Sunday, September 7, 2008

It's the moooost wonderful time of the year....

Notre Dame 21, San Diego State 13

Ahh football season. If you know anything about me at all, you will know that my life is now complete. The stars have aligned, the demons have been chased away, and all that is good and shining in the heavens smiles down upon the earth and says, "Go Irish."

Or something like that.

Anyway, as you all are perfectly aware, there is nothing in the world like a Notre Dame football weekend, and yesterday we had a pretty good one. As fans go, the Aztec faithful were respectful and, as far as I could see, pretty classy. On my walk back to TC, an SDSU fan stopped me to give mad props to the band, and also ask how big we are. (Those were his exact words. "Mad props." ...just kidding.) Score one for the Band of the Fighting Irish.

And hey guess what guys?

The Irish win at home!

It's hard to believe, I know, especially for you sophomores, but trust me--we used to do this ALL the time. As a matter of fact, if we had lost yesterday (just thinking about it is giving me vomitous convulsions), it would have been the first time we lost back-to-back home openers since 1887-1888 (you know, in the first two years Notre Dame had a football program).

I suppose we have Kevin White to thank for this cupcake schedule. It could not have come along at a better time. In the future, of course, I will continue to scoff at any easy-ass schedule the Irish have lined up, because quite frankly, we deserve better. There's no reason we shouldn't have the toughest schedule in the country every year, and there's also no reason we shouldn't be able to compete with the best in the country every year.

Except for right now, of course. Now there are plenty of reasons, which I'll get to in a minute, but for right now I'll just say: wooooooo! The Irish win at home!

And I would like everyone to keep in mind, no matter how dire they would like to be about the fact that we did not crush former Division II powerhouse San Diego State, that a win is a win. Is a win. Is a win win win!!!!


Anyone who says that yesterday's team resembled last year's team needs a good whack over the head. Possibly with a large metal frying pan. Or a football cleat. Or a shillelagh. Or something.

Charlie's done a lot of talking about the changes he's tried to make in the off-season--hiring Jon Tenuta, handing over offensive play-calling duties to Mike Haywood, trying to spend more time with the players, actually paying attention to special teams--and whether or not these changes are going to be enough to set us back on track is not yet apparent. (For those of you who aren't aware, "back on track" means "back in contention for the national championship," which we've never gone so long without winning.)

Basically, Charlie spent the off-season trying to figure out what he should have been trying to figure out three years ago: how to be a college head coach instead of an offensive play-calling guru. Too bad he didn't have the chance to do this at some other, less football-oriented school first, instead of on the national (media-circus) stage of historically great (and perennially hated) Notre Dame.

Even if Charlie's solutions in the off-season aren't 100% what we need, at the very least they've already done a heap of good for the boys on the team. Anyone who says otherwise clearly did not attend the pep rally on Friday night.

This team is miles away from the disjointed, despondent, and often-dejected squad we saw struggle for cohesiveness through all of last season. This guys all actually appear to be--wait for it--having fun. They look like they enjoy each other's company. They smile. They're coming up with their own cheers, for goodness' sake.

This is an extremely good sign. You can't have unity on the field if you don't have it off. The thing that worries me, though, is that the only significant person who seems to be outside the loop (as far as team bonding goes) is Jimmy. According to my roommate, they wouldn't let Jimmy in the "Crank me up!" huddle at the pep rally. This does not surprise me at all; Jimmy is a little pustule with an attitude problem. But he's what we have right now, so hopefully this year's team is a little more willing to block for him than last year's.

I would also like to point out that when we won the coin toss yesterday, we deferred to the second half, which is normal for most teams, but for Charlie, it's huge.

Oh hey, offense. Welcome back.

Okay, so our team's not specifically good right now, but they're not specifically bad either. (You want to know what specifically bad is? Specifically bad is last year's team, which had negative fourteen rushing yards after three games.) We've got a lot of things going for us that we didn't have last season.

For example: Jimmy did not get sacked. At least, not that I saw. I did go to the bathroom once, so maybe I missed something. But I'm thinking no. This is extremely refreshing. Sure, our opponent was San Diego State, but last season Jimmy got sacked at least four times in every game including the Duke game, so really, this is very encouraging.

