Wednesday, September 30, 2009

This Week's Extended Metaphor: Harvey Dent

Notre Dame 24, Purdue 21

“Either you die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
–Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight

In Notre Dame football, there’s a pretty easy litmus test for whether you go down in the record books as a hero or a villain.

1. Did you lead the Fighting Irish to a national championship?
If YES – congratulations! You will go down in the annals of ND Football history as one of the greats, be commonly referred to by just one of your names (Rockne, Ara, Lou, etc.), stay in the consciousness of Irish fans for generations to come, and eventually have a bronze statue erected in your honor in the vicinity of Notre Dame Stadium.
If NO—please proceed to question two.

2. Is your name Bob Davie?
If NO—congratulations! Your name will be dropped out of the average Notre Dame fan’s cultural memory in ten years or less.
If YES—Don’t you wish members of the media would stop mentioning your affiliation with Notre Dame? Me too. It would be great if, the next time someone brings it up, you could just stop pretending like you know what the hell you’re talking about. K-thx-bye.

Obviously, the heroes are the ones we like to remember. Notre Dame won at least one national championship in every decade in the twentieth century except for the first and the last. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Notre Dame was still learning how to play the game. And in the last…well, you could make the argument that ND should have won another national championship in the 1990’s. When speaking of that 1993 season, Lou Holtz certainly does. (If they ever invent time travel, I’m going back to that ’93 Boston College game and making sure their kicker has a case of blistering turf toe the likes of which Jimmy has never imagined.)

But as much as I’d like to agree with Lou, that’s really neither here nor there. What matters—what’s frustrating—what’s been eating Notre Dame fans alive pretty much since the end of the 1993 season—is that we are in the longest dry spell in Notre Dame history. We’ve failed to win a national championship for twenty years, we coughed up the all-time win record to Michigan (and then watched as the two winningest programs in college football history suffered through back-to-back 3-9 seasons), and we lost our chance to assuage some of the pain with an 8th Heisman Trophy to some chump quarterback from Ohio State whose name nobody even remembers anymore. (Screw you, Whatsyourname, Jr. Are YOU a starting quarterback in the NFL right now? NO!)

And as the worst decade of Notre Dame football in a hundred years comes to a close, everybody seems to have the same thing on their minds….

Charlie: The Weis Knight

That ten-year contract is looming large in the psyche of, oh, pretty much every Notre Dame fan ever. Widely regarded as a Really Stupid Move by everyone with 20/20 hindsight and also most human beings who do not have the initials CW, KW, or JJ (why not try actually WINNING a bowl game before you decide to renew your coach’s contract?), the 10-year deal has been an object of intense scrutiny over the past couple seasons as angry fans and rich alumni have debated just how much it would actually cost to buy the contract out. (My estimate? Three times the annual GDP of Haiti, multiplied by how many times Jimmy has complained about turf toe this season, divided by the percentage of yellow-seat ticket holders who would actually pay out of their own pockets to see the Offensive Guru go.)

Regardless of how you felt about the contract when it was first signed, you may recall that, in his first two seasons, it was pretty hard to hate Charlie. What kind of insults do you throw at a guy with 4 Superbowl rings who molds a 50% passer into a Heisman candidate in one season flat (Brady finished 4th in Heisman voting his Junior year, just in case you have forgotten) and takes his team to BCS bowls two years in a row? For two seasons, jokes about hamburgers were pretty much the worst we got…and those kinds of jokes are pretty weak and easy to ignore when your team is ranked in the top 10 and taking you to New Orleans for New Year’s.

And then came the beginning of the end. A 3-9 season followed by a 6-6 season that only barely managed to redeem itself with a long-awaited bowl win. And now, some fans would have you believe, it’s a BCS bowl or bust for Charlie.

It’s funny how quickly Notre Dame fans can go all Harvey Dent on your ass.

Being Two-Face

So, for those of you unfamiliar with the film The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent is the dashing D.A. of Gotham—its public face of good, its White Knight. Through a series of dire and tragic circumstances, he develops into the villain Two-Face—so called because half of his face has been burned off and disfigured, while the other half remains quite normal and dashing-looking.

Two-Face carries with him a coin, which he flips to make important decisions, like whether to order eggs or pancakes for breakfast, or whether he should blow his archenemy’s brains out.

Anyway, the point is that I feel like, as Irish fans, we all play the role of Two-Face. At the beginning of a coach’s career, we show our good side and throw our coins into the air, hoping for the best. We watch eagerly as our coins glint in the sun and wait for a verdict—having thrown the coins high enough so that it’s a season or two (or three) before they land. As football fans, which way the coin lands is hopefully being influenced by something with a little bit more gravity than…gravity…but even so, it seems like when the coin lands, that is it.

If you’re a Lou or an Ara, or a Rockne or a Leahy, you’re a coach who’s managed to take the Irish to a national championship victory in his third season. Your side of the coin will be forever shiny.

If not…you’d better give us a reason to re-flip our coins pretty fast (i.e., put your team in a position to win a championship or at least a BCS bowl game), or we’ll run you out of town with pitchforks and burning shillelaghs.

Personally, at this point, I agree with the gurus over at Blue-Gray Sky—I wouldn’t be sad to see Charlie go, but unless we’ve got a truly talented coach waiting in the wings, there’s simply no point getting rid of him. Now is not the time to be buying out million-dollar contracts—not unless we’re sure there’s another coach out there who’s truly worth the check.

Other binaries

Sometimes I feel like there’s a cosmic coin toss going up before each game. Which team will show up to play today? The team that was practically perfect (in terms of penalties) as it trounced Nevada, or the team hobbling and wobbling with yellow flags and turf toe as it tried really hard to lose to both Michigan State and Purdue? Because, among other things, this is a team that’s just not meeting its potential.

You know, you don’t have to be a team oozing with talent to win football games. Talent makes a difference, as players in this decade like Michael Floyd and Julius Jones and Shane Walton have certainly proven. And it’s hard to be really good without talent.

But even without slop buckets full of talent (and I’m not saying we don’t have talent—I’m just saying we’ve got no excuses), you can still be good. It doesn’t take talent to go to the weight room or the training field and properly condition yourself for the season. It doesn’t take talent to study the playbook and know what you’re supposed to do on the field. And it doesn’t take a whole lot of talent to have fundamentals drilled into your head until your brain turns to mush and you react without thinking. All it takes to accomplish that is grit and determination and passion.

And that’s most of football, isn’t it? Grit and determination and passion? Sixty percent mental, forty percent physical—or so says the movie Little Giants?

