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Bumpy Season Makes Irish an Uneven Match

Times Staff Writer

Three victories over bowl-bound teams and two wins over squads in the top 10 are normally confidence builders for most college football programs.

Not at Notre Dame. The glass is either full or empty for the Irish, who consider a season that doesn’t include at least seven wins and a bowl championship series game unacceptable.

That’s why Notre Dame’s 6-4 record heading into today’s game against No. 1 USC is not going over too well in South Bend, Ind., especially after the Irish finished 5-7 a year ago.

The Irish have had more ups and downs this season than Magic Mountain’s newest thrill ride. They upset highly ranked Michigan and Tennessee -- after losing to Brigham Young in the season opener, a game they scheduled as a tuneup for Michigan. They are three-touchdown underdogs against the Trojans because of late-season losses to Boston College and Pittsburgh.

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Through it all, third-year Coach Tyrone Willingham has kept his players positive despite a growing concern about the direction of the program.

“He’s remained totally consistent since Day 1,” senior Billy Palmer said of Willingham, who has a 13-14 record at Notre Dame since an 8-0 start.

“His game plan is simple and that’s win on and off the field. I’ve been amazed with his consistency and his persistence and his beliefs and his methods in doing things.”

But early this week, even Willingham hinted that he might have underestimated the pressure that goes with coaching the Irish.

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“As a head coach at Stanford, the transition to Notre Dame has been highlighted by the word ‘more,’ ” said Willingham, whose team probably is headed to the Insight Bowl in Phoenix after failing to qualify for any bowl last season. “Everything is larger, everything is greater. There’s a much greater following, a much greater sense of urgency surrounding the program.”

Notre Dame’s biggest problem is that its history and tradition don’t mean much to today’s generation of young athletes, who consider the 1980s old school.

Junior tight end Anthony Fasano has noticed a change only in the way the Irish have been perceived since they finished 10-3 in Willingham’s first season in 2002.

“There are some things that we’ve struggled with, in small details,” he said. “But around the country, we’ve got a lack of respect in the eyes of other teams ... the way people talk about us.”

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Said Palmer, “Any time you’re coming off a season like the one we had last year, people are going to gain confidence when they face you. But that’s not just necessarily Notre Dame, it can be any college program. Whenever you’re not consistent and putting wins together, teams tend to lose a little respect for you.”

Beating USC would go a long way in generating respect for Notre Dame, which has been outscored by the Trojans in the last two meetings, 89-27.

“It gives us another step up in that process of having the confidence and having the success against the best in the country,” Willingham said.

“This is an awful important game as we try to build and take the right steps in our program, but also because of the tradition and history of this game.”

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Notre Dame has played well in big games. The Irish handed Michigan its first defeat, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter of a 28-20 victory. They also defeated Tennessee on the road with a strong second-half effort.

But against USC, the Irish will have their hands full trying to slow quarterback Matt Leinart and the Trojans’ passing offense. Three quarterbacks have passed for more than 300 yards against the Irish. One of them, Purdue’s Kyle Orton, threw for 385 yards.

To help the defense, the Irish plan to control the ball with a balanced attack, directed by sophomore quarterback Brady Quinn.

Quinn has had his moments, one game producing a Notre Dame Stadium-record 432 yards passing against Purdue. But in his career, the Irish are 0-7 when Quinn throws 34 or more passes and 10-2 when he throws fewer.

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“You try to get long drives,” Quinn said about playing USC. “Move the ball and have the ball for a long time, keep the ball out of their hands by not turning it over and just keeping time of possession in our favor.”

Quinn ranks 45th in the country with a pass efficiency rating of 128 and has 14 touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

“My thing is that we’ve been inconsistent,” Willingham said about Notre Dame’s offense. “In some areas we’ve improved. We’re probably a little more in passing yardage this year than we were last year, but at the same time we’ve dropped off a little bit in our run production. So we’re trying to see if we can maximize all of those so that we can be a much more consistent, a much more productive offense.”

Not too many believe that the Irish will be able to get it done against the Trojans, which does not sit well with some Notre Dame players.

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“It bugs you a little bit [to be underdogs] but it is not something that is going to stop us,” linebacker Dan Goolsby said. “We are still going to play our game and be ready for whatever challenges USC throws at us.”


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