Saturday, December 8, 2012

Heisman 2012: There is No Such Thing as Objectivity

Everything about the Heisman this year is frustrating.  Never mind that I come pre-programmed with an unremitting bias toward all things Irish. This isn't about whether Manti Te'o wins; Te'o has already won pretty much every other award there is, and not a single one of them will mean as much as bringing home the crystal trophy Notre Dame plays for on January 7th.

No, this is about the media pundits (and a large number of Heisman voters) simultaneously deciding to throw a rave in the back of Johnny Manziel's bandwagon on or about the night of November 10th--and somehow convincing the rest of the country that this is a perfectly acceptable thing to do in the wake of a freshman quarterback's statistics.

No freshman has ever won the Heisman. And no freshman ever should.

I will stand by this more stubbornly than a donkey in a tar pit, because I do not believe that the Heisman is an award that should be won or lost over the course of a single season. (Most of my thoughts on that are summed up right here.) If defenses can't keep Manziel contained next season, then either A) all of the defensive coordinators in the SEC have forgotten how to do their jobs, or B) yes, he's really that good. Give him the award then.

Although considering the way the Heisman voters have been treating the injured Collin Klein, there is always only ever this season in college football.

However, today's rant was specifically inspired by Pat Forde over at Yahoo! Sports, who devised his own system for trying to compare apples and oranges, in an effort to be more fair & balanced in his Heisman choice.

But I think he still cast the wrong vote for the Heisman, and here's why: numbers don't make you objective.

I understand the impulse to try to be fair. You can't vote someone the Most Outstanding Player In College Football just because he's been the subject of a few human interest pieces that tugged at your heartstrings. But even coming up with your own method of trying to compare apples and oranges doesn't do you justice unless you're willing to compare all of the numbers. Like, for example, Collin Klein's.

Forde tried to estimate just how many of the Aggie's touchdowns Manziel was personally responsible for, versus the number of Notre Dame's turnovers Manti Te'o was personally responsible for. I don't really buy that these stats are comparable, since the goal of the offense is to score points, whereas the goal of the defense is to stop the offense from scoring. Forcing a turnover is only one way to do this. However, in keeping with Forde's line of reasoning:

So Manziel's percentage of the Aggie's TD's this season was .597? Collin Klein's was .661. The Aggies scored far more touchdowns than the Wildcats this season, so to get a better sample size, I'll add in Klein's numbers from last season, too. In 2011, Klein was personally responsible for 40 out of 46 touchdowns scored by the Wildcats. That's .869. Over the course of 115 touchdowns, Optimus Klein scored 80. That's an average of .695 overall.

I've heard some arguments to the effect of, "Oh, but K-State doesn't play anybody." Except that Kansas State beat five ranked opponents this season. Also, I'd argue that K-State doesn't play with anybody, either. They have to recruit in the same stomping grounds as Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, and they're flanked to the east by the SEC. Klein was recruited out of Loveland, Colorado, and played his first season at State at wide receiver-- a year the Wildcats went 6-6. The next year they went 7-6. In 2011, after Klein was finally a starter for the whole season, they went 10-2. This year? 11-1. When was the last time the Wildcats were this good?

So really, if we're going by numbers alone, I think maybe Forde's vote should have gone to Collin Klein. Klein doesn't have as many passing yards as Manziel, but he has more wins, more TD's, and a higher single-season quarterback rating.

Moreover, I'm not convinced Johnny Football's prominence in this year's Heisman race has a darn-tootin' thing to do with how good his numbers are. Manziel's numbers were plenty good before the Aggies played Alabama. Maybe I just don't watch enough ESPN, but as far as I could tell, Manziel was barely a blip on the Heisman radar before the Crimson Tide went down. Afterward, he was everywhere.

I can't help thinking that Manziel's late-season surge has less to do with his football prowess than it does with with the nation's unwavering conviction that the SEC is indomitable, and that anyone who can come in and wreak havoc with the defending champs must be One Of The Best Of All Time.

A&M had already lost to two top-ranked SEC teams by the time they played the Alabama. While two close losses can't cancel out the Aggies' win against the Crimson Tide (or vice versa, in my opinion), I have to wonder: if Johnny Football plays Alabama the week before the LSU game instead of the week after, does Texas A&M still win? Maybe not. Hypotheticals are no reason to rob the kid of a vote, of course, but my point is this: without that 'Bama game, Manziel's not in the Heisman conversation this season.

Objectively speaking, the same holds true for Manti Te'o. As terrible as it seems to say, without his personal tragedy, there's no publicity: no chance to be awed or humbled or moved by who he is as a person, or what he's done for this team. The coach can talk about Manti's intangibles and leadership until he's red in the face, but without the words of Manti himself, it's impossible to understand the depth of his effect on everyone around him.

And without Collin Klein's injury? (Or perhaps that lopsided loss to Baylor?) Yeah, I think maybe he's still the Heisman #1.

It seems like excellence on the field should be all that matters, but honestly I don't think that's what brought the frontrunners to New York this year. It was the extenuating circumstances--the perfect storm of moments that allowed them to step into (or slide just slightly out of) the limelight--that brought them into the media's focus.

So serendipity to you, Heisman candidates. May the most fortuitous man win?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Waiting for the National Championship

Notre Dame 22, USC 13

Things ND fans have been up to this week:
-voting Manti Te'o for Heisman over and over and over (but still not as obsessively as those cheating A&M fans, apparently)
-staring dreamily at the national rankings
-booking every single flight to Miami
-budgeting for championship tickets that may or may not materialize at face value once the lottery results are released
-thinking, "DAMN! Why am I not eligible for the lottery this year?!"
-blowing raspberries at the SEC
-wondering who to contact about making the sign on top of Grace Hall even brighter
-shopping for Christmas gifts in uNDefeated gear
-kicking back and watching the basketball team thwomp Kentucky in a blackout game
-re-watching Manti Teo's five zillion highlight reels, press conferences, and interviews from this season
-wishing it was time for another Trick Shot Monday
-twiddling our thumbs waiting for the results of the SEC title game

Things I have been up to this week:
-Watching my hard drive crash
-Not writing my football rant
-Contemplating various dubious excuses for why I haven't written my football rant

I have come to the conclusion that it is because these words are superfluous. They have always been superfluous, but this week in particular, I feel like there is

Because the Irish? They went out to the Coliseum on Thanksgiving weekend, and they said it all.

This may be an uncouth exaggeration, of course, but pretty much the entire game went like this:

Actually, what's great is how much that' s NOT an exaggeration.

The Irish had to settle for 1 TD and a plethora of field goals (including a 52-yarder--thanksverymuch all you Kyle Brindza haters out there) in 6 trips to the red zone, indicating that the much-improved offense hasn't quite achieved the same NYPD status as the defense (in case you haven't seen the movie Men In Black in about a dozen years, NYPD means I will Knock Your Punkass Down). But whether the Irish were high-scoring or not, the USC defense had no idea what to do with Theo Riddick.

The man is a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys the SEC.

(...or at least whatever defense the SEC throws at us in the title game.)

Theo ran for 148 yards against the Trojans, averaging 7.3 yards per carry, with one 20-yd run, one TD, and 3 additional catches for 33 yards. Southern Cal (often referred to as Running Back U) had 118 rushing yards total.

Why Brian Kelly didn't hand the ball off to Theo Riddick on the goal line (instead of running two straight QB sneaks and a pass) remains a complete, unfathomable mystery to me. Riddick was unstoppable. The Trojans tried to tackle him They looked like they were gonna tackle him. But you can't tackle a man who charges like a bull and whose enter of gravity is somewhere approximately around your ankles. At least not on the first try.

Besides Riddick being a Highlight Reel Unto Himself, we also have to be thankful for Everett Golson  A) playing like an absolute pro champ (for a freshman) -- just like he always does on the road, B) finally getting the ball to Tyler Eifert, and C) not turning the ball over once.

Speaking of everybody's favorite TE, I would just like to pause for a second and say that it's possible Tyler Eifert may be the best tight end that Notre Dame has ever produced. Like...ever. Maybe the hyperbole of the TV commentators is getting to me. Or maybe I just think the man deserves the Mackey Award and will have a kick-ass future in the NFL. He's consistent, he's reliable, he's a helluva blocker--and darn if he doesn't make at least two catches every game in the midst of double coverage. Usually for a first down or a touchdown, because that's just how the man rolls.

Eifert is one of the clear reasons our offense has had success this year. In fact, I'd say all of the seniors are: Eifert, Cave, Golic, Martin, Riddick, Wood, Goodman. With so many underclassmen playing key skill positions, the seniors are not just what's held the offense together; they're what's allowed the offense to grow. That and the phenomenal play of our defense.

Look, even Lane Kiffin thinks so:
Notre Dame showed me they have phenomenal senior leadership.
(Yes, Lane Kiffin said this actual thing.)

He also said something along these lines (but which I cannot quote exactly since I can't find the stupid article where I read this quote in the first place--so if anyone can source it for me, that would be phenomenal): Notre Dame plays very old-school football; that's why they have so many close games. They're extremely tough to play. You have to work to get anything against them, because they're not going to give you anything.

