The blighting Irish

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2006 team highlights: Notre Dame

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NEW ORLEANS – It'll be open season now on Charlie Weis, everyone taking their shots at a guy who never has shied away from the notion that he might just be God's gift to coaching football. And so now, after another blowout loss, this time to Louisiana State 41-14 at the Sugar Bowl on Wednesday, the question will be whether Weis is that great of a coach after all.

That shouldn't be the question.

If Notre Dame (10-3) ever is going to return to the national elite, ever going to truly compete for that national championship that Weis wants to win yesterday, it isn't going to hinge on whether the big guy can coach.

Oh, he can coach. The first half when he took a decidedly average football team and kept it in the game proved that. It might be fun for all the Irish haters to watch him pace around as his defense gets scorched deep again, but the reality remains that the Irish are an exceptionally well-coached team.

They just aren't a very talented one.

Once you ignore the preseason magazines and the NBC hype and just watch them get thoroughly outclassed up and down the field, that fact becomes obvious. Forget what the vaunted Notre Dame public relations machine says. The Irish don't have enough good players to hang with anyone that does.

Only bringing in the kind of elite athletes, both in quality and quantity, who can change that will determine whether Notre Dame ever gets back to the pinnacle of college football.

"We've got to turn the corner because right now we are just a nice team, a nice solid team," Weis said. "If you want to be an upper-echelon team and not just a solid team, this just won't cut it."

Weis inherited a program that had hit a tailspin in recruiting that still affects everything. He never publicly would blame Tyrone Willingham, but the reality is the former coach's final three recruiting classes delivered just a single five-star recruit (defensive end Victor Abiamiri), according to Rivals.com. Then Weis' first class, when he was still offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots and couldn't devote to the task full time, was average at best and landed no elite prospects.

Those are the program's sophomores, juniors, seniors and fifth-year players. Those guys are the core of the team, the recruits that are good enough to beat Penn State and Georgia Tech but simply can't compete with Ohio State, Michigan, Southern California and LSU.

Those teams averaged 41.5 points and 486 total yards while drilling the Irish.

Weis refuses to blame his players – "I'd be at fault for that," he said – but deep down he must know that his current squad can't win these games without pitching a perfect game. He tried in the first half to run a slow, ball-control offense to protect his vulnerable defense. He even tried a fake punt on his first possession.

It wasn't even close to enough. Eventually LSU just ran Notre Dame off the field.

"The receivers were too open," safety Tom Zbikowski said. "You can't let receivers run down the middle of the field open."

The reality is there was nothing the Notre Dame players could have done about it. They weren't nearly as fast or nearly as skilled.

Playing under the Golden Dome may garner you plenty of attention and plenty of celebration, but often it is empty publicity.

Only two Notre Dame defensive players – Abiamiri and Zbikowski – would start for LSU. On offense, it is only a little better for the Irish. Yes, Brady Quinn may have finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, but LSU's JaMarcus Russell, who went 21-of-34 for 332 yards and two touchdowns, not only outplayed him Wednesday but also likely will be picked ahead of him in the NFL draft.

Wide receiver Jeff Samardzija may be a two-time first-team All-American, but he's probably a second-round draft pick and may go behind LSU's Dwayne Bowe. And neither of them is as good as the Tigers' Early Doucet, who had 115 yards receiving.

"Offensive football comes down to play-making," Weis said.

And Notre Dame doesn't have nearly enough playmakers.

"After this game you'd like to think you've gone from here to here," said Weis, who is 19-6 in two seasons in South Bend. "And I can't say that. We came in the first year and made some good strides. I don't think we took enough good strides right here for me to be satisfied.

"Because if you want to play for it all, this is not going to cut it. … I'm going to have to do a better job."

And that means the recruiting trail. No amount of X's and O's, no genius scheme can overcome such a talent gap. And Weis has shown that despite his limited collegiate background – he spent almost his entire career as a NFL assistant – he can bring in talent.

He signed Rivals.com's No. 8 class last year, his first true full year of recruiting. It includes promising running back James Aldridge and right tackle Sam Young, who already is a starter.

Based on Weis' current verbal commitments, Rivals says his group ranks sixth nationally and is led by the nation's top quarterback, Jimmy Clausen out of California, running back Armando Allen of Florida and wide receiver Duval Kamara of New Jersey.

That's a start. It won't be enough. He needs a roster full of guys like them.

"[We] can't be comfortable with going 10-3, going to a bowl game and getting [our] clocks cleaned."

Notre Dame has its top-tier coach. It has its big-personality leader. These ugly losses don't change that, no matter what criticism and wisecracks rain down on Charlie Weis.

But until he brings in top-line talent, until he proves he is just as effective and ferocious on the recruiting trail, until he gets this thing loaded with skill players, Notre Dame isn't going to be anything but a nice, solid program that gets plenty of pub each August and fed to the wolves each January.