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.


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