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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Call it confidence, call it essential

The 2002 team had it. The 2003 team lost it.It's called confidence.Tyrone Willingham more appropriately called it swagger on Tuesday. It led to the Return to Glory of 2002 and its absence led to a forgettable 2003. Willingham had the national stage in the season-opening Kickoff Classic in 2002. Questions floated about how quickly Willingham could turn the program around and if this game against the defending ACC champions was too big of a test too early. An answer of a dominating 22-0 victory over Maryland, 24-17 win over Purdue and 25-23 statement over Michigan, gave the Irish a confidence and swagger it rode to an 8-0 start.But the ugly end to 2002 led to more questions starting the 2003 season. A miraculous overtime win over Washington State staved them off for a week.But then came 38-0 at Michigan.The swagger was gone. Add in a 45-14 loss to USC, a 37-0 pounding from Florida State - both at home - and a 38-12 defeat to close the season at mediocre Syracuse, and the impact of early season results become apparent in Willingham's short two years in South Bend.Go back to the Bob Davie era [just for a few seconds] and see the importance in recent Notre Dame history of early-season confidence leading to a successful season.Remember the three-game losing skid in the beginning of 1999 that led to a 5-7 campaign. Remember the near-upset of No. 1 Nebraska in 2000 that came a week after an unranked Irish team handily beat No. 23 Texas A & M, leading to an eventual BCS appearance. Remember the 0-3 start in 2001 that all but sealed Davie's fate in South Bend.College athletes, more so than pro athletes, ride on a cumulative effect of confidence and emotion throughout the season.Why? They are younger and are not playing for a paycheck like the pros. The fan support in college is more apparent from day-to-day as athletes can feel the spirit on campus from the dining hall to the classroom.The significance of every college regular season game carries so much importance with national championship or major bowl aspirations faltering because of one bad day in between the lines.That's why Saturday night is so critical for the Irish.On paper, it looks like a game the Irish should win easily. Dominating an inferior opponent [which the Irish didn't do until the BYU game in week 10 last year] will have this team riding high into next week's rivalry game against Michigan. But factor in a nationally-televised season opener - at night, on the road, in the first game of the year, with the Irish possibly focusing on next week's long-awaited revenge for the Wolverines - and it's easy to see why the Cougars have the all-important confidence to make this one closer than it should be, or even pull an upset.So the next question naturally to ask is where does a team coming off a 5-7 season, having lost nine of its last 14 games - four by at least 31 points - and not ranked in the top 25 have any business in believing it can return to its early-season form of 2002?Willingham says it's happened during the past nine months."We get it with experience. We get it with improved physical skills that come through the winter conditioning, training," he said. "All of those things add to make you a better football player the next season."That's the only place this team can get confidence from since 2003 was so disappointing. Maybe someone established himself in winter conditioning to be the next Shane Walton and become the leader of that much-needed swagger.But it works both ways.Maybe this team struggles in Provo and escapes with a win, leading to questions heading into the Michigan game.Willingham feels the team is headed back to its 2002 form."They all believe and stand for the right things in this program, and that, to me, puts us on the verge of doing something big," he said.Saturday, the Irish have a chance to begin getting that confidence back.It'll go a long way to determining their success, or lack, in 2004.