Irish Need Not Apply?
by Bob Epling
August 29, 2009
The Campus Game
First it was Lou Holtz.
Then Beano Cook.
Who will be next to jump on the 2009 Notre Dame bandwagon? The former Irish head coach (Holtz) and the quotable curmudgeon (Cook) both recently picked Notre Dame to play Florida in the BCS championship game.
Before you laugh too dismissively and click to another website, consider a few points.
Neither Lou nor Beano expects Notre Dame to be one of the two best college football teams in America. Instead, they point to … the maturing of a roster with a reasonable talent level and plenty of experience … the return of starters at sixteen or seventeen positions (depending on who you count as a starter) which is among the highest total in FBS … the return of virtually all the team’s offensive firepower … the lingering confidence and good feelings from a Hawaii Bowl wipeout win … the moderately soft schedule that brings the two toughest opponents (USC and Michigan State) to South Bend.
Add all those factors up and even Irish-hater Mark May might project Notre Dame as having a legitimate opportunity to post a double-digit victory total and maybe slip into the title game.
When it comes to the Irish over the past fifteen years, consider me a skeptic (and if you read this site you know I am a long-time Notre Dame fan).
Here’s a test … can you name a signature win in the Charlie Weis era?
It is a trick question because he does not own one. The comeback against Michigan State in 2006 was exciting, but that Spartan team lost seven games and got its head coach fired. The Hawaii Bowl win last season provided a boost, but beating Hawaii is not like knocking off USC. The Trojans actually are part of the most positive game in the Weis tenure - a loss to USC in the infamous “Bush Push” game of Charlie’s first season.
Another test … name a signature win for former coach Tyrone Willingham (other than his public relations triumph for getting fired after only three seasons). You cannot because he did not produce one. How about Bob Davie? Same answer … no great victories.
In my opinion, you need to dust off the record books and go back to 1993 to find the last great moment in Irish football history … the huge win over Florida State. Boston College would upset the Irish the following week and cost them a national title (which they probably should have won anyway) and since then … nothing. Big wins for the Irish vanished like morning mist after a summer sunrise.
Fifteen seasons of football without a significant victory is a long time in the wilderness.
For those picking Notre Dame to reach a BCS bowl this season, and especially prognosticators trying to argue they will reach the title game, these are factors that give me pause:
Charlie Weis … every year it seems Charlie comes up with a new tack. First his teams would be “nasty” and have a “decided schematic advantage.” Then, “tradition never graduates” and other catchy (but meaningless) axioms. Last season, the team was going to establish a physical running game behind a veteran offensive line (did not happen). This season, preseason practices have been more physical as compared to a previous emphasis on NFL-like walk throughs and film studies.
Why did it take a supposedly smart man five years to learn that you must hit in practice to build toughness in college football?
Another fault I find with Weis is his failure to get reserves meaningful minutes in games or (according to statements and reports) during practice sessions. After four years, he has not mastered the art of game substitutions (see last year’s Navy game as an example), so the Irish only infrequently seem to develop players ready to move right into starting and starring roles.
For all his bluster, Charlie Weis comes across as a nice and good person. Drop the genius act. Notre Dame fans do not need a savant as coach. They would settle for somebody who does not put his team at a disadvantage. Charlie will step up or step out this season.
Running Back Play ... the roster is loaded with highly-touted talent, but the results have been mediocre for this group. Armando Allen leads the pack and is a versatile back (albeit no homerun threat to this point in his career). James Aldridge moves to fullback after doing little for three years. Robert Hughes shows flashes but runs too upright and is prone to fumbling. Jonas Gray looks like the most complete guy of the bunch to me, but a fumble in the Navy game last season almost led to disaster. True freshmen Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick bring prep credentials. To reach a January 1st bowl, somebody from this group must produce ... of course they could use help from ...
The Offensive Line … Either this group was excessively overrated simply because they signed with Notre Dame, or they have suffered because of poor schemes and coaching. Whatever the circumstance, the results have been putrid for the past two seasons. All five projected starters have played plenty of football, former coach John Latina was jettisoned after last season and Frank Verducci hired, there is some depth to provide rest. The excuses ran out for this unit two seasons ago.
Mental Toughness … Notre Dame has not been a mentally tough team for the past two seasons (and arguably during the Weis era). Not that they are a dumb football team, but the Irish do take some hurtful penalties at inopportune times. The late hit by Harrison Smith during last season’s Pitt loss turned out to be one of the most significant and demoralizing penalties you’ll see, but Notre Dame too easily folded when it happened. Nor do the Irish handle pressure well. In back-to-back BCS appearances to start the Weis era, Ohio State and LSU outclassed Notre Dame. The tightening up against Syracuse in a terrible loss last season, crumbling in the second half in losses to Pitt and North Carolina, and nearly blowing the Navy game were other examples of a team lacking the mental toughness to hang in and win big games.
Perhaps it was having less talent than the big boys in those BCS bowls. Perhaps it was youth and inexperience last season.
Those are the points of concern.
So, where do I see the Irish finishing?
I think Notre Dame overcomes most (not all) of those issues and reaches a BCS game (not the BCS game). Let’s say 10-2 with losses at Michigan and at home against Southern Cal. The Michigan State and Stanford games are also dangerous.
How about the Sugar Bowl against Alabama in a sequel to the legendary 1973 game?
Most Irish fans would apply for that scenario.