Sunday, November 11, 2012

Making A Case Against the Noise

Notre Dame 21, Boston College 6

I may have to start doing what my dad does sometimes during the games: mute the television and turn on the radio.

The last twenty minutes of ABC's broadcast had absolutely nothing to do with what was happening on the field. The only thing the announcers talked about (and this is not an exaggeration) was Alabama's loss to A&M, who was likely to be ranked #1 in Sunday's poll as a result, and how a 12-0 Irish team had almost no chance of making it to the national championship game if both Oregon and K-State won out.

You know, funnily enough, I'm pretty sure I tuned in to watch a FOOTBALL GAME, not the early edition of SportsCenter. If I wanted to hear what the yokels in the studio thought about Notre Dame achieving 10-0 perfection for the first time in several decades, I'd be sure to tune in to ESPN after the game.

So instead of spending half of the fourth quarter spewing a bunch of waffling conjecture about what may or may not happen three weeks from now based on the results of games that haven't even been played yet, d'you think you could--you know--maybe CALL THE GAME?

I realize this is a lot to ask. I mean, after all, what's more fun than making the ND Twittersphere explode by informing the Irish faithful that a 12-0 Notre Dame squad Just Isn't Up To Scratch For The National Championship Game because they don't have enough "style points"?

But come on. You have the next six days to argue over hypotheticals. And most of the time I'd really rather listen to someone who A) is going to discuss what's actually going on in the game, and B) legitimately cares about the team than listen to what the nationally-pandering pundits have to say.

Especially when the national broadcasters keep pissing me off the way they do.

The Case for Offense

In 1966, Notre Dame played a tough, gritty, down-in-the-trenches-all-day-long game against Michigan State, which resulted in a 6-6 tie. They called it the Game of the Century.

In 2011, Alabama lost a tough, gritty, you-ain't-gettin'-in-this-endzone matchup to LSU in the regular season, 9-6. They called it boring.

(And then they pitted Alabama against LSU for a rematch in the national title game, anyway.)

This is one of a bevy of things currently pushing my buttons in the greater college football world. Defense is still acknowledged, still respected, still absolutely crucial to winning games--but in low-scoring matchups, the pundits suddenly lose their conviction and start waxing poetic about teams like Oregon (which can score 60 points per game but apparently can't stop its opponents from scoring 50).

Last week, Yahoo! Sports posted a video discussing "Dream BCS matchups" with columnists Pat Forde and Eddie George (). George was diplomatic enough to call the four then-unbeatens "all worthy of playing in the national title game"; he went with Oregon-'Bama as his dream matchup. Forde went with Alabama-Notre Dame.

Host Larry Biel then stepped in and said, "Pat, do you wanna see a game that's six to three?"

Pat: "I got no problem with 6-3 if they're the two best teams. I saw Oregon give up 42 to LSU last year."

Larry: "I'd rather see 42. I'd rather see some points."

Larry, you just summed up the whole sorry state of college football in ONE SENTENCE.
(And just for the record, the actual score of LSU's season-opening win against Oregon last year was 40-27.)

Points are revered. Staunch defensive efforts are to be rewarded only in key games against highly-ranked opponents.

It's this kind of reasoning that puts Collin Klein, Geno Smith, and (apparently) Johnny Football in the front of the pack for the Heisman race, because QUARTERBACK THROW BALL GOOD TOUCHDOWN is what really matters, right? And never mind that (for example) Manti Te'o is toiling away in obscurity with 30% of the fan vote over at the Nissan Heisman House.

It's the same reasoning that ranked USC as the preseason #1 instead of defending national champion 'Bama: because USC was supposed to have the offense nobody could stop. (And because the pundits have the quixotic tendency to build Heisman winners and national championship frontrunners out of nothing, and then cry when their imaginary windmills burn down.)

And hey, let's face it: for as much as everyone loves to tout 'Bama's defense, the Crimson Tide wouldn't have held such a chokehold on first-place votes all season if their offense hadn't been averaging over thirty points per game.

Now that the Tide have fallen, where do all the votes go? Oregon. Because Oregon's scored more points.

Or maybe it's because the voters are favoring Oregon with a stronger strength-of-schedule (despite KState having faced more ranked teams at this point in the season). Whatever.

But hey: you know what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? The immovable object wins, because in football the unstoppable force is supposed to put some friggin' points on the board. (aka if somebody can stop the Ducks, the Ducks are f*ing screwed.)

So the hype means nothing--and everything.

If the talking heads decide Notre Dame's offense isn't up to snuff for the national title game, then that's that.

Of course, as Coach Kelly so deftly pointed out after last night's victory, "We have to beat Wake Forest, or it all means nothing."

The Case Against Notre Dame

So I realize I haven't talked about last night's game once this entire rant. But just bear with me here, because I really need to get this off my chest.

At some point last night, during Herbstreit and Musberger's extended conversation with revered ESPN analyst Guywhose Nameidon'tremember, the analyst said something to the effect of, "If you had told me in any other era of college football that an undefeated Notre Dame team would not be going to the national championship, I would have called you crazy."

Yeah. I don't know what college football universe you're living in here, guys, but I don't think I want to live in it with you.

It's not that I don't see their reasoning. I mean, Notre Dame doesn't have the kind of offense Oregon has. And we definitely don't have Optimus Klein at quarterback. We're averaging 20 points per game instead of 30. We're the only undefeated team that's had to scrape out two victories in overtime--one of them against a .500 Pitt team was one shanked field goal away from ruining Notre Dame's perfect season.

Really, the problem the voters have with Notre Dame is the same problem my friend Matt has with Kyle Brindza: never mind if the dude's made five game-saving kicks--he hasn't made every single kick. He's missed a few that might have prevented the game from needing to be saved. He hasn't instilled the kind of confidence that suggests he can make every single kick.

This lack of confidence is what the national media is harpooning us with right now: sure you've won all your games, Notre Dame, you just haven't done it convincingly enough. So convince us.

(All right, President Snow. We'll work on that.)

What it boils down to now is style points. "Style points" being the new term for "kicking unremitting ass upon your lesser opponents until you have them beaten by at least a 35-point margin of defeat."

You know, it seems to me like there was a time when this sort of thing was considered rude. Classless. Unsportsmanlike.(Of course, there was also a time when 62-51 would have been a reasonable basketball score.) Nowadays, running up the score on unranked teams is bare minimum if you expect to make it to the national championship game. You can't just beat them. You have to crush them. Prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are the superior team.

It still doesn't seem entirely sportsmanlike. But I'm becoming accustomed to it, because it's what's demanded of the BCS hopefuls. I sort of see the logic: if you're really a championship-caliber team, you should be running some people over. Giving yourself nice cushy margins of victory. Putting in some of your second-stringers and give those starters a rest at the end of the game.

At the heart of it, it's not supposed to be about crushing your opponent's soul. It's about proving that you can play an elite level of football, week in and week out. And there have been too many weeks this season when Notre Dame hasn't looked like they can.

We've wavered. We've stumbled. We've gotten lucky, some might say.

But we're still here, and we haven't stopped fighting.

The Case for Notre Dame

We're gonna get people saying all sort of things. That it's too late for for us to win the margin-of-victory battle. That it's too late to wipe the triple-overtime scar from our skin. That it's too late for us to do anything, in fact, except cross our fingers and hope one of the two teams in front of us decides not to win.

But I don't know, guys. If a one-loss 'Bama team can make it to the national championship game for a rematch against LSU, I see no reason why the BCS can't decide it wants to take ND over, say, K-State for the national title game.

Unless of course everyone on the BCS selection committee is like Larry Biel and wants to watch another basketball game on the gridiron.

The national media has been controlling the perception of football greatness since before the time of Grantland Rice. But screw them. What do they know?

Absolutely nobody (except Lou Holtz) predicted we would still be undefeated at this point in the season.

And yeah, we've won some very tight games. Our resume is not all gloss and sparkles and excessive touchdowns. We've played with flaws. We've played exposed. Our weaknesses are wide open out there, for everyone to see. And therein lies our strength.


It's not just that we've survived. We've overcome.

And I maintain that (no matter how much you think Notre Dame played like a middling Big-10 team against the Eagles yesterday), with the kind of wins we've had to eke out so far this season, we've got more character than a morning full of Looney Tunes.

We can hang with anybody in the country.

