Sunday, September 23, 2012

Casting Icarus From the Sky

"We've waited for this chance. We've worked to get here. You--don't--give-them--anything. You go out there and you take it." -Brian Kelly, MSU 2012

Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6

Manti Te'o doesn't have anymore unfinished business against Michigan. Neither does Tyler Eifert. Or Carlo Calabrese. Or Zeke Motta. Or any of the seniors who spent the last three years watching our lead slip away in the final seconds. They didn't leave anything on the field last night except pure--Irish--glory.

The freshmen don't know. They don't need to know.

Nicky Baratti with a  pick in the endzone, Sheldon Day with 3 tackles (1 TFL), KeiVarae Russell with a 31-yd interception return. They don't need to know what the last three years felt like in order to succeed.

In a year when pain of loss or fear of doubt has not yet managed to work its way into the underbelly of our team, the only thing the eleven-headed regenerative monster of our defense needs to know is how to win.

And keep on winning.

Denard Robinson, I cast you as Icarus

You shouldn't take to the air. You should have stayed on the ground, where your feet could have flown you faster.

Five plays in a row the Wolverines lobbed it to the sky, only to have it land in the hands of the gold and blue.

Thou things earthly, thou things wretched, keep to the ground, for in the heavens shine gleams of gold that shall melt you to the earth; winds that shall shake you from the sky with echoes of thunder on their breath.

We here know too well the stink of mud and stench of defeat. We have watched the generals of our ranks rain gifts again and again upon the helms of our most hated foes. We have seen our efforts cast in vain upon the ground. We have watched the heralded fall harrowed from the pinnacle of success back to the sunken earth, where the land is barren and reeks of burning pigskin.

But we have risen. We ascend.


Seriously, though

In a game where Michigan had more rushing yards, more first downs, more third down conversions, more time with the ball, and more chances in the red zone, our defense did everything in its power to prevent the Wolverines from winning this game. And I don't think it's just that Denard Robinson had a bad day at the office.

Five turnovers in five plays. Six turnovers on six possessions. That's not just luck. Our defense took this game from them. Bennett Jackson. Manti Te'o. KeiVarae Russell. Nicky Baratti. They took it.

Even on the drives when Michigan was rolling, even when Denard Robinson completed four passes in a row and converted two first downs on his feet, we kept Michigan from the endzone. Even on a first and goal at the ten after an Irish turnover, they did not score. Because we didn't sit there and wait. We brought it. And we kept bringing it for four quarters.

We weren't scared of Denard Robinson.

We ain't scared of nobody.

The Edge

This is the shift from last year. This is the mental edge. Somehow, in the last two games, it has ceased to matter that our secondary is inexperienced. That we're going up against powerhouse players like Denard Robinson or Le'Veon Bell. That our offense has barely managed to hold onto the ball long enough for us to get enough first downs to win. Somewhere in these last two games, our defense has bumped up to another level. We can play with freshman, sophomores, juniors, seniors. We had twenty-two defensive players register tackles in this game. We've got intangibles out the wazooti.

And this I truly believe: based on the way our defense has been playing, they are scared of no opponent. In fact, the rest of our opponents should be scared of us.

I can't remember the last time I felt this way about a defense. But we are coming for you. We will pick you off like you're an Hesperidean orchard. We will tackle you so hard you start shedding Golden Fleece. We will stuff your defense like a rage of murderous taxidermists until all your players are sitting on the sidelines bleeding cotton. (And we will do it with a flagrant disregard for our previous commitment to Greek mythological references.)

If our D stays focused.
If they keep doing what they've been doing.
If they don't regress and make a bunch of stupid mental errors like they did during the Purdue game.

If they're locked in, I think they're good enough to freeze any offense in the country as effectively as a trio of hissing Gorgons.

The Foes

Of course, you could argue that Michigan's is not the greatest offense we will face this season. Take away Denard Robinson, and you take away the bulk of what makes Michigan good.

But who's supposed to be better? Stanford? USC? Oklahoma?

Well, news flash: Oklahoma just lost to Kansas State, and Stanford proved USC can be corralled just like the Cretan bull. The Cardinal offense is only a shadow of its former formidable-ness, without Andrew Luck or Toby Gerhart in the backfield--so who left on the Irish schedule is truly more than a match for our D?

Of our remaining opponents, only Oklahoma ranks in the top 40 in terms of total offense (going by the statistics here: At this point in the season, Miami's ranked 50th. USC is 57th. Stanford's way the hell down at 93--though considering Notre Dame is currently ranked 96th, offensive rankings don't necessarily say much about a team's ability to win games.

They just say to me that the Irish defense is more than capable of going all Heracles on their chthonic asses. As evidence:
Notre Dame has not allowed six points or less to top-20 opponents in consecutive weeks since 1943
The last time the Irish had 5 picks in a game came on Sept. 24, 1988 against Purdue.
First time since 1909 that ND held both Michigan and Michigan State without a TD in the same year--in 09 ND 11-3 vs. Mich and 17-0 vs. MSU
Manti Te’o is the first Notre Dame player to ever record multiple interceptions against Michigan.
This season, Notre Dame has collected 23 first downs in the 4th quarter Our opponents: 7.

Of course, the one big advantage thus far this season has not only been that we've somehow managed to post mythical-seeming stats on the field--we've also faced all these opponents before. Bob Diaco has had three years playing Navy, Purdue, Michigan, and Michigan State. He's probably got a number on Stanford by now, too. In the last couple seasons, we've also played Pitt, BC, Wake Forest, and Miami. But Oklahoma? BYU? As far as I see it, those are the biggest wild cards left on our schedule. (Except Pitt, maybe, which has decided to be its own special wild card this season.) And I say there's no way our defense shouldn't be able to handle them.

