7-5 Never Looked So Good

Saturday’s rain-soaked 20-16 victory over USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum may not have been a beauty – definitely more gritty than pretty.

The naysayers will point out that it came against a Trojan team stumbling through its first season of the “Bush Penalty Era” and missing star quarterback Matt Barkley. The shine has definitely come off the program that dominated the first decade of the century. Or, they may point to a couple of key dropped passes by the Trojans.

But for Irish fans – whether happily drenched at the Coliseum, or safe and warm in front of their TV sets – the win represented a new day, a satisfying exclamation point, a feeling that ND has turned from a season of pain to a promising future.

Eight years of misery vs. Southern Cal were put to rest when Harrison Smith wrenched the football from the misty air and cradled it just outside the Irish goal line in the final minute.

It mattered not a whit to the Irish that USC might have just slipped from the How Do We Ever Beat Them? category to Teams We Should Defeat. The Trojans have their own problems, richly deserved by the outlaw operation crafted by Pete Carroll.

Now, in retrospect, it’s clear that:

–Notre Dame is a stronger team this November than in September (despite the loss of several star players to injury). When have we been able to say that?
–The Irish are playing as a team, not a collection of individuals — something seldom seen in recent years. Perhaps due to the injuries, numerous players on both sides of the ball have stepped up when needed.
–The last two-thirds of the season, ND has played (generally) with confidence and heart in posting a 6-2 record. The Navy game was clearly an aberration; the Tulsa loss was seemingly pre-destined in a week of tragedy and shock.
–Leading the way has been the Irish defense. The performance has been staggering: in the final 3 ¾ games, allowing just one offensive touchdown, and that on a 2-yard drive that required four tries for USC to score.
–This team will return a lot of talent in 2011, now supplemented with a confident attitude and the knowledge of what it takes to win.

The difference between finishing the regular season at 7-5 — with a possible bowl trip to Orlando for the Dec. 28 Champs Sports Bowl — and 6-6, which would have meant three straight .500 seasons, is immense.

You have to think the Irish have rounded a corner, and are looking at some good days ahead.

Or, as one young ND alum noted, “Don’t you feel, now that we beat SC, we can do anything!”

Pretty Good for “Non-Athletes”
It’s no scoop to report that, in general, ESPN has no great regard for Notre Dame. ND football is like the Bailey Building & Loan to ESPN’s Mr. Potter – one of the very few properties in college football that the behemoth doesn’t control.

Of course, ESPN forced millions of Irish fans across the country to cough up $24.95 for its GamePlan scam in order to watch Saturday’s game, as it forced the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game onto vast swaths of the nation. In a few traditional ND markets, fan (and affiliate) outrage was enough to get the local station to change, but for most of us, it was GamePlan and the inane, endless ESPN “house ads” at each break.

But it was the tone set earlier in the day that is most annoying. On ESPN Game Day, the chorus sounded that old familiar theme: Notre Dame “just doesn’t have the athletes” to compete with Southern Cal (or, presumably, any of the other teams with “great athletes”).

Desmond Howard. Lee Corso. Kirk Herbstreit. One by one, they repeated the old canard. USC just has “too many athletes” for Notre Dame to have any kind of chance.

Have these guys seen ND play in the last month? Or at all this year? One hopes they tuned in Saturday night to see:

–Michael Floyd muscle his way through defenders for first downs, and a TD.

–Brian Smith breaking up passes and sticking runners.

–Manti Te’o making plays all over the field.
–Robert Hughes bowling over masses of USC defenders.
–Everywhere on defense….Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cynwar, Gary Gray, Harrison Smith….defenders playing with toughness and great energy.

Talent has not been the issue, and will not be the issue. ND in past years has lacked player development, strength and conditioning, not to mention passion and togetherness.

Don’t look now, ESPN, but it’s all coming into place.