A Season Under a Microscope

What a year it has been. Congratulations to the players, the coaches and the ND administration for bringing back a program that many were anxious to bury.

I think it's safe to say that no other group of players and coaches has gone through what this ND squad has this year.

Roughly a year ago, former head coach Tyrone Willingham was not retained on the heels of a disappointing 6-5 regular season and a third straight 31-point defeat at the hands of the USC Trojans.

Since that time, the players had to endure charges of racism against their university for terminating their head coach, getting ready to play a meaningless bowl game without a head coach, a frantic courtship of Urban Meyer that blessedly ended in Meyer heading to Florida and the hiring of head coach Charlie Weis.

Weis then faced the daunting task of trying to pull together a recruiting class that was teetering on disaster (ND was sitting on six verbal commitments at the end of regular season last year), and helping to engineer the New England Patriots' third Super Bowl win in four years. In case anyone is wondering about Weis's value to the Patriots, watch them for a few minutes sometime this year.

Weis immediately began working two jobs, including securing nine additional commitments to this year's freshman class (pulling it out of the disaster region and into respectability) and putting together a coaching staff consisting mostly of men he had never met, all the while game-planning against the best defensive coaches in the world.

Then came spring practice and it quickly became clear that some things were much, much different. Although player comments about how much harder they are working are common with almost any coaching change, something about the comments this time around had the ring of authenticity to it. Notice this year how few injuries ND suffered and that the ones that were suffered, such as to Rhema McKnight and Chris Frome, had nothing to do with conditioning. Notice as well that ND outscored teams 120 to 87 in the fourth quarter and by my count, 50 of those 87 were "garbage" points scored against defensive reserves well into the fourth quarter with the game in hand (eight by Pitt, 14 by Washington, 14 by Purdue, and seven each by Navy and Syracuse).

Battles like that are won in spring ball and winter conditioning.

Then came the regular season. This Irish team stared down a schedule that including teams that were ranked 1, 3, 4, 15 and 23 in the pre-season AP poll and, just for good measure, was heavily front loaded with the better teams and road games.

"Analysts" confidently predicted that ND would start 0-6 or 1-5 and that the season would be doomed before it was half over. The emotional toll had to be great as seemingly every week the storyline was ND and how this ND's team's failures would be certain evidence that ND had acted unfairly and hastily in terminating Willingham.

The Pittsburgh game was a media circus surrounding the debuts of Weis and new Pitt head coach Wannestedt. For about four minutes of the Pittsburgh game, the doubters and haters appeared to be correct as ND's safeties bit on play action and allowed a long touchdown pass. But then something strange happened. ND's offense, unfazed, raced down the field for a tying score and then to a 42-13 lead early in the second half before Weis called off the dogs.

Surely the second game in Ann Arbor, the site of Willingham's arguably most humiliating defeat, would prove to be comeuppance for these Irish, but then something strange happened again. ND dominated the first three quarters and took a 17-3 lead before a late Michigan TD made the final score 17-10. The much-maligned defense made Michigan's offense look bad all day.

The best week for the haters and doubters was Michigan State, but even there you could see the soul of the team. Down, seemingly hopelessly at 38-17, a lesser team would've quit, but this one rallied to tie the game at 38 before surrendering to a heartbreak loss in overtime.

The Washington game was a media circus of biblical proportion as the Willingham spin machine worked overtime to portray him as aggrieved in the process. Weis and the players said nothing and let their actions do the talking as it was 29-3 in the fourth quarter before Weis again called off the attack.

But out of the Washington game came the sweetest and most human moment of the season as it was revealed after the game that Weis had allowed a dying boy to call the first play of the Washington game. "Pass Right" were among the last words that Montana Mazurkiewicz ever spoke. Even backed up on their own 1-yard-line, "pass right," the Irish did with Quinn running a beautifully designed drag route to roommate Anthony Fasano that went for 13 yards. And just for good measure Montana's angel helped Fasano hurdle a UW cornerback as he ran by the first down marker and into immortality.

