South Bend - It's easy to understand why Notre Dame is 0-3 for the second time in school history. The Fighting Irish are last in the nation in rushing offense and total offense, are among the worst teams at stopping the run and have nearly twice as many punts as they do points.
What isn't so easy to understand is how a team went so quickly from receiving consecutive Bowl Championship Series berths to becoming the butt of late night talk show jokes.
After last week's 38-0 loss to struggling Michigan, the question the media and fans were asking is: does this Irish squad have any talent?
The answer, experts say, is yes - but not enough in the junior and senior classes.
"I don't think they have as much talent as the teams they've played - certainly not among the upper classmen," Rivals.com recruiting analyst Bobby Burton said.
Coach Charlie Weis said he understands why some people are questioning his team's talent level.
"Right now if I were looking at them and watching how we're playing, I can see how they can make statements like that," he said. "But I obviously feel different about this team."
NFL draft analyst Gil Brandt said he recalls a conversation with Weis at the Super Bowl in Detroit in 2006 when Weis said he was worried about the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
"Here's a guy that was coming off a great year and he was really concerned about what was going to happen because of the fact he did not think they had the guys there that could make them competitive," Brandt said.
Weis said he doesn't recall the conversation.
The Irish do have some talent among their fifth-year seniors, Brandt said. He has fifth-year senior John Carlson rated as the top tight end in next year's draft. He also has center John Sullivan and safety Tom Zbikowski highly rated and had praise for defensive end Trevor Laws.
"But they just don't have the talent levels in the juniors and seniors in my estimation that you need to play against all these good teams," he said.
The reason for that is two years of bad recruiting in Tyrone Willingham's final full recruiting class and Weis' first class when he was finishing up as the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator.
On the day Notre Dame signed 17 players in February 2004, CSTV recruiting analyst Tom Lemming called it worst class for the Irish in at least 20 years. He now says it was even worse than that. The next year's class, which was a hybrid of Willingham and Weis recruiting, wasn't much better, again finishing out of the top 20.
"One bad year is real bad, but it's not disastrous. Two is disastrous," Lemming said. "When you have all your talent in your freshman and sophomore classes, you're going to suffer. And you're going to lose to real good programs."
Still, that doesn't explain how the Irish are 12 1/2-point underdogs at home Saturday to Michigan State (3-0), a program that has posted one winning season in the past five years. The only time in recent memory the Irish were bigger underdogs at home was in 2005 against No. 1 USC, when they were 13-point underdogs in a game they lost 34-31.
Two substandard recruiting years also doesn't explain why they have looked so absolutely inept. Even bad teams score touchdowns on occasion, and even bad teams manage positive yardage. Bad teams can block on at least some plays.
"You look at everyone on the offensive line, they were all highly recruited players," said Max Emfinger, editor of National Blue Chips. "Jimmy Clausen's running for his life on every play. It's like a sieve."
What might be most worrisome for Notre Dame fans, though, is that the game against the Spartans might be Notre Dame's best chance to win until early November. Notre Dame's next four games are at Purdue (3-0), at UCLA (2-1), at home against No. 14 Boston College (3-0) and at home against No. 1 USC (2-0). The Irish are surely to be underdogs in each.
Weis said there are many reasons why the Irish have struggled, but he believes the problems can be fixed.
"I didn't turn into a crummy coach overnight, my staff didn't turn crummy overnight and the players didn't turn crummy overnight either," he said. "There's a whole bunch of problems that are all involved right there. I think we're going to be judged from where it goes from here. And let's face it, it doesn't get much lower than where you are right now."
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