The Irish defense will walk on the field of LaVell Edwards Stadium this Saturday evening with something to prove. After a 5-7 season filled with disappointment in 2003, this Irish defense says they've sacrificed in the off-season to make sure that doesn't happen again.
Linebacker Derek Curry will be playing his final season for the Irish and can't wait to kick it off on Saturday.
"I'm so excited," Curry said of Saturday's game. "I seriously can't wait to play. I'm so excited to go to play another game--especially after coming off the Syracuse game last year and having a long off-season. I'm just excited to play another game."
Without game-film to use to prepare for the Cougars, Curry says the Irish will have to just focus on the BYU scheme on offense.
"You basically just focus on their scheme, he said. "A lot of the things they do will probably be the same regardless of personnel. So we just focus on the things they did last year. You kind of anticipate. The key, I think, is just being physical, because when you do that, it eliminates so many other things."
"They are kind of different," Curry said of the Cougar offense. "The do more trick plays than other teams. It's basic football. You've got to stop the run and defend the pass. Regardless of what they do, we've got to stop it."
Senior defensive end Justin Tuck is trying to bounce back from off-season knee surgery. Tuck says he should be close to 100 percent by game time.
"I've been going full speed," Tuck said. "They won't keep me in as many plays as I have been in, but for the plays that I've been in, everything has been full go. I think my knee is close to 100 percent. I'm ready to go. I'm ready for Saturday."
The Kellytown, Ala. native says he's not sure how much he'll play on Saturday.
"As far a coaches and trainers, I don't know their mindset going into the game," he said. "My mindset is to play every play."
Missing from the 2003 Irish defense was that "never say die" attitude Irish fans fell in love with while watching the 2002 Irish defense. Tuck believes that attitude should be alive and well in 2004.
"It's just attitude," the preseason Lombardi award candidate said. "You've just got to be one of those people that says to yourself ‘I'm going to make this play.' This year, you can just see it people's eyes, that swagger is kind of back right now. You can tell coming off a five-win season that people want to redeem themselves."
With BYU scheduled for Saturday, Tuck could have a big game as the Cougars replace three starters along the offensive line, and have little experience among the other two returning starters.
"In some ways yes and in some ways no," Tuck said when asked if he saw opportunity for sacks on Saturday. "Any time you play a team like BYU, because of the missions they have, they've got some good people coming back from missions so they're older people. It's still going to be challenging, maybe more challenging than last year. I'm looking forward to it."
The senior management major also feels the Irish defensive line will have plenty of bodies to survive a grueling season.
"This D-line has more depth than last year's D-line," Tuck said. "You're going to see a lot of enthusiasm. We're going to be more rested this year. Right now, we have confidence to play 10-12 ball players along the D-line."
With depth at defensive line, and three starters returning at linebacker, the Irish could have an excellent defense with some quality play at defensive back. Tuck says a solid pass rush will help the inexperience secondary get through their growing pains.
"That's very important for us," Tuck said of a good pass rush. "That's something that I think coach Mattison has preached in this camp. We've (done) a lot more pass rushing drills as of right now. It's a burden we're putting on our shoulders and we're looking forward to it."
The number 38 has also been popping up recently. Tuck, like quarterback Brady Quinn, takes the number 38 very seriously.
"We made a vow that the end of every workout, we were going to do a set of 38 something,' he said. "It just depends on whatever (strength coach Mickey Marotti) had in mind. The last sprint we had, we did 38 sets of 100 (yard sprints).
"38 is embedded in us right now. We're not skipping BYU, but that's something we're looking forward to, Michigan, but BYU is first."
Also returning from injury is senior linebacker Mike Goolsby. Goolsby sat out all of last season with a shoulder injury, and he can't wait to start hitting again.
"It feels good," Goolsby said of the thought of game week. "Feels refreshing. I've been waiting for this for a long time. I'm real excited about it."
Early in the season, Goolsby told Irish Eyes he struggled a bit in spring ball shaking off some of the rust of not playing for an entire season. The 6-4, 242-pound linebacker says he feels much more comfortable so far this fall.
"Going into camp, I kind of told myself to let the whole injury thing go," Goolsby said. "It's been a much better camp compared to the spring. I feel a lot more confident in myself."
The Irish struggled in Goolsby's absence and the former Parade All-American says the coaches have stressed focusing on the task at hand instead of looking into the future—in other words, Michigan.
"I think one of the biggest things overall is taking it one step at a time," Goolsby said when asked how his team could avoid another 5-7 season. "(You've) got to get that first win under your belt, and then take it from there. Just the biggest message is not taking anything for granted."
As for his comments on his first action in over a year, the former Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year said he's not sure how he'll handle it.
"It's difficult to tell," Goolsby said when asked how he'll feel about playing again. "Who knows what I'll be feeling at the time. Just that scrimmage game we had last weekend was pretty emotional for me. Just being out there with all the guys. Hopefully I'll be able to handle myself."
Unfortunately, Goolsby could be playing another position on Saturday. The Joliet, Ill. native says he's not certain if starting WILL linbacker Brandon Hoyte will return from injury in time to play against the Cougars.
If Hoyte can't play, Goolsby will likely slide in Hoyte's spot to make room for senior Corey Mays to play the MIKE position.
"I am not sure, you'd have to talk to him about that," Goolsby said when asked if Hoyte would play on Saturday. "I'm pretty sure we're going to have him back. It really doesn't make a difference because we all know each other's spots and just kind of swap in and out. Wherever I end up playing is fine with me."
38 seems to be a big theme for the Irish this season and we think it's a good idea for teams to have themes they can grab onto.
We do wonder which is worse, however. Losing 38-0 early in a season against your rival, or losing 38-12 against a very average Syracuse team in the last game of the season, when it appeared a number of Irish players didn't want to play the game?
Hopefully this Irish team and defense is focused on the right No. 38.