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:


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