Notre Dame 45, Maryland 21
So if you're anything like me, you pounced on the discount Halloween candy during the first week of November, and now you have a little stash tucked away somewhere that you've been enjoying--even though you had more than enough candy leading up to Halloween and you're perfectly well aware that Thanksgiving's just around the corner.
That's kind of what the end of this season feels like to me: leftover Halloween candy. It still tastes good, and you still love it (because hey, it's candy, right?), but you know the holiday's over. And probably you should wait til next year to eat more of those pumpkin-shaped Reese's, because they'll taste even sweeter if you do; but hey, as long as they're here, might as well enjoy them, right?
So maybe the USC game smashed any hopes of a BCS Bowl. But we're still winning, and that's sweet. We're still going to a bowl, and that's sweet too.
Plus, we're now officially RANKED again in the AP (#24) and USA Today (#25) polls. Looks like being favored in every game so far this season is finally starting to pull some leverage, despite the unfortunate mishaps that leave our record at 7-3. I severely doubt that even with a win over Stanford we'll be able to crack the Top 14 (particularly since the BCS poll hasn't yet deigned to acknowledge our presence among the ranked), but I'd still love to see our boys pull out a whomping pumpkin pie of a victory over Thanksgiving weekend (as opposed to, say, a bunch of cherry turnovers).
Before we get to the awesome stuff, however, let's just take a minute to ponder a few of the troublesome items that may rear their flaky little heads in Palo Alto.
Give me a break, giiiiive me a break, break me off a piece of that....
Oh, O-line. WHAT are you doing to me?
Let's assume it was dry blend of factors: two cups missing Braxston Cave, one cup throwing the ball 38 times, three tablespoons Mike Golic's inexperience, one teaspoon missed RB blocks, and a dash of defensive chutzpah. Sift it all together, and suddenly you've got enough for three sacks.
Not my favorite mixture, especially since I'm not convinced that the allspice of Maryland's defense is exactly the strongest flavor in the world. And if we're giving up three sacks against the bland ol' Terps, we'd better steel ourselves for the comparatively curry-spiced BC defense--particularly one with the giant zest of Luke Kuechly at linebacker. Kuechly's even been compared to the human habanero himself, Manti Te'o. I realize BC's 3-7 and all, but if we're giving up sacks against Maryland, we'd better be a tad bit concerned over BC.
Overall, the offense played quite well, but part of me wonders if the extra-fast tempo we saw on Saturday was as much of an effort to amp up our game as it was to disguise some of the extra-large gaps in our offensive colander, as it were, caused by the personnel changes. Braxston Cave is out for the season, so hopefully another week with Golic at center will give the O-line a chance to knead together a little better, and rise evenly and effectively come game time against BC. Perhaps the three-sack warning is the push they need to improve before the end of the season. Let's hope so.
Also, as long as we're in nit-picking mode, I'm going to whine for a second about how we gave up another rushing touchdown. What's with that? We have the third-best stats against rushing touchdowns in the FBS (right behind LSU and TCU)--and we surrender one on the ground to the Terps? USC is one thing, but Maryland? Really? It's like a tray of cinnamon buns that are all burnt on the bottom. Still gooey and warm and delicious and satisfying--but when you've peeled all the way through the top layers, there's still this burnt little canker sticking to the bottom of the pan. It's not perfect. You've got to scrape off the bottom, clean the pan and try again.
And I guess that's the way it always is, with football. I'm not sure there's such a thing as a perfect game. But if we can at least get the tray to bake so no smoke billows out of the oven and no excessive charred parts are left at the bottom, I'll be satisfied. And I think we're getting there. Certainly things are much improved from a couple seasons ago, when in nearly every game you felt the urge to throw out half the tray because they got burnt on more than just the bottom. Certainly not the kind of thing you want to lay out and serve to your guests on Game Day.
I'm just sayin'.
