Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Back In Action

Notre Dame 33, Washington 7

Ahhh vacation. I hope everyone's rested, relaxed, and ready for Notre Dame Football 2008: Part 2.

The second half of our season has started out a little more auspiciously than our first half. We've progressed from a shaky 21-13 win over San Diego State (whose record, by the way, now stands at 1-7) to a 33-7 whomping over winless Washington. The most painful part of that game for Notre Dame fans was having to listen to the overly tangential commentary of Bob "Guess what? I used to coach at Notre Dame too!!" Davie.

That said, I would just like to take a moment to empathize with Washington. I know how it feels to be so utterly winless so late in the season. I also know how it feels to have Ty Willingham as your coach.

Ty, on the one hand, strikes me as calm, confident, classy, and overall a quality human being. The respect and admiration he gets from his players is overwhelming. It's hard to dislike a man who has 60+ college kids singing his praises week in and week out.

On the other hand, though, that respect and admiration doesn't always allow his squads to win the crucial games. He accumulated winning records at both Stanford and Notre Dame, but over 10 seasons, only five of them were winning (and one of his seasons at ND broke even at 6-6), and he only coached one winning bowl team.

It's sad to see Ty let go so unceremoniously (...again), but I'm sure for most Washington fans it's a welcome indicator that next year's squad will be better than the last. (And boy do I understand that feeling.) I think Ty's got a lot of merit as a mentor and a motivator, but I'm not sure the arena of D-I college football is the best fit for him. Then again, what do I know? At any rate, I hope that Ty finds a good fit somewhere.

But enough about that. On to the action.

Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy

Jimmy's 53% passing this week was good enough for 200 yards, one TD, and receptions by five different wide receivers--but his performance overall was a little concerning, considering the Irish were up against the weakest pass defense we've seen all season.

After that first beautiful touchdown pass to Michael Floyd, the passing game teetered slightly; Jimmy missed on 10 of his first 16 passing attempts of the night. He also threw two interceptions--one overruled by a pass interference call, and the other on a 4th-down attempt that resulted (happily) in Washington grounding the ball on the one-yard line. Sheer luck got us out of some tight passing spots in Saturday's game, but we can't expect to be so lucky for the rest of the season.

Let's just hope Jimmy's a little rusty coming off the bye week and we won't have the same kinds of misfires as we go up against a stronger-than-expected (at least by me) Pitt team this week. The last thing we need is Jimmy throwing more minor tantrums on the sidelines after muffing up a perfectly decent drive. It's frightening how much we rely on that kid's arm in big games. And thinking ahead to our next big road match-up...Jimmy's really going to have to be in top form against BC if we want to show those Backup College clowns who's boss.

Running up a Storm

Our running game was back in action on Saturday, looking the best it has all season. Six different players (not including our QBs) had positive rushing yards, with Aldridge and Allen taking the bulk of the carries and chewing up valuable amounts of turf and time to keep the Irish in control of the ball for most of the game.

Freshman Jonas Gray also racked up some impressive numbers in the fourth quarter, rumbling along for nearly as many yards as Allen (61 to Allen's 62) on just nine carries, and averaging (along with Aldridge) over 6 yards per carry. I doubt we'll see him as a starter this season, but it's good to know we've got plenty more artillery lurking in the background should the need arise. And hey, if things pick up some more the second half of the season, maybe we'll see him a couple more times in fourth-quarter situations as well.

It's unlikely we see as much ground action against Pitt, but it's still rather heartening to see even our second teams coming out strong in a run attack.

Hooray for Brandon Walker!

I bet you never thought you'd see those words this season.

However, it seems that whatever kind of rust settled on our QB over break didn't affect our kicker. Brandon Walker's triumph over what was chiefly a mental battle led him to make 100% of his kicks on Saturday--a trend we can only hope continues for the rest of the season.

