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March 28, 2009

Irish bask in extended bowl afterglow

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Charlie Weis doesn't spend much time looking backward.

But Notre Dame's coach might as well wear a Hawaiian shirt to Saturday's open practice. When it comes to that perfect game pitched in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve three months ago, kickoff might as well have been last week.

At least that's the outlook inside the Irish locker room. After a season of getting beaten down and beaten up, it's hard to blame Notre Dame for extending the afterglow of the program's first bowl victory in more than a decade.

"I feel it, I feel the carry-over," end Ethan Johnson said. "I'm just trying to carry it over into next year and keep the intensity up. Anyway we can keep the intensity up, whether it be remembering Hawaii or just getting excited to go against Nevada, winning that bowl game was just a great win for us."

It's true every coach can spin a bowl performance as he sees fit. A loss provides extra motivation. A win offers a blueprint for success. But Notre Dame's 49-21 demolition of Hawaii appears to be more than a clichéd talking point.

Aside from giving Notre Dame a nudge to sign five-star linebacker Manti Te'o, who grew up a short drive from Aloha Stadium, the performance put a gag in any lingering talk about Weis' job security. Instead of the spring story line being Weis' make-or-break season, now it's about Notre Dame making the preseason top 25.

"There were some happy moments since I've been here," Weis said. "I mean, I go all the way back to the Stanford game at the end of the game my first year there when it meant going to the BCS, how happy they were then. UCLA at the end of the game, you know, how happy they were then.

"But for these young guys, you know, it was the first time they really felt good. It was a good Christmas Eve for a lot of those guys. That hasn't gone away, which is a good thing."

It might seem strange to cast the Hawaii Bowl as rule over exception considering the gap between these kinds of complementary performances.

The last time Notre Dame put together an all-encompassing game plan like that was in a 41-17 pounding of Penn State on Sept. 9, 2006. That was 36 games ago. One week later Michigan sounded the alarm on Notre Dame's national title dreams with a 47-21 blowout of the Irish in South Bend.

Consider it a cautionary tale about the unpredictability of college football. But there's little doubt the Hawaii Bowl gave the Irish a coveted shot of confidence after a season that included a humbling Senior Day loss to Syracuse and getting held without a first down at USC until the final play of the third quarter.

"It doesn't seem like the year ended," tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "I think that's great for us as far as building momentum and keeping things going. For me, I think it's just taking away the winning attitude. I think that's something we need to have around here. As an offense, those are the points we want to put up, those are the yards we want to put up."

No one was better than Jimmy Clausen as the quarterback completed 22 of 26 passes for 401 yards and five touchdowns, in the process setting Notre Dame bowl records for yardage, touchdowns and completion percentage.

Savoring the Hawaii Bowl three months later takes the edge off spring's routine. But recreating it next season is the real goal.

"Getting the whole team back to where we're supposed to be and going out and performing the way we did really helped the psyche of the team," Clausen said. "It helped me. It felt like I was back in high school, just going out there and having fun with the guys, slinging the ball around and I felt real comfortable.

"I knew it was going to come back at some point."

The Irish hope remembering that bowl feeling will help them recreate it.

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