All we're fighting for now is another chance to prove it.

The Case for the Game

Okay, this one was a weird one. A 21-6 victory over a 2-7 Backup College team wasn't exactly what we were hoping for in terms of a statement win. We coughed up two turnovers and got burned again and again on screen passes. We even allowed BC to convert a bunch of third downs--despite the Eagles being one of the worst third-down teams in the entire FBS. It didn't seem like a punishing performance by our D, by any stretch of the imagination.

And yet.

We allowed zero touchdowns. We forced two turnovers. BC averaged 2.3 yards per rush and turned the ball over twice on downs. We sacked Chase Rettig four times (three times courtesy of Prince Shembo, who also had a fumble recovery and another tackle for loss). In fact, with Alabama's loss, Notre Dame officially has the #1 scoring defense in the country.

So you see? The statistics are on our side. It just didn't feel like a great win.

Which is sad, because we're 10-0 for the first time since 1993 and HEY THAT'S KIND OF GREAT.

It must be noted that while BC doesn't have the same fervent athleticism or shock-and-awe special teams unit as Pitt, the Eagles pretty much threw everything they could think of at us, and our offense went dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge and kept on truckin'.

The one thing we HAVE to stop doing is turning the ball over. Everett "I only throw picks at home" Golson managed to keep the ball out of our opponent's hands this week--but our running backs didn't. Credit to BC's defense for their fervent and frequent attempts to strip the ball; it paid off against George Atkinson, and again on a fumble of Theo Riddick's. In fact, Riddick has lost the ball a couple times in the last couple games, which is straight-up disappointing (though I will say, whenever Theo makes a mistake, he comes back and plays like 300% harder in an attempt to atone for it. Which is hard to comprehend, since Riddick's so much of a beast to begin with). I mean, it's great that we've protected the ball so well against opponents like Oklahoma, but we cannot afford to turn the ball over on Senior Day. I want all those guys who've busted their butts for four years to get a chance to PLAY.

The Case for the Future

The new BCS poll will be released within the next hour or two (depending on when this gets posted), and with any luck it will negate everything I've just ranted about. After all, Notre Dame has still beaten more top-10 teams than anybody else in the country (not that the human polls care about this anymore--but the computer polls do), and there is a vague outside chance we could leapfrog into the No.2 spot in the BCS (though it does not seem likely, since we are stolidly at the 3rd spot in all the human polls).

However, despite the doom-and-gloom discourse of the ABC commentators last night (and relevant reactions on the Twittersphere), it's not all dire straits out there for ND's championship-game hopes. Take this Dr. Saturday post from Frank Schwab:
The four undefeated contenders for the BCS Championship Game lost a member on Saturday.

Alabama's loss to Texas A&M makes what Notre Dame, Kansas State and Oregon did on Saturday that much more impressive.
Those teams are getting opponents' best shot every week. Alabama gave in to that pressure, but the other three won with ease.

Notre Dame also didn't mess around after getting a scare last week against Pitt. The Irish defense was great against an overmatched Boston College team in a 21-6 win.

The win against BC may have been a little lackluster, but it was never in really in contention. And hey--were you aware that Chase Rettig has thrown for 2,803 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, and that--despite their abysmal record--this is the first time BC's failed to score a touchdown all year? The game may have been lacking some thrilling heroics, but at least (statistically speaking) our defense is back on track.

With 'Bama out and two weeks left to go, Brian Kelly's all in. He put Notre Dame at the No.1 spot in the Coaches' Poll this week (note: he was the only one), and in his press conference today, he finally started angling for ND to have a shot at the title game:
Each team has their own distinctions. The distinction of this football team is it's the No.1 scoring defense in the country.

It's proven that against very, very good teams all year. [...] If you look at national championship-caliber football, you've got to look at a defense, and so that's why we feel strongly that our football team has put themselves in the discussion. We'll let others decide, but I think we've played our way into the discussion.

Just a couple things left to take care of. First we gotta exorcise the 5-5 Demon Deacons. Then it's time to start getting amped for a Thanksgiving-weekend showdown against the Trojans.

Sooooooooo clooooooooooooose.


Let's protect that 0.


South Bend Tribune/ROBERT FRANKLIN

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