- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

Notre Dame won a game this past weekend in dramatic fashion — a near-miraculous comeback in the final moments that will not soon be forgotten even at college football’s most storied program.

But for only the sixth time in the past 30 years, the Fighting Irish dropped in the Associated Press writers’ poll after a win. It was only one spot, from No. 10 to No. 11, but the Irish also dropped two spots in the coaches’ poll and most importantly, a spot in the BCS standings.

“One of the teams that jumped us played the exact same game,” said Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, whose team beat UCLA 20-17. “They were down at home and came back and won the game by a field goal [Tennessee beat Alabama 16-13]. Another team that jumped us [Florida in the coaches’ poll] didn’t even play. They were at home eating cheeseburgers. I don’t understand that.”

The previous week, the Irish dropped from No. 9 to No. 10 when they didn’t play — something that had not happened in the past 30 years. The last five times Notre Dame went backward in the AP poll without losing were in the first three weeks of the season, and never has it happened more than once in the same year. Now it has happened in consecutive weeks.

There has always been a mystique about the Notre Dame program, but has some of that national respect eroded?

“I am definitely surprised. It is hard to win every week,” Navy linebacker Rob Caldwell. “I think they are a top 10 team. They still went to a BCS game last year, and they’ll probably go again this year.”

At 6-1, Notre Dame remains in the hunt for a spot in the national championship game, but the Irish are going to need some help. Normally a one-loss team from South Bend, Ind., would be at the forefront of a national title discussion, lurking and waiting for the remaining unbeatens to fall.

The Irish sit at No. 9 in the BCS standings, behind not only five unbeatens (Ohio State, Michigan, Southern California, West Virginia and Louisville) but also three one-loss teams (Auburn, Florida and Texas).

Notre Dame possesses quality wins against Georgia Tech (currently No. 21 in the AP poll) and Penn State (which was No. 19 when it faced the Irish). But teams like Michigan State and UCLA have disappointed, and the Irish are about to embark on a four-game stretch against the three service academies and North Carolina that will not help their computer rankings or their perception with the voters.

They close the season with a chance to make a huge statement against No. 3 Southern California, but if a few teams ahead of the Irish don’t lose, that game might not be enough.

“I would love to see Notre Dame compete for the national championship every year,” Weis said. “Is there a chance of that this year? It is remote, but I think there is still a chance. Any team that has one loss has at least a remote chance. There are great wins. There are ugly wins. But they are all wins. And if you win enough, everything usually take cares of itself.”

Any negative perception about the Irish this season stems from their only loss — a 47-21 drubbing from Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium. At the time the Wolverines were ranked 11th, but there still were plenty of doubts and questions after a disappointing 7-5 campaign in 2005.

Now the Wolverines are No. 2 in the country and have a showdown with No. 1 Ohio State looming. The Michigan defense that humbled the then-second ranked Irish is now considered one of — if not the best — units in the country.

“It’s still tough to look back and see that loss at home,” Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski said. “After playing [the Wolverines], we thought they were a solid team, and they are showing it. I guess we have to root for them to keep winning, but it is kind of tough to root for a team that beat you.”

The “ugly” wins Weis was referring to are the victory this past weekend against UCLA and a 40-37 triumph against Michigan State.

After getting the ball at the Notre Dame 20 with 62 seconds to play against UCLA, Irish quarterback Brady Quinn connected on three consecutive passes — the final one a 45-yard catch-and-run by Jeff Samardzija for a touchdown.

Notre Dame trailed the Spartans by 16 a week after losing to Michigan before scoring 19 straight points in the fourth quarter. The comeback was capped by an interception return for a touchdown with 2:53 to play.

The two comeback wins coupled with the devastating loss to Michigan have given Irish doubters reason to pick at the team’s other wins as well. Those people would say Notre Dame only beat Georgia Tech by four, did not pound winless Stanford like an elite team should and that Purdue and Penn State are unremarkable Big Ten teams.

“When I turn the tape on, I can see that they are pretty good. I don’t care where they are ranked,” Navy coach Paul Johnson said. “I see a bunch of big, fast guys out there, 6-5 receivers, big linemen that can run and great skill players. Good teams find a way to win games.”

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