Saturday, November 28, 2015

Notre Dame Football: Time-Out Edition

The dream is alive at 10-1, with a make-or-break matchup against Stanford this afternoon (or evening, I guess) that should decide our playoff-worthiness once and for all. Probably. 
Except I kind feel like we’ve been kicked off the playground at recess and been told to take a time-out.
It’s like the playoff committee looked at the BC game and said, “Whoa! Five turnovers? All right, Notre Dame. Why don’t you just go sit at #6 for a while. Let us know when you feel like you’re ready to play with the Top 4 again, and then maybe you can come out.” 
From this view, two spots out of playoff contention, this seems a tad unfair. After all, there are three one-loss teams ranked ahead of us now, and who did their losses come against? Now-#18 Ole Miss, unranked Texas, and unranked Nebraska. Whereas our only loss of the season came against #1 Clemson. And our strength of schedule, while apparently not A-plus SEC-worthy, is nothing to sneeze at. 
Of course, suppose you’re looking at the way Notre Dame played against Boston College, and you’re asking yourself, “Does this look like a team that could beat Alabama in a playoff game? Does this even look like the same team that was a 2-point conversion away from tying Clemson?” the answer would be no.
So many fumbles. So many dropped passes. BC was stripping harder than a dancer at a gentleman’s club. However, I don’t think anybody who’s watched more than one BC-ND matchup (or really, more than one BC-against-a-highly-ranked-opponent matchup) should’ve be surprised to find the Irish in a near-nailbiter against the Eagles. (Upsets are really the only thing BC is good at.) As Winston Shi at the Stanford Daily put it: “The Irish played ugly against Boston College last week, but everybody plays ugly in Boston.” 
Of course I would’ve liked to see us put forth more of a dynamo effort against our Catholic nemesis-in-arms--but not for a second did Notre Dame play like it was going to be defeated. No matter what happens, this team does not give up, does not concede, and does not let anything--not even an outrageous number of season-ending injuries--stop them from playing to win. It’s not just mental toughness. It’s mental resilience. 
But those kinds of intangibles don’t matter so much if you don’t look good while you’re winning. Apparently. And the selection committee (like most pollsters before them) is playing with a system of weighted grades. How you finish the season matters far more than how you started it (as the now-#3, lost-to-bleeping-unranked-Texas Sooners can attest). It doesn’t matter that we creamed Texas in the season opener if we can’t shellack 3-7 Boston College in our second-to-last game. It doesn’t matter who we lost to if the other 1-loss teams fighting for a playoff spot score more points against their lesser-ranked opponents than we do.
Because of course all championship-worthy teams improve steadily over the course of the season. Nobody ever has a hard-fought brawl against an old rival at a “neutral site” in their opponent’s backyard the week right before they’re supposed to play top-10 Stanford in the game that decides their playoff contention once and for all. I mean, what kind of team loses the ball four times and then holds their opponent scoreless for an entire half? What kind of team kills its own momentum over and over and over and yet never allows their opponent to lead or even tie for the entirety of the game? 
Obviously I’m not going to say we played well against Boston College. But I think it’s a testament both to how bad BC’s offense is and how good ND is overall that we kept a five-turnover game from getting out of hand. (Just like we kept all those turnovers against Clemson from getting out of hand.) And it’s a little bit hard to swallow being dropped two spots in the polls after a win. 
Then again, some of the things I dislike about the playoff committee are also the things I like about the playoff committee.
For example: I like that the playoff committee refused to rank Ohio State #1, even though when the first playoff poll came out the Buckeyes were still the undefeated defending national champs. Because come on--let’s not be slaves to last season. 
I also like that they’re currently giving Iowa kudos for being 12-0, even though the Hawkeyes have defeated pretty much nobody of interest in the Big 10 west and whoever they face in the championship game next week (either Ohio State or MSU) is probably going to send them hobbling out of the top 4 with skinned knees and a bloody nose. (Though interestingly, no matter who emerges victorious from the Big 10, it probably isn’t going to help ND.)
I really don’t know how I feel about Oklahoma jumping four spots to #3 after a one-point victory over TCU. I mean, it’s kind of exciting the playoff committee is willing to bounce teams around like that--but did the Sooners look so much better beating #18 TCU by one point than they did beating #6 Baylor by 10 points the previous week? Or was it just that beating two ranked opponents in a row finally convinced the playoff committee to forget Oklahoma’s little hiccup against Texas and catapult them into true playoff contention? 
With any luck, Oklahoma State will dispatch Oklahoma this evening and keep the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein hopefuls from snagging a lead in the playoffs, and then we’re back out of the corner and swinging from the great crazy road-to-the-championship jungle gym again. 
Of course, let us knock on wood (NOT JINXING US) because absolutely none of this matters if we don’t manage to beat Stanford this evening.
Which will be tough. Stanford is a good team. We’re pretty evenly matched in terms of size and cunning--and apparently ND’s performance at Fenway rattled confidence in the Irish so much that the ninth-ranked Cardinal are favored to win by four. I haven’t looked up many score predictions for the game, but I was amused to see that all of the sportswriters for the Stanford Daily (except one, who picked ND to win--smart man) predicted Stanford would score at least 30 points on the Irish. Which I suppose makes sense considering Stanford has rarely scored less than 30 in a game this season, but seems a bit cheeky considering the only team to score more than 30 on Notre Dame this season is USC. 
Stanford has beaten Notre Dame by a touchdown or more the last three times they’ve played in Palo Alto, so playing on the Cardinal’s home turf is no joke. Stanford’s also got a huge playmaker in running back Christan McCaffrey, which could be lethal, given Notre Dame’s tendency to give up huge plays on defense.
Everyone’s predicting a high-scoring, big-12 style brawl this evening--but considering neither team has put up more than 30 points on the other for the last 5 years, I’m not convinced. Though always hopeful for an ND breakaway victory, I think the teams are evenly matched enough that this game is going to be tighter than people expect. 
But who knows. I’m terrible with predictions. Don’t listen to me. 
All I know is our players came here to win. 
Time-out’s almost over, guys. Let’s get out there and kick some schoolyard ass.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Notre Dame Football: Understudy Edition

Holy showstopping musical number, you guys. Playoff picture--playoff picture--playoff picture!
If you drew a picture of what the playoff was gonna look like, Notre Dame would be right there in the friggin’ corner. (#4! YEAH!!!!)
We’re not the star of the show this season. And I’m totally okay with that.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to be #4.
This might sound like crazy talk coming from me. But I feel like I’ve had an apostrophe (I think you mean an epiphany) about what a privilege it is to be here. Not just in the Top 5, but to be watching this particular epoch of Notre Dame Football.
I mean--Back In My Day (during my brief interim as a student), Notre Dame Football wasn’t the star of anything. In fact, if they’d been auditioning for a spot in College Football’s Greatest Hits, they’d have barely made it into the chorus. (And even then, only because they’re a Name.)
Basically, when I was a student, ND Football did three things: 1) look really sexy during the regular season and then lose in a major bowl game, 2) look really skunky during the regular season and slink off in 3-9 shame, and 3) look really bipolar during the regular season and then flee to Hawaii for some Vitamin D and a bowl win (which the band was not present for, for the first time in school history--not that I am still bitter about missing a free trip to Hawaii or anything, I AM JUST SAYING).
Since then, we’ve had one diva-esque year of Jimmy-to-Golden with virtually no defense, followed by the Brian Kelly Era. Which nobody can make up their minds about, because A) it is still happening, and B) Brian Kelly has not won us a national championship yet.
For decades, players have been saying that they came to Notre Dame to win a national championship. But since Lou left, no team has legitimately had the bones to come close to a national championship except the 2012 squad.
And those guys are seniors now.
My mind boggles trying to imagine what it must be like to be a student in Notre Dame’s current senior class. At least in terms of being an insane, monomaniacal sports fan. I mean--you come in as a freshman, and the football team has the most epic season in living memory. Overall, you get 4 straight winning seasons and 2 straight bowl wins (including a long-awaited postseason victory over an SEC team), and as a senior, now you’ve got another top-5 team with a legitimate crack at the second-ever college football playoff. Assuming they win out. (Knock on wood and all that.)
In my head, this is what Notre Dame football should always look like. Not always in the playoff picture--not always with a spectacular season (I mean, with all the injuries we had last year on defense...what can you do?)--but always making hits. Always with the potential for the squad to come together and pull out a major-bowl-worthy run.
Just like they’ve done this season.
Without six of their key starters.

Don’t cry for us, ND Nation--the truth is, we have a depth chart
During an on-field interview yesterday, Kathryn Tappen asked Brian Kelly how his team managed to have so much success despite losing six starters to season-ending injuries. Without hesitation, Kelly said “Good recruiting.”
Boom. That’s the key to this season. Not just having the “next man in” mentality, but actually having the personnel, all the way down the depth chart, to make the next man in as effective as the first man in.

