Monday, October 31, 2011

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....

Notre Dame 56, Navy 14 was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Here we are: it is the best of times. Two unquestionable whomp-fests over two option teams that we've lost to in recent years. Navy would have put up a much better offensive showing if they'd been playing with their starting quarterback, of course; but as it was, I think the inexperience at quarterback allowed our defense put up one of their best showings all season. Particularly Manti Te'o (to the surprise of no one), with thirteen total tackles.

Perhaps the defensive showing wouldn't have been as impressive had Navy not so thoroughly flummoxed our defense last year; but either way it was nothing less than a gigantic Kit-Kat bar of joy to watch our tremendous young tacklers trollop the option for almost the entirety of the game. We held Navy to their lowest rushing total all season, tied for forcing the most punts (5), and after giving up three third-down conversions in a row early in the game (and getting lucky on a missed FG), we buckled down, and in the third quarter stopped them flat-out on 4th down--twice.

The two touchdowns Navy scored came as the direct result of Notre Dame's two turnovers, both of which occurred at nearly the same place on the field: one on the ND 27, and one on the ND 26. This is both good and bad--good because it means the defense prevented Navy from reaching the red zone of their own volition following every kickoff except for one; but I find it somewhat unfortunate that our D couldn't stop them either time they began their possession with an extremely short field. (Although considering we scored 56 points and it didn't matter anyway, I'm not going to gripe about it.) Obviously, the only really troublesome thing is that the turnovers occurred at all.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

This game--and the Air Force game, and the MSU game, and the first three quarters of the Michigan game--looked a lot like the season we thought we were going to have this year. We are capable of playing very well, and there have been many times we've shown it.

But the epoch of belief has faded into incredulity more than once this season. After last week's game, it's impossible to say with any sort of confidence that our team has arrived anywhere.

Not that you ever really arrive while the season's in progress; being good demands not only continual effort, but continual proof of success. In order to prove anything, you've got to prove it for the entire season. Good teams win. Consistently. End of story.

I don't think it's a question of effort. I believe our players have the desire and the ability to win, the camaraderie to play as a team, and enough confidence to have fun while they're doing it. But they do not know how to keep full focus all of the time, and last week they showed it. They're kids, you know? It was fall break. And for whatever reason, the coaches weren't able to keep them on-task enough to show up fresh for the game.

From the post-game interviews, you got the sense that the players didn't know what happened, either. Another lesson learned, right? Can't lose focus in your preparation. Not even during fall break.

But it's hard to take much comfort from this, because the problems that plagued us at the beginning of the season seem to plague us still. Turnovers. Turnovers. Turnovers.


The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

We seem to be doing a lot of things in pairs so far this season. A pair of quarterbacks battling for the starting job. A pair of close losses to start the season, rife with turnovers, that we could have won. A pair of inexplicable goal-line turnovers scooped up by our opponent and run all the way back for a touchdown. A pair of 50+ scoring wins over service academies at home for the first time in decades. A pair of running backs who have come into their own. A pair of kickoffs returned for TDs by a freshman for the first time since Rocket. A pair of high-stakes night games (Michigan, USC) that have sent our hopes for a BCS Bowl game slushing into the gutter, where live the preseason rankings and almost every word that has ever come out of Mark May's mouth. A pair of freshman defensive ends (Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt) stepping up for seniors plagued with injury (though now that Kap's out for the season, it'll be more than a pair).

Some of these things are good, of course, but others are grievous--sometimes even freakish--mistakes, and ones that you certainly don't want to see repeated. Oh consistency, you elusive brigand. Can't you be caught and made to stay? What lure can we possibly provide that will cause you to linger of your own accord?

There's definitely something to be said for looking great against teams that you're supposed to look great against. Be enthused--be very enthused. But all the same, look at the games in which we've struggled this year. We've been the victims of our own collapse. We've got a persistent and un-pluggable leak of turnovers. We've got a solid defense that, for a few crucial quarters this season, has not known how to be solid. And we've got a head coach with decades of experience that seem to be working very well for him--except that he seems to keep referencing the fact that he's got so many years of head coaching experience in order to defend the reasoning behind some of the things that he's done. There's a learning curve going on for everyone right now.

And the season isn't over. We still have a huge chance to make a statement, if we can manage to keep our defense on task and our offense balanced and steady. (You know--if.)

But I suppose I shouldn't really be looking that far ahead. Right now, I'm not worrying about Stanford. I just want to see what the next week brings. See how Tommy's lookin'. See if any of the wrinkles smooth out.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Allow me to digress.

