Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Three Days to Dublin

I woke up this morning and it smelled like autumn. Time for a football rant.

Might as well start by spelunking into the bowels of last year and trying to figure out what the hell happened last season, since apparently I stopped ranting after the Maryland game...probably because I ran out of Halloween candy and work became a grueling Pit of Despair. (Excuses, excuses.)

2011 Schedule & Results
vs South Fla. L 20-23
@ Michigan L 35-31
vs MSU W 31-13
@ Pittsburgh W 15-12
@ Purdue W 38-10
vs Air Force W 59-33
vs. USC L 31-17
vs. Navy W 56-14
@ Wake Forest W 24-17
vs. Maryland W 45-21
vs. Boston College W 16-14
@ Stanford L 28-14
Postseason: Champs Sports Bowl
vs. Florida State L 18-14

So scheduling BC on Senior Day was  clearly a foolish, foolish plan (although we did win, so I can't complain too much). The BC game was was also the poster child for Why You Need A Freaking Punt Returner (can somebody call Tom Zbikowski? He was only here for five or six years the first time around, surely he has another year of eligibility left), since Notre Dame started five drives from behind its own 10-yard line. The depressing thing about this is that Brian Kelly has not exactly promised that we will have a successful punt return game this season, either. (Though he has named Freshman Davonte' Neal as the leading punt returner. C'MON DAVONTE'! TAKE IT TO THE HOUSE!) The Stanford game would've been a lot less painful if Tommy Rees hadn't been the King of Turnovers in the first half, and the bowl game would've been a lot less painful if we could've held onto our lead in the fourth quarter. (Really, I don't think we have any excuses for that one.)

2011 was an 8-5 year, same as 2010. But since it wasn't an improvement over the previous season, we started and ended the year with a pair of depressing losses, we gave up on punt returns entirely and--even worse--gave up on any semblance of clock management the last 6 minutes against USC, 2011 was a bit of a letdown. (Like, for serious.)

Although we did beat the ever-loving snot out of Navy, Air Force, and MSU, which is not something we've done with a stunning amount of frequency in recent years, so that's something.

At any rate, the past is the past. So let us take heart -- wipe away the iniquities of past seasons -- ignore the foolish specious gits like Rick Reilly -- change our desktop backgrounds to images of Dublin -- and GET READY FOR SOME IRISH FOOTBAAAAAAAALL.

2012: A Year of Riotous Uncertainty Wrapped in a Four-Leaf Clover of Optimism Stuffed into the Hat of a Slightly Deranged Leprechaun Poised to Battle Fisticuffs With A Schedule That Would Totally Catapult Us Into the National Championship Game if We Were Anywhere Near Achieving That Kind of Dominance.

I mean, look at this shit:
Sept. 1 - @ Navy (in Dublin, Ireland)
Sept. 8 - vs. Purdue
Sept. 15 - @ Michigan State (#13)
Sept. 22 - vs Michigan (#8) - night game
-Bye Week -
Oct. 6 - vs. Miami (at Soldier Field)
Oct. 13 - vs. Stanford (#21)
Oct. 20 - vs. BYU
Oct. 27 - @ Oklahoma (#4)
Nov. 3 - vs. Pittsburgh
Nov. 10 - @ Boston College
Nov. 17 - vs. Wake Forest (Senior Day)
Nov. 24 - @ USC (#1)

Preseason rankings are listed in parentheses. Of course, we all know preseason rankings generally mean less than nothing, but I cannot tell you how much it pisses me off that USC is preseason #1 (clearly those NCAA sanctions did them a world of hurt), Michigan is in the Top 10 (and we have GOT to stop losing to them in the last minute of the game like we have for the past THREE SEASONS, or eventually my spleen is literally going to burst), and Michigan State is ranked at all (seriously, we clobbered the PALINDROMES out of MSU last season - what is WITH us?).

