First, almost all of the fifth-year individuals were recruited by Bob Davie and his staff. But after he got fired, insert Tyrone Willingham and a new bunch of coaches. A three-year stint did nothing to change the status quo and another change was made. Charlie Weis was brought into the mix and it finally seems that the group is reaching the potential they aimed for when they stepped onto campus half a decade ago.
"You have to give them a lot of credit," Weis said Wednesday after practice. "In their time span from being recruited to now, they've gone through three guys and a whole bunch of assistants on the way. It's not just the head man. We're talking about all those systems and all those coaches they've been through. You have to give them medals for perseverance."
There's also national implications on what Notre Dame does from here on out. Last week, the Irish sat at No. 9 in the BCS rankings with slim to no chance of getting into the top-two. Slim was almost out the door before Louisville, Texas, Auburn and California all lost, vaulting Notre Dame up four spots to No. 5. By winning out over Army and USC and possibly getting some help along the way, the Irish have an outside chance to send the seniors out in style. The goal at the beginning of the year was clear: to win a national championship. Weis doesn't want this bunch remembered for stumbling at the end like was the case last season.
"Last year, we went 9-3 and everyone was happy and I was miserable," Weis said. "And why? Because we lost the Fiesta Bowl to Ohio State. You can say whatever you want about last year but that was it. Everyone remembers the bowl loss in the Fiesta. I don't think anyone on the team wants to be remembered that way. They want to beat Army. They want to win their last regular season game and they want to win their bowl game. Wherever that puts you, it puts you."
It truly would be remarkable if this Notre Dame team somehow reached Glendale, AZ on January 8th. A crushing 47-21 home loss to Michigan seemed to erase all championship dreams from the memory bank. The next week, Michigan State was well on their way towards increasing the Irish angst. The Spartans led 31-14 at halftime and were poised to send Notre Dame to 2-2 on the season. At East Lansing, in the locker room at intermission, is where Weis sensed it was now or never with this team.
"The change really took place at halftime of the Michigan State game," Weis said. "You take that horror (Michigan contest) and add the next 30 minutes of that horror on top of that. The team found resolve to not let this year fade away because at that point, the season could have gone either way. It could have gone down the tubes right there. I'm not saying we wouldn't have won any more games but we wouldn't be in the situation we are now battling for a BCS situation and a shot at the national championship game. That really took place at halftime of the Michigan State game."
*One personnel note: Weis said on Sunday and reiterated on Tuesday that the kicking duties were up for grabs. This was in response to starter Carl Gioia's showing in the 39-17 win over Air Force. The senior kicker missed three extra points. For the year, Gioia is 7-for-11 in field goal kicks but just 1-for-4 from 40 yards and beyond. Weis called it a starter not performing like a starter. This week in practice, there has been a kicking competition between Gioia, freshman Ryan Burkhart and Bobby Renkes. Adding it all up, this is the third time that some part of the place kicking duties have been there for the taking: one, in fall camp for the chance to start, two, over the bye week to handle longer distance kicks and three, this week to evaluate the overall position. Gioia is well on his way to earning his third win of the season.
"I think that Gioia is still the resounding leader in the clubhouse," Weis said. "After a two day kick-a-thon, it's not even close."