Notre Dame finds hard way to get to good spot

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

A healthy amount of skepticism hovers over Notre Dame right now, and understandably so.

The Fighting Irish are 4-1 but aren't ranked in either major poll. The one team they've played that currently has a winning record, Michigan, beat them on a late touchdown, while their last three victories have come down to the final minute -- or beyond, like Saturday's 37-30 overtime win against Washington.

Is this team any good, or does it just play to the level of its competition? Coach Charlie Weis acknowledges that his team has many flaws but wonders who doesn't.

"I think if you look at some of the other teams that are playing and look at how their games have gone, tell me where the difference is," Weis said. "I can go right up to the top 10 and work right on down. You tell me what teams that are in there haven't had some trouble in their schedule. I mean, almost everybody has.

"We've had one loss by four points on the road with 11 seconds to go in the game. So the flip side of it, we're 11 seconds away from being undefeated right now. If you compare apples to apples, I think that we deserve to be there right with everybody else."

Notre Dame will get its chance at a legitimizing victory in its next game, when USC comes to South Bend on Oct. 17. This week's bye will be used for healing injuries and developing youngsters, followed by a long weekend break so players can go home if they want. Many aspects must improve before the Irish can hope to knock off the Trojans, with tackling somewhere near the top of the list.

But the offense behind Heisman Trophy candidate Jimmy Clausen provides a puncher's chance every week. Did anyone doubt that Clausen would lead a touchdown drive on Saturday against Washington when Notre Dame got the ball back with a little under three minutes left?

While you could argue that games against Michigan State, Purdue and Washington didn't need to go down to the final play, the team found a way to win those in the end. That's the biggest difference between this year and last year, when Notre Dame also started 4-1, Weis said. Nothing defined the season more than Saturday's three goal-line stands, in which the defense allowed just three total points.

"This team has got a lot of heart," he said. "It's apparent."

If they keep playing games like these, however, the Irish may have -- and cause -- a lot of heart attacks.

"I thought about that," said safety Kyle McCarthy, who's been in the middle of many blood-pumping final moments. "I'm more worried about our coaches, because they're older than us."

It's hard to walk a tightrope every week and not fall off. But heart-stopping wins are sure better than heart-breaking losses.

"The only thing I would design differently about this season," linebacker Brian Smith said, "is I would design us to be 5-0."