Look guys, I know our stadium's not particularly loud and raucous (except when we play Michigan or USC), but there's really no need to start blaring a series of generic rock anthems at people in the hopes that something will stick. I suppose I appreciate the effort and all--but as usual when the administration steps in, there is a feeling of artifice about it that mostly makes me want to groan.

I mean, it's not as bad as the whole Freekbass incident, but playing Crazy Train a hundred times during the USC game got almost as annoying as hearing THIS is-the-only SONG we KNOW every five seconds. (Almost. Not quite. Nothing in the world is as annoying as the Condom Band playing that song over and over and over and over and over and over and over...seriously, don't they all just want to smack themselves with their instruments after a while? Or are they just too busy caught up in their pastiche of doucheness to care?)

They seemed to try to branch out a little during the Navy game, but seeing as piped-in music has never really been a thing at Notre Dame Stadium and so many songs have already been commandeered by other schools, it just feels like we're posing. And none of it sounds right, with the exception of Dropkick Murphys before kickoffs. See, that's more Notre Dame. It's loud, it's Irish, it's not arbitrary. (Although if we're going to play "Shipping up to Boston" in the stadium when we play Boston College, it will feel kind of weird. Just sayin'.)

Mostly I'm irritated because whoever is in charge of the music clearly has no idea what our identity in the stadium is, so they're just playing songs that they associate with sporting events, and instead of pumping the crowd up, it's starting to sound friggin' tacky. The crowd for USC was electric, no doubt, but they didn't need the help of loudspeakers; they would've been electric on their own. And on days when we're kicking Navy's butt by 30 points, AC/DC isn't gonna help. Better to have no music at all than something that's going to have no effect.

Anyway, don't want to gripe about this overmuch, but in closing can I just say:



Right. Well I guess that's as much as I've got for the moment.

It was a dark and stormy night...

So we're facing Wake Forest in football for the first time ever this week, in our fourth of six night games this season. Wake Forest is traditionally a bit of a limp noodle when it comes to football, but currently they've got the same record as the Irish (5-3). They've lost to Syracuse, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina; notable wins include Boston College and then-23rd-ranked Florida State. Last week's 49-24 loss to North Carolina was a five-turnover affair, with 28 of Carolina's points coming off Demon Deacon turnovers.

“We definitely weren’t sharp and it’s tough to put your finger on the one thing that caused that,” quarterback Tanner Price said.

Oh, my. That sounds familiar.

But unlike the Irish, the Demon Deacons haven't been plagued with turnovers all season; they had five total in seven games prior to playing North Carolina.

Let's hope both teams show up with a clean game this Saturday. Not that I wouldn't love to see the Irish strip the ball and force another stellar special teams turnover, of course...but I'd like to see us manhandle another opponent without any help from turnovers at all.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Palace of Dim Night

Notre Dame 17, USC 31

What fray was here? Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.

I admit that, in my heart of hearts, I was nervous when Dayne Crist took the field and drove the team all the way down to the one-yard line. We hadn't had a turnover in so long. There was really no reason to fear. I thought to myself surely—surely—not again. Just because Crist is on the field doesn’t mean we’re more likely to commit turnovers. And anyway, the last time we fumbled on the one-yard line it was Jonas Gray’s fumble, not Crist’s, so surely—surely




………………….…never mind.

Seriously, WHAT’S with the turnovers this year? We’ve had more fumbles, botched snaps, interceptions, ball-bounced-off-the-shoulderpads-and-right-into-the-arms-of-the-nearest-defender than I can remember seeing in a single season. Even in the Season of Five Sacks Per Game we did not have this many turnovers.


Geez, guys. Get your sh*t together.

You’d think I’d have come up with something cleverer by now to direct toward those beloved boys in blue & gold, but apparently stagnant frustration inspires no wiser words. Plus it’s football. Football should simple. HIKE! TACKLE! GO FIGHT WIN! STOP GETTING OUTSCHEMED BY INFERIOR OPPONENTS AND MAKING INEXPLICABLE REGRESSIONS FOLLOWING BYE WEEKS WHILE PLAYING YOUR BIGGEST RIVAL!

And can we PLEASE not abandon our run game in the first half? Even if we're down by two scores early, we know our passing attack is not what it could be, and we know USC—even as a shadow of what it once was—is the best defense we’ve face so far this season. So whyyyyy would you fail to establish a rhythm with the run game? WHY? Especially when there doesn’t seem to be much of a rhythm going with your receivers in the first half, either.


Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms

Dear Brian Kelly,


I know you once said you don’t really care about time outs, and as far as you’re concerned you don’t really need to take them, but I’m pretty sure THAT ONLY APPLIES IF YOU’RE WINNING, and personally I don’t care if you’re down by three or ten or thirty—you gotta at least PRETEND like you’re gonna play until the whistle blows.

Were you saving the time-outs to use on offense? Is that what you were doing? Or did you just honestly give up with six minutes left to go in the game? Because that’s what it looked like, and nothing in the whole entire game – not Dayne Crist’s fumble, not the botched lateral to Cierre Wood, not the defense’s apparent inability to put real pressure on the Trojans until way too late in the 4th quarter – made me angrier than watching the clock tick down and tick down and tick down with absolutely no attempt to stop it.

You could make the argument that our defense wouldn’t have been able to stop them from converting first downs and running the clock out anyway. You could also argue that the offense was doing its best impersonation of incompetence for most of the evening and Tommy Rees REALLY REALLY needs to figure out how to play as well in the first half as he usually does in the second, so perhaps a clutch, game-winning drive was out of reach for us anyway (which I personally don’t believe because the offense has already shown us this year that they’re capable of being perfect in the clutch even after a whole night of suckfest), so I reiterate--


It ain’t over til it’s friggin’ over, man. You can come back and score twice in two minutes if you’ve got the balls.

Obviously I don’t know what was going on on the sidelines, but come on, if you wanted this team to be BCS-caliber, why aren’t you treating them like they’re BCS caliber? You can’t win BCS games by giving up with six minutes left to go in the half. Did someone on defense decide they’d be able to stop the Trojans so they didn’t need to take the time outs yet? Is that what happened? Because if so, that argument falls apart after the first 1st down conversion. And even if at that point you don’t think our defense is going to be able to stop them and it’s not worth it to call the time outs because really the game is probably over—



I hope the players understand wtf you’re doing, because over here on the fans’ side we’re all befuddled as shit. Not even ONE timeout? Not ONE? Even just as a showing of good faith. “Here defense, here’s an extra thirty seconds, let’s give you a little more time to think about this one, then maybe you can finally sack this f***er.”

You know what, Brian Kelly? You have been many things in your life, I’m sure, and seeing as it’s Wednesday I should probably get over this and move on to thinking about the Navy game, but right now all I can think is that you are a vile, pernicious waster of time and I will find it hard to forgive you until there is another giant trophy sitting in the Gug. Or until we beat Stanford. Or until next season when we beat USC again. Whichever comes first.



I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee

Dear Lane Kiffin,


First of all—you know what’s like the Superbowl? THE FRIGGIN’ SUPERBOWL.

Second of all—you know what’s a lot more like the Super Bowl? THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP.

And biggest rival or not, night game or not, playing USC in the regular season—especially this regular season—is NOT like playing in the national championship. Just isn’t.

And let’s face it, Laney—nobody going into this season (except possibly a few rabid delusional USC fans/coaches) thought USC was going to be our biggest game. In terms of making a statement about the state of our football program at a national level, everyone’s eyes were fixed on Stanford, right from the start. (Stanford. STANFORD! Sometimes I still can’t believe it’s true.)

Furthermore, I don’t know why you keep commenting that we “changed it to a night game,” as though it was some sort of last-minute switch on USC’s behalf. Yeah, sure we changed it to a night game. In MARCH. Pay attention, bleach bucket. Pay attention.



Thou detestable maw

All right, Notre Dame football. I will follow you down into the tomb. I will bemoan the fading of your glory. I will marvel at the raiment of your former life.

And then I will bitch-slap the sh*t out of you until you wake up—because what the hell are you doing down here playing dead anyway? Get the f*** up already, we’ve got things to do, let’s get the hell out of this whited sepulcher and create our own damn destiny. I’m sick of this kowtow-ing to the stars sh*t.

Everybody’s been waiting for you to wake up, Sleeping Beauty. Or Juliet. (Whoever you are in this metaphor.) There may have been some wailing and gnashing of teeth—even some moments of downright despair in the soft October night—but rest assured, when that rosy glow on your cheek translates to waking, you will not arise to discover that all who love you have dropped dead beside you. No, we’ll just be standing here going, “GEEZ man, TOOK you long enough—what are you waiting for? We have some Trojan/Wolverine/Cardinal/Spartan/Eagle/Hurricane/ Sooner/Tigerband ass to kick. Let’s GO.”

No need to shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh or anything; just stop playing like you’ve taken the Draught of the Living Death and everything will be dandy.

