Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I was going to post this last night but a skunk got in my way

USC 34, Notre Dame 27


That was.

On Waking up the Echoes, the ’77 Green Jersey game, and the Pain of Unfulfillment

So. All the buildup, all the momentum, all the confidence, all the cheering thousands seemed to fall nicely into place for this game. A Trojan horse was built for the pep rally. Rocket Ismail brought down the house (or…the sky, I guess, considering it was outside) with his “GO GET IT” speech. Eric Olsen shredded the words of the Observer staff writers who predicted a Notre Dame loss. Students attacked the campus sidewalks with chalk. Fans poured out to greet the Trojan buses. The team, looking more solid and more confident than I’ve seen them in a long time, appeared absolutely ready for this game. The crowd came out ready for a WIN. And until that clock hit 0:00 (TWICE), the team did not give up.

But there was no fourth-quarter miracle comeback this time.

The captains didn’t come pouring out of a Trojan horse on the field and the team didn’t don the green jerseys and we didn’t wake up the echoes of ’77, and our five billion visiting recruits didn’t get to see us knock off a top-10 team at home.

And that’s, you know, not okay, but that is that.

I’m glad we didn’t wear the green jerseys. This was a game that didn’t need green jerseys. This game was about proving something—proving we know how to win no matter the circumstances, the deficit, the color of our uniforms.

Which, you know, didn’t work out in the end, but all I’m saying is I think we had the right attitude in our approach to this game: that we are a team which needs no green jerseys to compete with USC.

ESPN will be saying all sorts of things about us, I’m sure, but I don’t care to listen to them. I don’t really care about their opinions or their two-bit analysis based on approximately 30 seconds of highlight reels. All the unimportant hype leading up to this game—the hype that had to do with Charlie’s job and Jimmy’s Heisman candidacy and blah blah blah rather than the hype that actually mattered, aka the efforts of the student body and the Irish nation in general to make sure the team felt their support—will be discussed ad nauseum, I’m sure.

The commentators were trying to say during the broadcast that this game will show whether Notre Dame can compete with Top-10 teams or not, whether they’re “back,” whether they’ve “arrived.”

But in this crazy-ass perpetual motion machine called life, we’ve never arrived; we’re always arriving. It doesn’t matter how good you are, or how good people think you are—every week you’ve got to go out and prove what you are. That’s college football. Every seven days, there’s a new world order.

So, okay, maybe we’re down this week. But we’ve got a lot of football left to play and a lot of things left to prove and if you think this season and this team and this quarterback and this coach are going to fall apart because of what happened Saturday, you are a damn fool.

This is not to say that I am not crushed.

This is just to say that I am still in one piece, and I believe the team is, too.

Did you see how excited USC was to win that game? We effed their shit up, and they know it.

It was not easy. We did not go down quietly. We made their defense give up things (like touchdown passes) that they haven’t given up all season. Once again, in the clutch, when all we needed was for our defense to do something miraculous, they came through. Once again, in the final seconds, we were still pounding at the door with a battering ram.

Only this time, the door did not break.

The Michigan game we lost despite our clear superiority of play. We lost because we couldn’t hold on to the damn ball long enough. We lost because our defense was not yet the SuperClutch Club (still only available in the 4th quarter & beyond).

This game we lost because…well, we just lost.

I’m not going to whine about the officials, although it is tempting. They did a piss-poor Pac-10 job as usual, failing to call flagrant face masks and making up for it later by throwing flags down on only vaguely apparent mishaps. I could also argue for Kyle Rudolph’s endzone grab to be an actual TD, but…well, apparently the rule book is against me and there’s really no point now. The officials did not win or lose this game. They even rightfully managed to give us one second back on the clock and one last chance for a miraculous Overtime Spree of Glory.

But it was not to be.

How can I say this? We got outplayed.

Not by a whole helluva lot sometimes, but, well, we did. Their front four tore holes in our O-line all day long. Our secondary struggled like Houdini in a straitjacket against the pass. Our special teams, I’m glad to say, were decent—but then that blocked PAT.

I guess people are going to try to say that our team got “exposed”—Jimmy got exposed, our offense got exposed, whatever. I mean, like I said I’m not going to pay attention to ESPN / the AP / sportswriters in general this week, so I don’t really know what they’re saying. Certainly the Heisman committee is going to take a few steps back from the Jimmy-hype, but then again I stopped caring what the Heisman committee thought after they gave the trophy to Troy Smith. I might look at the polls later, but I’m not expecting gossamer reviews there, either.

So. We faced a top-10 team, and we fell just short. I’m sure people are thinking, DAMMIT if we’d just kicked that field goal, and then gotten that PAT….

But I’m glad we didn’t kick that field goal. I’m glad Charlie went for it on fourth down. I’m pissed as hell that our O-line didn’t make it happen—there’s no excuse for that. I don’t care who we’re playing. I don’t care if it’s the New York f*ing Giants—you go out there and you get that yard like your ability to procreate depends on it.

However. If the team didn’t prove that it deserves to be shot up in the rankings and clawing for a spot in the Top 10 just yet, they did prove that the era of USC dominance is waning. Or so I think.

Here's a helpful graph from Her Loyal Sons to better display what I'm talking about:

On that last drive, we successfully chewed up four minutes on the clock and brought the game down to the very last second, with the ball in our hands and on our terms. (For the most part.) In the last two plays from scrimmage, though, we got outplayed. They knew we were going to pass, and the D-line banged up on our O-line like they’d been doing all day (though I don’t think, this season, the term “manhandled” is applicable) while the secondary stuck on our receivers like flypaper. That Rudolph almost-TD catch gets more and more painful every time I think about it.

Nevertheless, we were not defeated in this game until that final (final) second ran off the clock. And not once did the players look defeated until it was all done.

And that is everything. That says everything.

This team really, truly, without a doubt, thought they were going to win. Knew that they could win. And proved that they could. They will not stop fighting until the final whistle blows. And that, right there, is the mark of a real team.

There is a sort of strange numbness in me right now. I did not expect them to lose. Call me a delusional Notre Dame fan if you will, but I think the team proved on Saturday that beating Southern Cal is not a matter of delusional fantasies. It was a real and tangible possibility right up until that last play from scrimmage when time ran out on us.

Unlike the Michigan game, I’m not going to say we should have won. But unlike the last six years out of eight, it was not a matter of there-was-no-effing-way-we-could-have-won.

we’re in ur win/loss record, screwing up ur dynasty
..........aka let’s talk about recruiting

I didn’t keep my eyes on the TV to see if they showed the alma mater, or to see how the team/student section responded to the alma mater at the close of the game. I’d imagine there was a certain amount of frustration and despondency. But I do not expect that there was heartbreak. I don’t think this game should break the team and it shouldn’t break the fans, either. Heartbreak is 2005. Heartbreak is having the game sealed shut and then having victory snatched away from you.

We never had the lead in this game, so there was nothing to take away from us. Only something that we failed to earn.

And my hope is that this makes the team more pissed off and frustrated than defeated. Knowing we were inches away—knowing what we’re capable of—

We’d better go out there and pound it to those Backup College bums like the bunch of second-rate, mealy, yeast-filled lumps of pizza dough they are.

Or at least, that’s what we need to do. We need to stop being the team that makes clutch drives in the fourth quarter and start being a team that kicks so much ass there’s not even a need for a fourth quarter. How about 35-0 by the end of the third? That sounds like a good score to me. Let’s give Dayne Crist some more playing time. That sounds even better.

Anyway, getting around to the main reason I brought up the alma mater: this is one of the many things that impresses the hell out of recruits. Win or lose, the entire student body stays to the end and sings the alma mater with the team. That’s respect. That’s solidarity. That’s family.

That’s Notre Dame.

So…I think the loss will be a little bit of a blow to our recruiting chances. But with the way the fans were, with the way the team played to the end of the game, and with the kind of atmosphere you get from being at a Notre Dame game in general…I don’t think the day will be a total failure as far as recruiting goes. But time is quickly running out on Charlie’s ability to recruit in general.

Let’s backtrack for a moment on that.

I’ve been re-reading bits of Murray Sperber’s Shake Down the Thunder. He makes a good point that Notre Dame’s pool of talent has suffered in the last decade (or so) because of our commitment to not admitting complete and total dumbasses / convicts / etc. into our school. (Randy Moss is the example Sperber used regarding the end of the Lou Holtz era.) Notre Dame worked hard for half a century to change its image from “Football U” to “New Ivy”—and judging by our student-athlete graduation rate and the administration’s demand that athletes suffer through classes like Calculus along with the rest of the student body, we intend to stay that way. Which is one of the many things I love about Notre Dame.

However, Sperber rightly points out that you do tend to lose out on some of the top talent in the country when you’re not willing to make concessions, such as inventing fake majors and allowing players to stay on for a final semester enrolled only in one class of ballet.

Sperber also noted that the advent of widely televised college football in the 80’s and 90’s neutralized ND’s advantage in nationwide recruiting, as other teams—particularly those ranked in the Top 10—gained more coverage on programs like SportsCenter and rose into the national spotlight.

The recruiting woes extended from the end of the Lou Holtz era right up until approximately now in the Weis tenure. This is not to say we didn't have any good players during those years--we just didn't have enough.

The recruiting landscape changed when Charlie came into town waving his four Superbowl rings, turning 50% passers into Heisman candidates and signing the #1 recruits in the country at completely ostentatious press conferences involving spiky hair, stretch limos, and the College Football Hall of Fame.

Whatever Charlie’s faults, they are not in the area of recruiting.

However. Time is running out on Charlie’s ability to make all the promises he’s been making to lure these top recruits to good ‘ol ND. It’s easier to nab talent when you can promise them lots of playing time right away and the opportunity to turn a team around.

But see, now we’ve got the talent. Now we’ve got some depth on the roster. Charlie’s been here for five seasons—all these players are his recruits. And we’re still not winning games like the one against SC.

If Charlie wants to keep landing the kind of recruits he’s been landing (Manti Te’o, for example), we’d better start throwing down some more performances like we did in the Hawaii Bowl.

Also, it’d be great if, before the fourth quarter comes around, he gets some more production out of the talent he’s got. Otherwise we’re going to start experiencing the same kind of talent drain we did in the late 90’s, we’ll be out another coach, and we’ll be right back at square one—with no Lou and no championships and no jeweled shillelaghs.

on the continuing battle against turf toe and other deficits

So, I wish I’d seen a little better production out of our offensive line, but I do have some positive thoughts on the offense:

-when we absolutely needed to make it happen in the fourth quarter (right down to the last possible second), we did
-we successfully ran the ball on a number of occasions, got more than one 10+ yard run out of Armando Allen, and on one scoring drive we got three first downs in a row
-the five sacks the defense recorded on Jimmy did little to prevent our offense from continuing to drive the ball down the field and score
-after failing to convert the 4th-and-1, the O-line sat down on the benches, gathered themselves, went out there and helped us score two more touchdowns

There were some positive things in the numbers, too. We got more first downs than they did—27 to their 21. We won the time of possession battle by a slim margin—31:11 to 28:49. We had zero interceptions to their one.

But those stats really don’t mean very much when you consider the other numbers. We had less than 100 yards on the ground, less than 300 yards passing, and only 367 yards of total offense to USC’s 501. (Golden Tate still had 100+ yards receiving, but, you know, he’s Golden Tate. Robby Parris got close, but no cigar.) We averaged 4.9 yards per play to their 8.1. We only converted 35% of our third downs.

Even so, the score ended up close, and in the stats, it shows. Trips to the red zone: USC – 5 chances, 5 scores. ND – 4 chances, 3 scores.

And just like that, we’re at 4-2.

I know it’s no use lamenting the loss of Michael Floyd, but damn. USC should be sending a letter of thanks to the Michigan State Spartans. No defense wants to see Floyd and Tate and Rudolph spread across the field. You put Michael Floyd in there, and suddenly your coaches are a lot less in the mood for slip ‘n slide and a lot more in the mood for drilling a pass rush that will knock the earwax out of you.

Not that that will save you from the Man, the Mystery, the Mohawk that is Michael Floyd. But you can always try.

Anyway, the point is—

Once again, we’ve proved that there is no such thing as a safe deficit for our team in the fourth quarter. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Even against one of the toughest defenses in the country.

That alone says a lot. Can we compete against a top-10 team? Yeah. We can. And can we win?


I’d have to say that our offense v. their defense was the more anticipated matchup of this game, and when it came right down to the wire, their defense won out. 55% passing, 2 TDs, and 5 sacks is not exactly a red-letter day for Jimmy and the O-line. No video game stats against this defense—which is more or less to be expected, I suppose.

That said, I was more disappointed in the O-line than I was in Jimmy. I expect more out of a group of veteran players who, most of the time, were only dealing with a four-man rush. You should not be giving up sacks to a four-man rush. Not when you’re all the size of Mack trucks. (Never mind that the USC players often seem to be a variety of slightly bigger Mack trucks.)

I do have some theories on this, though. Here are my vague thoughts on the O-line…

I’d imagine the O-line struggled a little bit simply because this is the best defense we’ve faced all season. This was their first big test under their new line coach, and, much like that 4th-and-1 we failed to convert, they came up a little short.

As previously mentioned, though, it is a mark of how much the team has improved that two of the drives which started with sacks resulted in touchdowns. It is also impressive to note that the same team which failed to score a touchdown against USC for nine consecutive quarters scored the first touchdown pass against SC’s secondary all season. (Because Golden Tate is a BEAST.)

I don’t want to look too far in the future, but thinking about next season—we’ll be losing a good number of starters from our O-line, but all the returning linemen will have a solid year of Coach Verducci under their belts. I think Coach Verducci’s done well with the line so far, and I think another year of consistency in coaching and drilling fundamentals will do a world of good for the next time ND faces a top-10 team.

Also I think it’s important to note that ND only had 4 penalties yesterday (to USC’s 8), so we played a much, much cleaner game than we have been. (Also, you know, the Pac-10 officials were blind and kept missing things. Which occasionally worked in our favor.) Anyway, if memory serves me correctly, only one of those four penalties was holding. Which is good, in a sense.

However…I am partially convinced that the O-line’s play against the four-man rush suffered not only because of the level of talent on USC’s squad, but also because our line has been drawing a lot of holding penalties this season, and I’m going to guess that on Saturday they were trying really, really hard not to draw any more. Which to me points to a breakdown in fundamentals. I mean, I have no experience as an actual offensive lineman, of course, but it seems to me that, when it comes down to potentially allowing a sack vs. drawing a holding penalty, that’s basically equivalent to winning your match-up with good fundamentals vs. drawing a holding penalty.

So if we’re not drawing penalties and we’re allowing sacks and everything I said in the above paragraph makes some sort of sense…we must be choking it up on fundamentals somewhere down the line.

Of course, I’m no expert on O-line play, so my theories could be entirely wrong. But those are my theories, anyway.

i love you, then i hate you. then i hate you, then i love you.
aka defense it would be great if you would stop letting our opponents into the endzone.

So. Our opponent scored 30+ points. Again.

And our defense came up with some big-ass plays right at the very end of the game. Again.

Why can’t the defense that forced 3-and-outs and two field goals in the first half of the game and made a clutch interception in the fourth quarter show up for the entire game? (Pause for a shout-out: thank YOU, Gary Gray, for saving our asses and giving us the chance to take the game right down to the wire. Again.) You can make goal-line stands against teams like Washington, but notsomuch USC.


I mean, there were some good things. We got three sacks. Eight different players recorded tackles for a loss. As requested, other members of the team learned how to tackle. Three players managed to finish above Kyle McCarthy this week in total tackles: Manti Te’o and Brian Smith both had eight and Gary Gray had six. McCarthy finished with an unusually low five (tying him with Kapron Lewis-Moore for the week).

Also, for most of the game, we did seem to shut down the run. There is something to be said for a defense that holds Running Back U to 121 yards rushing and Joe McKnight to less than 80 yards on the day. (Though let’s not talk about those long runs we gave up just now.) We did force the Trojans to take to the air.

Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to slow down their offense very much, considering that two different receivers had 100+ yard days and Barkley was 65% passing with 380 yards and 2 TDs. So I guess our pass rush / secondary / defensive scheme in general needs some work. (Seriously, who are these effing freshmen quarterbacks and why are they so much more mature than Jimmy was?)

Probably it is important to point out here that USC’s offensive line has accumulated the second-most starts in college football – right behind Notre Dame’s. So Barkley had some decent protection in the pocket, especially considering how apparently anemic our pass rush has become.

So here’s my wish for the rest of the season: let’s hold all of our remaining opponents to less than 30 points a game. Including obnoxious teams from Boston and teams that run the option and teams that did not deserve to win in triple-overtime last year. Think you can handle that, guys?

Great. Thanks.

So…the future

I’m coming home this weekend for the Boston College game.

I’ve got absolutely nothing to say in preparation for this game except that this is still a season for breaking streaks and those feathered fools are going to get what’s coming to them.


(Note: Regarding the title of this post... Last night, I was on my way over to the building where I get wireless so I could post this note, and I encountered one of our resident skunks sniffling around outside the building. Needless to say I backtracked quite quickly, before the skunk could feel even the least bit threatened. And so here we are with this post on Tuesday, several days too late to be of any consequence. But whatever. Also, true to my word, I still have not checked the polls or read a single word regarding the matchup on Saturday. So if there's anything really crucial I missed out on, let me know I guess.)

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