Really, the only team on this schedule I *might* feel okay losing to is Oklahoma, but that's mostly because the majority of my vile loathing and bile-drenched repugnance has already been set aside in a special deposit account specifically designated for USC. And Michigan. (DAMMIT WHY DO WE KEEP LETTING THE MICHIGAN GAMES SLIP AWAY AT THE LAST MINUTE?!) Also I believe that Oklahoma will actually be good this year, and is probably more deserving of its preseason ranking than, for example, f***ing USC.

But whatever.

Honestly, I think if the players got half as pissed off as I do looking at the preseason rankings, there is approximately zero chance they will lose any of these games. But what do I know? I'm just a nutter with a keyboard.

Seriously, though, this schedule is ridiculous.The bye week is so FREAKING early that makes me worry the players won't have their legs under them by the end of the season. However, there's nothing we can do except cross our fingers and hope the last three years of strength & conditioning are going to work some back-half-of-the-season magic. I am exceptionally hopeful that this will prove to be the case, because my hypothesis for the last couple seasons has been that Brian Kelly is better at fundamentals and conditioning than Charlie ever was (though I cannot lie that there were times last season I fervently wished Kelly had some of Weis's talents, such as clock management skills).

Though if we don't manage to fix the little fumble problem we had last season, all the strength and conditioning in the world isn't going to make that much difference.

Take heart from this, though: really, our worst opponent last season was us. If we hadn't turned the ball over SO--MANY--FREAKING--TIMES, we could have easily won eleven games. So if we can just stop doing our best imitation of a Tastykakes bakery, there's absolutely no reason we shouldn't have double-digit wins this season.

Well, possibly one or two.

Everyone Suspended from the Team Should Have to Wear Overalls to Class for an Entire Week

So remember in 2010 when pretty much all of our key offensive players got injured and we had to end the season with a bunch of freshman and sophomores in the starting slots and it was kind of terrifying but it turned out okay because we ended up beating USC and winning our bowl game anyway?

Let's hope this season goes a lot like that.

Current suspensions include QB Tommy Rees, RB Cierre Wood, LB Carlo Calabrese, and DE Justin Utupo. All of them are out for at least one game and will not be traveling to Dublin for the Navy Game. In case you missed this: Rees and Calabrese had a fool run-in with some cops at a party last spring--SERIOUSLY GUYS, never under any circumstances should you ever look like you are even remotely thinking of attempting to strike an officer of the law--and Wood and Utupo have been suspended much more recently, due to an "unspecified violation relating to team rules." I am not even going to get into the disappointment I feel over this. I can only hope that the consequences being doled out are going to effect some positive change with whatever-the-hell's going on behind closed doors. In the words of Coach Kelly:
I think we all get disappointed but we also know that they are young and we want them to learn from the mistakes that they made. And in this instance, we are hoping that Cierre, Justin, I'm very confident that they will learn from their mistakes. But I don't think it filters into the team that, oh, my goodness, somebody gets suspended, we have to overcome adversity. I think they see it more as if you don't live up to these standards, this is what's going to happen, let's keep moving forward. At least that's the sense that I get.

Also, Defensive End Aaron Lynch (aka The Second Coming of Justin Tuck) transferred to South Florida during the off-season (yep. that's right. South Florida.), cornerback Lo Wood is out for the season with a hamstring injury, and Austin Collinsworth's out with a labrum tear (shoulder injury). Plus, we've graduated Head Beastmaster Michael Floyd, along with Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, and Darius Fleming, who were all picked up in this year's NFL Draft (is it just me, or are there an inordinate number of Irish players going to the Minnesota Vikings these days?).

So basically we've got a brand-new, untested sophomore starting at QB, five positions on offense with no returning starters (including all of our WR spots), and a defensive backfield consisting almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores. Plus we've lost our leading rusher for the first two games of the year. Awesome!

But wait...there's good news!

Most of our returning starters on offense are playing the most important position of all: OFFENSIVE LINE. From left to right, Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Mike Golic Jr., and Christian Lombard are all back--and with the possible exception of the RG, they're all experienced. This will be especially double extra crucial since we've got a brand-new quarterback. An extra second can save a young man's life. Prevent a fumble. Stave off a forced throw that turns into a pick-six. (We hope.)

