In search of a silver lining

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! SportsSeptember 10, 2004

If you want to know just how far and how fast Notre Dame has fallen, imagine this: For Saturday's game against No. 8 Michigan to be considered a success, a building block, a sign of better days, the Irish don't even have to actually win.

Heresy of course. Winning isn't just everything at Notre Dame; it is the expected thing. Especially at home. Especially against a big rival.

But the reality is that the Irish (0-1) can't be above moral victories anymore. And deep down everyone in South Bend knows they could legitimately put a good face on a dramatic, close, hard-fought loss to mighty Michigan.

We aren't saying it would be celebrated. But does anyone recall a home opener in which less was expected of the Irish?

Vegas has installed them as 13.5 point dogs. At home! The game is expected to be so lopsided, ESPN pulled its "College GameDay" crew out of South Bend and sent them to Georgia-South Carolina.

Georgia-South Carolina! You're telling me Georgia-South Carolina is now a bigger deal than a game between the two all-time winningest programs?

What in the name of Lou Holtz is going on here?

Here is a hint. Read coach Tyrone Willingham's comments on losing to Brigham Young last week, a game Irish players had called a tune-up only to manage a meager 11 yards rushing:

"Our guys were disappointed that we didn't perform in the manner that we thought we would," Willingham said. "The total team felt very much the same because the end result is trying to win, and we didn't feel like we accomplished that.

"But again, there were some good things and we've got it take those and take the negative things and build on them and go get a win."

Not exactly Rockne. Heck, Gerry Faust talked a better game.

Forget winning at this point; if Willingham can't get Notre Dame to at least be competitive with national powers now, then Notre Dame will never be a national power under his watch. Which, if that is the case, won't be long. It is that simple. You can't survive getting humiliated on a weekly basis.

If they thought recruiting was bad last winter – the Irish failed to sign a single consensus top-100 player – imagine what another blowout loss to the Wolverines would do?

This game always sets the tone for each program's season. Notre Dame can't afford another 38-0 whupping like last year to send it spiraling.

"Because of the prominence of this game [it] becomes extremely important, not just to the teams but to their fans," Willingham said Monday. "Any time when you have huge emotions, when it's raised, there's a tremendous difference; and when it's lowered, there's a tremendous difference."

There is a reason so many Irish fans are glued to University of Utah scores and say a rosary every night that they can get Ute coach (and ex-Irish assistant) Urban Meyer before someone else does.

How the Irish got to this place is a bit of a mystery. Willingham looked like the perfect choice even before he started the 2002 season a perfect 8-0. Excellent coach at Stanford. Terrific offense. Great discipline. Classy demeanor. An understanding of how to recruit with tight academic requirements.

Match that up with the resources and tradition of old Notre Dame and this should be working.

Shouldn't it?

But the Irish are 7-11 since that great start. South Bend, where all those ghosts and memories supposedly live, has lost its luster. Last season, ranked teams outscored the Irish 105-24 there.

It is one thing to lose. It is entirely another to be non-competitive.

"Personally, it was a complete embarrassment," tight end Anthony Fasano said of the loss 2003 to U of M.

"After last year, the embarrassment we had and this past Saturday," defensive end Kyle Budinscak said, "not coming up with a victory is not an option."

Normally, for Notre Dame, that would be true. But nothing is normal at Notre Dame right now.

An upset would be grand, but at this point, just keep it close, make it a game, show some signs of life, of hope, of a future.

It may not wake up the echoes. It may not shake down the thunder.

But it sure beats the bleak alternative.