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Those Domeheads hungering for further indication that their Notre Dame heroes are marching back toward prosperity needed only to check in on Fighting Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham's weekly press conference to learn that things indeed are heading in the right direction. Mixed in with his usual complement of general answers to specific questions was a good, old-fashioned bit of Lou Holtz fear-mongering about an inferior opponent.
Washington staggers into South Bend at 0-2, having surrendered 561 yards on the ground, including 322 last Saturday to backup UCLA tailback Maurice Drew, and generally looking about as potent as the Nader campaign. Things are so bad in Seattle that former coach Rick Neuheisel just pledged not to pick the Huskies for the rest of the season in his weekly pools. U-Dub is therefore the perfect foil for the improving Irish, who could crack the top 25 with a win Saturday. Granted, such a small step doesn't appeal too much to the Leahy-Parseghian crowd, but these days a three-game winning streak is the equivalent to a Papal dispensation from Lenten sacrifice.
Anyway, when asked about this week's tomato can Tuesday, which has surrendered 72 points, allowed 6.3 yards per rush, completed a mere 44.2 percent of its passes and played softer than a fresh scone at Starbucks, Willingham turned into the Straw Man. He praised the athletic ability of the Huskies defense, enumerating the team's strong points and generally sounding as if the oddsmakers who installed the Irish as double-digit favorites should enter rehab.
If Willingham is to be believed, trouble lurks on the horizon, Irish Nation, and you should be loving it.
Willingham is praising Washington, so whatever will he say about Tennessee? Or USC? My goodness, Navy could be unbeaten when the teams meet in Tom Coughlin's North Jersey Funhouse on Oct. 16. Heavens to Staubach, might this be the season the 40-year Irish dominance over Navy ends?
Seriously, folks, Willingham is channeling Holtz to remind his players and Irish fans that while Notre Dame is getting better -- and it is -- things are far from perfect. Yep, Notre Dame's rejuvenated ground game should shred the Huskies. But strong Purdue looms Oct. 2, and the Vols, Trojans, Boston College Eagles and, yes, Navy will be tough to tackle later on.
Still, all of you who were ready to stage a telethon to raise the funds necessary to buy out the remaining three years of Willingham's contract and wage the subsequent public-relations campaign to combat the firestorm that would ensue after holy ND gave the nation's highest-profile African-American coach two fewer seasons than Gerry Faust received had better chill out. (If you thought it was tough to deal with BYU's zany 3-3-5 defense, just imagine handling a blitz by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.) Willingham isn't going anywhere. Nor should he be.
This may be hard to swallow for the impatient -- not to mention recently dormant -- Leprechauns who yearn to gloat once again about 11-win seasons, but the Irish are headed in the right direction. The most obvious evidence has come in Notre Dame's past two games, when bona fide playmakers have emerged on both sides of the ball to produce victories over a pair of Big Ten foes. Granted, Michigan State lost to Rutgers, which was felled by New Hampshire, and Michigan's Lloyd Carr pulled his annual play-not-to-lose strategy in a tough road game. But beating the Wolverines always is good for some national pub, even if the blockheaded AP pollsters still had the 2-1 Wolverines 11 spots ahead of 2-1 ND this week. Meanwhile, MSU had beaten ND six out of the past seven times.
These days, just winning is enough, what with Fresno State, Troy, Boise State and Maine lurking in the weeds, and parity threatening to break out everywhere but in the L.A. Coliseum and Norman.
Notre Dame is good for seven or eight wins this year -- right on schedule. Next season could bring a breakthrough with perhaps a double-figure total. Really. This is a young team that just needs seasoning and depth to become a factor. That will come with time -- and some better recruiting, which many analysts anticipate this year.
It may pain some to read this, but college football is better off when Notre Dame is good, if only to provide half (and perhaps more) of the country with a legitimate villain. Well, get ready America. Snidely Whiplash is dusting off his cape and twirling his mustache. It's almost time.
Here come the Yankees
Those who fear Lord Voldemort's return to the MLB throne couldn't have been happy to see Esteban Loaiza actually win a game for the Yankees Tuesday night against Toronto. Granted, Loaiza lasted just 5 1/3 innings and needed a bullpen cast of thousands to preserve his victory, but after watching his Rookie League imitation the past six weeks, his performance against the Sparrows was a step forward.
Loaiza isn't the only Yankees hurler to start acting like a major-leaguer again. Mike Mussina, El Duque (save Wednesday's meltdown) and Jon Lieber have thrown well of late, though Kevin Brown remains in the timeout chair after his temper tantrum. But the real reason the Yanks are back scaring children and terrorizing Sawx fans is Derek Jeter. He went to the leadoff spot willingly and sparked New York's revival. From Sept. 5-21, he hit .439, with 23 runs scored and 15 RBI. Talk about your leaders. There is no one better in baseball than Jeter.
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But wait, there's more:
You have to love those Phillies. They played uninspired baseball for about 140 games, looking for excuses at every turn. Then they chugged into Florida relishing their role as "spoilers." After losing 14 straight to the Fish when it mattered, the Tin Men have won two in a row when nothing is on the line. That's a perfect obituary for a high-priced team that underachieved and boasts players who blamed everything and everybody but themselves for a lackluster season.
Quick, name the Minnesota Twins' general manager. Can't, can you? Well, it's Terry Ryan, and he should be getting some serious publicity now that his team has won its third straight AL Central title. All Ryan has done is built a champion from the ruins of a club that was scheduled for elimination two years ago -- and done it on a budget half of that available to overmatched Phillies GM Ed Wade.
Roger Clemens is for real. They may hate him in Boston. Yankees fans probably don't like him too much after last season's retirement fake-out. But the Astros ace is on track to win a seventh Cy Young Award and appears capable of hanging around to win 350-375 games. Another couple of strong seasons in Houston might make the debate over which hat he wears into the Hall of Fame pretty darn interesting.
Theo Epstein saved Terry Francona's butt. Before Epstein pulled the Nom-ahh deal, the Sox were floundering and playing sloppy, nice-guy ball. Now, Boston is buttoned-down defensively and showing some spark. It's still hard to trust Francona in the playoffs -- not that he's been there -- but at least his players seem to be ready for postseason action.
EL HOMBRE SEZ: The Argentine national hoops team has been challenged by the Harlem Globetrotters to play in a $1 million, winner-take-all game. It's natural that the Globies would come calling, since Argentina has already beaten the Washington Generals. ... Tiger Woods withdrew this week from something called the 84 Lumber Classic, citing fatigue. More than likely, he's receiving treatment on his posterior for wounds inflicted by Colin Montgomerie's foot during the Ryder Cup.
AND ANOTHER THING: Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil has a lot of nerve telling Larry Johnson that he'll have to "take the diapers off" if Kansas City needs to use the second-year backup running back should Priest Holmes' cranky ankle keep him out of action Sunday. Is there any person in professional sports who cries more freely and frequently than Vermeil? Sure, he tells you it's all about his full tank of emotions, but perhaps he's blubbering lately about his continued inability to put together a defense stronger than the Russian army in World War I. Vermeil may have been trying to fire up Johnson for the task at hand, but to do it so disparagingly in a public setting is bush league.