I don't know where you begin. The Irish don't do anything particularly well. The changes and fixes are numerous, but it's time to roll up the sleeves and get to work on each one, one by one.
The first order of business is the attitude, and probably the most important. One of the reasons Irish fans were excited about the beginning of the Willingham era was Tyrone changed the attitude of the team. The Irish played with passion, they were fearless, and they never quit—no matter how great the odds.
That attitude was left on the field at the end of the Florida State game in Tallahassee last year. The Irish knew how win in their 8-0 run, but they didn't know how to win big, and they could've won big at Florida State. It had been so long since the Irish had won big, against a top team, that they had no idea how to finish the game. They let Florida State back in the game, and the team has never been the same since--doubt creeps in.
Since the Florida State game, the Irish haven't looked remotely like the same team that walked into Doak Campbell Stadium defiant of anything Seminole. They haven't been defiant toowards anything, or anyone since, and they need to find that attitude again.
What happened to that attitude? We think the attitude left with the graduation of Shane Walton, and four offensive linemen. We were never thrilled with the 2002 offensive line. We thought they lacked focus, but they had the focus against Michigan and Florida State last year. They absolutely dominated both teams in the trenches, and the Irish haven't been able to do that since.
Watching Shane Walton play last year was a treat, but players like Walton only come around so often. We saw him put the Irish on his back numerous times, and make a play to turn the game around. Other players noticed, gained confidence, and they started making plays. Somebody has to step up and carry this team. So far, we see nobody stepping forward, in coaching, and in players on the team. Who are the team leaders on this team? Can you clearly identify them?
We are not blaming the players. We are just pointing out that there doesn't appear to be clear leadership on this team. We've seen players like Vontez Duff step up to make plays in the secondary, but we haven't seen others on offense doing the same thing consistently. We've seen Julius Jones pick up the torch and run with it, but he can only run as far as his offensive line will allow him.
When Duff intercepted Rix and put the Irish on the nine yard line, nobody stepped up and made a play. The Irish had the chance to get back in the game, but nobody stepped up to make a play. Just nine yards were separating this team from being competitive, and getting blown out, and nobody picked up the torch.
Usually, the quarterback is the leader of the offense. The Irish have a true freshman quarterback, and while Quinn has all the leadership qualities, he would have a hard time leading anyone as a true freshman. Somebody along the offensive line will have to lead this team now, and in the future. Molinaro has tried, and we respect him for that, but he can't do it alone. Others along the offensive line have to step up, and make the plays necessary when needed.
The real question is, does this team believe in this system? Do they believe they will be given a play, or defense they can be successful with? Are they prepared well enough to make the plays when needed? Heck, do the have the right personnel on the field? Seeing 12 men in the huddle after a timeout, again, makes one wonder.
At this point, I'm sure the players have doubt in their minds, and concerns about what has happened in the first eight games. Whether these doubts and/or concerns are valid is immaterial. What is important is they likely do exist, and nothing will change until they are removed.
I won't pretend to know what the problems are, but to be beaten by Michigan, 38-0, USC, 45-14, and Florida State, 37-0, I think it's fair to say there are problems that go beyond simple execution.
Execution has been the buzz word all season. To me, the word execution places the blame on the players because they control the execution. I will cut Willingham some slack because I don't believe he believes the players are totally at fault. If they aren't totally at fault, and coaching is a concern, what is Willingham willing to do about it?
I am certain of only a few things about Notre Dame football at this point. I'm certain that these players are the players Willingham is going to have to play with. I'm am also certain that Willingham will coach this team for the last four games this year, and very likely all of next year. Other than that, I'm not certain of anything at this point.
If this team does have doubt, Willingham will have to regain their confidence. He will have to make this team believe in his system again if he wants any chance to turn this team around. He needs to convince this team that he's committed to winning, no matter what that means in terms of players, and/or coaches.
The Irish play Navy on Saturday. It's a good bet that the Midshipmen will want this game more than Notre Dame if last year's game is any indication. The Irish were 8-1 heading into this game last year, and still had a lot to play for. At 2-6, is beating Navy important to Notre Dame? It will be important to Navy.
Will the Irish coaches call a conservative game, and play not to lose? How can you be a dominant team when you are afraid to dominate Navy? I'm wonder if the players wonder the same thing?
Beating Navy is no prize for the Irish, they are expected to beat Navy, and have the last 39 times. But, dominating Navy, playing with attitude, playing to win and win big, and making a statement would be a step in the right direction. The Irish need to start playing, and coaching like a dominating team again.