Thursday, September 30, 2010

Press Conference Quotes: "Go Irish Beat Eagles" edition

Interesting tidbits from yesterday's pressers...

Apparently Robert Huuuuughes is moving up to the #2 back position this week. According to Coach Kelly:

We're still really high on Cierre Wood. This is not let's push Cierre to the side. He's a young kid now. [...] This guy's got four games and everybody wants to throw the poor kid under the bus. I think he's going to be a really, really good player. He just needs time. One of the things that Robert can do and utilize against B.C. is he's a big, strong, physical kid and he may be able to help us a little bit in pass protection. [...] In some instances. I want Cierre to know, hey there's no pressure on you, son. Go play. Sometimes he plays like there is all this pressure on him to be the next Heisman Trophy candidate. He just needs to go play and relax, and hopefully he'll do that.

Although you know, Cierre, nobody around here would mind if you were the next Heisman Trophy candidate.

On Dayne Crist's development...

I see it more so that he's throwing for over 300 yards a game. His interceptions, obviously, are not crazy. They're higher than I want. It's the combination of making four or five really, really good plays and maybe one or two not so good plays. So I think where we are in the development is obviously playing more consistently. How do you get consistent? You gain confidence. When he's confident now, he's really, really good. He loses a little bit of confidence at times, that's where we're working on the development of Dayne Crist, and that's what he has to bring to each and every game.
In other words: you keep your eyeballs in focus, Dayne Crist. You'll be just fine.

Regarding the somewhat stifled run game...

Well, I'll start with the last two games. The Michigan State game is a six man box, very difficult. They blitz the backers quite a bit, so that's why the ball was thrown as much as it was. When we needed to hit some runs, our version of running the ball is the shovel, the quick option out on the perimeter. Those become run plays out of that structure. They're not counted as such, they're counted as passes because of the shovel version. But I think that the Michigan State game was the circumstances more so than anything else. I think if you look at the Stanford game, there were time that's we got beat up front. And there were times that we probably should have run the football when we tried to throw it, because of, you know, so much drop 8. So I took some of the responsibility last week for not being more effective in the running game. I think Stanford needs a little credit on that as well. We expect to get back to a better balance this week.

Umm I sure hope so. Because the balance last week was -- how shall we say? -- non-existent.

On Notre Dame's tough schedule in the opening weeks of the season....
Moving forward, it will be a strength having a schedule like this moving forward. I think with our spring and summer preparation, coming into the year we're going to be further ahead when we play tough competition right out of the gates. Maybe it's not showing right now, new offense, new defense, special teams. At times we've been sporadic. But I'm still not in favor of throwing 1AA teams in there. I still feel like we should be playing the kind of schedule we're playing, and I think it's going to pay off for us.


Moving right along...

On dealing with losses while building up a program...
It's the same process that we're going through in terms of building our program and doing the thing that's we need to do to win for a long, long period of time. Every program that I've been involved with, they've won championships after I left, and I'm not leaving this one. I want to win them. But we're going to get to that level as well. The process is the same, it's just the expectations are different.
I really like how up-front he's being about all of this. I mean, yeah, every coach says they want to win a championship. Lots of coaches claim they're going to win championships. But Brian Kelly, man...he really fucking means it. You can tell.

I am in favor.

On Braxston Cave and Mike Golic switching it up at center....
Again, Braxston (Cave) is in his first year. There are some growing pains there. The one thing we need with Braxston is a little bit better job at cadence, and he's a little too consistent with some of the things that he does that gives the defense a chance to, as you saw against Stanford, they did a pretty good job of film study. They knew when Braxston was going to snap the ball. He's got to be more firm with his snaps. His snaps have not been very good. So some of our concern with Braxston is less about who he's blocking and how he's blocking. Though we always can get better there. We need a little bit better management of cadence and when the ball comes out and how it comes out. Dayne's had to catch too many balls below his knees, which takes his eyes off what we're trying to do offensively.
Hmm. I wonder how good those BC players are at their film study.....

Some player presser quotes

Dayne Crist, on becoming more prepared to attack a drop-eight package...

Right, and like I said, teams don't live in that world, really. You're not getting a great majority of those snaps unless, like I said, the situation calls for it within the game and within the score and everything like that. So if a team wants to go out and start the game and drop 8, we're going to run for 300 yards. It's one of those things where it's more a situational thing and something I think I was able to mature with a little bit and understanding that situation. Now coming back after talking with Coach Kelly and watching tape with him and doing what we need to do to correct our problems that we had with it, now it will be one of the situations where like I said we've got answers.

Kyle Rudolph, saying all the right things regarding our strength-of-schedule....

That's why we come here. We come here to play the best teams in the country. You know, three or four weeks before conference play, and you play 1AA teams and MAC teams and stuff like that that some of these other schools are playing against. With us, we're going to play the best week in and week out. And we're going to get the best from the people that we play week in and week out simply because we're Notre Dame. And that is something that is the reason we came here, and what we look forward to our schedule.

Dayne Crist, on how the team's handling the losses...
You can see the hurt that lingers after a game, and all the guys are like that, really. But by the same token, guys are also--we realize that we're right there. You know, it's one of those things where guys aren't coming back to practice on Tuesday still drooping over a loss. Guys are coming back battling on a Tuesday. We had a great day of practice yesterday. As soon as you're done with a loss, the first thing you want to do is go play. As soon as the clock hits zero, it's when do I get to play next? It's the first thing you want to do is get it out of you and go get a win. I think that's how guys are responding. I'm definitely proud of how guys are responding, but we need to make sure that we understand what that feels like, and we don't want to feel like that anymore.

You bring it, Irish.

And now, a word from Manti Te'o, on what cataclysmic weather patterns aligned to bring about week's tornado/volcano eruption of tackles:

I don't think I did anything different.

Oh. sure?

I just made the corrections to the mistakes I did in the past games.

Really? That's...that's it? You sure you didn't channel any energy from badass photo-shopped video game covers, or channel the power of your Samoan ancestry through your tattoo, or conquer with the spirit of Kamehameha, or--

Oh. Well, okay then.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Notre Dame Football: Moby Dick Edition

Notre Dame 14, Stanford 37

A football rant, as interpreted through the words of Herman Melville.

Whenever I find myself growing grim...whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before [sports bars], and [glaring in the face of every Michigan fan] I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately [signing onto football message boards] and methodically [pissing off every USC fan I see]--then, I account it high time to get to [Notre Dame Stadium] as soon as I can.

There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about [Our Lady's campus], whose gently awful stirrings seems to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of [the cheering thousands] over the [Four Horsemen and the Rocket and the Seven Mules]. And meet it is, that over these [twin lakes], wide-rolling [quads] and [hand-picked mascots] of all [twenty-nine dorms], the [echoes of the Victory March] should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-[swaying student body] but made so by their restlessness.

There is no steady unretracing progress in this [football season]; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:--through [pre-season]’s unconscious spell, [the season opener]’s thoughtless faith, [the first loss's] doubt...then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of "if."

But once gone through, we trace the [season] again; and are [wins], [losses], [overtimes], and Ifs eternally.

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.

Or, as Knute Rockne once said: "One loss is good for the soul. Too many losses are not good for the coach."

It's clearly way too early to be making judgment calls about Brian Kelly one way or the other, but it's impossible not to feel frustrated over the last three games. We've had to suffer through a lot of tough losses these past few seasons, and it's hard to spit the bitter, coppery, blood-tinged taste of defeat out of your mouth without spitting some of your fervor and optimism and confidence as well.

Intangibles make a difference. Not as much of a difference as hard work, talent, and perspiration, but enough of a difference that even video games choose to incorporate not-quite-palpable factors such as momentum swings into their gameplay. And heading into this game against BC...I suspect we're going to have a few intangibles that have gone a little out of whack.

The players always say they've put the losses behind them; they always say they're too busy worrying about next week to spend much time thinking about what happened last week. And I'm sure that's true, in a sense; they've got class and practice and homework and jersey chasers to worry about, and that's more than enough to keep any group of post-pubescent tough young gentlemen occupied. After all, why waste your time brooding over last week's loss when you've got plenty of other things kicking your ass this week?

But even so. These sorts of things do weigh on you, whether you want them to or not.

One and three. One-and-three. Oneandthree. (Please stop saying that.)

It's not like it's something you can just shake off. It's a little more lasting than that. Sort of like a harpoon in your backside.

Hell is an idea first born on an undigested [football loss]; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by [Michigan victories].

How unfortunate for our strength-of-schedule rating that Purdue lost to Toledo.