Secondly, OMFG WE HAVE RUNNING GAME. Not a particularly excellent running game, but you know, the fact that it exists is kind of exciting. The O-line still has some issues opening up holes for people (namely Robert Hughes, who apparently had to be tackled by San Diego State's entire defensive line every time he ran up the middle, because he is such a beast), but that doesn't concern me nearly as much as it did last season. You know why? Because now we have something to build off of. We didn't have that last year. Last year we went from bad to really bad to oh-hey-we're-still-bad to "screw it let's just pass the ball all the time" bad. And then we got to the end of the season and Charlie realized we still didn't have a running game established, so we tried again against weaker opponents and actually managed to gain some ground yards (cue Robert Huuuuuuughes).

At any rate, there were very few running plays that resulted in no gain. Unfortunately, most of these seemed to be on crucial 3rd-and-1 conversions, but...oh well. Like I said, it's something to build off of. Armando Allen seemed to average about five yards a carry, and Robert Hughes seemed to bash through a couple people every time he got his hands on the ball, even if there was nowhere to go. (P.S. Where was James Aldridge yesterday? I feel like I didn't see him at all...)

Also, success in the air! Didn't I say it? DIDN'T I? Golden Tate is the man. There were some very nice grabs yesterday, off some not-always-so-gossamer passes, by Duval Kamara and David Grimes as well as Tate.

Not to knock all Jimmy's passes -- he's improved leaps and bounds since last season. For example, Jimmy has finally learned to throw the ball away. I can't tell you how invigorating that is. Also, overall, the offense managed itself a lot better and with a lot more composure than it did last season. I know yesterday's game wasn't at all what we were hoping for, and I know we were playing San Diego State and everything, but still. Even with the botched field goal, even with the turnovers, I was never concerned that we wouldn't win. Frustrated, of course. Horrified when Hughes and then later Allen went down.

But there's something different about our team this year, yeah? They made it happen. They didn't give up. They had the capacity during the whole game (and I feel this was evident from the beginning, though you can call me delusional if you like) to do what they did in the fourth quarter: drive the ball down the field and score.

I feel that the reason we did not do this well in the first half is, first of all, we tried to throw the ball WAY too many times on 3rd-and-short, and failed. I don't care if we tried to run the ball on 3rd-and-short later in the game and failed. That doesn't mean you should give up on your run game. That just means you need to pound the ball on 3rd-and-short until your offensive line knows what they need to do to make it happen. If you can't gain a yard on the ground when you most need it, there's something wrong there. (It's not like SDSU's defense was so stellar or anything. You know?)

Also, we had some bad luck. That turnover when Robert Hughes got CRUSHED and injured really wasn't his fault. That would have been a score. It was a really good drive up until that point. (But hey, karma worked in our favor later when we stripped the ball from SDSU on the goal line.)

Aaand we also just had some screw-ups. That botched field goal later? HUGE mistake. But that's something we can fix. (We hope. Why oh why don't we have any awesome kickers? Whyyy?)

Jimmy's pick? Frustrating, but at least there was only one of them, and we came back on the field again and scored in high fashion.

We had a game with four turnovers. Against another team, we might have paid dearly for it, but our defense played solidly enough (and SDSU's offense played weak enough) that that didn't happen.


And we managed to end the game on our own terms, holding onto the ball long enough to end the game by taking a knee (though I would have preferred slinging the ball into the end zone one last time, just to get the score closer to what it should have been).

What we're experiencing here is growing pains. We've got a little momentum. We've got something of a running game and something of a passing game and a no-huddle offense in place for emergency use.

And hey, we've got a little defense too.

Crank Me Up

Thanks to the freshmen for attending the pep rally and teaching "Crank me up" to all the upperclassmen who apparently think they have better things to do with their lives than go to the pep rally on Friday night (you fools).

But no thanks to the freshmen who think we need to do the stupid first-down chop. We're not Florida State, thank you very much. Get over it.

Anyway, our D did a decent job of bringing pressure and knocking away enough pass attempts to hold SDSU's QB to a 49% completion rate. As predicted, with the extra emphasis on linebackers and blitzing (courtesy of Jon Tenuta), we're slightly more susceptible to the big play, which bit us in the butt a few times as we gave up key 3rd-and-long conversions.

