Thursday, November 10, 2011

42 is definitely not the answer

Notre Dame 24, Wake Forest 17

So guys...bowl eligible!!!

Just...maybe not the way we envisioned.

Sometimes when I look at the rankings these days I get really annoyed, because Michigan and Michigan State and USC are all ranked, and seeing as we whomped Michigan State and had no business losing to Michigan and forgot how to play after a bye week and manage the clock against USC, we should...

Okay, so maybe we shouldn't be ranked, but in my head it feels like we should be ranked. Why AREN'T we ranked? Why didn't we win those two games at the beginning of the season? Why did we appear lackluster against Pittsburgh and Wake Forest? Why did we come out flat against USC? And why for the love of all that is baby-faced and gold-plated does Tommy Rees keep throwing interceptions???????

I've got a head full of questions and a pocket full of ellipses. And no answers.

I guess I could go with "42" as an answer, but that doesn't help very much because I don't know the question, so I'm just going to do my usual thing and waffle for a bit like I know what's going on.


This game is hard to write about because it was so...meh. It doesn't inspire a lot of vim and fervor, thinking how you only won by a touchdown even though your opponent didn't score for the entire second half. Granted, Wake was up at halftime 17-10; there's no point complaining about a win; and it would just be wrong to undermine the stellar defensive effort in the second half--yada yada yada. Coach Kelly described this win as "Tough. Gritty." The kind of play we haven't really seen from this team before. And granted, I suppose it was. It's just as important--if not more important--for teams to win those tough, gritty games as it is for them to win high-flying, high-scoring spectacles. Win when it's a showdown. Win when it's an ugly mess. Win when everything goes down to the wire. Just find a way to win. And good teams do--period.

But good teams also do a lot of other things, such as play consistently, and anytime you've got a pair of touchdowns bookended by interceptions, you're not exactly playing your way to the top of the heap. I have to keep reminding myself not to get all bent out of shape about these things, though, because hey--at least we won. Games like this aren't going to make you leap out of your chair and jump for joy, but we won. It's nothing to sneeze at.

I would imagine that wins like this are more valuable for the team than they are for the fans. Of course we'd always like to see things flashy and exciting, but the season is long, and for the players, most of what they do to win isn't flashy or exciting at all. Like Coach Kelly's always saying: they try to go to work the same way every day. And yeah, Saturday should be different--Saturday's GAME DAY!--Saturday should be fun; but sometimes it's a slog-fest. Sometimes it's just gritty. And you have to know that even in November--even on the road at night--even when you're coming from behind, playing with two of your starting defensive linemen down and turning the ball over twice--that you can tough it out.

You don't always have to be dynamite with a laser beam. Sometimes you just have to be that brick wall your opponent can't quite knock down.

Third Eye Blind

However, since our general trajectory seems to be trending upward (even as our hopes and expectations for the season keep sliding down), games like this make people antsy. Forward-thinking eyes are flashing too far ahead to next season, wondering--Will Tommy keep the starting job? I personally would argue yes.

Based on the stats of both Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen, I think there's a quantum leap between sophomore and junior year. Mostly I think it's a mental leap--something to do with confidence, comfort level, ability to read the defense. Plus there's that intangible shift from being an underclassman to an upperclassman; really bumps up your ethos and your ability to lead.

I make no predictions, of course, because everything I try to predict anything regarding quarterbacks I'm horribly wrong. However, Brian Kelly has alluded more than once to Tommy's need for improvement. I fear that if Tommy's plate isn't free of turnovers by the end of the season, he may have to start looking over his shoulder for Andrew Hendrix (who will probably be busy running wind sprints up and down the field).

Keep in mind, though, that Tommy still has less experience as a starter than either Brady or Jimmy had at this point in their careers. He's fourteen games in as a starter, if you include the bowl game last year and South Florida this year--that's a little more than one seasons' worth of actual game-time decision making. I'm sure BK would like a signalcaller with better ball control and perhaps a little more flair on the ground (which may or may not be crucial, depending on the size of the gap left by Jonas Gray), but I don't think a sophomore-year Andrew Hendrix is likely to be less turnover-prone than a junior-year Tommy Rees. Although I guess you never know.

Killer Queen

Speaking of dynamite with a laser beam (like six paragraphs ago), how about that second-half defense? On Wake Forest's first two possessions in the third quarter, they ran six offensive plays for six yards. Five of those yards came on their second possession.

Not bad for a D-line with two starters down.