In every close game this season, the defense has provided just enough stops to give the offense a chance to atone for its mistakes. In turn, the offense has put up just enough points for the Irish to hang on and win. As those victories accumulated and confidence grew, you could begin to see the offense and defense feeding off each other. It's now a palpable thing. You can see it in the way the players interact with each other; the way they cheer each other on.

The defense is still the dominant unit, but the offense is now moving of its own volition. The offense is proving to the nation that everything they said at the beginning of the season is true: they've got playmakers at every position. They may not play like they're angling for the highlight reel on every down, but that doesn't matter, because they're not playing for the highlight reel.

They're playing for the National Championship.

The Best

So every SEC blog everywhere will be saying the Irish have no shot at winning the national championship. We can't keep up with The Best Conference In The Country, we don't belong in the same conversation as Alabama, we're not even going to beat out some freshman punk from A&M for the Heisman, blah blah blah blah BLAH.

For some reason, I am not impressed by the argument that we should be scared spitless of the SEC based on reputation alone. Especially not when Notre Dame has beaten as many bowl-eligible teams as 'Bama and Georgia combined. (THAT'S RIGHT CONFEDERATES.)

Basically, I agree with this video:

It's not the beginning of the season anymore. You can't be riding on the coattails of last year. Is the SEC a good conference? Yes. Are 'Bama and Georgia good enough to play for the national championship? Yeah, sure.

But whether you like it or not (no matter what transpires in any of the conference championship games this weekend) only one team in the country is going to remain undefeated. Only one team has the right to enter this national championship game ranked #1.

We are the best team in college football, and nothing South of the Mason-Dixon line can change that.

So for the next 40-odd days, I'm just gonna sit here like the cat that ate the canary.

I shall bask in the warmth of this certainty. I shall walk with unremitting peace in my heart. I shall proclaim, with equanimity, the utter changeless-ness of truth.

This little light of mine?

I'm gonna let it shine.


This team is sixty minutes away from legendary status. Trophy or no trophy, Manti Te'o is already there.

These players are the makers of their own echoes.

But just in case you'd like me to pour a little more hot fudge on the top of your sundae, here are a few thoughts on just how unequivocally badass it is to be perfect this year:

-The Irish have achieved 12-0 perfection in 2012, and they are headed to Miami two play for their 12th championship title for the first time in 24 years, with the help of Stephon Tuitt's 12 sacks. (And keep in mind: if the world decides to end on December 24th, the Irish will go out as the #1 team at the time of the Rapture, and you just can't beat that.)

-Manti Te'o is a finalist for 8 major college football awards:
Maxwell - college Player of the Year
Bednarik - college Defensive Player of the Year
Bronko Nagurski - best defensive player
Lombardi - best lineman or linebacker
Butkus - best linebacker
Lott Trophy - Defensive IMPACT Player of the Year (IMPACT = Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community, Tenacity)
Senior CLASS Award - outstanding senior student-athlete
Heisman Trophy -  most outstanding player in college football
If Manti wins the Heisman, he will be the 8th player in Notre Dame history to do so. (Also please note that Manti officially has 7 interceptions on the season--more than any other linebacker in the FBS. 7 interceptions = 7 former Heisman Trophy winners. Fortuitous, yes?)

-If Brian Kelly's squad wins the national championship this season, Kelly will become the fifth Irish coach to win a championship in his third year (alongside Leahy, Parseghian, Devine, and Holtz), with (of course) a team led by #5 on both offense and defense.

-For the first time ever, a school has been ranked #1 in both the football polls and in student-athlete graduation rates.

On Being #1

That last stat is by far my favorite. For years, people claimed that Notre Dame would never again be able to field a national-championship caliber team because its academic standards were too high.

This is preposterous, and now everyone knows it.

Take it from the Tuesday Morning Quarterback post on ESPN this week:

Big football programs with good graduation numbers don't get their results out of the sky. They set higher internal academics standards than the NCAA or their conferences require, and let recruits know, from the start, that they mean business about the classroom.

The very first stop for potential recruits on official visits to Virginia Tech, for example, is an hour with an academic counselor. That happens before the young man meets any coach, or sees the stadium and its NFL-caliber facilities.

Set the bar high, and athletes will respond -- because they are competitive by nature. Make excuses, and the graduation rate will be low.

This last sentence, to me, is the absolute key.

Pretty much every college student I know has, at one point or another, sat down and calculated just how poorly they can do on a given test or exam in order to get the grade they want in the class. People, in general, will figure out how to put the minimum effort to achieve a desired result.

Not every school needs to set the bar as high as, say, Stanford--but there's no reason every school can't at least maintain the academic standards required for admission. Universities are not free tickets to the NFL. The NCAA's emphasis on student-athlete is not just some nerdy propaganda campaign. Most college athletes--even on elite, championship-winning teams--won't even make it to the pros. In the long run, it doesn't behoove these athletes at all for schools to pay for an education that they aren't receiving.

I realize this is all very broad-sweeping and somewhat accusatory. Many, many student-athletes take full advantage of the academic opportunities that are opened to them by a full-ride athletics scholarship. And yes--it's true that you can go back to school any time and finish your degree.

But it is a sad truth that too many of the "elite" programs in college football structure their academics so that athletes don't have to suffer the same rigors as their fellow students. And it isn't necessary.

Beginning roughly 20 years ago, about the same time big money started flowing into college football, many football-factory universities have lowered their internal standards. This can even be a recruiting tool: "Don't go to Notre Dame, they will make you study, come here and party, party, party." Having achieved its double first, Notre Dame would do collegiate athletics a favor by disclosing its internal standards for athletes. That would help set a good example.

Well, I'll tell you one thing: the internal standards for Notre Dame's student-athletes aren't a secret. Because they're exactly the same as the standards for all the other students.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that being offered a Notre Dame football scholarship doesn't slightly boost your chances of making it through the admissions department unscathed. But I will say that once you're in, you're expected to take the same core liberal-arts curriculum as every other student on campus. This is everyone's favorite fast fact: "Yep, that's right--our athletes take calculus."

But the reason Notre Dame's graduation rates are so high isn't because they recruit strong students, slap the academic handbook on their desks, and let them have at it. Notre Dame's students succeed because of the extraordinary support structure the university has created for them. There is an entire department dedicated to academic services for student-athletes. This includes not only study hall and tutoring, but academic advising so they can chart their schedules and make sure they're on-track to graduate in four (or three-and-a-half) years. Many athletes are encouraged (or required) to take classes during summer session, so they can take fewer credit hours when their sport is in-season.

Any school invested in the success of its students (and student-athletes) is going to have similar structures in place. And any school that has sacrificed the free-flowing fount of knowledge for a dysfunctional Gatorade dispenser of gridiron glory surely has enough revenue stashed away to atone for its academic sins.

If you're investing millions of dollars in athletic complexes and athletic scholarships, surely you can afford to invest a little more in your students as well.

I am just saying.

"When Manti Te'o wins the Heisman, he won't have to give it back."
-College GameDay sign

So in case you somehow missed it, College GameDay trekked out to L.A. for its 3rd Notre Dame game of the season. Lee Corso picked the Irish to win (again), making the Man With the Crazy Headgear 20-0 all time in games involving the Trojans. The best GameDay signs I saw (all thanks to Twitter) included the above, as well as these three:

Following the game, "Superfan" Kapron Lewis-Moore made my night with the following blast at Rick Reilly:
Rick Reilly ‏@ReillyRick
No way Notre Dame beats USC tonight. If I'm wrong, I'll come to South Bend + polish every freaking helmet. I can't be wrong ALL year, can I?

Kapron Lewis-Moore ‏@KLM_89

Kapron Lewis-Moore ‏@KLM_89
@ReillyRick I know you see ND nation tweets!!! I will even take you out for a burger afterward or something!!!

And yes, in case you missed it: Reilly actually came to campus and laid his hands on a few of the helmets. Never mind that after all the bull he's slung about the Irish this season he doesn't deserve to be within ten miles of those helmets.

I wonder what good ol' attention-hoggin' Rick will pull out for the National Championship. Seriously, if the Irish win, somebody needs to go all Hermione Granger on his ass. That's right, Rick Reilly: you are the Rita Skeeter of the college football universe. Hand over your Quick-Quotes Quill. If you write one more word about the Irish, I will reveal to everyone that--that--that your brains have been eaten by the zombie version of Bo Schembecler!

We will not tolerate your tomfoolery any longer.

ND Nation

Seriously, About that Heisman Though

So guys. I have decided that if Johnny Manziel wins the Heisman this year, I'm basically going to give up on it and never worry about it again. I'm not saying that Manti Te'o absolutely must win or there is no justice in the universe. I'm just saying I agree with Coach Kelly:

If a guy like Manti Te'o can't with the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award.

That's what it is anyway, isn't it?

But you can't un-brand a brand name. It's always going to be the Heisman Trophy, even if the only players the Heisman committee gives it to for the next 70 years are quarterbacks. (So, basically, exactly like the last 70 years.) And if, for example, they decide to give the award to someone like Manti Te'o, the award could, perhaps, become more than it is. It could become what it's supposed to be: the award for the most outstanding player in college football.