It seems to me like potential’s one of the worst things to have. Potential means you’ve got all this pressure and all this expectation and, at the end of the day, nothing to show for it but frustration if things don’t pan out the way you know they could. But in football, as in life, could haves/would haves/should haves mean absolutely nothing—unless, next time, you turn a “coulda woulda shoulda” situation into a “dude I just totally f*%$-ing smoked that shit” situation.

And frustration over all this wasted potential is what’s got me Harvey Dent-ing it up in the stands. At the end of the Purdue game, I swear to you, I did not react when they scored that final touchdown. At least not right away. I was too busy being a gloom-and-doom girl, convincing myself that we were going to lose and steeling myself for the crushing sense of defeat and long night of heckling that was sure to follow.

But eventually, after all the players on the sideline pumped their golden helmets into the air and began rushing toward that end zone like a river bursting through a dam, it hit me--oh hey, maybe you SHOULD be cheering right now. So I jumped up and down and screamed and tried to pull the euphoria out from beneath my sense of temporary paralysis. But it didn’t quite work as well as usual, because I was still standing there with my knees shaking thinking OMFG we had this thing sealed up in the second quarter What The F happened? And I was too busy being pissed off at our team for playing the same damn sloppy-ass game three weeks in a row to even really be happy that we won. And thinking to myself, dear God, if we’re 3-1 right now, why does it feel like we’re 1-3?

And then I wondered—when did I get this way? I mean, if you know me at all, you know I’ve been a complete psychopath about football since high school, so that’s not what I mean. What I mean is—when did I become such an effing DOWNER? There was a time, I do recall, when no matter how badly we were losing, no matter how badly we were playing, I would calculate the likelihood of miraculous fourth-quarter comebacks in my head and cheer until the final whistle blew. Of course, I still always cheer until the final whistle blows, but so far this season it’s been slightly more debatable whether I’ll make it to the final whistle alive, let alone cheering.

Which is, you know, not good.

And now for the main event

All of this waffle aside, let’s talk about the actual football game.

It’s obvious that this team is not the team it has been for the last two seasons. This is a team that can win close games. This is a team that is not going to cough it up to 3-9lameduckcoach Syracuse on Senior Day and make David Bruton cry. This is not a team that’s going down without a fight.

However, this is also not a team that’s going to win the hearts of America—or, more pertinently, save Charlie’s job—anytime soon.

Noticeable progress in the O-line aside, the main improvements in the team this year don’t really have anything to do with blocking, tackling, catching, or stripping the ball. Instead, the main improvements are in team unity, maturity, and leadership. Golden Tate saying he loves having the pressure on him, because that means he gets a chance to help out his team. Jimmy Clausen campaigning for the chance to lead the team on a last-minute 4th quarter touchdown drive, should the need arise. Kyle Rudolph looking at his quarterback in the huddle on 4th down and saying, “Jimmy, give me the ball.” Pretty much everyone in the offensive depth chart saying, “hell yes, we are prepared to step up and make plays in the face of Mike’s/Armando’s/Jimmy’s injury.”

And they did. For three quarters or so.

You want to hear an interesting stat? In the third quarter, when it was all Dayne Crist & the Second-String Superstars (would be a really bad name for a rock band), we kicked the shit out of Purdue in the time of possession battle, 11:40 to 3:20. You remember how many drives Notre Dame had in the third quarter? Two. Yep, that’s right, it took us nearly twelve minutes of game time to engineer two drives downfield. On the first drive, it took us five and a half minutes to get from our own twenty-two yard line to the fifty yard line, and then we had to punt the ball away. On our second drive of the third quarter, we kept the ball for six and a half minutes, and this time drove from our own seventeen yard line to the Purdue forty-one yard line before turning it over on downs.

The third quarter was the only quarter of the game in which neither team scored.

And you’d think, after all that rest we gave our defense, they wouldn’t have choked up two more touchdowns to Purdue—both through the air, and one on an astonishing breakdown in our secondary that left Jaycen Taylor so wide open he could’ve been a barn door.

I think we’ve got good players in our secondary—Robert Blanton was second in tackles this week to the usual team leader, Kyle McCarthy, and our other corner, Darrin Walls, intercepted the ball in the fourth quarter, which unfortunately amounted to nothing—but Purdue threw for 289 yards on Saturday, and there’s NO WAY Purdue’s last touchdown should have happened the way it did. (Somebody screwed up BIG on that play.) At the very least, our pass rush leaves much to be desired. And you’ve got to ask yourself—what GOOD does Tenuta’s aggressive, blitz-happy play-calling do when none of the players seem to know how to make a proper tackle? How about drilling that instead of schemes for a change? And what about stripping the ball? I mean, when is the last time one of our defensive players forced a fumble? Can you even remember that far back? My heart bleeds remembering a time when this was a very real and palpable possibility:


On offense, we got some good production out of the Wildcat formation—which makes my heart bleed, because you all know how I feel about the Wildcat formation. I thought our second string played pretty decent, all things considered (re: chewing up the entire clock in the third quarter), though it was monumentally frustrating that we didn’t manage to convert a fourth down until the fourth quarter.

Also—WTF Charlie on the short-yardage situations??? What, a 4th-and-1 doesn’t seem like a good time for a QB keeper to you? If you’re worried about Jimmy’s toe, direct snap it to Tate or Hughes or, gee, I don’t know, DAYNE CRIST or someone and have them barrel it over the line. Deciding to go for it from the SHOTGUN on a 4th-and-1 is basically like slapping your oversized, supremely experienced offensive line across the face with the white glove of arrogance and saying, “Puh! I spit on convention! Opposing defensive coordinator, I challenge you to a DUEL.”

A duel which you promptly lose, because WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND calls a play from shotgun on a 4th-and-1??!?!??!?!? I don’t CARE if your starting running back is out and your starting QB’s toe is injured—that’s what you’ve got a big, all-day-tough Brady Quinn-sized quarterback for! A quarterback who (you said it yourself, I believe) brings something to the table Jimmy doesn’t—he can actually scramble.

You know Charlie, sometimes I think to myself, damn, that man is good at his job. It’s just too bad you still think your job is to be an offensive coordinator in the NFL, because that’s how you run your offense. And the rest of the team suffers—special teams, defense, fundamentals, mental conditioning to avoid the sea of yellow flags in every game—because once again you’re too busy scheming to fulfill all of your duties as head coach.