There are latent concerns, of course. Our bye week comes incredibly early this year. This is something like a boon for Manti Te'o--who I'm sure right now could use all the boons he can get--but as the season goes on, the D-boys might start to have trouble keep their legs under them. Especially if they have to play every game the way they played against Michigan. What the defense really needs is for the offense to have more Heracles moments, and step in to lift the sky off its shoulders for another game or two.

No QB controversy here. No offensive identity, either.

Individually, I think we've got playmakers on offense good enough to stand out against anybody in the Greek pantheon. I mean the country.

Tyler Eifert. Theo Riddick. Cierre Wood. TJ Jones is starting to show us some brilliance. George Atkinson III, who's just waiting for his chance to explode.

But as a unit, we just aren't there yet. We don't have a rallying point--not like the defense does. We have a veteran O-line, but what we need is a dynamo in the pocket.

In truth, the offense is still too much of a work in progress to make any pronouncements about it one way or the other. After a sensational start against an undersized Navy team, we've struggled to appear competent against our more Titan-like opponents. Any Irish fans blighted by the mediocrity descendant upon our ranks within the last, say, five or six years will probably be quick to bemoan our offense's lack of alacrity, besmirch the coach for his dearth of inventive play-calling, and consign themselves to another painstaking, punt-heavy season of perfidy.

I admit to you that watching the offense these last two games has not exactly called forth the urge to expostulate any great founts of joy. The most impressive thing they've managed to do is hold onto the ball when we really, really, really, really needed it. Brian Kelly's conservative (read: predictable) play-calling in the fourth quarter may have been craftier than it seemed, considering that pass to Tyler Eifert managed to rattle the Stymphalian birds of the Michigan defense. Likewise with Rees's easy 2-yard jog into the endzone to end the 2nd quarter (though why Kelly didn't call a QB sneak before we lucked out and Michigan handed us another set of downs I cannot fathom).

The QB switch-up is also hard to swallow. In a way, I appreciate Kelly's commitment to Golson as the starter, but it's sort of hard to believe when you just watched Tommy Rees play for over half the game. It cannot be denied that Golson was struggling during the first half. I don't think it's really a case of nerves as in nervousness, but more a case of "holy shit holy shit, just ran out of the tunnel, playing at Notre Dame playing at Notre Dame playing at NOTRE DAME!!!" It's a positive energy once you know how to channel it. It's like being Buzz Lightyear strapped to the back of a rocket if you don't.

I know--Golson's already had a game in the stadium.  But it's not like you ever really get over the feeling of running out of that tunnel. And a mid-afternoon home opener against Purdue is in no way a decent indicator of the atmosphere of a night game against Michigan. Not that this is a good excuse. According to Coach Kelly:
I don't really believe it's a matter of confidence as much as he just has to settle down. He was not as comfortable as I would have liked after playing the Michigan State game where he was in an incredible environment. He needs to just settle down a little bit, and he's going to be fine. He'll have the week off to evaluate all the things. He'll have a week that he doesn't have three exams and four papers, and I'm not building in any excuses for him, but he just has to settle down a little bit, and he'll be fine.

More frustrating is wondering whether Rees is really the better option. He looks more comfortable in the pocket these days. He knows the playbook better. He managed to do a few veteran things--like draw the Wolverines offsides for an Irish first down--that I'm not sure Golson would have been able to manage just yet. But absolutely, there are no Irish fans who feel quite comfortable watching Rees lob balls into the endzone after all the turnovers we accumulated last season.

Perhaps this is unfair. It's true that we didn't turn the ball over after Rees went in. And we did score that touchdown before halftime. But we didn't do a whole helluva lot with the ball in the second half, and in a game with that many turnovers, out defense deserved a lot more help than they got.

Playing conservatively when you've got the lead is all well and good, but it isn't all we're capable of, and I'd hate to think this is all we're willing to risk. Handing the ball off to Cierre Wood or Theo Riddick three times in a row isn't exactly what I'd call dynamic offense. And it's hard to pick up first downs when the defense knows exactly who you're giving the ball to on every play. The coach admits to a certain amount of stubbornness here:
There's eight, nine guys on the line of scrimmage, we're still running into those looks, and we didn't want to turn the ball over in the second half. We weren't going to risk turning it over, our defense played so well that we were going to be a little bit stubborn. So maybe we were a little bit more stubborn in terms of wanting to run the football and eat some clock. That's the way that defense needs to be managed.

Good in the sense that this won us the game, and good in he sense that we're still committed to our run game. But SO FRUSTRATING TO WATCH.

We already know there's no way our offense can match the level of the D this season--the experience at the QB just isn't there yet. But we need a spark. We need something. We had a couple of flashes against MSU. We could use a couple more against Miami. And we sure as hell are going to need some big plays against Stanford and Oklahoma.

Whatever the case, I refuse to carry forth the woes of last season. I am determined to believe in progress. We don't need to be fantastic. We just need to give our defense enough breathing room to keep them from getting worn down to the bone.

And keep the faith, of course.

Have a good bye week, Irish. Get some sleep. Ace some tests.


From Manti's Twitter feed:

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Two Days til We Get Lei'd

Notre Dame 20, MSU 3

Guys. Guys. GUYS. 3-0!!!!!!

Three wins to start the season doesn't seem like it should be this much of an event, except that we haven't been able to celebrate a 3-0 start for an entire decade. Not once since I started blogging (way back in the doldrums of 2007, when that "0" was on the wrong side of the dash for the entire first half of the season) have I made it all the way to week three with the sweet mellow calm of victory oozing its way into my words.

