Whatever outside observers may think about the direction of Notre Dame's program, Charlie Weis' opinion is clear. Weis has put the 2007 season in the past, in some ways eliminating it from his thinking, and is already comparing this year's team with the squads he had his first two years in South Bend.
Weis learned as much about his team after Saturday's 29-24 defeat to North Carolina as he did during the game.
"When you lose a game and you go into the locker room and see your team as visibly disappointed as I saw them yesterday, probably as disappointed as I've seen the team since 2005 USC, you know that they care," he said. "You know that they expected to win, they didn't win, which is the only reason for them to be in the tank the way they were. And when your team is starting to act like that, starting to think like that and starting to feel like that, you've turned a corner in the right direction."
The coach is going to use the same motivational message with this year's team as he did with the 2005 one.
"My whole mantra or message with them is going to go all the way back to that last time I that pitiful feeling in my stomach, which was 2005 USC," he said. "We came in after that game and said there were one of two ways you can handle this loss. ‘OK, you can use this as an impetus to move forward and really as a rallying cry or you can be in the tank. That's really the only two choices you have.'"
The look in the faces of the players was different than after other losses.
"There's a big difference between being embarrassed and being disappointed. I mean, I've seen the look of embarrassment several times, which that's not a good look, OK, because it means that you really weren't in the game, versus disappointment," said Weis. "Yesterday was strictly a look of disappointment. I think that that's a big, big, big difference."
With the nature of loss, Weis expects the team to remember it.
"I can say that as this season goes on, I think that this game will be one we reflect back to," he said.
Weis hasn't crunched any numbers yet, that will be done early this week as the coaches do an intense self-analysis, but he thinks that they will be close to the statistics that the 2006 team put up in Brady Quinn's final season.
"My feel of this is that statistically we're probably very similar at this point of the year to the 2006 team. Let's throw out the 2007 stats because we're talking apples and oranges," he said. "Now I don't know that, but that's what my feel is from where we are right now. I think that research will probably come back to show that it's probably pretty close."
And Weis fully expects this year's team to exceed the 2006 group statistically by season's end.
"I'd like to think at the end of this year that there'd be a large separation," he said.
Fans are obviously upset with the loss at Chapel Hill, but most would have signed up for a 4-2 start at the beginning of the season, not Weis.
"I just feel disappointed for the team that we're sitting here with two losses at the halfway mark," he said. "That's really what surprised me. Everyone else's expectations were lower based off how last year went. But I'm disappointed to be sitting here at 4-2 right now, very disappointed."
What makes it even more disappointing is how the Irish picked up their second loss with confusion at the end of the game, but Notre Dame is not going to make any excuses.
"I could be like a lot of other coaches and sit there and whine about everything right there and give my analysis of how," Weis said. "Here's what I thought had happened. I thought they pulled him down with three or four seconds to go. We were then going to spike the ball. When we spiked the ball they had 12 guys on the field. So even if there was one second to go, it would have been a 12-men on the field penalty on them, and we would have gotten one more play.
"In reality, what happened is they got buzzed. This is from what I understand, they got buzzed before we spiked the ball and ruled that the ball was out and they recovered the ball, and that was it. What good does it do for me? I mean, I sat there and watched the play 50 times this morning myself. In none of those 50 times did I have the answer to the test. I mean, was it out? Was his shoulder down? Was his shoulder down? To this time, I don't know that."
Weis admitted that without clear evidence he thought that the call should have stood.
"The only problem I have with that is if I couldn't tell after watching it 50 times and the ruling was that he's down, then…maybe there's a TV copy or something that has a better look at it than what I watched," he said. "But I'm not going to sit there and whine about it and take away from their win and our loss. I'm just saying from my perspective, I just find it tough to believe with as little evidence as I was able to see, that there's enough evidence to overrule it."
Objectively, Weis said that North Carolina could have had a similar argument on the first down pass to Brooks Foster that was initially called a catch, but overturned after review.
"You could flip back a minute and a half earlier. You know, you go the other way, you can go a minute and a half earlier where they have that catch that is a non-catch and say was there evidence that the ball is out early or not? I don't know that either," he said. "So there's nothing I can do about it after the fact. It's just rationally thinking, I have a tough time imagining how it could have gone the way it did."
Weis talked about the differences between the college review system and the process in the NFL.
"First of all, the replay in the NFL is handled by the referee on the field. So when you saw that whole pow-wow of North Carolina's whole staff around the referee, really it was irrelevant that they're all around it because they can't talk them into or out of anything. They're just being told by upstairs what's happening," said Weis. "My biggest complaint, and not particularly with this game only, is when you have split crews handling the field versus the replay. So you have a Big East crew on the field, and you have an ACC replay official, OK? Just like if we were, you know, just the opposite. If it's a Pac-10 crew on the field, it's a Big East replay official.
"There's a lot of times where they just don't seem like they're in sync. Whether I like it or not, I think that probably the best thing in the long run would be to have that replay official work in conjunction with his crew so there's a lot less of these yip-ups that happen in these games."
Also in the college game, replays can cover anything reviewable that happened during the play.
"Once you decide to review anything, anything can come up from that review. So once you review one thing, something else could come up. But there's only certain things that can be reviewed," Weis said. "We knew if Michael got tackled, it was going to be a first down and we're going to have to go up there and spike the ball to give us one more play. That we did know. So my guys were on top of that. They knew that Michael was short. They were at the line of scrimmage ready to spike the ball and they did. And if they hadn't been buzzed, they would have found there were 12 guys on the field, and we would have had one more play with a chance to win. But according to them, they had the buzz, and who am I to second-guess that?"
With a bye this weekend, Notre Dame will stress fundamentals in the early portion of the week before using the later part of the week to prepare for Washington. With fall break starting this weekend, Weis will give the team Friday and Monday off so that it can have a long weekend before getting back to the Huskies. The off week will also give some of the veteran players a chance to rest and an opportunity for younger guys to prove themselves.
"In the past I've held the whole first squad, that's not happening," said Weis. "But we'll hold know Mo Crum, we'll hold David Bruton, we'll hold Pat Kuntz, and we'll hold David Grimes. There's guys that we'll hold. Whether guys are banged up or whether we just want to give them rest, we'll hold some guys. But there are a lot of second-teamers that will get a lot of first-team reps and a lot of guys who are down on the show team, because there won't be any show teams this weekend. It will be all offense against defense."
Bruton was slowed this week by a leg injury and did not participate on special teams against the Tar Heels.
"He had tweaked his hammy or his calf earlier in the week," said Weis. "We had to decide where we were going to protect him. We decided if we were going to protect him, we didn't want him long stride on kickoff coverage and punt coverage, so that's where we he protected him."
Freshman quarterback Dayne Crist will be heavily involved in practice this week.
"Dayne will be slinging it all over the place for the next two days," said Weis. "His arm will be sore by Wednesday.