I mean, I’m not saying I know what it’s like to be a college football head coach, I’m just saying…it still doesn’t feel like you’re working to figure out the college game here; it feels like you’re still intent on implementing all the fancy-ass crap you had in the NFL. Which only works, you may have noticed, when you’ve got a quarterback who’s mature enough to handle the pressure. Jimmy’s getting there, sure, but even so—it took him almost three years. You can’t play successful college ball in a system that requires a Tom Brady / Brady-Quinn-as-an-upperclassman level of maturity from Day 1. This is still a team sport, you may recall. If your solution to take the pressure off your starting QB when he’s injured is to go to the Wildcat formation as much as possible and remove the quarterback from the game entirely, this may be a sign that your offense, as a whole, puts too much pressure on the quarterback.

I’m not saying it’s not a good offensive system. I’m just saying it’s a stupidass move to try to hold on to this kind of system in college.

And by now, for serious, you should know better.

Heads or tails?

So…where is the rest of this season going to land? We keep playing sloppy, keep playing like we don’t deserve to win, even though in all three of our previous games, we were clearly the team that should have won, with a way wider margin of victory. We failed to run the clock out against Michigan. We escaped from the MSU game with a stunning interception by Kyle McCarthy. We let Purdue claw their way back into a game that should have been slammed soundly shut in the third quarter, and we barely fell across the touchdown line to make it a last-second win.

If our defense would bone up and we could get rid of the excessive penalties, we’d be in a lot better shape. That, combined with a healthy Clausen and a healthy Floyd, would put us in really good shape to take on USC.

As it is, however, I’m worried about us scraping past Washington. Do I think we can beat Washington? Why, yes. But then, I think we could beat any team on this schedule if we could just manage to play to our effing potential. Sometimes our defense stuffs the other team and forces them to three-and-outs…it would be great if they could do this more often. Sometimes our offense executes brilliant last-minute drives down the field…it would be great if they could do that with more consistency and less desperation. Sometimes our special teams plays like they were the #1 kickoff coverage unit in the country last year…but it would be great if we could get some more hangtime on our kicks and some better blocking on our returns.

And as for me? I’m putting away the dark side of the coin. We could be 1-3 right now. We could be 4-0. But we’re not—we’re 3-1. We’re playing sloppy, but any day now that could all go away, and we could go out there and kick the ever-loving shit out of a team in a way that no one’s expecting but everyone’s hoping for.

All of that is entirely out of my hands, of course, so I’ve got nothing left to do but watch the shiny side of my coin glint in the sun, waiting to see if its optimistic flashes are hints of glory—or just a fancy, scheming, Charlie-shaped mirage playing tricks with the light.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

In the Operating Room

Notre Dame 33, Michigan State 30

I need 40 CCs of Run Game, STAT. No, not that, not a handoff! Are you crazy, man? Can’t you see we’re going for a First Down here? Our quarterback’s toes are on the line! Give me the Wildcat—the WILDCAT! What do you mean, it didn’t work the last time? Are you in charge here? Inject it! Now…NOW!


Come on, heartbeat…come on…COME ON...


YES! Touchdown! Now we just need to—

What do you MEAN, they called it a Broken Collarbone? You can’t call a touchdown a Broken Collarbone, that’s absurd…that’s………

NO! Not another holding call!

More pena

All right—all right—third-and-fifteen—run it! Run!


Fine. Let the Defense handle it.


Doctor—doctor, there’s yellow oozing everywhere! There are too many penalties—we can’t possibly—

I don’t need your excuses! BLITZ!

But doctor, they’re burning our secondary like it’s a southern California wildfire! We can’t keep sending our linebackers up to—

There’s too much time left! We have to force the run! BLITZ, I say, BLITZ!

But doctor, the first downs are spreading! You know we can only stop these things in the early stages—if they get a first down, this drive will just keep going, and—



Every football season is like performing a long and complicated surgery. At the beginning, you cut the season wide open, and after mopping up the mess of nerves, depth charts, and asinine media coverage, you’re ready to begin. You know what’s waiting down the gullet—you just don’t know how the operation’s going to proceed.

This isn’t a routine colonoscopy, men! This is triple bypass surgery! At the end of the day, it’s not your asses [excuse me. your butts.] on the line—it’s your hearts! And the tortured hearts of those around you, waiting to see if you come out of the operation still beating.

We started out this season relatively clean—a routine incision, if you will, and a particularly accurate one at that. No response at all from Nevada the body. No excessive bleeding.

On the second one, though, we may have done some damage to the nerves. Fifteen stitches to Floyd’s knee. An unexpected air pocket through the hands of the offense. A wave of yellow pus that set us back nearly a hundred yards. A defense crucial operating instrument that bent and broke. A failure to adjust. A loss of control at the last possible second.

And this week, complications continued. More pus. More injuries. More frustrations.

But at least, this time, we managed to hold on.

The surgeon

I would just like to take this opportunity to say to you, Charlie, how much I hate the Wildcat formation. I find it frustrating, and I have never enjoyed watching it be employed by any team ever. It’s like slapping your quarterback in the face. (Not that Jimmy doesn’t need a good slap in the face, but that’s another matter entirely and has nothing to do with football.) I understand it’s different when your quarterback is, you know, injured, but if your QB can still play, give him the damn ball. Or, you know, give the backup QB the ball. But don’t go with this fancy direct-snapping shit and don’t put your QB on the field as a fake wide receiver and don’t keep running the same damn play out of the same formation.

And no—no, I DON’T care if we got a touchdown out of that formation, and I don’t care if Armando Allen’s pass to Robby Parris was successful or not, I will always hate the Wildcat, on pure principle. Alwaaaaaaaaaays.

(See, this is just one of those weird things. Probably the Wildcat helped us more than it hurt us, but I still hate it.)

I would also love to know why we ever, ever, EVER decide to run the ball on third-and-long. I’m not talking about 3rd-and-7 or something, I’m talking 3rd-and-15. Or 3rd-and-25. Or whatever the case may be. It’s stupid, and does it ever work for us? Not really. I don’t care if you think the defense won’t be expecting it—if they’re blitzing, there will be too many men up front for the running back to successfully evade all the linebackers (unless we have Julius Jones back on our team—do we have Julius Jones on our team? NO!), and if they’re not blitzing, the handoff will come soon enough for the linebackers to realize we’re not passing, so unless the defense is idiotic or we’ve got some spectacularly perfect blocking going on, our opponent will still have WAY too much time to shut the play down before it makes it past the first-down marker.

So what’s the strategy here, really? Cross your fingers and hope for good blocking technique on a team that seems to be lacking in certain fundamentals (i.e., catching the ball [Golden Tate :-( ], wrapping up & tackling [SERGIO BROWN])? Or are we maybe just vying for better punt position? (Laaaame sauuuuce.) I'd hate to accuse you of that, though, since you seem such a big proponent of Going for It all the time. Which I appreciate.