The time and my intents are savage-wild

Right, so, no BCS bowl game this season obviously, unless everybody in the top 10 decides to start losing and we somehow win out the rest of our schedule. (Ha.) But nonetheless I’ve got that Thanksgiving weekend game against the Cardinal buzzing on my mind. If we can get to that game, and get there clean, and then show up and play a real game….

Well, it’ll feel good, certainly, and undoubtedly catapult us into the rankings if we can manage to win out. But unfortunately a win over Stanford—even a win in a good bowl game—won’t erase a lot of the questions or lingering doubts we’ve accumulated this season.

Because we looked good at the end of last season, too—so what guarantee have we that it’s going to carry over? How can we trust that the team knows how to prepare if they don’t know how to prepare by now? How can we watch without fear of turnovers after what happened last week?

I’m not sure even the coaches know what to do at this point, except to keep on doin’ what they’re doin’ and hope that at some point it clicks. And then you’ll have a team that doesn’t need wake-up calls. That doesn’t have to be reminded how important it is to get out there and p’own the line of scrimmage on every play. That doesn’t lose games it should’ve won three turnovers ago.

All I can hope is that this season—with all its stumbles and pitfalls and great gaping maws of seemingly surmountable defeat—is the stinging, vinegar-soaked marinade we need to squeeze all the sweet succulent juice out of the next.

In the meantime, all we need is another victory to smooth things over. Preferably one where the defense shows up for four quarters and the offense scores on every drive. Another kick return for a touchdown from THE THIRD wouldn't hurt, either. Let's show the option who's boss. Again.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sunny with a Chance of Bowl Game

So guys. I'm gonna try real hard not to completely explode with glee over this one, but... HOLY SH*T DID YOU SEE THAT?!?!??!

That's the most points we've scored in a game since Lou left.

Most. Points. Since. Lou. Left.

Not to draw any conclusions or overly hopeful parallels, of course, but compared to the beginning of the season, it sort of feels like we're floating around in a big buttery-mashed-potato, mostly-sunny-with-a-chance-of-bowl-game sky, doesn't it? The offense and defense, at points, get a bit thin, but other than that I quite like it up here, what with all the forced fumbles and the blocked kicks and the gravy train offense running like a dream....

I'd take second helpings of that any day.

Gravy Train

Hands off the jersey, man.

So this was the fourth game of the season we've racked up over 500 yards--but only the second we've won. It was also the second game in a row that we haven't committed any turnovers, after a combined 15 turnovers in the first three games of the year. To add a little spice to all this gravy, it was the most points scored since 1996 (when we won 62-0 over Rutgers), the most points scored in a half since 1990, and the first game since 1999 in which seven different players recorded touchdowns.

After watching the live game, the NBC replay, the game highlights, and the second set of game highlights with commentary via the Irish Connection (like the big obsessive dork I am), I can safely say that WEEEEEEE KIIIIIICK ASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.

But we have sooooooo much left to do.

Thinning Out

I'm not sure what the exact stats are when you take away the yards and points racked up against our second- and third-team defense, but the fact remains that Air Force ended the day with more yards of offense than the Irish (565 to 560), a scoring total just four points shy of their season average (37.4), more first downs (32 to 28) , and five out of five successful fourth-down conversions.

Most of these stats are meaningless, of course, considering Notre Dame still won by 26 points. As Irish fans know all too painfully well, the only numbers that really matter are the ones on the scoreboard at the end of the day. Plus, any time your first-string offense holds an option team to less than twenty points, you should feel enthused.

But all that aside, I am a trifle annoyed that we stopped playing the game before Air Force did; that we let them score more points than any of our previous opponents except Denard Robinson; and most of all that we let them go FIVE for FIVE on fourth down conversions.

I realize that they're running the option and all, and that trying to stop the option in a short-yardage situation is kind of like pitting a squeegee against a fire hose, but COME ON. Our players have to outweigh the Air Force players by an average of like fifty pounds. Just shove them all on their butts at the line of scrimmage and let Harrison Smith and Jamoris Slaughter pick up the edges. Or something.

This picture pretty much typical of the entire day.

You can tell we got beat on the edges a lot just by looking at the defensive statistics, because the highest tackle total on the team this week came not from Manti Te'o, but from Harrison Smith, who racked up twelve. Te'o and Blanton were not far behind with ten apiece, but any time a safety is your leading tackler, you're losing the game up front. Stats like that give me flashbacks to Mama Kyle--who was totally awesome, of course; but who you sometimes got the impression was holding the defense together all by himself.