Purdue was another circus as clips of ND's humiliating 41-16 loss in South Bend last year appeared on ESPN more often than Geico commercials. The game, at night and on ESPN, before fully-lathered, ND-hating, Purdue fans would surely prove to be too much strain for these Irish. A thoroughgoing 28-0 destruction of Purdue in the first half and a 49-21 lead late ended that speculation. As commentator Ron Franklin said in rebuking a sideline reporter lauding the effort of Purdue's defensive coaches: "It's not giving up, it's 49-21, sweetheart."

The national story again was ND as USC week approached and, of course, it was not a favorable story for ND. Anyone who didn't know by the end of that week that USC had beaten by 31 points each of the last three years had to be living in an underground bunker. Something strange happened again, then. A game that was heavily hyped lived up to the hype, and more. ND lost 34-31 on a controversial conclusion, but it hardly mattered in the long run. The sight of an ND team that had just given up the lead driving confidently down the field against the defending national champions to retake the lead with under three minutes to go was all the evidence a rational observer needed to know that ND was indeed back.

Then another strange thing happened: it became clear that ND would be favored in each of its last five games, and if the Irish could run the table, that an improbable BCS bowl berth would become a near certainty. The ND haters and doubters retrenched and decided on a new strategy: We'll wait for them to choke and then celebrate that the jinx of inconsistent play hasn't been placed in the grave yet.

Well, another funny thing happened on the way to Tempe: The Irish didn't choke. Oh, there were some anxious moments. BYU rallied to make it 28-23 before ND rattled off 21 unanswered points. A talented Tennessee team rallied gamely to tie it at 21 before ND scored 20 unanswered. Navy hung around for awhile and Syracuse's defense was better than expected. And then with seeming the every doubter and hater glued to the TV set, they awaited ND's final chance to flop.

The Stanford game provided some unnecessary excitement as Irish miscues kept the Cardinal in the game and gave Stanford a fleeting lead at 31-30 before Quinn and Co. drove down the field to stake ND to a lead of 38-31 that would be the final score. The ND mistakes necessitated a huge Irish advantage in yardage (663 to 336), but unlike past years, these Irish had the firepower to overcome their mistakes.

Of course, it will become fashionable to argue that ND doesn't really deserve a BCS bid based on overall performance (despite going 9-2 in the face of a schedule that was often called "unrealistic" before the season) or that ND wasn't playing well down the stretch. Of course, to make this latter point is to ignore that ND outscored its last 5 opponents by an average score of 43-21 and out-gained them by an average of 488-311. If that's struggling, sign me up for another round.

On second thought, don't sign me up for another round. With 22 known verbal commitments from some of the top high school players in the country and the majority of players on both sides of the ball expected back next year, I'm getting greedy. Next year's team might be even better.

But before then, we've got the small matter of getting the "bowl monkey" off of our backs. And over and over, "analysts" will point confidently to the wreckage of Davie's 9-2 2000 team (which lost 41-9 to Oregon State) and Willingham's 10-2 2002 team (which lost 28-6 to NC State).

Let them point. But before taking them seriously, allow me to point out two areas of comparison between this ND team and the 2000 and 2002 teams.

The first is scoring margin. The 2000 team ended the year with a per-game scoring margin of only 7.2 and the 2002 team was even weaker at 5.6. Those thin margins suggest that those teams were lucky to have only two regular season losses and that 7-4 and 8-4 would've been more likely marks. This team has a per-game scoring margin of 14.5, which suggests a team that is deserving of at least a 9-2 mark.

The other is yardage differential. Now, total yardage can be deceiving as a statistic, but a difference this large is hard to ignore. This ND team was + 112 total yards per game (489-377). The 2002 team was only + 13 yards per game (313 to 300) and the 2000 team was actually slightly negative on per game yardage (out-gained on average 346 to 354). A team can win some games on thin point and yardage margins, but eventually it catches up with a squad. But a team that out-gains the opposition by over 100 yards and outscores them by over two touchdowns a game will win often.

So cheer, cheer for ol' Notre Dame and for the new Notre Dame, the new one that's back with a vengeance.

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