Walker's success between the posts even led Weis to give our new, walk-on kicker David Ruffer a shot. In case you haven't heard about this kid, he's a transfer student from William & Mary, an interhall player for the Siegfried Ramblers, and the newest addition to our football team. His first attempt at an extra point in front of a nationwide audience unfortunately dinged off the right goalpost, but apparently Ruffer's been making 45-yarders in practice, so if he can cure his own game-time woes, we just might have a solid kicking unit for the rest of the season.

I guess we'll see.

And speaking of special teams

...how about that fake punt?!

I'm glad we can do these things now. It's nice to see trick plays every now and again. Especially when they're as monstrously effective as this one was (Harrison Smith ran for 35 yards say WHAAAT).

And speaking of things that totally kicked ass last weekend

Oh heeeeeeey defense, how's it going?

I just thought I'd write a thank you letter to show my appreciation for your efforts this week.


Dear Mr.'s Herring, Crum, McCarthy, Bruton, Lambert, Anello, Fleming, Blanton, H. Smith, B. Smith, S. Smith, T. Smith, Williams, Brown, Neal, Leonis, Gray, Johnson, Richardson, Mullen, and McNeil,

Thank you for being such total badasses. I deeply appreciate your beastly total of a combined 49 tackles and 4 sacks.

I found it a particular display of your raw, superhuman beefy man-grit that you did not allow the Washington offense to cross their own 40-yard-line until the fourth quarter.

I was also so overwhelmed by your testosterone-fueled display of forcing repeated 3-and-outs that I may have swooned and fainted some time in the second quarter.

I can only hope that you denizens of the D-line, leviathan linebackers, colossal cornerbacks, SuperStrong safeties--you Gargantuans of the Gridiron, you Monsters of the Midfield!--can maintain such a high level of p'ownage throughout the rest of the season (particularly against USC), thereby cementing yourselves in the tomes of football glory (especially after you've beaten USC) and earning yourself the respect and awe of football fans for all the ages of eternity (beat USC).

In love and devotion (and with the hope of more raw manpower--particularly in the form of forced fumbles and interceptions), your fervent admirer,


I think that pretty much says it all.

Onward ho!

So...Pitt was ranked this season. Who saw that comin'? However, after a 54-34 loss to Rutgers, they've been booted out of the rankings again, meaning that even if the Irish absolutely spank them on Saturday, we still won't have beaten a ranked opponent all season. (Never mind that we could have and should have beaten both of the ranked opponents we've already faced this season. Moving right along...)

Pittsburgh opened their season with a ten-point loss to Bowling Green, and then bounced back to win five straight games, including one squeaker over Iowa (21-20) and an impressive upset of #10 South Florida (26-21), followed by an apparent trouncing of Navy (42-21). Their loss to a now 3-5 Rutgers squad bumped them from #17 straight out of the rankings, which suggests their position in the Top 25 was shaky to begin with. It also might have something to do with the fact that during the Rutgers game, Pitt quarterback Bill Stull suffered a concussion, and his status for Saturday's game is apparently still uncertain.

Prior to the Rutgers game, Pitt had the 10th-ranked pass defense in the nation, but Rutgers QB Teel gave the performance of his life with a school-record 6 TDs in the first half alone. Apparently Pitt's touted defense was having an off day.

I doubt they'll have such an off day this week. Look for Pittsburgh to bounce back and try to neutralize a not-quite-superhero Clausen, as well as contain our burgeoning run game. On that same token, look for Jimmy to have a better, more controlled performance this week...and let's hope our defense keeps playing like they're the hammer and not the nail.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

I'm pretty sure everyone's just as frustrated as I am right now

North Carolina 29, Notre Dame 24

So if last season was one of those cringe-worthy "rebuilding years," I guess you could call this season a..."growing year." Particularly in yesterday's game, we saw flashes of both how good this team is going to be and how young they still are.

The first half of the game was straight-up domination. North Carolina didn't score a single touchdown. Notre Dame won the time of possession battle. We made a field goal. We had a little bit of running going on.

The second half of the game was like one giant hiccup. We surrendered a lot of our momentum to Carolina with that pick-six, and even though we scored right away to answer, we never got back our control. We started making mistakes. Carolina got a couple more turnovers, and we let the game get away from us.

North Carolina's a pretty good team, but so are we, and I think that was pretty apparent yesterday. We could easily have jumped into the rankings this week if we'd made our second half as solid as our first half.

But like I said, I think it's really a matter of growing pains. Jimmy threw two interceptions. We failed to get two fourth-down conversions. In the fourth quarter, our team just couldn't hold on.

In that agonizing and somewhat controversial last drive of the game, we saw flashes of the threat our team can be in a close, fourth-quarter situation. Jimmy's got his head wrapped around that two-minute drill pretty nicely, and we got so close to making it into the endzone in the final seconds of the game.

But we didn't.

These are the kinds of things we're going to have to overcome to be a truly good team. (And that are crucial if, you know, we ever want to win a bowl game again.) We are on the edge of being on the verge of being on the cusp of being a totally BALLER football team, but there are quite a few things that just aren't there yet. But this team is so darn young that unless something goes horribly wrong in the next couple years, we WILL be that baller football team.

So, first things first...my favorite person ever

I've decided I'm going to stop badmouthing Jimmy in these posts. No, really. You all know how I feel. In the future, I will attempt to be as objective as possible. It's of no more use to keep sucker-punching that little cussmouth with insults. As enjoyable as that is, it's not...really...useful. Instead I will pretend that he is just in uniform all the time, because that is the only time I truly support him.

*ahem* So..speaking as an objective third party with absolutely no personal interest in the matter, yesterday Jimmy (much like the team itself) showed us flashes of how good he's going to be at quarterback, and of how much he still has to learn at quarterback. He's really taking the offense into his hands these days. He's really good at pointing his fingers, calling some choice audibles, and throwing some pretty passes. Some of the stuff he tried to do last year is actually working this year -- for example, running away from the defenders who break through our line and then actually completing a pass instead of getting sacked. That was pretty nifty. There were also some really nice pass plays, especially on that final drive of the game. It was reminiscent of Brady Quinn-era fourth quarter drives, even, except that we didn't come away with the TD. (Although don't think I'm comparing Jimmy to Brady Quinn. I'm just saying...the coaches are employing a similar style of offense in a similar situation.)

It's all about the underclassman these days

Which we already knew, of course, but I still have to give the shout-out to Golden Tate and Michael Floyd for continuing to play like the beasts that they are, and for bringing in two of ND's three touchdowns on the day.

After a pass-heavy first quarter, Armando Allen found a little room to run, and James Aldridge had success in a few short-yardage situations, including a 2-yard TD run.

Robert Blanton -- who, much like Michael Floyd, I can hardly believe is a freshman -- had some huge tackles and one almost fumble recovery. (Sadly, the ball carrier was ruled down.) This kid showed us in the Purdue game that he's a playmaker (remember that interception?), and he's definitely someone to keep an eye on for the next few games and--happily--years.

Pass-happy day

Although Allen and Aldridge had some big scampers that led to a TD, our run game still isn't consistent enough to be the anchor of our offense; we tacked up 89 yards on the ground compared to 383 passing yards. Granted, our game plan in the first half seemed to be more anchored on passing than rushing, but I feel like that has more to do with our O-line's weakness in blocking for runners than Carolina's defense. The Tarheels lead the nation in interceptions, so the pass-happy offense we ran against them in the first half seemed like more of a risk than usual.

Of course, we didn't get picked off in the first half, so I guess I really can't knock the game plan-- it was the execution in the second half that killed us. Clausen was having a pretty good day (65% completion rate) until he threw those interceptions. The pick-six we recovered from...but not that second one.

