Are we there yet? Notre Dame Football 2005 Season Preview

Sports do not build character… they reveal it. John Wooden

Ahh, the college football season. The best four months of the year. For some, including myself, it might as well be the only four months of the year. What is it about us college football fanatics? If someone has a good across the board explanation, could you tell my wife? She doesn’t seem to understand why I need to TiVo a game I watched already… just so I can watch it again in April. Am I crazy? Are we all crazy?

Probably.

I wanted to wait until closer to the season to write my first article of the year, but I couldn’t stand it any longer. The optimism surrounding this Irish program (well, as long as you’re not watching ESPN) has been intoxicating, fueled by an excellent start in recruiting, and simple straightforward, intelligent speak from four time Super Bowl participant and winner, Charlie Weis. This is worse (far far worse) than buying a new house, and having to wait to move in. Worse than ordering a new sports car, and having to wait for it to arrive. Worse than ordering your favorite pizza and having to sit in the restaurant, watch people eat, and wait. There is nothing–nothing–like having to wait for football season.

And, that’s what makes September so freaking good.

Now, sometimes football season can be disappointing (finding out the house you bought needs a plumbing overhaul in the scenario). There was a time last season when I wanted to lay in the street and wait for an SUV to run over me. Watching the Insight Bowl was kind of like knowing your parents were finally getting a divorce, but having to watch your Mother throw your Father’s crap out the bedroom window one more time, for good measure. With Tyrone Willingham finally gone, we moved directly into the Urban Meyer courtship. As long as we’re doing comparisons, this was much like watching your buddy hit on a hot girl at the bar, and having her throw a drink on him. But, sometimes having a gin and tonic dripping from your face is a blessing in disguise. Turns out (thank God), Charlie Weis was sitting next to us, found the whole thing amusing, and handed us a napkin.

The hiring of Weis and subsequent arrival reminds me of the days when ND hired Lou Holtz. That overwhelming feeling that we had hired an inspirational winner. It was not a matter of if, but only when, Holtz would deliver a national title. Unlike Weis, Holtz was not an alum, but you felt he was. That he loved Notre Dame as much as you did. That he knew what Notre Dame stood for. That he wished he could’ve put on that gold helmet back in the day. With Weis, you get that feeling and more. Because he knows what it’s like to be one of us. To live and die from the stands, in front of our television screen. And, fate, it feels, led him to this point.

This man will not fail.

It’s been awhile since we have seen the true character of our players, and the university, for that matter, come through. To see Notre Dame inspired again. And, I have a feeling that, if the character of Charlie Weis (and Father Jenkins) permeates through this program (and University), we are sure to witness a golden age.

Now, golden ages don’t always start out golden. Sometimes they start, say, gold plated? After all, Lou Holtz’s first team was a dismal 5-6. But, even that season, you could sense a change. In attitude, in play, in preparation. You knew the ship was headed to port.

So, what to expect for the 2005 season? Considering better coaching alone would have gotten us to 9-2 last season? Unlike Holtz, I believe Weis inherits a very favorable situation, especially offensively. I think he and his impressive staff are capable of a turnaround more resembling Ara’s than Lou’s. I expect 9-2 in 2005, but a far different 9-2 than could have been possible last season. This team has the chance, if they stay healthy and foucsed, to win every game they play. If they can beat USC, they can beat anyone.

What is more likely? Some would say 7-4 or 8-3. Some are even predicting worse. I don’t think so. I think the only team Notre Dame loses to this season is USC.

I think 10-1.

Am I crazy? Perhaps. There could be but, who is better at finding a way to win close games than the Weis? The Patriots won three Super Bowls by a field goal. Tennessee and Michigan might have better talent, but is their coaching superior? No question: it is not.

This team is capable of 10-1.

In the end, I feel USC has too much on offense, and their defense will give Weis and crew enough trouble to come away with the win. I hope they don’t, but it is hard to imagine this Notre Dame team making up 31 points. Not this year.

Much like last season’s BYU contest, the first game of the season will reveal a lot about this team, and staff. Will Weis and company treat Pitt like a speed bump on the road to Michigan (clearly the case with Willingham and Co. in 2004), or will he be true to his word in treating every game like a separate entity?

To me, the Pitt opener is simple. Wannstedt likes to play tough defense, and pound the rock. It doesn’t take a crack staff of CIA agents to infiltrate the Panther’s athletic offices, or pay off the Pitt SID with a briefcase of cash. Well, an intimidating defense and a pavement chewing offense is great if you have speed on D, a dominant offensive line, and a meat grinding feature back. Wannstedt currently has none of the above. He inherited a porous, slow defense, and a passing offense far more comfortable keeping a defensive end away from the QB, than burying him in the ground.

Good luck Wanny.

Still, the Irish seem to have their own question marks. If we’re going to talk about porous defenses, we would certainly have to include Notre Dame in the discussion. What happened in 2004 against Pitt was a borderline meltdown. The Irish defense gave up as many points to Pitt as they did to USC’s high octane offense. Hard to believe, but true. Even though Wannstedt is likely to run the ball, how will our suspect pass defense handle the play action pass? Our corner backs still must cover a very athletic Greg Lee, and a slippery Joe DelSardo. Have Michael Richardson’s ball skills improved dramatically? Will a second cornerback stepped up? Will our defensive backs be able to tackle tight end Erik Gill?

I think so.

Pitt might win a few close games with aggressive defense and timely turnovers this season (Wanny is already moving players around to develop speed on the defensive side of the ball), but the Panthers aren’t ready to hold ground against a seasoned Irish offensive line that will kick it up a notch under the tutelage of offensive line coach John Latina, and strength coach Reuben Mendoza.

While Wannsedt’s defenses did manage to give Weis trouble while he was with the Jets and Pats, Wannstedt has nowhere near a comparable level of personnel at Pitt, and it will take a few years for him to recruit what he needs to fit his defensive scheme. Where the offense is concerned, Wanny certainly doesn’t strike me as the kind of coach to use the personnel he has now and slowly adjust over a number of years, allowing his team to evolve from a finesse passing team to a bull dozing running unit.

To me, this game (and Pitt’s 2005 season, for that matter) is a square peg, round hole affair. I don’t see Wannstedt effectively pounding the ball against the Irish, and I don’t see what is certain to be an initially plodding offense putting up enough points to win.

While Wannstedt and crew might be able to overpower half their opponents on the 2005 schedule (their slate is borderline laughable), they will meet great resistance against teams like the Irish. Wannstedt might ultimately be very
successful at Pitt (they seem off to a solid start in recruiting), and dominate the Big East, but it will take awhile.

That said, Pitt will certainly be in this game for three quarters. I expect a slug fest, as usual. But, I see a more focused, physical, well coached Notre Dame team taking care of business. Mixing up the blitz on defense, pounding the rock on offense, and pulling away in the fourth quarter. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Irish put the game out of reach on one of those classic eight or nine minute late drives, and end the game with an impressive defensive stand.

After this contest, Tyler Palko will certainly be dropping F bombs, but they will be born of a different emotion: frustration.

Notre Dame 34
Pitt 24

Contact the author: Todd Carr

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