Particularly after losing Zaire, I think most ND fans reflexively moved into an underdog mentality. We’ve got a tough schedule, and the more players we lost, the more reasonable it seemed to temper our expectations (while still rooting for Notre Dame to kick ass at every available opportunity, of course).
I’m not sure most of the fan base was as willing to go along with Brady Quinn’s yes-of-coursee-we-should-win-out-during-the-regular-season prediction as I was. But LOOK AT US NOW, PUNKS. EVERYTHING WE DREAMED ABOUT THE DEPTH CHART WAS TRUE. 
I mean--holy musical bonanza, my brethren! Can you even believe our running backs this year?! Of course I want Folston back. But just look at Prosise this season! The man is a slippery eel defenses can barely contain without doing their best impression of a brick wall. Or what about Josh Adams, stiff-arming his way to a 98-yd Notre Dame TD record (which Prosise had broken with a 91-yd TD run only a few home games prior)?
It seems like every running back we’ve put in this season has managed to do something spectacular. It’s a testament to our O-line and our recruiting--as well as what “next man in” can do for you when you’ve got all the right people in place.
We’re in the sixth season of Brian Kelly’s direction now. This is 100% Kelly’s team. All of the recruits, all of the fifth-years--everybody--has been subscribing to “next man in” all along. We’ve got some outrageous talent, true...but also I think we are conspicuously devoid of superstars.
I’m not saying Will Fuller isn’t one of the best receivers in college football. Or Jaylon Smith isn’t a first-round draft pick. Or Sheldon Day isn’t an unstoppable, impossible-to-block man-beast. 
I’m just saying I don’t think any one player--or even a small handful of players--is carrying the team.
This isn’t a perfect analogy, but it’s kind of like watching a high school production of a musical versus a professional Broadway version of a musical.
For whatever reason, my high school had a high concentration of talent in the drama club, so our performances were generally pretty good, but this being high school and all, the superstars really stuck out. And there was a certain magic to watching those people kick ass on stage. It was impossible not to go up to them afterward and be like, “OMG YOU WERE THE BEST they should’ve given you more songs I could literally have watched you all night.”
Kind of like how, in years past, I always wanted the ball to end up in the hands of Julius Jones or Golden Tate or Tom Zbikowski.
But if you go see a professional Broadway musical--the lead actors are going to be amazing, of course, but so is pretty much everyone else on stage. Because those people in the chorus? They’ve totally got the pipes to play the lead roles. In fact, most of them are probably understudies.
You’re still going to have your Nathan Lanes and your Bernadette Peters who stick out even among super-talent, much like the NFL has its Peyton Mannings and its Walter Paytons. But when everyone up on stage has the goods, the disparity is not so great. Because everyone came to play.
This is not to disparage Notre Dame players of years past. Playing anywhere at the D-I level takes an incredible amount of hard work, discipline, and talent.
But in terms of the way the team plays as a whole this year--I don’t think we’ve got any Broadway superstars here. I think we’ve got talent across the board, on both sides of the ball.
And everybody came to play.

A Little bit less like Phantom and a little bit more like A Chorus Line
I am, of course, getting ahead of myself, since we’ve still got 2 regular-season games we’ll need to win in convincing fashion in order to stay in the playoff picture. But I can’t help comparing the 2012 squad to this one. Since the commentators have already begun doing so during ND game broadcasts, I can’t possibly jinx anything by speculating that hasn’t already been jinxed. (You know. Probably.)
In 2012, it was indisputably the defense carrying our team. Specifically, we had Manti Te’o out there to amp everyone up, keep everyone focused, and perform outrageous feats of athleticism, such as recording twenty-one tackles in a single game.
This year, we don’t exactly have a Christine Daae out there, belting unmistakable sopranic leadership from the backfield--which I think has hurt us in some ways. We haven’t really seen our defense put together a solid performance for four quarters (except maybe in the Texas game). Particularly in the fourth quarter, we’ve seen lapses in focus that have allowed our opponents to sneak up on us again when they had no business doing so.
Our offense has been much more consistent at putting up points this season--but sometimes they don’t put in a full performance, either. At times they’re only half there, getting only the run game or the passing game going at a time. Sometimes they jump out of the scene completely, sputtering and stalling for entire quarters at a time. And sometimes (like yesterday, for example) it takes us almost the entire game to find our rhythm.
Somehow it doesn’t matter.
Because if the offense goes blank, the defense will jump in and pick up their lines. Or if the defense just bombed a huge play, Kizer & Co. will trot out there for a big ol’ showy touchdown pass to even things out. And if offense and defense have both decided to take prolonged, diva-style breaks in their dressing rooms, special teams is there to cover our ass until one or the other of them decides to show up again.
It’s brilliant.
And frustrating.
And it doesn’t feel a thing like the last time we were in the vicinity of the national championship conversation.
Because despite the devastating season-ending injuries, the way we’ve been playing largely lacks that high-school-musical style drama. We had one nailbiting “omg-can-Kizer-do-it?!” moment, after Zaire got injured in the VA game (and happily, the answer was, “Why yes, Sad Virginia fan--yes he can”). But we haven’t had a string of outrageous goal line stands. We haven’t had the same chills-n-thrills, down-to-the-wire heart-pounding victories.
We’ve just been winning. Putting up a cheery storyline for ND fans, week after week.
You know...except for that one game where we didn’t.

The Understudy
I wouldn’t trade that 2012 season for anything. (Except maybe for a 2012 season where we won it all.) The angst. The blog posts. The being-in-the-stands for most of the games. The sublime, stars-aligning Saturday that shuttled us to #1.
Honestly, though, I would rather have the sign atop Grace Hall lit up after the curtain closes on the season than while the play is still being acted out. (Well--okay, I would rather have it lit up all the time, but never mind that.)
I know, I know--TOTALLY JINXING US. 
But holy jazz hands, twelfth man--just look at where we are! We’re just one grapevine and a chaine turn away from true playoff contention.
And maybe we haven’t been stirring up standing ovations all season long, but it’s not an exaggeration to say we’ve been straight-up winning week after week, either.
Our closest games this season have been Virginia (34-27), Georgia Tech (30-22), Clemson (22-24), and Temple (24-20). Of those, I would say Virginia and Clemson are the only true nailbiters. Virginia Tech we dispatched in meme-producing glory, and Georgia Tech snuck up on us in the 4th quarter after we completely manhandled their option. Temple played a tough game, but we played tough right back; it didn’t ever feel like that win was going to slip away from us.
For every other W on our schedule, we’ve pulled away by 10 points or more, leaving little doubt of our victory by the 4th quarter, if not long before.
It’s not a spectacle-saturated Andrew Lloyd Weber-style season, but it’s incredibly refreshing, all the same.

We still have two games to go, so I should probably stop talking flowery nonsense about the playoffs. (It’s not just me, though. NOT JINXING US.)
All I’m saying is: we were a 2-pt conversion away from taking the now-#1 team in the country into overtime (or, you know, one less turnover and a FG away from beating them). Up against bad weather in a hostile environment, Kizer played like a young QB and our offense got off-rhythm at crucial moments. We moved the ball pretty well, but we couldn’t find the end zone, and we flubbed possession enough times to befoul our best shots at victory.
But we still battled back, for an almost-comeback. We went toe-to-toe against the Tigers, and I think if we could take them on again, we’d find a way to outshine them.
Here’s hoping we get to prove it.

There’s only us / there’s only this / forget regret / or Kizer’s pass is yours to miss / no other win / no other play / no game but this game
So I like our chances in this not-top spot. In fact, I’d be content to stay at #4 (or #3) the rest of the season. We’re playing the understudy right now. Let’s keep the target off our backs and our noses down. Let’s put together the best performance we can for the next two weeks. So when the spotlight comes, we’ll be ready.
Our next stop is a “neutral-site” home game against a 3-7 BC squad at Fenway Park. Don’t even think about Stanford, or we’ll trip and stumble like an amateur fumbling a kick ball change. No letdown, guys. NO LETDOWN.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Notre Dame Football: Tug of War Edition

4-0, people. FOUR-AND-O!

For the 3rd time in the the last 4 years, we are unbeaten in the month of September.

Though as everybody who watched last season knows, that will mean precisely squat if we managed to win 0 games in the month of November.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Based on our performance in the last two games, I think our destiny is genuinely in our hands this season (barring an excessive number of injuries, which we SHAN'T TEMPT FATE TO GRANT US). I say this based not on the fact of victory, but on what happened in the last minute of the Georgia Tech game, the second quarter of the UMass game, and during large chunks of the Virginia game (when we lost not only our starting quarterback but apparently the mental focus of our entire defensive line).

That is what will carry us or break us this season. Not necessarily the coaches or the strength of the team or even the personnel we're able to put on the field. I think we've got the coaches, and (if the second half against UMass is any indication) we've certainly got the personnel.

So what it comes down to is the will to win. Not wanting to win--everybody wants to win. Wanting to win is the same as wanting to backpack through Europe or go bungee jumping or write a novel. It doesn't mean you're actually going to trek through foreign countries carrying all your worldly possessions on your back for several months, or strap a harness attached to a wibbly cord around your waist, or peck away at your keyboard every day for three months convinced that every phrase that leaves your fingers is complete and utter drivel.

No. Simply wanting to win is not enough.

Rope Burn

I figure the will to win is a bit like tug-of-war. Theoretically, tug-of-war is all about which team has the most collective brute strength. Each person on both sides of the rope tugs with all their might, and whichever team has the most muscle mass wins.