Anyway, look. It’s not that I don’t love Armando Allen or anything. Our run game / O-line has improved dramatically, and Armando’s gotten WAY better at breaking tackles, but even so, he’s not a superstar. He’s solid and dependable, but he’s not, you know, Adrian Peterson or anything. (Sigh.) And we’ve got a quarterback with a good arm. And we NEED the first down. So why run the ball? Why? WHY??????

It’s the same kind of WHYYY I have to ask late in the game when we’re at third-and-not-so-very-long and we need to run the clock down and we decide, just for shits and giggles, to THROW the ball. And it falls incomplete. (Re: our second-to-last drive in the game against Michigan.) Now, of course, I know the idea is for the receiver to CATCH the ball and all, but if what really matters right now is short yardage and running the clock down, why would you EVER throw the ball downfield???

This did not work for Peyton Manning in the AFC title game against the Steelers in the year Jerome Bettis got his Superbowl ring, and it will not work for you.

Here’s another thing I have also never understood about coaches—if you’re doing something, and doing it well, why stop? We dominated through the first quarter. Our offense was going, we were firing on all cylinders, we were scoring practically at will—

And then we changed things up. We said good-bye to our hurry up / 2-minute drill / whatever-you-want-to-call-it offense. And then we started doing stupid things like going for the Wildcat formation. And we lost our rhythm. And we started to draw penalties. And in the second quarter we started to crash and burrrrn.

Direct quote from the press conference:

Q. As a play caller, do you have to amp up your aggressiveness going into the game if it appears your defense isn't going to be able to shut people down?
COACH WEIS: You have to be ready for it. I'm always ready for it. We started off the game in no huddle, spread 'em out. It was a very easy explanation for that. For four years I've been here, we started off slow against them every time, just playing normal football. Then we've rallied. When we have rallied, we've rallied spreading them out. So I just figured we'd take the opposite tack and spread 'em out early. You have to be ready in case that's the way the game plays out.

Okay, so, I respect that strategy. But what I don't get is...if you’re playing an opponent like MSU and you have every reason to believe the game’s going to go down to the wire, why not rack up as many points as you possibly can until the defense starts making you pay? If you know "spreading 'em out" is what's going to work--WHY NOT KEEP DOING IT?

Because we didn't--we changed our scheme up. Even the commentators remarked on it. And, okay, maybe this had something to do with our offense reaching the end of the 15 or so “scripted plays” Charlie prepares for the beginning of every game, but come on. Show me what you’ve got, Mr. Offensive Guru. Surely you can think faster than that.

I mean, I know I’m no head coach or anything, but isn’t part of the strategy of the Weis offense to run the same plays out of many different looks? And to run many different plays out of the same looks? You don’t actually have to change it up to make the defense think you’re changing it up. And if you’re ramming it down their throats, don’t decide to just sit on your heels and take what the defense gives you. Keep ramming it down their throats until they knock you back on your heels.

And if you’re worried your offense can’t keep up the pace for four quarters, then I guess you didn’t condition your offense well enough.

You’re killin’ me, Petey, you’re killin’ me.

Scalpels and other instruments of precision

Dear Golden,

Ripper of a weekend! My pancreas spontaneously burst on Saturday & they rushed me to the ER & doctors were in a frenzy trying to figure out what was wrong! Eventually they settled on a diagnosis of dropped passes and inexplicably incomplete running routes resulting in near-interceptions, & they told me to cut down on the stress & stop letting secondaries stick on me like I was the Usain Bolt to their Tyson Gay. I’m sure you know the feeling.

Anyway, doctors say to take it easy, but if you could pick me up some more TD passes && smoking punt returns while you’re in West Laf. this weekend that would be great. Sorry to hear about Floyd’s collarbone—try not to let the pressure get to you now that you’re Mr. #1. You know what stress does to a pancreas!

Miss you!! Come back soon!!!!


(Note: To be fair to Golden Tate, he did lead the team in catches for 127 yards. He made some mistakes, but he did play a better this week than last week. However, if his leap into the MSU band is any indication, his head's still not quite right. He said in his postgame interview that he forgot it was the MSU band--so I guess that means heads-up, ND Band. Be prepared to catch Golden Tate the next time he catches a TD in the North end zone.)

Sooooooo…the health of our offense does seem to be suffering a bit, doesn’t it? Floyd’s out with the broken collarbone, Golden’s brain has gone to la-la land with some sort of mysterious pass-dropping disease that we can only hope isn’t infectious, our Right Guard (Trevor Robinson??) went out late in the game with an injury we can only hope wasn’t permanent, Sam Young keeps tossing yellow flags everywhere like he’s some sort of Ukrainian ambassador, and Jimmy, apparently, hurt his toe.

That was a pretty bonehead move of Jimmy’s, I thought—kneeling down when it became clear that that defender was going to sack him. Couldn’t you have at least slid or something, Jimmy? It’s not like a guy that big is going to be able to change his momentum in a flash. And to go down on a knee—do you realize it only takes fourteen pounds of pressure to bust a kneecap?

Thankfully, that seemed to be the only real boneheaded move Jimmy made all day. Even playing with some sort of hobbling toe injury, he put up big numbers-- 22-of-31 for 300 yards and 3 TD passes.

I’m curious to see how our passing game goes with Floyd out. Even Kyle Rudolph dropped a key pass or two yesterday, and the jury’s still out on Duval Kamara, Robby Parris, and that one freshman tight end who dropped a first-down pass near the end of the game—and um, WHY was that kid out there playing TE again??? Did one of our actual TE’s get banged up while I wasn’t paying attention? (It’s possible. I seem to remember spending the last five minutes of that game lying prostrate on the floor with my face pressed into a pillow. Sister Mary Rae came in, said “oh my goodness!” and left. She did not smile at me when she saw me later and asked about the score. I think perhaps she disapproves of my zeal. I may have to work on convincing her that football is not actually my religion.)

Sigh. So here’s hoping Purdue’s run defense is as breezy as the back of a hospital gown—otherwise we may have some issues trying to get our precision passing game to work in a pinch come Saturday.

Sometimes those clogged arteries can still produce a miracle or two

This is kind of a weird header, perhaps, but I am, of course, talking about our defense.

And by defense, I mean Kyle McCarthy.

