I really can't explain college football and the many twists and turns throughout a season. Who would've thought that Oklahoma would get absolutely dominated in the Big 12 Championship Game? Who would've thought the same thing would've happened to Notre Dame? Well, many, and that's the problem.
The Irish played a number of games this year where they were dominated up front. Michigan, USC, and Florida State all dominated the Irish on both sides of the ball. But, this was the first time a very average team pushed the Irish around. The first three can be explained, the Irish aren't as good as the Wolverines, the Trojans, and the Seminoles. This loss, this loss points to something different.
Let's be fair and say the Irish lost Justin Tuck early in the game. The Irish weren't playing well when he was in the game. Notre Dame was without the services of Vontez Duff for most of the game. This clearly hurt because the Irish were forced to play a lot of zone coverage. Regardless of if Duff is playing or not, that doesn't explain the beating the Irish took up front on defense.
Notre Dame also lost Dan Stevenson and Jamie Ryan at right guard. Their losses were clearly felt. That is no excuse for just 62 yards rushing, the 4-of-16 conversation rate on third down, and four turnovers on offense.
I think back to the Boston College game this season. The Irish had the opportunity to exorcize all the past demons against the Eagles. The Eagles had disrespected the Irish in many games prior. The Irish were in a tailspin and had the chance to make a statement in this game. Instead, the Irish showed up as if they didn't care the Eagles continued to thumb their noses at the Irish. They played three quarters while going through the motions until they finally found the desire to fight back—a little too late, however.
In this game, however, the Irish just seemed to quit. Which is worse, to not show up prepared to play or to quit? I would think the latter.
It's not that the Irish lost to Syracuse, its how they lost, and what that means for this Irish team. The Irish appear to have more problems than previously thought while they were on their three-game win streak. Nobody questioned their effort. I think many will question their effort in this game.
All the momentum built from the last three games now appears lost. All the warm and fuzzy feelings have turned into doubt in just one game. It really is unexplainable at this point.
Tyrone Willingham has some difficult choices to make in the next few weeks. Does he stand pat with his coaching staff and try to fix the problems, or is it time to look at other options? I don't know the answer to this question, I do know the decisions he makes will directly impact his future at Notre Dame—and I'm sure he understands this as well.
Regardless of his decisions, Willingham will be expected to field a winner in 2004. His stamp on this team should be obvious at this point, and improvement will be expected. How much improvement is debatable.
Things can change for this Irish team. 2004 will be a new season, and time heals all wounds. They have a number or key players returning in 2004. They have some holes to fill, but nothing solid coaching can't fix.
I don't think Irish fans expect a National Championship in 2004, but they will expect to be competitive in all games, and wins in the vast majority. As of right now, I don't know how many believe that will happen.