But of course that's not what really happens in tug-of-war. At least it isn't if you ever attended field day at my elementary school.

Occasionally, the powers that be would decide to pit the girls against the boys--a fair enough contest in the days before puberty, I guess. The boys would always be like, "ha ha like that's gonna be a contest," and the girls would mostly be like, "whatever--if we must." I would always be that crazy ass at either the back or the front of the line being like, "C'MON LADIES, WE CAN DO THIS!" (Or at least, that's what I'd be thinking in my head.)

That first yank was a big surprise to the boys. And possibly to all the girls standing anywhere near me in line. I don't mess around with battle of the sexes tug-of-war. I will pull until I have rope burn if that's what it takes to prove a point to those chicken-legged, skinny-armed jerkwads who think they're automatically going to win just because they've got Y chromosomes in their DNA. (Pshh. PSSSHHHHHH.)

See? I was nuts even when I was ten.

Anyway--I don't actually remember who won. Mostly what I remember is the girls giving a big ol' yank, and the entire line of boys getting jerked forward, and being like, "Whoa. Hey. We might actually have to try."

And then they did, and the match evened out a bit. There was enough apathy on both sides of the rope that I am pretty sure 50% of the participants were not trying at all.

But that's precisely the point.

You can line up whoever you want on the field; you can look at the matchups and say, man, this person or this team or this defensive line is going to win every time.

But maybe they won't. Because maybe they aren't ready for the enormous yank their opponent's going to give at the start of the game. Maybe they're going to surrender their focus for a second (or a second quarter) and find themselves dragged through the dirt a bit. Maybe they feel so assured off victory they give up slack on the end of the line and get jerked back within one score of a tie.

Every game is a battle of wills. But I think when you get to a point where you know you have the personnel, the strength, the coaches--basically all the pieces you need to put a victory together every week--then that's all the game becomes. It's all mental. A test of who's willing to get the rope burn each week.

Some weeks, of course, your opponents are going to be more evenly matched than others, and the actual personnel matchups are going to matter more. Sometimes you're going to execute to the best of your ability, and sheer speed or a great block or a tricky scheme is going to beat you and there's just nothing you can do about it.

But it's not about that one play that gets away from you. It's about the way you fight through the entirety of the game. It's about convincing an entire team of people to tug with all they have on that line until they succeed in dragging their opponents, inch by inch, into defeat.

When you lose focus--that's when the opponent regains inches. That's when you get momentum swings and trap games. Lack of focus is how good teams can topple face-first in the mud.

We didn't fight in the second quarter against UMass. We didn't fight in the last minute against Georgia Tech. We didn't know WTF to do with the fight Virginia gave us.

But we still found an answer, every time.

The answer for UMass came in the second half, when the defense buckled down and refused to allow a score until long after we'd secured a 40-point lead and let the 2nd string take over the game.

The answer for Georgia Tech came in the first 59:00 of the game, when we shut down their (apparently) un-shut-down-able option attack for (almost) an entire game.

The answer for Virginia came on a last-second bomb to Will Fuller from unknown entity Deshone Kizer, who assured us with one brilliant sling of the pigskin that the season was not yet lost.

Yes--this is a team that has the will to win.

Time will tell if they can keep that will for all four quarters.

Notre Dame 30, Georgia Tech 22

So Notre Dame's defensive field day against Georgia Tech seems slightly less impressive now that 20th-ranked Tech has lost 30-24 to unranked Duke and dropped out of the Top 25 entirely.

Maybe we broke them. Maybe we showed opposing defenses how to handle their option. Or maybe Georgia Tech's offense just straight-up isn't that good this season.

Whatever the case, I don't think the current state of affairs should diminish the way our defense flew around the field last weekend. Joe Schmidt had one of the best games of his career, leading the team in sheer badassery and tackles, with 10 total including 2 for loss, 1 sack, and 1 QB hurry. For the majority of the game, the defense looked like they'd been blowing apart the option their entire lives instead of only facing the dreaded cut-blocking beast once per season.

On the flip side of the ball, Kizer went 21-of-30 for 242 yards and 1 TD in his first official start. His only major hiccup was an interception on a fade to the back of the end zone. Kizer doesn't have Zaire's footwork, or his so-charismatic-you-can-sense-it-through-the-TV-screen confidence, but he's a solid presence in the pocket, and he's looking pretty darn good at the helm--particularly because of the way the rest of the team is playing around him.

Speaking of:

Can we just pause for a moment to consider C.J. Prosise?

Holy guacamole, C.J. Prosise--where have you BEEN? What on earth was Folston doing in practice that put you at the #2 position? What weren't you doing in practice that put you at the #2 position?

I'm willing to contemplate the glorious probability that Folston is just that good. But I can hardly envision a running back playing better than Prosise has this season. The man does not quit. He does not go down on the first tackle. He spins. He jukes. He stiff-arms. He breaks Notre Dame stadium records by running the ball 91 yards for a touchdown, and he's on pace to average nearly 100 yards per half. (Slight exaggeration. But not really.) The man looks like a freaking professional. Someone's even started a Twitter feed @CJforHeisman.

I know we're only four games in--but when was the last time we had a running back with this kind of breakout season? Armando Allen had a pretty good senior year. Darius Walker had a solid run during the Weis era. We've had plenty of good backs in recent years.

But after these last two games, I'm starting to feel like the last time we really had a running back punishing our opponents the way Prosise has been is when we had Julius Jones.

The main difference, of course, is that when we had Julius Jones, he was pretty much our entire offense all by himself.

Whereas by the end of the game yesterday, a bunch of our freshmen running backs were also rolling over UMass like professionals.

Because the real heroes so far this season are the guys anchoring the offense.

O-line for Heisman

Let's be real: the main reason Kizer is looking so steady in the pocket and Prosise is putting up 200-yard games and Will Fuller has had a string of 100+ yard receiving games is because the O-line makes it possible. They're opening up holes you could drive a Hummer through. We averaged 9 yards per carry against UMass--a leap up from a pretty solid 6.7ypc against Georgia Tech. We did have that worrying failure-to-convert-on-4th down (and, uh, on 3rd down ever) against Virginia; since then, we've improved to 4-of-11 on 3rd down against Ga Tech and 8-of-13 against UMass.

And overall, I think the evidence is just in the way the team is starting to roll. Four freshmen scored touchdowns yesterday. We had 8 different receivers and 4 different running backs and 62 points on the board--the most scored by an Irish squad since Lou left.

You can't move the chains like that without a dominant O-line.

Round of applause for Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer, and Mike McGlinchey for being one of the most dominant units in college football. YOU COMPLETE ME.

Notre Dame 62, UMass 27

So did everyone enjoy playing NCAA Football '15 yesterday? See, I thought they discontinued that franchise after a lawsuit against EA, but--


Ahahahaha - someone please pinch me like it's St Patrick's Day and I forgot to wear green.

No. I take that back. Lemme just sit here and watch the highlight video a few more times.

Like, what--what--what was that?

A lot of this ridiculousness has already been discussed--but just to recap, yesterday's game included:
-681 yards of total offense
-62 points scored by 8 different players
-4 touchdowns scored by freshmen, including:
-CJ Sanders's punt return for a TD (the first in Notre Dame Stadium since fellow #9 Tom Zbikowski took it to the house vs UNC in 2006)
-Tyler Newsome breaking Geoff Price's game record by averaging 52 yards per punt
-Our first string taking the bench midway through the 3rd quarter
-25 defensive players recording a combined 74 tackles

I mean, seriously, I haven't seen that much of the bench out on the field since the last time we won Senior Day. Which--okay, just never mind about when that was.

But THAT, my friends--that is what I've been waiting for. For a team to look as good on the field as they do on paper. For the Irish to take up the slack after halftime and play to their highest level instead of whatever level their opponent happens to be playing.

When was the last time a Notre Dame team looked that good?


In the immediate aftermath of the Georgia Tech game, our performance had me feeling equal parts terrified and optimistic about the Navy game. Terrified because now Navy has a whole extra game's worth of footage to study--and as we know, Ken Niumatalolo and his staff have proven exceptionally skilled at throwing monkey wrenches into our defensive schemes.

Optimistic because C'MON--did you see how we manhandled that offense?! We absolutely swarmed them. Even if Navy executes their option better than Georgia Tech (which they probably will; Navy, if nothing else, can usually be counted upon for clean execution)

Onward to Victory

We're only a third of the way through the season, and our toughest games are still to come--including next week's primetime showdown against Clemson (which will be featured on ESPN College GameDay).

The bad news for us is that the 11th-ranked Tigers are coming off a bye week, and we're playing them in Death Valley.

The good news is that Clemson has played pretty much nobody so far this season. Their first two victories came against FCS opponent Wofford, 49-10, and newly-minted member of the Sun Belt conference Appalachian State (in the FBS since 2014! who knew?), 41-10. Clemson's first game against a Power 5 conference opponent was an underwhelming 20-17 victory over the 0-3 Louisville Cardinals.

