Here's my take on Notre Dame at the midway point. Any thoughts?
October 16, 2008
BY NEIL HAYES firstname.lastname@example.org
Take off the hard hats and sweep up the sawdust. If the first half of Notre Dame's season has taught us anything, it's that the heavy construction phase of the rebuilding process is nearing completion.
There's still plenty of finishing work to be done, but a 29-24 loss Saturday at then-No. 22 North Carolina proves the Irish can compete with nationally ranked opponents -- a big step forward for a team that failed to compete for much of last season.
Notre Dame is idle this week, which offers an opportunity to acknowledge that the program appears on schedule for a return to the national stage in 2009 and 2010. If this team continues to improve, it has a chance to end the regular season where it left off -- in 2006. In other words, if everything goes right, the Irish will sail into 2009 as a Top 25 program with a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback that must prove it can defeat BCS-caliber teams.
Returning to square one is a major accomplishment, considering the program didn't hit a bump last season so much as it fell into a crater. It also puts any lingering disappointment about this season's 4-2 record in perspective.
''I just feel disappointed for the team that we're sitting here with two losses at the halfway mark,'' coach Charlie Weis said. ''That's really what surprised me. Everyone else's expectations were lower based off how last year went. But I'm disappointed to be sitting here at 4-2 right now, very disappointed.''
Burying the ghost of 2007
The Irish could have defeated Michigan State and North Carolina, although, as Weis will acknowledge, that means little in a bottom-line business. It's up to Weis to set the tone for the program and ratchet up expectations inside the locker room. In the long view, however, this season was never about this season. It's about obliterating memories of last season. It's about the program positioning itself to contend next year and beyond.
You must reach base camp before you can begin an ascent, and that's what the Irish are doing this year. The path gets progressively steeper and more treacherous. Notre Dame has lost an NCAA-record nine straight bowl games, and although that streak could end if the Irish prevail in a lower-tier bowl this season, the ultimate goal is for Jimmy Clausen to take the team where Brady Quinn couldn't.
That means competing for a national title, and as encouraging as Notre Dame's performance has been during the first half, the difference between competing with North Carolina and defeating the truly elite programs is more of a chasm than a gap.
There are two reasons to believe the Irish are closing ground. Team speed is one. The disparity in speed during Notre Dame's 41-14 Sugar Bowl loss to LSU after the 2006 season was striking. Few may have realized it then, but help was on the way. The quicker, faster athletes whom Weis has recruited are emerging, and that should help the Irish compete against top SEC, Pac-10 and Big 12 foes in coming years.
The second reason is the most obvious. Weis is turning Notre Dame into Quarterback U. Clausen already has proved to be a great equalizer. Where would the offense be, if not for his ability to execute out of multiple-receiver sets? Clausen's ability to put the offense on his shoulders has rescued the Irish and should make him a legitimate Heisman candidate next season.
Super recruit Dayne Crist is warming up on the sideline. Clausen's success only will enhance Weis' reputation as a quarterback guru, which should draw more blue-chip recruits and ensure continued star talent at the most important position for years to come.
''[Clausen] was exposed to about every form of pressure known to mankind last year because teams saw a wounded animal, and they were going for the kill,'' Weis said. ''We've started to remedy that across the board. He was exposed to so many things that he would not have been exposed to. So now, when they're happening, they're repeat occurrences. They're things that he has already seen, which puts him in a position to make a lot less mistakes.''
The dangers of feeling satisfied
Weis undoubtedly will be deep in his bunker, studying his team's first-half tendencies and second-half opponents, while his players are given the luxury of a long weekend. Weis must be and will be vigilant. The improvement seen thus far can unravel in a heartbeat. The moment you assume you've arrived is the moment you realize you're further away from your goal than ever. Trust Weis to drive that point home to his team again and again.
''There's a whole bunch of areas that we're going to have to improve on,'' he said. ''We're starting to get better in a whole bunch of areas in a hurry. We have holes across the board that we're going to have to improve on if we're going to make a serious run at winning a whole bunch of games this second half.''
A 4-2 record might not satisfy Weis and impatient Notre Dame followers. Considering where they've been, however, and where they appear to be headed, it's not such a bad place to be.