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.

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