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.


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