The first year, it was the growing pains of learning a new system. The second year, it was the growing pains of a freshman quarterback.
In this, the third year of the Tyrone Willingham era at Notre Dame, there are no more excuses for the Irish offense. So why, Golden Domers are asking, did things look so painfully familiar in Saturday's season-opening 20-17 loss at BYU?
"I think we were all very disappointed," said Willingham after his team produced just 276 yards and one offensive touchdown against the Cougars. "I felt comfortable in my belief that this would be a good, solid, total offensive performance for us. I had great respect for BYU's defense, but I felt like we would be able to come out and have an excellent performance and have a balanced attack, and we didn't do it. I'm disappointed."
You're not alone, Coach. Coming into the season, the ever-demanding Notre Dame faithful were cautiously optimistic about the Irish's prospects coming off last season's 5-7 debacle, but never did they envision things starting off with a loss to a non-BCS team that went 4-8 last year. BYU is a much-improved team, as the season will likely bear out, but a far cry from many of the opponents still awaiting the Irish, starting Saturday with No. 8 Michigan.
If Willingham's rump was feeling a little toasty before last weekend, he's now sitting on a four-alarm fire heading into the most important game of his tenure to date. The Wolverines have become a barometer of the program's roller-coaster ride under his watch -- ND's 25-23 upset of then-seventh-ranked Michigan in the game two years ago provided a glimpse of a possible resurgence, part of an 8-0 start to Willingham's debut campaign, while last year's 38-0 loss in Ann Arbor was the signature moment of a downward spiral that has seen the Irish lose 10 of 15 contests for the first time since 1959-60.
At the heart of the problem is an offense that, in Willingham's first two seasons, ranked 108th (2002) and 90th (2003) out of 117 teams nationally, made all the more puzzling considering Willingham's Stanford teams were usually highly productive moving the ball. Upon arriving in South Bend, Willingham and offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick warned that replacing Bob Davie's option-based system with their version of the West Coast Offense would be a slow process (Diedrick has said they were operating at about 25 percent the first year) due both to its complicated nature and lack of appropriate personnel.
But Notre Dame is hardly the first school to go through such a transition, and others have shown it doesn't have to be so treacherous. Michigan and Tennessee both operated smoothly last weekend with freshmen at the helm, as Irish starter Brady Quinn was last season, and West Coast maven Bill Callahan has installed his entire package at Nebraska, which had been running the option for decades.
"When you look at a system that's outside of something that you're most familiar with, there seems to be some mystery attached to it," said Purdue head coach Joe Tiller, who had instant success installing a radically different offense, "when in fact, it really is pretty simple."
The Irish's struggles against BYU had less to do with scheme than execution. The Cougars run an aggressive, blitz-happy defense -- one that ranked 14th nationally in yards allowed last year -- and Notre Dame's blockers struggled at times to stave off the pressure. ND, playing without starting tailback Ryan Grant (hamstring), flat out couldn't run the ball, netting just 11 yards on 21 carries.
With no help to speak of, Quinn finished 26-of-47 for 265 yards, producing on one big play, a screen pass that receiver Rhema McKnight broke for a 54-yard touchdown, while misconnecting on others.
"We saw some flashes of what our offense would like to do this week [against Michigan]," said Quinn, a sophomore from Dublin, Ohio. "There were a couple nice plays, one big play by Rhema and some success with the short-to-intermediate routes."
The fact is, Notre Dame does have the personnel at this point. The Irish have three athletic receivers in McKnight, Maurice Stovall and converted QB Carlyle Holiday. Quinn was a highly recruited prospect two years ago, including by this weekend's opponent ("We wanted him very much to come to Michigan," said Wolverines head coach Lloyd Carr). Grant, who's expected to return Saturday, was a 1,000-yard rusher two years ago. And while the offensive line is still a sore spot, four of the five starters are in at least their second year.
At his weekly news conference Tuesday, Willingham was asked why he remains confident that his offense will work.
"Because I can honestly say that I've seen it work," he said. "Our defense has shown itself to be pretty good. And yet, I've seen us have success against our own defense. I think I have a fine quarterback in Brady Quinn. I have a good receiving corps in Rhema McKnight and Holiday and [tight end Chase] Anastasio and guys in that group. I have a great deal of confidence that we will be successful."
For his sake, Willingham better hope that success begins this weekend.
PURDUE: The most impressive part of QB Kyle Orton's 288-yard, four-TD day against Syracuse was how often he connected with his receivers on the deep ball. In the three seasons since Drew Brees' departure, the Boilermakers had become more of a horizontal passing team, in part because they didn't have the speedsters to stretch the field. Hence why Orton, despite being known for his strong arm, averaged just 6.97 yards-per-attempt last season. Against Syracuse, juco transfer Brian Hare caught a 75-yard touchdown, while Taylor Stubblefield broke free for a 67-yard score. "We have added a couple players on to the roster that have the ability to stretch the field vertically," said Tiller. "And we know we have the arm."
GEORGIA: There's cause for concern headed into Saturday's game against South Carolina. The Dawgs allowed 294 rushing yards to Georgia Southern, a I-AA team which runs the triple option, and now faces a Gamecocks team that, in its first game with head coach Lou Holtz calling the plays, ran the ball down Vanderbilt's throat. "From a fundamental standpoint, [the Georgia Southern game] was as bad as any Georgia defense has played since we've been here," defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder told the Athens Banner-Herald. Making matters worse, the Dawgs, already playing without top linebackers Odell Thurman (suspended for three games) and Tony Taylor (ACL injury, out for the season), may also be without starter Derrick White (ankle sprain) on Saturday.
VIRGINIA TECH: After it was apparent in the Hokies' opener against USC that starting receivers Richard Johnson and Chris Clifton simply aren't the kind of difference-makers they need, Tech coach Frank Beamer is going with an all-out youth movement at the position. The top four receivers for Saturday's game against Western Michigan will all be freshmen: starters Josh Hyman and Eddie Royal will be backed up by Josh Morgan and Justin Harper. Hyman and Royal both saw extensive action against the Trojans, with Hyman juking his man to score a 12-yard touchdown, while Harper and Morgan were standouts in the spring after arriving from prep schools.
FLORIDA: Gators head coach Ron Zook is raising plenty of eyebrows for a creative disciplinary method announced this week. Star linebacker Channing Crowder and safety Jarvis Herring were supposed to serve one-game suspensions last Saturday against Middle Tennessee for their offseason arrests, but the game was postponed until Oct. 16. Rather than having them sit out the new season-opener Saturday against Eastern Michigan, Zook, with AD Jeremy Foley's approval, has postponed their punishment along with the game. "They were scheduled to miss the Middle Tennessee game,'' said Zook. ``It's not their fault there was a hurricane.'' Or that there was only one chance left for them to see live action prior to the Sept. 18 Tennessee game.
WASHINGTON: Now we know why it took so long for Huskies head coach Keith Gilbertson to choose a starting quarterback. Starter Casey Paus and Isaiah Stanback were both dreadful in last weekend's 35-16 loss to Fresno State, combining for five turnovers, three of which the Bulldogs' defense returned for touchdowns. With a bye week before the next game against UCLA, Gilbertson has reopened competition at the position between Paus, who's drawn criticism for his slow, flat release; Stanback, a promising athlete with questionable decision-making; and freshman Carl Bonnell, who showed promise while playing in garbage time. "Carl definitely could become a starter, you bet," said Gilbertson.