So based on that, I'm assuming...nothing. I would say Clemson is overranked, but it's kind of hard to tell. Especially in a season where Alabama's already been knocked off by Ole Miss, Utah just kicked the stuffing out of Oregon, UCLA is apparently the best team in the PAC-12, Stanford and Michigan have clawed their way back into the rankings after early losses, and Northwestern is ranked higher than USC. I'm not sure how MSU ended up at #2, but after the first four weeks of college football, I'd say that makes about as much sense as anything else. I'm kind of looking forward to the Top-25 rankings imploding as conference play begins in earnest. Everyone knows pre-season rankings are BS, anyway.

But I digress.

I don't think Clemson's as good a team as Oklahoma in 2012, but this game kind of has that feel to it--our first big road test against a ranked opponent with a young QB at the helm. Based on absolutely nothing except my own instincts--I don't think Clemson's as good as we are. Not this year. But they tend to play brilliantly at home. They'll bring their A game, and it will be better than the A game of any opponent we've faced this season. Huge test for our O-line. For our defensive front.

But if yesterday is any indication, our team has started to heat up. Offense, defense, special teams--after that slack-line of a second quarter, everybody came to play. There's no mistaking what our team is chasing this season.

So watch out, Clemson. We're ready to pounce.


Becky Malewitz//SB TribuneBecky Malewitz//SB Tribune

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Notre Dame Football: The Sky Is Falling Edition

Sometimes I empathize with Chicken Little.

Watching our starting running back go down in week 1 and our starting quarterback topple in week 2--following a season in which almost every single starter on defense got injured or suspended--kind of makes it feel the sky is falling. Again.

The loss of Zaire, like a sharp thunk to the head, is enough to send any fan scurrying in panic. Most of our hype this season was predicated on having a fleet-footed, gunslinging beast in the pocket. Who are we without him? Who is this Kizer fellow, anyhow?

Toss Zaire's injury in the midst of an underwhelming performance against unranked Virginia, and it starts to feel like more than one acorn against the noggin. It's a whole hailstorm.

Because seriously:

-WHERE was the pressure from the D-line?
-HOW did we fail to convert a 4th down? And also go 0-of-10 on third downs?!
-WHY did we give up on the run game after Kizer went in?
-WHAT was with our secondary? Aren't they supposed to be one of our elite veteran units!?
-WHEN did we become so weak-ass in the red zone?!
-WHO do these Hoos think they are? Don't they know we're supposed to be playoff-worthy this year?!

I mean, seriously--I don't know how much more I can take of these teams playing us so hard it looks like they're fighting for the Superbowl and we're just fighting not to get injured before we start playing ranked opponents.


Obviously this is a terrible mentality. Because of course I want to give kudos to Virginia for a game well-played. And of course I think we should be dominating no matter who we're playing. And in the words of every decent coach ever: we should approach every game like it's the most important of the season, because let's be real--if you falter once in college football, you're more or less screwed out of getting a playoff spot unless everyone else takes an unexpected dive along the way .

Really, I think what I can't take anymore is my own thwarted expectations. I know that we aren't going to be amazing every year. (I do. I really do. I promise.) And even in the years we're supposed to be amazing...part of the joy and agony of sport is that you literally never know how a game is going to turn out until it's played. There's always the villainous upset lurking just around the corner; the unexpected blowout buoying you through the next week's nailbiter; the thrilling comeback that turns a thwarted dream into a tale of triumph. That's what makes our gridiron gladiators worth watching every week.

But I think there's a general consensus among those addicted to the action that truly elite teams tend to play as well on the field as the statistics on paper say they're supposed to. And they do so with consistency.

This is what I'm really hoping for, of course: that the team that plays to its own highest level of execution. That every week, they go out on the field and do pretty much exactly what you think they're going to do.

It's an unfair expectation to put on the 2015 squad, considering that even with Zaire at the helm, we didn't really know what the team would look like this year.

In 2012, when we ended up having a ridiculously dominant red zone defense, we didn't really see flashes of what the team would become until at least 2 or 3 games into the season.

So the team has to become what it is. It has to manifest its identity before you (aka: me--take a chill pill, Lisa) can start expecting it to perform a certain way with any kind of consistency.

Whatever our team (specifically our offense) was going to be this season is gone; that particular future fractured along with Zaire's ankle. We have a new team now. A new identity to mold.

The greater sports world is betting on that team being a weaker incarnation than the one we touted at the beginning of the season. Somehow we got bumped up to #8 in the polls this week, but obviously nobody believes it since everyone's picking 14th-ranked Georgia Tech to beat us.

It's hard not to see their point. Georgia Tech has averaged over 65 points per game the last two weeks. They run a fierce option (full of dubiously still-legal cut-blocking that ALWAYS RESULTS IN INJURY) that we won't be able to stop from entering the end zone. Without the threat of Zaire on the ground, we're going to have a much more limited playbook, and even with Can't-tackle-me-on-the-first-try Prosise at the helm, we're not going to be able to open up our run game in quite the same way.

But we mustn't give in to the panic.

Even if VanGorder's zealous blitz attacks against the Hoos resulted in precisely 1 sack (by KeiVarae Russell...y'know, the cornerback), 0 hurries, and several unpleasant flashbacks to the porously blitz-happy Weis defenses of olde.

Even if Prosise got 0 yards on 2 carries after Kizer went into the game and Notre Dame converted 0-of-10 third downs against the 109th-ranked Virginia defense.

That kind of thinking will lead you straight into Foxy Loxy's den to be devoured.

With less than an hour to go until game time, I know that these thoughts are too late to matter.

But for the sake of my own sanity, I had to spit some of this out. I have no idea how we're going to play against Georgia Tech. Despite DeShone Kizer's brilliant, Matt Saracen-esque moment of football glory to win the game last week, it's impossible to say how he'll handle the helm for an entire game. Hopefully with all the pomp and confidence of a German emperor (only, you know, without the disastrous political consequences and global warfare. Or turnovers. NO TURNOVERS).

I still think we have the personnel to take on anyone in the country. Today is our chance to prove it.

So in the hopes that we will make all the Ramblin' Wrecks from Georgia Tech feel like Sad Virginia Fan today:


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Notre Dame Football: Everything is Easy edition

Notre Dame 38, Texas 3

The Irish made that look easy.

5 touchdowns, 500+ yards, 1 field goal, 0 turnovers, 0 punts, and 19-of-22 passing (86%) in Malik Zaire's first game as Notre Dame's official season-long starter.

In the first week of the season, a lot of things are easy.

It's easy to look at the depth chart and get misty-eyed realizing we've got Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, and James Onuwalu all starting at linebacker. Or get a little slack-jawed thinking about our five starting wide receivers: Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter Jr., Amir Carlisle, and Will Fuller--backed up by equivocally exciting freshman Equanimeous St Brown (the hands-down winner for this year's best football player name).

It's also easy to say Notre Dame looks like a contender after just one game (thanks, Pat Forde) following an opening weekend where Notre Dame laid the biggest beat-down on a fellow FBS team. (Although I must admit that my favorite run-down of college football's opening weekend comes from an SB Nation writer who desperately wants the Irish not to be the real deal. How he can stomach watching Ohio State win anything is beyond me...but that's a rant for another time.)

Above all, it's easy to imagine the rest of the season stretching out before us in one long, unbroken line of victories. (At least, it is if we don't think too hard about the past and decide to buy blindly into Brady Quinn's preseason analysis).

This, of course, is how I attempt to envision every season. It's just not always easy. Sometimes it's downright laughable.

Not this year.

This year, I can envision us slicing through opposing defenses like butter, beatin' people like they stole something and riding the gravy train of our success all the way to the four-team playoff in December. It'll be easier than falling off a log.

I mean--not really.

But make no mistake: that's what this season is about. That elusive white whale, the 12th national championship, is far off yet, but it's in our sights once more.

For the first time in decades, I think we might actually have the crew to pull it off.


So, after Notre Dame's unexpected-yet-not-entirely-unsurprising-(because-let's-be-real-that's-how-they-should-have-been-playing -all-season) victory over LSU, I kept thinking I was going to write a rant entitled "Notre Dame Football: Redemption Edition." But now it's September, so I guess the time for that has passed.

Nevertheless--Notre Dame's 31-28 victory in the Music City Bowl was a balm for all the vicious burns we suffered at the end of last season. Redemption for a team that dropped 5 of its last 6 games (including a 3-point loss to Northwestern). Redemption for Golson and the offense, who turned the ball over 0 times; for Kyle Brindza, who scored a last-minute, game-winning field goal; for Sheldon Day and our injury-riddled defense, who surrendered an average of 40 points per game during the last half of the season. (Not to mention redemption for anyone who had to spend like 12 hours in the Superdome before watching the Tigers trample all over a perfectly decent 10-win season the last time Notre Dame played LSU.)

Because our execution during the last half of 2014 belied our talent.

And people (Lee Corso) need to stop saying things like, "Notre Dame's returning 10 starters on defense--but that defense surrendered the most yards ever in the second half of the season." Because most of those returning starters didn't actually play during the last half of 2014.

But all that's behind us. (At least, it had better be.)

With a ridiculous number of returning starters on both sides of the ball, we have the chance to jump right back where we were last season (while we were still good)--and hopefully make it through the season unscathed.