Look, I'm not saying Johnny Manziel isn't a good quarterback. He beat Alabama, he has outrageous numbers, etc etc etc. But give him Player-of-the-Year or something. Don't give away the most prestigious award in college football to a freshman like he's earned it after a one-and-done. If Manziel's any good at football, he'll be pretty friggin' good next year, too. Just keep your pants on.

The Heisman committee's unremitting obsession with quarterbacks is starting to irritate me. I understand how important quarterbacks are to the success of the team. I appreciate how much friggin' fun it is to watch a kick-ass quarterback play the game. And I don't necessarily have a problem with, say, Peyton Manning winning the league MVP award over and over and over.

However, if you're looking for a player who can galvanize his teammates, engineer a game-winning stop, guarantee a momentum shift every time he gets his hands on the ball, and help lift his entire program to championship-caliber football.... Then yeah. You're looking for Manti Te'o.


Offense come and they wanna go home:

Although hey, I will say this--it's not like the Heisman Trophy is the most important thing in the world. I agree with Te'o himself: playing with his teammates, playing for his school, playing for the championship all mean more. A trophy's just a trophy. Mant Te'o has left an indelible mark on this program that's worth a million bronze statues.

He may have even supplanted Brady Quinn as my Favorite Player Ever.
(Although srsly, Brady Quinn's still got the best biceps of any quarterback I've ever seen).


We're going to Miami. (Bienvenido a Miami.)

Even if I don't get tickets in the lottery (even if I can't can't afford to fly and forgo the mad idea of hitchhiking all the way to Miami and stay home like a sane person to watch the game), it doesn't matter. The Irish are playing for the national championship, and I will still be able to watch every helmet-smashing, turf-tearing, goal-line-stopping second of it.

So even if we are the disparate thousands--even if we cannot be united in the stadium by rabid, joyous loyalty and a mutual love of credit card debt--let us cheer on the Irish like they can hear the echo of our voices from a zillion miles away.

Let's go, boys. Bring home that crystal ball.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Ineffable Consequences of Joy

THE IRISH ARE NUMBER ONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There are not enough exclamation points in the universe to signify the cacophony of bliss going on inside my head.

Thanks to a trio of spectacular, irrefutable, stunningly victorious performances from the Fighting Irish, the Stanford Cardinal, and the Baylor Bears, Notre Dame is officially the only undefeated (bowl eligible) team left in the country, and the current undisputed AP number one.

The sign on top of Grace Hall has been lit.

For the first time since 1989, the Irish are 11-0.

For the first time since 1993, the Irish are second to no one.

This Week's Edition of Notre Dame Football Is Brought to You By the Number One

1 - current rank of Irish scoring defense (tied with 'Bama)
1 - current rank of Tyler Eifert for career receptions among Irish tight ends
11 - number of sacks made by Stephon Tuitt so far this season
1 - number of first-place votes the Irish received last week in the coaches' poll
1 - number of touchdowns allowed by the Irish in the last ten quarters of football
1 - number of shutouts posted by the Irish this season
1 - number of drives Wake Forest started past their own 30-yard line
1 - number of Irish coaches with more wins than Brian Kelly in their first three years (Dan Devine, with 28 - Kelly currently has 27)
1 - number of first-place votes Georgia received in the coaches' poll this week
1 - number of losses 'Bama needs to maintain if they want to make it to the national championship
1 - number of times Notre Dame needs to beat USC to make it to their first championship game in 24 years

"I can't imagine anybody, from what I saw today, playing any better than Notre Dame." -Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe

Lo, I say unto you: listen not to The Noise, wheresoever it may come. Let it slide as a dead weight from your shoulders. Shuffle it like the mortal-est of coils, so that your spirit may be lighter than air. Heed not the words of doubt that lie in wait, as shadows wait for the fall of the midday sun.

We could run the table, win out, beat Alabama in the national championship, take home the crystal trophy, win a Heisman for Manti, and THERE WILL STILL BE PEOPLE who say we "just got lucky" in the Pitt game.

Haters there always have been, and haters there always will be. We must bask so boisterously in the glory of our own joy that we cannot hear a single noise outside of it.

In other words: In this life, we ain't gotta prove nothin' to nobody, 'cept ourselves.

And hot damn--I don't think I need no more proof than this.


Last night, I felt as though I could fly into a million tiny little pieces. Some of them wanted to (for example) seek out Rick Reilly and whap him across the face with a gigantic inflatable monogram ND (do they sell such a thing? They should).

But most of them wanted to fly around the slick furor surrounding Stonehenge, or inhabit the indescribable sweat-drenched glory of the Backer, or become personally responsible for illuminating all the filaments inside the bulbs atop Grace Hall before dissolving into a state of pure, football-fueled delirium.

Instead, I happened to be standing in the midst of a prayer circle (of course), clasping hands with a group of newly-met acquaintances (why not?), singing along to songs I was only pretending to know the words of (naturally), when a friend came over and held up her smartphone proclaiming the score of the Baylor-Kansas State game. I think my eyes fell out of my head for a second.


On the way home, I caught the last few seconds of the Oregon-Stanford game on the radio.

For a while there, I was pretty sure I wasn't inhabiting reality at all.

I think joy is almost like a state of shock. It is both impossible to contain and impossible to endure alone, and it requires rounds of reassurance and confirmation (and whooping and hollering and slightly injuring those around you with excessive, hand-numbing high-fives) before you can accept and sufficiently bask in the state of HOLY SH*T GUYS THIS IS REAL THIS IS REAL THIS IS REAL!!!

And then, after many frabjous rounds of "like"ing every Facebook status you can find, you achieve state of zen mastery in which nothing can disturb you or deter you from your goal. Which is, of course, to BEAT SOUTHERN CAL.


Keep Calm...USC Sucks

I have nothing clever or elegant left for USC, because there is nothing clever or elegant to be wasted upon a school that encourages its student managers to cheat by deflating balls and then claims absolutely no knowledge of it.

Fair is fair: maybe you didn't have knowledge of it, USC. Maybe that's so. (Ha.) But really--deflating balls are the least of USC's problems, because their greatest problem is coming to the Coliseum next week to PAY--THEM--BACK.

I may or may not have made it all the way through 24 hours of celebration before I started thinking about how much we need to beat the Trojans. Perhaps the two energies inside my football-addled mind (these being "WE'RE NUMBER ONE" and "BEAT SC") are now coupled together in a frenetic kind of focus.

Which is exactly what the team needs to have this week. FOCUS.

Louis Nix tweeted the following at around midnight last night:
lOUIS NIX III ‏@IrishChocolate9
This means nothing because SC is getting ready for us. Go Irish!!!

Interestingly enough, this tweet was posted approximately two minutes after a friend on campus texted me to let me know Louis Nix was leading cheers in front of Stonehenge.

I'm not entirely sure what this means, but I think I like it.

Trojans Break

Somehow--miraculously--perhaps because the stars have aligned to pave our way to the national championship--I am not worried about how this team is going handle a night game on the road against their biggest rival. They handled the game against Oklahoma like pros. They handled yesterday's game against Wake Forest like champions. They understand exactly what's on the line, with College GameDay coming to town (for the third time this season) and the #1 ranking plastered all over their psyches like a giant moving target.

I'm not saying Southern Cal couldn't take us down. Baylor just beat the #1 team in the BCS, 52-24. This is college football. Anything could happen.

But I don't care.

I don't care that USC just lost to cross-town rival UCLA. I don't care whether Barkley's healthy or injured. I don't care whether everyone on GameDay "jinxes" us by picking us to win. We're not going to let anything happen. We are going to MAKE something happen.


This isn't 2005, or 2006--and it sure as hell ain't 2007. This is the best scoring defense in the country, going up against a team that's lost to every ranked opponent it's faced this season (plus Arizona). It doesn't matter if USC gives us their best performance all season. Yes, I realize they're loaded with top-flight talent. Yes, I realize Barkley's probably out on Saturday. (Although my feelings on THAT subject can pretty much be summed up by the following tweet:
Matt Q. ‏@A5thDown
Don’t you dare believe that little chunk of excrement, Lane Kiffin, until Barkley isn’t playing on Saturday. #BeatSC)

And as we learned from the Weis era (and, obviously, from the movie Miracle), talent doesn't matter if you can't use it inside a system that's designed for the betterment of the team.

That's why the Irish keep winning this season. Not because they have the best quarterback in the country or five Michael Floyds at wide receiver; not because they're the best on paper or because everyone said they were gonna be great at the beginning of the season (HA); they win because they are a team. Because they're not just playing for their school or for trophies or for personal glory--they're playing for each other. They're like a family. All the greatest teams are like families. Ask anyone from just about any championship team ever (or just watch the movie Miracle); it's true.

Former players even bring this up at pep rallies sometimes. Like--for example--when the 1977 national championship team came back to campus for a reunion (I'm pretty sure this was in 2007): they all came to the pep rally, and the speakers from the '77 team went on and on, not about the championship itself, but about how much they loved being around their teammates, and how much they loved playing together as team. And you could tell. You could still see it, in the way the players were interacting with each other. And let me tell you what--it was a stark difference from the way our 2007 squad looked, sitting there at the same pep rally. (Not that this is shocking, considering how the 2007 season went.)