I also haven't seen Notre Dame fans celebrating like that in Spartan Stadium since 2006, when I half-drowned in the last-minute, mud-puddle, choke-on-applesauce victory that remains The Most Fantastic Game I Have Ever Seen In Person (Thank You Terrail Lambert). Of course, that was also the last season Notre Dame had an outside shot at a national championship bid, and flubbed it up early by losing to Michigan.

No one's talking national championship this season (except maybe Lou Holtz), but my personal goal for the season is to see us beat both Michigan and Michigan State for the first time since 2004. We're already halfway there.

It seems like this whole season so far has been a glorious revel of victory tempered by a collective holding-of-the-breath; a strain of the spleen; a harrowing hiccup of the heart.

"Bend-but-don't-break" seems to have been our defensive motto for the last eighteen gazillion years, and the actual result of our defensive endeavors has been a lot more like "bend-and-then-break," or something like "bend-and-then-break-and-then-drop-to-your-knees-and-give-praise-to-the-sweet-heavens-that-you've-got-somebody-like-Mama-Kyle-in-your-backfield-mopping-up-your-mess-for-you."

We haven't quite gotten back to the jaw-dropping, pick-sixing, 'scuse-me-while-I-score-more-points-than-your-offense style of defense that we had during the Return to Glory year, but I do think we have something equally iimpressive.

Manti Te'o.

Everybody better be planning to get lei'd this weekend, or I will personally tackle you in the parking lot and give your ticket to a Michigan fan

If, by now, you have not heard, Manti Te'o lost both his grandmother and his girlfriend (who had been battling leukemia) last week, within 48 hours of each other. The outpouring of faith, support, and love from all sides has been tremendous. From the players. From the fans. From the opposing teams' fans. There has been a huge movement this week to encourage everyone to wear a lei to Saturday night's game, in honor of the Hawaiian native. They're even giving 7500 of them away at the pep rally this Friday (so get there early, punks).

Manti Te'o became a storyline for last week's game, for obvious reasons. This week, he was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week and the Lott IMPACT Trophy Player of the Week for his performance against MSU, which included 12 tackles, a fumble recovery, and 2 pass breakups. But there would have been an outpouring of support for Te'o whether he stayed to play the game or not. Whether he even played well in the game or not.

One thing I always liked to point out on campus tours was that the three tallest points on campus are the Basilica, the main building, and the library, representing the three most important aspects of campus life: faith, family, and education. Notice how football is not involved.

But in that vein--and in the words of Brian Kelly:
I can tell you that the entire defense is his family because during this tough time all he wanted to do was be at practice with his teammates. So there's a lot of merit to that statement in that all those kids in there were pulling for Manti.

There's nobody [like Manti]. He's so strong for everybody that when he was at a time, everybody wanted to help him out, and I've never seen that dynamic amongst a team and a group of players. It's a pretty close locker room.

And in Manti's own words:
It was hard. I lost a woman who I truly love, but I have my family around me and my football family. At the end of the day, families are forever and I will see them again someday.

[Football] is a great escape. I will be honest, throughout the game you are still thinking about it, but football allows me to be in a little realm, a little world that I know. I can honor them by the way I played.

It was for them, for my girl and my grandma, and for all my loved ones who have passed on. They are all watching. It was a happy moment.

My family and my girlfriend's family has received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family. Michigan State fans showed some love. It goes to show that football is just a game that we play and have fun doing it, but at the end of the day what matters are the people around you and family.

It's not really about football. It's about Manti Te'o being the kind of person you want around. On your team, in your office, at your school. In the world.

Do I want to beat Michigan? Hell yes, I want to beat Michigan. But I would wear a lei and cheer for Manti Te'o whether we were 3-0 or 0-3, or whether Manti Te'o never made another tackle again for the rest of his life.

So don't be a slacker. Get yourself a friggin' lei.

And now for something completely football

It is obvious from last week's game how far our offense still has to go. But it was also obvious from last week's game just how good our O-line can be in the trenches. Michigan State's D is way more vaunted than Purdue's (again, probably because Purdue is better than you think they are), and our sometimes-sputtering offense managed to rack up 147 yards and score two touchdowns against a D that hadn't allowed an offensive touchdown all season. This is impressive enough all on its own, but the most significant statistic of all is right here: NO TURNOVERS.

Against MSU, it finally seemed as though we were able to do what we have not been able to do the past few seasons: trust the defense, and control the football just long enough to win. Some of our numbers were abysmal, it is true. Golson went 14-for-32 passing. We were 1 of 14 for third down conversions. But in the fourth quarter, we were able to control the ball for 10:54. We only allowed one sack the entire game. We protected the football. It was nerve-wracking and nail-biting to watch the offense play so conservatively for the entire second half, but it was the smart thing to do. In the words of Brian Kelly:
When you know you play really good defense, offensively you don't have to rush a freshman quarterback. And we can be patient with him and that patience is going to pay off because you saw what he's capable of. He's a very exciting player.

Golson's going to be very good, and we're seeing flashes of that. But there were a couple of frightening moments when he was almost picked off, too, and a couple more passes that could have gone either way. An overthrown pass early in the game might have been caught for a TD. John Goodman's spectacular one-handed catch in the midst of pass interference could have easily been dropped.

But we're doing enough things right on offense that the mistakes are mostly balancing out, and we're doing enough things spectacularly well on defense to give the offense a chance to atone for its mistakes. For example:

Notre Dame has not limited a top-10 foe to fewer points on the road since Nov. 26, 1966 when the Irish shut out No. 10 USC, 51-0. Notre Dame has now limited a top-10 foe to three or fewer points on just six occasions in school history.