Mid-season form

"We didn't want to start off with the mentality of it being just the opener. We wanted to start off mid-season, with a mid-season mentality as far as the execution and things like that. We showed great confidence." --linebacker Jaylon Smith

Confidence! This may be the most crucial component of our team this year. Or at least it's the one I'm most craving, considering the confidence-draining codswallop that crippled us last season (aka turnovers, injuries, and specious playcalls that make me feel not at all sorry about the "touchdown" LSU may or may not have had after their fake field goal attempt in the first half of the bowl game).

Maybe it's just me, but I think Malik Zaire blares confidence like a gigantic 90's boom box.

I mean--it's easy to be confident when you're winning.

"When your guys are playing at a high level - offense, defense and special teams - it really just allows you to relax. It reassures you that we are going to be fine." --cornerback KeiVarae Russell

The trick is to keep executing at the highest level. And that's always the snag, isn't it? How do you maintain that all season long?

I mean--first, you avoid injury.

Unfortunately for us, starting running back Tarean Folston is already out for the season with an MCL tear. This is devastating to what is perhaps our least-deep unit on the offense (though the merry-go-round at TE is a thing of uncertain beauty as well).

Fortunately for us, our offensive line is looking sick this year. Led by All-American Ronnie Stanley at left tackle and grad student Nick Martin at center, the O-line paved the way for C.J. "you-can't-tackle-me-on-the-first-try" Prosise to chew up nearly 100 yards on the ground, and Josh "I'm-just-gonna-score-a-touchdown-on-my-first-ever-collegiate-play" Adams to average 9.8 yards per carry (on five carries).

"We were having fun, to be honest. We were just ready to play. I thought we did well." --center Nick Martin

Yes, Nick. Yes you did.

Of course, it's still difficult to predict what this game means for the rest of the season.

Is Texas quite as bad as they looked? Seems unlikely.

Is Notre Dame quite as good as they looked? The answer to that is slightly less easy. But looking at the rest of our schedule (from the luxurious vantage point of a one-win, top ten team), I don't see why we couldn't win out if the Irish continue to dominate the line of scrimmage, communicate well, and avoid turning the ball over. Looking at the rest of the season:

@ Virginia
Ga Tech
@ Clemson
@ Temple
@ Pittsburgh
Wake Forest
Boston College
@ Stanford

I'd say our keys to victory are:
-build confidence against Virginia before a bludgeoning battle against the ramblin' wrecks of Georgia Tech
-don't get injured against Navy so you can trample all over the Trojans
-don't go into overtime against Pittsburgh
-don't lose by a field goal to Boston College
-and don't worry about Stanford, they lost to Northwestern

Okay, JUST KIDDING about that Stanford thing (especially considering we lost to Northwestern last year). Actually it would be great if Stanford could kick ass the rest of the season so that when we come to Palo Alto over Thanksgiving weekend, the showdown will be--you know--a showdown.

As for our immediate opponent: I know almost nothing about Virginia, except that they lost 36-14 to #13 UCLA in their season opener and they have the most terrifying state flag in existence. Also their mascot has too many syllables. Oh--and one of their coaches is John Tenuta, former defensive coordinator at Notre Dame during the blitz-happy end of the Weis era.

Virginia might be well-coached, but I just don't think they have the personnel to battle us down the line. I say we're looking at a repeat of the Texas game, unless for some reason the players completely lose their cool. Considering the team seems to have less jitters playing away than they do at home (drawback of all that darn tradition, I guess), that shouldn't be an issue.

Photo: Matt Cashore // USA Today

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Notre Dame Football: Used Car Edition

How. Did. We. Get. Here.

SERIOUSLY--how do you march your way up to the Top 10 and then bottom out so badly that you lose in your last game by the LARGEST MARGIN EVER? I thought we were done with defensive statistics like this when Charlie Weis left and we got back to actually coaching fundamentals. Although based on the tackling in the last few games, apparently we've lost sight of fundamentals this season as well.

Since mid-season, our team has become a textbook illustration of Murphy's Law.

And a perfectly good season has rapidly deteriorated into a lemon.

Deflating Tires

As far as I can tell, Golson's confidence started to deflate after the Florida State game, and it's been taking the air out of the entire offense ever since. Until today, when Golson appeared so afraid of making a mistake that his favorite receiver became the sideline, and then he threw two interceptions, anyway, and everything...went...flat.

Zaire managed to pump some life back into the team with a two-play TD drive, and there were a few pretty sweet runs after the catch (including a doozy of a stiff-arm scramble by C.J. Prosise). But it was all too little, too late. Apparently there are leaks in our offense everywhere now. Not all of Zaire's passes were spot-on--but there were an appalling number of drops on the passes that were. I'm not sure if it was mental errors, or if the receivers weren't used to catching Zaire's wicked-fast spirals--whatever the case, the team couldn't finish. Which is a shame, because I stand by what I said before: when our offense is on, they can move the ball against anybody in the country. We've seen flashes of that all season. But with so many turnovers, it's become impossible to maintain momentum.

Maybe it's not even accurate to say our tires are constantly deflating. In the middle of drives, we just keep blowing them. And it's pulled our season to the side of the road, while the rest of the Top 25 zooms past.

Broken Parts

But the real struggle of this season has been on the other side of the ball, where almost every major component of the defense has broken down.

Here's the injury list for the USC game:
*Ridiculous un-blockable man-beast and defensive captain Sheldon Day--OUT (but hopefully back for the bowl game. since weirdly there will be a bowl game).
*Junior defensive lineman and other-half-of-the-Sheldon-Day-man-beast team Jarron Jones--OUT.
*Team leader in tackles and everyone's-favorite-Rudy-story Joe Schmidt--OUT.
*Returner and only-player-in-the-secondary-with-any-real-experience Cody Riggs--OUT.
*Other defensive captain-and-primary-leader-in-the-secondary Austin Collinsworth--OUT, and then in, and then OUT again.
*Freshman safety and one-of-the-top-ten-leading-tacklers Drue Tranquill--OUT.
*Junior safety Nicky Baratti--OUT.

Combined with the suspension of corner KeiVarae Russell, safety Eilar Hardy, and linebackers Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, running the defense has become an exercise in improvisation.

It's kind of like trying to fix a car with only the parts you have lying around in your shop. You can't order new ones; you just have to work with what you've got. Even if Sheldon Day is a grade-A non-replaceable part. Tough luck. So you swap in parts you know might not run as well; try to jam things in where they don't exactly fit; and basically jerry-rig the shit out of your schemes until it looks like MacGyver went to town on your playbook.

Only MacGyver's tricks basically only needed to work once--whereas our defense has sixty minutes of football to play each week. As our roster grew more and more hodge-podge, our opposing offenses only increased in difficulty. Our young, untested secondary got burned. Opposing offenses picked up Van Gorder's schemes--not necessarily because the schemes were bad, but because we could no longer execute them at the highest level. Confidence wavered. Fundamentals weakened. Too much was put on the shoulders of our weakest unit, and--perhaps in an attempt to overcompensate--parts began to break down at a rapid pace.

Fried Sensors

As you will most likely know if you have driven a car to a ripe old age, the most joyous parts to fix on any vehicle are the sensors--delicate, sensitive instruments that cost three times as much to replace as the average car part and can completely crap out your engine even when they control something that seems like it should have nothing to do with the overall performance of your vehicle. Such as the fan.

I cannot blame Kyle Brindza for the way things have gone this season--although it certainly would've been great if Brindza's holder hadn't decided to start fumbling snaps and completely deteriorate his confidence to a point where the field goal unit couldn't do anything to help the team win, even from extremely advantageous field goal ranges.

Which is a shame, because prior to this season, Brindza had scored more field goals for Notre Dame than any other kicker in Irish history. His accuracy has dropped from an average of 75% over the last two seasons to 59% this year. The sensor's on the fritz. Which is terrifying--because when it's not working properly, it can cause huge momentum shifts.

But if you don't have the exact right sensor to replace it, there's pretty much nothing you can do except take the risk of removing it entirely (usually not a good option) or just cross your fingers and hope it decides to start working again.

The Mechanic

With everything grinding to a halt in dubious fashion (no-win November, at your service) it's impossible not to look at the mechanic and go, "WHAT GIVES?"

Should Kelly have put Zaire in four games ago? Maybe. Maybe not. How do you a bench a quarterback who keeps winning despite his mistakes? Who makes last-minute touchdown passes against Florida State that get called back on penalties? Who nearly engineers a ridiculous comeback against ASU after five turnovers in a game where literally nothing went our way? (Though to be fair, whenever ASU decided to step on the gas, we were totally at their mercy. And at least 2 of those turnovers were directly engineered by the ASU defense.)

But how do you bench Everett Golson against Northwestern? That was supposed to be a bounce-back game, right?

And benching Everett Golson on Senior Day....

I don't know. See, this is why I'm not a coach.

The thing is, we knew turnovers were going to be a problem coming in. We were just assuming our offense was going to score enough points that we'd be able to survive it. And that performance would improve over the course of the season, as everything settled in.

Instead, Golson went nearly as much on the fritz as our kicker, and we sputtered to a halt.

The Lemon

So this is maybe the most confused I've felt about a 7-5 team in my entire life.

The Florida State game almost felt like a flashback to USC 2005.