And how unfortunate, also, that beating the Irish vaulted both Michigan and Michigan State into the Top 25, and Stanford into the Top 10.

And how perpetually unfortunate that these teams from Michigan keep winning, because even though that technically helps our strength-of-schedule, ew.

You know, apparently the Irish are pretty good this year. Otherwise how the hell do you explain Stanford jumping up seven spots in the polls after beating a team that's 1-3? (Yes, I am aware that there were several major upsets on Saturday, but that is so not the point.)

This is sort of starting to feel like familiar territory, isn't it? In the sense that it seems like we're actually a pretty decent football team, and apparently beating us means something...but we're not really winning too many games. So, um, shit.

It's an interesting mix of issues this year. You can see some hangover problems from the last couple seasons, most notably in our run blocking and special teams return unit. I maintain that our run game has been decent so far mostly because Armando Allen is a beast, and regularly conjures yards out of nothing.

Yet habit--strange thing! what cannot habit accomplish?

I am convinced that a lot of this goes back to the weak fundamentals we experienced under Charlie. Fundamentals require strength and technique built up via hours of mindless repetition, and unfortunately time is one thing you really don't have during the regular season.

So although I am hoping for some across-the-board improvements as the season progresses (particularly as we go on to play our not-ranked-and-definitely-not-going-to-be-ranked opponents), I really don't think we have a chance at being dominant on the line of scrimmage until we've got another off-season under our belts. (Although as always, I hope the team proves me wrong.)

And I think we will be dominant. Eventually. I have faith in the strength & conditioning staff. I have faith in the team. Of course I would like to see us win all of our games all the time, but as I've mentioned in previous weeks, I'm not looking for instant gratification here. I think what we're seeing right now is kind of a slow build up to where we want our team to be.

You can already see the places where some of our fundamentals have improved, most notably on the defense. Tackling's been much better across the board. Secondary coverage has been very solid (although unfortunately I can't say the same of our pass-rush). Overall team effort & attitude is up at least 35% from last year. (Plus you could probably tack on at least another 10% uptick in morale because JimmayJimmayJimmay is no longer within a 50-mile radius of the stadium. Not that watching Jimmy-to-Golden wasn't fun. But you should all know how I feel about Jimmy Clausen by now, so moving right along....)

So I'll take our team as a work-in-progress, at least for now. Even though the score ended up 37-14 (yikes), I was not disappointed with the effort our players put out--in the sense that they kept putting out. There's a lot of fight and not a lot of quit in these guys, and even though the results on the field are not at all as splendid as anyone remotely related to Irish football might have hoped, I still kind of get the feeling there's something good going on here.

Perhaps you think I've been swallowing too many of Coach Kelly's presser comments without question, but damn if I don't keeping agreeing with the guy. For example, regarding how the players are dealing with the season record right now:

Well, you know, we all want to win. They want to win football games. But they know what they're doing is making a difference. They're getting better. They're getting to the point where they can compete and think that they can win every game they play. They have to take solace in that right now, because I have to. We're all in this together as players and coaches. [...] I think what we get is that we know that we're making internal, in our own room, behind the walls, we know what we're doing, and I think that keeps us moving forward.

And it's not like it's just the coach spouting all this off, either. The players seem to be coming from the exact same place. Like Dayne Crist, for example:

We have guys that want to win, guys that know we can win, and we have a potential to win the rest of the games on our schedule. There's really that belief in the locker room. It goes all the way through. There's no guys in question right now of where we're going. That's a great feeling. Again, have to step up and be a leader of the offense and get us going in practice more than anything else.

And of course all this goes hand-in-hand with my favorite quote from the movie Little Giants:

"Just remember: football is 80% mental, and 40% physical."

I am convinced that if we get the mental parts of our football team all aligned, the physical part will start spilling out like crazy.

I mean, hell, just look at what Manti Te'o did this week.

Is he mad? Anyway there's something on his mind, as sure as there must be something on an [offensive line] when it cracks.

Or, in the words of Eminem, maybe that's what happens when a tornado meets a volcano: Manti Te'o emerges and makes twenty-one tackles.

Which kind of overshadows how Harrison Smith had 11 tackles, and how Jamoris Slaughter had 7 tackles plus a 26-yard return on an interception; also how Zeke Motta recovered the fumble on Stanford's botched fair catch at the start of the game and Darrin Walls recorded an interception later on; plus how the defense recorded a season-high seven pass break-ups and put in a killer effort for the entire game.

You've gotta hope that this kind of output from Te'o is only gonna amp up the rest of the defense more. And at this point they could probably use some help with the amping--not because they're not turning in a good performance overall, but because they're spending so much freaking time out there on the field.

And (for those of you who didn't actually watch the game) the defense definitely did not play as poorly as the score indicates. Stanford did score a touchdown on their first drive of the game, but the first drive of the game is never anything to get up in arms about. And the defense proved that, because when Dayne Crist fumbled the ball away on our next possession and gave Stanford a huge momentum swing, we held them to only a field goal.

In fact, the defense refused to let Stanford into the endzone again until the fourth quarter. Plus they only allowed them to score once in the third. Stanford had to settle for four field goals in a row, which would have put us in an excellent position to make something out of this game if our offense had managed to, you know, do something.

Particularly in the third quarter. Scoring in the third quarter would have been really nice.

But alas! Stanford kept putting the ball through the uprights--on the foot of former ND player Nate Whitaker, no less. (I think it's safe to say that's the best game he ever had inside Notre Dame Stadium.)

And Notre Dame's offense continued to...not score.

But at the beginning of the fourth quarter, it still seemed like all was not lost. I mean, maybe the team was just setting itself up for a really stunning comeback. Right?

. . . because truly to enjoy [a victory], some small part of you must [have experienced a loss], for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.

So then we're heading into the fourth quarter and the score is 19-6. The game is getting really frustrating, but it's not entirely out of hand. (Except of course that our offense still hasn't managed to find its rhythm, our run game is non-existent, and the defense is getting tired.) We have the ball at mid-field on a 3rd-and-1, and it looks like we have a good chance to keep the drive going. And then--then--

We call a freaking pass play.

What. The. Hell

Not that I don't have faith in Kyle Rudolph or anything--but seriously, what the hell?! It's one yard. ONE YARD. And we don't complete the pass.

So then we decide to run the ball on fourth down, and we don't convert. (Which, let's face it, is kind of embarrassing.)

That is some combination of poor blocking and specious playcalling right there.

I am not pleased about that. I am not pleased about that at all.

Give not thyself up, then, to [turnovers], lest [they] invert thee, deaden thee...

So after we turn the ball over on downs at midfield, Stanford takes advantage of the momentum swing and some killer field position to drive the ball down and find the endzone. And our defense is clearly slowing down at this point, because basically the whole drive consists of Stepfan Taylor catching a 23-yard pass and scampering all over the place for some first downs.

And it looks like the D is going to make a killer goal line stand for like 2.2 seconds, but then Stanford gets a first down on like the 1 yard line, and because Stanford is not Washington (and they weren't subjected to a bunch of dumbass play calls), they manage to jam it in there. Plus the two-point conversion. (Which is lame like a one-legged waitress at IHOP named Eileen.)

But it's like, okay, we're still in a position where Stanford's trying to put the game out of reach. So maybe if our next drive goes well--maybe if the offense finally gets something together--

And ohhh hey look at that, Dayne Crist just threw a pick-six.

Stick a harpoon in me, I'm done.

Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a [losing record], sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the [team's young quarterback], like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every [misdirected pass] that is tossed to them...

Okay, so, Dayne Crist is playing like a young quarterback, which isn't the end of the world because, um, he's a young quarterback. He obviously still doesn't have that much experience running the spread offense, and for some reason he keeps throwing interceptions and/or coughing up fumbles in every game. Which is really frustrating...but not completely devastating. After all, Brady Quinn was never more than a 50% passer until Charlie arrived, and Jimmy's freshman season was the worst in school history. (Not that this was entirely his fault, but, you know, facts are facts.)

And actually, I think Dayne is playing better than Brady or Jimmy did in their debut seasons. There have been less interceptions overall, and Crist's 56% pass completion against Stanford is the worst mark he's put up all season. Plus, after throwing a pick-six, he went out there and drove us down the field for a touchdown in less than two minutes. And AA capped it off with a successful two-point conversion.

Now that's maturity.

Plus, even though there have obviously been mistakes and hesitations, I feel like Crist's tendencies as a young QB are not quite as frustrating to watch as, for example, Jimmy's. Crist has had a few crucial overthrows in the endzone, but he isn't constantly overthrowing the ball. And he's also not constantly refusing to throw the ball away, either, like some other quarterbacks I could mention. Nor does he seem to have a general propensity for throwing the ball downfield. I suspect that the lack of deep passing might have more to do with the playcalling than with Crist himself, but nevertheless I am pleased to see that he does not have the Jimmy Clausen/Rex Grossman complex of "F*** it, I'm throwing the ball downfield."

And although this game obviously marked the offense's poorest performance so far, Crist still managed to throw for over 300 yards and a TD--even with Stanford in eight-man coverage for most of the game.

On the flipside, of course, we wouldn't have had to throw 44 times if we'd been able to run the damn ball. AA only averaged 3.5 ypc this week, and the only other runner who even got his hands on the ball was Jonas Gray--4 touches for 12 yards.

Pretty abysmal.

I know I disparaged our run blocking earlier (and obviously it does need improvement), but you have to tip your hat to Stanford for this one. They played a good game. They did enough to prevent us from establishing any sort of rhythm, we went 4-of-13 in third down conversions, we turned the ball over a couple times, and we just couldn't get it done.

To put it one way.


I have some more beef with the playcalling in this game.


Look, I don't really care who your opponent is--if your offense stalls on the first drive of the game and then immediately (miraculously) gets the ball back on a botched fair-catch fumble recovery, there is absolutely no excuse for not converting that into a touchdown. No excuse.

I don't care if it's early in the game. I don't care if 3 points is better than 0. How the hell can you not convert that into a touchdown?!?!?

And who in their right freaking mind gets down to the 11-yard line in the opening minutes of the first quarter and decides, "Oh hey, lets get tricksy and call a direct snap to our running back! The defense won't have any idea what to do with that play!!!!!"

I mean, okay, I sort of understand the logic in direct-snapping it to your running back and then cleverly having the RB throw the ball instead of running with it.

And I also kind of understand the logic behind direct-snapping it to your running back again and having him carry it the second time--because based on your previous play, perhas the defense will be all faked-out and think, "Oh, maybe he's going to pass again, maybe we should drop back into coverage or something." I mean, I get what he was going for there. It makes sense on paper.

But NEWS FLASH: that kind of trickery is only effective when your first effing pass play from that formation gains more than three yards.

And plus--WHAT THE HELL, it's still the first quarter. Now is not the time for crazy trickery. You have badass field position and an offense that has proved itself extremely capable of scoring in the red zone. Why the hell would you turn your back on that? What, was Dayne Crist having eyeball issues again?

I mean, yes, I understand the desire to be bold--we've never used that kind of formation under Brian Kelly (right?), so we can assume Stanford wasn't really expecting to see that sort of thing from us. And obviously if it had worked, that would have been great.

But you know, I've never really liked any of this stupid direct-snap Wildcat formation nonsense, not even when Golden Tate was running it and it actually occasionally worked for us. My whole theory is--you have a good quarterback, so whythefuck are you taking the ball out of his hands? You have a chance to go up seven early in the game--why are you taking a gamble?

I don't like it. I don't like it at all.

Maybe if you'd reversed some of the playcalling. Maybe if you'd had Dayne Crist throw to the endzone on first down instead of third. Maybe then your tricksy little direct-snap nonsense would've worked out better. Maybe.

But I guess we'll never know.

And just as long as I'm here ranting about the playcalling, I have another point of contention: WTF was up with that time-out at the end of the game? If you're going to go for the touchdown, great. I am all for that. But if you were going to go for it, why did you wait so freaking long to call the timeout??? If we'd called it right away, we could've gotten two more plays off instead of one. We probably could have scored again. Stanford's defense was letting us drive down the field by that point; the end of the fourth quarter was really the only time I ever saw a rhythm starting to emerge from our offense. So why--why--like, why?


Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

This seems like something both sides might say to themselves as we head out to Boston this week for a continuation of the Holy War.

Once again, it seems like there really shouldn't be so much anger and bitterness involved in this matchup. But there absolutely is.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Notre Dame students insist on referring to the only other private Catholic D-I football school in the country as "Backup College."

Or maybe it has something to do with how Boston College never actually does anything brilliant on its own (national championships won by BC: zero), but it does have a long and glorious history of screwing up the national championship race for teams that are actually contendors.

Or, as Herman Melville puts it, To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on [BC football], though [Doug Flutie and Matt Ryan] there be who have tried it.

BC's not exactly looking like a powerhouse opponent this year, considering their two victories so far have been over Weber State and Kent State, they just lost 19-0 to Virginia Tech, and apparently they still have two QBs battling it out for the starting spot.

But it's still a night game on ESPN in Boston, and after getting shut out last week I'm sure BC will be ready to bring it.

Should be interesting to see how they handle the tornado/volcano on the east coast.

Also should be interesting to see how the offense bounces back.

You know, after all that ranting, I'm starting to feel better about life. And after reading the pressers from this week, I'm starting to get a better feeling about how the team's going to handle their second road game.

But--as always--I guess we'll see.

But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep.

For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this [football program], they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include...all the generations of [All-Americans], and [coaches], and [Heisman winners], past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of [Catholic Disney World], and throughout the whole [college football] universe, not excluding its [non-BCS] suburbs.

It was that accursed [twenty-year championship drought] that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!... I'll chase [it] round [the Big House], and round the [Coliseum], and round the [Orange Bowl], and round perdition's flames before I give [it] up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that [twelfth championship] on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till [it] spouts [blue banners] and rolls [trophies] out.

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy [Irish fans], are visibly personified, and made practically assailable in [that elusive twelfth national championship]. We pile upon the [Golden Dome] the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by [the college football world], from [USC and Backup College and Bo Schembechler on] down....

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering [twelfth national championship]; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.

And in the meantime....GO IRISH BEAT EAGLES!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Press Conference Quotes: "Go Irish Beat Cardinal" edition

Grab-bag of quotes from the Wednesday pressers.

These thoughts are belated as always, of course, but it's a Football Friday and I've got to do something to keep myself from going crazy over lunch hour.

First up, comments from Coach Kelly. Lots of quality tidbits here.

On how the team is looking at this point in the season...

I mean, we're in the first quarter of our season, first chapter of the book. I think it's a little frustrating to read right now, but I'd stick with the book. I think it's going to be a good read.

I second that opinion. We've had some tough losses, but we're not a bad team.

On how the players are faring sitting at 1-2...
This team is getting better each week. They're frustrated right now that they haven't got it over the finish line, so to speak, but I like our kids and the way they're competing and practicing and doing the things that we're asking them to do.

Just keep pluggin', guys. Instant gratification is swell, but it takes time and intense pressure to produce (for example) a diamond.

On an impressive defensive stat that I totally overlooked...
Minus 6 yards rushing in the fourth quarter on the road against a team that wants to impose their will on you rushing the football. Those are good signs.

On the defense's toughness...

Look, I'm not a big numbers guy, and I don't get wrapped up in it, but I watch them. And what I liked about our defense that will carry the day is they played tough when tough was required, and that's what we've been preaching. Be tough gentlemen. Gentlemen off the field, be tough when tough is required, and our defense played tough when they needed to play tough.

Although you may be thinking, "But what about all those flagrant mistakes? Those huge runs we gave up against Michigan and MSU?" (Unless you already listened to this press conference, in which case you already know Coach Kelly's comments.)

So, on improving the defense...
And look, this is not an excuse. We've got to make those plays. But you ask me why you see there's light at the end of the tunnel, it's those things we know that we can correct. If I was standing there before going, we've got no chance to stop the run, that's a different feeling. I feel like the way we performed on the road in the fourth quarter against a team that was going to run the ball gives us some real good things to look for.

Shifting gears here, I also appreciated the comments about the team's attitude after the loss.

Look, you can't fake losing, okay. You can't fake hurt after a game. So when I looked through the locker room, I could tell who the phonies are, and I know the guys that it really hurts. [...] This group, it hurts.

Well, damn straight it better hurt.

On bouncing back after a loss...

Q. Getting back to all the close losses this team has had the last couple years, you hear people say that a team needs to learn how to win a close game. Do you believe in that at all or is that just a bunch of talk?

COACH KELLY: No, not this group. I've had teams that didn't know how to win. You could just tell. That's not this group. They need to play cleaner. They've got to do some things during the game that obviously puts them in a position to close out games. No, this team does not have that sense, from me, if you will, that they don't know how to win. They know how to win. They have to play cleaner, and championship teams do.

Which seems to be backed up by the mentality of the players....

Q. When you look at your stats, you set a bunch of records for a first time starting quarterback on the road in terms of touchdowns and yards. As I look at you right now, you don't really care about that because you didn't get the win.
Dayne Crist: That's dead on, yup.

Q. Talk about that mentality that you must have as a quarterback, that's the only part that really matters is getting the victory in the end.
Dayne Crist: That's the only stat, like you say, at the end of the day that matters to me, honestly, is wins. If we're not winning, nothing else is important. We obviously have a lot of work to do to correct that and make sure we're getting the win on Saturday.

Also, just to close...absolutely love Dayne Crist's attitude about road games. I know I maligned him a bit for appearing out-of-focus this week on the road, but you gotta respect this attitude.

Throughout my entire career, in high school and in some of the limited action I had in college so far, personally I just love playing on the road. I think that's a pretty special environment. I mean, granted, I love playing in front of your home fans, but there's something pretty cool about going into a place where everyone hates you, everyone is screaming at you, is against you. All you really have is the guys you traveled with. I think that's an exciting opportunity. Some people would say that's overwhelming, but I really enjoy that.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Totally Flabbergasted and Faked Out

Notre Dame 31, MSU 34

Nothing takes it out of me like a night game at Spartan Stadium.

I’m not sure what it is.

It's not like it's that mutant-doomsday, total-fallout sort of feeling I get after watching a mushroom-cloud end to the season belch its way out of the bowels of the Coliseum.

It's not like it’s that totally gutted sensation of arriving home after a clawing shitfest of a gang fight in the Big House with putrid streaks of maize dripping down your arms.

It's not even like it's that scabbed-over, wart-filled, pus-seething ooze of a reaction that accompanies the not-so-ancient boils and bitterness of the Holy War.

It’s not like that at all.

It's more like…showing up at a banquet being thrown in your honor only to have your host spit on your shoes, serve you meat cooked with maggots and drinks laced with piss and expect you to stay and smile while you’re eating it. And you stay, but just to spite them. You stay just to piss them off, even though you know by the end of the night they'll have insulted you and booted you out the front door while attempting to shove their country's flag up your ass. (Although by that time they’ll be so drunk that they'll miss and end up shoving it through your shoulder blades instead.)

And it always shocks me that I feel so strongly about MSU. Maybe it's the result of once having spent four hours standing in the rain and the cold and the mud screaming at the top of my lungs with nothing to keep me upright but adrenaline and pure rage. Or maybe it's something about the sheer unexpected hostility of the place (why are they always so angry? why do they hate our band so much?) -- knowing on both sides that we are not each other's biggest rival, knowing that Notre Dame owns the all-time series by a killer margin, knowing that no matter what MSU does early in the season, the team will most likely fizzle out and choke on applesauce in the end, because that’s what they do.

So maybe that's why there's little left besides rancid bitterness. Maybe that's why all touches of class (except for I guess the MSB) seem to have dissolved from the rivalry. Maybe that's why it's impossible to watch the players beat up on each other in the dark miserable hours of the night without feeling like all the energy and honor and glory are being sucked right out of you. Or injected back into you…as the case may be.

And here’s Brian Kelly, trying to coach us into a team of tough gentlemen, letting the clock elapse into overtime, not even suspecting that an opponent’s FORTY-SIX YARD FIELD GOAL might be a fake.

I think the time of being a gentleman’s gentleman in the game of football may have passed.

I think it may have passed back in 1966.

And not to mention I hate overtime more than anything else invented in sports EVER and FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GRIDIRONED WHY WOULD YOU WILLINGLY PUT YOUR TEAM THROUGH THAT??????????????????????????????




I mean...have you been paying attention to our overtime records recently?


Return of the Killer Cyclops

Dayne Crist, you are breaking my heart.Well...sort of.

I mean, not entirely. But how long is this Cyclops thing going to last, anyway? You were definitely not all there for a good chunk of the game on Saturday. Or maybe one of your eyes just wasn’t all there. It’s difficult to say.

Some signs that Dayne Crist perhaps did not have all his chakras aligned or his energy patterns crossed or his biorhythms on the correct wavelength for part of the game:

-We scored once in the first quarter and did not score again until the third

-During the three possessions that followed our first touchdown, Crist went 3-for-9 passing and threw an interception that set MSU up for their first score

-We drew two delay-of-game penalties running our no-huddle offense.

However, conversely:

-We scored touchdowns in our first three possessions of the second half

-On those scoring drives, Crist went 16-of-19 passing, with a stretch of 8 completions in a row

-We scored every time we made it to the red zone

To sum up: when Dayne Crist is on, we are golden. When he is not, we are screwed.

And this should not really be the case, because our run game should be better than it is. Armando Allen may be averaging 5.5 yards per carry, but the team as a whole for this game is averaging something closer to 3.5. Which suggests scurrilous things about our run blocking, I'm sure.

I am also not sure how I feel about this general philosophy of, “Oh hey, we just got 10+ yards on that run play1 let’s run the exact same play again, except to a different side!”

I mean, on the one hand I support the theory that you should keep shoving your run game down the other team's throat until they absolutely force you to shut it down--and if they let you get away with running the same play over and over again, more power to you. But what the hell, let’s please not bank on that. Let’s bank on our O-line getting tougher and opening up some bigger gaps instead.

Also, I thought I sensed some hesitancy in Dayne Crist about getting hit. This hesitancy did not exist in the Purdue game. Or the first part of the Michigan game. I understand why it exists now, of course, and of course no one wants to see Crist get injured. However. Seeing as we're running the spread these days, our quarterback’s gotta have two eyes and two feet. (This is a unique requirement among spread quarterbacks. I’m sure you were not aware.) And we all saw how hesitation put a real dent in Floyd's production last fall. We cannot survive the same sort of hesitation from our QB.

This is not to say that Crist is playing terribly. He just needs to be with it for the entire game. Otherwise, as mentioned, we are screwed.

Tackles for Loss, Tired Samoans, and other things that kept our defense going

So, considering how well our defense seems to be playing, it's kind of shocking that we've lost these last two games. Just like it was kind of shocking to check the stats after the Michigan game and discover that we'd given up over 500 yards of total offense. (Michigan's defense did too, but they didn't lose so that seems less detrimental.) And against MSU, we gave up 477 yards of offense (once again about the same number of yards their defense surrendered), failed to shut down a fake field goal, gave up thirty points to our opponent for the first time all season, lost, know what the funny thing is? I feel like they really didn't play that poorly. It's possible that there's a huge gap between my perception and reality these days, but I don't really think so.

The numbers from this game alone are impressive. Three players with double-digit tackles. Four sacks. Two QB hurries. Five pass break-ups. One interception. Eight tackles for loss (including the sacks) caused by seven different players.Eight players with at least five recorded tackles. Forced MSU into four three-and-outs.

Once again, it will not surprise anyone to learn that Manti Te'o was the team leader in tackles (11 total, 2.5 TFL), accompanied this week by Zeke Motta (who had a really breakthrough game with 11 tackles, 0.5 TFL, and an interception) and Harrison Smith (10 tackles, 1 pass break-up), who also had a killer game against Michigan. Carlo Calabrese didn't stand out in total tackles as he has for the past two weeks, but he did register 1.5 sacks. Other standouts include Darius Fleming, who had 2 sacks, 6 tackles, and a QB hurry, and Ian Williams with 8 tackles and 0.5 sacks. Among others. The sheer number of players with flashy stats to report really says something positive about the kind of across-the-board effort and teamwork coming out of our defense these days.

Although--point of concern--both Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta are safeties. And as noted last year, on several occasions, when safeties are leading your team in tackles, it is not the best sign in the world.

And speaking of the flipside here.... Although it does seem like our defense is making tremendous progress in general, there are quite a few worrisome stats buried in the numbers as well. For example:

-Despite the four sacks, Kirk Cousins still threw for over 200 yards, with 2 TDs and 70% pass completion

-MSU's top two rushers averaged 6.7 and 6.4 yards per carry, respectively

-Michigan State successfully converted both of their fourth down attempts.

-As well as that f&@$#*% fake field goal in overtime.

So, as mentioned, overtime is the most excruciatingly hideous thing ever invented in all of sports and I hate it. And any time you go into overtime, it's hard not to think about how you got there--and what you could've done to avoid being there. you start adding up all the things you could've done in regulation (if only we'd had one less turnover, if only we'd gotten close enough to kick that field goal at the end), but those things don't matter, because they didn't happen, so you've got to let them go. (Isn't that what the players try to do every week?)

And even with all the abject horror, shock, and desolation I felt watching that fake field goal make it to the endzone (SERIOUSLY WHO HAS THE KIND OF BALLS TO CALL THAT PLAY!? Not Brian Kelly, apparently, because he totally didn't see it coming), it's not like you can really blame the defense (or special teams unit, as it were) for not catching the play. You can't be like, "Well screw you, you should've prepared for that."

It what it is.

The defense didn't turn in a perfect performance by any means, but I don't know, I just feel like they sort of did they best they could at this point in the season, and at the end of the game they were just too worn out to do everything they were capable of.

I hate to say this. They're in such better shape than last year. They really are. But what can you do in the face of turnovers? What can you do when it's your first away game of the season? Your first night game? And you're on the field for ten full minutes of playing time longer than your offense, and you can't get off the field long enough to catch your breath?

I don't think I've ever seen anyone look as exhausted as Manti Te'o looked at the end of that game. I didn't even know Manti Te'o could be that tired.

Although speaking of things, persons, and theme songs associated with Hawaii...

Allow me to take a break from all the football rambling to put in a brief plug for the Notre Dame Band.

As you may or may not be aware, CBS is hosting a contest for the best rendition of the Hawaii Five-O theme song performed by a college band. The winning band receives $25,000. The winner will be decided entirely by fan voting, so you should go VOTE FOR THE NOTRE DAME BAND:

If the Notre Dame Band wins this contest, they will use the money for charity. But that's not why you should vote for them. You should vote for them because their video is clearly the best. And I am not just saying this because I'm and alumni and I'm biased. I actually sat through all of the videos on the website, just to be fair (and consequently I have had the Hawaii Five-O theme song stuck in my head for two days), and there are clearly no other submissions that can compete with surfing stick men and an exploding volcano. There are even third-party websites that agree with me. If you don't believe me, you can always check the website out yourself. And VOTE!

And now back to your regularly scheduled football rant

So anyway. I don't quite know how to explain this. I mean, yes, I realize that we've lost the lost two games, and I've been very depressed about this, but all the same I get the feeling that we're not actually doing that poorly. Not only have the losses been quite close, but...I just feel like it's notreally anyone's fault anymore. It's not really any one unit that's dragging us down; there are faults on all sides of the ball, including the coaching staff.

But at the same time, that means there's less of a gap between the performance of one unit versus another. Somehow it just feels like everything's more evenly spread this year. The responsibility, the successes, the failures, the blame. Somehow it just all seems more closely intertwined. Somehow it seems more like

As I've said, I feel like our team's really pretty good, except of course that we keep losing.

And this makes me feel oddly optimistic about next season...but not necessarily next week.

Visions of the future

So we are playing Stanford this week. But in order to anticipate the future, you have to understand the past, so allow me to point out some interesting trends I have noticed over the first three games:

*Turnovers. Two lost fumbles and an interception against MSU; three interceptions against Michigan; one lost fumble (three total fumbles) against Purdue. The good news is that our defense has been stout enough to prevent our opponents from capitalizing on the most of those turnovers. The lost fumble against Purdue we got back via a stunning interception by Darrin Walls; the two lost fumbles against MSU, as well as two of the interceptions by Michigan amounted to nothing more than a few punts and some wear & tear on our defense.

But the bad news is that both MSU and Michigan did manage to capitalize on one turnover apiece. And as close as both of those games were, those were changes of possession that we really couldn't afford to give up.

The even worse news is that in our first three games we've had as many turnovers as touchdown passes. (Seven, for those of you who don't feel like counting.) Our opponents, in their games against us, only committed three turnovers combined.

So if you throw in that safety we coughed up against Purdue, you've got about 8 reasons why--despite AA averaging 5.5 ypc and Dayne Crist throwing for 369 yards and 4 touchdowns against MSU--our offense hasn't managed to find its identity yet and we're sitting here at 1-2. If you tack on the lackluster performances of our backup QBs during the Michigan game, I'd say you've got about 10 reasons.

Taking control of the field at this point doesn't seem to be so much a matter of moving the chains or controlling the clock. After all, the no-huddle spread isn't an offense that pays much heed to time of possession statistics. And when we've got momentum, we've got no problem moving the chains.

But when you're committing that many turnovers, you're not in control of anything. We don't need to score on every drive (although that would be nice), we just need to keep the ball in our hands when it's ours. And if we have to give it away, it had better be a punt.

Because if we continue to commit these kinds of turnovers against teams like Stanford and BC and Utah, we are royally effing screwed.

*Penalties. Against Purdue and Michigan, our opponents incurred twice as many penalties as we did. Purdue got flagged 5-for-33 and Michigan had 8-for-99; Notre Dame only racked up 2-for-15 and 4-for-29 in those games respectively.

The Purdue game was relatively clean all around; both teams pretty much just drew standard penalties like holding and false starts. (And kudos to the crowd, of course, for helping to incur those false starts.)

The Michigan game, to no one's surprise, was played much dirtier--at least on Michigan's side. At least four of their eight penalties were personal fouls; the rest were fairly innocuous things like holding penalties and false starts, which ND had a few of as well.

Overall, the first two games were played pretty clean on our side. The only really troubling thing I noticed among these penalties was that we got called for an illegal formation once in each of our first two games. (Although the illegal formation call against Michigan was declined, so technically it didn't count against us.) You could take this as a sign that we're still working out the kinks of our offense--which we are--but it's frustrating to see because it's sloppy, and we don't want to devolve into sloppiness.

Against MSU, the penalties were more alarming. In our first two games we drew six total penalties. Against MSU, we had seven. And I wouldn't say these penalties marked an increase in sloppiness so much as a lack of focus. The two delay of game penalties, as previously mentioned; a false start, a case of pass interference, an illegal block in the back, and two personal fouls.

And somehow, miraculously, our opponent still managed to come out of the game with four more penalties than we had.

Like I said, I don't know what it is about night games in Spartan Stadium. They always seem to bring out the worst in both sides.

*Strong second half starts. Three weeks in a row we've scored a touchdown on our first possession of the second half. Against Purdue we scored on our first possession for a TD, against Michigan we scored on our first two possessions for a TD and a FG, and against MSU we scored on our first three possessions in the second half for 3 TDs. So clearly this means we're going to come out and score four in a row against Stanford.

Despite this fun little trend, we've also made lot of our mistakes during the second half. After scoring that 3rd-quarter TD against Purdue, our next two possessions resulted in a fumble and a safety. The next drive after our FG against Michigan ended in an interception. After scoring 3 TDs in a row, our next two posessions against MSU fizzled away into a 3-and-out and a fumble.

Well shit, you might say. This is getting alarming.

You should give due credit to the opposing defenses, of course, for forcing/capitalizing on our fumbles, snagging the interceptions, and finally cracking down after letting us score three in a row. But mostly you should feel alarmed by our lack of consistency. It's not like we're going out there after successful scoring drives and having lackluster possessions that result in us moving the chains a couple times before being forced into a respectable punt. No. We're going out there after successful scoring drives and coughing the ball up, getting shut down, letting the momentum swing away from us.

And if you're letting that kind of shit happen, you are not putting yourself in a position to win games.

So what do we need to do to beat Stanford?

Not get injured.

Not commit any turnovers.

Not give up any big run plays.

Not get fooled by any fake field goals.

Not call plays so ballsy they cause us to go home and have heart attacks after the game.

(Note: In all sincerity, my prayers & best wishes go out to the MSU head coach. Extremely frightening and unfortunate, that.)

And, um, let's try to keep the vision good in both eyes and not commit any delay-of-game penalties again...shall we?


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cyclops vs. the Kraken

Michigan 28, Notre Dame 24

So. I am not particularly enthused to be talking about this game. Which you may have gathered, considering it’s Tuesday and I haven’t posted yet. Hmm. Fabulous. It’s been a real rip-snorter of a week so far.


Last week’s impromptu analogy about Cyclops vs. the Kraken turned out to be shockingly accurate for this week’s game, considering that it was slightly damp on Saturday, certain Michigan players have dreadlocks that vaguely resemble tentacles, and Dayne Crist apparently had to go out of the game for a while because he wasn’t feeling well and was having trouble seeing out of his right eye. (Post-game comments from Coach Kelly suggest that he hit his head on the ground too hard on a running play, although the coaching staff did not say that it was not a concussion, otherwise they never would have put Crist back in.)

To provide a general sweeping overview of the game, all I have to say is that Cyclops was THREE SECONDS AWAY FROM GLORY…and then nothing. Cyclops got poked in the eye.

Things to take note of when Cyclops is down for the count

Sorry, Dayne. I really don’t think of you as Cyclops. (Or the team, for that matter.) I’m not even totally sure there was something wrong with your right eye. This is just what I learned via some mad texting during the game. (Bahaha. Speaking of texting during the game. All you young alumni out there might want to check out this post on the “Things Notre Dame Students Like” blog.)

I am still not sure that I enjoy this analogy very much, because the Cyclops has always seemed like kind of a weak opponent to me (what with his lack of depth perception and all), and also I’m pretty sure that comparing Michigan to an enormous, many-tentacled spawn of the world’s nether-regions is WAY TOO INTERESTING for them. Even with Denard Robinson and his Dashing Dreadlocks, Michigan football doesn’t exactly inspire dread on the same level as some demonic denizen of the deep. No, it just sort of lingers around in your psyche like the fart of a rabid skunkbear, ruining your mental state for days on end but not actually causing harm in any lasting way.


Although I will reiterate some of my comments from last week and say, once again, that I am not expecting some sort of dream season, and in fact would be a little alarmed (though not unhappy) if we did. We have to treat this as a work-in-progress, because that’s what it is. We don’t have a real team identity yet on offense. We don’t yet have that late-game, fourth-quarter, game-saving push on defense.

Although we do continue to have some killer special teams, particularly compared to Michigan’s special teams (bahaha), which I will not complain about at all.

So, some actual notes on the offense:

-- It is impossible to feel overly pleased about a game in which your first, second, and third string quarterbacks all throw interceptions.

--It is frightening how much of a difference Dayne Crist makes. Some combination of maturity and, um…maturity…must be the main factor in his success, because sure as shit none of the QBs on our team right now have a lot of actual experience playing the college game. One of Coach Kelly’s comments on the performance of the backup quarterbacks after the game: “I did a poor job preparing them.”

Undeniably their performance was disappointing, especially considering that in his second season at Cincinnati, Coach Kelly rotated five different quarterbacks through his spread offense and his team still managed to win the Big East. (This is one of my favorite fast facts about Coach Kelly. I randomly spew it at people all the time). I must admit I was hoping for something better from our backup QBs, but I have to keep reminding myself that, first of all, you can only expect so much progress after one off-season. Second of all, no amount of practice (not even high-tempo practice) can simulate what it’s like going into a game for the first time. And third of all, it is unfair point too many fingers at the quarterback. (Unless the quarterback is Jimmy Clausen.)

Obviously some of it falls on the coaching staff. If they’re going to preach a “next man in” philosophy to the team, they better make sure that applies to the quarterbacks, too. I liked another comment Coach Kelly made about possibly creating some different packages for the backup QB’s, maybe finding some schemes that would allow them to manage the game a little better if they’re put in that situation again. Of course this is the sort of thing you always wish would have been implemented before the game, instead of having to talk about it after a loss…but nevertheless I’m liking the thought here.

So many intangibles get thrown out of whack when your starting QB goes down, and I think if Kelly does decide to install specific packages for the backup QBs, it will create an extra comfort level for all of the players. It seems to me like it would be harder and more jarring to have a QB jump in during the middle of a game and start running the same packages in a slightly different manner than it would be to have a completely different set of packages for each QB. Having different packages means you can adapt to the unique style of each gunslinger, and it means your whole offense knows what the backup plan is. Then everyone can be like, “Aha, Tommy is in, we’re going to do thus-and-such,” as opposed to, “Oh crap, Dayne Crist wasn’t supposed to get injured AGAIN. Now what do we do?” (Don’t try to tell me the players weren’t thinking that. They totally were. For at least 2.2 seconds.) So I am expecting better things for the future here. I guess we’ll see.

Or, hopefully, Dayne Crist will remain uninjured and we won’t see.

--I’m liking T.J. Jones so far. A true freshman with two games and two TDs. Nothing further to say on this, but I like it.

--ND’s opening scoring drive churned up 71 yards over the course of 13 plays. Our two touchdown drives in the second half combined for nearly 150 yards and took a grand total of 3 plays to accomplish. I like that we can make quick strikes, of course, but I would like it even more if we didn’t have to. And I would rather see the other team’s defense getting all tired out in the fourth quarter than ours.

--It’s pointless to speculate about how the game might have gone had Crist not gone out in the first half (when Michigan did most of their scoring), but it was nice to see our team bounce back after halftime. We rallied. We came back fighting on both sides of the ball. We did not quit, even if we did cough up that last-minute scoring drive to our opponent. But we nearly had a last-minute score of our own—we came within three freaking seconds of doing something spectacular—but alas. Ball overthrown. Game over. Better luck next week.

Notes on defense…

-During the second half, Michigan didn’t score for nearly two full quarters. In fact, Michigan had possession of the ball for 11 minutes and 45 seconds during the fourth quarter and they only scored once. Unfortunately this was the score that won them the game, but still. Our defense kept us in the game during the second half, and as the result of sheer tenacity (and Michigan’s really shitty kicking game), they managed to hold our opponent to less than 30 points for the second week in a row, which was something they seemed to be incapable of doing for pretty much all of last season.

-Notre Dame’s offense committed three turnovers and Michigan only made us pay for it once.

-Michigan was 3-of-16 on third down conversions. Although unfortunately they still had 532 yards of total offense (Notre Dame had 535), so we can assume they were having a lot more success on first and second downs.

-Denard Robinson was personally responsible for 258 yards on the ground and threw for 244 in the air, which adds up to 502, aka 94.4% of the total yards gained by the entire Michigan offense. Which is impressive and at the same time slightly sickening. In the same vein, Robinson is now over a third of the way toward having a 1,000 yard rushing season, and it is only the second game of the year. (Please excuse me while I vomit a little.)

-Although speaking of the Dashing Dreadlocks, Coach Kelly had a good comment in the postgame presser. This is definitely something to think about: “He’s a tough kid. […] When you run a quarterback 25 times, you've got to have toughness. I'll let Coach figure out whether that's the case for 10 games. Coach Rodriguez knows his team better than I do. But we hit him pretty hard today.” Um yeeeah. Raise your hand if you think RichRod isn’t going to relent until Robinson is completely concussed and hobbling and broken. (I’m not saying I endorse this sort of thing. The prospect is completely horrifying. But if you recognize what a skeazebox Rodriguez is and you’ve heard anything at all about the Michigan practice violations, you may agree with me when I say that Rodriguez doesn’t exactly seem like a coach who knows where to draw the line.)

-In other depressing news, credit for Denard Robinson cannot go entirely to Denard Robinson. (Even if he is—to steal a line from Pretty Woman—a “slippery little sucker.” P.S. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie: that line is about snails.) Those holes didn’t come out of nowhere. Did you see that blocking? There was some killer blocking. We need some killer blocking. Armando Allen touched the ball 15 times and didn’t even break a hundred yards. 5.9 yards per carry is extremely decent (and way better than last year’s averages, which always seemed to hover somewhere around 4.5), but we weren’t getting enough production when Crist was off the field to actually score. Sure, some of it falls on the quarterback to hurry up and snap the ball before the defense gets a good read on what the offense is doing, but hey, does it really matter if they figure out what you’re doing as long as you manage to block the shit of them? That’s what we need a little more work on. Blocking the shit out of people.

-Defensive leaderboard… Leading the team in tackles this week again, to no one’s surprise, was Manti Te’o with 13 (6 solo, 1 TFL). followed by Carlo Calabrese with 10 (5 solo). Harrison smith and Darrin Walls are next with 9 and 8 tackles respectively; Walls had the most solo tackles on the team this week with 7, which suggests that Denard Robinson’s 244 passing yards were keeping him busy.

-Obviously extremely disappointed that we gave up that last drive. Really no excuse for that except fatigue, and it seems like fatigue shouldn’t be much of an excuse as long as adrenaline still exists. But, as mentioned in the first defensive note here, our D was on the field with the Michigan offense for 11:45 in the fourth quarter. After keeping Michigan at bay for the entire second half, we must assume that fatigue is the reason Michigan got away with that late-game bullshit. (I’m not sure what their defense’s excuse is for letting us nearly come back and score again with only 20 seconds left in the game, but that’s their problem, I guess.) Maybe with another year of conditioning and a more balanced / time-consuming / prolific offensive attack this sort of thing will no longer be an issue???

Thoughts on this week

I am practically falling asleep at my keyboard now (it’s way past my bedtime; I’ve grown so weak in my old age), so I will just wrap this up really quickly by saying that obviously I’m woefully disappointed that we did not pull out the win, particularly since it seemed like we were going to after the sun came out and Kyle Rudolph pulled off that dazzlingly spectacular 95-yard TD run. But, as mentioned before, alas. Not so.

And so I have spent the past three days moping and now feel it is time to move on and think about how we are going to demolish MSU.

This is my theory, anyway. You see, for the last several years (like at least five or six now), we have only been able to beat either Michigan or MSU, but not both in the same season. So my hypothesis is that since we lost to Michigan (rawrg), we will surely beat MSU. Particularly since MSU has no Denard Robinson and I am assuming both of Dayne Crist’s eyeballs will be in excellent condition for the duration of the game.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

You Couldn’t Ask for Better Football Weather


I’ve got a fuzzy, satisfied, post-game day sort of feeling in my stomach. It’s a feeling I normally associate with shamrock socks and crisp fall weather, and it’s the kind of happy that can only be produced by a comfortable couch, an Irish victory, and the delirious morning-after sensation of feeling sunburned and beer-tinged and fully saturated with football.

Do you hear me? FOOTBALL!!!

And I am not displeased about this weather at all.

Let’s start in reverse and go forward from there

Speaking of which, what with the weather being all nice and autumnal several weeks in advance, I can’t help feeling like it’s practically the middle of the season already and it’s time to start pondering how the rest of the year’s games are going to turn out. Which is absurd, of course, because we’ve only just played our first game and I haven’t yet ranted about a single down of it. But what the hell, college football has already been in full swing for three whole days, and I’ll be darned (like a sock) if logic and reason are going to keep me from doing things out-of-order. So we’ll save the first things for last and start with next week’s concerns first.

Based on our future opponents’ scores from the last several days, this season is suddenly looking a lot tougher than it originally appeared. Which, again, is a reasonably absurd thing to say. The first game of the season is kind of the like the first drive of a game, in a sense – you can score or you can get your ass kicked, but either way it is not necessarily a portent of things to come. Just look at Nevada last year. We smacked down a 35-0 victory in the season opener, and after a couple more rough games they ended up winning 8 in a row. And we ended up going all…mimblewimble.

My point is, even though Michigan just spanked UConn (30-10, with QB Denard Robinson running for 197 yards and passing for 186—holy shit), USC outstripped Hawaii (49-36), Boston College boinked Weber State (38-20), Stanford raped Sacramento State (52-17), Army tied Eastern Michigan to the bed and left them there naked (31-27), MSU went S&M on Western Michigan (38-14), and Utah forced itself into an overtime victory over 15th-ranked Pittsburgh (27-24), this does not necessarily suggest that these trends are going to hold over the rest of the season.

But it does suggest that the next three weekends (Michigan, @ MSU, Stanford) are going to be a bitch.

Despite the fact that I have no faith at all in Rich Rodriguez, I get the feeling that next weekend is going to be an absolute shitfest, and not just because a Notre Dame-Michigan game typically has all the grace and delicacy of a mud-wrestling match between Cyclops and the Kraken*. What really concerns me here is that yesterday, Michigan set an NCAA record for attendance in the Big House with over 113,000 fans – for a game against UConn. Are you effing kidding me? UConn? What, do they have some sort of season-opening ticket special this year for displaced Detroit auto workers**?

So I’m a little concerned about the crowd next weekend. Not because I think Michigan fans could possibly be any more obnoxious than they already are (unless, you know, they somehow mutated into Ohio State fans, which would definitely be a horrifying prospect for all parties involved), but because I suspect next weekend will be a bloodbath, and although I am 76% confident that the actual players will refrain from poking each other’s eyes out, there is no guarantee that the fans won’t start dismembering each other in the stands. I mention this specifically because I will be sitting near the upper deck in the south endzone. And although it is possible that I will be mollified by the sight of Touchdown Jesus, there’s really no telling what might happen if I’m located too close to a pocket of Michigan fans and we happen to be losing. I mean, I’d hate to be kicked out of the stadium during the second game of the season. That would be soooo unfortunate. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, eh?

But probably I should point out here that I didn’t actually watch any of the Michigan-UConn game, so I can make no actual assessments about the Michigan team at this point. And although I understand from brief game highlights that Michigan’s QB did quite well (did I mention like 383 combined yards rushing & passing???), I’ve really got no idea what the Skunkbears look like this year or what we’re up against next week. So probably I should do some clever research on that in the near future. And probably certain of my friends who express a proclivity for caring what comes out of Ann Arbor’s ass crack should give me a call so we can talk through the finer points of who is going to beat the shit out of who next weekend. (Ahem ahem.) And I don’t really have anything further to say on the subject besides GO IRISH BEAT WOLVERINES, so let’s move on.

*Not really sure who is who in that analogy, but I suppose you could make an argument that Michigan fans are kind of mutant and subterranean, and also have an unhealthy preoccupation with size, and that Notre Dame fans spend 99% of their time focusing on ONE THING AND ONE THING ONLY, aka whenthefuck are we going to get another national championship banner to hang in that tunnel???, so in that sense I guess it is pretty clear who is who.)

**Actually, it’s just that Michigan finished its renovations on the Big House, so now it is apparently the largest stadium in the country again—whoop dee friggin’ do.

Post-Game Commentary

Overall it is hard to feel displeased about winning a season opener. And indeed it is nice to continue feel optimistic about the new coach, particularly since Brian Kelly’s definition of this game as “not pretty” is kind of a laugh compared to some of the “not pretty” we’ve seen over the past few seasons. Which really says something about the current state of expectations in Irish football—because Brian Kelly is right, of course. It wasn’t an exceptionally particularly pretty win. But compared to last year’s victory over Purdue? I will take yesterday’s game all day, any day, every day.

Speaking of expectations…

I’m not looking for anything crazy like double-digit wins this season. (Although of course that would be nice.) I’m not even expecting us to beat all of our opponents from the state of Michigan. (FYI that statement doesn’t include Western Michigan.) But you know what I am expecting? I’m expecting us to get better every week. I’m expecting our team to become more and more cohesive with each and every game. And you know what’s scary? I haven’t really been expecting that the last few years.

I feel like the last few years, what you saw at the beginning of the season was pretty much what you got. Lots of questions, but not a lot of answers. Some solid players, but a lot of holes.

I hoping for the team to improve with each and every game, of course, but that never really happened. The last two seasons of 6-6 agony were just more and more of the same—flashes of brilliance countered by under-developed fundamentals and the never-ending, agonizing slogfest of having The Most Inadequate Defense Ever populated with three- and four-star players.

Although speaking of such things, it’s been really interesting to see how many highly-touted recruits (like Braxston Cave, for example) have managed to work their way up the depth chart during the off-season. I find this highly encouraging. Kelly has been talking a lot in his press conferences about about developing players, developing talent, and it looks like we’re already seeing that start to emerge. Plus I really love this whole philosophy of “next man in,” of making sure as many players as possible are ready to go at any given time, and particularly of rotating the defensive players so they don’t get too exhausted by the end of the game.

This is a difficult system to implement, of course, if you don’t have the depth to cover the positions, but despite what any doubters or nay-sayers (or total idiots) may tell you, lack of depth is definitely not a problem at Notre Dame. The one thing Charlie did consistently and well was recruit. We’ve got some quality-ass players on both sides of the ball; my theory is that for the past couple years they just haven’t had the developmental training necessary to amp up their games to the next level. Everything about the team lacked consistency. (Prime example: badass secondary of 2008 vs. wtf happened here?? secondary of 2009.) And I think we’re already starting to see evidence that supports this theory, what with the mobility of certain players through the depth chart (Cierre Wood is another good example) and, most impressively, the way the defense played yesterday. (But more on that in a minute.)

Obviously we’re starting from scratch in a lot of ways: taking on an entirely new coaching staff, philosophy, and practice tempo, restructuring our defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, implementing the no-huddle spread offense led by a QB coming off an ACL injury who hasn’t led an offense as a starter since 2007. And taking all of that into consideration, I’m really pleased with the way our performance turned out in this game. We’re still a young team in a lot of ways; we’ve obviously got a long to go before we can start calling ourselves legitimate contenders again. And I’m totally down with that. I would much rather see us start from the bottom and work our way up than watch our team hit the ground running again with a 10-2 or 9-3 season under a new head coach and then fall flat again in the second or third season.

Not that I am disparaging anything Brady Quinn did, ever. And not that I’m saying I want to see the Irish lose, ever.

I’m just saying…when you start from the bottom and work your way up, you know where your foundation is. AKA you have some freaking fundamentals to build on. I know I talk about fundamentals a lot, but they have become very near and dear to my heart since for the last couple years the coaching staff didn’t seem especially keen on paying a lot of attention to them—and it showed in our lackluster fourth quarters, our disappointing Novembers, and the fact that our entire effing defense consisted of Mama Kyle and a bunch of guys who would occasionally wrap up and tackle people but most often looked like they were trying to play human bumper cars. (This kind of conditioning seems to be having a hangover effect on Manti Te’o, who I will get to in a minute.)

And as the folks over at Rakes of Mallow were wise to point out in their pre-season-opener post, it is definitely possible for a team to improve in many small ways without actually winning more football games. During Lou Holtz’s first season at Notre Dame, the team went 5-7, or something depressing like that. And then two years later they won the national championship. So you see what I’m saying? Let’s work out the kinks of our offense and defense now, while we can afford to--not several seasons down the line when the pressure is on and the coach is in a stranglehold.

And let’s hope that several seasons down the line, we don’t find ourselves in that position again.

So it looks like maybe we have a defense now and everything.

At least, if the stats are anything to go by. Four sacks, two interceptions, multiple three-and-outs, three separate players with nine tackles apiece, and only 10 points surrendered. (FYI for anyone who’s confused about this: that stupid effing safety = totally not the defense’s fault.) I am in FAVOR.

I was very impressed with the play of Gary Gray and Carlo Calabrese, and I was disappointed that the little snippets of post-game coverage I heard didn’t manage to laud them more fully; in typical fashion, more time was spent talking about Manti Te’o. (Although to be fair, perhaps I just didn’t listen to enough post-game coverage.) Gary Gray had the most solo tackles on the team, followed by Calabrese, followed by Manti Te’o, and all three of the above racked up nine total tackles. (Interestingly enough, the top three guys on Purdue’s defensive squad also tied in number of tackles, but their number was 7. So…ha.) Brian Smith, Darrin Walls, and Kerry Neal also made some good hits, with 7, 6, and 5 total tackles, respectively. In total, 21 different Irish players recorded tackles in this game.

And this is crucial, because guess what? No more Mama Kyle.

Anyone who watched yesterday’s game doesn’t need to be convinced that our defense is already better than last year’s (unless they have a really low opinion of Purdue’s offense, I guess, which would be totally stupid because Purdue had the same number of first downs we did, practically the same number of yards, a better pass-completion percentage, and less fumbles). Better coverage, better awareness of the ball, better teamwork all around. This last is the biggest and most important change from last year, I think. Because the defense—get this—looked like they were having fun.

Fun on defense? What sweet madness is this?

With the exception of maybe the Washington State game last year, I don’t think we’ve watched the defense have that much fun since Shane Walton and Vontez Duff left town. Although I guess you could make a case for Zibby and/or Victor Abiamiri…Abiamiri was such a friggin’ beast. Oooh and Justin Tuck. When the hell did Justin Tuck graduate? He’s a regular celebrity these days. He’s in Subway commercials and everything. He’s even appeared on an episode of Cake Boss.

Anyway, this is not the point. The point is, it’s very exciting to see some improvement in the defense, and even more exciting to see the players going out there and having a good time. This bodes extremely well for…everything. Football should be fun. Players should be having a good time. Because, you know, it’s a game.

Which no one ever talks about on SportsCenter. You notice that?

(Because of course I never treat Notre Dame football as anything other than a simple game. I would never dream. Don’t be ridiculous.)

There’s lots of room for improvement, of course. Manti Te’o, as mentioned, could do with a little less human-bumper-car action and a lot more wrap-up-and-tackle. Although he continues to display freakishly accurate ball-seeking instincts, he uncharacteristically missed several tackles in this game, and that’s frustrating. The commentators on TV (as I noted while watching the replay this morning) didn’t seem particularly concerned by this; in several cases they took the time to point out that even though Te’o missed the tackle, he slowed the play down enough to allow another player to make the tackle, and the ball carrier only managed to pick up a couple extra yards on the play.

Which is great and all, but what if those extra couple yards are coming at the goal line? Or on a crucial third-down conversion? You can’t make allowances for these sorts of things. And you can be pretty damn sure Te’o isn’t thinking to himself, “well, at least I slowed the play down a little.” No way. He’s thinking, “DAMN I JUST MISSED THAT TACKLE.” (Give or take the “damn.”) And we sure as shit can’t afford missed tackles against Michigan. (Did I mention 383 yards of total offense by the quarterback alone???)

And although we did demonstrate the ability to plug up run plays, hurry the QB, break up passes, and intercept the ball (seriously—good game, guys), I’d just like to see more. As the defense mature and grows, I’d like to see them do not only that, but also be able to pick up on plays like that 4th-and-1, where they were clearly expecting a run but got a pass. Or on that touchdown run, where the entire defense got faked out by the Purdue quarterback, and he was able to zip on by and somersault his way into the endzone. Brian Kelly made a particular point to say that the responsibility for allowing that TD run fell on the coaching staff, but I’m pretty sure what he meant by that was not that the defensive coordinator made such a poor play call; I think what he meant was that the players just needed more coaching and more development not to fall for shit like that. And even if our defense never grows into some sort of monstrous ball-devouring beast that makes opposing offenses pee their pants and averages fourteen points per game, I’d still like to see them get smart and play consistent.

Consistency. This is all I ask. We can worry about ball-devouring monsters later.

Right. So. Last but not least, the debut of the spread offense.

Round of applause for Dayne Crist. Yaaay Dayne Crist! I applaud you for the following reasons:

1. No spiky-headed poofy-parka, emu-faced, white-doo-rag swagger.

2. No interceptions.

3. No hesitation in the face of tackles.

4. First victory for an Irish quarterback making his debut since Pat Dillingham. (And I’m pretty sure that was in 2002, when the offense didn’t score until like the third game of the season, so I’m pretty sure you can’t even give Pat Dillingham credit for that one.)

5. 73% completion rating and an average of 10.8 yards per completion in your first game as a starter since high school. That’s solid. That’s so effing solid. I’m so glad you wear Brady Quinn’s number. That also makes you solid.

Now, of course, as Brian Kelly said, Crist has a tendency to try to be too perfect, and although he made some quality decisions (for example, the TD pass to T.J. Jones, the long completion to a covered Floyd), there were also a few plays I’d have liked to see him take a greater risk on (like the pass that went over Floyd’s head in the back of the endzone; Floyd is tall enough that it could’ve been a catchable ball). But as Crist gets more familiar with the spread offense and grows as a quarterback he’ll learn to take more chances, make quicker reads, snap the ball more efficiently, put the defense on its heels, etc etc. And I have total faith that he will do this. There is no doubt in my mind. You know why? Because his ego isn’t so large that it’s incapable of fitting inside Notre Dame stadium. This kid is solid. Do you hear me? SOLID.

He already managed to spread the ball around to seven different receivers today; that’s encouraging. I mean, partly that kind of distribution has to do with the nature of the spread offense and the number of players coming and out of rotation. Floyd and Rudolph both had five receptions apiece, which only makes sense; they’re both great players and I’d expect there to be more of a comfort level with the veterans, anyway. But it didn’t seem like, at any point in the game, like he was married to a certain target, or even to the idea of throwing—which, again, sort of goes along with the nature of the spread offense, but on a general level is nice to see.

Speaking of things that are nice to see…(and I’m sorry this post is getting so long, but come on, it’s me, were you expecting anything less?)…


Where have you been all my life?

Ninety-three rushing yards plus that glorious forty-yard punt return to set us up for our first touchdown of the game. I cannot complain about that. I cannot complain about that at all.

I can’t complain about Cierre Wood, either, who got less touches than Allen, but had four runs of 10+ yards (three of those on like the same drive) and averaged 8.3 yards per carry. Plus two catches for 14 yards. That’s not too shabby, either.

It’s nice to have a run game. It’s so nice.

I mean, obviously the offense wasn’t perfect, either. Three fumbles, with one of them overturned. (I still don’t know wtf happened to Michael Floyd on that play. The TV replay this morning did not clarify anything at all. Did he just bauble it? Like, what—what—what???) And then there’s the matter of that safety. There’s just no effing excuse for that safety. No excuse at all. So embarrassing. (Kind of funny to see Purdue only have five points on the board…but still no excuse at all.) Let’s tack that on to the list of mistakes we can’t afford to have while playing Michigan. (Or anybody, really. But especially Michigan.)

Oh. And one last thing. Lest we forget…

Major props to the special teams.

You were practically perfect in every way. (Yes, that’s right, just like Mary Poppins.) And indeed I have nothing negative to say about you. I’m pretty sure the longest kickoff return anyone made all day was 17 yards; nobody had any punt returns; the tackling was excellent; our place-kicker made 3 out of 3 and one of those was a 46-yarder. Can I get a HELL YEAH?

So I would babble on about next week, but I guess I already talked about that.

So I guess there’s only one thing left to say.