Dame Stadium feeling unfulfilled.

I can remember the Good Ol’ Days (read: when Brady Quinn was here), when a win meant 41-9 (I’m looking at you, Army) and you left knowing that we were the better team on the field.

You can delve into the stats as deep as you like. 3-for-12 on third down? Terrible. One of five in the red zone? Atrocious. Four turnovers (five including the botched field goal)? Nasty – and not the good kind.

But before you go too far down the final statistics chart, go ahead and look at the top, and tell me what you see.

21-13 final score? Pretty darn good.

As a wise man in a commercial I once saw said, “A win’s a win; a loss is a loss,” and that’s the attitude you should take. If for nothing else, you should think that because Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis is.

“Are you happy with an ugly win?  I told [the team], Yes, you’re happy with an ugly win because it’s better than an ugly loss.  I’ll take an ugly win any day of the week,” he said after Saturday’s game.

Fans might have thought they were experiencing déjà vu, that they were reliving last year’s nightmare. The difference? This team could win.

Notre Dame fans seem to have developed the same short-term memory that quarterbacks are all supposed to have. You can think about how bad we were last year and make connections to this season, but you would be wrong.

The offensive line, while still not stellar, was at the very least competent and, more correctly, showed serious development into a solid corps. The defense, while stagnant under former defensive coordinator Rick Minter in Weis’ first two seasons, went blitz-crazy under current D.C. Corwin Brown and new assistant head coach/defense Jon Tenuta. And quarterback Jimmy Clausen, by the fourth quarter at least, looked like he had shaken off the rust and was ready for some football.

But the improvements would have meant nothing without the all-important W.

This is where the team’s biggest improvement shows through, not on a stat-sheet, just the result.

Remember last year, against Purdue and Boston College, when the Irish were losing and managed a partial comeback? They were so close, and yet couldn’t push over the edge. Or against Michigan, when the team looked dead and could never overcome an early deficit?

Both could have happened, and yet, neither did.

Irish left tackle Sam Young understood how important what didn’t happen was as important as what did.

“The way we did it isn’t exactly the way we wanted to do it. … I think the biggest thing this says is something about our character,” he said.

Former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz wrote in his autobiography, “Wins, Losses and Lessons,” that a football team has to go through four stages before it can win: it has to learn to compete, then learn to win, then learn to handle winning, and then it can be champions.

This blueprint provides a timeline without dates, something that impatient Notre Dame fans need to understand. With a wholly inexperienced team last year, the Irish needed to learn how to compete, they needed to build their character and become a football team.

Now the team is winning. Sure, it’s not the ideal way to win, or the prettiest of wins, but it is a win nonetheless. And for those of you keeping score at home, the Irish are sitting on a three-game winning streak dating back to last season.

The most important thing this team needs right now is patience. The Irish won’t be great this year and likely not next year, but they will be better each season.

But as for right now, a win is a win, and that’s good enough for me.

Contact Jay Fitzpatrick at [email protected].

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