I've got little to no opinion on Everett Golson at this point, except that I understand he did well in the Blue-Gold game, and he's the first QB we've had in the lineup who was 100% Brian Kelly's recruit. He's more of a dual-threat than a drop-back

I also refuse to despair over losing Cierre Wood for the first couple games. It's a blow, but not a crippling one. We've still got Theo Riddick. Theo's been playing a lot of WR lately, but really he's a converted back-to-receiver (a la Golden Tate), so he'll be just fine. Lining up behind Theo is the dynamic and scrappy George Atkinson III (who had at least two kickoff returns for TDs last season, against MSU and USC), so I'm not really concerned there, either. You know, unless these boys start fumbling, in which case we better start making them carry the damn ball to class all week long.

Funnily enough, even with Floyd out of the picture, I'm not over-concerned with the state of our receiving corps. Sometimes having a big star like that can be so distracting it ends up hurting the effectiveness of your offensive--especially when you've got a young QB in the pocket. Starting the season without a distinct target in the receiving corps will spread things out more, make the defenses guess more--plus leave the field wide open for someone else to rise up to be the star.

Plus, if you've been reading up on your Irish Illustrated, you'll be enthused to note that the players themselves don't have any qualms about this season. According to Theo Riddick:

It isn’t like we can just run the ball. We can all catch the ball, we can all block. So it isn’t like losing something by putting another person out there. Any player in our offense can take it to the house at any given moment.

If the players themselves are adopting this kind of can-do, gung-ho, all-for-one, 'scuse-me-while-I-run-over-your-dreadlocks-with-my-cleats-and-take-this-one-to-the-house-sucker kind of attitude, I'm sure as hell not gonna argue with them.

And speaking of people who are going to kick ass

Four captains have been named for the 2012 season:  TE Tyler Eifert and LT Zack Martin on offense, and DE Kapron Lewis-Moore and LB Manti Te'o on defense. Reasons no one's surprised Manti Te'o made captain: 

For me, I've always tried to be a great leader. With that title, it doesn't change the way I do things. I'm just still trying to serve my teammates the best way I know how -- both on and off the field - by the way I play, by being an example to them and just doing whatever I can to help our team win. I talked to the team afterwards. I told them I loved them.

The best leaders serve. That's the best quality of a leader, when he serves, and has the trust of all his teammates. That comes through service. It comes from as a leader, (being) willing to put everything on the line for them.

I love this kid. Can we get sixty more just like him?

(Also, in a note unrelated to the 2012 Irish: I really hope Dayne Crist has a killer season starting at Kansas under Charlie Weis. I have no opinion about Kansas football one way or another, but Dayne Crist is just such a superb person and athlete that I really hope he gets the chance to wipe the floor with everyone. I mean, he's only been at Kansas for a semester and his teammates have already voted him Captain. CAPTAIN. He hasn't taken a single snap in a live game for them and he's their CAPTAIN. This kid is amazing. That is all.)

Right, so this game we're going to be playing in DUBLIN

As a fan, going to Dublin would be absolutely incredible (although, alas, I cannot afford it), but I can't help agreeing with Coach Kelly, in the sense that traveling for 6 hours is not necessarily the best plan for your athletes prior to competing in a season opener. Especially when your opponent is one of the service academies. Advantage definitely goes to Navy for being ready to play this game on a different continent at 9AM EST.

But hey, it's the season opener. We've had more time than usual to get prepped for defending the option--and in some ways it may be an advantage to face the option right out of the gate. Plus, we beat Navy 56-14 last season, so I'd say current mental edge goes to the Irish. I expect the game to be much closer than last season (one cannot expect the Naval Academy to play so sloppy all the time), but still--it's Dublin, right? Luck of the Irish. Rakes of Mallow. Dahmsa Bua.

Onward to Victory.


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