Of course, I do realize that the '77 team was just back for a reunion, had no pressure whatsoever to win a game the next day (or ever again), had already won a championship, decades and decades ago--etc etc etc. But what I'm saying is, the vibe from the '77 team was a lot like the vibe you get at a nice big family reunion where the family actually gets along (if you can picture such a thing). And I don't think the vibe came from them winning a championship together. I think that sort of vibe is something you have to create en route to a championship and that's part of why you win it.

It's like the Anna Karenina principle: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

There are all sorts of complicated derivations of offense and defense and x's and o's, of course, but the underlying principle of teamwork is the same: you've got to be willing to block for the person next to you, or you ain't gonna win beans.

And whatever else Notre Dame may be lacking (according to the plethora of our extremely vocal critics this season), this is one thing we've got, without question. Manti Te'o is the heart and soul of it. And I would take our team--our family--the entire Notre Dame family--against any team in the country, any day of the week.

And if Notre Dame's like a family, then I'd say in comparison, USC's more like a bunch of obnoxious second cousins with a disreputable uncle they have to keep bailing out of jail for excessive misdemeanors.

So bring it, Trojans. Bring it.


"But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep." -Herman Melville, Moby Dick

So my Senior Day was possibly the worst Senior Day of all time. Not that anyone from the class of '09 needs reminding, but we lost to a 2-7 Syracuse team with a lame duck head coach in the freezing cold while the student section pelted snowballs down from the stands. That game has been brought up a lot this season, because that happened to be Manti Te'o's first official visit to the university.

What a sea-change since then.

In 2010, I wrote a football rant as interpreted through the words of Herman Melville (aka Notre Dame Football: Moby Dick Edition), and certain phrases keep popping back into my head. The one above was foremost in my mind as I started mulling over yesterday's nearly-perfect 38-0 win over Wake Forest.

If Senior Day 2008 was the sludgy depths, then Senior Day 2012 must be near the top of the peak. We're not quite to the top of that delight yet, but we're getting close. SO--INCREDIBLY--CLOSE.

"For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this [football program], they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include...all the generations of [All-Americans], and [coaches], and [Heisman winners], past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of [Catholic Disney World], and throughout the whole [college football] universe, not excluding its [non-BCS] suburbs.

It was that accursed [twenty-year championship drought] that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!... I'll chase [it] round [the Big House], and round the [Coliseum], and round the [Orange Bowl], and round perdition's flames before I give [it] up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that [twelfth championship] on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till [it] spouts [blue banners] and rolls [trophies] out.

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy [Irish fans], are visibly personified, and made practically assailable in [that elusive twelfth national championship]. We pile upon the [Golden Dome] the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by [the college football world], from [USC and Backup College and Bo Schembechler on] down....

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering [twelfth national championship]; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."


South Bend Tribune/ROBERT FRANKLIN

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Making A Case Against the Noise

Notre Dame 21, Boston College 6

I may have to start doing what my dad does sometimes during the games: mute the television and turn on the radio.

The last twenty minutes of ABC's broadcast had absolutely nothing to do with what was happening on the field. The only thing the announcers talked about (and this is not an exaggeration) was Alabama's loss to A&M, who was likely to be ranked #1 in Sunday's poll as a result, and how a 12-0 Irish team had almost no chance of making it to the national championship game if both Oregon and K-State won out.

You know, funnily enough, I'm pretty sure I tuned in to watch a FOOTBALL GAME, not the early edition of SportsCenter. If I wanted to hear what the yokels in the studio thought about Notre Dame achieving 10-0 perfection for the first time in several decades, I'd be sure to tune in to ESPN after the game.

So instead of spending half of the fourth quarter spewing a bunch of waffling conjecture about what may or may not happen three weeks from now based on the results of games that haven't even been played yet, d'you think you could--you know--maybe CALL THE GAME?

I realize this is a lot to ask. I mean, after all, what's more fun than making the ND Twittersphere explode by informing the Irish faithful that a 12-0 Notre Dame squad Just Isn't Up To Scratch For The National Championship Game because they don't have enough "style points"?

But come on. You have the next six days to argue over hypotheticals. And most of the time I'd really rather listen to someone who A) is going to discuss what's actually going on in the game, and B) legitimately cares about the team than listen to what the nationally-pandering pundits have to say.

Especially when the national broadcasters keep pissing me off the way they do.

The Case for Offense

In 1966, Notre Dame played a tough, gritty, down-in-the-trenches-all-day-long game against Michigan State, which resulted in a 6-6 tie. They called it the Game of the Century.

In 2011, Alabama lost a tough, gritty, you-ain't-gettin'-in-this-endzone matchup to LSU in the regular season, 9-6. They called it boring.

(And then they pitted Alabama against LSU for a rematch in the national title game, anyway.)

This is one of a bevy of things currently pushing my buttons in the greater college football world. Defense is still acknowledged, still respected, still absolutely crucial to winning games--but in low-scoring matchups, the pundits suddenly lose their conviction and start waxing poetic about teams like Oregon (which can score 60 points per game but apparently can't stop its opponents from scoring 50).

Last week, Yahoo! Sports posted a video discussing "Dream BCS matchups" with columnists Pat Forde and Eddie George (). George was diplomatic enough to call the four then-unbeatens "all worthy of playing in the national title game"; he went with Oregon-'Bama as his dream matchup. Forde went with Alabama-Notre Dame.

Host Larry Biel then stepped in and said, "Pat, do you wanna see a game that's six to three?"

Pat: "I got no problem with 6-3 if they're the two best teams. I saw Oregon give up 42 to LSU last year."

Larry: "I'd rather see 42. I'd rather see some points."

Larry, you just summed up the whole sorry state of college football in ONE SENTENCE.
(And just for the record, the actual score of LSU's season-opening win against Oregon last year was 40-27.)

Points are revered. Staunch defensive efforts are to be rewarded only in key games against highly-ranked opponents.

It's this kind of reasoning that puts Collin Klein, Geno Smith, and (apparently) Johnny Football in the front of the pack for the Heisman race, because QUARTERBACK THROW BALL GOOD TOUCHDOWN is what really matters, right? And never mind that (for example) Manti Te'o is toiling away in obscurity with 30% of the fan vote over at the Nissan Heisman House.

It's the same reasoning that ranked USC as the preseason #1 instead of defending national champion 'Bama: because USC was supposed to have the offense nobody could stop. (And because the pundits have the quixotic tendency to build Heisman winners and national championship frontrunners out of nothing, and then cry when their imaginary windmills burn down.)

And hey, let's face it: for as much as everyone loves to tout 'Bama's defense, the Crimson Tide wouldn't have held such a chokehold on first-place votes all season if their offense hadn't been averaging over thirty points per game.

Now that the Tide have fallen, where do all the votes go? Oregon. Because Oregon's scored more points.

Or maybe it's because the voters are favoring Oregon with a stronger strength-of-schedule (despite KState having faced more ranked teams at this point in the season). Whatever.

But hey: you know what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? The immovable object wins, because in football the unstoppable force is supposed to put some friggin' points on the board. (aka if somebody can stop the Ducks, the Ducks are f*ing screwed.)

So the hype means nothing--and everything.

If the talking heads decide Notre Dame's offense isn't up to snuff for the national title game, then that's that.

Of course, as Coach Kelly so deftly pointed out after last night's victory, "We have to beat Wake Forest, or it all means nothing."

The Case Against Notre Dame

So I realize I haven't talked about last night's game once this entire rant. But just bear with me here, because I really need to get this off my chest.

At some point last night, during Herbstreit and Musberger's extended conversation with revered ESPN analyst Guywhose Nameidon'tremember, the analyst said something to the effect of, "If you had told me in any other era of college football that an undefeated Notre Dame team would not be going to the national championship, I would have called you crazy."

Yeah. I don't know what college football universe you're living in here, guys, but I don't think I want to live in it with you.

It's not that I don't see their reasoning. I mean, Notre Dame doesn't have the kind of offense Oregon has. And we definitely don't have Optimus Klein at quarterback. We're averaging 20 points per game instead of 30. We're the only undefeated team that's had to scrape out two victories in overtime--one of them against a .500 Pitt team was one shanked field goal away from ruining Notre Dame's perfect season.

Really, the problem the voters have with Notre Dame is the same problem my friend Matt has with Kyle Brindza: never mind if the dude's made five game-saving kicks--he hasn't made every single kick. He's missed a few that might have prevented the game from needing to be saved. He hasn't instilled the kind of confidence that suggests he can make every single kick.

This lack of confidence is what the national media is harpooning us with right now: sure you've won all your games, Notre Dame, you just haven't done it convincingly enough. So convince us.

(All right, President Snow. We'll work on that.)

What it boils down to now is style points. "Style points" being the new term for "kicking unremitting ass upon your lesser opponents until you have them beaten by at least a 35-point margin of defeat."

You know, it seems to me like there was a time when this sort of thing was considered rude. Classless. Unsportsmanlike.(Of course, there was also a time when 62-51 would have been a reasonable basketball score.) Nowadays, running up the score on unranked teams is bare minimum if you expect to make it to the national championship game. You can't just beat them. You have to crush them. Prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are the superior team.

It still doesn't seem entirely sportsmanlike. But I'm becoming accustomed to it, because it's what's demanded of the BCS hopefuls. I sort of see the logic: if you're really a championship-caliber team, you should be running some people over. Giving yourself nice cushy margins of victory. Putting in some of your second-stringers and give those starters a rest at the end of the game.

At the heart of it, it's not supposed to be about crushing your opponent's soul. It's about proving that you can play an elite level of football, week in and week out. And there have been too many weeks this season when Notre Dame hasn't looked like they can.

We've wavered. We've stumbled. We've gotten lucky, some might say.

But we're still here, and we haven't stopped fighting.

The Case for Notre Dame

We're gonna get people saying all sort of things. That it's too late for for us to win the margin-of-victory battle. That it's too late to wipe the triple-overtime scar from our skin. That it's too late for us to do anything, in fact, except cross our fingers and hope one of the two teams in front of us decides not to win.

But I don't know, guys. If a one-loss 'Bama team can make it to the national championship game for a rematch against LSU, I see no reason why the BCS can't decide it wants to take ND over, say, K-State for the national title game.

Unless of course everyone on the BCS selection committee is like Larry Biel and wants to watch another basketball game on the gridiron.

The national media has been controlling the perception of football greatness since before the time of Grantland Rice. But screw them. What do they know?

Absolutely nobody (except Lou Holtz) predicted we would still be undefeated at this point in the season.

And yeah, we've won some very tight games. Our resume is not all gloss and sparkles and excessive touchdowns. We've played with flaws. We've played exposed. Our weaknesses are wide open out there, for everyone to see. And therein lies our strength.


It's not just that we've survived. We've overcome.

And I maintain that (no matter how much you think Notre Dame played like a middling Big-10 team against the Eagles yesterday), with the kind of wins we've had to eke out so far this season, we've got more character than a morning full of Looney Tunes.

We can hang with anybody in the country.

All we're fighting for now is another chance to prove it.

The Case for the Game

Okay, this one was a weird one. A 21-6 victory over a 2-7 Backup College team wasn't exactly what we were hoping for in terms of a statement win. We coughed up two turnovers and got burned again and again on screen passes. We even allowed BC to convert a bunch of third downs--despite the Eagles being one of the worst third-down teams in the entire FBS. It didn't seem like a punishing performance by our D, by any stretch of the imagination.

And yet.

We allowed zero touchdowns. We forced two turnovers. BC averaged 2.3 yards per rush and turned the ball over twice on downs. We sacked Chase Rettig four times (three times courtesy of Prince Shembo, who also had a fumble recovery and another tackle for loss). In fact, with Alabama's loss, Notre Dame officially has the #1 scoring defense in the country.

So you see? The statistics are on our side. It just didn't feel like a great win.

Which is sad, because we're 10-0 for the first time since 1993 and HEY THAT'S KIND OF GREAT.

It must be noted that while BC doesn't have the same fervent athleticism or shock-and-awe special teams unit as Pitt, the Eagles pretty much threw everything they could think of at us, and our offense went dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge and kept on truckin'.

The one thing we HAVE to stop doing is turning the ball over. Everett "I only throw picks at home" Golson managed to keep the ball out of our opponent's hands this week--but our running backs didn't. Credit to BC's defense for their fervent and frequent attempts to strip the ball; it paid off against George Atkinson, and again on a fumble of Theo Riddick's. In fact, Riddick has lost the ball a couple times in the last couple games, which is straight-up disappointing (though I will say, whenever Theo makes a mistake, he comes back and plays like 300% harder in an attempt to atone for it. Which is hard to comprehend, since Riddick's so much of a beast to begin with). I mean, it's great that we've protected the ball so well against opponents like Oklahoma, but we cannot afford to turn the ball over on Senior Day. I want all those guys who've busted their butts for four years to get a chance to PLAY.

The Case for the Future

The new BCS poll will be released within the next hour or two (depending on when this gets posted), and with any luck it will negate everything I've just ranted about. After all, Notre Dame has still beaten more top-10 teams than anybody else in the country (not that the human polls care about this anymore--but the computer polls do), and there is a vague outside chance we could leapfrog into the No.2 spot in the BCS (though it does not seem likely, since we are stolidly at the 3rd spot in all the human polls).

However, despite the doom-and-gloom discourse of the ABC commentators last night (and relevant reactions on the Twittersphere), it's not all dire straits out there for ND's championship-game hopes. Take this Dr. Saturday post from Frank Schwab:
The four undefeated contenders for the BCS Championship Game lost a member on Saturday.

Alabama's loss to Texas A&M makes what Notre Dame, Kansas State and Oregon did on Saturday that much more impressive.
Those teams are getting opponents' best shot every week. Alabama gave in to that pressure, but the other three won with ease.

Notre Dame also didn't mess around after getting a scare last week against Pitt. The Irish defense was great against an overmatched Boston College team in a 21-6 win.

The win against BC may have been a little lackluster, but it was never in really in contention. And hey--were you aware that Chase Rettig has thrown for 2,803 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, and that--despite their abysmal record--this is the first time BC's failed to score a touchdown all year? The game may have been lacking some thrilling heroics, but at least (statistically speaking) our defense is back on track.

With 'Bama out and two weeks left to go, Brian Kelly's all in. He put Notre Dame at the No.1 spot in the Coaches' Poll this week (note: he was the only one), and in his press conference today, he finally started angling for ND to have a shot at the title game:
Each team has their own distinctions. The distinction of this football team is it's the No.1 scoring defense in the country.

It's proven that against very, very good teams all year. [...] If you look at national championship-caliber football, you've got to look at a defense, and so that's why we feel strongly that our football team has put themselves in the discussion. We'll let others decide, but I think we've played our way into the discussion.

Just a couple things left to take care of. First we gotta exorcise the 5-5 Demon Deacons. Then it's time to start getting amped for a Thanksgiving-weekend showdown against the Trojans.

Sooooooooo clooooooooooooose.


Let's protect that 0.


South Bend Tribune/ROBERT FRANKLIN

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Last Enemy That Shall Be Destroyed Is Overtime

Notre Dame 29, Pittsburgh 26 - 3OT

In hell there will be an endless overtime, during which you cannot sit and you cannot avert your eyes, and you definitely cannot let your head droop or press the heels of your hands over your ears and murmur sweet nothings to yourself (no doubt trying to convince your central nervous system that the universe is an equitable place, weighed in parts both good and ill, and that whatever may transpire on the gridiron is of minor ilk to the greater workings of the cosmos and therefore will be swiftly balanced by a happenstance of greater joy than the potential pit of this loss is dark and deep--which means there is really no reason to give yourself a heart attack over a football game) until the gentleman sitting next to you offers you a Hot Hands packet to place inside your gloves (even though for the last thirty minutes you've been in such a fog of distress you've pretty much forgotten that there is such a thing as weather at all), and you have to turn and tell him, "No, I'm fine. I just can't handle this."

I think Manti Te'o is right.

I hate to lose more than I love to win.

The Gash

Pitt opened a gash in the midst of our season, and the Irish let it bleed onto the field good and long before they slapped a big-ass gauzy bandage over it. Then they somehow stitched out a win in the suture of overtime with streaks of blood still dripping into their eyes.

Pitt played to win. Did the Irish play not to lose? This is exactly what Brian Kelly said the team could not do after their decisive victory over Oklahoma. However, Kelly also said, following last night's victory, "Great win. There are no bad wins. [...] That's a great win, in triple overtime, with a bunch of guys that just keep believing."

You know, I complain a lot about teams like Ohio State and the University of Spoiled Children coming out strong against ranked opponents and playing like a bunch of hungover cheerleaders against their lesser-touted foes. This is largely because I believe the rosters of these teams to be populated by a bunch of whiny punk-asses who wouldn't recognize integrity if they caught it plastering the NCAA bylaws across the windshield of their family's brand-new, tricked-out, completely-legitimately-obtained luxury SUV. (Though this may seem like a specious allegation, coming from a fan of a team whose backup quarterback was arrested for assaulting a police officer last spring. And perhaps that's too unkind.)

But my point is: when things go wrong off the field, I expect there to be consequences. (And I expect there to be a lot of irate alumni and deeply concerned members of the administration when there aren't.) Likewise, when things go wrong on the field, I expect there to be standards of physical and mental toughness that keep the team from buckling under the weight of their opponent's will.

This is not, perhaps, something I could have demanded from most Irish squads for the But it is something I have come to expect from a team that clawed its way into the national title conversation in spite of a once indomitable-seeming schedule and the reckless, illimitable haze of doubt that fogs the fate of the Irish wherever they go.

But it is something I now can never doubt  when watching a defense powered by the heart of Manti Te'o. It is a faith I carry, in which the Irish have yet to prove me wrong--no matter how much of a bloody godawful mess that game seemed to be last night.

The Knife

Pittsburgh played one hell of a ballsy, heart-stomping, wrecking-ball game--and frankly I don't know how the flu-ridden Irish, with all their offensive misdemeanors, managed to survive.  

In case you haven't been following Pitt, they entered this game 4-4, equal parts domineering and incompetent. They opened the season with a 31-17 loss to AA opponent (or FCS, if you prefer the new-fangled lingo) Youngstown State. Two weeks later, Pitt knocked off 13th-ranked Virginia Tech, 35-17. Subsequent games included a 14-13 loss at Syracuse  and a 47-17 whomping of Temple at home.