Kyle McCarthy makes tackles. Kyle McCarthy bashes heads in. Kyle McCarthy reverses the fate of entire seasons in a single bound. Kyle McCarthy is a human maelstrom. Kyle McCarthy makes ball carriers weep like little puppies left out on the side of the road. Kyle McCarthy can save your job, file your income tax returns, and help your grandmother cross the street with the same amount of effort normal people use to LIFT THEIR LITTLE PINKIES INTO THE AIR.

So basically, when he leaves, we’re F*ing screwed.

I can’t believe the amount of bulls*t we let those interns get away with

And by interns, I mean referees. Please explain to me how THIS is not a touchdown:

I’m still waiting.

Also, that stupid onside kick recovery—no way. The ball has to go ten yards and REMAIN TEN YARDS before it’s eligible for play.

Thanks a lot, you li’l effers.

At least our kicker’s doing better

Nope, couldn’t think of an extended metaphor for this one. Oh well.

Anyway, after a pretty poor initial kickoff and that missed PAT, Nick Tausch seemed to settle in, and hopefully we’re going to start seeing some of the kick production we recruited him for. The hangtime and distance on his kickoffs improved toward the end of the game, and he recovered from the missed PAT with a very nice field goal later in the game.

As far as other special teams units are concerned—we didn’t choke up any returns for a TD this week, though it does seem like our kick return unit is a little weaker now than it was last year. Or perhaps that has more to do with the initial weakness of the kick-offs, and our coverage will improve with greater hang time.

In other happy news, our own kick return units seem a bit stronger, and/or MSU’s kicking game was weaker than usual—Golden managed to get his hands on a couple of punt returns, which is impressive considering MSU’s punter is apparently known for his ability to force fair catches.

Theo Riddick—apparently the fastest guy on the team now—did pretty good on his kickoff returns as well; I’d love to see him break out and take one to the house by the end of the season. I haven’t scouted the special teams on our upcoming opponents, so I don’t know the coverage units fare, but I’m not going to hold out for any miracles against USC or BC or even Washington at this point…so maybe when Washington State rolls around? I guess we’ll see.

Continuing the operation

So, speaking of our opponents….

WASHINGTON BEAT USC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I know this is old news but, you know, it’s still exciting. Washington should be a verrrrry interesting game now. I think we’ll win, mostly because unlike arrogant-ass USC v. the PAC-10 (much like Michigan v. Appalachian State - hahahaha), we don’t overlook games. We’re currently big fans of shooting ourselves in the foot with penalties, but we don’t disrespect our opponents. I think we’ve fallen far enough and hard enough to have at least learned that much.

And there’s no way in hell USC is going to look past the Notre Dame game, so get ready for a bruiser on that end as well.

I’m most worried about our defense right now. With the usual exception of Kyle McCarthy and some occasionally good coverage from our secondary, we played pretty poorly against the Spartans, giving up over 400 yards of offense. Blitzes were largely ineffective, except on those three drives where we forced the Can’t Read / Can’t Write crowd to three-and-outs, and of course on that last play when McCarthy intercepted the ball. Run defense was mediocre at best. And the biggest problem, of course, was penalties.

I honestly couldn’t tell how good the Spartan offense was. Could you? I feel like we pretty much handed them at least two of their touchdowns by driving down the field for them. So, kudos to you, Sparty. It’s nice to know you can score once your opponent marches down into the red zone for you.

Against Nevada, we did SO well with penalties that this is just disheartening. Last week, it was chiefly our offense driving us into the ground. This week, it was our defense. Maybe next week we’ll be back to square one again? Let’s just hope the yellow fever doesn’t spread to our special teams, too, or we might be seeing some really unfortunate turnarounds in field position against the Boilers.

As for our offense…life is going to be tough without Floyd, but I think we can swing it. We have got to just start settling down and playing with consistency—aka NO MORE FREAKING PENALTIES, and no more injuries, if we can help it. At least until the USC game. I don’t think Purdue or Washington are going to play us as nastily and physically as MSU always does (seriously—was it just me, or did like EVERYONE get injured in that game?), so we should have a relative respite from injuries (we hope) before we face Southern Cal. (Though ideally, of course, we won’t have any injuries in the SC game either. I’m just saying—USC is the next time we’ll be playing a game wherein the players launch themselves at each other like they’re trying to bring down concrete parking garage supports instead of human beings.) We also have a bye week before the USC game, so unless all the players come down with some sort of mysterious illness between now and then, we should be in reasonably good shape by the time the Trojans roll into town.

The biggest plus I can say for this team is that they have the right attitude. They have the confidence and the swagger and the ability to hang tough in close games. And that kind of attitude changes EVERYTHING about how a team makes it through a season, especially after that stunner against Michigan last weekend. But the team's not hanging on to that--they're moving forward.

So…drink some orange juice. Slap on some band-aids. Bask in the sweet anesthetic of a hard-fought win.

Get ready for the next stage of surgery.

Monday, September 14, 2009

How to Lose at Football 101

Michigan 38, Notre Dame 34

So, you’ve assembled a team full of star players. You’ve got a quarterback with two years of head-rattling experience under his belt, a corps of receivers that gives secondaries nightmares, an offensive line with over 100 combined starts, a nasty, blitzing defense, a solid secondary, a scholarship kicker, and a kick return unit rated best in the country last year.

You’re coming off a dazzling 35-0 home opener, and you’re headed on the road to face a hated rival who’s got the talent to beat you, but not the experience. Lee, Kirk, and that guy from Ohio State all picked you to win on College GameDay, because they believe your team’s experience will tip you over the edge of your opponent’s desperation.

Now how, you might ask, can you possibly take all this potential and twist it around into a devastating loss? Why, it’s easy! Just follow these quick, simple steps from How to Lose at Football 101, and before you know it you’ll be filled with your very own sense of crushing self-defeat!

Step One: Shoot yourself in the foot on special teams

Make sure your scholarship kicker has jittery enough nerves in his first game on the road in a hostile environment so that he shanks his first field goal wide right and nearly misses his first two PAT’s. It’s also helpful to make sure that at least once, perhaps late in the game when you’re ahead and everything’s riding on field position and the number of seconds left on the game clock, you draw an excessive celebration penalty that makes it really difficult for this kicker to blast the ball deep in the opponent’s territory and give your defense a chance to flex its muscles instead of sitting on its heels worrying about how the line of scrimmage is suddenly at the 40.

Also, after you’ve worked hard enough to field one of the best kick return units in the country, it might be good to ease up on the gas for one really crucial play early in the game, and just let your opponent steamroller over you with some superior blocking so that their kick returner can charge 94 yards down the field for a touchdown. It’s kind of like paying homage to Rocket Ismail, only backwards and in the way that gives your fans tiny ulcers instead of shrieking waves of euphoria.

