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September 8, 2008

Weis, Irish dodge huge bullet with close win

NOTRE DAME, Ind. That thud you heard echoing through the bowels of Notre Dame Stadium was the jaws dropping as they hit the carpeted floor of the newly renovated interview room just off the north tunnel.

Chuck Long, the coach of the San Diego State Aztecs, was asked who was better, Cal Poly or Notre Dame.

Now mind you, Long was standing inside Notre Dame Stadium. He was asked to compare Cal Poly to the most storied football school in the history of this country. He had been lobbed a softball, a meatball right over the heart of the plate.

Go ahead, Chuck, hit that puppy as far as you want.

Yet, the man was perplexed.

"That's a tough question," Long said. "Each week is different. They're two totally different schemes. It's hard to say who's better. They both beat us."

If it wasn't the thud of jaws hitting the ground that made that commotion, perhaps it was Knute Rockne rolling over in his grave or Frank Leahy gnashing his teeth. One can safely assume that that's the first time in the history of the two schools that Notre Dame and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo have been mentioned in a) the same sentence and b) on equal footing.

But hey, don't blame Long. He was just answering the question honestly. After all, the mighty Mustangs of Cal Poly rushed for 263 yards against the Aztecs and netted 483 yards. Notre Dame, with all its 300-pound offensive linemen and new smash-mouth approach, pushed the battered San Diego State defensive front around for a whopping 105 yards rushing.

It's a good thing Notre Dame's front shored up its pass blocking since last year keeping Jimmy Clausen sack free otherwise that rushing total would have been down around 2007 numbers.

Besides, the odds of the Aztecs showing up on Notre Dame's schedule again are slim compared to that hotly contested rivalry with Cal Poly, which currently holds a two-game winning streak over San Diego State.

The last thing Long wants to do is stir up the Mustangs with a little bulletin board material. Disrespecting Notre Dame carries no such repercussions for San Diego State. That's a bridge that can be burned. Of course, there was no malice intended by Long whatsoever. He was just telling the truth.

In fact, he likely was biting his tongue from saying the truth as he saw it based upon the Aztecs' first two games of the season. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo was, in many respects, a tougher opponent than Notre Dame.

What's next, a Slippery Rock comparison?

Bottom line: Notre Dame won the football game, which 10 weeks from now will be the only thing that matters. But Charlie Weis dodged what could have been a fatal bullet. If not fatal, a bullet that leads to internal bleeding, and, ultimately, the slow, painful death of a head-coaching career.

Lose to San Diego State and at the very least you better call up your real estate agent and get an appraisal, just in case Arkansas-Pine Bluff shows up next week in Notre Dame Stadium and goes home with a victory.

One can claim first-game jitters or cobwebs or whatever creative excuse you want to make. The alternative is so dreadful to even think about that you just have to take the victory and hurry up and get out of the stadium before they make you play another quarter.

Of course, that's not what the Irish players did. They waited around after the eight-point victory and basked in the warmth of a home conquest with their adoring student body, which chanted their "Crank Me Up!" phrase with the gusto of a team that had just punched its ticket to the Orange Bowl.

You see, young men and women between the ages of 18 and 23 aren't quite as discriminating as the Irish fans out there who were disgusted by Notre Dame's inconsistent performance against San Diego State. Remember, the Irish won just one time in seven tries in Notre Dame Stadium a year ago. For those in their second year at their beloved University, a 2-6 mark was something worth celebrating, even if the victory would have come against Gardner-Webb.

If you hadn't spent an entire season playing that poorly, you could chalk it up as the typical first-game blues. But save for the fourth-quarter comeback, this was a continuation of the undisciplined, sloppy, what-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong team that single-handedly disparaged the rich tradition of Notre Dame football in '07.

Make no mistake, that fourth-quarter comeback is a big exception to the rule. The Irish wouldn't have come back like that to win a year ago, even if the opponent was Norfolk State.

Notre Dame won; it didn't lose. Notre Dame is 1-0, not 0-1. The difference between the two is so great that fretting about the details in the moments immediately following the game would have been misplaced emotion for the Irish players.

"It's the first game of the year," downplayed defensive lineman Pat Kuntz. "You can't always expect to come out right away clicking on all cylinders."

The always-pragmatic Weis understands the big picture.

"I think we have enough foresight to realize what lies ahead," said Weis, who won't be welcoming in Stephen F. Austin next week, but rather, Michigan. "The guys will come in here and talk about an ugly win. Are you happy with an ugly win? I told them, 'Yes, you're happy with an ugly win because it's better than an ugly loss. I'll take an ugly win any day of the week.'"

Michigan's Rich Rodriguez said something very similar after the Wolverines' 16-6 victory over Miami University. Rodriguez said something about preferring to win ugly over losing pretty.

And there were several others just like the Irish and Wolverines Saturday. There was Ohio State's 26-14 victory over Ohio, Connecticut's 12-9 overtime victory over Temple, Virginia's 16-0 conquest of Richmond, Texas A&M's 28-22 win over New Mexico, and Pittsburgh's 27-16 victory over Buffalo.

Notre Dame's win over San Diego State certainly isn't going to inspire many Top 25 votes. But at least it keeps them out of the Bottom 25 and maintains the very realistic possibility of being 2-0 at this time next week.

The problem with playing as poorly as Notre Dame has is that it reflects so poorly upon the coach and his staff. They play such an undisciplined brand of football. For the better part of the afternoon, Notre Dame looked foolish, just as it has since the Sugar Bowl loss to LSU.

Yes, the Irish are young. More than 40 percent of the two-deep depth chart is comprised of freshmen and sophomores. But one no longer questions the talent level of the Fighting Irish, not when it's paired up on the same field as a San Diego State football team that had anywhere from seven to 10 defensive linemen banged up. The Aztecs are young, too. They lost most of their starters from a 4-8 team in '08, and now add all those fresh injuries on top of it.

To play so poorly and inconsistently for so much of Saturday's game against the Aztecs continued a trend that they've been stuck in for nearly two calendar years.

Now let's not all make the mistake of assuming that because the Irish were terribly inconsistent in week one that it means week two will be a disaster as well. Sometimes teams open up very sluggishly.

Pittsburgh did against Bowling Green. Arkansas struggled with Western Illinois. Texas A&M lost to Arkansas State. Boston College sputtered against Kent State. A lot of teams start slowly.

The problem is that the Irish have been starting slowly for 15 games. They are 4-11 since falling to USC in the '06 regular-season finale with victories over quarterback-less UCLA, a one-win Duke team, a four-win Stanford team, and now an 0-2 San Diego State team.

But hey, there's one claim that Notre Dame can make that mighty Cal Poly can't. The Irish remain undefeated. The Mustangs are now 1-1 after losing Saturday, albeit to a Notre Dame living legend.

Final score: Montana 30, Cal Poly 28.

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