LAST SATURDAY inBaltimore, at the end of a week in which coach Charlie Weis endured theharshest criticism of his four-year tenure at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irishdominated Navy for the better part of 60 minutes. Then Weis inexplicably tookhis foot off the gas. Ahead 27--7 with 9:07 left, Weis emptied his bench, onlyto watch the Midshipmen (6--4) score two touchdowns and recover a pair ofonside kicks in the final, frantic two minutes. The result was a 27--21 NotreDame victory that wound up feeling strangely like a defeat, one that did littleto quiet the legion of doubters criticizing the coach and his program.
Afterward Weisdefended his strategy, stressing the need to put his bench players "in morepressure situations." But the move seemed odd, considering that theFighting Irish (6--4) entered the game having lost three of four and hadn'tbeaten a team with a winning record this season.
Weis arrived inSouth Bend in late 2004 brazenly promising to give Notre Dame a "decidedschematic advantage in every game." But the letdown against Navy providedanother example of his suspect decision-making. The Irish went 19--6 in hisfirst two seasons with a cast of standout skill-position players recruited byhis predecessor, Tyrone Willingham, and without them the offense has boggeddown with a bland pro-style system. Notre Dame's most dangerous player isprobably sophomore wideout Golden Tate. He returns punts and kickoffs but isaveraging only 4.7 touches a game on offense. Against the Midshipmen, Tatedidn't catch a pass and rushed once for a three-yard loss.
Weis's 2006recruiting class was rated one of the best in the country, but it has yet toproduce a star. Heralded sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen has beeninconsistent, with 18 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions this season. Navy's96th-ranked pass defense picked him off twice, and he admitted to beingflustered early on by the Middies' soft zone coverage.
Another problem isthe offensive line, which is also loaded with blue-chip recruits. Last season,with three new starters, the line gave up 58 sacks, the most in Division I-A,and Notre Dame averaged just 75.3 rushing yards, 115th in the country. Whilethere has been improvement in the ground game this year, the Irish still rankonly 84th, with 127.0 yards per game.
On Saturday, NotreDame used its superior size to overpower Navy's front seven, rushing aseason-high 51 times for 230 yards. That should have been a hopeful sign, butthen the Irish had to withstand a furious rally to avoid a second consecutivedefeat to a team they had beaten 43 straight times before last season.
Notre Dameathletic director Jack Swarbrick said last week that he looked forward toWeis's "being our head coach for a long time." For that to be true, theIrish had better start beating more teams with winning records, and moreconvincingly than they did on Saturday.
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SLOPPY Weis (below) saw Clausen (7) and the offense turn the ball over five times.
MARK GOLDMAN/ICON SMI
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