Defense, get tough

They were pretty stout in the first half, holding Carolina to three field goals. I'm sure they were all cursing profusely when our offense gave NC their first touchdown of the game. The bad stuff started seeping in when Carolina wore our defense down a bit in the third quarter on a 13-play, five-and-a-half minute scoring drive.

As previously mentioned, Robert Blanton had a couple big solo tackles and the one near-fumble recovery, but the anchors of our defense also had pretty solid days--and on this side of the ball, the flashy players are our upperclassmen. David Bruton led the team in tackles yesterday with seven solo and one assist; Junior Raeshon McNeil was right behind him with five solo tackles and one assist. Pat Kuntz had a huge sack. Mo Crum had four solo tackles and one near-interception. (Oh, if only. If ONLY.)

But it wasn't enough to slow down Carolina once they did what they've been doing all season -- making killer plays on defense and special teams. That last interception really took the game out of our hands, though the defense did all they could to give our offense one last chance to score.

Big Heartbreaker

In the end, it was a game ND had every right to win, and we lost it.

We were playing against NC's backup QB. Their best WR (coincidentally also named Tate) got knocked out of the game with an injury. We contained their other big threat at kick returner. We didn't let them block any of our punts. We made an actual field goal. We were ahead almost the entire game, and when they pick-sixed us, we answered right away to stay in the lead.

And in the fourth quarter, we...just...lost it.

This is the difference between being a pretty good team and a good team. This is the difference between being a team that makes it to bowl games and a team that wins bowl games. When push comes to shove...we need to push back harder. When the pressure's on, we can't split wide open.

When Jimmy's got the ball in his hands this week, I hope he's not thinking about that interception. I hope he thinks about it when he's watching film, when he's going over plays, when he's thinking about the game, but I hope when he's out there on the field making decisions, it doesn't cloud his mind. It seems like he's gotten pretty good at putting those things behind him (having all that practice last season and all), and that last drive he--and the receivers--really did come out strong. It was so close--SO CLOSE--to being a miracle.

I think we've got it all. We've got what we need. We know what we need to do. We just need to...do it. We can't come out strong and then let ourselves get flat. We can't fall behind and then play catch-up all the time. We just need to figure out the median and play solid, keep shoving it at the other team relentlessly until they're too tired to think straight. We've got the talent. We've got the skillz. We've got the team. We just need a little more time, a little more push, a little more experience maybe, and we'll be right where we need to be.

A much-needed rest

So this game leads us into our bye week, and as infuriating as the game was to watch, I don't think it's necessarily a bad game for the players to have on their minds as we head into two weeks of practice and a week-long break from school.

It's not the kind of loss that's going to have our team feeling miserable and defeated and completely violated. It's the kind of loss that's going to leave them pissed off for the next couple weeks--mostly at themselves. That kind of anger, when channeled into physical aggression, can be way more helpful than harmful, I think, at least as far as football's concerned. When you fail to do something you know you can do, all you want is another chance go out there and prove you can do it.

And now this feeling's got two weeks to fester. Obviously I don't expect the football team to be walking around for the next couple weeks in a blind rage, but I do feel like they're going to want to go out against Washington andprove something. I'm hoping they jank up the score to fifty. I hope they're pissed off enough to take the lead and keep pounding the ball into the end zone until the other team can't think straight.

I think we should be 5-1 right now, and that 5-1 should have bumped us up into the top 25. (Because I'm sorry, I don't care if they kicked the crap out of Kent State and Toledo and Akron, WE ARE NOT WORSE THAN EFFING BALL STATE.) We did still get one vote this week in the AP poll, but then again so did Cincinnati, so I guess that's not saying much.

At any rate, if we want to take out some aggression, it shouldn't be too hard to do against the 0-5 Huskies (probably 0-6 after they face Oregon State next week, but I guess you never know)--though I do feel sorry for Washington. We've totally been there in the last couple years, both with the terrible season and with Ty Willingham controversy. Trust me, Huskies, I know how you feel.

But that doesn't mean I don't want our team to go out there and straight-up dominate, because we really NEED another game this season where there are no question marks, no second-half surges from our opponent, no "HOW DID WE LET THAT HAPPEN" moments.

I don't really like making score predictions, but I will say that if the Huskies do make a late, fourth-quarter surge for points, it better be because they're so far behind they have no hope of catching up, and our defense is just sitting on its heels trying not to get injured.

Happy Bye Week, everyone. Good luck on midterms and enjoy fall break.

And after that's over...


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What now, Cardinal?

Notre Dame 28, Stanford 21

Praise be the Lord...I finally have enough free time to write this note. I wanted to write it on Sunday. I can't tell you how much I wanted to write it on Sunday. I also can't tell you HOW MUCH FUN it was to spend all of Sunday reading and reading and reading....and reading...and writing some papers...and finally taking responsibility for all the work I've let myself get behind it. It was the greatest joy of my existence.

Well, besides Notre Dame Football of course.

Pat Kuntz's Revenge

So if you attended the pep rally on Friday or, you know, follow Notre Dame football at all, you are probably aware that one of Stanford's tackles, Chris Marinelli, was talking some serious smack about us before the game. He insulted not only our players, but our stadium, our school, and our fans.

As I'm sure you can imagine, this ticked some people off.

Kuntz's speech at the pep rally ended up being absurdly long and involved him ripping his suit off to reveal a wife beater and jeans (for reasons I'm still not entirely clear on), but the general message was that ND was not going to take that kind of crap from Stanford, and Kuntz's plan was to go out there and rip Marinelli's head off.

Although Marinelli seems to have escaped with his head intact, Kuntz recorded two sacks, an interception, and one fumble recovery late in the 4th that clinched the game for ND. So thank YOU, Stanford, for adding fuel to that fire.

I'm willing to bet Marinelli still doesn't have any warm fuzzy feelings for Notre Dame Stadium.

I suppose I wouldn't, either, if my team hadn't won a game there since 1992.

It's a bird! It's a plane! No...it's Jimmy Clausen's ego!

...and I'm sure it's just soaring through the air this week thinking about Jimmy's 347 passing yards, 3 touchdown passes, 0 interceptions, and 72% completion rate.

Look, it's not that I don't want Jimmy to succeed. Every time Jimmy succeeds, the team succeeds.

It's just that...he's such an ass already. If last season didn't manage to crush the ego out of him, nothing will. And now that we've started to do well, his ego's just going to get bigger...and bigger...and bigger... until it's the size of the actual grotto in Lourdes. Or possibly something bigger and less holy, like the entire West Coast.

Quarterbacks should have confidence, obviously. But they shouldn't strut up to podiums during pep rallies chewing gum and showing off their new haircut like the most pus-ridden pustule on earth and then regard the student body as though they are a bunch of plebeians. Don't look at me like that, Jimmy, or I will shove my Dean's List GPA right up that snarky little ass of yours.

Okay, on to the actual offense

On a less biased note, it is good to see our spiky-headed gunslinger making better decisions from week to week. He's really starting to keep his options open as far as passing goes, and he's no longer quite as fixated on his favorite receivers or even throwing the ball downfield. Coach Weis even mentioned it in his presser: “I think it’s a major step when the quarterback doesn’t force balls down the field and is willing to throw to his flair control.”

Amen to that. We saw a lot more short passes on Saturday, a lot more dump-offs. If your receivers can keep their feet under them, you're going to get a lot more yards that way then if you hang out in the pocket too long waiting for those deep routes to get open.

While we're talking about passing, I'd just like to say that I can't believe Michael Floyd is a freshman. Not that he and Golden Tate aren't fabulous already, but it looks like by the time Jim-may is a senior, Floyd and Tate are going to be unstoppable aerial beasts. (BEASTS I TELL YOU, BEASTS!) We already know Coach Weis's recruiting has been killer the last three years, but it's nice to see that talent starting to come into its own.