Notre Dame has not limited a top-10 opponent to fewer points anywhere since Jan. 1, 1993 when the Irish defeated No. 10 Texas A&M, 28-3.

Notre Dame has now allowed a total of 30 points over its first three games. The Irish have not surrendered fewer points over their first three games of a season since 1988.

Cue the debates over whether MSU was really good enough to be a top-10 team. It doesn't matter. Those stats still give me chills.

And for a defense that's better at stopping the run than the pass, we did pretty well stuffing both Le'Veon Bell and MSU's first-year starting quarterback. Maxwell was 23-of-45 passing for less than 200 yards. He was sacked four times and had zero chances in the red zone.

Against teams with a returning starter in the pocket and more dynamic receivers on the field, we can expect the numbers to be somewhat less impressive. But if our D-line keeps winning the battle in the trenches and putting pressure on the passer the way they did last week, that will take some of the heat off our inexperienced secondary.

Unfortunately, the one thing our defense has not managed to do is stop Denard Robinson in the fourth quarter. But we'll get to that in a second.

No Honey Buns For You

So last week's player guest on the Brian Kelly radio show was Louis Nix III, also known as Irish Chocolate. He has a series of videos on YouTube called "Chocolate News." Episode 1 features Nix and several of his teammates going on a shopping excursion to Sam's Club , during which they spent a lot of time convincing freshman Sheldon Day to put back a jumbo package of Honey Buns. He snuck them back into the cart at least four or five times, but the upperclassmen were adamant. "You ain't tryin to win right now." "Put 'em back. After the season, man." Apparently it took a lot of doing, but eventually Day left the Honey Buns behind.

Looks like all that sacrifice is paying off, since Day had a sack and a pass break-up in back-to-back plays against MSU, forcing a Spartan field goal just before halftime. Though if you're concerned that he injured himself celebrating, this appears to be not the case:
Yeah, he's got a bone bruise. I think people were talking about him jumping up on the sideline. It happened a series earlier. He played, he finished the game. He should be fine.

Let's just hope the bone bruise isn't a side effect of subversively sneaking honey buns when the upperclassmen aren't looking. Right, Sheldon?

Muck Fichigan

Right, so let's get straight to the point: if we don't beat Michigan this year, I think my spleen is going to explode. For the last three years, we've had them pinned and beaten, and in the last thirty seconds, the dashing dreadlocks destroyed us.

I will not stand for this.

Q. With the risk of playing up the revenge angle, how much do guys talk about the way things have ended against Michigan the last couple of years?
They don't talk about it. They don't talk about it at all. They just want to win. They just want to win games. There's not much that we reflect on 2011. You know, there's nothing really to reflect back on other than experiences gained for the positive.
Everything is pretty much focus on getting better individually. And if we do that, there's no need to reflect back on what happened last year.

I enjoy this sort of consistent, forward-thinking approach. In the same way I enjoy envisioning Manti Te'o as a shark with a frickin' laserbeam attached to his head.

I'm sure the players don't talk about it. But they know. They know.

This is our year to Muck the Fichigans. Muck all the Fichigans. Take back our house. Smash the Spartans. Splatter the Skunkbears. Revel in cliches and then pound it out on the field until they mean something.

No friggin' nails on this team.

And if you want to watch something that'll make you believe in Brian Kelly, I recommend last week's ICON video from the MSU game:


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The One With All The Lists

Notre Dame 20, Purdue 17
"By the way, the word for “fan” in Italian is tifoso. Derived from the word typhus. In other words- one who is mightily fevered." -Elizabeth Gilbert

I have decided that this is what we are, we Domers, we subway alumni, we loyal sons and daughters. We are tifosos--the ones who are mightily fevered. We have all caught the same disease. Otherwise we would not all have suffered simultaneous heart palpitations in the fourth quarter when the game got close and Golson got injured and Tommy Rees was sent in to be the closer.

Honestly, this is the most reasonable explanation I have come up with for why I turn into a foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic when a Notre Dame Football game goes down to the wire. This is true of many die-hard fans, of course. But anyone who has not experienced the last few seasons of Notre Dame football (in all their gut-blasting, hope-smashing, nail-biting glory) are unlikely to comprehend how last Saturday's win could have spewed forth such a mess of anxious, pleading texts and tweets and Facebook statuses. (Mostly along the lines of: No ND Football please don't do this to me again, my heart's going to explode one of these days and I'M TOO YOUNG TO DIE.)

So really, I think the best thing for us to do would be to just take a step back. Take a chill pill. Examine the season thus far in a logical manner, without giving too much weight to the angry passions of our mightily fevered selves. Like with some lists. I like lists. Lists are good.

The List With All The Scapegoats
1. Jet lag. This is the most obvious scapegoat, so let's just get it out of the way right now. I don't think jet lag was too much of a factor by the time the game rolled around. It's possible there were a few individual players still feeling the effects of it (unlucky souls who, like me, cannot sleep on planes), but six days s more than enough time to adjust, and I doubt jet lag was as much of a factor as

2. Playing our first Big-10 team of the year. No size advantage for ND in the trenches like we had against Navy. I  think our O-line is good and has the potential to be more dominant than they looked on Saturday, but obviously our offense was not in control for most of the game, because

3. Purdue is better than you think they are. In the words of Zack Martin:
They had a lot of the same guys, pretty much every guy they had last year back. We knew they were going to be better than last year.They gave us a tough game. Hats off to them. They gave us some challenges all day with different looks. They played very hard.

And for good measure, let's throw in a quote from Coach Kelly:
Our players, first of all, recognized the opponent that we had today was outstanding. My hat goes off to Purdue, the way they competed today. They got a darn good football team.