So let's talk about all the tasty little candy-coated tidbits that went down on offense--which shouldn't be hard to do, because there were a lot of them, despite the sacks. The up-tempo offense served us well, particularly early in the game; our first two scoring drives were completed in 2:35 or less.
The run game went as smooth as creamy peanut butter, with both Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood eclipsing the century mark in all-purpose yards for the first time all season (I believe). (Gray officially had 138 net yards rushing, and Wood was just one yard shy of 100). Not that I expected to see anything less, but I'm glad the commitment to the run game has returned. As long as we keep this identity all the way through the end of the season, I'll be happy. No more abandoning the run like we did against USC. We seemed to stay steady against Wake Forest, even when we were down early, and it paid off. Let's hope we'll be stalwart against Stanford, too, if it comes down to it.
Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, and Robby Toma were the Three Musketeers of the pass game, with 9, 8, and 7 catches respectively, racking up individual totals of 90, 83, and 73 yards--including a touchdown apiece for Floyd and Eifert.
There were moments I thought Floyd looked like the Michael Floyd of olde--but it's possible he's spent too much time focusing on his blocking or just straight-up being double-teamed this season, because there were at least two occasions during the game when Rees found him, on what looked like a good throw, and he miffed the catch. Very un-Floyd like. Even the announcers said so, and normally they're too busy poring over their random bits of human interest trivia to be overly concerned with what's going on in the actual game. But Floyd's the kind of nougat so smooth everyone takes notice, so it's not overly surprising they'd have him on their radar.
More surprising is one announcer's personal fan club for Robby Toma, who up until this point hasn't gotten much playing time. But in the couple games he's made it onto the field this season (which will continue, as Riddick's out til next year), he's made a real impact. Teams tend to overlook him early due to his bite-size appearance, but after this game I think it would be unwise for defenses to spend too much time on king-sized Floyd at the expense of covering Toma. He may look like a little fun-sized bar, but he's got a whole party bag's worth of energy, and Coach Kelly acknowledged his effort and his leadership by asking him to lead the fight song in the locker room after the game. I'd look out for some nice grabs by the junior receiver on Saturday.
Also, can I just say that Tyler Eifert is basically a whole crunchity Heath bar of goodness (and if you don't think this is a compliment than you have no idea how much I enjoy toffee), and I look forward to another season of him abusing teams over the middle. We've had at least four pro-caliber, All-American tight ends in a row now (Fasano, Carlson, Rudolph, Eifert). Can we please continue this trend forever and ever until the end of time? Lifetime supply of Heath Bars. Let's go.
Lastly, let us commend Tommy Rees for his smooth, sugary, ruffled-around-the-edges-but-always-smooth-on-the-inside peanut-buttery-cup goodness. Despite the three sacks and the two inexplicable drops by Floyd, he still went 30-for-38 passing with 2 TD's and nearly 300 yards. That's a 78.9% completion percentage. And the best part of all--NO INTERCEPTIONS. Maryland's defense is not exactly the creme de la creme of the FBS, of course--but neither is Wake Forest's or Navy's, and I'm pretty sure he threw interceptions against both of them. So. Improvement?
Let's hope so, because I'm really tired of this wishy-washy, namby-pamby, back-and-forth inconsistent nonsense of having turnovers for three games and then no turnovers for two games and then inexplicable turnovers for three more games... All I'm saying is Rees better achieve consistency, or he's gonna get tossed like a sauce that won't set right. And I don't want that to happen. I'd much rather watch him stick around for a while and see the pot thicken.
*Despite giving up our first sack in 5 games and 195 passing attempts, the offense accumulated 508 yards of offense during the advent of our 5th night game of the season, giving us our 5th 500-yard mark of the year for the first time since 2005.
*David Ruffer completed a spectacular 52-yard field goal, making him only the second player in Irish history with three field goals of 50 yards or more (the first was Harry Oliver). After missing three field goals at the start of the season, Ruffer has now kicked 5 in a row dating back to the Purdue game.