Almost everything after that felt like a flashback to 2007. Or no--maybe 2008. Because, see, it's impossible for me to concede that we've played as poorly this season as we played in 2007. Because in 2007, the team was never a team. And this season--for a good solid 7 games--we were a team. On all sides of the ball.

And now we're not.

I honestly don't know how much to blame Kelly for (except maybe lack of commitment to the run game). We have new coordinators this year, which always changes the team dynamic slightly. We've had coaches out with illness. We've had the players suspended and then forced out for the season. Plus a combination of all the maladies mentioned above.

But it seems like there should be come consistency in our approach--some cohesion on some deeper level--that prevents us from falling so spectacularly apart.

Maybe Brian Kelly relies too heavily on his players to create that cohesion. I think it was pretty clear in 2012 that Manti Te'o was the heart and soul of the team. As long as he was on fire, we continued to win games we may or may not have had any business winning. A perfect storm of a season. At least up until the post-season. And the scam which (whatever your opinions are about it), I am convinced, took some of the heart out of the heart and soul of the team. I mean--Alabama is still Alabama, and maybe they would've won anyway. But I think Irish fans can agree that the defense we saw in the first half of that championship game had none of the fire or aggression or passion it played with for the majority of the season.

And this season... We lost all of our leaders on defense to suspension or injury. There's only so much you can do from the sideline; and I think players on the field tried to step up--but there's only so much you can do if you're not 100% sure you know what you're doing. As mentioned, I think we lost Golson at some point after the FSU game. And it's possible Cam McDaniel's fumble took a bit of the air out of him, too. (Though I certainly don't want to cast aspersions on Cam the Man's leadership. And would like to point out that there's only so much you can do when you're not in charge of calling audibles and you only get the ball once like every thirty plays.) There's no been no time to gain confidence with Zaire in the driver's seat (um...I guess that's where the quarterback belongs in this metaphor).

So here we are: bowl eligible, but stalled. Maybe we can make something out of the post-season. Maybe we can find the right spark to get things running again. Another three weeks of practice with Zaire at the helm couldn't hurt. (Although really, you guys, I do still love Everett Golson. If he could just figure out how to simmer down and play his game he would be TOTALLY FINE.)

But mostly I'm just hoping we can coast through to next year with all of our parts still intact. I think we've had more than enough injuries for one season.

I suppose this is a melancholy way to end things. But really, four losses is a damn melancholy way to end the year.

So I can only say, steadfastly and as always: GO IRISH.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Notre Dame Football: Magic 8 Ball Edition

So here's my prediction for the FSU game: Everett Golson's going to turn the ball over.

I know it. You know it. We all know it.

I am not saying we couldn't end up with another miraculous, turnover-free victory against a Top 10 team on the road (a la the Oklahoma game in 2012); Golson often has a freakish ability to play better in hostile road environments than he does when the Irish are at home. (Maybe all the animosity helps him focus. Who knows)

But every time I consider the possibility of a turnover-free game against the Seminoles, some internal, Magic 8 Ball-esque voice tells me: Don't count on it.

I still hope for the best, of course. But in an effort to brace myself for any inopportune possession changes, I've decided it's best not to simply wish for the costly mistakes to disappear. Instead, I've decided to focus on the potential outcomes of any turnover malarkey by asking myself: okay, what happens AFTER we turn the ball over?

Better not tell you now, says Magic 8 Ball.

But what we've learned so far this season is that it is apparently possible to turn the ball over five times and still win by a sixteen-point margin. And that we have a special teams unit strong enough to help us out in this endeavor, by gaining key field position, making key tackles, and blocking key kicks. We've also learned that we're capable of orchestrating a comeback--of scoring fifty points when necessary (scoring 6 out of 6 trips to the red zone), if that's what it takes to win the game.

The obvious response to all this--the one generally agreed upon by the greater college football universe and all statistical common sense--is Outlook not so good. Because obviously you can make crazy turnover mistakes against Syracuse. Or North Carolina. Or Purdue. Or...Stanford.  But you can't do that against a team like FSU. They will make you pay for it.

It makes sense. In fact, it's an argument I've made myself. Turning the ball over five times or digging a 14-0 hole in the first five minutes of regulation isn't a good idea unless you've been cast as the underdog in a heartwarming sports movie (preferably involving overcoming the odds by beating your big brother in a cross-town peewee football rivalry). And no--I don't think we can beat FSU if we make as many mistakes against the Seminoles as we made against North Carolina or Syracuse.

Because we've also learned this season that our defense can't stay on the field for 90 plays. That a hurry-up offense destroys our ability to make key substitutions and stay dominant on third down (see: North Carolina game). That our holder really needs to wear gloves during field goal attempts in the rain. And that it's more or less impossible to tell what's going on in Everett Golson's head, and we should probably abandon hope that the team (or Everett Golson's brain) will have eradicated all their stupid mistakes by the time the Irish trot out on that field in Tallahassee tonight.

But we can also say with absolute confidence that we've gotten lots and lots of practice recovering from our own mistakes. You may rely on it. The last four games have not been stellar in terms of dominance, and there have been so many obvious errors it's easy to fixate on them. But in the midst of the glaring snafu's, that when we're down--when things are starting to go wrong and the breaks are beating the boys--we go out there and WE WIN ANYWAY. Even if we miss two incredibly crucial field goals in a tight game against the top-ranked defense in the country. Even if we're watching the lead teeter back and forth like a see-saw until time finally expires.

It doesn't matter that some furious, selfish, unsportsmanlike part of me wants the team to shape the hell up and stop making turnovers, stop missing tackles, stop looking like they're a work-in-progress and start looking like a bunch of dominant mo-fo's--not because obviously they should be doing this anyway but so that people can STOP SAYING THINGS like, "Ha, well, even if Notre Dame does manage to scrape by on their suuuuuuuuper difficult schedule and go undefeated and make it into the playoffs, it's just gonna end up like this again: [post link to 2012 national championship debacle]"

Maybe I should just stop going on the internet during football season. Because I'm sick to death of these snarkastic comments and I'm sick of people saying ND has a ridiculously tough schedule at the beginning of the season and then taking it back three weeks later, and I'm sick of pre-season rankings in general; and I'm SUPER sick of the effing selection committee even though they haven't done anything yet, because HOW THE HELL is appropriating two of the major historic bowl games each season and pissing off a ton of Top-10 teams' fans by cherry-picking four teams each year instead of two ANY BETTER than the original system of "Hey, everybody just play your bowl games and we'll pick the winner from there"? (I guess that's an entire rant on its own, for another time.)

Anyway. Back to the point: I know everybody thinks we should be all quaking in our buckled leprechaun boots about the possibility of turning the ball over against the defending national champions (or whatever), but I say screw that. I will of course be a lobster-faced vision of fury should we turn the ball over three times and have it cost us the game. But I am not afraid of making mistakes. Go ahead, Irish. Give my blood pressure a spike. Do what you do.

Because even if this team DOES screw up, I don't believe it's a sign of imminent failure. Because this year, the one thing we've been really, really good at is overcoming our mistakes.

Now, perhaps this does not sound as optimistic or violently comforting as YEAH--let's go break some wooden boards apart with our faces and then go out there and smash in the faces of those Seminoles!!!!!! (

I'm afraid I don't really have a lot of face-smashing conviction about this game. Whenever I try to ask myself what I think, I mostly get a gloop gloop gloop...Try again later.

But I do know, with certainty, that we are capable of fixing our flub-ups. Even if we're just fixing them with duct tape and spackle to hold us over til the end of the game. (That's as long as it needs to last, anyway.)

And this is a new week. A new game. We get to start all over. Leave the lopsided, shoddily constructed structure from last week's caper behind and build something new. Maybe even something that will last. Something we'll look back upon--maybe even feel the urge to gild and commemorate for future generations. Because, you know, there are few things Domers love more than gilding victories for posterity.

So let's go out there and lay a new foundation. Doesn't matter how unstable the thing looks in the midst of construction; you pull this one out, and some combination of glee and nostalgia will fix that sucker right up until it looks like the friggin' Parthenon.  (Well. Or something like that. It's only the seventh game of the season; let's not get carried away.)

It is decidedly so.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Notre Dame Football: Haiku Edition

Apparently ND football haikus are a thing this week, thanks to Subway Domer's fit of poetic inquiry in the Irish Blogger Gathering. Kind of takes me back to the Weis era, when Haiku Notre Dame had its sterling run. Speaking as someone who once wrote a blog post entitled "Notre Dame Football: Moby Dick Edition," I can't entirely discount the appropriation of classic works or art forms to get the point across about exploits on the gridiron. So this week the blog will be, erm, poetic.

Frozen Five

Five men wait, frozen--
while wins rush past like rapids--
dangling like hooked fish.

No word on the hearings. Rumors leaking that no matter the outcome, the five suspended Irish players won't see the field this season. Brian Kelly denying any knowledge of the outcomes. The whole situation is appalling. It's bad enough that the investigation had to happen at all (don't even get me started on integrity and the apparently inversely proportional relationship between academics and athletic prowess in America)--but if it had to happen, just make it HAPPEN.