Keep in mind that Purdue hasn't beaten Notre Dame in about five years, and they were most likely salivating over the prospect of ND starting an inexperienced QB. Odds are they were a little hungrier for this W coming out of the gate. And ND was starting slow, because of

4. First-game jitters. Okay, so it wasn't the first game of the season, but it was our first game at home. I'm gonna steal another quote from Zack Martin here:
It's just the atmosphere here at Notre Dame, first home game. You're looking to go out there and kind of make a statement. Emotions are flying. You just got to do your best to take control of those.
Martin's quote was was in response to a question about penalties. In case you don't recall, at least two of our four captains had personal foul penalties called on them during the game (and another two were injured, so that was a whole big barrel of laughs). This is sloppy and frustrating to watch,  but if the true cause was first-game jitters, then it is a temporary glitch and can be fixed. Presumably before the next game. In that vein:

5. Penalties.
Against Navy, we had 2 penalties for 15 yards. Against Purdue, we had 8 for 52. (The Boilermakers had 8 penalties for 51 yards, so it's not as though we were the only slop-fest out there on the field.) How-ev-er, I refuse to despair over this slump in focus, because--as noted above--you know the great thing about focus? You can get it back. It's all mental, and I think we have strong enough leadership on the team that if our CAPTAINS decide to get it together and lock into the game with the focus we know they are capable of having, it will ripple through the rest of the team. Easy enough fix. Easier to improve mid-season than, say

7. Tackling fundamentals.
Apparently all those 11-on-11 drills in fall practice this year were somewhat detrimental to the tackling development of our secondary. We’ve got all freshmen and sophomores covering our receivers (which is partly why safety Zeke Motta ended up having a hell of a game) and there’s an obvious disparity between the veterans and the younger guys in terms of tackling technique. (Yes, it's true! The veterans now HAVE tackling technique. Three cheers for player development! Yo-ho, yo-ho, yo-ho.)

The List With Everett Golson Getting Stuck in Second Gear

a) First-game-in-the-stadium-jitters. I can testify, as someone who has run out of that tunnel (in a band uniform—but nevertheless) that it gets to you. Is it awesome? Of course. Did I play a single note of the Hike song the first time I marched pregame? Hell no. So perhaps Coach Kelly was on to something, having his players practice in the stadium on Thursdays. Then again, since it doesn’t really seem to have helped in getting the jitters out (because let's face it--there's nothing like actual Game Day), maybe the fixation on the stadium only psyched the players out instead of psyching them up.

b) Fear of throwing an interception. The commentators kept mentioning this one. It was kind of irritating (the commentators, that is), but also probably kind of true, given that Golson threw an interception in the end zone last week, and is no doubt fully cognizant that last season’s King of Turnovers is now sitting on second-string as the King of Wishful Thinking. And we can be sure Golson wants to do well, not only for his own sake, but also because now he’s got

c) More pressure to run the offense. It seemed like the coaches ramped up his level of responsibility this week, calling a string of 7 pass plays to start the game. Given our commitment to the run game last week, I suspect this was both an attempt to befuddle the Purdue defense and give Golson a chance to settle into the passing game right out of the gate. Of course, considering Purdue had our number after the first couple plays and Golson was sacked on third down, I wouldn’t say it worked out exactly as planned.

However, it may surprise you to know that by the time Rees was put into the game for the two-minute drill, we had 31 passes and 28 rushes, so the pass-run split was slightly more balanced than it appeared (keeping in mind that some of those rushes were probably Golson taking off for a scramble). And of course, there’s always the old “take what the defense gives you” adage. With an average of 1.4 yards per carry for ND this week, Purdue wasn’t giving us much on the ground. According to Coach Kelly:
At halftime we had 16 rushes for 18 yards. We were 13 16 for 197. Purdue made up their mind that they were going to have a loaded box today. That was it. You're not going to run the football. We're going to make it so difficult.
So we had to manage it by throwing the football.

 One has to wonder, though—if we’d tried to run more early instead of calling seven or eight passing plays in a row, would we have been able to keep the defense guessing more and actually been able to open up our run game in the second half? Theo Riddick finally managed to break through in the 4th quarter with an 11-yard run when we desperately needed it. Or were there too many other problems surfacing on our end? Such as

d) Communication breakdown. There were at least four or five (or is it more like five or six?) time-outs called by ND in order to avoid a delay of game penalty. This is absolutely ridiculous, given that we were playing at home and have a famously quiet stadium atmosphere (unless we’re playing Michigan or USC). Obviously the whole stadium-atmosphere thing has been under scrutiny lately, so let’s not even go there, but my big concern of the moment is: if Golson can’t effectively run the no-huddle at home, where the crowd’s behaving, how on earth is he going to manage it in front of a loud and openly hostile crowd like the one he’s going to face this week at MSU? More Coach Kelly for you:

Yeah, you know, we are really set up to be able to do run our entire offense without any verbal communication. We can put it on the center and the center can be the guy that's snapping the ball. So it shouldn't be a problem at all.
When we are at home, we use a lot more of our own inflexion. But you know, if it gets loud, then we are in pretty good shape to put it on the offensive line. We can put it on a center or we can put it on a guard. So we are not concerned about that.

Taking that into consideration, you have to hope that the source of the confusion wasn’t so much our method of signal-calling as it was

e) Purdue being all tricky with disguising its coverages and confusing the hell out of our signal-caller. According to Coach Kelly:

Unfortunately, I couldn't do a great job with him this week because they had a new defensive coordinator. We had no real film last week on their performance. We were looking at Kansas State film from 2008. It wasn't really the same. He'll get a better look. He'll have a lot more familiarity with the kind of looks that he saw today as we move into Michigan State.

