In the days and weeks following Notre Dame's 34-31 loss to USC in the 2005 season, Irish fans and a nation chock full of program critics found themselves on rare common ground:
- Notre Dame's loss to USC was, if there is such a thing, a "good loss."
- Notre Dame was on its way back.
Just over five years later, Irish fans and a growing legion of critics agree on but one truth:
Notre Dame is not back. Sure they're back from the depths of 2007 despair and 2008 insignificance, but they're not a national player.
Relevant? Absolutely. Exciting? Possibly more so than any other, thanks to a sublime passer and his duo of talented pass catchers. And if that duo were still a trio, there might have been one fewer signature loss on their head coach's resume. But the problem exists therein:
The Irish are still a team that can be defined by one missing piece. Granted, that missing piece is one of the most valuable in the nation, but he's still one piece. A quintet of his understudies have not been able to capably lessen the blow of Michael Floyd's absence, and a defense with 18-19 regular moving parts and two heads of state has shown nothing this season with the notable exception of late-game heart.
There's no quit in the Irish defense. Unfortunately there's even less evidence of cohesion, technique, direction, or consequence for continually failing to execute that particular side of the line of scrimmage's chief duty: the tackle.
The Irish come to play. They stay to fight. They have a puncher's chance in every game, and they nearly pulled off the most dramatic comeback in recent program history in yesterday's 34-27 loss to the rival Trojans.
(And without heavy research or clear mind, I'd venture a guess that it would have ranked as the most improbable comeback in program history).
But the head-shaking eighth consecutive loss to their chief rival reeked of resignation among the fans base in the hours following the contest: "Notre Dame isn't supposed to beat USC" … "At least they weren't blown out" … "The kids fought hard and should be proud." (The last part is accurate, but as Irish running backs coach Tony Alford has said in the past: This isn't "happy camp.")
At some point there has to be a breakthrough. The Irish must shed the "little engine that could" label that has plagued the team for more than a decade and rise up and beat a member of college football's elite.
Head coach Charlie Weis has built a team with a strong base of talent that will reach its apex (likely for the near-future) in the 2010 season. Then-seniors and 5th-year players Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Duval Kamara, Chris Stewart, Dan Wenger, Ian Williams, Brian Smith, Kerry Neal (and possible 5th-year candidate Darrin Walls), will be joined at their collective peak by juniors Kyle Rudolph, Michael Floyd, Trevor Robinson, Jonas Gray, Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming, Robert Blanton, (and redshirts Harrison Smith, Gary Gray and Mike Ragone) and a heaping handful of current redshirt and true freshman to make an all-or-nothing run at a major BCS victory or (with a few breaks) a shot at the national championship.
Barring an unlikely BCS berth and win at the end of this season, that collection of talent will likely enter the 2010 campaign with an abundance of offensive records, come from-behind-victories, head-shaking defeats, and no signature wins on their collective resume.
They're exciting; they're fun to watch; they have heart; and without sounding like an alum-gone-soft: they play like winners, if for no other reason than they never stop competing and always believe they'll find a way. They actually have a few of us believing the same.
But along with the coaching staff, the talent listed above is behind schedule. Four wins vs. average to sub par opponents and two losses to the program's biggest rivals shouldn't define Notre Dame Football in 2009 – almost five full seasons into a coach's tenure.
The nature of this roller-coaster season has heaped a well-deserved, extra helping of goodwill upon the program – a development that should lessen the pressure on the head coach's job status after Thanksgiving weekend assuming the team improves through the season's second half.
I haven't missed a Notre Dame Football game in nearly 28 seasons. I've viewed the majority of those games multiple times. And I can think of at least 11-12 Irish teams in that span (including the previous three) that, pardon the expression: would have "lied down" with 11 minutes remaining, trailing a better team and much better program by 20 points with absolutely no wind in its sails.
This team never considered that proposition. Unfortunately, that's not enough. Not in Year 5, but it's the single silver lining I can find this Sunday in yet another lost opportunity by the Irish.
Charlie Weis should and will coach this program through the end of '10.
Here's to his last signature loss.