Friday, December 31, 2010

ND Bowl Game preview: Go Irish Beat 'Canes edition

Let me just start by saying that I had every intention of doing some actual research and composing an in-depth, well-structured, fact-based diatribe about tomorrow's game.

But instead I ran out of time, so I'm just going to ramble for a bit about all the reasons we ought to win tomorrow. And hopefully somebody actually reads this before the game starts, otherwise there's just no point to this at all, is there?

Catholics vs Convicts renewed

One can only hope that the players themselves have only a fleeting understanding of what this whole "Catholics vs Convicts" thing really entails. I mean, don't get me wrong--I love watching footage of the 1988 tunnel fight as much as anybody--but I don't think there's any real need to try to bring back the feeling of that 80's rivalry. It seems to me as though the main perk of this matchup is that we get to reminisce about the old days without having to actually call forth the demons of yesteryear and renew the desire for bloodshed that got the whole ND-Miami series canceled in the first place.

There was a good piece by Jeff Carroll in the South Bend Tribune this week detailing the end of the ND-Miami series. You can read the whole thing here, but for the purposes of this rant, here is the most pertinent excerpt:

Many people seem to trace the demise of the series to before kickoff in the 1988 contest, when the two teams locked up in a ferocious brawl near the tunnel leading to the locker rooms beneath Notre Dame Stadium. Holtz fueled that conjecture, with comments after the game that it might be time for the schools to take a break from one another - effective immediately.

But the truth of the matter is that the next two meetings between the teams went off largely without a hitch. They were both hard-fought, cleanly contested battles between two programs that had developed a grudging mutual respect.

In actuality, crowd control was a much greater factor in the series' cancellation than player control. Although the CATHOLICS VS. CONVICTS T-shirts are today entrenched as an indelible piece of Notre Dame football lore, the university was not pleased at the time with the image they portrayed.

During the week leading up to the '88 game, an article in the Observer, ND's student newspaper, parodied Miami: “You intellectual snobs like to poke at .... our academic program. Now, we may not have any Rhodes Scholars, but I'll have you know that we have the nation's leading programs in intramural bowling, gator wrestling, drug running, and sports car appreciation.”

Notre Dame's campus did not have a monopoly on ugliness.

The 1989 game was played in primetime at Miami's Orange Bowl, and the school put in 3,400 extra seats to accommodate a rare overflow crowd. Irish offensive lineman Justin Hall recalled that his family members, who flew to the game from Texas, were spit on as they tried to make their way to their seats.

“That was the most vile, vicious venue for a college football game that I've ever been in,” said long-time Notre Dame beat writer and columnist Tim Prister, then working for Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They weren't there for Miami. They weren't there just to see Miami win. They wanted blood from Notre Dame. There was a nastiness - I would even call it an evilness - in the crowd that night. You could cut it with a knife.”

Hot damn.

It is safe, however, to assume that the heat generated between the two teams, and particularly the two fan bases, were a product of their place and time.


I think it's going to be a fun game to watch, scrappy and gritty and superimposed with old ghosts. Kind of like watching ND vs Army in Yankee stadium, only there are going to be a lot more people watching this game who actually remember Catholics vs. Convicts. (You know--people who still have all their teeth.) And speaking of which--if you've never seen this video of Rocket Ismail describing the 1988 tunnel fight, you should definitely go check it out right now:

(Also, if you have an extra 8 minutes to spare and really enjoy nostalgic films with cheesy old-school-sports-music and voiceovers, this is the video for you:

But of course, as both Notre Dame and Miami fans know all too well, this isn't exactly a renewal of the rivalry that sparked tunnel brawls and 14.3 Nielsen ratings. This is something else.

This is the chance for the Irish to start their climb back to the top.

The Echoes

I don't want to attach undue importance to a matchup between two 7-5 teams, one of which just lost its head coach and the other of which is relying on a freshman quarterback who turned the ball over four times in his regular-season finale...but nevertheless.....

This is big, yo.

This is a Moment for us. Or it could be, if we play it right.

Remember back at the beginning of the season when we were 1-3 and everybody was like "Ah, f*ck"?

And then later after we lost to Navy and everybody was really like "Ahh f*ck"?

And then when we lost to Tulsa a week after that and everybody was like "F*** it, the season's over"?

And now we're all 7-5 and going to a bowl game and we won on Senior Day and beat USC and shit. So it's like "F*** yeah, bowl game!"

Except that we still got no respect. We've still got shit to prove.

I was listening to some rambling idiots over on Yahoo! Sports the other day (these were actual sports pundits, mind you, and not just the crazy-asses who hang out on college football message boards), and they were hating on Notre Dame so hardcore I almost couldn't even believe it. It was all that horseshit again about how Notre Dame "lacks team speed" and "doesn't have the athletes" to keep up with Miami and all that other statistical bullshit that may in fact be true, but did not, for example, prevent us from beating USC.

Miami has some tremendous athletes on its squad, this is true. On paper, we may very well be screwed. But luckily football games are not played on paper. And as USC so heartily proved on Thanksgiving weekend, it doesn't matter how fast you are if you can't catch the damn ball.

Furthermore, talent doesn't mean shit if you can't play as a team. I'm not trying to insult Miami here; I'm just laying out some facts. We had plenty of occasion to say this to ourselves under Charlie: With all the talent we have on this team, why the f*ck aren't we winning more games? (All last season we have Jimmy-to-Golden and we still only scrape together six wins? Are you shitting me?) And just look at what Coach Kelly did last year. 12-0 with Cincinnati. (Seriously, who the f*ck plays for Cincinnati?) Yet another reminder that football is a team sport.

And let's not forget it.

The Hunger

One of the Yahoo! Sports pundits also pissed me off by saying that Miami is the "hungrier" team.

The hell they are.

Have you been paying any attention to Coach Kelly at all this season? (Of course not, because all you know about Notre Dame is whatever bullshit ESPN's been feeding you all year. Which means you've been listening to Kirk Herbstreit. Which explains where you're getting all this "Notre Dame lacks team speed" nonsense.) Coach Kelly wants to win a national championship, okay? That's why he came here. That's what he's working toward. He's got the hunger. And I think the team's got that hunger, too.

We've still got a lot of doubts to assuage, though, and at this point we've got a lot of disrespect being thrown in our general direction.

-Is the defense for real?
-Was that Utah win a fluke?
-How good do we really think USC is this year, anyway? (Answer: Not that good. But still good enough that it matters that we beat them. Especially since, you know, they were the best defense we've faced all season. And probably USC's players were too fast for us to keep up with. Although I'm pretty sure Robert Hughes didn't notice this while he was busy plowing through people like a human juggernaut.)

I've got no idea what the Miami players have had to put up with this year, but what with their head coach being fired and all, we can assume there's some frustrating shit going on down there, too. So perhaps they will enter this game with some hunger. But a hunger they can't focus, if their end-of-season loss to South Florida is any indication.

The 'Canes

To be honest, I haven't watched Miami play a single game all season and I have no idea how they're likely to fare as a postesason unit. As mentioned, the Hurricanes ended the season with some disappointing losses, and then their coach got fired. My best guess is that they are not exactly in the most unified state right now.

You never know, of course. Sometimes teams use these things to bond together. Leaders step up, the team miraculously gels, they go out there and win one last one for the coach (or...the Gipper or whoever), yada yada yada.

But, more likely, they lose their focus and sense of leadership, head into the postseason feeling uncertain and tank out big in their bowl game. (Re: Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl last year.)

My guess is that Miami will lie somewhere between these two extremes. It's difficult to say.

I still think we ought to win. I don't like to make predictions, really, but I will say this:

Our defense is so hot right now. I mean, for serious. Only allowing two touchdowns in the last seventeen quarters of football? Hott. They've been a really consistent unit for the last four games, and I absolutely don't understand why people are questioning it as a "fluke." It's a fluke if it happens in one game. Maybe two, depending on your opponent. But four games? Four? Really? Need I remind anyone that it took USC four tries to get the ball in from the two-yard line?

