Copyright by Global Electronic Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com®
November 18, 2001
No Sense of Triumph
By F. Richard Ciccone
For The IrishEyes.Com NewsService
The Irish have left town for the season with their heads held high and two road games where Notre Dame figures to continue its pattern during the Bob Davie era of playing just well enough to lose.
Stanford and Purdue are headed for bowl games and the Irish proved last January 1 they didn't belong in the BCS and did everything possible during the current season to indicate they won't be invited back for a long time.
Saturday's win over Navy went according to another script that has become a cliché in the Davie era. Notre Dame played just well enough to win against an opponent that should have been yelling "uncle" by the first quarter.
Even the Irish victories have no sense of triumph.
There is nothing memorable in much of what Notre Dame does. After banging away most of the afternoon against an undersized Navy line, Julius Jones made a big play, finally getting to a hole on time and escaping the exhausted Navy defenders. Other than that, the closest thing to a perfect football play the Irish have demonstrated all year was the pair of field goals by Nicholas Setta who certainly is the team's offensive MVP.
The Irish could have used Setta during the five years when missed extra points and shanked field goals actually cost them victories. While his contribution has been aesthetically pure, his teammates never put him in a position to kick many game winners, which he surely would have done.
It was curious that the Irish played so listlessly against Navy in the first half. Scanning the nation's many traditional rivalries played on Saturday it was easy to see that the emotion of underdogs in these old classics made several games closer than they should have been. Kentucky took big favorite Tennessee to the wire. But Tennessee may have found it hard to get up for a team they beat regularly. Stanford almost let hapless California catch them in one of the oldest rivalries anywhere. Stanford probably had other things on its mind.
But how could this Notre Dame team have come out overconfident against Navy?
Sure, the Middies hadn't won all year but Notre Dame only won three times against teams that would barely beat Navy. This Notre Dame team shouldn't be overconfident against anyone. They probably played so sluggishly because Davie and Kevin Rodgers installed another boring game plan.
For the first quarter it seemed that this week's design was to try and play a complete game without ever throwing a pass. Finally, Carlyle Holiday got to throw a few but if you don't count the scooped-up fumble, the Navy offense actually had a 13-10 lead over the favored Irish.
Even when they are supposed to win, even when they do win, they can't play like winners.
Bob Davie says he is certain he will be back. Maybe he deserves to be back.
The defense, which played most of the year respectably, will lose most of its best players. Some of the offensive line returns but with the exception of center Jeff Faine that could be as bad as it is good. Holiday and the perennial promise of great excitement on the option play will return and so will Julius Jones which is far less promising that it seemed when he was a freshman.
Tony Fisher and Terrance Howard, both better runners, will be gone and so will the offense's most versatile player, David Givens, who despite some flashes never produced the big plays he delivered a year ago.
So, 2002 will be another year of suffering and discussion about young players and growing pains and execution. Certainly one or both of the presumed back-up quarterbacks, Matt LoVecchio and Jared Clark, will transfer and Irish fans will have an opportunity to see how well they do elsewhere and perhaps repeat the pain of watching Zak Kustok set records while making Northwestern one of the most exciting teams in the country.
Kustok was the guy who had no chance to play at Notre Dame because Davie thought Arnaz Battle was the next Carlyle Holiday. Maybe it's the other way around. No matter.
There are bright spots. Vontez Duff has a neat name. Undoubtedly, Davie will recruit another can't-miss fullback like Mike McNair who was thought to the be the next Marc Edwards but turned out to be the first Mike McNair, getting more attempts in Saturday's fourth quarter than in his four year career.
Except at Notre Dame, unlike other places, players only get three-year careers because Davie rarely lets freshman play. This could be because they aren't very good or because he has this misplaced loyalty in upper classmen even if they aren't very good. Or, it could be that few freshmen can comprehend the Irish offensive schemes, which only the opposing defenses seem to understand perfectly.
There was a time on Saturdays in November when network television announcers would peer from the top of Notre Dame Stadium and proclaim to the world, "It doesn't get any better than this." Now, everyone knows it just doesn't get any better.
(F. Richard Ciccone, Notre Dame '61, is former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and an author, whose most recent books is "Royko: A Life In Print." He is a contributor to IrishEyes.)