Notre Dame at the Quarterpost: The Irish After Three Games
For the first time in a decade, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame have gone through the first quarter of the season without a loss.
In Tyrone Willingham's first season in South Bend, the Irish laid waste to Maryland 22-0 in the opener, squeaked by Purdue 24-17, then beat No. 11 Michigan 25-23 running out to an 8-0 start and a top ten ranking.
That 2002 team seemed to be living dangerously all season, relying on luck as much as skill to get by in several close games before finally falling to Boston College, USC and North Carolina State in the Citrus Bowl.
The team was without true identity and was inconsistent on both offense and defense throughout the year, culminating in an embarrassing 44-13 hammering by the Trojans in the Coliseum.
This year there are similarities, and there are differences.
If the first three games are a predictive indicator of future success or failure, then Irish fans have to be more enthusiastic than in years past.
In recent history, Brian Kelly's teams have begun 1-2 and 1-2 en route to duplicate 8-5 seasons.
Those teams, like their 2002 predecessor, lacked consistency. There were flashes that hinted at loftier days ahead, but the highs were intermixed with losses to Tulsa, South Florida and Navy.
After beginning the season with three straight wins, all in a physically impressive fashion, the question that lingers is, "Are the Irish for real?"
That answer, unfortunately, will have to wait.
There are, however, indicators.
The defense is for real.
Three dominating wins, while holding Purdue and Michigan State under 100 yards rushing, notching 11 sacks, three interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
Three games into the season and Notre Dame has yet to trail an opponent.
The Irish are winning the turnover battle. Compared to a year ago at the same point in the season, when Notre Dame had given away a stunning 13 possessions, this year they have coughed the ball up only twice.
Quarterback Everett Golson has at times played like a freshman, but at others has shown just how dynamic he can be.
He has struggled at times finding creases in coverages, but also placed on display his big arm and play-making ability. In three games he does account for both of Notre Dame's turnovers, but is also responsible for five of the team's 10 offensive touchdowns.
The special teams have shown marked improvement, with good punt distance and coverage, actual positive yardage on punt returns and solid play from kick-off and kick return teams.
Early season shakiness from the place-kicking unit that missed a pair of extra points against Navy and a field goal against Purdue seems to have settled down. Place kicker Kyle Brindza booted a game winner against the Boilermakers and had a pair of key long-distance kicks to seal the win at Michigan State.
There are, however, some points of concern.
The offense has yet to fully gel. Or to find an identity.
In the opener it looked to be a power running unit, racking up 293 yards against Navy before finding that mounting a ground attack against Purdue was very difficult.
After managing only 52 yards against the Boilermakers, the Irish managed to run when they had to, (accumulating 122 yards) pounding the ball late and running the clock out on Michigan State.
The secondary remains a concern, more so following fifth year senior Jamoris Slaughter's season-ending injury this weekend.
Thanks in part to teams that placed more emphasis on running the ball as well as a good pass rush, the secondary has yet to be truly tested.
Freshmen KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate along with sophomore Bennett Jackson have shown promise as well as speed in coverage. They have also shown a better ability to find the ball in space than their counterparts a year ago.
The talent appears to be there, and there is hope that the group can solidify into a high-caliber unit.
Entering the season, there was a great deal of uncertainty. Many in the sports media looked at the Irish schedule and counted as many as six losses. Most believed that the team would struggle with most of the teams on the slate.
The polls reflected this sentiment, with the coaches placing Notre Dame No. 23 and the Associated Press leaving the Irish out of the poll.
Following the upset win over No. 10 Michigan State in East Lansing, suddenly many of the doubters are converts.
Notre Dame rocketed to No. 11 in both polls and has been the buzz "it" team for the last week.
Suddenly, talk of doom, thanks to Notre Dame's inexperience and daunting schedule, has turned to talk of a potential BCS bid. There are plentiful articles suddenly labeling Notre Dame "contenders."
And not a word of it matters.
This weekend brings No. 18 Michigan to Notre Dame Stadium.
The Wolverines have had a shaky start to their year, having been annihilated by No. 1 Alabama and escaping Air Force but present a near must-win for Notre Dame.
For three straight years the Irish have been the better team and lost to Michigan.
A win, and Notre Dame can continue its climb back to respectability.
A loss, and the first three games are meaningless.
Michigan is a team that Notre Dame should beat. The game is at home, the Irish have a better defense, better offensive line, better running backs and the better resume so far this year.
With a win, the Irish would enter their bye week at 4-0, looking ahead to the Shamrock series game with a very beatable Miami and more than likely the first top-ten ranking since the second week of 2006.
With a loss, the balloon deflates and the negativity begins again.
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