Saturday, September 10, 2005
Fighting Irish look, play, win like Weis' former team
By Wayne Drehs ESPN.com
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Two games into his career as a college football head coach, Notre Dame's Charlie Weis has his first major problem.
It has nothing to do with his offense, which is adapting just fine to his balanced, ball-control, spread-it-all-over-the-field philosophy. Nor does it have anything to do with his defense, since it slowed the supposedly potent Michigan attack to three points for the better part of three quarters Saturday.
No, the biggest problem picking at the mind of the undefeated Notre Dame coach is a troubling concern over his players' confidence. The same group that he begged to believe back in December might now, after back-to-back road wins against then-No. 23 Pittsburgh and No. 3 Michigan, believe in itself too much.
Charlie Weis believed his players could win -- and he was right.
"I have mixed emotions," he said after No. 20 Notre Dame's 17-10 victory over the Wolverines, who had won 16 in a row in Ann Arbor. "I'm happy we beat such a tough team on the road. But I worry about their heads."
It's understandable. This is Notre Dame. Fail to meet expectations and you're fired. Exceed expectations and you're compared to God. Or better yet, Rockne. Thus, it was of no surprise after Saturday's victory when a reporter asked Weis how it felt to join Knute as the only Notre Dame coaches to win their first two games on the road.
"If I even dignify that with a response," Weis said, "[Bill] Parcells and [Bill] Belichick would be all over me."
Call it the Weisification of South Bend, because the Fighting Irish who won here Saturday sure look a lot like the Patriots who play on Sundays.
Brady Quinn, meet Tom Brady. Cool, calm, won't-make-big-mistake-to-beat-you quarterback.
Darius Walker, meet Corey Dillon. Explosive, always-there-when-you-need-him tailback.
Underrated defense in Foxboro, meet the underrated group in South Bend.
And offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, meet head coach Charlie Weis.
Meet the guy who comes out of the gate and throws a no-huddle look at a defense that's already struggling with its confidence. Meet an offensive guru who seems to push all the right buttons on a perfectly executed opening drive, a drive that didn't need a third down and gave Notre Dame a 7-0 lead before each of the 111,386 fans had found their seats.
"I wanted to take the crowd out of the game," Weis explained.
So he gave all of his skill players wrist bands scrawled with plays, formations, snap counts, "and a few words of advice," receiver Jeff Samardzija said.
It worked. Notre Dame jumped in and out of the no-huddle all afternoon, keeping the Michigan defense off balance. Though it didn't result in any jaw-dropping statistical numbers (Notre Dame netted just 244 yards of total offense), it was enough to win.
Afterward, Weis' biggest beef with the offense was a mistake of his own. Leading 17-10 late in the fourth quarter, Weis was bugged by the fact that he called for a pass play on third-and-5 without telling Quinn that if the intended receiver wasn't open, take the sack so the clock would keep running.
Quinn tried to force a ball to receiver Asaph Schwapp. The pass fell incomplete and Michigan was given one last breath with 3:47 to play.
"That's not a good job of coaching on my part," Weis said.
On defense, the Irish were, well, Patriot-like. The unheralded bunch that many thought would be the weakness of this Notre Dame team held Michigan to just a field goal until the fourth quarter.
The Wolverines failed to score on three of their first four trips into the red zone. Safety Tom Zbikowski picked off a pass on the goal line in the third quarter to prevent one score. And the Notre Dame defense held on first-and-goal from the 7 to prevent another.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Michigan had first-and-goal from the 1 but failed to score when Henne fumbled the snap.
"Red-zone defense is the name of this game," defensive end Victor Abiamiri said. "That's how you win football games. And it's something we pride ourselves on."
Late in the fourth quarter, when Michigan had the ball on its own 42 needing a touchdown to tie, Notre Dame's defense forced quarterback Chad Henne to throw four consecutive incompletions.
"You have to give them credit," Henne said. "They did what they had to do."
Now comes this question: How will Notre Dame handle its early-season success and the increased expectations that come with it. Confidence is no longer an issue in South Bend, overconfidence is.
It was never an issue for the Patriots. New England, remember, refused to compare its Super Bowl teams. Last year, after winning back-to-back Super Bowls, the Patriots refused to say where they measured up historically. One win -- no matter how big or small -- is treated the same: as one win.
So it was no surprise, then, to hear the Weisification of the Fighting Irish spread to the postgame interview room as well Saturday.
"It is what it is," Abiamiri said. "A big win against a tough opponent on the road. But you can't get too high after two games. We have to move on and prepare for next week."
"You have to take it one game at a time," Samardzija said. "There's a lot of football left to be played."
Yep, they're starting to look like the Patriots. They're starting to sound like the Patriots. And two games into the college football season, they're winning like the Patriots.
"I'll take it," Zbikowski said. "What did he win, three Super Bowls in four years with New England? Whatever Coach says. I'll wear their uniform if he asks me to."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.