Happy Monday

Notre Dame's football team turned the corner in its 20-3 beating of No. 10 Michigan State in East Lansing Saturday night. Its fan base did as well.

It's been awhile since Notre Dame's faith-filled fans marched into work on a Monday with this much collective vigor.

If you're wondering, 2,199 days is my definition of "awhile." That's the last time Notre Dame football fans could realistically ponder the possibilities of a season as it began a fall work week. No. 2 Notre Dame hammered No. 18 Penn State six years and a week ago, and that's the last time any undefeated group of Irish (2-0) were the talk of other college football towns, at least for their on field exploits.

That '06 squad led by Brady Quinn was hammered on its home turf by the Michigan Wolverines one week later -- its been a struggle since.

The 2012 Irish are the polar opposite of that overrated '06 team, one with a passing offense for the ages but with holes throughout the roster and all over the defensive side of scrimmage. Head coach Brian Kelly's current squad won't fire off 37 touchdown passes en route to BCS riches (in humiliating defeat) as did the '06 group, but they won't be exposed, either.

The Two-Twelve Irish have a defense, one that appears the program's strongest up front since at least 2002, not coincidentally, the last edition at the program to begin a season 3-0, thereafter racing to 8-0. But unlike both the 2002 squad that lost 10 of its next 17 games through the end of the '03 season, and unlike the '06 squad that gave way to an era which saw the Irish program win just 32 of its next 63 contests, this success doesn't appear fleeting.

We haven't seen the best or worst of the 2012 Irish. They're as likely to lose three of their next 10 games as they are to head into the Bye Week at 4-0 -- such is life against the nation's toughest schedule set to be navigated by a redshirt-freshman quarterback and a defensive backfield that's 75 percent rookies.

But Saturday night's win allows one more week of short-term gratification with a core belief that the program is finally headed in the right direction. Previously, Brian Kelly's words about "trusting the process" rang hollow with much of the fan base. That's because previous to 2012, Kelly was 3-5 in September, the harsh reality for fans of such a team means their season is irrelevant nationally before summer officially ends.

At 3-0, Irish fans can begin to discuss possibilities, beginning with serving up a healthy dose of revenge for a Michigan team that's won three straight vs. Notre Dame, each on the Wolverines' final possession.

Possibilities such as entering a Bye Week undefeated for the first time since 2002, or preparing for a Shamrock Series game that's important to an entity other than the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore.

Possibilities such as matchup of Top 10 teams when the Irish face Stanford shortly thereafter.

For the first time in six years, Irish fans were right to wonder where, not if they'd be ranked in the national polls following a victory. It's amazing what one win can do, but for Irish fans that still wonder if this newest modicum of success might be fleeting, consider the following:

Since Brian Kelly began his Irish career an ignominious 4-5, the Irish have rebounded to win 15 of 20 games. Three of the losses were to teams that finished among the nation's Top 10 in 2011 (Michigan, Stanford, USC), another to the nation's current #4 ranked team (FSU).

Since November 2010, Notre Dame has quietly played better football than it had in the four seasons previous. Saturday it played its best game in several years, easily the best of the Kelly era, and likely the best since the epic battle and painful defeat at the hands of USC and the Bush Push in 2005. Only this time, it won.

And for the rest of this week, that's the point. Irish players and coaches have moved onto Michigan, a program that's owned the current crop of seniors and the coaching staff.

But Notre Dame fans, for the first time in six years and what seems like eternity, can rightfully enter discussions about the national college football landscape with their team's name intermixed.

The arrival of Notre Dame's defense as one that can keep the team in any game doesn't indicate the 2012 Irish are among the top tier of teams in the nation. But it removes them further from the program's painful, recent past.

And gives Irish fans a reason to smile.


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