As I have to keep reminding myself, however: 1) stats don't quite mean the same things against the option as they do against other teams; 2) this hasn't been a season-long trend, and 3) this isn't the kind of defense one player has to hold together all by himself. This is the kind of friggin' defense where twenty-seven different players recorded tackles; six of those also recorded pass break-ups, and six more (assuming Te'o occasionally counts as two people) dropped tackles for loss. The top three leaders in tackles all put up double-digit numbers, and the number-four leader (Darius Fleming) had two quarterback hurries and a sack. Most of all, this is the kind of defense where the top four leaders in tackles didn't even have the best game.

Speaking of which--give it up for Jamoris's

Slaughterhouse Five

1. Jamoris Slaughter ended the day with 6 tackles, which was good enough for the fifth-highest total out of the 27 defensive players who slammed somebody to the ground during the game.

2. During the very first play on defense, Slaughter stripped the ball from Asher Clarke, nullifying a 29-yard run and popping the ball right into the hands of Robert Blanton to set up ND's second scoring drive of the game from the Air Force 48.

3. In the second quarter, Slaughter broke up a pass, scooped the ball up in midair, and then landed on his back with the ball still in his hands to force Air Force's second turnover of the day.

4. In addition to reveling over Slaughter's involvement with 14 of Notre Dame's 59 points, I would just like to point out that he has one of my favorite football player names of all time--right up there with Peerless Price, Booger McFarland, and Golden H. Tate III.

5. In case you were not aware, this was Slaughter's first game playing outside linebacker. He's listed on the depth chart as a safety, but this week the coaches shifted him over to Prince Shembo's spot, and moved Shembo up to cover a spot on the D-line (possibly to help fill the gap left by currently-injured Ethan Johnson). Most likely Slaughter willl be moving back to safety after this week, but you can probably expect to see him back on the outside against Navy--because basically he kicked so much ass against the option that the coaches named him defensive player of the game.

And speaking of players who deserve a little recognition...

Robby Tomaaaaaa!

Watching the footage of the post-TD celebration on this one made me laugh out loud. There's nothing quite like watching Michael Floyd lose his shit and start beating on Toma's helmet like a bongo drum. Or watching pretty much the entire offense swarm into the endzone and jump around like he just scored the game-winning TD. Robby Toma's a junior (from the same high school as Manti Te'o!) and this was his first college TD.

Toma's probably one of the few guys on the team who could fit into an Air Force uniform, but based on the entire team's reaction to his score you can tell how hard he works and how much he's done to earn the respect of his teammates--and the chance to go out there and haul one in for the Irish.

Hurricane Andrew

Just in case the post-Toma TD celebration didn't make you chuckle--do yourself a favor and pop open the Irish Connection video for this week. If you don't want to watch the entire video, just jump forward to approximately the 15:00 mark and watch Cierre Wood's reaction to Andrew Hendrix's 70-yard (almost TD) run.

Nothing evokes high-pitched shrieking like a 70-yard run followed by an aerodynamic shoestring tackle.

I love this team. I love that they play like a team, and act like a team, and go out there and have fun like a team--you know, like you're supposed to, because Washington State two years ago was pretty sweet, but that came at the end of an era, and the feeling of "Geez, where has THIS been all my life?" was pretty short-lived. Only time will tell where this season's going to go from here, of course, but this game...I don't know. It doesn't have the feeling of a fluke about it. It sort of feels like we're just heating up.

"Frankly," said Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, "when you see them playing live, you're a little bit surprised that the record is not even better."

Leaving aside all frustrations over whether the record should be better--there are reasons we've been favored in every single game we've played so far this season. And now we've got just one more.

This Hendrix kid is wicked talented. He went 4-for-4 passing and ran for 111 yards--and he was only on the field for 10 plays. It kind of makes you drool a little thinking of all the possibilities for the future. And makes you wonder what in the world Everett Golson's going to have to do to compete with him once he's primed to take the starting spot. Or what Tommy's going to do. Or even Crist.

Kelly's plans for the quarterbacks are all very perplexing at the moment. But at least for now, he's said that Tommy is clearly #1 and Dayne's still definitely #2. Hendrix doesn't know enough of the offense yet to be able to run the total package. He's not on the field to take anybody's starting job at the moment--he's just there to give opposing defenses fits.

For as much as I detest Wildcat packages, and as much as I love to malign coaches trying to play two-quarterback systems, I have to admit I kind of like what Kelly's doing here with Hendrix. Would my opinion be less rosy if it weren't for Hendrix's 70-yard (almost TD) run? Perhaps. But it's not just the fact that it's working that's winning me over. It's the whole methodology behind it: only playing Hendrix in certain looks, only putting him in at appropriate points in the game, giving him good playcalls that aren't hopelessly redundant like the direct-snap-to-Golden-Tate Wildcat scheme (which pretty much reached its apex of glory in the aforementioned Washington State game).

