Jesse Beals/Icon SMI
These are tough days to be a Notre Dame fan. After suffering through a historically bad 3-9 season in 2007 with a talented but callow team, you knew the Fighting Irish were in for a growing campaign this fall -- one that, while it might not see them ranked in the Top 25, would likely consist of more wins than losses, and would feature an improvement in play that would leave you looking forward to 2009. In short, you always knew you were going to have to grit your teeth a little bit, and you were OK with that.
But nobody, it seems, was ready for this. Despite a 6-4 record, there have been some dismaying signs that all is not quite right in South Bend. Going into Notre Dame's 27-21 win over Navy in Baltimore last Saturday, the Irish had lost three of their last four, and hadn't beaten a team with a winning record all season. In two of those defeats -- first to North Carolina and then to Pitt -- Notre Dame had enjoyed halftime leads of eight and 14 points, respectively. The third had been a shutout loss to rival Boston College, which gave the Eagles six straight wins in the series. Echoes are being awakened all right, but they aren't the reverberations that stir the hearts of Domers everywhere, of Rockne and Gipp, Hornung and Montana. Instead, the returning memories are of Gerry Faust, Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham.
Charlie Weis, it seems, is finally getting his comeuppance, and rarely has the sin of hubris been punished on such a grand scale. He arrived four years ago with much bluster and braggadocio, but may soon be going out in more muted fashion. The "decided schematic advantage" he promised his team has, in the absence of star players such as Brady Quinn, vanished faster than a Rocket Ismail kick return. What's left is a very vanilla pro-style scheme that exhibits none of the inventiveness of the Texas Tech spread, for example, or even the Navy triple option. In some quarters of South Bend, as well as in the wider world, the word "fraud" is starting to bubble up in conversation. In short, it's starting to get ugly.
To be sure, there have been several substantial positives of Weis' administration. He has been, for one thing, an excellent representative of the university -- his alma mater -- and has shown that he truly understands the importance of his role in the Notre Dame universe. He's also been an excellent recruiter, landing some truly outstanding classes that, whatever you think of his coaching ability, seem to portend that the upside to his team is significant ... if you can wait that long.
But what's missing is crucial. To describe the Irish as soft is to do a disservice to feather pillows. Until the Fighting Irish offensive line cleared the way for 230 rushing yards against a physically overmatched Navy front seven last Saturday, the unit had been nearly as disappointing as it was last year, when it surrendered the most sacks in the country (58) and the running game ranked 115th. Notre Dame currently ranks 84th in Division I-A in rushing offense. Before playing the Middies, however, they'd ranked 95th. And this is after an offseason spent bulking up and vowing to get meaner and more physical.
At the skill positions ... The development of quarterback Jimmy Clausen is fitful, at best, and truly hard to evaluate given the play of the line the last two years and the lack of a consistent running game. Still, it wasn't encouraging to hear Weis describe his offense as "flustered" by Navy's soft zone coverage. What seems more disturbing is that there's no extra effort being made to get wideout Golden Tate -- Notre Dame's most explosive offensive talent -- involved in the offense. He's averaging just 4.7 touches per game, and didn't catch a pass on Saturday. What's up with that?
But I don't even think Weis' big problem is an inability to develop talent (though it doesn't exactly seem to be a strength, either). Instead, it's that he doesn't seem to have infused his program with any sort of a sense of urgency or fighting spirit. Yes, there's those leads surrendered to the Tar Heels and Panthers, as well as the listless, pointless performance against BC. But even the wins don't come off feeling like triumphs.
On Saturday Notre Dame was up 27-7 on Navy when Weis sent in his subs, only to have to shove his starters back into the game when the Midshipmen came storming back against the second-string. For a coach who learned at the hip of NFL legends Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick -- two men who have never hesitated to step on the neck of a beaten opponent -- such a move is odd, to say the least.
Weis -- who for whatever reason doesn't enjoy as much of a schematic advantage as he thought he would, and who lacks even a single defining victory -- seems awfully eager to decide that certain games are over. And his team plays like it. There are a raft of hoary motivational clichés in college football, and the Notre Dame coach seems loathe to use any of them. He even dismissed the notion that Navy was a must-win game for him and his team. Perhaps Weis thinks that he and his players are too smart, too coolly professional, for that. But the result of that decision has left him with a team that seems unmotivated, and a fan base that is on the verge of mutiny.
And the fact is that it should be easy for Notre Dame to play with a chip on its shoulder. I don't think there's anybody in the country who doesn't think that this team isn't going to be crushed by USC in two weeks. There is, simply, no respect for the Irish anymore. Did anyone hear Kirk Herbstreit on College GameDay last week? His point was that the Irish had averaged seven wins a year for more than a decade, and that to expect anything else is unrealistic. Notre Dame, he said, was right on schedule.
Well, like it or not, coach Weis, disrespect is a very handy motivational tactic in college football these days. So is the us-against-the-world argument. It may be time to break such devices out, because just assuming that your blue-chip recruits are going to win on superior potential, skill and smarts is not enough in college football. Maybe you can't be any better than a seven-win team these days, but that doesn't mean you have to accept it. Or play like it.