It's a sticky situation: if you let the players play and they're found guilty of academic dishonesty, they'll be suspended or expelled from school, and then become retroactively ineligible for all games and practices in which they participated (from the time the academic dishonesty started onward, presumably). Which then opens up the NCAA quagmire of Notre Dame potentially vacating wins in which those players participated.

Which, if you ask me, is pretty much the stupidest punishment ever. Those games happened the way they happened. Who can say whether the game would have turned out any differently because of that single player? But, you know, clearly something must be done to show people the seriousness of academic violations. So obviously the best solution is to wipe entire seasons off the record, thereby invalidating the play of every other person on the field and stripping the games of any meaning or outcome.

Yes. That will show them.

Anyway: If the players AREN'T found guilty, then at least they've been going to school and attending class, so they won't fall behind in their credits. But now they've missed six games--half a freaking season--and suffered the ignominy of an investigation and suspension for no reason. And will probably have to face not playing for the entire season, because of eligibility issues. And lack of practice. And so on.

If the players ARE found guilty, then they'll have to deal with suspension or expulsion, plus additional appeals and hearings. And if they're suspended from school immediately, then all the academic work they've done so far this semester (presumably of their own volition--?) will have been for naught. Although considering they're under investigation for academic fraud in the first place, I'm really not sure how to feel about this--only that it seems odd, given the circumstances, that they've been stripped of athletic privileges but still been allowed to go to class.

So clearly there was never an ideal way to handle this situation. Having uncovered the potential Honor Code violations during the summer session, the administration had no choice but to wait until school officially reconvened in the fall to assemble a hearing committee, which must include Notre Dame students (by code of the...Honor Code).

But it seems like the best option in a less-than-ideal situation would have been to get it over and done with as fast as humanly possible. Obviously the students, professors, and administrators involved in the hearings have enough else on their plates without having to decide the fates of five students who potentially committed the ultimate act of disrespect toward an institution of higher learning. But come on. Seven weeks? No verdicts?

Considering ND is filled with obsessive overachievers collectively invested in the outcome of collegiate sporting events probably more than is reasonable or wise, it is hard to believe this is the best we can do.

As to the outcome of the investigations: I have no idea what is going on. None at all. Given that Everett Golson was suspended last season due to Honor Code violations, it's not like we can exactly point to the entire team having squeaky clean records or anything. It's still depressing. But I don't know anything about the situation and don't care to speculate. The only thing I can say is that this catch-and-release job they're pulling on the five students in question has dragged on so long it's borderline cruel, and whatever the outcome, it just needs to COME. Let's get this over with.

Anyway. Enough depressing ranting. On to actual football!

Notre Dame 17, Stanford 14

By Golson's faith, strength, and arm
Cardinal sins die.

The Irish are 5-0 for only the third time since Lou left.

Five years into Brian Kelly's program, this is what we want to see: a team staying alive until the very end; playing physical without getting pushed around; recovering from mistakes by playing with confidence--and absolutely no fear.

Everett Golson is a winner. As he's been the perpetrator of our greatest pitfalls so far this season, so has he been the engine of our victories.

The man will not stop. He will not quit. He is 15-1 as a starter.

He will not be defeated.

I'm not just talking about the scoreboard at the end of the game (although that is obviously the most crucial statistic). I'm talking about the mentality it takes to win the game. Never mind that our ground attack has been sputtering at best. Never mind the unusually high number of turnovers in the red zone (actually wait, do mind those; just be grateful they're happening so deep in enemy territory our opponents have had to work hard to make anything out of them). Just keep in mind that whatever happens, Golson will go out on the field next play and try to win. And everyone around him will try to win. And even if it takes until 4th-and-11 in the last minute of play, he will keep trying to find a way to win.

Full satisfaction lies in full effort. You can't ask for more than that. (Although srsly guys, STOP TURNING THE BALL OVER.)

In many ways it feels like we are in the Top 10 by default. Just because we're undefeated. Which, you know, we've earned--but people are still acting like we haven't earned our stripes. Our defense is still young and our secondary relatively untested (though so far we're being pretty punishing against the run). Our offense can move the ball against anybody--we gained nearly as many yards in the first HALF against Stanford than the top-ranked Cardinal defense had allowed in a single game all season. But we've had lots of mistakes, lots of turnovers these last three games. With Michigan's season going down the tubes, there's still some sense that we haven't played any "real" opponents. That everything will somehow be decided against Florida State next week.

But make no mistake: beating Stanford is still a tremendous victory. Not a statement victory (whatever the hell that is) or proof positive that we "belong" in any particular place in the rankings. But five weeks into the season, we've at least proved that we're not going to stop fighting. That we're going to keep plugging at it, without loss of confidence or resolve. That we don't get rattled. The way the players talk about the team is only ever positive, only ever "everyone on the team can play."

It's not just confidence, you know, it's faith. We're not winning because of the offense, or because of the defense. We're not winning because we're executing so perfectly on every play. We're winning because the WHOLE TEAM PLAYS. Even if they botch an assignment, they botch it 100%--which, if you're going to make a mistake on the field, is the only acceptable way to do so. Even when Golson's scrambling for his life, it's just because he's trying to get another play off. Trying to make something happen. Playmakers. That's what we've got. Everybody trying to make plays, all the time.

So if you're not going to be the most experienced, most perfectly executing team in the history of teams, that's about all you can ask for.

Well, except for having a defensive coordinator who decides that instead of going into a "victory defense" at the end of the game he's just going to call an ALL OUT BLITZ and sack the ever-loving shit out of Stanford's quarterback (or pay dearly for the gutsy call).

I couldn't have scripted a better end to the game. At this point, I almost feel like I couldn't ask for any more from Van Gorder, who is absolutely capitalizing on the advantage of nobody-knows-what-my-game-is yet to shock the hell out of opposing defenses. NO HESITATION. NO OVERTIME. NO MERCY.

I feel like if I were to come back in my next life as a defensive coordinator, I would probably come back as something resembling Van Gorder. (He's my spirit animal, guys.)

Last but not least, can I just take a moment to commend the special teams for really, incredibly excellent play all season long? Never mind those two botched field goals (which were fixed later by the holder--here's a revolutionary idea, to quote Brian Kelly--PUTTING ON GLOVES so he could handle the ball better in the rain). The fact that we have a special teams unit worth speaking of is still kind of surreal. But also: awesome.

And against North Carolina, we are just going to keep bringing the awesome.

Onward to Victory
Cleats laced, run game go
Trap game test of tar on turf to see
whose heel stomps hardest

(Hint: it's ours.)


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Notre Dame Football: Schrodinger's Cat Edition

See, this is why I don't make predictions. They always come out feeling less like predictions and more like I'm tempting fate. Everyone please ignore me any time I start talking about the future. PAY NO ATTENTION to the woman behind the keyboard. (In other news: I predict we are going to play terribly against Stanford. Terribly.)

Nevertheless, despite a penalty-laden victory over Purdue and a terrifying five-turnover foot-shooting fest against the Orange, the #8/#9 Irish are 4-0 and heading into our first big test of the season against the 14th-ranked Cardinal. (You know, since Michigan has apparently decided to rock it like it's 2008 and all. Which I am totally okay with. As mentioned.)

On the bright side, the Irish have scored 30+ points in their first four games for the first time since 1943. Which would be a bit more impressive if the other members of the Top 25 weren't busy shellacking their opponents by scores of 56-14 (#9 MSU vs Wyoming) or 62-27 (#11 UCLA vs #15 Arizona St) or 63-7 (#16 LSU vs New Mexico St).

The usual arguments must be trotted out for inspection. It still seems both unnecessary and distasteful to beat opponents by a fifty-point margin just to prove how good you are--as though taking it out on clearly overmatched teams proves anything at all. There is this insidious sense that yes, if your team is REALLY that good, you should be steamrolling over all of your unranked, "lesser" opponents, and the best way to prove this is by racking up the score, and if you don't do this you are clearly not one of the elite.

Which is just poor sportsmanship.

But it's become so commonplace that I think this (horrible) mentality contributes to our frustration when we play, for example, Purdue.

Because the Spoilermakers have a tendency to give us the best game of their season. Which is the kind of grit and verve that should be commended. But instead Irish fans have a tendency to gnash their teeth and wail in frustration. Particularly this year, coming off the downright euphoria of blanking Michigan, heading into the Shamrock Series game with two solid wins under our belt that were so clean, so free of penalties or injuries or costly turnovers that it was downright flabbergasting to see the mental mistakes against Purdue. A team that, in the week prior to playing the Irish, lost 38-17 to Central Michigan. It was hard, in the midst of the action, not to want to yell "KNOCK IT OFF PURDUE. STOP PLAYING LIKE YOU ARE IN THE ROSE BOWL. THIS ISN'T THE POSTSEASON JUST SIMMER THE HELL DOWN."

Which, you know, is kind of like complaining, "Last practice and this asshole thinks it's the Super Bowl."

But unlike O'Hara, our actual frustration isn't that our opponents are playing like they're in the Rose Bowl. Our actual frustration is that our opponents look like they think they are playing in the Rose Bowl--and we do not. They may be having their best game of the season against us--but we do not look like we are having our best game of the season against them. And while I'll certainly take a win, no matter the form, it'd be nice to see us, you know, not stumble. (Or fumble.)