I think it's safe to say Pittsburgh was a little hard to prepare for, considering they've been playing with approximately 0% consistency all season.

But I think Pittsburgh also did what Notre Dame did last week against Oklahoma: they came in with a killer game plan, and they executed. Pittsburgh's defense stymied our run game (particularly in the first half), and their corners did a ridiculous job of containing The Beast, Tyler Eifert, in the endzone. They were also not the least bit fooled by our long over-the-middle pass to freshman Chris Brown (though really, if BK wants that to work in the future, he's going to have to put Brown in on offense for more than one play). Of course, there were a couple of suspicious moments when I felt that a nice little pass interference nod from the refs would not have been unduly uncalled for--but for the most part, I think Pitt's corners made a lot of heads-up, bat-the-ball-down plays, and our O-line did not do a consistent enough job of keeping the pocket secure.

There was too much penetration in the backfield; too much stuffing of the run. Too much of Everett Golson scrambling around in the pocket, and definitely WAY TOO MUCH of our team committing stupid penalties and turnovers, and generally playing as though A) they all still had the flu, and B) they are somehow less comfortable playing at home than they are on the road.

Pitt's offense burned us on the run early in the game. KeiVarae Russell saved us from surrendering a rushing TD by chasing down Ray Graham on a 55-yd run that looked eerily similar to Cierre Wood's 62-yd scoring run last week. And when Pitt scored a rushing TD two possessions later, everyone was secretly glad that Oklahoma managed to score one, just so Pitt wouldn't have the dubious honor of breaking our nice little streak.

However, the most impressive unit on the field, on either side of the ball (the unit that allowed Pittsburgh to do what it did for most of the game), was Pitt's special teams.

Holy sh*t, guys. They were ridonkulous.

Cameron Saddler averaged 19 yards per punt return. Lafayette Pitts took advantage of some truly fantastic blocking to run five kickoffs back for a combined total of 128 yards (25.6 yards per return). (Why we chose not to kick the ball to the endzone for a touchback at ANY POINT during the game is an unknowable, unsolvable mystery.)

Matt Yoklic averaged 40.7 yards per punt on six punts, including one punt for 56 yards and three inside ND's 20-yard line. Pitt even purposely took a delay-of-game penalty to give their punter a better chance at landing the ball inside the 10. Which he did.

As a result, Notre Dame started four drives from inside their own 20-yard line, which led to one field goal, two punts, and an interception. Pitt only had to do this twice; both drives resulted in punts.

Pitt also had five drives starting from the 30-yard line or better, resulting in two touchdowns and a field goal before ND's defense finally buckled down and started forcing Pitt to punt from the shorter field.

Never underestimate the power of good field position. This is what gave Notre Dame the edge versus MSU, and sure as a shiv in a cell block, it's what galvanized Pitt to slice away yards from the Irish all game long. Without the grindstone of the return game to sharpen the Panthers' offense, I don't think they would have been capable of stabbing so deeply into the Irish defense.

The Gauze

Right, so here's the good news--such as it is. Based on nothing more than watching this game and glancing at Pitt's win-loss record, I think it's probably safe to say that this is the best game Pitt's played all season. They were fierce. 

Conversely, this is probably the worst game Notre Dame's played all season.

And yet--somehow--WE WON.


It's hard not to feel as though this game was tipped in our favor at the end via divine intervention, but this is not the case. Having watched the Irish at their best, we know what they are capable of. It just took Notre Dame almost the entire game to show it.

After playing a no-turnover, practically-penalty-free game versus the Sooners, the Irish committed six penalties for 46 yards against the Panthers, and turned the ball over twice in regulation. We also turned the ball over once in overtime, which would have spelled doom for the Irish had Pittsburgh's kicker not shanked his field goal wide right on the Panthers' subsequent possession.

It was rattling to the core to watch the game come so close, but in the end the Irish did what I expected them to do. They came out and they fought, and they did not stop fighting. They were benched and brought back in, and they did not give up.

And every mistake they made, they were lucky enough to have a chance to atone for. That's the real kicker here: Pittsburgh made us pay for our mistakes.

They just didn't make us pay enough.

Kyle Brindza missed a game-winning field goal in regulation. Kevin Harper missed one in overtime.
Notre Dame turned the ball over three times. Pittsburgh only scored off our turnovers once.
Notre Dame gave up one sack. Pittsburgh gave up five.

As terrifying as this game was to watch, there are some kind-of-keen statistics here to help mop up the mess.

Pitt was 1-of-14 on third-down conversions. Notre Dame went 10-of-20.
Notre Dame outgained Pitt on the ground (231-144) and in the air (254-185).
The Panthers scored on zero possessions starting from inside their own thirty-yard line. Notre Dame marched all the way the f*** down the field from the 9, the 2, and the 20-yard line...for an underwhelming two field goals and an interception.

It's not that we couldn't move the ball against the Panthers. It's just that we couldn't find the fershluggedah endzone.

All season long, Notre Dame has been a second-half team. Our defense tends to come out strong after halftime, making adjustments, settling into the game, and generally squashing all our opponents' hopes of glory, cleverness, and finding the endzone for pretty much the entirety of the third quarter.

So those of you feeling particularly concerned about Manti Te'o & Co. surrendering 10 points in the third quarter may want to take the following stat into consideration: Notre Dame's first drive of the game took 6:32 off the clock. Our second drive of the game chewed up 9:26 and took the game clear into the second quarter. Basically, our defense didn't really see Pitt's offense until the second quarter. (Keeping in mind that a team's first possession, in any game, is generally pretty well-scripted and often has no bearing on how the rest of the game is going to be played out.)

Which means that coming into the third quarter, we basically had one quarters' worth of data for our defense to process, which makes the third quarter of this game a lot more like the second quarter than the third (umm, y'know, statistically speaking). And in which quarter has our defense surrendered the most points this season? The second quarter. (Also it did not help that Tommy Rees decided to throw an interception on the 47-yard line.)

This logic could totally be a crock o'bull, I know. After all, our defense forced Pitt to punt on their first two possessions of the second half. And without that Notre Dame turnover, I'm not convinced Pittsburgh would have scored another touchdown on us. Pittsburgh's last four possessions of the game resulted in punt, punt, punt, punt--including three straight three-and-outs, with three sacks, two tackles for loss, and one fumble (recovered by Pitt).

And did the Panthers score a touchdown in overtime? NO. NO, THEY DID NOT.


The Sewn Suture

There is nothing about the future that is not fogged.

The top four unbeatens remained unbeaten last night, with Oregon winning a 62-51 touchdown derby against USC, Alabama pulling out a 21-17 heart-stopper against LSU, and Kansas State beating its third ranked opponent in a row in a 44-30 vanquishing of #24 Oklahoma State.

Though I could not have predicted it, the Irish (the only top-4 team NOT playing a ranked opponent yesterday) seemed most likely to lose. Now, even if ND wins out, our chances of making it to the national title game look somewhat less shiny than before.

K-State has now beaten as many ranked teams as Notre Dame, three of them by much wider margins (although it must be noted that the only top-10 team K-State has faced, Notre Dame has also faced, and we beat Oklahoma by a much wider margin).

Alabama has likely passed its biggest test of the season against LSU. If the hype is to be believed, the BCS officials already have 'Bama penciled in for the national title game.

Oregon just played an "anything-you-can-score-I-can-score-faster" shootout against USC, making it hard to believe that any school within a thousand miles of Eugene is capable of stopping the Ducks.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame survived a 29-26 triple overtime scare against unranked Pittsburgh and now has to ship up to Boston to play The Team That Ruined It All In 1993 (But Never Again, DO YOU HEAR ME?!).

Then again, this is college football we're talking about here. The Pitt team we saw yesterday was not the same team that lost to Youngstown State. And whatever incarnation of the Irish we saw was not at all the same team that knocked off Oklahoma. And hey--seven of the last eight meetings between ND and Pitt have been decided by 8 points or fewer. So should we be worried about the rapacious upstarts of Backup College? Well...yes. But not as worried as you might think, considering the team's probably got over the worst of the flu by now and Everett Golson's played much better in away games than he has at home (facepalm).

The season's not over yet, so let's nobody start counting chickens. Alabama's still got 16th-ranked Texas A&M and upset-alert Auburn on its schedule; likewise for K-State, with upcoming clashes against TCU and 23rd-ranked Texas. Oregon's probably in the hottest seat, with 14th-ranked Stanford and 11th-ranked Oregon State to close out their season. And of course the Irish have their own foes to vanquish, with the pesky Eagles, Senior Day Demon Deacons, and ever-tawdry Trojans to face down the stretch.

However--and somewhat alarmingly--based on the results of this past weekend, there is every possibility that all four currently-undefeated teams will win out.

If the Irish do not play in a Most Impressive Fashion for the rest of the season, both the human and computer polls will see every reason to impale them upon their strength-of-schedule rating (which is just obnoxious, considering the season started out with "ohhh Notre Dame's schedule is so haaaaard there's no way in five billion zillion gajillion years they'll ever win ouuuuuuut").

