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October 24, 2007

Irish must search for motivation

There is pride, ethics and the prospect of avoiding further embarrassment. There also is an NCAA record 43-game winning streak over Navy.

Other than that, Notre Dame - which fell to 1-7 after a 38-0 loss to USC last Saturday - has little else to play for and nothing that can be taken for granted in the final month of a nightmarish season.

There is no chance for a winning record, no chance for a bowl and, really, no chance for redemption not against a remaining schedule of Navy, Air Force, Duke and Stanford.

So, really, what is there to play for?

"I think (Notre Dame players) understand the next four games are going to determine a lot of their futures," third-year coach Charlie Weis said after the loss to USC, the Irish's second 38-0 loss this season. "Whether it's a fifth-year senior that wants to go to the NFL or whether it's any other guy that's in the program that wants to set the tone to go into next year either way, they always have a motivational tool."

Whether that's enough to prevent Notre Dame's season from deteriorating from merely bad to historically inept will be determined in its final four games, which two months ago appeared to be the soft part of the schedule.

Now, even the soft part looks like a hard road. Navy and Air Force have winning records. Stanford boasts a victory over USC. Duke no longer is the pushover it once was.

Four losses would leave Notre Dame with its first one-win season since 1892, when it finished 1-0-1.

"You're coming to a different stretch of the season," Weis said. "I really think that you're in a mode now you're sitting at 1-7 you're going into a bye, you've got four games coming up, three in a row at home, and you're already out of bowl contention, so that's not an issue. So, that's not like, 'Oh, you're going to the toiletbowl.com.'

"I think that the players and the coaching staff have an ethical responsibility to go ahead and do everything they can to try to win those four games, and I think that's exactly what we're going to try to do."

There should be no doubt the Irish will keep trying to win.

The questions are:

  • Can they win again this season?
  • How did they get in such dire straits?
  • How long will it take to rebuild?

    None of those can be answered with any certainty, not for a team that has scored just seven offensive touchdowns and apparently never saw this collapse coming.

    "It's been a tough season. I never thought it would be like this," Notre Dame senior defensive end Trevor Laws said. "It's one of those things you have to learn from in life."

    Or learn to anticipate.

    "None of us want to be 1-7," senior tight end John Carlson said. "None of us expected to be 1-7."

    Outside of South Bend, the preseason outlook wasn't as optimistic. Even though the Irish had posted 19 victories in their first two seasons under Weis, they were returning just four starters on offense and five from a mediocre defense.

    The losses included All-American quarterback Brady Quinn and wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, leading rusher Darius Walker, solid No. 2 wide receiver Rhema McKnight and three offensive linemen.

    Without them, Notre Dame's offense ranks last among the 120 teams in Division I-A.

    "Three years ago, you could see it coming," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "They had all the juniors that played and started, and they had a really good team and they played all the seniors the next year. They were fortunate enough to keep a few of those guys around that could have left.

    Checking out the competition
    Notre Dame's struggles this season have been compounded by a difficult schedule, one currently ranked No. 2 according to NCAA's strength of schedule statistics. Next season's slate looks to be more manageable for the Irish. Here is a look at this year's results/schedule and next season's opponents:
    20072008
    vs. Georgia TechL 33-3vs. San Diego State
    at Penn StateL 31-10vs. Michigan
    at MichiganL 38-0at Michigan State
    vs. Michigan StateL 31-14vs. Purdue
    at PurdueL 33-19vs. Stanford
    at UCLAW 20-6at North Carolina
    vs. Boston CollegeL 27-14at Washington
    vs. USCL 38-0vs. Pittsburgh
    vs. Navy at Boston College
    vs. Air Force vs. Navy
    vs. Duke vs. Syracuse
    at Stanford at USC
    "It's just all about recruiting and if you're able to restock. But that's hard to recover from all of those losses of those experienced players."

    To complicate matters, there might have been some division among the team when Weis benched popular sophomore quarterback Demetrius Jones after a season-opening loss to Georgia Tech and started heralded true freshman Jimmy Clausen.

    Feeling he wasn't given a fair chance, Jones transferred to Cincinnati. Three other players also have left the team this year, including former starting guard Matt Carufel last week.

    Still, some might have thought Weis' influence alone would ensure success. He was an assistant on three Super Bowl championship teams in New England, had immediate success in South Bend and two of his first three recruiting classes ranked among the nation's top 10.

    Notre Dame started six players who are either freshmen or sophomores against USC, and that did not include Clausen, who has thrown just one touchdown pass and five interceptions and has been benched in favor of junior Evan Sharpley.

    Clausen's struggles have raised the question of whether Weis' system might be too complicated for players just out of high school. Whether there is any substance to that theory, more freshmen and sophomores might be starting and playing when the Irish return to the field Nov. 3 against Navy.

    "I think you have to start getting more guys into the mix that are going to be playing (in the future)," Weis said. "I think what you're not going to do is go through four games and not have worked on developing guys to get ready for next year."

    Next year, the Irish won't have prominent fifth-year seniors such as Carlson, Laws and safety Tom Zbikowski. Still, there are reasons to believe the Irish might rebound rather quickly.

    For starters, their schedule ranked the second-toughest in the nation this week by the NCAA figures to be much easier next season. In addition, the young players that dot the lineup will at least be more experienced and, in theory, be stronger and better.

    "I see so much potential," Laws said of Notre Dame's underclassmen. "I want to see my school do well in the future."

    That includes the near future. Winning the next four games surely would ease the sting of this year's disappointment, but this season nothing is assured.

    Not even a victory over Navy.

    Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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