But most of all, I like that the possibility of Hendrix throws a wrench in the schemes of our future opponents. Regardless of whether Hendrix takes another snap for the rest of the season (though I'm sure he will), just the threat is enough to give defensive coordinators headaches. It's not enough that they have to worry about covering Michael Floyd, stopping Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray, keeping an eye on Tyler Eifert, trying to outrun Riddick, or attempting to flummox Tommy so badly that he can't even find TJ Jones or Robby Toma in a pinch. Now they have to steel themselves against the possibility that some punk freshman option-style quarterback is going to come out and scramble all over the place.

Perhaps our head coach is a lot craftier than I give him credit for.

Buttery Bye Week

Look, guys! I think I see a bowl game in our future!

So, guys--we're on a roll. Now we've just got to pull it apart, slab some butter on it, and chow down on some tasty food for thought during the bye week.

Six games down, six to go--starting with our biggest rival in the first night game at Notre Dame stadium for over twenty years. I think Coach Kelly said it right: "We wanna make sure everybody handles themselves appropriately, makes it a great event--except for maybe USC, we don't need them to have a good time."

More thoughts on this game will be coming to you after the bye weekend. But in the meantime, let me just say what I've been waiting to say all season:


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Post-Palindrome Pursuit of Perfection

I haven't had much of an urge to mute the television while watching Notre Dame football lately. This is quite stunning. Normally there comes a point in every broadcast where the commentators get on my nerves so badly that I either start throwing pillows at the TV or make a violent lunge for the remote control. But except for a few minutes during the Pittsburgh game (when, among other things, I thought my head was going to implode), the last two weeks have been surprisingly pleasant. There were even moments when I felt the commentators enhanced my game-watching experience by talking about the actual FOOTBALL GAME instead of talking about the players' calves or the height of the stadium grass or the local eateries or...whatever....

Versus Pitt, the commentators made some quite keen observations regarding the Panthers' defensive scheme and its success in disguising coverages, which effectively screwed with Tommy Rees's head. It's difficult to feel grateful to Urban Meyer for anything, but the dude does in fact know what he's talking about, and I believe his presence on the crew influenced a lot of the actual football-related talk. I further appreciate that Urban hasn't yet been reduced to a driveling talking head (like Lee Corso, for instance--who, I maintain, loses his composure more frequently while announcing his pick for the game of the week than Brian Kelly does on the sidelines. But alas, that is another argument for another time).

And against Purdue...well, to be honest, I couldn't even tell you who was on the commentating crew for the Purdue game. It was such a joy to watch I stopped paying attention to everything except Cierre Wood's yardage total (and the lovely bottle of wine that accompanied my game-watching endeavors). It was a blissful game to watch, was it not? One thing I do remember the commentators saying, however, is "if the Irish keep playing like this, they should be perfect for the rest of the season." Or something to that effect, anyway.

The point is that we're goooood, and we finally look like we're good, and we had better keep playing like we're good, because if we do, we're gonna end up having the kind of BCS-worthy season everybody expected us to have in the first place.

Notre Dame 15, Pittsburgh 12

Pitt's Perplexing Perfidy

As mentioned, Pitt's defense was playing a sneaky little game of deception against still-cherubically-youthful (although-you-wouldn't-quite-know-it-from-his-record-as-a-starter) Tommy Rees, and unfortunately it was quite effective for most of the game. Taking Michael Floyd out of the equation and disguising the safety coverage was enough to flummox a young signal caller who has a tendency to lock in on his favorite target when the O-line seems to be crumbling around him.

Not that the O-line was exceedingly awful (let's face it, we've definitely seen worse), but Rees wasn't making the right reads or the best decisions in the pocket during the first half, and since there wasn't much the coaches could do to counteract Pitt's deviousness with the QB holding onto the ball too long , the O-line didn't have a lot to go on. To put it simply: we got out-schemed. But in the end, we did not get out-played.

Getting out-schemed still feels like a relatively new phenomenon for the Irish--at least compared to those five years of Weis at the helm being all Scheme-y McSchemerson. Even during that 3-9 year (when our O-line was busy giving up more sacks than a grocery store), we didn't get out-schemed so much as straight-up beat. Which wasn't exactly comforting, of course. But nevertheless, getting outmatched on the X's and 0's was never as much of a concern as, for example, watching our "bend-but-don't-break" style of defense turn into "bend, splinter, snap in two like Ron's wand in Chamber of Secrets and then be hastily bound back together with various bits of Spellotape defensive coordinators until you start emitting sparks of brilliance or belching up slugs." (Mostly, I'd say, we ended up belching lots of slugs).

