Coach Charlie Weis' season opening press conference was very interesting to me, particularly because it is clear that Coach Weis and I see the 2009 season in much the same way. The soundbite from the press conference that received the most attention, on the theme of expectations, was:
There's a lot of things going into this year that I'd rather not say because I'd rather get it done on the field. That's really one of the main deals or goals going into training camp, is, Fellas, don't tell me about expectations, show me.Just a few days before Charlie's "show me" remarks, I wrote the following about 2009:
If we have learned nothing else the past two years, we have learned this: No matter what we see or hear about how things are going at practice in August, fans will know nothing about this team until they take the field for real in September. [...] We know this team has the POTENTIAL to be great. But until they line-up on a Saturday, we have no inkling of how they WILL play.In other words: Show me.
So while it's mildly interesting to watch all the videos at UND.com with practice highlights and interviews from players and coaches, I find that my patience for pre-season hype and talk is worn very thin.
All I want to know about the Fighting Irish for 2009 is: Will they take care of business this season?
What do I mean by "taking care of business?" It is playing consistently at a high level. It means winning in convincing fashion over lesser opponents, and playing very competitively against top teams. The pain of 2007 and 2008 was not so much the games Notre Dame lost to better teams. There is no shame in losing to a better opponent. No, the real pain of 2007 and 2008 was losing games that, despite not having our best talent level, we still should have won.
It was clear early in 2007 that Notre Dame was going to have a very difficult year. Getting hammered by Georgia Tech (33-3), Penn State (31-10), Michigan (38-0), and Michigan State (31-14) in the first month (that's a combined score of 133-27) was sufficient to drive home that reality for even the most optimistic of Irish fans. While losing game after game to quality teams was tough, we became numb to all but the most bitter of defeats. In 2007 it was the losses to Purdue, Navy, and Air Force that were really hard to swallow. In the Universe of the die-hard Notre Dame fan, there just isn't any alignment of the stars that can explain how the Irish can lose those games.
In 2008, there were several painful losses, but the worst were the three games that the Irish lost after they had comfortable leads and were apparently entirely in control of the outcome. Blowing the games to UNC, Pitt, and Syracuse (and turning a pretty darn respectable 9-3 regular season into a mediocre 6-6). Those three losses are the most glaring 2008 examples of the inconsistency that is the Hallmark of NOT taking care of business, but they weren't the only examples. Week 1 of 2008 was a win against San Diego State that was much too close for comfort, and which actually required a 4th quarter Notre Dame comeback to avert disaster. The SDSU debacle was somewhat overshadowed by a blow-out win over Michigan the following week, but in retrospect we should have recognized it as an early warning signal.
We tend to forget it in the disappointment of the last two seasons, but there is ample evidence that Coach Weis' is capable of fielding teams that do take care of business. The 2005 team was impressively consistent. A big opening win over Pittsburgh in Coach Weis' debut, followed by a win over Michigan. After a tough overtime loss to Sparty (I hate those guys), the 2005 Irish won 7 of the next 8 games by about 20 points per game, the only loss being the 4th & 9, Bush-push game to USC (34-31). No messing around with Navy and Syracuse in 2005. That was taking care of business, and even the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State was closer than folks remember. That game was 27-20 OSU with 5:27 left in the game, and that was after a Tom Zbikowski fumble return for a touchdown was called back.
Weis' 2006 team lost only to Michigan, USC, and LSU - three very good teams. But they took care of business against everybody else. No close calls (or losses) to Purdue, Stanford, Navy, Air Force, Army ...
Which brings us back to 2009. The Irish open up the season against the University of Nevada, which feels a lot like last year's opener against SDSU. What will the 2009 squad show us? Will it be a replay of the close call against the Aztecs, foreshadowing more immaturity and inconsistency to follow? Or will it be more like the opening blow-out win of 2005 which set the tone for an entire year of play at a consistently high level?
With Michigan waiting in the wings, the game against the Wolfpack might not look very important. But from where I sit it is huge. If this Notre Dame team can establish in week 1 the ability to be focused and intense no matter who they are playing; If they can block out the looming Wolverines, and NOT play down to the level of their opponent; If they can take care of business and dismantle the 'Pack without conscience - then it will bode very well for 2009. If not, then we can all buckle up for another unwanted roller-coaster ride.
Much has been said and written about the 2009 Notre Dame schedule. The fact is, most Irish opponents this season are either weak teams or are expected to have down or rebuilding years. If the Fighting Irish can be focused and mature this year, they have the experience and the talent to take care of business and win a lot of games. The question is: Will they? We'll know a lot more about that on September 5th.
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