October 26, 2009

Maybe when giants roamed the north central Indiana landscape, when KnuteRockne or Ara Parseghian coached at Notre Dame, a four-point victory over Boston College would not have occasioned much celebrating on the Irish campus.

After all, haughtier Domers tend to view BC as a poor relation in matters academic or athletic, a shared Catholic lineage notwithstanding,

Not Lou Holtz, of course. A last-second, 41-39 loss to "the University of Boston College" cost Holtz a national championship in 1993 and served notice that BC was plenty serious about rising to Notre Dame's level, not at all intimidated by the Irish mystique. Six straight wins in the series before Saturday and eight in the 13 games since BC kicker David Gordon's 41-yard dagger as time expired ruined Holtz's dream season drove home the point.

Still, Irish followers continue to behave as if a loss to BC should never happen, a bit of misguided arrogance that has played into the hands of Tom Coughlin and the three coaches who have followed him on Chestnut Hill. They've been quite happy to remind a good chunk of their roster that they're at BC because Notre Dame didn't want them, and the boulder-sized chip the Eagles have hoisted to their shoulders for each meeting with the Irish hasn't hindered them in the slightest.

So the feeling among the Irish was relief tinged with happiness Saturday after Jimmy Clausen's fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Golden Tate pulled out a 20-16 victory. The much-maligned ND defense sealed it with interceptions on BC's last two possessions after yielding 279 passing yards to 25-year-old freshman quarterback David Shinskie.

"That's three out of four streaks we've broken," coach Charlie Weis pointed out. "We had the bowl game last year, Michigan State earlier this season and now this."

The Irish had been 0-for-9 in bowl games before drilling Hawaii in last year's Hawaii Bowl, offsetting, for a moment, the memory of an ugly pratfall against 2-9 Syracuse in the home finale. They had dropped six straight to Michigan State at home before surviving 33-30 on Sept. 19, a high-wire act that has typified their season -- six straight games have been decided by seven points or fewer, including a 34-27 loss to Southern California that extended the Trojans' mastery of the Irish to eight games.

"We didn't quite get it done against USC," Weis acknowledged. "I'd like to have a game where I didn't have to talk about streaks, but we're getting there. There's a lot of work to be done, obviously, but I really believe our best football is ahead of us."

Should that be the case, Notre Dame might put an end to the high-decibel debate over Weis' status, a weekly occurrence. The dissent started bubbling during a 3-9 season in 2007, worst in school history, but firing him was hardly a consideration -- Weis had gone 19-5 with two BCS bowl-game appearances in his first two seasons, and in '07 he was thought to be paying the price for predecessor Ty Willingham's shortcomings as a recruiter.

Dismissing him was also impractical because of the astonishing 10-year contract extension giddy school officials had lavished on him in the midst of his first year.

But the Irish looked dazed and confused while going 7-6 last year. They were pelted with snowballs and serenaded with "Charlie Must Go" chants as they trudged off the field after the Syracuse game. Clausen's 401-yard, five-TD effort in Hawaii probably gave Weis a reprieve, and he seems to be aware of it. He'll never be charming or endearing, but he has toned down the "Jersey guy" bluster a bit and worked at being more approachable ... a little. And his players seem to be in his corner.

"Coach Weis has had us in position to win every game," Clausen said. "We expect to win every game."

Added Tate: "We pay absolutely no attention to those stories or that speculation. The guys in our locker room expect coach Weis to be here a long time."

Weis' Irish are 5-2 after seven games, all of them entertaining. Trouble looms at Pitt and maybe Stanford, but the table looks enticingly runable, though BCS talk for a two-loss Notre Dame team will prompt howls of outrage -- justifiable outrage -- no matter how high it ascends in the rakings. The Irish are several steps removed from the Florida-Alabama-Texas-USC ruling class, not at all good on defense and not very adept at running the ball. Their tackling is as porous as the Balloon Boy's story, and they've been strafed for 282 yards per game through the air, including 300 by three freshman quarterbacks.

They're over-reliant on skill people: Clausen, a poised, nimble, big-armed junior who looks NFL-ready, and Tate, who will play on Sunday as well. The play-calling is part of it -- Weis seems to ignore the running game for puzzling stretches -- but a bigger part is a suspect offensive line. The Irish lack the hat-on-hat physical superiority of the Holtz era, the last time they were in the national championship argument, when road-grader blockers would get plodders like Lee Becton and Autry Denson five or six yards downfield before they encountered a tackler. Against BC, Weis called a gadget play on fourth-and-goal from the BC 1-yard line. It failed.

A New Year's trip to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl won't wake up slumbering echoes or shake down much thunder, but it's progress after the last two seasons. And by, say, Bob Davie standards, it's a good year -- Davie was 35-25 in his five seasons, with three bowl trips. Irish followers expected more from Weis. He promised

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