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.
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?
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: