Thursday, December 25, 2008

Mele Kalikimaka Indeed

Notre Dame 49, Hawaii 21


It's amazing! It's miraculous! It's stupendous! It's exhilarating! It's flabbergast-ing! It's beautiful! It's heart-wrenching! It's pineapple-shaped and tropical and full of dazzling aerial replays!

It's a WIN OVER HAWAII IN THE 2008 HAWAII BOWL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!..........bitches.

Best. Christmas present. Ever.

Finally. Finally finally finally finally finally we have ourselves some vindication. Some respect. Some glory, some honor, some--dare I say it?--tradition.

Crank me the fuck up!

Sorry. I shouldn't be cursing on Christmas.

But anyway, I'm sure you guys all know the stats. We snapped our NCAA-record 9-bowl game losing streak. We robbed the media of their favorite piece of Notre Dame trivia (that isn't really trivia because EVERYONE IN THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL NATION IS AWARE OF IT AND LIKES TO REMIND US OF IT ON A YEARLY BASIS). We broke some Notre Dame records for most yards passing and most points scored in a bowl game. We avoided having two back-to-back losing seasons for only the third time in Notre Dame football history.

And we avoided adding a few dozen more gray hairs to Charlie's head. Looks like he'll be able to survive the offseason with a few less annoying reporters / angry fans / belligerent alumni banging on his door demanding to know why he is still the head coach at the University of Notre Dame if he can't even follow his own maxim of "9-3 isn't good enough."

If only the Observer were being printed today. I'd love to see the comic strips for this one. Something happy for a change, darn you!

This note is going to be aaaaaaaaaaall happy. Happy happy happy happy happy. Happy like an emu-faced California boy in the sunshine. (Okay, sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Apparently, the tropics make people happy

So for everyone who lambasted me for lamenting my lack of holiday vacation to Hawaii (Holly Decker), claiming that we were just going to go lose to some mediocre team anyway, and why would I want to bother going to Hawaii anyway, and can't I just shut up about it already (okay, she didn't say that last part, but her eyes said it), here is what I have to say to you: Ha! Ha ha ha HA!

I was right, I was totally right, it would have been completely and totally worth going no matter how much it cost, no matter how bad of a sunburn I got, no matter how much lava I stepped in, no matter how many fish tried to nibble on my toes, no matter how much hair I lost after accidentally getting in the way of a fire eater--it would have been TOTALLY WORTH EVERY SECOND OF THE TRIP just to see those boys having fun in that stadium.

Curse you, administration. CURSE YOU!!!!!! I should have been there with 400 of my closest friends! I don't care what the economy is like--I'm selfish! WHYYYYY did I not hitchhike and then kayak to Hawaii for Christmas? Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?

Okay, the whining's over now, I promise.

Ahem. As I was saying....apparently, the tropics make people happy.

As much as everyone's been criticizing the choice to go to Hawaii and play a game on Christmas Eve and not take the band (waaah), it looks like it was nothing more or less than exactly what the team needed. A chance to get away. A chance to escape the cold weather, soak in some sun, and--wait for it--relax a little bit.

I can only imagine what it must have been like to land in Hawaii and feel the balmy 80-degree breeze, smell the sea-salt of the ocean, and realize that everything terrible that happened in the past four (or mostly two) months was completely behind you. Finals--over. Loss to USC--finito. Losing at home on Senior Day--done. No point in dwelling on the agony, no point in lamenting what's past--there's only forward, there's only paradise, there's only VICTORY AND GLORY ahead!

Okay, I'm extrapolating a little I suppose. Probably they were mostly thinking "SHIT that plane ride was long where the HELL is my hotel bed?"

But you know, it's basically the same sentiment, so just go with it.

What I'm really trying to say is that as jealous as it made me to see them having fun trying to learn the hula (hahahah Pat Kuntz) or attempting to surf in a water park (hahahahahahahahahahaha Jimmy Clausen), I think it totally loosened them up enough to have fun. They were having fun playing football, you could totally see it. THAT IS WHAT FOOTBALL IS SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE, FYI. Freshmen and sophomores, in case you missed this memo the past couple seasons--the way our team played in the Hawaii Bowl is basically the way we expect them to play all the time. (Well, most of the time.) Doing their job, having fun, kicking ass...that is Notre Dame football.

So you may be asking yourself...why the hell didn't they play that way ALL SEASON?

That is an excellent question. I have no idea.

But I have some theories.

First of all, at the beginning of this season (after that sort of hiccup game against San Diego State), it looked like we were sort of headed in this direction. We had that great game against Michigan (thank YOU, Michigan, for screwing up enough to make us look good), we kept it close til the end against MSU, and we looked in good enough form to have beaten North Carolina and Pittsburgh, if only we'd been able to hold on to our double-digit leads.

But things started to take a nose-dive after the Pittsburgh game. Jimmy started making a lot of mental errors, throwing a lot of interceptions...our running game had fits and starts trying to get on the ground against decent teams...Michael Floyd went out with an injury...the team's spirit seemed to be flattened a little more each week under the crushing combined weight of our media circus, pissed off alumni, academic demands, illnesses, coaching switch-ups, and God only knows what else.

I mean, hopefully they were ignoring most of the media and the alumni and everything, but I definitely think that as the semester wore on, the combined rigors of academics, campus-wide colds, and perhaps Coach Haywood's temporary departure really started to weigh them down. A typical semester at Notre Dame starts to grind away at all the students toward the end, and if you think the football players are so adept at time management that it doesn't start to chip away at them as well, you are a damn fool.

Anyway, it seemed like the harder the team tried to glue things together, the more they fell apart. People accused them of not playing with passion. Players were quoted saying things like "they just wanted it more than we did" about Syracuse. Exactly how you cannot get yourself pumped up for Senior Day in your own stadium is beyond me, but it seems like that was indeed the case...and I don't want to tack it up entirely to exhaustion, but maybe that was a factor?

The point is that throughout all this, the football players never really got a break. Never really got a chance to get away from it all. Sure, they had a bye week, but it was before the Pittsburgh game, well before things really started to unravel. Obviously all college teams have to deal with, you know, having games every week, and I'm sure the team wouldn't want to give fatigue as any sort of excuse...I'm just saying mentally, I think their inability to bounce back in the second half of the season is a reflection of how young the team still is. And I think their time in Hawaii really helped clear their heads and get them re-focused for what they needed to do.

Also, I think for the team to really be able to do this--to really want this as badly as they wanted it--they sort of needed to hit rock bottom first. Not that last season wasn't rock-bottom...but as far as this season is concerned, as far as having the passion and the focus to play as a team...Syracuse was the lowest point in Notre Dame Football memory. I will never get the image of David Bruton crying out of my head. Or of the Syracuse players standing in the middle of the field celebrating while the band was playing the alma mater.

It should never have happened. But maybe the team needed it as fodder. Who knows?

Most of this is probably useless speculation, but it's easier to think about now that we've got a giant pineapple statue to put in the Gug's trophy case. :-D

Right, so the actual game.....


So, in case you didn't notice, the Jimmy Clausen we saw last night was Jimmy Clausen as advertised. Way to finally look like the number one high school recruit in the country.

As much as it hurts my heart to say it, he was pretty...astounding. He broke Brady Quinn's record for most passing yards in a bowl game before halftime. (Don't worry, Brady, you're still the better man.) And, sporting a nice tan and a goatee, he looked amazingly less like an emu. I was both shocked and impressed. 22 for 26 with over 400 Damn. What now, Tim Tebow? (Actually, I take that back. There's no reason to bring up Tim Tebow on Christmas. He makes me sicker than Urban Meyer. Oh great, now I've brought both of them up on Christmas.......ugh. No, don't ask me why I hate them, it's completely irrational and irreversible, I assure you.)

And of course my favorite, Golden Tate, had a huge day as well, with 6 receptions for 177 yards and three touchdowns (more Notre Dame bowl records) to finish with over 1,000 yards on the season. That B-E-A-utiful 69-yarder will be replaying in my head for days. (Possibly not as much as Jimmy Clausen falling over in the waterpark, but it's up there.) I was also way amused by one of the cheesier moments of the broadcast, when the announcers were trying to come up with Christmas-themed nicknames for the football players and they called him "Golden Frankincense-and-Myrrh Tate."

Robert Hughes kick-started our running game into action, pounding through the Hawaii line to give the Irish solid numbers on the ground (along with smashing through to get our first TD of the day), giving the O-line a chance to get in enough of a rhythm to open up holes for speedier Armando Allen, who remains quite quick but really seems to need a big hole to get started. He's shiftier when he's got some momentum behind him, as we saw during his kickoff return for TD (HELL YEAH!!), but still has some room to evolve as far as reading the evolution of plays from behind the line of scrimmage. Not that I'm complaining.

The offense was finally an...offense. They were in complete control for almost the entire game. Most of their punts came in the fourth quarter. Their second string went in with ten minutes left in the game, and senior Evan Sharpley got to have a proper sort of senior send-off that he missed during Senior Day, while freshman RB Jonas Gray got a chance to see the field for the second time this season, and showed us a glimpse of the shifty back we're going to enjoy watching over the next few seasons. He looks fairly stocky, but is remarkably speedy and nimble...he seems like an interesting amalgamation of Darius Walker and Armando Allen, actually. I'm really excited to see him get some more reps over the next few seasons, though of course he's going to have to battle it out hardcore with Allen, Hughes, and Aldridge first. Oh man, though, just think of all this DEPTH we're accumulating at running's insane....

It's almost as insane as all the depth we have with our receivers, because speaking of which, I still haven't mentioned Michael Floyd, David Grimes, or crazy-talented freshman tight end Kyle Rudolph. Floyd's presence on the field seemed to really loosen up Jimmy Clausen, who definitely missed the tall, lanky, sweet-handed freshman over the last few games. Just as important as his ability to catch the ball is his ability to spread the defense and help open up options for Clausen. Over the next two years, opposing secondaries should learn to fear the sight of numbers 3 and 23 on the field at the same time...just in case it doesn't make them nervous enough already.

David Grimes also got a signature moment in the game--after dropping a pass (surprising, since he usually has the best hands out there), he made up for it in a big way by catching a TD pass just a few plays later to make the game 14-0.

Kyle Rudolph never saw the endzone, but he did see a number of sweet, wide-open passes, including one of the prettiest ones of the night, right over the middle, which got the commentators talking about how Charlie Weis said that Kyle Rudolph may be the most promising tight end he's ever coached. This also bodes well for the future.

As painful as it has been to have a young team these past couple years, last night we finally saw the fruits of all that labor paying off. This team (as the commentators pointed out at least a dozen times) is growing up. And it's not just the flashy players, either, it's HOLY CRAP OFFENSIVE LINE WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE????

We played like a team. A real team with real pass protection and real holes for the running backs and real solid communication on every play. Only a couple errors on the night, in fact. We gave up one sack, which resulted from a breakdown in protection. We had a few RB tackles for losses, which I think were more the result of Charlie calling the same play too many times than the O-line not doing its job. And we had a few high-pressure moments where Jimmy had to evade defenders to get the play off--but he pretty much always did, in high form. His head, I'm pleased to say, was screwed on exactly straight.

And more exciting than all of this--no false starts. No holding penalties. Almost all of our penalties came on defense and special teams, in fact. Plus--NO TURNOVERS. Zero. Zip. Zilch. It was practically a perfect game offensively.

So Eric Olsen, Sam Young, Mike Turkovich, Dan Wenger, and Chris Stewart, I commend you.

I could not be more thrilled or more ecstatic for the future...unless, of course, I was somehow going to come back for another marching season. Or unless I was actually in Hawaii right now.

But I can't have everything, I guess, so I'll just have to settle for rambling about

Those other guys on the field kicking ass and taking names

And by that, I mean Sergio Brown. The man was everywhere last night. Defense, special teams--making huge tackles, blocking punts, getting up in Hawaii's face and drawing excessive celebration penalties. Last night was THE night for Sergio, who seemed to take over Mike Anello's "you're on your back before you even realize you caught the ball, bitch" position on special teams and absolutely shined in ND's nickel package against the warriors.