What really kills me is now that our defense is playing so well, people have started questioning the quality of our opponents rather than commending the D for its achievements. Which is halfway valid (in the sense that Utah kind of tanked themselves after that TCU game), but also kind of insulting. To be fair, however, I think the reluctance to commend our D may be more of a reflection on how the defense has been playing the past couple seasons than it is on the D's improvement and evolution throughout this season.

Anyway--moving right along to some actual talk about Miami--

According to Rakes of Mallow, Miami leads the country with 23 interceptions and they've fumbled the ball an additional 19 times. Their QB for this game, Jacory Harris, apparently started the season as a Heisman hopeful, but has been riding the bench for the latter part of the season. Harris could come out and play a perfect game, of course, but generally speaking, when a team's been struggling with turnovers and inconsistencies all season, they're not going to come out and play a clean bowl game. (Although I guess you never know.) Plus, our defense has gotten to the point where they're not only capitalizing on most of the opportunities that come their way--they're also starting to create opportunities. So really I think everything's boding well on the defensive side of the ball.

Offense is a little more concerning, but I think Tommy Rees should have a pretty good game. He's won on Senior Day, he's played at Yankee Stadium, he's thrown several picks at the Coliseum -- he's gotten a lot of big-time game experience under his belt very quickly, and I think all of that is going to help him focus during his first major postseason game. (Okay, I know it's only the Sun Bowl and all, but come on. It's ND vs Miami, the tickets sold out faster than they ever have in the history of the Sun Bowl, the Sun Bowl president is saying this is the most excitement he's ever seen about a Sun Bowl matchup, and I guess he'd know since he's been around it for fifty years.) Do I think he's going to get picked off during this game? Probably. He does that. (To be fair, Dayne Crist does that too.) In fact, the only game in which the Irish have not had a turnover all season was on Senior Day against Utah.

It'd be really nice to hope for another game with no turnovers, but I just don't think that's likely. As Rakes of Mallow puts it,
Miami's secondary is nasty, full of four and five-star athletes, ranking third in passing yards per game, second in pass efficiency defense, second in completion percentage allowed and eighth in sacks. It seemed very unlikely Notre Dame was going to attempt to ride Tommy Rees to victory in its bowl game regardless of opponent, but the Hurricanes lining up on the other side of the field almost guarantees that we're going to see a lot of Robert Hughes left and Cierre Wood right.

Which I am totally okay with. In fact, I think Robert Hughes is about due for another 100+ yard game. I'd just like to see him barrel people over all afternoon. Human juggernaut. Human juggernaut!

The Spread

Without going into any further detail, I think we're heading into a fairly even matchup. If Miami's supposed to have the better players, I think right now Notre Dame's got the better team. A strong finish in November says a lot. It means more, I think, than a lot of the pundits are willing to give it credit for. (Mostly because they've got no faith that our team culture is changing into, you know, a winning culture.) I think, heading into the postseason, Notre Dame's definitely got the mental edge.

Right now, though, we're listed as three-point underdogs. We're also being described as a "struggling" program.

I guess that's true. This season was a struggle.

But we never punked out, we never gave up, we never caved in. (And by "we" here, we mean the players and the coaches. The same cannot really be said for all the fans.) And we're not going to cave in now.

All of the hardships we've faced this season have only made us play harder. And anyone who's being hard on Brian Kelly at this point is an effing moron who hasn't been paying attention to the way the team is coming together. We're headed on the up-and-up. Can't you feel it?

I don't think this game's going to be easy. No game is a gimme, and anytime you think so you end up losing to (for example) Appalachian State. But I don't think we should be underdogs in the spread, either. I know it's only three points, but still. I think we got this. We're hungry, bitches.

You want to know how hungry?

In the words of Ian Williams, upon being asked how he felt about Miami not recruiting him because he was "too small"--

"I guess you'll find out on December 31st."


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