In which case, we will most likely end up with an Oregon-Alabama title game and an ND-KState Fiesta Bowl, with thousands of unruly fans clamoring for the four-team playoff system to implemented, like, immediately.

I'm sure most fans are counting on the Irish to knock themselves out of the title race at this point, but I'm not. Curiously, it was a pundit on Fox Sports last night who summed it up best: if the win against Oklahoma was a statement win for the Irish, this was a character win.

And I think if the Irish have the character to claw their way back, hang on, and win in triple overtime, then f*** it--they have the mettle to fight back and win against anybody.

Though it would be great if they would PLEASE NOT DO THAT AGAIN EVER. (Seriously, it's totally fine with me if you guys win in regulation. Toooootally fine.)

And hey: redemption for the quadruple-overtime loss to Pittsburgh in 2008? I think so.

Only one thing left to say.


South Bend Tribune/ROBERT FRANKLIN

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Being Punched in the Face by Awesome

Notre Dame 30, Oklahoma 13

Let me just say this right now: Anyone who watched that game and still claims the Irish are lucky, or that Oklahoma was overrated, or that Notre Dame faces a cupcake schedule, or that we need to argue over Notre Dame's relevance, is a f*$&ing moron.

I would like to steal a phrase from my friend Nick, and say that anyone who is still concerned about the Irish "silencing the doubters" can KISS MY RELEVANT ASS.

Because seriously--SINCE WHEN DO THE DOUBTERS MATTER? The doubters are a bunch of whiny attention-hogging pissants so pleased by the sound of their own disdain they should be forced to spend ten years in purgatory feeding an endless bowl of Joe Montana's chicken soup to Rick Reilly on a fork. 

The Irish are amazing. A-MAZ-ING. There was nothing that was not flabbergastingly awesome about that game.

It almost feels like I sat down and made a list of everything I hoped the Irish would do (or not do) in that game: Don't turn the ball over. Play smart. Minimize penalties. Stay on the ball. Force turnovers. Don't flinch. (Don't. F***ing. Flinch.) Play every down. Don't wait for them to come to you. Attack. Attack. Attack.

...and then the Irish took that list, wound it around their collective fist, and punched me in the face with it.


So I'm sitting here in kind of a toothless daze

wondering if maybe my front teeth actually got knocked out in a bar fight and I've just passed out on the sidewalk for a moment with little tiny leprechauns jigging in circles around my head (like some acid-trippy version of 1988), or if I'm actually living in this surreal reality where the Irish are 8-0.

It's not that I'm a doubter. That is the opposite of true. It's just that we've been waiting and waiting (and waiting and waiting and waiting), gnashing our teeth and devoutly clinging to our rally beads and being crushed under the pain of loss--and suddenly, in the space of half a season, it's all morphed into leis and GameDay signs and HeisManti campaigns and national title talk that the ND Nation's half-scared to listen to, because WHAT IF JINX?! What if this?! What if that?!


I am so over that.

Read my bold-faced font:

This is not a test or a publicity stunt or a SportsCenter gag. This is not Lou Holtz saying the same thing Lou Holtz says every season (i.e., "Notre Dame is for real!") Guys: THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

I don't care what anybody else says. I. Don't. Care. There are going to be plenty of heathens spewing hot shit all over the message boards and the Twittersphere (and wherever else it is on the internet these denizens of dodo-brains choose to congregate), and what they say does not matter one stinking bit.

You know why? Because the Irish don't care what the message boards say. The Irish don't care what the betting lines say, or what the pollsters say, or what the bloggers or sportswriters or media pundits or news anchors or Heisman voters or random hyperbolic fans have to say. You know how I know? Because THEY JUST WENT OUT ONTO THE FIELD IN NORMAN AND THEY PROVED IT.

We are the noise. And outside the roar of the faithful stadium crowd, the NOISE DOESN'T MATTER.

There are lots of all-caps moments in this rant, because that is how Freaking Sick I Am of having to listen to a bunch of media clowns air their opinions based on watching approximately thirty seconds of our games each week. But you know what? You can take any f*$&ing thirty seconds of this game you like, and you will see the Irish dominating the line of scrimmage on almost every down.

Best stats off the top of my head: Zero turnovers. One penalty for five yards. One forced turnover. Two sacks. 5.5 ypc. 13 points surrendered to an offense averaging over 40 points per game. Second home loss for the Sooners for the first time EVER in a single season under Bob Stoops.

Seriously, if Mark May says ND is overrated and facing a weak schedule one more time, I'm going to see to it that he's trapped inside a boxing ring with Mike Lee until he can work his issues out.

I mean, in a way I appreciate the dude's illogical consistency (in the same way I appreciate Lou's semi-delusional pro-ND predictions at the beginning of every season), but Come. On.

At this point in the season, you have got to give it up and admit that there's SOMETHING going on with the Irish. I mean, really, anyone who actually FOLLOWS the Irish (such as Brian Hamilton from the Chicago Tribune, or Keith Arnold for NBC Sports, or Tom Coyne for the Associated Press, or hell, even Kirk Herbstreit, who seems to think Everett Golson is "my man Ev" after this game), will tell you that this game was proof that the nay-sayers ain't got much to say nay about anymore.

Now: could the Irish beat Kansas State? Or Oregon? Or (holy shillelaghs) Alabama?



So I gather there are still Stanford fans who are probably convinced that non-TD in overtime was actually a TD. (But too bad, because Wrong.) In the same vein, I'm sure there will be OU fans who are vexed with the holding call that brought back the TD before halftime.

But if you were watching the game on TV, it's definitely not the refs' fault that A) ABC didn't show the appropriate camera angles, or B) the mic in the stadium didn't work on that particular penalty. Also: C) even Brent Mushmouth said later that it was the totally correct call, and D) Oklahoma got a rushing TD later in the game, so you can just get over that.
Plus: E) even if Oklahoma had scored that first touchdown, Notre Dame still would have scored enough points to keep the game out of reach. Soooo that's that.

Look, I don't mean to be flippant about a tough game. I'm sure Oklahoma fans are feeling a little soul-crushed right now. They have a good team, they're used to having killer seasons, and they haven't had to cope with this many home losses since 1998. ( hoo?) Trust me, I know how it feels to feel like the officials may have screwed you out of a score. (ND Nation knows how this feels REALLY, REALLY WELL.)

But I will not concede that that holding wasn't holding, because it totally was. Nor will I accept any arguments that Golson's TD was not a TD. (I don't know who would argue this, anyway. It was an incredibly straightforward QB sneak and I still have no idea why the refs were so intent on reviewing it.) As for Manti's interception: the dude had possession before he hit the ground. They reviewed it for a good long time, and if you don't like it...well, as Coach Stoops said before halftime, "there's nothing you can do about the officials' calls." You've just gotta do what you can do to win the game.

And trust me: Notre Dame DID THAT.

It was impressive as hell, because Oklahoma is a very good team. They didn't get to where they are by being overrated. They got there by moving the ball extremely well; by having a beast of a backup quarterback; by stuffing our offense, forcing FG's, and pushing us into worse and worse field position as the game progressed. And if Notre Dame's offense had played against the Sooners the way they played against, say, Michigan, Oklahoma would have most likely won this game. Fortunately for us, ND's offense turned in their best performance all season, against the best opponent we've faced all season. And despite surrendering that rushing touchdown, I'd say our defense did the same.

Yes, I'm a bit sad that the "no rushing TD's allowed all season" stat is gone. But we still managed to hold our opponent to less than 17 points and 15 yards rushing. Plus we WON, so let's move on. Truly, this game wasn't won or lost by that rushing TD. This game was won by what happened on the line of scrimmage. At pretty much every point in this game, the Irish were in control. Oklahoma kept picking up first downs, often quickly--but they didn't often score. Our defense went bend-but-don't-break, and absolutely, they meant DON'T BREAK.


We pretty much kicked ass.

Favorite Moments of the Game
1. Cierre Wood's breakout TD run during ND's first drive of the game for a 62-yd touchdown
2. Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick putting their hands in prayer position and bowing to each other afterward
3. Manti Te'o sacking the quarterback
4. Manti Te'o doing a flying midair tackle
5. Manti Te'o intercepting the ball
6. KeiVarae Russell having like three huge tackles in a row (and his celebrations thereafter)
7. Kyle Brindza making two 40+ yard field goals after totally shanking a 35-yarder
8. Chris Brown's jaw-dropping 50-yd reception, after which I couldn't help feeling as though ND was trying to say, "lol jk Oklahoma, we're going to play with our real offense now"
9. Basically all of Oklahoma's penalties
10. Pretty much any time Cam McDaniel had the ball
11. Theo Riddick getting that TD run after dropping what would have been a first-down catch
12. Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood putting their hands in prayer position and bowing to each other afterward (seriously, can anybody find a picture of this?!)
13. Danny Spooooooond
14. EVERETT GOLSON ALL NIGHT LONG (srsly Everett why are all your best games in hostile away environments? you should get that checked out man)
15. John Goodman's Twitter feed describing what all the players were doing on the bus ride to the airport after the game:
"@jgoodman81 What about Golson. I'm guessing he's doing some serious tunes. Plugged in.....”  Ev is listening to Ricky Martin

"@jgoodman81what is @stadium20status doin?”  Cierre is still arguing w the fan on the sideline behind our bench

"@jgoodman81 what is @MGolicJR57 doing?”  Mike is currently eatin the leftovers that were in his beard from lunch.