*Tyler Eifert's TD catch was his 5th of the season, hauled in at the 5:31 mark of the fourth quarter to give the Irish a 45-14 lead. Eifert now has 51 catches for 589 yards on the year. He holds 5th place in the Notre Dame record books for both total tight end receptions (78) and yards (941).
*With his TD toss to Eifert, Rees tied himself for 5th in the ND record books for most touchdown passes in a single season (he currently has 19--along with Ron Powlus).
*Lo Wood iced the offense's layer of 5 touchdowns with a TD grab of his own, intercepting the ball and running it back 57 yards for the first pick-six by the Irish since their game against Army in Yankee Stadium last year.
Hungry? Grab a Snickers
Right, so normally at this point I'd spew some lovely defensive statistics at you. And I'm still going to, only the defensive statistics aren't quite what they've been for most of the season. No double-digit tackles for anyone; no man-beast that is Manti Te'o, since he was out for most of the second half (though he should be in good shape for this week, we hear); no sacks; not even very many tackles for loss. In fact, if you look at Maryland's defensive stats, straight-up, they look quite a bit zippier: three sacks, nine tackles for loss, FOUR different players with twelve tackles or more.
But these stats are but tiny peanuts stuck in with the caramely, nougaty, chocolate-coated game as a whole. The reason Maryland made so many more tackles is because Notre Dame was a much bigger threat on offense. We held the ball on offense ten minutes longer than the Terps, accumulated ten more first downs, scored three more times, and ran the score up enough to rotate twenty-five different defensive players into the game.
I like having lots of fun stats to pore over on defense, but I think I could get to liking this even more. This having-an-offense-so-productive-the-defense-doesn't-have-to-put-up-flashy-stats thing. Because stats can be misleading, as we well know. You can rack up over five hundred yards of offense and still lose the game. Sometimes it's only a handful of stats that are significant. Like the fact that we made 10 of 16 third down conversions, and Maryland only got 3 of 12. That's a huge defensive statistic right there. And maybe we didn't get any sacks or tackles for loss; but we did have one forced fumble and a huge pick-six, and I'll take a possession change over loss of yards any day.
Whatever's going on with our team these days, I'm hungry for more.
So let us look upward and outward, and ruminate over what sugary goodness may foretold in the movements of the stars. Or at least in the subtle hints of Coach Kelly's press conference comments.
The most important thing I thought Coach Kelly said this week was during his post-game speech in the locker room (he may have made these comments in his post-game presser, too, but I didn't get a chance to watch all of that this week): "Don't change anything about the way you prepare," he told the players. Hell yes, I say. He's right.
Basically, caoch is warning them against getting lazy or sloppy just because the team's started to win on a consistent basis. (You know, just like I ranted about last week, about how teams like Ohio State tend to overlook their opponents just because they're 3-7.) You can't ease up on your preparation once you've found a way to win. It's because you prepare that you're able to win at all. So you have to be consistent with your approach. You have to keep doing exactly what you're doing.
aka DON'T SLACK OFF because that's how good teams end up losing to mediocre ones, and you don't want that to happen at the end of this season, especially not when you've worked so hard to get where you are, and furthermore YOU DO NOT WANT TO LOSE ON SENIOR DAY TO BOSTON COLLEGE. Trust me. You just don't.
I don't think the upperclassmen are going to need any prodding to know how important it is to win on Senior Day. Harrison Smith, for example, will most certainly remember the freezing agony of Syracuse '08. Manti Te'o has already commented on how awful it felt not being able to send the seniors out with a win for UConn '09. The sophomores can just carry over the jubilation from toppling 14th-ranked Utah last year, and the whole team can happily boot BC out of the stadium and pave their way to Palo Alto with some vim.
As Coach Kelly put it, when asked if there was a message he'd like to leave the seniors: "Win. You'll remember this a whole lot better if you win."
Let us go forth and do so. (And don't forget to brush the bits of caramel and nougat off your teeth before you hit the stadium.)
GO IRISH BEAT EAGLES!