- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2008

When Charlie Weis‘ knee doesn’t ache these days, his head does. The first pain stems from a sideline collision with one of his defensive ends, a nasty spill that wrecked three ligaments, some cartilage and one body part Weis didn’t even realize he had (the posterior capsule).

The second pain, the throbbing between the temples, derives from his Notre Dame team’s 8-15 record in its last 23 games. We can only guess which hurts more.

The Irish are coming to M&T; Bank Stadium on Saturday to face Navy, but they’re hardly the fearsome Irish of yore. Indeed, they can no longer count on beating the Midshipmen, not after losing to them last season for the first time in 44 years. With Weis’ club having dropped its last two and the Mids refreshed after a break, anything is possible this weekend - though the posterior capsule in Charlie’s good knee is probably safe.

As if the former New England Patriots play caller didn’t have enough problems, he received what sounded suspiciously like a vote of confidence Wednesday from Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. Swarbrick said he’s “very pleased with the progress we have made this year. … We are moving in the right direction [and are] going to be even better next year.”


Well, that should help with the recruiting, anyway.

But everybody knows these expressions of support aren’t worth the, uh, paper they’re printed on. Should Navy slay Notre Dame a second straight season and Southern Cal slam the Irish, as it usually does, like a wave against the Santa Monica pier, the AD may not be so pleased with the program’s progress, its direction or its coach.

Weis, a Notre Dame grad like his boss, understands that This Is How It Is in South Bend. When you take the job, you walk with giants, with Rockne and Leahy and Parseghian. Failure simply isn’t an option. The way the team’s legions of fans figure it, Navy hadn’t beaten the Irish since 1963, so it shouldn’t be due to beat them again until 2051.

“I’d be perturbed, too,” Weis said this week of the increasing restlessness in Irish Nation. “I wouldn’t be very happy the way the Pittsburgh game ended [with Notre Dame unable to score a touchdown in four overtime tries]. And I wouldn’t be too excited with how the offense and special teams played [in the 17-0 smothering by Boston College].”

The Irish are 5-4 entering the Navy game, but they’re 5-4 with a qualification: One of those victories came against Michigan, which is in the midst of its worst season in almost half a century. Against winning clubs - and the 6-3 Midshipmen happen to be one of those - the Irish have all kinds of trouble. And frankly, they haven’t been able to make a yard when they’ve needed to, haven’t been able to punch it in on the goal line. In a word, they’ve been soft.

This is troubling because the O-line is the most experienced unit on an otherwise young offense. As a result, Weis has had to lean more heavily than he’d like on the passing game, on quarterback Jimmy Clausen, wide receivers Michael Floyd and Golden Tate and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Clausen and Floyd are sophomores, and Floyd and Rudolph are freshmen - a major reason the athletic director thinks better times are ahead.

Weis can only hope. The Subway Alumni will tolerate the occasional down year - no program, after all, is immune to gravity - but when it shows signs of becoming a down cycle … That’s what ultimately undid Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie, Charlie’s predecessors.

On Saturday, Weis will reassume the playcalling duties for the Irish, a job he had delegated to offensive coordinator Mike Haywood after going 3-9 last season. But don’t read too much into it, he says. It’s just a coincidence that it comes the week after the Irish got blanked by the Eagles. The real reason, he claims: Haywood had a death in the family.

Following such a stinker of a performance at BC, Weis said: “You’d like to [have a game plan] where you ran it 50 times and threw it 20 times. But it doesn’t always work that way. Because now you’re going against a [Navy] team that, statistically, they’re a lot better against the run than they are against the pass.”

Gone are the days when Notre Dame could just show up for the Navy game and do anything it wanted - run, pass, drop-kick. Now it has to pay close attention to matchups, to strengths and weaknesses. Which is why Charlie Weis, the coach wearing the leg brace, could use some aspirin about now. Preferably extra strength.