"@jgoodman81 what's cam up to? Love that dude”  Cam the Man is just smiling from ear to ear. #gameball

The Future to be worried about next week. Let's celebrate for 24 solid hours, then keep our eyes on the prize for the Pitt game.

I'm sure Mark May's looking forward to that one.

Go Irish Beat Everyone

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Fruits of the Labor

Notre Dame 17, BYU 14

So here it is
We've got a team full of fives (and a seven)
and a zero you can't scratch away
til Saturday
if Saturday comes
(if you know how the light's gonna fade
how the laces will tie
how the game's gonna play
then you'll know if it's zero
or one)
if the cow-tipping Irish sling all the guns
if sooner than Sooners we rack up the score
if the red zone holds
Brindza's toe is gold
if Irish Chocolate gives snack-down to Jones
our fives will provide
on both scrimmage-sides
and we'll know that it's zero
not one

Hey guys, remember Evan Sharpley?

Sure you don't. But never mind, because he's totally right:

"Evan, there are no easy ground balls. Every ground ball is the hardest play you've ever had. It is only easy once you field the ball and finish the play."

What [the coach] was trying to impart to me is that each play takes the highest amount of concentration and focus. And that the "easiest" of plays could become the most difficult if I took my eye off the ball or faltered for a split second.

The sport may be completely different, but the thought process remains the same for the Irish players: there are no easy games.

Right on, Evan. Right on.

Generally speaking, the media's full of enough hot air to blow up a dozen Hindenburgs. So don't listen to a thing they say about trap game this or the-other-top-5-teams-in-the-country-won-by-at-least-30-points-last-weekend-what's-up-with-the-Irish-squeaking-out-an-ugly-win-over-an-unranked-opponent that. This game wasn't about putting up a flashy score. I'm pretty sure NO ONE thought that was going to happen (and if you did, you's smokin' somethin' bolder than field turf, that's all I'm sayin'). It's just about winning. That's all any week is about: protecting the zero.

And we did.

It's not an easy thing, winning. It's not even easy when it looks easy. It only looks easy because of a profitable combination of time, talent, effort, focus, work, work, and work--most of which happen during the off-season. What happens on the field every Saturday are the fruits of the labor.

And no, I don't care if you got a peach when you wanted a pear. It was a damn piece of fruit, so enjoy it.

The Pits

So not only did we protect our zero this week, we did so by coming from behind.

Evidently not everyone was enthused about this.
"It made me mad," linebacker Manti Te'o said of the first touchdown. "It made a lot of guys mad. And when they scored again, it really made us mad." 

Source: Chicago Tribune

Coach Kelly said after the game that he was surprised by the reaction in the locker room. The team wasn't overly jubilant. In fact, one gets the impression they were kind of pissed.

Cierre Wood: We knew going into it that we were going to be the more physical team. We were shooting ourselves in the foot in the first half. Everyone knew it and everyone was on the same page.

Stephon Tuitt: A win is a win. But how we came out is pretty sluggish and slow. We can't come out like that because there are really good teams who can profit off that and we want to win games.

Kapron Lewis-Moore: We've got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. We had a defensive holding and some other stuff that kept the ball moving forward. Nobody panicked, we just kept the energy up.

All of this sounds oddly familiar, doesn't it? Except that this was a WIN, which means we've magically crossed the barrier from "We need to play better in order to win" to "We won, but we need to play better." It was not a perfect game, and good teams should always be striving for cleaner, more efficient ways of kicking the ever-loving snot out of their opponents. I will take this attitude all the time, every day of the week, three-hundred-and-sixty-five-and-one-fourths days of the year.

But a win is a win is a win. And it's not like we were playing some weak-sauce opponent, either.
Stephon Tuitt: A lot of people don't see it but BYU is a good team. They've won something like 20 games in the last two years. That's crazy. A lot of people think, 'Oh, it's just BYU', but BYU is a really good team.

BYU's head coach even said that this was the best game BYU has played all season.

Was the game closer than it should have been? Sure. Kyle Brindza's two missed field goals should have been (even more) inconsequential, because any team capable of producing 270 rushing yards against the nation's second-ranked rushing defense should have been making more trips to the endzone. Theo Riddick's leg-churning effort alone should have garnered more TD's. Riddick had 143 rushing yards against the Cougars--more than any running back since September 17, 2011. (Say whaaat?)

But we can't get our collective panties in a twist just because BYU scored a couple of touchdowns on us. I'd be dead shocked if we didn't give up a TD or two against the ridiculously prolific Oklahoma offense. It was sheer luck we didn't give one up against Miami.

What isn't sheer luck is how the Irish have responded all season.

The Juice

Defense wins games.  They win by force of focus and strength of conditioning. They win because the legs feed the wolf, gentlemen.

How many close games have we had to watch over the past few seasons? How many times have we had to score and score late and KEEP SCORING because our sieve of a line couldn't hold? How many times has the fourth quarter undone us? Well, no longer. The second half is not our enemy anymore. The second half is our chance to prove that we are strong enough to squeeze every last drop of juice out of this game until our opponent lies shriveled and defeated on the far sideline.

The Irish have been so good coming out of the locker room that they haven't given up a touchdown in the third quarter for the last six games. They've outscored opponents 95-26 in the second half (47-7 in the 3rd quarter; 46-19 in the 4th). The defense has played rough and physical late into the fourth quarter in every game--and I'm not pointing this out in frustration because there have been some games in which they've needed to. I'm pointing this out in jubilation because they CAN.
Stephon Tuitt: Our defense is full of people who have stamina. We're like dogs out there. We just keep going and going and going until we can't fight no more which is usually after the game.

Or, to put it in psycho-obsessive fan's terms: when we punted at the end of the fourth quarter, I stopped feeling nervous about the outcome of this game. Instead, I felt relieved. "Oh, good," I thought, "The game's over. The defense will shut this thing down." Two plays later, Danny Spond intercepted the ball. And all was peace and bliss in the leprechaun legion.

 Five stats to knock your socks off (aka intrigue from the game notes)
1. Junior WR TJ Jones has twenty-one catches this season. Eighteen of those resulted in either a first down or a touchdown.

2. BYU had minus-19 rushing yards in the first quarter. That's the lowest for any Irish opponent this season. Further, zero points have been scored against the Irish in the first quarter by any opponent this season except Miami (three points).

3. Stephon Tuitt had 2 sacks against the Cougars (presumably to make up for having 0 sacks in the previous game). He's already tied for sixth in Notre Dame's single-season sack records, and is still on pace to break Justin Tuck's mark of 13.5.

4. Tyler Eifert is the second Irish TE to collect 10 or more touchdown passes over his career. Ken McAfee (1974-77) holds the school record with 15.

5. Manti Te'o is the only defensive player in the FBS who has averaged over nine tackles per game and collected at least four interceptions in 2012. (Just in case you were curious, he's also recovered two fumbles and recorded two QB hurries that resulted in interceptions. Because MAN BEAST.)

Five Things You Should Click On

1) The #KapsBeenAtNDSince hashtag on Twitter (example: #KapsBeenAtNDSince he hosted Jerome Bettis on his official visit)

2) Trick Shot Monday - Back from Fall Break/Oklahoma Week edition: 

3) Manti's radio interview with Jim Rome (SERIOUSLY YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THIS PEOPLE).

4) As long as we're talking about Manti, let me just mention that he is now officially LEADING THE FAN VOTE FOR THE HEISMAN. Also, Manti is leading the vote for the Lowe's Senior CLASS award (clearly when he's not being #5, he's busy being No.1).

5) Tom Coyne's article regarding the history of the ND-Oklahoma series

Oklahooooooma! (Yow!)

Cue every un-original joke you can think of involving the word "sooner" and the musical "Oklahoma!". It's time to head to Norman for a Saturday-night showdown against the eighth-ranked Sooners (5-1). The Irish are 8-1 all time against Oklahoma (including a victory over Stoops's 1999 squad), but they haven't played at Norman since 1966. It's going to be a tough environment, what with College GameDay in town and absolutely nothing else going on anywhere in the entire state of Oklahoma.

This will be the most potent offense we've faced all season. Since their 24-19 loss to Kansas State, the Sooners have 156 points in three consecutive wins, including a 52-7 victory over Kansas and a 63-21 thwomping of Texas. Oklahoma QB Landry Jones has 1,653 passing yards on the season--647 of which came in the last two games, along with 12 TD's. Also, Oklahoma has only lost four times at home under coach Bob Stoops. They've gone to 13 straight bowl games, including 8 BCS matchups and 1 national title. It's no surprise Oklahoma's being favored by 10 points.

But screw all that. This game isn't going to be won on the laurels of this season or last season, or even the previous ten. This game is going to be won inch by inch. Throw by throw. Snap by snap.

Every play is the hardest play.

If the Irish keep focus, there's no reason they can't pluck out a win against another top-10 opponent the way they have against every touch opponent this season.

With pure. F***ing. Grit.

 Copyright © 2012 South Bend Tribune