Is Charlie Weis going to help Notre Dame become the improbable heavyweight champion of college football? Yes…
Okay, that’s not the whole article. The way some folks are talking now, it could have been, if the Irish football season consisted of only that first game against Dave Wannstedt’s unimpressive Pitt Panthers. I can just hear the voiceover (press red button, films rolls) from this storied bout at the College Football Hall of Fame now: “The Irish, underdogs against a storied Pittsburgh program and their newly appointed coach, pound the Panthers, and become the greatest Irish team to win a one game season in history.”
Unfortunately, college football’s championship fight takes four months to complete. The Irish, who I like to think of (loosely) as college football’s modern day version of Jim Braddock, are expected to strap on the gloves ten more times this year. Unfortunately, #2: the contests will be against worthy opponents. Unfortunately, #3: only one other head coach on the schedule, Joe Tiller, wears a mustache. At least right now he does. After watching Pitt tape, Tiller might shave it off to avoid any/all Wannstedt comparisons.
Why did so many folks underestimate the once proud Fighting Irish before their season opener? For good reason. Like Braddock, we seem to have been fighting with a broken hand the past few years. As a result, Notre Dame lost to many opponents it shouldn’t have, and hasn’t been able to win a bowl game since Lou Holtz was our manager. The past two coaches, Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham, didn’t deserve to hold our spit bucket. But, this new guy, Charlie Weis might just have a plan to get down and out Notre Dame back to the top. It seems all we needed was some time to heal, and a chance to show we still have something left in the tank.
And, October 15th, Max Baer comes to town.
Now, if I’m trying to be realistic, comparing Notre Dame football to Jim Braddock is quite a stretch. The depression (at least in listening to my Grandparents describe it) was horrific. A decade of up and down seasons and sluggish offense does not compare to years of not knowing where your next meal is coming from (followed by a catastrophic World War). But, it’s tempting to make some parallels. After all, Braddock’s unbelievable story can serve as inspiration for us all. Even Notre Dame.
Still, I ask myself, was Notre Dame’s win Saturday night really that miraculous? In retrospect (meaning watching it on TiVo three times) I don’t think so. The truth of the matter is, Notre Dame dismantled an over hyped opponent. Weis and the Irish peppered a loosely assembled Pitt defense. Square peg Wanny insisted on moving his personnel around in the off-season so his team could play his style of defense. Wannstedt sacrificed mass for speed. A great notion on paper. But, not a good idea against a strong, tough, agile, experienced offensive line like Notre Dame’s. And Pitt’s offense, while seemingly improved (with a former NFL coordinator working the joystick), will arguably be less productive this season than last season.
Sure, our defense appeared much more aggressive and sharp than anticipated, but how will this unit fare against a team like Michigan, with a formidable running game, and more than one talented wide receiver? After all, bracketing a team’s best wide out when they really only have one dangerous route runner is kind of like sparring with a guy two weight classes below you. It might make you feel better about yourself, but it’s not a true test of one’s skills.
Despite Pitt’s obvious weaknesses, this impressive start has a lot of folks changing their tune rather quickly. One big win, and all the doubters have now started touting Notre Dame as serious heavyweight contenders who deserve a shot at the title. But, to get there, the Irish must face other challengers who stand in their way.
Which brings us to the next obstacle: Michigan.
It is possible that Notre Dame could lose to Michigan, and suddenly be regarded as a pretender. And, if Lloyd Carr and the Wolverines have anything to say about, the Irish just might. After all, Michigan has traditionally been a very difficult team to show up in the Big House for a number of reasons. Due to very successful recruiting, they play few teams that have more overall talent. Their staff, a conservative lot on the road, seem to take some risks at home. As usual, the Wolverines have a sensational athlete returning kicks, Steve Breaston, who could certainly be a special teams difference maker. And, finally, having 109,000 rabid fans in your corner never hurts.
Ultimately, are any of these factors cause for concern? I doubt it. Frankly, this game could be played in Mexico City in a bull fighting ring, and whether or not the Irish continue to be regarded as the comeback kids would still boil down to one thing: execution. Will the Irish be able to, within reason, apply the principles of their manager’s strategy? Will they methodically work the jab to set up the right cross, or will they throw wired haymakers going for the knock out? Will they go toe-to-toe, delivering sharp body shots, or will they dance around the ring, afraid one upper cut might end their evening? If they do listen to Weis’s advice, chances are very good Michigan will be wearing that same dumbfounded expression last week’s opponent, Pitt, was wearing after a few rounds.
In the end, no one’s story really compares to Braddock’s remarkable tale. But, the notion, the encouragement to be derived from it, that never give up spirit, seems to be driving the Irish and Charlie Weis. That us against the world mentality. The unlikely return to the top.
So, Notre Dame might not be a Cinderella man. But, following Braddock’s unlikely, inspirational arc sure seems to be the plan.
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