In the beginning of the season I laid out a template for which to judge the team's progress. There were three categories of games; will win, will lose, and will be interesting. The sign that the team is heading in the right direction would be if they win all of their will-wins, more than half of their will-be-interestings, and make a good game out of each of their will-loses.

This can be accurately judged at the end of the season, but rather than wax roseate after the loss to North Carolina it may be a good idea to take a look at the season so far.

San Diego State was marked as a will win. It was an ugly win that left many fans with heavy doubts about the progress of the team. It showcased the boys' collective heart as they persevered over their own doubts to pull out a come from behind win. If you think it is no big deal to pick your head up and come out on top over an inferior opponent ask Rich Rodriguez how he feels about it.

Michigan was marked in the will-be-interesting category and for good reason. Even though Michigan was looking like last year's Irish there was no reason to expect this wouldn't be a tough game. There have been times when Notre Dame has fielded a horrible team and still came out on top in this rivalry and the same can be said of Michigan. The most important thing about this game was that the Irish came out fired up and ready to play. This was something that we have not seen in Notre Dame Stadium since the days of Lou Holtz.

It has often been said that a team makes its greatest improvement from week one to week two of the season. The team that we saw in that muggy rain drenched day was completely different from the one we saw against San Diego State. The defense was aggressive and opportunistic and the offense took advantage of all the turnovers they forced. In the coming weeks we would find out how horrible this year's Michigan team really is, but at the time it felt good to wallop the Wolverines.

The first road game was against Michigan State which was a disappointing loss that many fans took hard, but, as I have said before, it was a game that we were expected to lose. As Michigan has shown itself to be absolutely deplorable this season the Spartans are proving to be uncharacteristically stout. The usual MSU midseason collapse came at the hands of Ohio State, but the Spartans are still a good team with an excellent running back.

There is no such thing as a moral victory, but in assessment of the Irish so far we can see that this loss was not a backslide. The game exposed problems that had been there all season, but had not come into play. We learned that the defense has a difficult time stopping the run, Jimmy Clausen has the decision making capabilities of a sophomore, and that we need to hold our breath when the kicking unit comes out. All problems that are fixable, but at this point in the season it was not clear if this is a good team with some serious handicaps or a bad team who got lucky against inferior competition.

The first half of the Purdue game made it seem as though the latter were true. The offense couldn't get anything going and it seemed as though the defense had fallen back on a Baer-esque bend-but-don't-break philosophy. It was a game that I had marked as a will win and as the first half ended I was afraid I had been mistaken. Then in a stunning second half the team pounded on the boilermakers to a 35 – 21 victory. It's true that Purdue is another non-entity this season, but the athleticism and skill that Clausen, Michael Floyd, and Golden Tate displayed were more than heartening. It was also encouraging to see Armando Allen rack up 134 yards rushing. This was the game in which we saw a glimpse into the future of the team and it looked good.

Stanford is not a traditional rivalry, but after last year's slugfest and this years bitter contest it appears as though this game will always be a bit chippy as long as Jim Harbough and Charlie Weis are on the sidelines. Clausen was flawless for most of the game and the defense came out fired up. Even though it seemed that the Cardinal was able to march down the field at will, David Bruton, Maurice Crum, and a possessed Pat Kuntz were able to not only hold them back, but take the ball away four times. This game was marked down as a will-be-interesting with an Irish win and that's exactly what we got. The problem is that the game exposed another weakness, one that has been a problem for years; the team can not play for an entire sixty minutes. Either they come out flat in the first half or slack off in the second. Against competition that's a little fiercer than Stanford this will be a major problem.

That competition came in the form of the North Carolina Tarheels. Since the San Diego State game emotion has not been a problem and the Irish were able to take the advantage in the first half. All three parts of the team were playing well until the second half exposed another problem. The Irish can not protect a lead. This had been hinted at in the fourth quarter against Stanford when an inability to run out the clock allowed the Cardinal to make it a one possession game. In the second half against UNC this problem became glaringly obvious. While Allen was able to average 5.5 yards per carry the run was abandoned in favor of a plan to protect the lead by making it bigger. This is a sound strategy as long as the offense can keep the other team's defense on its heels. Unfortunately, Clausen made some sophomore mistakes and by the time the very opportunistic Tarheels were finished causing five turnovers running out the clock ceased to be an option. Still, having trouble maintaining a lead is a far better problem to have than not being able to get a lead in the first place. This was a will-be-interesting game that should have been a win, but was instead a heart breaking loss.

If a team wins all of their will win games, more than half of their interesting games, and stays close in their will lose games then they are most likely heading in the right direction.. By this standard they are on the right track. So far the Fighting Irish have won their one will win and three out of five of their interesting games. The most difficult part of the schedule will be coming up with a couple of teams (Boston College, Pitt) that tend to give ND fits even in off years. It is going to be interesting to see how the team uses the off week to reassess and address the problems that we've seen so far. Judgment is still being reserved on this very young team, but the prognosis looks very positive.

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