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?


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