Commentary

Irish victory no sign of South Bend resurrection

Originally Published: September 13, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame traditionally produces a new "spirit shirt" every season, and tens of thousands of them can be seen on campus every football Saturday.

[+] EnlargeMichael Floyd
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesIt wasn't pretty in South Bend as Michigan did all it could to help the Irish.
This year's version reads, in part: "Notre Dame will rise again."

As resurrections go, this is not exactly a Lazarus production. There is little here to inspire reverence.

The head coach is on crutches. The quarterback threw for 11 second-half yards Saturday. The longest running play of the season is 18 yards. The Fighting Irish have been outgained in both games. The new campus cult hero is a 5-foot-8¾, 175-pound former walk-on.

Yet after rallying past awful San Diego State in the opener and accepting a gift-wrapped 35-17 victory Saturday from self-destructing Michigan, the Irish are 2-0. Don't look now, folks, but they could be on their way to becoming the worst good team in recent college football history.

San Diego State and (to hell with) Michigan were not ranked coming into South Bend. Nine more currently unranked opponents stand between Notre Dame and USC on Nov. 29. If those teams remain outside the polls, it would be a school record for most unranked opponents played in one season.

Against that motley lineup, the highly average Irish conceivably could win enough to return to a big-time bowl game. Where they'd get crushed once again.

Put it this way: This Notre Dame team bears no resemblance to the 1988 national champions who were honored here this weekend.

But after the 3-9 fiasco of 2007, you won't find anyone at Notre Dame soft-selling 2-0. Not after beating a school that humiliated the Irish the past two years.

Shouldn't it be enough that Michigan gave Notre Dame the ball all day Saturday? Now the Irish want respect on a platter, too?

"They wanted to make a statement that Notre Dame is not some garbage school out there that everyone can crap on all the time," said Charlie Weis, who had his first-ever college football injury in the second quarter when Notre Dame linebacker John Ryan was pushed out of bounds on punt coverage, rolled into the back of Weis' legs and blew out the coach's left knee -- torn ACL and MCL, according to Weis.

"Tommy Brady's got nothing on me," he said. "... How do you like that? I feel like an athlete. First time in my life."

Weis sucked it up and coached through the pain and the rain. You can't blame him for not wanting to miss a play of this game, perhaps just to see how Michigan was going to give his team the ball next.

The young Wolverines turned it over six times, their most in a game in 16 years, which is how you outgain an opponent by 128 yards and still lose by 18 points. One of those turnovers was forced by Notre Dame and the other five were giveaways.

"Turnovers will hurt you anytime," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said, "but the ones that are really discouraging are the unforced errors. I mean, it wasn't anybody knocking the ball out or stripping the ball out. It's just dropping the ball."

There was one strip, by excellent Notre Dame safety David Bruton (who originally committed to Ty Willingham). The rest were a succession of gaffes most self-respecting high school teams would avoid.

Especially the first two, which just about sealed Michigan's fate.

Its first possession started with freshman Boubacar Cissoko fumbling the opening kickoff, retrieving it and being tackled at the 9-yard line. It ended with quarterback Steven Threet throwing a backward pass to running back Brandon Minor, who dropped it. The Irish recovered at the 11.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Weis
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesTorn up knee and all, Charlie Weis was happy with the day's end result.
Aided by a pass interference penalty, Notre Dame scored in three plays.

Michigan freshman Michael Shaw fumbled the ensuing kickoff -- straight through the hands, and then between the legs and behind him. That one was recovered on the Michigan 14 by Irish special-teams star Mike Anello, the tiny former walk-on whose bio isn't even in the media guide but whose kick coverage is now the stuff of legend after two bang-up games to start the year.

"I couldn't have dreamed this up," Anello said. "If you told me I'd be playing for Notre Dame, let alone getting on the field and earning a scholarship, I'd have laughed at you."

On Saturday, the laughter you could hear seemed to be coming from Morgantown, W.Va., where there's nothing more enjoyable than seeing the Mountaineers' former coach flail to an error-ridden 1-2 start at Michigan.

"I'm not going to have outside influences affecting the way we're running our program," Rodriguez said, an odd answer to a question about whether he planned to build his players up or tear them down in the wake of this defeat. "We're going to keep doing what we're doing. ... Michigan football will be back. All the naysayers out there -- whatever. I'm disappointed but I'm not discouraged. Michigan football will be back, hopefully sooner rather than later."

When the Wolverines were not dropping the ball or hitting Irish defenders in the chest with passes, they did some decent things offensively. Freshman running back Sam McGuffie is more than just a YouTube phenomenon; he's a legit talent who ran for 131 yards and caught four passes for 47 more yards.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, is still looking for a running game that it can count on. The Irish wheezed to 105 rushing yards against San Diego State and had 113 against the Wolverines. Averaging 3.2 yards per carry is well short of dazzling.

But the one thing the Irish are doing much better this year than last is keeping their quarterback upright. Last season Notre Dame surrendered a school-record 58 sacks. So far this year? Zero.

That left Weis knocking on the wooden podium he stood behind in the postgame news conference. So far, the bewildered blockers of '07 are now a pretty solid unit in '08.

"[The offensive line] is much better in two facets in particular," Weis said. "Much better in pass protection -- although Jimmy [Clausen] did get us out of a couple. He rolled out, and he's learned now, growing up, throwing the ball away, instead of doing something stupid, which we might have done last year.

"And in the running game, you're running against a team that's giving up a yard a carry. This is a stout defensive front four, and they will continue to be a stout defensive front four all year long. But when they knew we were running it, and it turned into a slugfest, it showed that our guys are willing to go toe-to-toe with them."

Notre Dame next will go toe-to-toe with a Michigan State team that shut out Florida Atlantic on Saturday. But before then, the Irish would like some props.

"Sooner or later," cornerback Raeshon McNeil said, "everyone's going to have to start giving us some respect."

Shouldn't it be enough that Michigan gave Notre Dame the ball all day Saturday? Now the Irish want respect on a platter, too?

Respect will have to be earned, and it will take more than Notre Dame showed in this game for that to happen.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.