- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- These aren't the games that pull in the biggest ratings, that ignite the oddsmakers or even captivate their own fans to any great extreme.
Nope, all they do is make or break seasons, and prolong or doom coaching careers.
Saturday's 20-16 victory over Boston College was one of those games the Fighting Irish should have won and one of those games they usually don't. And on those grounds alone, it was important.
For reasons not always clear, the Irish had lost the past six straight to the Eagles, who treat this week as the biggest on their schedule. And coming as it did this time around after an emotionally draining loss to USC, you had to wonder if it would turn out to be another black mark on the spotty regime of Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis.
For Weis, the victory may not have done all that much to help secure a BCS bowl berth, but it did allow him to tick off a modest but very vital item on his Notre Dame checklist, underscoring what a big moment this really was.
"We're three out of four on breaking these streaks," he said. "The bowl game [a win over Hawaii last year that snapped a nine-game bowl losing streak], we got that behind us. Michigan State [the Irish victory this season that ended the Spartans' six-game streak in South Bend], we got that behind us. We came up a little bit short last week against USC. [But] now we have this behind us.
"Sooner or later, you want to be playing a game and not be worrying about losing streaks. You want to be playing games and talking about winning streaks. That's the ultimate goal."
Not far behind that for Weis had to be shoring up an erratic defense that could still keep the Irish from where they want to go this season. As it is, the Irish still allowed 10 "explosives," or plays of 20 or more yards, in Weis parlance. But they forced five turnovers -- only one that led to a field goal, but all five in Notre Dame territory, including one fumble on the goal line and two interceptions that helped seal the victory in the final four and a half minutes of regulation.
On a day in which the noted offensive innovator asked his Heisman Trophy candidate, quarterback Jimmy Clausen, to dumb it down, this was a satisfying afternoon for the Irish indeed.
"The whole game plan was going to be dink and dunk," said Weis. "We knew that going in -- it wasn't even a thought. We threw one ball down the field and that was on our own 3-yard line where we were just laying one up to Golden [Tate] 1-on-1. I didn't think we'd throw one ball down the field, to tell you the truth. I thought everything was going to be underneath because that's the way they play.
"They dare you to be patient and if you recall just a year ago when we played them, we weren't patient. We threw the ball down the field and we threw four interceptions. So that wasn't happening today. That was not happening. We were not coming out here and throwing the ball to them."
Clausen surely remembered the four picks. But he completed 26 of 39 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns, including 11 for 128 yards, two touchdowns and a career day for Tate.
"It's hard, you always want to throw the ball down the field," said Clausen. "But, I'm just going to do anything I can to help the team win, whether it's running the ball the entire game or checking down to the underneath stuff, I'm going to do it."
While it was another nerve-rattler for Irish fans after Notre Dame's last five games had been decided in the final minute -- three resulting in victories -- this one had to feel almost relaxing by comparison with Tate's 36-yard game-winning touchdown catch coming with 8:12 remaining in the game and linebacker Brian Smith's game-saving interception at 1:38.
"I actually got to sit on the bench at the end," laughed Irish safety Kyle McCarthy, who had the other two interceptions. "It was great to be able to end that way."
For the Irish, it was also great to be able to depend on a unit that had allowed 400-plus yards in four of six games coming in (501 last week against USC) and was ranked 104th in the nation in total defense.
Weis knew what he was dealing with and gave his shaky defense a little pre-emptive pep talk before calling for halfback Robert Hughes to take the direct snap from center on a fourth-and-goal at the Eagles' 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
Hughes was stopped short, but the Irish defense bounced back, holding Boston College to 4 yards on a quick three-and-out, which led to the Tate touchdown catch on the next series.
"I already talked to the defense very quickly," Weis said of his sideline huddle, "and said, 'OK now, if we don't get in here, I don't want to have negative waves. If we don't get in here, we've got to pin them back here so we get the ball back in plus territory and come right back.' And fortunately, that's what happened. We got the ball back and scored in three plays."
As usual when it comes to this series, Boston College looked better than it probably had a right to look, coming in with the 106th-ranked passing offense and 25-year-old freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie gunning for a season-high 279 yards and a touchdown.
But the Irish cared little what it looked like when it was all over.
"This was huge," said Tate. "But the story of our season is playing guys tough, playing them close and pulling it out in the end. Last week was a tough loss for us but we came back understanding that this is the other Catholic school in the nation that has a pretty good football team, so we need to worry about them. We did, we did a great job preparing, and it worked out for us tonight."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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