And, now, this isn’t something you can really control, but if you can finagle it, you probably want to make sure all your opponents have way better punters than you do—punters that kick the ball so damn high your blindingly fast punt returner has no other option than to fair catch on every single kick. I mean, really, there’s no need to recruit these guys for your own team—it’s better just to scout out the intramural dorm teams and the men’s soccer team and see if you can’t find some gems that way. After all, no reason not to give your opponent the advantage in the kicking game. Treating them otherwise would just be darned unsportsmanlike.

Step Two: Shoot yourself in the foot on offense

You’ve got to play well, play with command, control the clock, win the time of possession battle, run the ball successfully, consistently beat your opponent in the secondary—and then completely blow every big play you make in one of three equally fantastic ways:

Drop the ball. I don’t care how good your receivers are, if you really want to lose the big game, you’ve got to make sure they drop the ball on a bunch of really crucial plays. Preferably right in a row. Sure, the drive still might end in a touchdown, but by that time you’ve burned critical time off the clock that will later allow your opponent to control the game and give you no time to make a last-second comeback, even though you’ve clearly got the talent to do so.

Penalize yourself constantly. If a play looks too good to be true—that’s because it is! Your linemen have committed holding. Make sure you move the ball back a good healthy ten yards and give the down another go. Also, while you’re at it, you might want to try a couple delay of game penalties. Nothing like mismanaging the clock to make a game more thrilling.

Turn the ball over. Preferably by handing the ball off to your promising sophomore running back approximately two plays after the announcers mention that your team hasn’t committed any turnovers for quite a while.

Now, this one is an extra bonus, but if you’ve got a little loose change rattling around in your pockets, you might want to try paying off the refs so they call back a touchdown run based off some questionable video footage where your player’s foot may or may not have been out-of-bounds around the twenty-yard line. You don’t have to pay them off for anything fancy—just make sure you let them know you’re not looking for incontrovertible video evidence; any old bit of video evidence will do.

Step three: Shoot yourself in the foot on defense

Play a solid game, but definitely let a freshman quarterback beat out one of your defenders for a 31-yard touchdown run when you’re in a one-on-one coverage scheme. Also make sure you give your opponent room to run on the ground, even if your secondary’s doing a decent job of denying them progress in the air.

Definitely shut them down for most of the second quarter, but give them some momentum back with a field goal just before halftime. Then make sure you leave lots of room for their halftime adjustments to steamroller you backwards down the field during their opening drive of the next half. (For best results, make sure your opponent always gets the ball first in the second half, regardless of who wins the coin toss.)

If you want to make the game more exciting, definitely intercept the ball at least once late in the fourth quarter, but in your opponent’s final drive, make sure you let them run the clock down and score. There’s nothing like a close game to make for a really satisfying loss.

Step four: Injuries

Now, these are harder to orchestrate, but if you’ve really got the grit and the determination, make absolutely sure that just before your potentially game-winning possession following an interception late in the fourth quarter, both your #1 star receiver and your #1 running back are injured. Not every team has this kind of luck, but if you’ve played your cards right during the rest of the game, this just might happen to you, too.

Step five: Intangibles

These are for the fans. Whenever you’re working on a really close, crushing, big-game loss, you’ve got to make sure you’re playing a really hated rival in a hostile environment where they wear really offensive colors, have cheerleaders with exceptionally ugly uniforms, and play a fight song with the unique and extra-special qualities of A) possessing the same musical complexity as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and B) displaying the same grating, skin-crawling, nails-on-a-chalkboard appeal as the “Spirit of Troy” song that USC plays ad nauseum in every single game, because apparently the Condom Band hasn’t had an original idea since Dr. Dye graduated and decided to pursue the head director’s job at a school where the band is actually, you know, good.

And, whatever else you do, make sure there’s absolutely no question that your team is actually full of experienced and talented athletes who would have had this game well in hand by the end of the first half if they hadn’t made so many mind-numbing, soul-splinching, life-shortening, sending-you-into-early-retirement kinds of mistakes. Because, let’s face it, your team was the team to beat. Your team was ranked. Your team should’ve been up twenty points at halftime and been basking in the glory of victory by the time the fourth quarter came around and the good-looking quarterback from California had his chance to take the field.

But no. By following these simple rules from How to Lose at Football 101, you’ve instead guaranteed your team and its loyal, ever-optimistic fans a week’s worth of frustrated, fever-inducing misery reminiscent of the ill-monikered swine flu.

This is our toast to you, and the denizens of defeat. So drink up!

It’s a bitter, swiney swill.

[Extra note: In all seriousness, I could not be more disappointed. There were so many chances to take this game in hand and we just blew them all. I hate to sound like a frustrated Nevada player, and there’s no need to undermine the obvious talent of Forcier or the sheer determination of Michigan’s last touchdown drive, but this game was, for the most part, not about how well Michigan played. It was about how poorly our players executed what should have been a very straightforward game. And, to our players’ credit, they did not completely lose their composure. But neither did they fix their mistakes.

I don’t expect to see us fall apart for the rest of the season. This is a team that knows it can play better. This is a team that knows it should have--not could have, but should have--beat Michigan, in every conceivable way.

And this is a team that, for all its progress, still falls short of being able to pull out a big win in a close game.

Where do we go from here? MSU just lost a stunner to Central Michigan, so I’m sure they’ll be rolling into South Bend feeling pissed. They’ve got a good enough run game to give our defense fits, and they should play well enough overall to give us a challenge—enough of a challenge, I think, to give our players a chance to redeem themselves.

If, that is, they can ever manage to shake off their own personal mental plague and finally start playing like the team they are supposed to be instead of the team that consistently refuses to meet its potential.

And this last thing, this most frustrating thing—this inability to meet our potential when we’ve got so much talent we should have our own panel of washed-up celebrity judges commenting on our performances every week [ohhh wait I guess that’s called SportsCenter]—I blame not on the players, but on the coaches. The “amateur psychology” part of coaching is what keeps your team on track mentally, or so I gather. And it looked to me like there was not enough adjusting at halftime to keep the team on track. And I’m sorry, but at this point we’re just Way Too Good for this sort of shit to keep happening.

There are no excuses—they’re out of excuses. And they know it.

If they don’t come out against MSU next week and prove how good they are…well, I’ll just say that Charlie’s in big trouble, and I guess they’re not the team I thought they were. And that’s just too bad—because after all they’ve gone through, they deserve to be.]

