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Football: Irish still lack killer instinct

Jay Fitzpatrick | Monday, November 17, 2008

BALTIMORE – For those of you too busy saying Rosaries thanking the Virgin Mother for not letting her school lose to Navy again, here’s a quick recap of a game you may have missed.

With only seconds remaining on the clock and his team losing to rival Southern Cal 45-17, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh sends out his field goal unit on fourth down – an apparent act of “gamesmanship.”

Not to be outdone, Trojans coach Pete Carroll uses one of his remaining time outs to ice the Cardinal kicker.

Harbaugh takes offense – not at the act itself, but at Carroll’s attempt to out-class him – and sends back out the offense. Harbaugh runs a play for the end zone, and tight end Austin Gunder catches an 18-yard touchdown pass, cutting the Trojan lead to only 22 points with triple zeroes on the scoreboard.

Now I told you that story to tell you this one.

With 9:07 left in Saturday’s game against Navy, Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis sends in his second- string offense to try to run some time off the clock. That works pretty well, until freshman running back Jonas Gray fumbles at the Navy 5-yard line. After a Navy punt and a failed fourth-and-three for the Irish, Navy drives 53 yards for the touchdown, cutting the lead to 27-14.

Weis said after the game that he felt his team should have been able to score with first-and-goal on the two, but the fact of the matter is they couldn’t.

But even if you think you can get those two yards, wouldn’t it be better to just go out and actually get them?

In hindsight, that fumble was the biggest play of the game because it let Navy think it had a chance. And if that didn’t, the touchdown sure did. And if that didn’t, the onside kick did, too.

On the other hand, a touchdown – or even a field goal – would have made it a four-score game and really put things out of reach.

Now, this isn’t to say Weis and the Irish should engage in the kind of gamesmanship mentioned above, running up the score for the sheer joy of scoring or padding stats. But with representatives from bowl games in attendance and a reputation that his team plays soft in the second half with the lead, Weis needed to go for the kill.

This win was even more important with all of the rumors swirling on ESPN and various other news outlets about Weis being on the “hot seat.” These rumors might not have meant anything – they could have been time- or space-fillers used to incite debate – but the rumors were serious enough for Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick to comment that Weis has been doing a good job and is moving the program in the right direction.

But the look on Weis’ face during the last 1:39 of the game did not exude the same kind of confidence that his boss had during the week.

Weis looked like a man on borrowed time, like a dead man walking, as he watched his hands team fail to grab two onside kicks and his defense give up two quick touchdowns.

But when Midshipmen quarterback Ricky Dobbs’ fourth-and-13 pass to slot back Cory Finnerty fell incomplete, Charlie Weis, Jr., had one immediate reaction.

“I think that he said two words and it was like ‘Thank God’ or something like that,” the elder Weis said at his press conference Sunday.

But if the Irish want to get back on track to being an elite school, they are going to need to win this kind of game without divine intervention. Schools like Florida, Southern Cal and Texas routinely pound on lesser opponents, putting the game away early and keeping it out of reach late.

After the game, Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen said that it didn’t matter what the score was, as long as the Irish won he was happy.

“A win is a win. It doesn’t matter if you win 3-0 or you win 60-0,” he said.

Well it might not matter to the team in the locker room after the game, but it is going to matter in the future. If the Irish can’t develop a killer instinct – instead keeping their complacency – God will continue to be very busy on Saturday afternoons.

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

Contact Jay Fitzpatrick at [email protected]