Notre Dame 31, MSU 13
In case you're not familiar with the term, a palindrome is a word (or a series of numbers) that's the same backwards as it is forwards. Like "Hannah." Or "Stanley Yelnats." Or "A man a plan a canal Panama."
May a moody baby doom a yam?
Right, so not all palindromes make sense, but then neither do inexplicable back-to-back face mask penalties by fifth-year captains during the season opener, so as a sports fan you've got to gird yourself for a certain amount of bewilderment. You've also got to live with the conviction that at the end of long periods of murk and confusion, daylight bursts.
The longer it's been since you've seen the light, the more dazzling it is. And you don't want it to keep flashing into view and then retreating; you want it to stick around long enough to get used to. You want it to shine so often it doesn't burn you.
Only then can you stop worrying about whether the offense is going to keep doling out balls like a machine at the batting cages; or whether the defense is going to do its best impression of a sieve and allow a last-second touchdown in a down-to-the-wire, heart-cleaving rivalry game; or whether the team as a whole is going to play so sloppily it makes you want to wail and fling things like an infant making a mess out of a mashed-up mound of sweet potatoes.
Only then can you pound out a solid, undeniable victory for four quarters against a good team with an obnoxious bipolar fan base wielding an inferiority complex the size of the ACC (which, by the way Dan Wetzel, Notre Dame is NOT INTERESTED IN JOINING).
Only then can you remember what it feels like to breathe--and in turn exude correspondingly louder shouts of exultation.
In an interview with Jack Nolan this week, Coach Kelly dismissed the notion that there might be any lingering "Oh no, here we go again" mentality clinging to the team following the first two games:
"Our players don't have it. You know, I'd like to get our stadium to [not] have it as well, because I didn't think that we were loud enough on the last couple of drives in our stadium. We've really gotta get that cranked up, and that's a challenge to all of our fans."
YOU HEAR THAT, IRISH FANS? GET YER BONNIE WEE VOCAL PIPES A-WAILIN'!
I like that our campus is generally pleasant to visit and we try to keep Catholic Disney World classy for our visitors, but the stadium only ever really gets loud when we're playing Michigan or USC. Even if we're starting 0-2, that's just not good enough. Especially when it's the kind of 0-2 start we've had this season--you know, the kind where Vegas favors your team every week even though you haven't actually won a game yet.
To gank an observation from Irish Illustrated, the team ain't exactly feelin' all peaches-and-cream about the first two weeks of the season, either.
"They're not going to forget the fact that they've let two games slip away," said Kelly during his Sunday teleconference. "I'm hoping that the mentality that they carried with them at practice [last] week is one that stays with them the rest of the season because you're absolutely right, you want that feeling of, 'We're not going to let this happen again; enough is enough."
Enough IS enough.
Enough with the turnovers. Enough with the doubting. Enough with the failing-to-play-four-quarters-of-football. Enough with everyone knocking on Gary Gray--who, despite being a bit overshadowed by the stellar efforts of Robert Blanton, Harrison Smith, and a bevy of other defensive knockouts, had a great comeback after his perplexing play against Michigan and was singled out by Coach Kelly in the locker room to lead the fight song after the game.
And ENOUGH ALREADY with the fake field goals, MSU. We've got your number now. You're just an OOZY RAT IN A SANITARY ZOO, and we wash our hands of you.
No, it never propagates if I set a gap or prevention
...unless I'm a defense pluggin' up gaps and preventing yo' ass from scoring.
I could get used to watching defense like that. It wasn't perfect, of course--MSU outgained us in yards of total offense and accumulated more first downs--but the scoreboard is what matters, and at the end of the day it was all pretty friggin' impressive.
Our D shut down MSU's rushing attack--they had 29 net yards rushing on 23 attempts for a whopping 1.3 yards per carry. Some combination of a PASS RUSH I NEVER KNEW EXISTED and some key clamp-down plays by our secondary forced Kirk Cousins to throw for short yardage, basically betrothing him to screen passes in the second half.
Toward the end of the game, MSU drove into scoring territory more times than I would've liked, but then Cousins is a good quarterback, and it would be ridiculous not to expect him to make plays. The important thing is that our defense buckled down when it mattered.
And here are the stats that do matter: Only three points allowed off three turnovers. No touchdowns allowed after the first quarter. One forced fumble and one interception, with both turnovers occurring immediately after Notre Dame coughed up the ball to MSU.
The defense finally looks like they're back in the groove they had at the end of last season. It's difficult to say who had the best game, because there were so many players out there sharing the load and kicking ass. Manti Te'o (man-beast) led the team in tackles as usual, with 12, but Gary Gray was not far behind with 10. Harrison Smith resumed his post as resident ball magnet with five pass break-ups and 8 total tackles. Freshman Aaron Lynch channeled the spirit of Victor Abiamiri and came up big with five tackles, six quarterback hurries, and a sack that caused MSU's forced fumble, which was scooped up by fellow defensive end Ethan Johnson.