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

It's Football Season and Everything is Beautiful

Notre Dame 35, Nevada 0

I am a cream puff. Squeeze me, and happy sugary-sweet fluff will come out. It’s lighter than air, it’s creamier than custard, it’s sweeter than Brady’s biceps. (Well…almost sweeter than Brady’s biceps.)


Can you taste it? Can you feel the rush? It’s almost enough to make you sick.

But, you know, the best kind of sick.

Hom nom nom…tasty

So, according to Coach Weis, the players kept the momentum rolling from their Hawaii Bowl win eight months ago because they were “hungry.” (Which, let’s face it, pretty much everyone in the Irish fan legion has been since Charlie came to town waving his four Superbowl rings like an epileptic trying to eat a cheeseburger at a rave party.) For a win? For respect? For vindication? All of the above?

Well…nom. Nom. Nom. *burp*

I think it’s safe to call this a really satisfying appetizer. Possibly accompanied by a tasty beverage (Michigan?). And then perhaps followed by a nice, crisp salad (Michigan State?). And then perhaps a warm basket of bread (Purdue?).

And then we can see how the main course—the month of October—goes down. We face a shockingly improved Washington team, followed by a bye week, then USC (56-3 in their opener against San Jose State) and BC (54-0 this week against Northeastern) stacked right on top of each other.

So how much has this game whet our appetites for the rest of the season?

Well, the South Bend Tribune’s already hopped on the bandwagon, declaring the win over Nevada to be “Like Notre Dame of old.” Which is nice to see, but, you know, doesn’t always mean a lot considering Saturday morning the South Bend Trib ran a five hundred word article detailing what Bob Davie thought about the chances for the Irish this season. (Although I have to say, two points to the South Bend Tribune for capturing possibly the greatest image of Jimmy Clausen ever…unless they happen to have a picture of him in his parka stashed away somewhere. If you saw the front page of Sunday's SBT edition, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't...I can't find a link to it online anywhere, I'm SO annoyed.)

However, they do have a point with the “old”—the last shutout posted by Notre Dame was before Charlie’s time. It was, in fact, during my sophomore year of high school. They beat Rutgers, 42-0, and I remember this distinctly because (make way for a personal anecdote) it was my first game inside Notre Dame Stadium and I was sitting behind the north end zone, but the team somehow managed to score all 42 points in the south end zone. (True story. This makes more sense if you will recall that in the 2002 season, the Notre Dame defense scored more than half of the points.)

Anyway. So even though the win over Nevada was super-tasty in many ways, we’ve still got some lingering question marks that we won’t really be able to wipe away until the season is over. Such as…

How far has the team really come since last year? Can they win a close game? How will the recalibrated Irish O-line fare against a real pass rush? Is the running game here to stay, or just here to flail its arms wildly before sliding into the abyss of the Desperate Passing Game?

First things first.

Jimmayjimmayjimmay (and other offensive things)

Still not tasty. Sorry, Jimmy.

But 15-of-18 for 315 yards and 4 TDs followed by a 303.67 NCAA passer rating…that’s, you know, not bad.

Okay, fine. I’ll give him the equivalent of at least one jimmy (you know, the sprinkle) in sugar content. At least while he’s got his helmet on and he’s throwing touchdown passes to Michael Floyd and/or Kyle Rudolph and/or Golden Tate. And also playing well enough so DAYNE CRIST can make an appearance.

That’s worth at least one jimmy. Maybe two, if the actual Jimmy promises never to make a speech at a pep rally again.

So, my biggest concern with Jimmy right now, really, is whether he’s going to fall into the trap of making Floyd his Favorite Target. Our passing game really suffered at the end of last season when Floyd was injured, and I’d hate to see a repeat of that if either Floyd or Tate gets injured this year (if if if if if if….let’s hope there is no if). Happily, however, it seems as though favoritism is not (yet) quite as big a danger as I feared—thinking back on the game, it just seems like Floyd got more attention because three of his four total catches turned into touchdowns.

Looking at the stats, though, the ball was pretty evenly distributed—4 catches and 3 TDs for Floyd, 4 catches and 1 TD for Kyle Rudolph, 3 catches and 59 yards for Golden Tate, and 3 catches and 25 yards (plus 72 yards and 1 TD on the ground) for Armando Allen.

Speaking of Armando Allen, the 4.3 yards-per-carry we averaged in this game is an improvement from last year’s 3-yards-per-carry average. So that’s good to see. We had a lot more success running the ball up the gut, but our run game still isn’t what you might call explosive. The longest run of the day was a 19-yarder by sophomore Jonas Gray late in the game, while Armando Allen’s longest sprint was 14.

Now, I don’t want to be overly critical of an offense that out-rushed its opponent and put 35 points on the board and was nearly perfect in the passing game, but allow me to bring up the image of a cream puff again as we consider that Nevada put up a pretty weak pass rush and had the worst-ranked secondary in the country last year. Yes, we scored on our first three possessions and later topped off the score by completing a successful 99-yard drive from end zone to end zone (which shouldn’t have been necessary because, you know, the refs were blind and CLEARLY that Nevada player had his foot in the end zone when he fielded that ball at the less-than-one-yard line, but…whatever). And yes, the offense looked dreamy and creamy and executed very well, and Floyd and Tate are going to continue to be a nightmare for any secondary.


I am very interested to see if this delicious cream puff of an offense will pop and ooze everywhere under real pressure, as they have in past seasons, or if they will come out and prove that the last two years have in fact hardened and staled the offense, turning them into less of a cream puff and more of a tasty confection that has been baked and solidified in the sun and will break your teeth off if you try to bite into it too hard. (Yes Michigan, I am thinking of you, because you are next week and RAWR.)

Special Teams…?

Last year, we had the best kick coverage unit in the country. While that still looked pretty solid, I was slightly disappointed with some of our other special teams play. And/or I was really impressed with Nevada’s punter/punt coverage unit. Nevada’s Brad Langley averaged six more yards per punt than Eric Maust, but the yardage didn’t make the difference so much as the height; it is a sad day indeed when Golden Tate is forced to fair catch a whole bunch of times before finally catching the ball and being tackled for a 2-yard loss.

I’d like to see some more pressure on the punter in the next game. It'd be nice to see our punt returners actually have a chance to return one more than once during a game (the only positive punt return yardage came from John Goodman's 24-yard scamper later in the game). The jury's still out on this year's kick return unit, considering Nevada only kicked off to the Irish once the entire game, and that resulted in a pretty decent 23-yard return by Theo Riddick.

