The End of the Beginning… of the Beginning?

The beginning of the Charlie Weis era can officially come to a close. At least, after the Irish face Washington on Saturday, it can. Well, the beginning of the beginning. The way I see it, if the first four games are the beginning, then the next four are the middle, and the last four (yes, we are going to a bowl game, folks) are the end… of the first season… which is, in and of itself, a beginning.

Or something like that…

Either way, a month ago, we all wondered how this whole thing would start, didn’t we? After cruising through a Pitt game much more easily than anticipated, the Irish went up to Ann Arbor, and won ugly in the Big House. Although many were trumpeting Weis as a turnaround genius, most of us saw through that inflated and fortunate start. After all, though they were 2-0, the Irish had yet to put together more than two solid quarters of football on the offensive side of the ball, in each game (the Michigan game was more like two drives). Sooner or later, inconsistency comes home to roost. And, roost it did at home against a formidable Michigan State team, despite a valiant effort.

So, after three games, what do we know about Charlie Weis? Well, he is certainly everything we thought he’d be: straightforward, demanding, self critical, and a cerebral football instructor. But, is he everything we’d hoped for? Not exactly. At least, not yet. I’d have to give Charlie a mixed review thus far.

If we’re being honest, the team’s play has been much sloppier than expected in the first three games. When not scripted or pressed, this offense seems sluggish. Even with a S.E.A.L. team coaching staff, break downs on the offensive line against simplistic blitz tactics linger. For someone who is touted as a taskmaster, it is clear that Weis’s influence has not effectively trickled down, despite six months of exposure. Additionally, his celebrated play calling abilities, thus far, have appeared more efficient, than exotic. In fact, the offense feels almost held back at times, as if Weis is being very choosy about when and when not to light the wick. For as much as he preaches one game at a time, is it possible Charlie is being frugal early on, hesitant to dip into savings?

If so, I hope he is planning to make a big purchase on October 15th.

On the flip side, the overall effort on both sides of the ball has been improved, borderline impressive. The physical appearance of this team alone has been changed, in my opinion, significantly. The secondary, pounded relentlessly on Internet message boards in the off-season, has looked sharper. That might not be enough to vault them into lockdown status, but better coverage alone saved us against Michigan. Sure, there have been breakdowns on defense, but that is to be expected at this level, against the kind of competition we play. A defense, a secondary, is hoping to limit big plays, not completely prevent them. And, finally, Brady Quinn, who is admittedly still prone to the occasional
poor throw, has shown a propensity to also dazzle (how about that throw on the run to Stovall for a first down on fourth and fifteen)–something he lacked the past two years, despite showing significant mettle.

Quinn is suddenly showing signs of true star power, not just potential to shine.

So, all in all, the beginning of the Charlie Weis era has been both impressive and disappointing at the same time. And, one would be warranted to feel that although some questions have been answered, some have lingered.

Will this team ever be able to shake off the inconsistency that has plagued them in the past, and learn to execute for four quarters? Three quarters? Certainly mistakes will happen, but coaches prefer the kind of miscues that come from playing hard, not spacing out. Penalties that result from aggression, not tentative effort.

This Saturday would be a great time for our boys to show up and prove they can prepare mentally. With Purdue and USC looming, time is running out, this portion of the exam will be over. This team will need better than just a passing grade to beat the Boilermakers and Trojans. To finally shed the label of mediocrity.

Which brings us to Tyrone Willingham and the Washington Huskies. It has felt as though the Weis era, the beginning of it, at least, cannot come to a close until this game (which Weis himself has referred to as the “Ty Bowl”) is complete. Notre Dame, its coach, it’s team, it’s fans, will not be able to move on until we can talk about Willingham in the past tense. Right or wrong, agree or not, the timing of Tyrone’s firing was, and will, remain debatable. However, his present tense influence on Notre Dame football will cease. This is the first, and hopefully last, time Willingham’s present employer, Washington, will be scheduled to face the Irish. (Although, unfortunately there are now potential future employers, on the schedule, such as Duke).

While the cloud of his dismissal will almost certainly loom indefinitely, and accusations of Weis having success with Tyrone’s players (assuming Weis improves on Willingham’s 21-15 record in his first three seasons) will loiter, the pre-game rehashing of all this will be history.

Hopefully this team will aid in the process of progress by pulling it all together on Saturday in impressive fashion–peaking at the end of the beginning… of the beginning. Nothing would close the Willingham scrapbook like the absolute dismantling of the Huskies on Saturday. Will it silence Tyrone’s supporters? Likely not. However, for Notre Dame fans it will certainly be a bit of confirmation. And, for the Irish players, no greater message can be sent about their status than to play their absolute best.

In the end, I think the end of the beginning of the Weis era is likely to marked with the same distracted effort with which it began. We are likely to see penalties, mistakes, and errant passes. This team will win, but not by the margin we all expect (and some of us hope for).

I expect elevated play to surface somewhere in the middle of the season (October 15th would be nice), and come home for good somewhere toward the end.

As the beginning of the beginning comes to an end, hopefully we’ll all look back and wonder what could have been, but feel the excitement of what we can be. And, the fog of Tyrone Willingham will lift enough for everyone–Notre Dame fans and media pundits–to see a bit farther down the road.

Irish 35
Huskies 23

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