Almost more exciting than seeing Sergio Brown come into his own, though, was watching David Bruton finally do the thing he's been on the edge of the cusp of the verge of doing all season: intercepting a pass. And not only that, he had a fumble recovery late in the came. Plus he played like a BAMF as usual. Uncharacteristically, he did allow two Hawaii players in the endzone when he should have made key tackles--usually he's the only thing stopping the other team from getting into the endzone when there's only ten yards between them and glory. But obviously he made up for those plays with the two turnovers, and Jimmy Clausen & Co., firing on all cylinders, converted both of those into touchdowns.

Unsurprisingly, Kyle McCarthy remained the silent beast, managing to lead the team in tackles once again (with 7) without drawing excessive amounts of attention to himself. As with the offense, however, the success didn't just rest with one person--it was pretty evenly spread out among all the players, with Sergio Brown, Steve Quinn, Harrison Smith, David Bruton, and Raeshon McNeil right behind at 4 or 5 tackles apiece.

But the group effort didn't stop there--just in case you forgot how absolutely sick the Fighting Irish D played last night, we had six separate players record sacks last night: Kerry Neal, Mo Crum, Steve Smith, and Darius Fleming all brought Greg Alexander to the ground once, and both Quinn and Ethan Johnson nailed him twice.

Could our team have played any more like It's hard to imagine.

There were some frustrating moments, I suppose. For example, when Hawaii was backed up on its own ten-yard line after shooting itself in the foot with a series of penalties, it looked like the D was going to force another punt and give the offense another chance to show off. But then Hawaii threw a couple deep balls and drove all the way down the field for a TD. But even so...this was later in the game; it wasn't as though it exactly broke our backs to let them have it. (That's not really a good attitude, I suppose. We've seen our leads slip away late in the game enough times this season to make me nervous whenever the D starts slipping. didn't really matter in this particular game, so for right now I'm not going to worry about it.)

But just in case you've forgotten, there's more euphoria to be had from last night's huge W, because we still haven't talked about

Special Teams

As mentioned previously, Sergio Brown took over most of Mike Anello's ass-kicking, as our return unit continued to display why it's tops in the country. Looks like Charlie's focus on special teams in the off season really paid off this year.

And not only was our coverage stellar this time--Armando Allen ran back a kickoff return for a touchdown (96 yards!) for the first time since Vontez Duff did it in 2002. If you're thinking just now, "but Zibby...." that would be punt returns. Although speaking of which, Golden "is thy" Tate did manage to bring a punt back for a touchdown--on a pretty spectacular play that looked at first as though it was heading toward the wrong end zone and then miraculously ended up in the right one. Unfortunately, though, Golden couldn't put our point total over 50, as that particular play was called back on a roughing the kicker penalty...and I believe resulted in a Hawaii score.

Nevertheless, the special teams were continuously impressive. Eric Maust, when he did have to punt, managed to boot some we had no botched snaps and no blocked punts of our own.

Additionally (could it get any better?), Brandon Walker was perfect on the night on his extra points--which is even more exciting because it means whenever our team crossed the fifty-yard line, they pretty much just scored. (Including that one thrilling fourth-and-one conversion that looked like it was going to be nothing and then ended up a TD. Hell yeah!)

So yeah. It's going to be a pretty good holiday.

Sigh. I'm feeling rather content, in case you hadn't noticed. On top of all this, I am really thrilled Coach Weis is going to be able to breathe during the off season. He's going to have some time to worry about, you know, his health instead of the team's health. Plus this game was an incredible boon to all of our recruiting. I hope Manti Te'o, along with all the other recruits who were probably watching the game at home, was thoroughly impressed. (He would've been more impressed if our band was there to give him a taste of what the kick-ass Notre Dame student body is like, but you know, details.)

And now that I've written what I hope is a sufficiently long and entertaining Facebook note, I'm going to go make some sweet potatoes and try to enjoy the holidays. This will bring the 2008 Notre Dame football season to a close.

It's been fun, kids, and it could not have ended on a better note. I'm nothing more or less than mind-bogglingly, spleen-splittingly, head-burstingly, overwhelmingly thrilled.

And I in the mood for some pineapples.

Cheers, and as always, GO IRISH!

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