The D was on its heels a little bit in the first half; we gave up points early and didn't get any real pressure on the quarterback. But the halftime adjustments were good, as they've been for most of this season, and our players performed much better as a unit in the second half. In fact, the first defensive play of the third quarter resulted in a sack by freshman Aaron Lynch for -6 yards, which helps explain Wake's abysmal yardage total on the first series). Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo also recorded sacks, both in the fourth quarter; Harrison Smith forced a fumble in the third (which unfortunately the offense was unable to capitalize on); and Wake didn't get another scoring chance until the very last drive of the game, when they missed a 42-yard FG.

The game could have very easily gotten away from us, but thanks to the defense, it was not so. See? Tough. Gritty. We have things to be grateful for.

Hootie & the Blowfish

(The above moniker obviously referring to BK and all the beloved reporters at his press conferences. ...Obviously.)

Another thing to keep in mind is something we fans like to cite to ourselves quite often, but then conveniently forget when we have a lackluster game against a team like Wake Forest:

I think we saw last week you've got to really play well when you go on the road. Teams are going to play their very best. Maryland will play their very best against us, as has every team we've gone against; they've played their absolute best game of the year. Maybe you don't get that, but I get that from the coaches after the game.

So maybe Wake Forest is traditionally a Temple-caliber team when it comes to football--but, like Temple, they've become shockingly good in recent years (keeping in mind that Temple seems to be on the downward slope a bit since their head coach got hired away by Miami). They had the same record as ND coming into this game; they beat Florida State; and as we saw they have some quite talented players, particularly on offense. (No interceptions, you may have noticed.)

And although I think it is likely we will kick the patooey out of a 2-7 Maryland team (they've beaten Towson and Miami in their season opener if you can believe it), I like coach's comments on the matchup this week:

Again, we're going to be confronted with a similar situation. Everybody looks at Maryland's record and asks about them. I can tell you this from watching film and studying them offensively: They can put some points on the board. [...] It's the first year for Randy Edsall. I know Randy Edsall. He's a darn good football coach, and he'll have the memories of coming in here and beating Notre Dame and playing physical. That's what his teams will do.

So we have to be prepared and worry about ourselves.

(In case you were wondering, that win Randy Edsall has against Notre Dame--that would be the Senior Day game vs. UConn.)

I like this quote because A) BK is not overlooking a 2-7 Maryland team even though they are a 2-7 Maryland team, and B) he's not gonna let his players come out flat against a friggin' 2-7 Maryland team.

My biggest beef with college teams--most especially when they are good and appear to be having stellar seasons--is that they will completely overlook opponents they don't consider real threats. I don't want to point any fingers or anything, but Ohio State does this ALL THE TIME. In fact Ohio State might be the worst. Or maybe Michigan. Michigan vs. Appalachian State sounds like a reasonable example.

Anyway, point is, you shouldn't overlook any opponent ever, because A) that's disrespectful, B) that shows lack of discipline, and C) that team will probably play their best game of the season against you and your lack of focus might come back to bite you in the ass, and if it does then you completely deserve it, you great overgrown wafflehead--get your mind in the game, why don't you?

The Fray

So, brief player/injury update before I quit my somewhat colorless commentary for the week--

Center Braxston Cave is out for the season, so he'll be replaced by Mike Golic, Jr. for the rest of the season, and Andrew Nuss will move into the #2 spot at center.

WR Theo Riddick is out for the week with a hamstring injury, but he should be back for the last two games (or the Stanford game, if nothing else). Robby Toma will move up into the starting spot, and rotate out of the X position with TJ Jones and John Goodman.

Ethan Johnson's back on D-line! This'll take some of the pressure off the freshmen on D-line and most likely we'll come out looking much sharper against the Terps than we did against the Demon Deacons. (Seriously, who picked a turtle for a mascot?) Although one would hope we'd look sharper against Maryland anyway.

Manti Te'o and Aaron Lynch are both still dealing with ankle injuries, but both are cleared to play.

Also, just in cased you missed it, senior captain Harrison Smith's been invited to the Senior Bowl. Hell yes. He deserves it.

Let's go knock the shells off some diamond-backed turtles, shall we? And wear some severely shamrock-studded uniforms while we're at it. (For the record, the players seem to like the rad new uniforms, so as long as it doesn't distract them from their playing--whatever. Although it totally kills me that they spent over a year trying to get the color of the helmets right and now they're wearing these tacky-looking shamrock things.... Oh well. It's just for one week.)


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