One would think Notre Dame fans would be ecstatic after a 3-1 start to the season. And, many are ecstatic. Borderline giddy. But, there is an unsatisfied segment (myself included) of the Irish nation that takes a hard look at the first four games of the season, and feels a bit unsettled. Downright concerned. After all, despite an impressive showing offensively in Seattle, at times Washington gutted our defense like a Halibut at the fish market. This was, by the way, the same Washington team that struggled to move the ball against Air Force and lost by nearly 40 to Cal at home.
While many of us looked at the “Ty Bowl” as an opportunity to put the past behind us, and get some questions about our team answered, I walked away more confused than I was before. Why couldn’t this team put it all together and pound someone into oblivion? Why couldn’t Notre Dame overcome an emotional loss and take care of business on both sides of the ball? Was the defensive performance in the Pitt and Michigan games an anomaly? Will our special teams ever log an impressive performance?
After the game I couldn’t help but feel that I was still looking (more like hoping) for that perfect game.
The good news is our offensive performance this past Saturday, despite settling for field goals on several drives, was one of our most consistent and impressive (even more so than the Pitt game, in my opinion). After a slow start in the first half, the Irish came out in the second and exploded to score twenty-four points. Notre Dame totaled 560 yards of offense, and delivered a balanced effort on 327 yards passing and 233 yards rushing. Frankly, I’ll take that kind of out put every week, especially Quinn’s individual performance (25-37, 1 TD and no INT). As Weis alluded to in his press conference, it seems Quinn is certainly learning to effectively manage a game. And, that is great news.
On the down side, the defense seemed to think it was nappy time until Washington got in the red zone, and special teams were hit and miss. Thanks to some turnovers, and poor execution, the Huskies failed to score points, but moved the ball in impressive fashion. UW had drives of 70, 77, and 70 yards for scores (17 points), but fortunately for Notre Dame, drives of 88, 71, and 45 were stopped cold by miscues (the Vicious Animals also could not convert an impressive trick play). Had the Huskies been able to finish those two long drives, we have a closer game (but ultimately, does Washington win this contest? Highly doubt it). Special teams errors cost us a field goal and an extra point (while they were solid in other areas).
Still, while I feel compelled to nit pick, and point out that this game could have been closer, I remind myself that football is about not making costly mistakes. UW had 3 turnovers. Notre Dame had none. Often, that simple stat can mean the difference between a blow out and a squeaker (and Notre Dame, at one point, was leading 30-3).
And, this is not the same UW team we beat so handily in 2004. Tim Lappano had an excellent game plan on offense, and Isaiah Stanback looks improved from earlier in the season. Washington’s defense is still unspectacular, but does have a disruptive corps of linebackers.
So, what does the Washington game mean for Purdue? While our offense probably gained some confidence, our defense must be wondering what a better team will do to exploit their weaknesses. What Irish defense will show up in West Lafayette, anyway? The one that held Michigan and Chad Henne in check, or the one that made Drew Stanton a Heisman candidate? It’s hard to say. At this point, there really is no precedent for anything other than a solid offensive performance.
Still, this is a game the Irish should win. While I respect the talent that Purdue has, and their staff, if Notre Dame arrives in West Lafayette ready to play their best, they simply don’t lose to this team. Weis and Co., like they did last week in Seattle, will most likely try to make Purdue one-dimensional (forcing the Boilermakers to pass the ball heavily). Unlike last season, when Purdue has Kyle Orton, I don’t think Brandon Kirsch is capable of making the Irish pay. After putting up healthy numbers against Akron in the season opener, Kirsch struggled mightily against Arizona and Minnesota (not exactly defensive juggernauts). Judging by his anemic out put this season as a full time starter, 44-84, 4 TD, 3 INT (down significantly from last season when was filling in and had a better supporting cast), I really think Brandon is a year away from having an Orton type effect for Purdue.
Like practicing well the week before a game, a team needs to put together a few solid efforts prior to a big game. So far, it seems the defense has slid, while the offense has soared (especially last week, with a four quarter effort). This would be a great week for the defense to get caught up.
In the end, there might still be questions at this point (most of them on defense), but at least the jury is not out on this Irish team. I think the Irish pull it all together, giving a solid effort on both sides of the ball, and give the Trojans something to think about.
At this point, I’ve decided to stop caring how the Irish do it.
I’ll just take a win.
Notre Dame 33