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Building positive momentum at the Michigan game

Editorial Board | Friday, September 10, 2010

It’s safe to say that Notre Dame fans and students have entered each of the past three seasons with at least moderately high hopes for the Irish football team. Eternal optimism, even in the face of mediocre seasons, has become one of the hallmarks of Notre Dame fandom.

The past few years, though, that optimism has come crashing back down in the form of underachieving teams.

It’s gotten to the point where even that famous Notre Dame optimism was slightly tempered entering this season. Questions abounded about how new coach Brian Kelly would adapt his style, and even the most hopeful pundits penciled in the Irish for only eight or nine wins. Lou Holtz didn’t even predict Notre Dame to go to the national championship game this year.

However, after a convincing, if not overpowering, win against Purdue in the opener, the hope and optimism is starting to permeate campus once again. Even if the team hasn’t completely adapted to Kelly’s system yet, the pieces are clearly in place.

Most have adopted a “wait and see” approach with regard to Kelly, but what he showed on Saturday demonstrated that maybe, just maybe, Notre Dame finally got this coaching hire right.

Of course, it’s only one game. Brian Kelly will define his legacy at Notre Dame on a week-to-week basis, and this week’s Michigan game is just another stepping stone.

Players and coaches have been talking about remaining on an even keel, and that the game against the Wolverines is just another game. No matter what they say, though, emotions will certainly be running high on Saturday. Those in the stands will remember the feeling of thrashing Michigan in the pouring rain in 2008, and the heartbreak of a last-second loss a season ago.

A loss against the Wolverines would not doom Notre Dame’s season, just as a victory, no matter how decisive, would not secure the Irish a spot in a BCS bowl game. What the Irish do have a chance to do Saturday is build on the positive momentum they created against the Boilermakers.

As the student body chanted Kelly’s name after the win, it was clear that the new regime has bought a certain amount of good faith. There is a difference, however, between a win against Purdue — an in-state rival, but a team that the Irish have beaten regularly in the recent past — and a victory over Michigan, arguably Notre Dame’s second biggest rival. The Wolverines looked just as impressive in their first game, and have the talent to be a nationally ranked team.

With both teams knocking on the door, it’s likely that Saturday’s winner will wind up ranked in the top 25. If that team turns out to be the Irish, that will be just another step in the long process of turning eternal hope into tangible results.