Notre Dame football: Irish must overcome the shock

Evan Sharpley
ND Insider

In today’s culture, young athletes are awarded trophies and ribbons for participating. As long as you sign up and play, whether you win or lose, you get a medal. For Notre Dame football players, losing does not result in aforementioned medals, ribbons and trophies.

It is quite the opposite actually.

At Notre Dame, unlike most other schools, a loss, especially early in the season, is quite a shock. It puts things in perspective very quickly. As Irish captain TJ Jones said post Michigan game loss, “This is kind of a wakeup call for us.”

The goal of going to the national championship game, which is posted in the locker room, is now in jeopardy. Of course, the loss does not mean that it is completely out of reach.

However, the mindset of the players will change, perhaps not on purpose, but due in large to human nature and the competitive spirit of each athlete. The season is far from over, as Brian Kelly pointed out, “You have to be careful, keep the energy from getting too up and down, and you better be ready to play.”

In order to pick up the pieces after a first loss, the young men of the Fighting Irish must accept the bad — because there was plenty — but be able to have the maturity to learn from it.

Conversely, it is also important to build off the good from Ann Arbor. After an emotionally draining game, the Irish players must take some positive in order to preserve their mental physique. If they are unable to do so, other teams are waiting in the bushes to strike and validate their own season.

Rest assured — after the disappointing loss to Michigan, the postgame speech, reassurance by the coaching staff, the painful ride home, reminiscing on missed opportunities, and discussions amongst teammates — that there is new dedication to the details.

Kelly might have said it best when he stated, “losing is losing ... We gotta tighten up everything. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

After the film was watched, it was apparent to the players that the areas of concern from the Michigan game are fixable. It wasn’t a blowout. It was not an upset. A very good team won a very competitive matchup.

I recall the 2007 season, a season that resulted in a 3-9 record. Should we have lost 9 games? Absolutely not, although there was writing on the wall that made a lot of guys second guess the coaching staff. For the 2013 Irish, I do not believe this is the case.

The makeup of the 2007 team was much different. We had a lot of young players playing on the line of scrimmage, specifically the offensive line. It wasn’t that these guys were incapable, just inexperienced. We got beat up in a lot of those games.

Yes, I know Michigan put up close to 500 yards a week ago, but I thought the battle at the line of scrimmage was pretty even. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner and many other Michigan skill guys made some great plays at the point of contact. Or perhaps it was the Irish tackling poorly. Whatever you want to call it, it is something that can be fixed.

If it was a “mercy killing,” as coach Charlie Weis would say, at the line of scrimmage then I would be worried. I am not worried.

Speaking of coaches, each coach handles a loss in their own way. Losing is never acceptable. Kelly keenly put it, “We’ve got to be coaching better and playing better in crunch time. That goes for everybody.”

Obviously, in a loss there are glaring negatives to fix, however a coach needs to find positives to enact as building blocks into the next week. On the other side, players feed off each other. Much of the response to losing depends on the type of individuals in the locker room. They also look to the head coach and their position coaches for guidance and confidence.

Players respond when their head coach says, “We have a good sense and feel for where we need to be in our preparations, and they are focusing on that.”

Coaches, at least the good ones, present the facts but don’t panic. They alter the initial gameplan and continue to motivate from that arena.

Players and coaches take different approaches publicly versus privately. Publicly, for me, it was always important to present a united front even when I didn’t agree with someone or something.

In 2007, after losses to Georgia Tech and Penn State, as well as being passed up to be the starter both weeks to Demetrius Jones and Jimmy Clausen, I could have been very critical to my coaches’ decision making, but that was not best for the team and for the program.

Did I want to speak my mind? Give my side of the story? Of course! But it was not the time or place to do it. I had too much respect for the university.

Coaches. however, are able to publicly criticize much easier. Why? Because they are also being critical in private. Players have to be much more careful because it never is a positive to call out other players or position groups in a public setting.

Ultimately, the team takes precedent. Quarrels and issues that arise behind closed doors are easier to alleviate than those in the press.

Where do the Irish go after a devastating loss? They bond together. They challenge each other like TJ Jones did.

“Last year, we went 12-1, and I feel some people may think we did that easily,” he said.

They work even harder. They pay attention to every detail. They trust each other. They use this loss to stay closer as a team! They use this loss to find an identity as a team. They bounce back, as Notre Dame men do, beat the Boilermakers, preserve the Shillelagh Trophy, and play like champions! Go Irish!

In addition to his weekly column, former Notre Dame quarterback Evan Sharpley previews upcoming games each Friday at 7:50 a.m. on WSBT’s JT In The Morning Show (960 AM and 96.1 FM). On Mondays, Sharpley co-hosts WSBT’s Notre Dame Football Final, which airs from 9-10 a.m. He’ll also be an occasional contributor to WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat and Gameday SportsBeat radio programs. He serves as the director of fitness at the Eastlake Athletic Club in Elkhart.

Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas (85) walks off the field after a loss to Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in Ann Arbor, Mich. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER