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.


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