Copyright by Global Electronic Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com
October 7, 2001
Better Than 0-4
By F. Richard Ciccone
For The IrishEyes.Com NewsService
Two bad teams can make a football game as interesting as two good ones.
It is even more interesting when the bad team coached by Bob Davie breaks the first three game opening season losing streak in Notre Dame history and now has a chance to beat a few more bad teams he is going to play.
The cheerful note in Notre Dame's 24-7 victory against Pitt was that Davie at least proved that this team can beat somebody. People were starting to wonder.
So it figures that the Irish should beat another bad team—West Virginia—next week at home. There is always Navy which never should be called a bad team—only an overmatched one. And this year the Middies are probably preoccupied with their futures plotting the course of Cruise missiles over the Middle East. But there may not be any other bad teams in sight. Boston College may be no better than Pitt but they get the Irish at home.
Still, it's better than 0-4.
And it could have been. Even against a team as bad as Pitt played Saturday.
The pessimistic note is that the score does not reflect how lucky Notre Dame was and how lackluster they remain.
Notre Dame's defense seemed to be better on paper. Five turnovers. But Pitt gave most of them away with no particular defensive pressure involved. One of them is probably the biggest present Davie ever got including all his Christmases.
When Notre Dame's again-inept offense couldn't sustain much of a drive after a Pitt giveaway, Nick Setta's field goal gave the Irish a 10-7 lead early in the third quarter. Had the defense stepped up on the next Pitt possession to protect that fragile lead it might have said something about character.
The defense stepped down or at least looked down as Pitt completed a string of passes so easily that one could think the defense sat down. The last pass of the drive was caught by R. J. English who was all by himself at the 10-yard line and was scampering happily toward the go-ahead touchdown when the ball popped out of his hands and into the paws of an Irish defender three feet shy of the goal line.
No one hit English unless the Holy Ghost intervened. The ball just came out.
When Tony Fisher burst a 28-yard run and his hamstring on the next play it set the stage for Pitt to show why it is a bad team. It did the same dumb things that plague Notre Dame.
Carlyle Holiday made another of his predictable lunges somewhere between the tackles but one of the linemen may have actually blocked someone since there was a small hole which Holiday slipped through. He was on his way to a first down run when the Pitt linebacker who could have stopped him for a respectable but non-threatening gain decided to try and strip the ball. Holiday held on and kept running while the Pitt defender slipped to the ground.
As Holiday reached the Pitt 10-yard line an official watching him was probably stunned to see a Notre Dame player approaching the end zone since the Irish had been seen in that vicinity fewer times than anyone else playing Division IA football.
He was so surprised he didn't see what could have been an illegal block thrown by Javin Hunter which, on an unlucky day, would have been called and would have cost the Irish a touchdown and put them back around the Pitt 20 or 25 where it is doubtful they could have scored since they had gotten their allotted touchdown per game in the first quarter.
So, the combination of Irish luck and Pitt stupidity turned what could have been a Panther lead into a somewhat comfortable Notre Dame margin. Had English simply held the ball and scored, it is too horrible to imagine how the Notre Dame team would have reacted to being behind once again in the second half.
Holiday did rush for more than 100 yards which looks okay in the Sunday paper as does the total ND rushing yardage of more than 250. But if the Pitt guy just knocks Carlyle down subtract about 50 yards from the that total. While it is more impressive than the anemic figures of the first three games it hardly represents a quantum leap into imaginative play calling.
Davie still refuses to call a pass on first down, still insists on sending his backs inside where apparently no one can block. All the Irish do on offense is eat clock and not much of it before punting the ball away. And this was against Pitt, a team regularly used to surrendering about 35 points a game.
Anthony Weaver played well and the defenders who made the interceptions at least caught the ball when it was thrown right at them--something their peers in the secondary didn't do in September. But the defensive charge never actually choked the Panther offense. Mostly it was Pitt spitting up on itself.
Davie can't count on all the other bad or close-to-bad teams on the Irish schedule coughing it up five times. He can count on seeing those nine-man fronts which make it impossible for Notre Dame to keep trying to establish the running game between the tackles. Even Navy can do that.
If the ball bounces ND's way in the future the way it did Saturday, Davie might be able to salvage another winning season. The operative words are if and might.
(F. Richard Ciccone, Notre Dame '61, is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and an author, whose most recent book "Royko: A Life in Print" is available from book stores and from Amazon).