BUT we did come up with the BIGGEST play when we needed it--David Bruton's stripping the ball on the goal line to keep the Irish well in the game. There are some definite sparks there.

I would have liked to see more aggression, though--perhaps getting that safety when we had the opportunity, a few more sacks, and oh, I don't know, an interception or two?

Like I said, growing pains.

But before you get all, "OMFG it was SAN DIEGO STATE how did we almost lose to THEM??" just consider a few things

As previously mentioned, a win is a win. A win is not embarrassing. As Coach Weis said in his post-game presser, "I'll take an ugly win every day of the week."

Because here's the thing about ugly wins: they help you more than they hurt you. First of all, your team walks off the field with a W, so they get to feel good about themselves all week. They get to celebrate with the student body, sing the alma mater with a big fat smile on their faces, hear the ever-elusive victory clog.

And if your opponent for next week is thinking, "oh hey, thanks SDSU for exposing all their weaknesses!" --guess what? SDSU did our team that favor, too. We know what almost cost us the game. We know what we need to fix.

And, more importantly, we know that in a game-time situation, we can overcome those weaknesses long enough to bring home a win.

Also I would like to point out that for most teams, particularly teams that have never gone up against the Irish before, playing Notre Dame is a Big Fucking Deal. Everyone loves to beat us. Even when we stink, the college football world is So Aware of us. When you play in Notre Dame Stadium, you play on a national stage. (It's like Monday Night Football in the Pros, okay? Everyone's watching you.) I can guarantee you San Diego State has NEVER had such a large national viewing audience before (they have played against other big D-I schools like Michigan and Ohio State, but neither of those schools have an exclusive contract with NBC now do they?), and I can bet you the coaches spent a lot more time scheming over how to trip up the Irish than they did scheming over that I-AA school they lost to last week.

If you weren't aware of this before, be aware of it now: Everyone brings their A-game when they play Notre Dame. We don't just have to be better than our opponent. We have to be better than the best our opponent can possibly play. (Unless they're Michigan State. Then they're likely to self-implode and do the job for us.) I'm not saying San Diego State was wonderful or anything, but they certainly played better this week than last week, and (if you watched Coach Weis's presser) they did as much as they possibly could to trip us up; they didn't bring out their usual set of schemes, they brought pressure on the weak side when they usually come from the strong side, and so and so on. And they had the lead for a while.

But we're stronger this year, and we fought back. We're not convincing yet. But we've got something.

Murky waters ahead

So we face Michigan next week. They're not supposed to be any good this year. Then again, last year they lost to Appalachian State and went on to kick our butts 38-0. (See what I mean when I say A-game?)

Soooo it's really tough to say how we're going to go up against my second-most-hated opponent of the season. (The first is USC, always USC.) They have the most inexperienced offensive line we're going to face all season, so hopefully our linebacker-heavy defense will be able to capitalize on that, but who knows?

Michigan's hard to estimate, considering they have a new coach, no solid quarterback (it's a rotation between Threet and Sheridan at the moment--I'm sure we're all aware of how fun Musical Quarterbacks can be), an untested O-line, and the same gutless, uninspired football they've been playing for the last hundred years. They lost to Utah in their opener and are coming off an ugly win of their own against Miami (OH), which they won 16-6.

All I can say is there's no reason for us NOT to win. The Wolverines haven't done anything impressive so far, and they've had TWO games to get in shape for ND. I say we're going to take back our house and kick Michigan to the curb in old school fashion. And if we can, let's exact a little revenge for last year's game...SHALL we, boys?

Oh, and if the putrid sight of Michigan's [imaginary color]-and-blue uniforms isn't enough to get your gag reflex going, consider this: their kicker this year is Nathan Parseghian, Ara's great-grandnephew. Let's prove to that loser he made the WRONG choice, shall we?

*EDIT* Oh thank God I was wrong. Nathan is Miami's kicker. Well that's okay then. (Clearly I was not actually watching the Michigan game. I don't look at those turd monkeys if I can help it.)

To conclude: The Irish are 1-0. I'm in my happy place.


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