Let's talk tradition

AS THE COUNTDOWN to kickoff in South Bend quickens, this talk of the importance of WSU playing down the lore of Notre Dame and treating the game like any other seems misdirected. By my count, the team with the lore that matters most is the one coming into the season with two straight Top 10 finishes, a 21-5 record, and 16 returning starters.

That team wears crimson and gray, folks, not gold and blue.

The reigning Outland Trophy winner hails from WSU, not Notre Dame. The program with one of the top vote-getters in last year's Heisman Trophy balloting was WSU, not Notre Dame. National championship talk going into the last full week of the 2002 regular season was about WSU, not Notre Dame.

Since 2001, the team with the best record in the Pac-10 --- the fabled Conference of Champions --- is Ol' Wazzu. The only school in the land with two Rose Bowl appearances within the last five calendar years is Washington State.

Touchdown Jesus or not, there's no denying that's a truckload of modern-day tradition.

With all due respect to Notre Dame's seven Heisman Trophies, they're ancient history -- six came between 1943 and 1964, and the last one (Tim Brown) was back in 1987.

And the national championships? The Irish have an impressive eight of them --- four coming in the 1940s, one in the 1960s, two in the 1970s and the last one when the likes of Mkristo Bruce was still in diapers.

If this was cheese, the mold would be growing from Gary to Fort Wayne.

Any sweaty palms in the locker rooms before Saturday's 11:30 am PT kickoff might just as well be on the Irish side as the Cougars'.

Until last season's rebound, Notre Dame over recent years had been the picture of college football mediocrity. And even last year's 10-3 effort, while impressive, was marred by successive blowouts at the end -- a 44-13 throttling by USC to close the regular season and a 28-6 Gator Bowl setback at the hands of North Carolina State.

There's no question South Bend is a tough place for the visiting team and that talented Tyrone Willingham is waking the echoes of past Irish glory. But all this talk of the Cougars being overwhelmed by the journey East just doesn't add up.

The Irish have great personnel, with Vontez Duff and 11 other returning starters leading the way, but dollars to Lucky Charms they'd have to scratch tooth and nail to finish in the upper division of the Pac-10 this season. The fact oddsmakers have installed them as just 5 1/2-point favorites bears this out. The rule of thumb in betting circles is that the home team, no matter who it is, gets an automatic four points added to their side of the ledger. Subtract that and what you're left with is two teams that, on paper, are just a field goal apart.

Talk --- or don't --- until you're gold and blue in the face about the mystique of Notre Dame. As far as I'm concerned, the rich tradition in this battle has nothing to do with Knute Rockne or Paul Hornung or the Four Horsemen.

Call me crazy, but I just can't imagine Matt Kegel lying awake at night thinking about the ghosts of Angelo Bertelli, Johnny Lujack or even menacing Walt Patulski. They're all from another time and place.

For me, the here and now is D.D. Acholonu, Isaac Brown, Erik Coleman, Jeremey Williams, Jason David, Drew Dunning, Calvin Armstrong and the other 42 returning lettermen who have led the Cougar Renaissance in this, the 21st century.

Dutifully take a knee beneath the Golden Dome before the game. In this cradle of the sport, it's only right.

But take those worry beads and drop them off at The Grotto. The storied battle cry in this one should be as much ONWARD CRIMSON SOLDIERS as it is PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY.

In this one, Washington State has every bit the tradition that matters most.

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