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Loss is sickeningly familiar for Notre Dame

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Notre Dame's players have become as familiar with road losses and where-do-we-go-from-here queries as they are with the lyrics to the school fight song.

Saturday's 38-34 loss to Michigan felt a little different, however. This felt more like one that got away than one they simply weren't good enough to take.

"Obviously, I've been through a lot of losses here," senior center Eric Olsen said. "This one is painful because we know what we're capable of and what our goals are."

This was supposed to be the season that the Fighting Irish won 10 or 11 games and got back to national prominence. Instead, two weeks in they find themselves at 1-1 and needing to beat Michigan State next week at home in a game pitting two suddenly desperate teams.

And so again Charlie Weis -- whose job security will come under renewed scrutiny -- had to tell his players it was up to them to end this repetitive feeling. Weis gave a similar come-to-Touchdown-Jesus speech after last year's 38-3 loss at USC in the regular-season finale. The team insists, however, that it doesn't need to hear those words nearly as much this time around.

"This right here is a small speed bump, as far as I'm concerned," receiver Golden Tate said. "We beat ourselves."

Unlike the past two years, the Irish showed some heart when adversity struck.

Michigan took a 31-20 lead early in the fourth quarter and had all the momentum in its favor. Instead of wilting, though, the Irish rallied back to score a touchdown on a 14-play drive. Then they forced a turnover, on Kyle McCarthy's interception, and punched it in again for another touchdown to take a 34-31 lead with 2:29 left.

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen proved his recent stellar play wasn't just a product of Swiss-cheese WAC defenses. He completed 25-of-42 passes for 336 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions and continues to make solid decisions in the pocket

"You can look at a lot of people for what went wrong," Weis said, "but you can't look too much at him."

Notre Dame has a lot of things to work with now, including a seemingly-unstoppable receiver in sophomore Michael Floyd (seven catches, 131 yards before a leg injury forced him out late) and an improved running game that saw Armando Allen run for a career-best 139 yards.

Still, this latest loss didn't come at USC. This was to Michigan, a team itself battling back from last year's 3-9 disaster. The Wolverines gashed through the Irish defense in the second half behind a freshman quarterback, Tate Forcier. Notre Dame left too many points on the board in the first half because of poor red zone execution and got stymied in the third quarter by the Michigan pass rush.

Then there were the mental mistakes. Allen got called for a celebration penalty on the Irish's final touchdown by putting his finger to his lips to shush the crowd. Weis let Michigan hang onto its timeouts and have plenty of time for the winning drive by throwing the ball twice in the final two minutes instead of running the ball and draining clock. The normally sure-handed Tate dropped two potential touchdown passes and failed to get out of bounds or go down on the last play to give his offense one more shot.

"It was just a lack of focus on my part," Tate said. "I put this loss on my back."

Tate doesn't deserve that much blame; lack of focus may have been a team-wide issue. Olsen said Tuesday and Wednesday's practices were sloppy as some guys tried to coast through the workouts. He thinks that directly translated to Saturday's nine costly penalties and other problems.

Notre Dame might be a better team this year, but it still can't afford those kinds of slip-ups. Not unless it wants to keeps repeating its recent history.

"We have to use this game as a springboard and look ourselves in the mirror," Olsen said. "There's no other choice for us."