Great teams find ways to win. Great coaches never let their team succumb to doubt. The Irish had plenty of reasons to doubt on Saturday but they never stopped believing in themselves.
Miami never stopped believing against Florida in their improbable 38-33 victory over Florida after being down 23 points halfway through the third quarter. Florida had all the momentum in the game after scoring four straight times and forcing turnovers. The Hurricanes never gave up and neither did the Irish.
Belief in oneself is a powerful thing. The Irish offense entered the locker room at halftime down three scores and not a shred of evidence of hope to rally around. The very first Irish play of the first half resulted in a nine-yard sack of quarterback Carlyle Holiday.
The second Irish drive resulted in a fumble on a sack of Holiday giving the Cougars the ball at the Irish 11 yard line. Their third drive ended on a Julius Jones fumble at the Notre Dame 40 yard line. Holiday fumbled again on a sack at his own 12 yard line as Cougar Issac Brown scooped up the ball and ran it back for 6 points.
The Irish entered the locker room with a shade over 100 yards total offense, 3 fumbles resulting in 13 Cougar points and a 19-3 hole to dig out of.
Even Nicholas Setta had reason to doubt. His first attempted field goal resulted in a bad snap with Setta trying to make the most of a futile attempt to force the ball through. But like the Irish, Setta regained his focus to become the team/game M.V.P. by kicking field goals of 37, 32, 39, 47 and the game-winner of 40 yards in overtime.
Two themes have seemed to continue on from the 2002 squad. This Irish team refuses to lose and they never seem to want to make it easy on themselves.
The good news for Irish fans is that this offense came together in that locker room. The offense never looked pretty the entire game but they decided at halftime that they weren't going to be the reason they would lose this game. That idea is always a very good start.
Some might doubt Tyrone Willingham and his staff. How could the Irish look this inept on offense? The Irish offense definitely struggled early in this game but they struggled all of last year. They had to replace four out of five starters along the offensive line and about half the game it was five out of five as returning starter Sean Milligan sat out half of the game nursing his ailing back.
What is important to take from this game is the offense came together against a very good defense--down 16 points at half—they had no logical reason to believe they could win this game.
Willingham believed--so did Nicholas Setta and the rest of the Irish.
The Irish defense did what they had to do the entire game. They held the Cougars to 55 total rushing yards and shut the door on Washington State forcing two field goals from drives that resulted from two Irish turnovers.
The defense made big plays when the Irish really needed them like the Justin Tuck sack and forced fumble of Matt Kegel as the Cougars began a drive at the Notre Dame 42 yard line up 12-0. Vontez Duff made a crushing hit on Cougar tight end Troy Bienemann forcing a fumble recovered by Glenn Earl setting up the Irish offense at the Washington State 25 yard line. The Irish offense would eventually score on an 11-yard Holiday to Rhema McKnight pass to narrow the lead 19-16.
The Irish defense was spectacular shutting down the Cougar passing attack on three straight drives in the fourth quarter with Duff forcing the Bienemann turnover on the first drive, allowing just one first down on the second drive before forcing a Cougar punt and a Derek Curry interception on the third Cougar drive setting up the Setta 47-yard field goal to give the Irish the 26-19 lead.
The defense eventually broke as the Kegel found wide receiver Sammy Moore for 34 yards and a Cougar score to tie the game 26-26 and send the game into overtime. Drew Dunning missed a 34-yard field goal attempt in overtime setting up Setta's final 40-yard kick sealing his M.V.P. performance of 5 field goals and the Irish win in overtime.
There are plenty of concerns for Tyrone Willingham and his staff. The Irish offense could not muster a single impressive drive in the first half. Starter Carlyle Holiday was getting hammered by the same Cougar blindside blitz and the Irish couldn't make the adjustments until halftime. Confusion, a lack of focus and bewilderment all describe the Irish offense in the first half but something inside this team will not allow them to lose without a fight.
Tyrone Willingham has changed one very important thing with this Irish team. He believes in his team and they believe in themselves. That belief is something every great team has and one very positive step in the right direction.
This Irish team is three quarters of the way there. To be a great team, you have to have coaching, talent, passion and execution. They have talent, coaching and certainly passion—the execution is very close to being there.
The end result is far from being known but this Irish team looks to be different. They have the same amazing defense, the same never-say-die attitude but this team appears to have an offense with heart—something the 2002 Irish offense lacked at times. Once they begin to execute, this should be a very good football team.