SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) -Like Notre Dame fans everywhere, coach Charlie Weis is looking for a reason to believe.
It's not easy. The Irish have the nation's worst offense. The defense is on pace to give up the most points in its 119-season history. If the Irish (1-7) don't win one of their final four games, it would be the worst season in the history of the storied program.
The Irish have been the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows for weeks and lampooned on ``Saturday Night Live.'' The ratings for Notre Dame games on NBC are down sharply.
Yet Weis appears confident that Notre Dame will turn things around, defiantly stating following a 38-0 loss to USC that the Irish haters ``better enjoy it now, have their fun now.''
Despite his bold statement, though, Weis concedes that he is looking for reasons to believe the Irish are getting better.
``You better start worrying about developing your team,'' he said. ``Because as everyone knows, we're 1-7 and we're not playing very well.''
Notre Dame is averaging 187.6 yards per game total offense, 32 below its previous worst season. The Irish are averaging 34.1 yards a game rushing, more than 101 yards a game below their previous worst.
Still, Weis sees reason for hope. He pointed out that against the Trojans, Notre Dame's leading rusher was freshman Armando Allen, its leading receiver was freshman Duval Kamara and the two best pass rushers were freshmen linebackers Brian Smith and Kerry Neal.
The Irish, who have just seven players left from their 2007 recruiting class, have been depending on underclassmen all season. Notre Dame's top three rushers and four of their top five receivers are freshmen or sophomores, and at quarterback freshman Jimmy Clausen has started six games and Evan Sharpley, who has two years of eligibility left after this season, started against USC.
``I think there are a number of guys that are showing us some serious promise that their futures are bright,'' Weis said. ``To me, if you're getting that many people indoctrinated into your program where they're actually playing meaningful playing time, I think you're setting yourself up for some bright things to happen.''
Playing time alone, though, isn't enough. Notre Dame needs its line, which already has allowed a school record 39 sacks, to start opening holes for its tailbacks and to protect the quarterback better. It needs its tailbacks, quarterbacks and receivers to be more productive. It needs its defense, which has improved this season, to tackle better.
``To be honest with you, if those things don't progress, why on what basis would you go into the spring thinking that everything's going to be OK?'' Weis asked.
Irish players appear confident that things are going to be better than OK.
``We're going to learn to overcome losing, and at the end of the day we'll be a really good team and we'll be stronger because we've been through some rough times,'' Smith said.
Kamara said the younger players have talked about the future.
``The guys are excited about the years to come because we know we have a bunch of talent here, great guys, greater personalities,'' he said. ``We're just excited for the years to come.''
The Irish have history on their side. They've had only 13 losing seasons and only twice were they in back to back years: in 1887 (0-1) and '88 (1-2), and in 1985 (5-6) and '86 (5-6).
Weis hopes Notre Dame can finish strong to gain momentum heading into next season. He saw it happen when he was the tight ends coach with New England in 1993, when the Patriots started the season 1-11 with rookie quarterback Drew Bledsoe and finished the season with four straight wins. The next year the Patriots made the playoffs with a 10-6 record.
Two years later they made the Super Bowl.
Weis is so eager to get a glimpse of the future that he spent part of the bye week practicing only with players eligible to play next season.
``I'm no different than the rest of you guys,'' he said. ``I have to see evidence that we're making progress.''
Weis, like Notre Dame fans, needs a reason to believe.

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