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!

No comments:

Post a Comment