Big wins are common under Davie
This game has been circled on every Irish player's calendar since last spring.
Little did they know the Tennessee game would be far more important than any bowl game Bob Davie's team could possibly play in the winter. Actually, this game will pretty much determine if Notre Dame will have a game worth playing in the postseason.
And then some.
A win would not only salvage this season — one in which the Irish went 0-3 in September for a 1-3 start — but also the Irish program that has fallen short of expectations in the last few years. Of course, no one expects the Irish to win, nor do they expect them to get blown out.
Much like the program in recent years, the Irish are neither favorites for top honors nor a program at the bottom of Division I-A. But a win against the No. 4 Volunteers will assure that Notre Dame's football program won't finish the millennium stuck in mediocrity.
Winning big games isn't something that Davie has failed to do since taking over the program in 1997. Notre Dame has been able to do that time and time again. The frustration lies in the fact that big wins have been readily supplemented with disappointing losses.
Now is the time for big games to lead to something bigger, serve as a springboard to the next level for the Irish. Defeating the defending national champions would start that journey — especially if Notre Dame can finish the season without another loss.
The magnitude of this game, along with last weekend's near-loss to Navy, left Notre Dame with a great deal of ground to cover this week. The Irish looked like an average team last Saturday against an inferior opponent at home. A similar effort on the road against a stronger, more talented and experienced team like Tennessee will make the Irish look far worse than average.
The Volunteers will look to cover their ground on the field Saturday night against Notre Dame's defense. Navy quarterback Brian Madden was able to carry for 168 yards last week against a front line that needs to fill the gaps.
Vols signal caller Tee Martin doesn't run the option as Navy's Madden used, but along with back Jamal Lewis Tennessee can give the defensive line more than enough problems. In the two games that Tennessee was most vulnerable — its lone loss to Florida and a slight win against Memphis — it rushed for an average 2.5 yards per carry compared to a 4.7-yard average in its other five games.
Of greater concern on the defensive unit is Notre Dame's average of 226.1 yards allowed in the air per game. A similar lack of pressure on Martin will give him the time and option to throw downfield or to find some room to run on his own.
Of course the Irish have an option up their sleeve, thanks to Kevin Roger's offense. A big game against Tennessee is a great time to debut some new plays, especially with the speedy freshman Julius Jones just hitting his stride and the offensive line finally getting consistent at creating the holes.
But all of this means nothing if the Irish turn in another sloppy game like they did against the Midshipmen. Why did the Irish only beat Navy by four points? Of course there are a number of reasons, but 14 penalties for 140 yards and three turnovers come to mind. If the Irish can barely beat a team that they have a 35-year win streak against, imagine what the Vols can do.
Despite differences, both teams enter Saturday night's game with hopes of salvaging their seasons. For a Vols team that is realizing it won't be returning to the SEC Championship for the first time in four years, a win keeps their BCS title game dreams alive.
The Irish, on the other hand, are content looking further than this postseason and hoping they can make the big games count.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Sports Stories for Friday, November 5, 1999