Anyway. After getting out-schemed all over the place in the Navy game last year (and, erm, a wee bit in overtime against MSU), it's hard not to feel perturbed anytime an opponent takes the field with a scheme the Irish clearly were not expecting. Our defense has made enough strides that I'm starting to expect them to be able to adjust to just about anything, but our offense is obviously a work-in-progress. With all the fumbles so far this season, you could argue that we're still belching up slugs--but I think these are slugs of a slightly different nature.

Our coaches are a lot of things, but they don't really strike me as schemers. I am completely okay with this, because as we have learned (both from the Weis years and from watching Pitt's defense on Jonas Gray's 79-yd touchdown run), schemes don't mean very much if you can't execute. And I'd much rather have a team that can execute and finish the game than a team that looks all fancy losing. (This is not to say you can't have good teams with scheme. You've just got to have the rock-solid foundation of We're Gonna Kick Your Ass No Matter What built underneath it first.) As it happens, so would Coach Kelly: "For me it's really about winning games and making certain that we do that. I'd rather do that and be out coached and win ugly and do all those things but at the end of the day win the football game. Beauty points, style points I'm not really interested in those things."

But sometimes I do wonder whether our coaching staff's general lack of perfidy makes it more difficult for them to prepare the team for their opponents' attempts at trickery. I'm going to guess the coaches would say "no" to that, and I guess I see their point. If you've got all the fundamentals of a good team in place, your players should be able to make game-time adjustments. Their mental game should be tough enough for them to learn how to read the field over the course of the game and deal with what comes along accordingly. As Kelly put it this week, looking forward to the Air Force game, "Certainly we have to play the way we play. We cannot become so out of character in stopping the option that we forget about the things that we teach every day. That is playing physical, flying to the football, great tackling. I think you've got to be careful because sometimes option, you get this sense of, Hey, it's option. But we have to do what we do."

Experience is, I think, the biggest factor in being able to make these kinds of game-time adjustments, and that helps to explain why Rees struggled so much in the first half. "There were some new looks for him that he had not seen before that we had to adjust," Coach Kelly said. "And after Tommy sees it, he gets much more comfortable."

Rees's comfort level took much longer to emerge in the Pittsburgh game than we would have liked--but it emerged, and that's what counts. Of course there's still the worry that Rees sticks too much with one target, once he's found one that works; he had four passes to tight end Tyler Eifert on the game-winning drive. But hey, a win is a win is a win, and if Eifert is the guy open in the endzone for the two-point conversion, by all means throw to him. It doesn't matter if it's the seventeenth time in a row--if it works, then it isn't stupid, right?

Furthermore (and on a slightly different tack), we finally (FINALLY?!) seem to have enough of our sh*t together that the sheer level of talent on our squad is to be making a difference in close games. Case in point: JONAS GRAY. (See? Even the commentator says so.)

That's the longest rush by a Notre Dame player since the year 2000. This could be kind of depressing, but mostly I think it's just exciting. We know the level of talent on our squad is higher than the level of talent on most of the squads we've been losing to the past few years. But talent (much like scheming) can't win games all by itself unless there's a system in place that allows the talent to flourish. So let's keep flourishing, shall we? FLOURISH!!!

Petite Pause

So I need to move on to the Purdue game now (before I stay up past my bedtime), but I feel like I'm neglecting the defense a little bit. if it weren't for the D, we certainly would not have won the Pittsburgh game. They kept us afloat after two turnovers (off which Pitt only scored 3 points), and sacked Tino Sunseri twice during Pitt's final possession of the game to push the Panthers back to a 4th-and-26 and stuff any chance of them pulling off a last-minute miracle surge for the win.

They did a lot more than that, of course, and they've been doing so on a pretty consistent basis since the end of last season. For example (to pull some tidbits from the ND postgame notes), the defense has allowed one offensive touchdown or less in 7 of the last 9 games. They've also only allowed 2 rushing touchdowns in the last 9 games, and only one rushing touchdown so far this year (best in the FBS).

The Irish defense has surrendered 100 yards on the ground just four times over the last 9 games, limiting opponents to an average of 91.3 yards per game and 2.9 yards per rush. No team has rushed for more than 135 yards (it took Army, a triple option attack, 43 carries to reach that mark).

Lastly, Purdue only had forty-four rushing yards against the Irish. Forty of those yards were racked up on Purdue's final drive of the game, against ND's second- and third-string defense.