Or possibly it all just boils down to

f) No one told him life was gonna be this way.

The One With Tommy Rees Running the Two-Minute Drill

Uno! While I share the collective fear of red zone turnovers, I’m willing to believe Rees has learned a thing or two since last season (and hopefully a thing or two since his indiscretions in the spring). Further, I remain convinced that junior year is the turning point for most college QB’s, in terms of them fully grasping the playbook and being able to go out there and consistently make the right decision.

Dos! Kelly seems pretty firmly committed to keeping Golson as his starter, but it’s clear Golson’s not ready yet to go out there and run the two-minute drill. He just doesn’t have the tempo down yet. Hopefully by the end of the season, he’ll have gotten much more comfortable with Kelly’s system. But for the time being, there’s just no sensein asking him to go out there and do something he’s  not ready to do. Especially when you know you’ve got a quarterback who can do it. (You know, barring any terrifying turnovers.)

Tres! Rees led the game-winning drive. Whatever former opinions we may have formed, he did do that. So we need to chill out already. Right? Speaking of which…

The List About the Home Crowd Booing


ii) It doesn’t matter why you're booing. Or who you're trying to boo. I don't care if you're dissatisfied with the decisions of the coaching staff. There's a place for that sort of griping, and it's called the internet.

iii) The loudest sound in the stadium during the game cannot be a BOO against someone who is not your opponent.

iv) Not classy.

The List With the Players Cleared to Play vs MSU Despite Previous Injury or Suspension
Everett Golson
Jamoris Slaughter
Tyler Eifert
Cierre Wood
Kapron Lewis-Moore
Manti Te'o (don't worry, it was just a bruised sternum)

The List With the Awards
John Goodman – gets the “keeping your scoring drive alive” award for being in the right place at the right time on third down

Prince Shembo – gets the “I will rule you like I’ve got a real throne” award for bringin’ the HEAT the entire game

Stephon Tuitt – gets the “who needs Aaron Lynch” award for racking up two sacks and two QB hurries

Zeke Motta – gets the “next incarnation of Mama Kyle” award for suddenly morphing into a clutch player in the backfield right before our very eyes

Kyle Brindza – gets the “I ain’t afraid of no post” award for kicking the game-winning field goal through the uprights with 7 seconds left on the clock to spare us all the agony of overtime

Bennett Jackson – gets the “I’m too sexy for my gloves” award for picking off TerBush twice—including the final INT to end the game

The List With The Future In It

1st - There is really no excuse for allowing an opponent to go 3-of-3 on fourth down conversions. Especially not when one of those happens to be a 4th-and-10 following a turnover. Never mind that captain Kapron Lewis-Moore was out. Never mind that Jamoris Slaughter was out. If we believe in “next man in,” someone’s gotta step up and make those plays. Don't get me wrong--a lot of guys stepped up. But they're gonna have to step ALL THE WAY UP if we want to smite those field-goal fakers for the second season in a row.

2nd - This is the first time our team has started out 2-0 since 2008. Whatever nail-biting mortification I may have felt during the course of the game, I refuse to feel undue pessimism when the Irish are still undefeated.

3rd - We haven't beaten both MSU and Michigan in the same season since 2004. Yep, that's right--not since Ty Willingham's Irish (led by then-unheralded sophomore QB Brady Quinn) managed to upset #8-ranked Michigan at home 28-20, and then traveled to East Lansing to beat the Spartans, 31-24. Their positions are reversed in our schedule this year. We have to head north first to face the 10th-ranked Spartans, who are looking way more legit than the Wolverines at this point in the season, and who (according to this article) are now the Big 10's only remaining hope for a national championship this season. Normally I would advise the Big 10 not to put all their eggs in that particular basket, but there is the outside possibility that MSU is as good as they seem. They've also got

4th – Boise State's defense made MSU's Le'Veon Bell look like the next coming of Toby Gerhart during the Spartans' 17-13 turnover-laden victory in Week 1. Bell had 210 yards on 44 carries against the Broncos (and no fumbles). While Bell is a scrappy little sucker, he lacks the true size and girth of Gerhart. It will be an excellent test to see if our defense can contain him. Of course, after MSU's 41-7 win over Central Michigan last week--in which Bell only had 18 carries--the Spartans are trying to act like he isn't their bread-and-butter guy. But 65 Spartan players saw action on the field last weekend, so don't listen to them. Bell is the guy to target.

Of course, if we can shut MSU's run game down, then the pressure will be on our secondary to perform against Andrew Maxwell, who threw for 275 yards and 2 TD's against Central Michigan. Then again, Maxwell was also picked off 3 times against Boise State. Despite the inexperience in our secondary, ND has already managed to force some key turnovers against both Navy and Purdue. I'd be surprised if some combination of Bennett Jackson, Zeke Motta, Manti Te'o, Jamoris Slaughter, [insert favorite defensive player of the moment here] isn't able to come up with at least one big INT against MSU.

5th – We need to run the friggin’ ball. I don't care if they stack the box. I don't care if MSU's defense hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown yet this season. We have Cierre Wood back. We have Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III. We have an experienced O-line. We have a record of 21-1 over the last ten years when we've rushed for 200 yards or more. We need to RUN. (RUN like we're Rachel from "Friends" leaving Barry at the altar. Go! Go! Go!)

