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Mission Accomplished (No matter how you slice it, 4-0 is 4-0)

I find it amazing that going in to next week's game one team still has a chance at a National title by virtue of still being unbeaten, and it is not the Irish. As I write this, Notre Dame is getting drilled right now, and they have absolutely no confidence even though Kirk Herbstreit is doing his best to fellate Brady Quinn from the booth. The Irish look mortal today, and Quinn, as usual, cannot handle any kind of pressure. I'm still not predicting a win next week, but with the way this team keeps improving, we have a much better shot than anyone outside of West Lafayette will give us credit for.

We're exactly where we needed to be, and what people expected us to be at. While it was not as graceful as we would have hoped, in reality, the result is the same. We're 4-0, and we still have three VERY winnable games left. A bowl game is looking much more like a probability than it did with about a minute left in the Miami game. Honestly, I think I am more proud of this team than I would have been had we won all four of these games in blowouts. I am proud because even had we lost, this team is much easier to get behind and encourage as opposed to last year's There is heart and effort there, and we know that there is only going to be improvement with the youth. They are nowhere near there ceiling yet, and we could be in line for some very special things down the line.

Think about it: This team has been tested already and has come out clean. They are learning how to win against opponents when the lights aren't fully on like they will be next week in South Bend. One of the reasons I think we have struggled in crunch time over the past few seasons is because most of the time when we have won, we have won going away. We have not gained the experience needed in close games to be able to close them out when the pressure is on. In two of these four games, we have done just that. Even last week with Vinson's pick at the goal line we had a key moment where a pressure stop was needed, and we got it in order to change the momentum. Experience like that can't be taught it must be earned. We have gotten a very good dose of that when the stakes have not been as high as they have been in past years, and that only bodes well for the future.

Sure, we have not been tested on the road yet, but that too will come. We need to make it a goal to pick up at least one of these next three games on the road, or we are backed into a must win at home again. Northwestern is the obvious choice, as it has not been impressive in two wins so far, and its two losses weren't to great teams. Iowa, however, hasn't set the world on fire yet and they may have a letdown from next week's game with Ohio State. Notre Dame is also looking much more vulnerable than they have all year, and could be ripe for an upset. We need to get one of those three, and simply concentrate on improving regardless of what happens.
Yes, we gave up a lot of yards again today, but I am perfectly comfortable with giving up yards as long as we stiffen when we need to. How many times already this year have we given up drives to other teams that have resulted in no points? The drive right before halftime is a perfect example of that. We got the job when we needed to, and Pender made a great heads up play to not knock the ball down, but tip it to Hall for an easy pick. Suddenly an almost sure three points, and possible seven that would have given Minnesota the lead at halftime, was nothing.
I am really impressed by the smarts of this team, as given in the above example. Another critical play occurred late on Taylor's big First down run with less than two minutes left. He could have been driven out of bounds, which is clearly what the Minnesota defenders wanted to do, but instead he had the presence of mind to fall down in bounds. The result? We were able to run another critical 20 seconds off the clock. He sacrificed the potential for more personal yards for the sake of the team. I think that one play says volumes about the new attitude we have in West Lafayette. It's an attitude of togetherness that has been missing for a long, long time.

Of course, this play may not have had a chance to happen if not for Minnesota's choice to punt the ball back to us. As proud of the defense as I am, it once again showed trouble closing a team out in the fourth quarter after the infamous 4th and 20 play. The defense continues to improve, but if I am Glen Mason, and knowing the way we moved the ball today, there's no way I punt it back to us with two minutes left. We owe him a big Thank You card for that.

Credit needs to be given for the offense as well for executing and getting the job done. And was that the same conservative Joe Tiller we know and love going for it on 4th down with a chance to put the game away? With our offensive line, we simply do not deserve to win if we can't get that yard against Minnesota. Plus the new offensive coordinators got their jobs done by calling a great ball game. We only ran about two options plays if I remember correctly, and that keeps them in reserve for later.

Painter has come along nicely and his two TD throws to Bryant and Taylor were things of beauty. He did exactly what he needed to do in not turning the ball over. As he continues to improve he will start to hit open receivers like Sheets on third down in the second quarter. No over throw there means seven points in stead of three. I like that in this game there were several times that we could have broken things open to win easily, and the defense would not have mattered. As we learn to execute better that can only be a plus.

I like that we constantly kept the Gophers at arms reach throughout the second half by being up two scores most of the time. They only had one possession with a chance to take the lead, and we forced them into a three and out during that chance. They never again got the ball back. That is a credit to our offense maintaining pressure throughout. They also scored on two long drives that took up a lot of clock, which is critical if we're going to pull an upset or two later in the year.

There are so many little things to be found in a win like this. We once again came up with a blocked field goal that really turned the momentum around. Again, a heads up play when Minnesota was standing around, Erwin comes in and grabs it for a brief return. He didn't take it to the house, but it was a heads up play that meant a 20-25 yard shift in field position. This was huge in setting up our go ahead TD. On the Hall interception, he took a knee instead of trying to be a hero with a return. Painter even did a great job of managing the clock in order to milk as much of it as possible. It is these little things that sometimes get lost in the shuffle that are so welcome after years of fundamental breakdowns.

Again, this was the perfect team for us to play at this time, and it answered a lot of questions that have risen. This team has come a very long way since Indiana State came in and hung 35 on us. That team would have gotten drilled today. Instead, we have grown and are showing so much more effort that it alone is making a difference. We improved today even from last week, and we'll continue to improve as things go on.

So now we look ahead to the rest of the season with a much brighter outlook, and it is amazing to see we are, as I said earlier, right where we expected to be. Coming into the season, we expected a 4-0 start, and we got it. From this point on we expect things to get tougher, but they are not impossible. This team grew up when it blocked Miami's game winning field goal attempt, and it decided in that instant to turn things around. We have Notre Dame next, and as much as Brent Musberger and Herbstreit want then to, their defense cannot stop anyone right now. They will get their points and yards against us, but we have a much better chance up there than originally thought. I still don't think we'll come up with a W up there, but it is a larger possibility than before.

I still think Iowa is an almost certain loss, more so than Notre Dame, but now Wisconsin and Penn State look like much more winnable games. Unless Michigan State goes into a trademark swoon, it too is probably a loss, but Illinois, Northwestern, and Indiana are still likely wins. Hawaii is a toss up, and I don't feel comfortable needing that game to get to a bowl.
So we will see. Notre Dame week begins right now. As my brother-in-law has said before, "We'll be there, they'll have the ball, everyone will be in the stands, they're keeping score and everything. We might as well try and win the thing."

Meanwhile, I'll go back to watching the ABC Saturday night crew do everything except propose marriage to the entire Notre Dame football team. This is almost getting obscene.