I am all for a good, tough, head-to-head matchup. I can even handle a close game EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE--if both teams are battling hard and only fail to score because they keep thwarting one another.

But just once, guys--JUST ONCE--I would like to go through an entire season without having more questions about our team than answers.

Because staring the season with 2 solid wins, followed by a rocky first half (but a reasonable pull-together in the second half) against Purdue, followed by a bye week (during which you think, "Okay, all that nonsense against Purdue will have worked itself out by now") followed by a trip to the Meadowlands involving five turnovers and more mental mistakes than we've seen in out first three games combined? WAY MORE QUESTIONS. NOT ENOUGH ANSWERS.

It was too easy, in the wake of 31-0 shutout glory, to get carried away with visions of a dominant season. Which we may yet have. If we can get our act together.

And it would be easy, too, to blame a lot of these recent errors on the youth of our team. Particularly the defense.

But that's unfair because most of these errors were perpetrated--and then fixed by--Golson. Who, I am now vividly recalling, has always needed a bit of time to settle in and get his head on straight before he really starts executing at a high level. So you end up with a game that includes five turnovers and five scoring drives (if I'm remembering that right). 31-15.


What a victory.

On the one hand--Syracuse is not exactly a dominant powerhouse threat; any good team should make you pay for turning the ball over 5 times.

On the other hand--holy crap, we turned the ball over five times and managed to score 31 points. And I think rack up 500 yards of offense? (I have not checked the statistics. Don't listen to me.)

So that's kind of astonishing.

But provides no decent theories about the rest of the season.

Alive or dead?

So we're left once again with Schrodinger's cat-in-the-box conundrum. Is it alive or dead? There's no way to know until we open the box. And I think most Irish fans are counting on this game against the Cardinal to tell us whether the rest of this season will be alive one--or one more deadly and fraught with self-immolation.

I'm really counting on it not being the latter.

There's so much uncertainty still hanging over our heads--the pending, ridiculously drawn-out investigation of four players for academic dishonesty (seriously, how can it be taking this long?); injuries; the mental state of QB1; Van Gorder's youthful defense--particularly the secondary--yet to be tested against a truly dominant passing attack.

I look out on the rest of the season and see only a box.

But I am ready for some answers.

It's gray. It's cold. It's dripping. But there are going to be like a thousand band members in the stadium today, so that should help.

Let's play this like it's the freaking Rose Bowl.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Notre Dame Football: Read It Like A Book Edition

Notre Dame 31, Michigan 0

You know that feeling when you're reading a good book and you don't want it to end, but you cannot put it down because it is SO GOOD--and then once you're finished you're desperate to talk about it with someone but talking about it only makes you want to read it again, and then after you're done re-reading it you think "DANGIT why isn't there a sequel?" and then once the sequel is announced you feel both thrilled and trepidatious, because how could the sequel possibly be as good as the original? It can't, of course--but there's always the hope that the author's only warming up and the sequel will be even better than the original and after enough days of rehashing and re-reading and re-reading and re-reading you become a bit desperate for the sequel because YOU MUST KNOW. WHY ISN'T IT PUBLISHED YET.

That is what this season's like.

At least so far.

Notre Dame's 31-0 shellacking of the Michigan Wolverines is a page of history I want to read over and over and over again. After the game, I went home after the game and scrolled obsessively through Twitter, liked every game-related Facebook status I could find, rewatched the game highlights, re-posted my favorite .GIFs; and all week long I've continued rewatching and rehashing and basically LIVING THE DREAM and still I cannot get enough of how awesome it was.

The last game against Michigan that even came close to being this much fun was the 2012 affair in which Denard Robinson threw four interceptions. In a row. On his birthday.

But it was not necessarily a game you want to take home and cherish. It was simply one wild victory amid a series of demoralizing, outrageous narrow defeats and equally hair-raising victories against the Wolverines.

Our final prime-time showdown against the Skunkbears (for the next twenty-odd years--or however long the series goes on hiatus this time) seemed destined to follow the same scurrilous plotlines as almost-every matchup for the last decade: another bloody, pulp-fiction mash-up--gory and gut-wrenching down to the last punctuation mark.

Instead it was a giddy, gloom-free adventure yarn, thick with touchbacks, touchdowns, turnovers, and--egads! can it be?--punt returns (fielded by the absolutely fearless Cody Riggs), dazzling its readers (I mean spectators) with a breathtaking, never-before-seen 31-0 conclusion.

At least, it was if you're an Irish fan.

Pursuit of Perfection

If I said this was a perfect game for the Irish, that would be a lie. Everett Golson needed three time-outs during the first series of the game to get the offensive tempo right. Our receivers dropped some key passes. Michigan came within scoring range on their first two drives of the game, notched 9 more yards of total offense than the Irish (289 to ND's 280), and converted a key 4th down early in the game.

But Michigan had four turnovers. We had none.

Michigan missed two field goals. We were so busy scoring touchdowns we only attempted one.

Notre Dame was 4 for 4 on scoring chances in the red zone. Michigan didn't even make it to the red zone.

The crazy thing is--Michigan didn't even look that bad. It wasn't like they were falling all over themselves, fumbling snaps or running all over the field like fools, the way my unfortunate and least-favorite-protagonist (aka JimmayJimmayJimmay) did when Michigan blanked us 38-0 in 2007. Michigan looked like a team that knew how to execute; and which is probably capable of executing at a much higher level.

Only they didn't, because we were too busy straight-up kicking their ass and everybody knows it. Including Wolverine head coach Brady Hoke:

"Number one, give Notre Dame credit for how they played. It was a total butt-kicking all the way around."

Step off, Balrog. You thought you had our number but we totally turned Gandalf the White on your ass.

Feel free to savor that for like the next two decades.

Double Double, Toil and Trouble...

I'm just going to say this now, even though it's only two games in and too soon to call it: something special's brewing in South Bend.

I'm not saying it to be cocky and I'm not worried about jinxing us (though feel free to knock on wood if you like); it's just a deep-down feeling in my gut, and it's been there ever since I walked out of the stadium Saturday night.

The crowd was different than I expected. Not rowdy or raucous or even necessarily electric. Just fierce. Because it wasn't a game filled with the thrill of a comeback or sudden, violent twists of fortune (despite the turnovers); it was a page-turning ADVENTURE, where from beginning to end, no matter what potential peril loomed ahead, everything always turned out all right. And you don't keep going along with the story because you want to see more peril; you keep going because every freaking page is full of WIN.

Even if an undeniable part of the glee over beating the Wolverines is fueled by a borderline vicious desire to have the last laugh, the energy in the stadium was not one of anger or revenge; it was more the exuberant energy of JOY. Pure celebration. And contentment. Like lying on the beach reading your favorite book all day while people bring you free drinks kind of contentment. That sleepy, assured certainty pooling deep in your stomach that ALL IS RIGHT WITH THE WORLD, and whatever disasters are going on elsehwere, whatever uncertainties or doubts or pitfalls lie in our future, they cannot touch you at this moment. Nothing can touch you. At this moment, YOU ARE INVINCIBLE. And you do not want it to end.

In all honesty: the loudest thing I heard coming out of the student section all night was a booming chorus of "Notre Dame Our Mother," followed by most of the students just standing around for a while, not wanting the night to end. So naturally everyone went home and watched replays, accompanied by sudden uncontrollable bouts of maniacal laughter. (Well, okay. Maybe that was just me.)

But anyway. My point is--for most of 2012, it felt like we were playing with a chip on our shoulders. We had a year of amazing, nailbiting victories--of questions that needed to be answered, points that had to be proved. Our squad that year was driven by the defense; its heart and soul was undeniably Manti Te'o. And when Te'o got crushed by a hideous catcfishing scam, the team likewise faltered and went down hard. (That's my narrative and I'm sticking to it.)

But the team that played Michigan Saturday night? No questions. Only answers. As Coach Kelly noted in the post-game presser:

But, this team [...] probably its success is really in its youth. There's young guys out there that are playing for this football team, and we have embraced that. [...] It's a group of kids that has bonded really well together on both sides of the ball. So, it's not really just one side. It's not just the defense. It's not just the offense. When we won 12 games, it was definitely a defensive group that kind of led that. This, they feed off of each other one both sides of the ball. 

The team that was in the stadium Saturday night put forth an effort so complete, so unified, so viscerally present that our mistakes didn't matter. We made mistakes, but we absorbed them the way readers absorb minor typos in an otherwise perfect manuscript: we glossed right over them and moved on. 

As Lou Holtz reminds us, you don't have to be the best team in the country. you just have to be the best team in the stadium every week. So we don't need to play perfect every week. We just need to play like THAT every week. Not like we're out to prove something; just like we're out there to PLAY. If we play every game the way we played Saturday, we will win every game on our schedule.

Anyway. I know it's too early in the season to be saying any of this and that everyone is looking forward to Stanford as the next big test. But our goose-egg defeat of the Skunkbears isn't the kind of game you see every day. Or every decade. And I am just saying. If we keep this up--if we believe in Mt. Everett, the man who cannot be brought down--if we believe in a full-team effort led by the Prodigol5on.... There's something special about to start brewing in South Bend.

And in the meantime: