LAST SATURDAY in Baltimore, at the end of a week in which coach Charlie Weis endured the harshest criticism of his four-year tenure at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish dominated Navy for the better part of 60 minutes. Then Weis inexplicably took his foot off the gas. Ahead 27--7 with 9:07 left, Weis emptied his bench, only to watch the Midshipmen (6--4) score two touchdowns and recover a pair of onside kicks in the final, frantic two minutes. The result was a 27--21 Notre Dame victory that wound up feeling strangely like a defeat, one that did little to quiet the legion of doubters criticizing the coach and his program.
Afterward Weis defended his strategy, stressing the need to put his bench players "in more pressure situations." But the move seemed odd, considering that the Fighting Irish (6--4) entered the game having lost three of four and hadn't beaten a team with a winning record this season.
Weis arrived in South Bend in late 2004 brazenly promising to give Notre Dame a "decided schematic advantage in every game." But the letdown against Navy provided another example of his suspect decision-making. The Irish went 19--6 in his first two seasons with a cast of standout skill-position players recruited by his predecessor, Tyrone Willingham, and without them the offense has bogged down with a bland pro-style system. Notre Dame's most dangerous player is probably sophomore wideout Golden Tate. He returns punts and kickoffs but is averaging only 4.7 touches a game on offense. Against the Midshipmen, Tate didn't catch a pass and rushed once for a three-yard loss.
Weis's 2006 recruiting class was rated one of the best in the country, but it has yet to produce a star. Heralded sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen has been inconsistent, with 18 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions this season. Navy's 96th-ranked pass defense picked him off twice, and he admitted to being flustered early on by the Middies' soft zone coverage.
Another problem is the 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. While there has been improvement in the ground game this year, the Irish still rank only 84th, with 127.0 yards per game.
On Saturday, Notre Dame used its superior size to overpower Navy's front seven, rushing a season-high 51 times for 230 yards. That should have been a hopeful sign, but then the Irish had to withstand a furious rally to avoid a second consecutive defeat to a team they had beaten 43 straight times before last season.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said last week that he looked forward to Weis's "being our head coach for a long time." For that to be true, the Irish had better start beating more teams with winning records, and more convincingly than they did on Saturday.
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