Tough To Figure

SOUTH BEND - Is the Notre Dame football season destined for great things, or are they just not as good as the ranking?

Find out next week, or maybe the next week, or the week after that.

When you think you have this Irish team pegged, don't even try it. They'll stun you, make you break your remote control while you are cursing your beloved school. Then in an instant, like an ex, they will win you back over in a heartbeat, smooth everything over and keep hope alive.

That's what happened Saturday, in a 20-17 come-from-behind victory over UCLA.

After 59 minutes of wonder and astonishment, is this really happening, the eighth-ranked Irish (6-1) pulled another one out in the final 62 seconds, keeping Bowl Championship Series and National Championship hopes alive.

As Jeff Samardzija bobbed and weaved to the end zone on his 45-yard game-winning touchdown reception, belief was restored to the Irish faithful, for now anyways. All the same problems haunting the team were exposed by the Bruins. Failure to run against a stout defense (41 yards), failing to convert third downs against a stout defense (4-of-19), and failure to beat up on a lesser opponent are still there, yet the possibility of a great ending keeps fans from completely pulling the plug on the season and putting all time towards recruiting.

The Irish should, should being the key word, roll through its next four games leading up to the finale against No. 2 USC. Navy is too small, North Carolina stinks and Army might be smaller than Navy. However, based on the way ND has played weaker teams this year, don't take anything for granted.

It appeared the Irish were set to make a run, beginning with UCLA, validating the preseason hype and current BCS ranking. Coming off a bye week, where they were able to pay extra attention to the deficiencies of the team, the Irish certainly didn't looked improved. The offense comes out lethargic, the sure-handed Darius Walker fumbles on the game's second play, and the unit can't find any consistent rhythm. But kind of like how the season is going, the potential of it all, they find away to put together a couple of big plays, three to be exact, and steal another victory.

It appears that Brady Quinn's poise, Samardzija's big play and the offense rallying won this game, but that's not true. It was the defense putting the strangle hold on a mediocre offense (UCLA came in ranked 66th nationally) that gave Quinn and company chance after chance after chance. The Irish held UCLA to 243 yards, well under the Bruins' 333.5 average and the offense finally cashed in.

Irish head coach Charlie Weis says it's always easier to coach following a win like the one on Saturday. He has said the team listens well to constructive criticism following a victory. Maybe so, but it probably gets a little tiring emphasizing the same points. Points like lack of physical play from the offensive line (no push and five sacks surrendered), mental mistakes and dumb penalties (six for 50 yards) and a no return game whatsoever. Plus, these are veteran players.

On a day when style points could have helped immensely, with all the close games played by top-ranked teams, Notre Dame really missed the boat. A win is not a win when you have a loss. The Irish need to find a way to blow teams out and quick. Season is running out.

The one major ingredient this team has, the one thing that keeps the faith, is the composure of the head coach and team. The team showed it in the opener against Georgia Tech. They showed it after getting blown out by No. 3 Michigan early in the season, by bouncing back against Michigan State and never giving up in that contest. That same resolve held true against UCLA, down 14-10 at the half, down 17-13 with 62 seconds left and zero timeouts, going 80 yards in three plays for the win.

"I think as long as you make sure the team doesn't see you sweat, and I'm serious, I think that they need to see that you're not going to lose your composure," Weis explained. "At halftime I said look, fellas, it's 14-10, we haven't played our best football. The offense, you're kind of out there going through it, but you're down four points. Obviously it's a little different now 17-13 and a couple minutes to go in the game. But I think that this team is a very mature team that didn't lose their composure, as much as we compliment how UCLA played, I'm very proud of how the fellas ended this game today and you've got to give them credit for that."

While the season might be emotionally draining on the fans, the Irish players are going with the flow and piling up wins.

"I think it would be emotionally draining if it was an up-and-down deal, but as long as you win, it isn't draining at all," Quinn said. "Obviously we didn't play anywhere near perfect, but pulling out a win like that leaves you feeling pretty good about the game rather than hanging your head."

Hanging your head, or banging it, like Irish fans were for 59 minutes. Holding it high for the rest of the evening.

Puzzling, just like this season.


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