So other than I LOVE YOU DEFENSE, PLEASE CONTINUE KICKING ASS, there's really not much else to say.

Notre Dame 38, Purdue 10

P'owning Purdue

So you know how sometimes the first play or drive of a game is just a fluke, and after that the game sort of settles down and turns into more of an even matchup? Like in the Pittsburgh game, when Michael Floyd bobbled the ball, then caught it, then ran through a defender for a first down, and it looked like it was going to be totally awesome but then Floyd basically didn't catch the ball for the entire rest of the game.

Yeah--the Purdue game was not like that. The Purdue game was exactly how it looked, right from the very first play from scrimmage when Gary Gray intercepted the ball, the offense took over, and in two more plays and ten seconds of game time we had our first touchdown of the day.

And it was awesome.

The Irish have racked up over 500 yards of total offense in three of their games so far this season, but thanks to turnovers and inexplicable fourth-quarter defensive breakdowns, Purdue is the only one of those games that we've actually won. This statistic is not so exceptionally awesome, of course, but after last week's win I find it hard to complain. Man was it nice to sit back and watch the Irish steamroll over an opponent they were supposed to steamroll. We had a lot of help from Purdue's defense, of course, and the ridiculous number of penalties they incurred (Purdue had 13 on the day for 118 yards; probably 9 of those were defensive), but for once we also had a lot of help from ourselves.

For example, we didn't turn the ball over. Not once. We fumbled twice, sure, but we held onto it, and that's the important thing.

We also had the best run game we've had in years--possibly decades . We racked up some pretty good yards on the ground when Julius Jones or Darius Walker were around, but I can't think of the last time we had two running backs combine for nearly 300 yards. (Anybody? Anybody?) Cierre Wood had 191 net yards on the day (at a ridonkulous 9.6 yards per carry), and Jonas Gray finished with a career-high mark of 94. Wood's numbers are the best in a single game by an Irish running back since Julius Jones ran for 218 yards vs. Stanford in 2003 and Darius Walker averaged 10.2 yards per carry vs. Air Force in 2006.

We only had to punt twice the entire game--and one of those was at the very end when we had our second- and third- team offense on the field. Which basically means there was only one drive during the entire game in which Tommy Rees failed to lead the offense into scoring territory.

Sometimes looking at the drive charts can be very telling. For games like this, my personal favorite is the "How Lost" column, which for Notre Dame against Purdue looked like this:

Missed FG
Missed FG
End of half

End of half

Obviously the most perplexing things here are the two missed field goals, which still seem like an anomaly for a kicker who made 23 in a row last year. I'm starting to think there's something funny going on with the kicking unit out there. I find it hard to believe there's something wrong with Ruffer's head or his toes; it seems more likely that the three-man dream team from last year (long snapper, place holder, and kicker) got shaken up somehow, and perhaps lack of cohesion in the new unit is what's causing all the trouble. (LACES OUT, DAN.) I don't know for sure, of course; I haven't investigated enough to discover if we actually have a new snapper or place holder for this year. (If you happen to be a bit savvier on this topic, by all means comment.) Ruffer did make the last field goal, though, so that's something, isn't it? Hopefully the start of another streak....

As mentioned, Purdue's defense did seem to help us out quite a bit when we had the ball (and they didn't do nearly as well covering Floyd as Pittsburgh did), but even so, I thought Rees had quite a nice game following the rough week at Pitt. Three different receivers (Floyd, Tyler Eifert, and TJ Jones) caught touchdown passes, and Rees was 60% passing for 254 yards, which is respectable. Not spectacular, but respectable (and plenty good enough if you're also racking up 300 yards on the ground). If we can maintain the balance between the run game and the passing game and hold on to the freaking ball, then I completely agree with the commentators from the Purdue game: we should win the rest of the games on our schedule. There's absolutely no reason we can't compete with Stanford--we just have to fix our own mistakes. Which we're doing, little by little. The game against USC should be very telling. (But we've got two weeks to prepare and it's a night game in Notre Dame Stadium. I think we're gonna beat them again.)

So...3-2. Not exactly where we hoped we'd be at this point in the season, perhaps, but still all right. Back above .500. And we're getting better. We're even approaching the vicinity of becoming relevant. If the rest of the teams on our schedule don't watch out, we might actually end up in the rankings again.

I'm looking forward to it.

And hey--after the whomping Pitt put on South Florida last week, that win is looking better and better all the time, eh? Eh? Eh???

Sorry for the delay and the lackluster ranting this week--I'll try to do better next week. And in the meantime...