Irish learn to walk tight-rope of success
Associate Sports Editor
What a difference a year makes.
In '99, Notre Dame always made one mistake too many, lacked the confidence to take it all the way or got stopped one yard shy of the end zone. The Irish never seemed self-assured enough to put games away. Nine games were decided by 10 points or less, and seven of those times, Notre Dame came up on the short end.
Near the start of all last year's troubles, Notre Dame lost to Purdue as the clock ran out in a case of poor time management. Well, the Irish have come full circle.
After falling one defensive stop short of sending the 'Huskers tumbling from their coveted No. 1 position, the Irish team said, "No more." It refused to succumb to its critics Ñ a seemingly countless multitude that left the Irish off the Preseason Top 25 and handed its game tickets to Nebraska fans. The skeptics could think what they liked; the team knew better.
"A lot of people might not believe in us, but we believe in ourselves," Notre Dame flanker Joey Getherall said. "A lot of people were counting us out. We know what we're capable of, and we showed it today."
And with the new positive attitude, the chips began piling up on Notre Dame's side of the poker table. This year, it was Purdue that crumbled in the final minute under Notre Dame's defensive pressure, its own players' errors and a slew of penalty calls.
"I knew we weren't going to lose," quarterback Gary Godsey said. "I looked at all the guys and said, `We're not going to leave the field second.'"
The demoralizing events of the past week — losing quarterback Arnaz Battle to a broken wrist and captain defensive end Grant Irons to a shoulder injury and ending up on the losing side of an intense overtime battle — would have sunk the hopes of last year's Irish team and doomed it to defeat.
But head coach Bob Davie and the team's captains were prepared for the unexpected. Instead of looking at the roadblocks as a dead end on the route to success, the Irish chose to think of it as a detour. They brought in the backup crew and drilled into it a sense of bravado, managing to stay one step ahead of disaster.
With a self-assured Irish squad, the 2000 team wouldn't suffer the same fate as that of 1999.
While the clock expired on Notre Dame in last year's game against Purdue, this year, the game-winning field goal came just before the end of regulation.
When the '99 special teams squad stepped onto the field, Notre Dame fans looked on it as the kiss of death. This year, whether it's Nick Setta nailing a field goal, Glenn Earl blocking a Purdue punt or Julius Jones running a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown, special teams are Notre Dame's salvation.
Unlike last year's defense, which gave up 40 points against an unranked Stanford squad, this year's defense held the nation's No. 2 offensive team to 21 points.
Instead of continuing last year's string of turnovers, Notre Dame capitalized on Purdue's fumble and interception to get the victory.
It all boils down to confidence.
This year's Irish have it. Last year's didn't.
"I think it's confidence, and everybody's just more hungry," junior linebacker Rocky Boiman said. "Every time we're out there, we've got something to prove. We're on a mission."
The 2000 Irish clearly entered the year as underdogs. Naysayers predicted the Irish would stumble to a 1-4 or even 0-5 start against a brutal early slate of opponents.
Once Notre Dame sent Texas A&M home with its tail tucked between its legs and nearly knocked Nebraska off its throne, people started to gain the confidence in the Irish that the players had all along. But when it became clear that Battle would miss at least six weeks of play and Irons was out for the season, fans again wrote off Notre Dame's chances for success.
They underestimated the force of the "Fight" in the Irish.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Sports Stories for Monday, September 18, 2000