The Irish were flying high after their victory against the Seminoles last year. They were 8-0, and on the charge for a B.C.S. bowl bid. The Irish have collapsed since their victory in Tallahassee last year with a 4-9 record.
Coach Tyrone Willingham was asked what is different between now and the end of the Florida State game last year. "What's different is making plays," said Willingham. "In situations last year, when you needed to make a play, someone stepped up and made the play. We've done some things offensively this year better than we did last year at times. Last year we didn't have a young man who ran for 260 yards in a football game. I don't think we had a passer who passed for nearly 300 yards in a football game. So in some cases, some things are better but we are not stepping up and making plays and making the execution that it takes to consistently win."
Willingham remains confident in his team. He said if his team plays like they can play, they can play with anyone in the country, including Florida State. "I think this team recognizes that when we play the football that we can play, we can play with any football team. I don't think that's the question. But it has to be aggressive, it has to be physical, it has to be great execution for us to do that and if we don't do that, then we're not a very good football team."
Execution has been the buzz word this year. Willingham uses it a lot, but he says he used it a lot last year, too. "I used it a lot last year, too. I think that word shows up a lot of times. I think almost every football team you go to you are going to hear the coach talk about execution and when you execute, it is amazing how things happen. When things happen it is amazing how you feel confident. When you feel confident it is amazing how you have guys stepping up and making the plays. So it all kind of feeds on itself and we've got to get to that position where we have that execution and the stepping up and making the plays. Then we have the confidence and that cycle just continues."
Willingham was asked if he hopes it rains on Saturday. "If they poorly in rain, then let it rain," was his response.
Special teams have been a concern all year for the Irish. It appears kicker/punter Nick Setta will be out again this week. "Nick is out," was Willingham's response when asked the status of Setta for this game.
Nose guard, Cedric Hilliard, had to watch most of the game last year from the sidelines. He's hoping he can play the entire way this year.
"I guess it kind of gets me fired up for this game," said Hilliard. "I sat down for most of the second quarter for the Florida State game last year. The doctors told me I wouldn't be able to play in the second half. I remember thinking ‘this is why I came to Notre Dame, to play in games like this.' I feel like this is an opportunity for me to do it all over again, except it's our house this time."
"It feels better than it has all year," was Hilliard's response when asked how his ankle has been feeling.
The Irish looked lethargic against Boston College last week on both sides of the ball. We asked Hilliard if this team was ready for this game. "If you're not motivated for a Notre Dame-Florida State game, you might as not be playing college football. This is a big deal, no matter if you're 2-5 or 8-0 last year. If you can't get motivated for this game, you just need to pack the pads up. I'm excited, and I think everyone on this team is excited."
Hilliard says the Seminoles have one of the best offensive line's the Irish front four have faced this year. "They're some big boys. Watching them on film, they're definitely good players. They're real athletic, they can move, they're big, they play a good game. This is definitely one of the bigger ones (offensive line) that we've seen this year."
"It's going to be a fistfight," Hilliard continued. "It's going to be a physical game. They like to come off the ball; it's going to be a real physical game. It's going to be like the last man standing."
Hilliard gave us some interesting insight on the season this year, and the frustration he's had to deal with this year, with injury, and the Irish record. "It's been frustrating, 2-5 record, you don't want to see that your senior year—especially when you're supposed to be a senior leader. You're supposed to carry the team and it's kind of a reflection on your leadership. We've got to go out there and play as hard as we can, and maybe some of these young guys can learn something from this season. Maybe they'll learn something from us sticking to it, and finishing the season playing hard. That's the most important thing, how you finish things. I think that is how people judge your character."
Courtney Watson has gone on record saying the Florida State victory last year was the sweetest victory of his career for him personally. We asked him what another victory against the Seminoles would mean to him.
"I think it would be good for myself, being from Florida, and having a chance to play against Bobby Bowden and those guys," said Watson. "I think it will be really key for this team. Get us turned around, and believing again that we can win ball games. We need to go out and execute, like we did last year, and I think we'll have a great chance to win this ball game."
Watson said he's seen a big improvement in Seminole quarterback, Chris Rix. Watson says the defense will have to keep an eye on him the entire game. "I think he's definitely improved. But, I think he has the tendency sometimes, if things aren't there, to tuck the ball and try and run. He's a very athletic quarterback, and he can make things happen when he runs the ball. After going through what he went through last year, I think he's definitely performing much better than he did last year."
Dwight Ellick is another Floridian hoping to win this game. Ellick won the State Championship in the 100 meters as a senior in Florida, and he's hoping for some more bragging rights with a win in this game.
"I was always spending summers there," said Ellick. "I've built a lot of friendships with guys that live in Florida. A lot of guys that come from Florida have the mentality that they can't be stopped. When I moved from Syracuse to Florida, they were thinking ‘he's from Syracuse, he can't beat me.' So when I went down there and won, it meant a lot to me. They're probably thinking we're 2-5, we're not the same team, they're going to come in here and walk all over us. This is a big game for us because we want to step on the field and show what we can do."
Ellick says the Irish believe this game can be the stepping stone they need to turn their season around. "Today in practice, the entire team stepped up. Florida State is a great team. You can look at them at every single position, and they can probably go two-deep that can play anywhere in the country. They're a great team, they're a fast team, and they're rated one of the best teams in the country. We feel if we can beat Florida State, we can get this thing turned around."
The Irish will need big games out of all three of these players to win on Saturday. Hopefully they are correct, and the Irish will show up to play this game. If they don't, this game could get ugly.