Although inept once again on offense, the Irish forced seven UCLA turnovers to get off the snide and earn victory No. 1 20-6 last Saturday night. The season is half over and the numbers aren't pretty. The losses and mounting criticism kept growing after each defeat. But a key characteristic didn't change among the Notre Dame players. The Irish have been able to respond week after week.
"I think the greatest sense of accomplishment in a team that's 1-5 is it doesn't act like a team and doesn't practice like a team that's 1-5," head coach Charlie Weis said at his Tuesday press conference. "I only can credit the players. I'd like to sit there and pat myself on the back, but it's really the character of our team because most teams when they're 0-5 don't act like a team that still thinks they can win. They don't practice that way. They don't act that way and it says a lot for the character of our players."
That attitude was evident in the win over the Bruins at the Rose Bowl. Maurice Crum, Jr. had a performance for the ages. The senior defensive captain became the first Notre Dame player ever to record a pair of forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions and a touchdown all in the same game.
The defense, as a whole, flustered UCLA quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson time after time and knocked starting signal caller Ben Olson out of the contest in the second quarter. The six points allowed was a low since Weis took over in South Bend. Defensive coordinator Corwin Brown's bunch has put together three straight halves of solid play, dating back to the final 30 minutes of the Purdue game.
As the defense keeps adjusting to the 3-4 scheme, the offense hasn't been able to show significant progress. Against the Bruins, Notre Dame totaled just 140 total yards. Weis said on Tuesday that after Olson went out of the contest, the game plan became conservative to limit the mistakes. The Irish head coach guessed the move would put his team in the best possible position to win. With Bethel-Thompson making turnover after turnover, Weis was right.
Still, the offense still has ways to go. The statistical rankings have Notre Dame dead last in total offense, sacks allowed and rushing offense, 118th in scoring offense, 109th in passing offense and 108th in pass efficiency offense. For the Irish to finish the season strong, Notre Dame must be able to put points up on the scoreboard, especially in the next two contests against Boston College and USC. Weis feels there will be improvement, not only on offense but on defense and special teams as well.
"I think the offense has been up and down and has only shown flashes," Weis said of the production through six games. "The biggest thing I'm encouraged at is I think our best ball is yet to come. You'd like to sit there and say you're playing your best ball early in the year. All I can do is do stuff for games seven through twelve, and I'd have to feel very strongly in all three aspects the arrow is pointing up."
A test of this thought will come sooner for Notre Dame rather than later. The Irish will host Boston College on Saturday afternoon. Kickoff is set for 3:43 PM and NBC will have the national television broadcast. The Eagles, who have beat Notre Dame four straight times, have ascended to No. 4 in both polls and haven't been tested since the first week of the season.
Boston College has won all six contests by 10 points or more. The Eagles closest game was the opening 38-28 victory over Wake Forest. Boston College beat Georgia Tech 24-10 in Atlanta. Earlier in the year, Notre Dame lost to the Yellow Jackets 33-3 in South Bend. The 6-0 start is the best for the Eagles since 1942.
Dink and dunk won't work against this team. Boston College knows how to score. The Eagles are averaging 35 PPG and allowing only 18, good for 21st in the nation.
It starts with quarterback Matt Ryan, whose play this season has led his name to be floated in the Heisman Trophy discussion. The senior signal caller, who Weis predicted would be a high pick in the NFL Draft, has thrown for 1,857 yards and 15 touchdowns to five interceptions. The Notre Dame head coach knows that with the Eagles ability to score, the offensive game plan implemented in the second half of the UCLA win has to be thrown away.
"It has to change significantly," Weis said. "(Boston College) knows that, too. This isn't like I'm giving away any big secret. It's not like we're going to go in with three tight ends and run the ball inside the whole game. We're going to have to score some points to win.
"Last week, especially after Olson got knocked down, you knew you weren't going to need to score a whole bunch of points to win the game. This week you're going to have to score some points to win."