During Charlie Weis' tenure as head football coach at Notre Dame (2005-present), many fans and alumni have been calling for the Irish to play with more passion and fire. We've cited Charlie's pro football-influenced, business-like approach as the likely culprit of Irish listlessness; I refered to it as "Charlie is not a coach who understands that college ball is about getting 85 guys to buy into a single vision." His mindset, cemented in his years in pro football, was that the players took care of that kind of thing.
This is where the Ty Willingham-imposed two year gap of talent (Mr. Willingham coached ND for three years (2002-04) but only bothered to recruit during one of them), experience, and leadership really hurt ND in '07 and '08. In 2007, the two "lost classes" were juniors and seniors, and the lack of leadership was apparent. There also seemed to be some disconnect between the upperclassmen and the freshmen and sophomores, an prime example of which was 5th-year senior center John Sullivan chewing out freshman QB Jimmy Clausen on the sidelines of the UCLA game after Sullivan had just snapped the ball 2 feet over Clausen's reach. What was he yelling at Clausen for? For not being 8 feet tall? Last year was better, but after the Irish imploded in the second halves against North Carolina (led 17-6; lost 29-24) and Pittsburgh (led 17-3; lost 36-33 in 4 overtimes), neither Weis nor any player provided the necessary leadership to pick the team back up for the remainder of the season.
The post-USC game (a 38-3 Irish loss) players-only meeting, where players (according to reports) adopted a "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!" attitude, seemed to help pick the team off the floor, and apparently Weis let the players have fun when they went to Hawaii for the Hawaii Bowl, as the Irish team that took the field on Christmas Eve was as loosey-goosey a bunch as any ND squad in recent memory. After the Irish pummeled Hawaii on their home field, many Irish fans and alums, including myself, thought "Great, but can they replicate such an emotional state and performance in something other than a 3rd-tier bowl game?"
From all that I've read since last spring, the bowl performance provided some wind in the Irish offseason sails for the time in a while. However, as I read it, it is not merely enthusiasm; the team, as teams are wont to do, has absorbed some of the personality of their coach.
Now, Charlie is not Ara Parseghian (Irish coach from 1964-74) or Lou Holtz (ND's coach from 1986-96) in the emotion department, but there has been a detectable fire burning in him since the end of last season. This fire is not a raging inferno, nor a flash fire that both ignites and is squelched quickly, but rather a slow burn. With each instance that Weis neglected to make proclamations about the upcoming season or to wax eloquent about the assemblage of talent - instead begging off with a "We'll let our play do the talking" (all very un-Charlie-like) - you could sense that underneath his reticence that he was seething. This seething has not served to consume him, but to focus his efforts in making three early 2009 moves: appointing the aggressive and innovative Jon Tenuta as defensive coordinator, with the talented but inexperienced former coordinator Corwin Brown getting to learn how to hunt at the feet of a wolf; hiring an offensive line coach that he seems to be on the same page with (something that could not be said of previous line coach John Latina); the full-court press in recruitment that lured Manti T'eo, a Hawaiian Mormon who could be the most talented linebacker to wear the blue and gold since a couple of guys named Ned Bolcar (1985-89) and Mike Stonebreaker (1988-90), away from USC and UCLA.
Likewise, the team's emotional level (again, from what I've read/seen/heard) seems to match that of their coach. This is a team on a slow burn, a seething at their status as the college football-covering media's whipping boys over the last 2 seasons. As with Weis, this slow burn is not consuming their energy (thus leaving them flat later) but providing focus. Since I had surgery a couple of weeks ago, aside from attending the Notre Dame Alumni Club of Dallas gamewatch, I spent most of last Thursay thru Monday on the couch with ice bags and pain killers, and watched most or all of 10 games aside from ND's (Lynda last Tuesday: "There had better not be any football on tonight."). A lot of teams turned in good performances, but ND's stood out in a telling way: of the 3 Irish penalties (2 for holding, 1 for grabbing the facemask), none were for illegal procedure, illegal formation, illegal motion, or taking too much time - all staples of a typical college football Game 1 performance. Every team in every other game I watched committed some combination of those infractions, with the added element of an instance here or there of multiple players running on and/or off the field at the last moment prior to the snap, while Notre Dame had none of these. Add in the fact the Irish did not commit a turnover and had only 1 sack (a coverage sack with Clausen outside the pocket), and that all this was done while having a rather lengthy list of players seeing action (more than 10 for the first time), and what you witnessed was a mentally and emotionally focused group - from top to bottom - of Irish.
As for tomorrow's game against our enemy, Michigan**, in addition to the talent advantage that ND enjoys over Michigan at present, I think ND is in a much better place mentally/emotionally than UM. It takes more than one offseason to recover mentally and emotionally from a debacle of a season (3W-9L, much like ND's 2007 season) like UM had last year (the shaky 2008 Irish demonstrated this rather convincingly), while ND is in the best shape roster-wise, mentally/emotionally, and coaching-wise (name a team with a better pair of coordinators than Weis-Tenuta) that they've been in more than 15 years. Michigan's evisceration of Western Michigan last Saturday does not change the fact that they are a team with depth, talent, and confidence issues, not to mention starting a freshman quarterback against one of the most aggressively blitz-and-pressure defensive coordinators in college football; they are ripe to be exposed, and this year's Irish squad is just the type of team to expose them.
Add all this up, and I think that Michigan will be walking into a buzz saw this Saturday.
** - USC is Notre Dame's rival, Michigan is ND's enemy. What's the difference? Michigan has a long and distinguished history of vile behavior towards ND, while USC does not. So while we Irish fans and alums hope USC wins every game they play when they are not playing Notre Dame - to better help our strength-of-schedule and add luster to the USC-Notre Dame game - we hope that Michigan loses every game they play each and every year by at least 50 points. We further hope that Michigan decisively loses every contest they play in every other sport besides football, each and every year, until they become so distraught that they abandon playing sports entirely, tear down all their athletic facilities (especially that toilet of a football stadium they call "The Big House"; "The Outhouse" would be more accurate), and build over them an effeminate-looking arts studio so that their "athletes" (no need to bother with the "student-" prefix at UM) can all take up modern interpretive dance.
We then hope that they suck at that, too.