6th - The bloodbath begins. We now have 6 ranked opponents left to play. BYU (2-0) was bumped up to #25 this week. Here's our remaining schedule, as it currently stands:

@ Michigan State (#10) 
vs Michigan (#17)
-Bye Week -
vs. Miami (@ Soldier Field)
vs. Stanford (#21)
vs. BYU (#25)
@ Oklahoma (#5)
vs. Pittsburgh
@ Boston College
vs. Wake Forest (Senior Day)
@ USC (#2)

7th - We had seven players go down with injury against Purdue. (I’m not even sure that count includes Nick Tausch, who was injured before the game, bumping Kyle Brindza up to the starting spot.) This is kind of concerning when you think how many injuries we had during Kelly’s first season, and how the injury problems never stopped once they started. But in another sense, it’s oddly gratifying when you think about how well Kelly’s first season ended, and how we pulled through against Purdue last week even with so many men down.

8th - I love the way our players are talking this year. Probably I said this last year, too, but it's true. Across the board, I like the vibe. I’m going to have to paraphrase, but my favorite quote so far was one of Theo Riddick’s comments on the Brian Kelly radio show last week. He was asked about the atmosphere in Ireland and how it affected the play of the team, and he said something to the effect of “to be honest with you, it doesn’t really matter where we play. We could be playing anywhere, as long as I’ve got my teammates with me.”

Let us hope all the players feel this way as they swagger forth to swashbuckle with their first top-10 opponent of the season.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Rad, man. Let's do this every week.

Notre Dame 50, Navy 10

So, guys. I've been sitting here for like twenty minutes trying to remember what was going on in my brain on Saturday while the Irish were racking up a golden anniversary's worth of points against the Naval Academy, but so far all I've got is this serene complacent feeling, like "all is right with the world, mannn...hey, what do you  need to rant for? Everything's all rad and...groovy."

Apparently Notre Dame scoring fifty points and holding an option team to 149 yards rushing (that's about half of Navy's season rushing average from last year, btw) in the midst of a weekend of gold-plated, shamrock-studded, Guinness-foamed awesomeness has turned me into a hippie. Except, you know, without all the...promiscuous sex with many anonymous partners without protection while at the same time experimenting with mind-expanding drugs in a consequence-free environment. Yes, that was a quote from Austin Powers! So in that spirit...

Groovy, Baby!

Undefeated. YEAH!!!!! 

1-0 is not the most exciting record in the world, but it's a helluva lot better than 0-1 (especially if that 0-1 start comes after a five-hour rain-delay game with some freakish turnovers). Plus it makes the Fighting Irish undefeated in Ireland.

Far out, man.

You know what's remarkable? Is how much [Ireland] looks in no way like [South Bend].

I was addicted to Twitter on Thursday and Friday, looking at all the pics of Ireland, the football team playing giant chess, ND fans taking over the Temple Bar District, 9,000 fans showing up for a pep rally that was broadcast on Irish national television and featured everything from the Notre Dame Folk Choir to the Irish Prime Minister but apparently not the football team. Also, of course, loved the pics of the ND Band parading through the streets of Dublin (but dangit why don't they ever show the halftime show on TV?!)

Absolutely my favorite part of the CBS broadcast was the sideline reporter (was his name Flaherty?), who described the Irish sport of hurling as a "mix between lacrosse and second-degree murder" and asked an Irish fan in the stands, "What's unnecessary roughness? All the roughness seems necessary to me."

I would be okay with having color commentary like that for every game.

Shall we [score] now, or shall we [score] later? How do you like to do it? Do you like to [pass the ball]  first? You know, [post] and [curl]... [flag route]? Personally, before I'm on the job, I like to give my [running back] a bit of an [up the middle].

So you know what's awesome? When you have two rushers who rack up around 100 yards apiece (Theo Riddick had 107,  George Atkinson III had 99)...and neither of them is actually your starting running back. We'll be seeing more of the Theo-and-The-III show ("The Third" being my favorite thing to text people when George Atkinson III does something brilliant) in the Purdue game, since Cierre Wood's suspended until MSU. When MSU rolls around, we'll be glad to have Wood back, because there's no way we'll be able to manhandle MSU's defensemen the way we outpowered Navy's. Wood outweighs Riddick just a tad, so he'll be able to provide a little bit more of a punch off the line. Plus this will open up more flexibility for Riddick to line up at receiver (and hopefully confuse the hootenanny right out of the defensive "can't read-can't write" constituents). But I get ahead of myself. 

Obviously Navy's wasn't the most punishing defense we're going to see this season, but I was quite pleased with the overall effectiveness of our scheme, i.e. we didn't throw the ball too many times. Golson was 12-of-18 for passing with one interception. Watching an interception in the endzone brought back a few trippy flashbacks from last season, but we got back on track rather quickly when Navy fumbled in the red zone and defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt ran the ball back 77 yards for a touchdown (the third-longest fumble return in school history). After that, it was pretty much all peace signs and mood rings and sitting around singing kumbaya with flowers in your hair.

It's hard to have too much of an opinion about Golson yet, since he really hasn't been put in a pressure situations. But already we're off to a good start, because A) he didn't fumble any of the snaps, B) he didn't seem rattled or irreparably damaged by the interception in the endzone, and C) the coaching staff doesn't seem to be putting too much pressure on him for immediate perfection. According to Golson, the coaches have told him that it's okay to make mistakes. They expect him to make mistakes. "It's the poor decisions we have to eradicate," Kelly said. This last point is the most interesting storyline that has come out of fall camp, I think.

Well it's true! It's true! You're semi-[dominant]. You're quasi-[dominant]. You're the margarine of [dominant]. You're the Diet Coke of [dominant]. Just one [bowl win], not [dominant] enough.

According to this article from the South Bend Tribune, Kelly has been working on increased communication with the players--particularly the quarterbacks--this season, in an effort to return to a more involved, hands-on approach with his players. Evidently, this is the way he ran things at Grand Valley State and Cincinnati, and it seems to have gotten away from him a little bit since he was plunged into the insane media fishbowl that is Notre Dame.

