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Irish Insider: Winning all that really counts

Michael Bryan | Monday, September 21, 2009

There was a terrible feeling of déjà vu in the air late in the fourth quarter Saturday.

Michigan State was driving, the Irish defense was struggling, and it felt like Ann Arbor all over again.

There was an ominous sense of desperation hanging over Notre Dame Stadium as Kirk Cousins picked apart the Irish secondary while time wound down.

But suddenly there was a little pressure on the Spartan quarterback, and Kyle McCarthy came down with yet another interception.

The fears of Irish fans were relieved with a couple of quick knees and a happy alma mater. Yes, just like that, Notre Dame was 2-1.

It was an ugly win over an opponent that this Irish team is definitely more than three points better than. But in college football, especially in rivalry games, the name of the game is often survival, and the final score is all that matters.

There are a number of serious issues following the 33-30 win. The passing defense, surprisingly enough, has looked just as bad through three games as the run defense. One of the best players on this Notre Dame team was injured and is lost for the season. The Irish racked up 11 penalties and made critical mental mistakes that allowed the Spartans to come within inches of escaping South Bend with a victory.

Still, despite all this, Notre Dame came out on top.

At 2-1 the Irish are where a lot of people pegged them to be after three games, and the bright spots are certainly still there.

Jimmy Clausen has hardly thrown any poor incompletions, much less made any game-changing mistakes. Kyle Rudolph cannot be brought down by one defender and is becoming an explosive weapon as a sophomore.

Armando Allen makes the right cut and gets extra yards on almost every run.

It’s a season that is played one week at a time, and the won-loss column is all that really matters. In pass/fail classes, an ‘A’ is the same as a ‘C-.’

And while the 2009 Irish transcript shows a grade far below a 4.0, this team has shown a resiliency and heart in the past two games that has been absent for two years. There is finally a winning culture in the locker room, and this is a team that believed on every snap it would beat Michigan and Michigan State, even when things looked grim.

The big question last week was how the team would respond to the heartbreaking loss at Michigan. The first quarter provided an answer, as Notre Dame forced a quick punt and demolished the Spartan secondary its first two straight drives.

After that point the long-term problems surfaced, as they will in most games for the rest of the season. This is not a perfect team, but one that is beginning to understand its flaws.

Charlie Weis, for all his miscues, has never been shy about making adjustments. Many of them have worked, some have not. Continual corrections will be needed year to iron out the defensive issues, and Weis will have his hands full adjusting his schemes for the loss of Michael Floyd.

But now the schedule opens up a little from here. Notre Dame does not have to be great to do everything they’re supposed to this year, just very good.

It will take some time before the Irish start to ascend the rankings. This is somehow still a young defensive team, and the winning foundation will have to be built on wins like this one. It won’t be pretty, and will probably drive me crazy, but for now, it will get the job done.

Hopefully the Irish take care of business against Purdue. This will be another game with a huge talent disparity that on paper is a comfortable win.

But even if it’s closer than the experts predict, surviving and getting the win on the road in a hostile environment is all that matters.

Sometimes it’s not that easy – just ask USC.