Also, it looked like scholarship kicker Nick Tausch is going to be pretty steady on those PAT's, but a couple of his kickoffs were less-than-stellar, and I'm very curious to see how our recruited scholarship kicker (FINALLY...seriously, how hard is it to recruit a kicker?) handles field goals under pressure. Possibly we will be able to find out next week, although of course if all goes according to plan, any field goal he attempts will be icing on the cake, and not a game-winning thriller.

Defense Defense Defense / Why thank you, Nevada offense

So, the general consensus among the Nevada players and head coach after the game didn’t seem to be so much that the Irish defense was monstrous, frightening, and likely to be the sole cause of their nightmares for the next three months, but that Nevada basically took its pistol offense and shot itself in the foot a bunch of times.

I sort of have to agree.

I think there is, you know, at least SOME credit due to a defense that kept Nevada off the scoreboard for only the third time in coach Greg Ault’s 25-year career (I believe it’s that long, anyway). Colin Kaepernick is a good quarterback (normally, so I hear), and Nevada’s offense averaged 37.6 points a game last season. Notre Dame’s defense made some pretty key plays to keep the Wolfpack scoreless—like Toryan Smith’s huge tackle for a loss against Vai Taua when Nevada was trying convert a fourth-and-inches. Or how about Robert Blanton’s interception in the end zone just before halftime? Or Kyle McCarthy’s interception in the second half, in addition to his 9 solo tackles?

However, the concern here is that the misfiring of the pistol offense did not seem to be caused by a wham-bam, stuff-the-run, rip-off-the-heads-of-the-offense-and-make-babies-cry style of defense. Not that they didn’t, you know, blitz successfully and sack the quarterback 4 times, or intercept the ball twice and recover a fumble once, but we also didn’t contain Vai Taua, who managed to have a 114-yard rushing game despite Nevada's total lack of scoring. This is going to be a problem later, when we go up against more talented running teams like, for example, the Trojans, who manage to simultaneously suck at life and have a running attack with more depth than the bottom of the beautiful briny sea.

Our secondary I’m not incredibly worried about; we have a lot of talent back there. The problem, I think, will be in forcing the other team to throw the ball, and even then we can’t count on everyone having as shitty a game in the red zone as Colin Kaepernick. Nevada moved the ball 307 yards, but they never quite moved it past those last crucial ten yards or so. Coach Greg Ault chalked it up to “first-game jitters,” and perhaps that’s true. They certainly did a good enough job of getting themselves in a position to score--there were just a lot of botched plays that prevented them from getting a TD. The high compliment to our defense here is that when Nevada screwed up, we capitalized on it and made them pay for it--which, if you will recall the last couple seasons, wasn't always something our defense was able to do.

Now I’m just itching to see how we slam down against a team that doesn’t have the jitters.

Which appears to be, you know, most of our opponents for the rest of the season

Very exciting opening weekend—not only for ND, but for almost ND’s entire schedule. Here’s a quick rundown of how our opponents fared in their season openers:

W - Michigan vs. Western Michigan (31-7)
W - Michigan State vs. Montana State (44-3)
W - Purdue vs. Toledo (52-31)
L - Washington vs. LSU (23-31)
W - USC vs. San Jose State (56-3)
W- BC vs. Northeastern (54-0)
L - Navy vs. Ohio State (27-31)
W - Pittsburgh vs. Youngstown State (38-3)
W - UConn vs. Ohio (23-16)
W/L - Stanford vs. Washington State (39-14)

Eight of Notre Dame’s future opponents won their openers. Purdue, USC, and BC all scored over fifty points; MSU scored over forty; Michigan, Pittsburgh, and Stanford scored over thirty; and the only close/weak sauce victory was UConn’s 23-16 decision against Ohio.

Granted, these were mostly cupcake games, but even so, almost all of Notre Dame’s opponents not only looked good but kicked some serious ASS in their season openers. Even the losses were kind of pretty—two of the three teams who came up short on Saturday lost in extremely impressive fashion. Unless you happen to think there’s nothing impressive about Navy nearly upsetting (*coughcough* OVERRANKED *cough*) #6 Ohio State, or WASHINGTON pulling ahead of #11 LSU before tossing up a couple of interceptions to lose 31-23.

The weakest links on our schedule appear to be UConn and Washington State, which isn’t really surprising—but I have to say, looking at the rest of our opponents, I am unusually pleased. It looks like our strength of schedule rating might be on the rise.

But, of course, that’s just Week One and the cream puffs talking.

Other pleasing cream-puff thoughts

So, I hope you're all really enjoying this extended food metaphor, and that I have given at least one person an intense craving for cream puffs.

Anyway, my favorite thing about this new, improved Irish team is their attitude. Everyone seems to have gotten over the fact that Jimmy Clausen is basically a spiky-headed jerkface, and they're all getting along. They appear to have bonded through adversity, rather than letting it drag them down and down and down into another terrifying death spiral of 3-9 doom. Which says good things about the overall character of both the players and the coaching staff. You learn more from losses than from wins, they say, so this year we have not only one of the most experienced, but one of the best-educated teams in the country.

And they all seem to be on the same page, saying the same sorts of things. At the pep rally, everyone who spoke mentioned how close the team had gotten, how hard they'd been working all summer, how focused they were--and, most importantly, how they decided after the USC game that they were going to take a step forward and never look back. They showed it against Hawaii, and they showed it again against Nevada.

The change in attitude is the biggest, best, and most important change in this team from the last two seasons. For the first time since Brady left, this is a team that's talking like they have their fate in their own hands.

According to Michael Floyd, "You have to show the nation what kind of team Notre Dame is and how we are going to do everything." If that's not confidence, I don't know what is.

Coach Weis has apparently been appealing to Teddy Roosevelt for inspiration--encouraging his players to speak softly and carry a big stick. "We were tired of looking at ESPN and watching ourselves get thrashed," linebacker Toryan Smith said. "We're not talkin' it, we're walkin' it--carryin' a big stick."

All the post-game press comments had a similar feeling of solidarity. "Jimmy showed a lot of trust in me," Kyle Rudolph said, and in turn, Jimmy said of his receivers, "Those guys are playmakers. All I have to do is give them the ball."

And they have their hunger back. They're not going to walk onto their home field and let another team want it more than they do. The defense is not going to let the offense sink or save the game, and vice versa.

"Guys out there getting rowdy, not just offensive guys with offensive guys, defense with the defense, but the team collectively. We had each other's backs," said linebacker Brian Smith. "Whenever the offense was in a bad situation, the defense put us in a good situation. We kind of fed off of each other today."

It's just about enough to make your cream puff ooze.