It's hard to tell how true this is, or how much of a factor it might have played in regards to Kelly's overall success with the Irish the past two seasons. Certainly increased communication can't hurt, but if it's true that Kelly changed his coaching scheme once he got to South Bend, one has to wonder...why? It's like when presidential candidates change their entire approach to politics just because Now They're Presidential Candidates--and then they get too far away from who they really are and how they normally operate, and lose the election. And then you watch their concession speech and it's the best damn thing you've heard in their entire campaign (because they sound like themselves again), and you remember the reason they were nominated in the first place--and you're like, SHOOT, why didn't you do that the WHOLE TIME? (We're getting a little bit away from the "groovy baby" theme, but it's hard not to think of politics in an election year, so just go with me here.)

Look, I'm not saying the last two seasons have been a complete and utter travesty or anything. But certainly I wouldn't say we've seen the full manifestation of whatever brilliance managed to turn the Cincinnati Bearcats from Big East bottom-feeders into an undefeated, "THIS-freaking-close-to-playing-in-the-national-championship" team in 3 seasons or less.

There are a lot of arguments you could make for why that is--such as last season would have been a whole lot cheerier if we hadn't had the absolute worst turnover margin in the entire FBS. The stats-lovers over at Football Study Hall agree that Notre Dame should have come out of last season looking a helluva lot better than they did. The numbers even are in our favor for potential bad-ass dominance this season--if we can manage to turn the corner and turn "good on paper" into SO FRIGGIN GOOD it's better than an acid trip at Woodstock. (Sorry, I'm having trouble keeping up with my own theme here. Although I'm pretty sure absolutely nothing about this theme is appropriate, especially since most of the things it suggests would almost certainly get our players suspended for a violation of team rules.)

Anyway. My actual point is: the head coach is a pretty big tipping point when it comes to winning or losing games. So if Kelly really did slip away from his identity as a coach, and is now getting into pre-nomination form (as it were), maybe it's the push we need to return to dominance. Though of course if you follow Dr. Lou, you'll already know Notre Dame's got dominance written all over it this season:

Lou Holtz ‏@ESPNDrLou
I stand by my word, Mayday….. 11 wins for Notre Dame this season.

I appreciate few things in the world of football more than this man's unwavering optimism.

You know, I have one simple request. And that is to have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads! Now evidently my cycloptic colleague informs me that that cannot be done. Ah, would you remind me what I pay you people for, honestly?

Speaking of players who resemble sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads: MANTI TE'O. Can you believe that was his first-ever interception in an Irish uniform? I can't. Seems hard to believe, considering his freakish nose for where the football's going to be. But I guess when you're busy tackling the helmet paint out of people (and, you know, playing linebacker instead of corner), racking up your sack count and your TFL, you don't always have time to be snatching pigskins out of the air in a single bound. (Or something.)

So if you actually clicked on the link for the Football Study Hall Notre Dame 2012 football preview up there, you may have noted that their #1 recommendation for our defense is to force more turnovers. We really haven't had a dominant, turnover-forcing defense since approximately 2002. I'd say we're possibly on the verge of the cusp of having one now, except we're really lacking in experience at corner. And based on Navy's three-play, all-passing touchdown-scoring drive to open the second half, I'd say there's a possibility that we may get burned in our pass protection later in the season--against teams that are actually known for their passing games.

Of course, one could argue that that particular drive was an anomaly. The fact that Navy even HAD a drive composed entirely of passing plays is a testament to our defense's ability to shut down their option attack on the ground. Considering that was Navy's only touchdown drive of the game, we can reasonably say that our D was pretty well in control for most of the game. Plus, they racked up 3 turnovers and 3 sacks, which is fairly impressive against an option running team not known for making too many sloppy mistakes. (Though admittedly, Navy's been a bit sloppier than usual since last season.)

It's hard to tell from one game, of course, but I am optimistic that our defense may be on the right track toward upping its turnover ratio. This is something we'll definitely need against teams like, for example, MSU--which based on its season opener has the next incarnation of Toby Gerhart playing in its backfield. Either that or nobody at Boise State knows how to tackle, which I find somewhat hard to believe.

Why must I be surrounded by frickin' idiots?

aka Who's glad the preseason AP poll has finally breathed its last breath?

I like the rankings a lot better this week, because I think they more readily resemble how they should've looked to begin with. Michigan's been plunked down to #19, Notre Dame's been bumped up to #22, Oklahoma's holdin' steady at #5 and USC's been juked out of the top spot by the much-more-deserving Alabama.

Oh, be-have!

Considering the beast of a schedule Notre Dame has this season, I'd say it's something of a relief to have gotten the Navy's option handily out of the way and be heading back to the Bend to face Purdue in our season opener. The thing to worry about most this week is probably a potential player hangover--both from jet lag and from opening the year with such a dominant win. Purdue's not exactly gonna be a powerhouse, but they did win a bowl game last season (and beat Ohio State), and they've got a couple really good defensive linemen in Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston, so that'll be a nice test for both our QB and our O-line. It'll also be a good test for our D to see how they settle into a more "normal" scheme after all that prepping for the option.

As mentioned, we won't have Cierre Wood back for this game, but Amir Carlisle (our sophomore RB transfer from USC), who's been out with injury, has been cleared for practice this week, so it is pos-si-ble we may see him in the lineup against the Boilermakers. (Which would be nifty.)

All in all, we are in excellent shape to start the season. Nothin' left to say this week except GO IRISH BEAT BOILERS!