And Robert Blanton, of course, did his best to upstage everybody with six total tackles--including one sack and three tackles for loss--three pass break-ups, and the game-clinching interception followed by an 82-yard return that set up ND's final score of the game.
I spew all these stats at you not because I think they'll make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside (ALTHOUGH THEY SHOULD), but because they are reflective of a total defensive effort. There's not one guy on this squad who doesn't play, or who doesn't think this team can win. Even if there are still tremors of doubt in the fan base, this is team is mentally locked in. And now they're finally going out on the field and proving it.
I admit to some amount of dread and horror when Goodman fumbled that fair catch in the fourth quarter and MSU recovered the ball deep in Irish territory. It was even more infuriating because the play clock clearly went down to zero before the ball was snapped; if you watch some of the game footage on UND.com, you can even hear one of the coaches yell out "Delay of game!" from the sidelines. (I'm pretty sure the clock went down to zero before MSU's fake field goal attempt in OT last year, too, but whatever.)
And if the game had gone differently...well, that'd just be one more thorn to pull out of my side, wouldn't it?
But things didn't go that way this time. Our team refused to let it go that way.
You could say Robert Blanton got lucky, but I think the defense is getting to the point where they're not just lucky; they're creating their own luck. Or, as Thomas Jefferson put it, "I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have."
The team is working that hard, and we're starting to see its effects. We're not falling apart--we're getting stronger. If this trend holds for the rest of the season (which I believe it will), our defense isn't just going to be good; they're gonna be great. And if it holds through next season, they're gonna be friggin' elite.
Go deliver a dare, vile dog!
I dare you to malign the play of our offense in the second half. Go on. I dare you.
Okay, so actually that's a terrible dare, because our offensive play in the second half wasn't particularly flashy or exciting or, um, point-scoring, but it did have a couple things going for it:
1) We held on to the football.
2) We held onto the football.
Ideally one day this will not be a statistic we get so excited about, but coming into this week we were pretty much ranked dead last in D-I for turnover margin. (Now we're one up from dead last.) And although I would have liked to see our run game churn up a few more yards and our boys pick up a couple more first downs, I'm perfectly okay with an offense that scores 24 points and doesn't cough up the ball when the team's ahead in the second half. MSU has a good defense and they made some key adjustments; Notre Dame was ahead and played conservative to keep the lead without endangering the football (a la South Florida).
Of course it is worrisome to think that the offense might not have scored at all in the second half if it weren't for Blanton's 83-yard interception return. They didn't even manage to get into field goal range for nearly two whole quarters. It'd be nice to have a run game bruising enough to pick up yards even when we're not grappling for the lead.
The offense isn't quite a four-full-quarters-of-football offense yet, though, so we're just going to have to settle in and be patient. Kelly has focused more of his recruiting efforts the past couple years on getting the defense squared away, because as he so rightly noted during his fall camp press conferences, "Winning championships starts on the defensive side of the ball--make no mistake about that."
Tommy Rees is still a young quarterback, still making mistakes. A lot of our receivers out there are still pretty young, too--but we're coming together. Just let it age a bit, like a good cheese or a fine wine. I think the bouquet's gonna be pretty stellar.
Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?
Behold the future. It is already here.
It's Aaron Lynch blowing up O-lines, and Steve Filer and Troy Niklas stepping in for Prince Shembo, and Kyle Brindza kicking the ball all the way to the end zone, and George Atkinson III running it back 89 yards for a touchdown.
And the newly-renewed optimist in me affirms that it's only going to get better from here. The season, the team--everything.
It would be disrespectful to say we can breathe easy the next two weeks, but at least we've got some breathing room. The air should be a lot less cloying now that we've made it past the first three weeks of fake field goals, Skunkbears, and sons-of-former-coaching-legends. Unranked Pittsburgh, Purdue, and Air Force ought to be hearty, but not heart-attack-y, matchups leading up to the bye week, and if the Irish can hold onto the ball and the defense can slam a few more run games out of existence, we ought to be in tip-top shape (both the team and the loving, stalwart fans) to gear up for our mid-October matchup with USC and a Halloween weekend grudge match against Navy's option. (Grudge match? Navy? Really? Maybe I should stop trying to think so far ahead...)
Only one more word to the wise for this week's rant:
You have been warned.
GO IRISH BEAT PANTHERS!
*Note: According the Notre Dame ESPN Blog, the excessive celebration penalty was, in fact, an incorrect call. Kelly knew it, too.
"We went over this," Kelly said. "We literally went over this specifically, because our gloves have the Fighting Irish on the inside. [...] That's like giving your 8-year-old a lighter, you know what I mean? I knew this thing was gonna be something that we're gonna have to deal with. And certainly we brought it up and got the green light, so there was miscommunication along the way."