As long as we're at it, it would be unfair to leave Armando Allen out of the discussion. He had seven catches on the day for 66 yards--including one 3-yard grab he converted into a 28-yard TD run--but only 33 rushing yards. Although his numbers on the ground come nowhere near the totals from last week, he still racked up nearly 100 offensive yards (and more than that in all-purpose yards with his returns).

Our lack of yardage on the ground is once again lamentable (83 net yards), as is our inability to properly utilize the smash-bang-boom talents of Robert Hughes. Our offensive line is obviously much improved from last season, but we've still got some hiccups, and they're not likely to disappear in the coming weeks as we face some of our tougher opponents (and no, I am not referring to Syracuse).

I do believe that our O-line will continue to get better as the season progresses, but obviously our opponent's teams are going to be improving from week to week as well, and as long as our opponents are aware that we've struggled and downright failed to convert 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-inches, our short-yardage run game is going to continue to be a struggle for us long down the road.

So I guess it's a good thing our defense keeps stepping up to spark us on to victory

Once again, I'm thrilled to say, this game was won with a team effort. The offense managed to score of its own volition, but it also got a huge boost from the defense's first interception, giving ND its first score of the day. As already detailed, Pat Kuntz had a monster day, but the defense as a whole played pretty well--until the fourth quarter, that is, when we allowed Stanford to score twice before stuffing their last drive.

In the first half, our defense ended half of Stanford's drives by intercepting the ball. Stanford had to fight tooth-and-nail for their only score in the first half, chewing up 7 minutes of clock time on 95 yards and 14 plays. This is both good and bad for our defense; it meant they weren't giving up huge plays, but it also meant they weren't stopping the short first-down plays and they tired themselves out a little. Nevertheless, the defense held Stanford to only one real scoring chance in the first half, and it was to our chagrin that the Cardinal players took it.

In the second half, things went swimmingly until those back-to-back scoring drives Stanford had in the 4th. In the 3rd quarter, our D ended two Stanford drives on punts and forced them to kick a field goal on a drive that began on the Notre Dame thirty--a field goal which they happily missed. After those two head-scratching touchdown drives, the D tightened up again and forced Stanford to turn the ball over on downs, then forced a fumble on Stanford's last drive when our own offense choked the ball up on downs.

If anyone was watching the game from an angle other than from the corner of the endzone (or even if you remember the game better than I do) and has some insight on what happened to our D during those two Stanford scoring drives, feel free to expound your thoughts.

Things are gettin' sticky

...as the team heads to North Carolina this week to face the Tarheels. NC is in the rankings now, at #22, making them officially the toughest opponent we've faced all season. It will be the first game of the season at which the band is not present (I imagine the entire band is excited for the respite), so the team won't have our boisterous support. However, I've heard that tickets for the NC game were the hardest win in the Alumni Association lottery this year, so this indicates that a strong Notre Dame presence will be felt, even without the band's bright and shining instruments.

And speaking of rankings...this is the first time in history that the Fighting Irish have gone 4-1 and NOT been ranked in any of the polls. Apparently we got six votes this week (holla), but I have to say that, perhaps also for the first time in history, I agree with the pollsters that we should not yet be ranked. (Though I can't say I actually agree with the pollsters about the rest of the poll.) If we come through and beat North Carolina this weekend--then hell yeah, we should be ranked.

But for right now, there are still too many questions. We've still only made one field goal this year. We've let teams creep back up on us at the last minute. We've failed to bump the score up over thirty or forty points when we had every opportunity and every right to. We haven't yet garnered a solid victory over a solid opponent.

This weekend, we have a chance to erase some questions, and if we go out and play as a team once again, I can't see any reason why we shouldn't bring home another W.