Charlie Weis and Notre Dame's Return from Exile

Michael AugsbergerContributor IOctober 21, 2008

It was no Napoleonic, resplendent return from exile on Elba, as it was three years after the cited date of an Overture played before a new emperor. The numerical score accompanying that instrumental score by third quarter’s end was 13-7 in the wrong direction. The artillery was listless, the special teams off-guard, the masses’ reactions mixed.

But in one spirited, fourth-quarter drive, the offense and its field general by the name of Jimmy Clausen—in a 5-for-5, free-spirited flurry covering 80 yards and capped with a 38-yard touchdown pass—resurrected a bleak performance and, with Notre Dame’s Sept. 6 21-13 win over San Diego State, brought Charlie Weis and his program not yet back to glory, but back from exile.

Something about the spirit of the day hinted that the Midwestern multitude, the stadium’s 200th consecutive sellout crowd, were primed to forget the failures of yesteryear, absolved as sins in confession—hinted in effect that the third-intermission, W-shaped hand motions emanating from the student section signified Weis rather than, say, Waterloo.

But too many resemblances to that enervated 2007 season cluttered the game. Stridently the hopeful freshmen cheered.

The upperclassmen—those who knew better, some would argue—were less cordial. Boos and “Lou's”, references to the Holtz era, abounded from that section. There at the sidelines head coach Charlie Weis stood valiantly, surrounded by loving yet unsure devotees just as Napoleon on that fateful 1815 day, when upon his escape from Elba he met his troops face-to-face.

“If anyone wishes to kill his emperor, do it now!” the fearless French general cried, so legend has it.

“Vive l’Empereur!” his loyal soldiers revered him. Long live the emperor.

The uncanny similarities extended, if not to appearance or exact quotation, then to confidence, resourcefulness, patience, and command. Like his counterpart Bonaparte, he picked apart the opposing strategy as the battle raged into late evening, surrounded by a legion that refused to turn their backs on him. Two of the three Irish touchdowns came as the sun set in the fourth quarter.

“I’m the ghost of Domer-past, Ronald Talley,” joked a cast member of the Keenan Revue, a perennial comedy skit show Keenan Hall residents at Notre Dame write, produce, and perform. “Talley,” on stage, hilariously walks one Irish student through what life would have been like had the latter left the university as Talley did in a part Scrooge, part It’s a Wonderful Life parody.

At one point Talley, straight-faced, delivers the monologue, “Sometimes, when I’m alone at night, I look up at the stars and I think, ‘Man, that’s a lot of stars out there.’”

Whether Domer wit stands the test of geography is debatable, but it seems unanimous that Delaware defensive lineman Ronald Talley had jumped from the Titanic at the most opportune time, with a lifeboat reservation from the crew, when the junior transfer swapped hues of gold and blue to help the Blue Hens land a trip to Chattanooga for the 2007 championship against Appalachian State.

Notre Dame’s been drowning in ice water ever since—correlation or causation, one can only speculate—their Detroit native recruit left Edison Ave. for Main St.  Two other Blue Hens, running back Junior Jabbie and defensive back Leo Ferrine, have also made the jump off the sinking boat built with Irish hands.

After being obliterated in the 2007 Sugar Bowl by an overpowering LSU squad anchored by now NFLer JaMarcus Russell, the Irish suffered through a disastrous 3-9 campaign, the irony of which cannot be missed. Weis himself campaigned with rally towels that the 2006 record of “9-3 is not good enough.” Someone clearly forgot to instruct the team that turning things around doesn’t mean a literal switcheroo in the win-loss column.

The crowds used to serenade unfailingly the team of Weis, the fourth-year head coach now coming off the worst season in school history, with lauds that on fall Saturdays could have been construed in French as a Vive l’Empereur of their own. Traditionally, at the end of the third quarter, the marching band plays the Overture of 1812, cuing the student section to cheer the head coach with their W-for-Weis hand motions.

At day’s end the fans were back to supportive yet tenuous cheering. There was little to applaud but the final score, barely on the side of the Irish.

“Yes, you take an ugly win,” Emperor Weis dictated with a smile inside his throne press room minutes after the San Diego State battle to media supplicants. “'Cause it’s better than an ugly loss. I’ll take an ugly win every day of the week.”

In those two key words, it was different from and yet the same as 2007. The difference: win.

It started even before the game. The Irish captains won the coin toss, and Weis—whose specialty is defense the way Nixon’s was televised debating—curiously deferred, explaining later that in his first years he could let the offense, full of such stars as Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija, carry the team. Said Weis, “Now I realize I have to make a statement to the defense.”

He kept his hands off the offensive play calling duties. He punted on fourth-and-manageable inside Aztec territory. “Game-changing plays,” Weis recalled, altered the contest’s tide when needed most.

A blocked punt from Sergio Brown, four plays removed from a psychologically stunting fumble on the SDSU three, led to quarterback Jimmy Clausen’s game-tying pass to touted receiver Michael Floyd for his first Irish reception. Down 13-7 in the fourth, senior safety David Bruton’s forced fumble at the very threshold of the goal incited a 14-point swing and the lead-taking drive.

“They had a chance to put the game away,” Weis said of Bruton’s play. “You get the ball back and basically the next two drives go up and down the field twice for scores. I just don’t know if last year we would have done that.”

On the ensuing drive, Clausen threw in perfect stride to wideout Golden Tate streaking down the left sideline for a 13-13 tie. Brandon Walker’s kick took the lead for good.

But it had the same ugly as 2007. The Irish surrendered, Weis said, “what I call five turnovers,” including a botched field goal and suspect long snapping all afternoon. Linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr., collected two early fouls, amounting to what seemed more yardage than the Irish running game garnered all of last season.

San Diego State, to be sure, basked in the national spotlight and competed beyond their potential. Nonetheless, a team beaten the previous week by a Division I-AA school led Notre Dame by six down the stretch.

That would come as no surprise, though, to Talley and his fellow Hens. Last season Delaware defeated Division I-A Navy, who not long afterward upended Notre Dame in South Bend.

Though he was happier with the defense, which dealt with 59 Aztec passes and held quarterback Ryan Lindley to just one passing touchdown, Weis realized his offense’s troubles.

“I think we looked like a team that was playing our first game,” he lamented. “We weren’t executing very well on offense. You’re not sustaining any drives, and you’re turning the ball over four times in the first three quarters. Offensively, you’d have to say you’re very fortunate to win.”

And so began the modern Hundred Days, a trial period of renewal. Like expecting mothers, the national frenzy of Notre Dame fans and student body had waited nine nervous months for either a quick dispersal or Cesarean pains in the opening game.

But unlike so many previous games, there arrived a bundle of joy—a notch in the good column.

Of course, these Aztec warriors from southern California were no Southern California, not the formidable British or Prussian armies of the major conferences. Whether the Weis campaign would end in New Orleans or Waterloo remained to be seen, yet the coach could smile on this day.

After a season of exile, l’Empereur lived.


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