Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Last Enemy That Shall Be Destroyed Is Overtime

Notre Dame 29, Pittsburgh 26 - 3OT

In hell there will be an endless overtime, during which you cannot sit and you cannot avert your eyes, and you definitely cannot let your head droop or press the heels of your hands over your ears and murmur sweet nothings to yourself (no doubt trying to convince your central nervous system that the universe is an equitable place, weighed in parts both good and ill, and that whatever may transpire on the gridiron is of minor ilk to the greater workings of the cosmos and therefore will be swiftly balanced by a happenstance of greater joy than the potential pit of this loss is dark and deep--which means there is really no reason to give yourself a heart attack over a football game) until the gentleman sitting next to you offers you a Hot Hands packet to place inside your gloves (even though for the last thirty minutes you've been in such a fog of distress you've pretty much forgotten that there is such a thing as weather at all), and you have to turn and tell him, "No, I'm fine. I just can't handle this."

I think Manti Te'o is right.

I hate to lose more than I love to win.

The Gash

Pitt opened a gash in the midst of our season, and the Irish let it bleed onto the field good and long before they slapped a big-ass gauzy bandage over it. Then they somehow stitched out a win in the suture of overtime with streaks of blood still dripping into their eyes.

Pitt played to win. Did the Irish play not to lose? This is exactly what Brian Kelly said the team could not do after their decisive victory over Oklahoma. However, Kelly also said, following last night's victory, "Great win. There are no bad wins. [...] That's a great win, in triple overtime, with a bunch of guys that just keep believing."

You know, I complain a lot about teams like Ohio State and the University of Spoiled Children coming out strong against ranked opponents and playing like a bunch of hungover cheerleaders against their lesser-touted foes. This is largely because I believe the rosters of these teams to be populated by a bunch of whiny punk-asses who wouldn't recognize integrity if they caught it plastering the NCAA bylaws across the windshield of their family's brand-new, tricked-out, completely-legitimately-obtained luxury SUV. (Though this may seem like a specious allegation, coming from a fan of a team whose backup quarterback was arrested for assaulting a police officer last spring. And perhaps that's too unkind.)

But my point is: when things go wrong off the field, I expect there to be consequences. (And I expect there to be a lot of irate alumni and deeply concerned members of the administration when there aren't.) Likewise, when things go wrong on the field, I expect there to be standards of physical and mental toughness that keep the team from buckling under the weight of their opponent's will.

This is not, perhaps, something I could have demanded from most Irish squads for the But it is something I have come to expect from a team that clawed its way into the national title conversation in spite of a once indomitable-seeming schedule and the reckless, illimitable haze of doubt that fogs the fate of the Irish wherever they go.

But it is something I now can never doubt  when watching a defense powered by the heart of Manti Te'o. It is a faith I carry, in which the Irish have yet to prove me wrong--no matter how much of a bloody godawful mess that game seemed to be last night.

The Knife

Pittsburgh played one hell of a ballsy, heart-stomping, wrecking-ball game--and frankly I don't know how the flu-ridden Irish, with all their offensive misdemeanors, managed to survive.  

In case you haven't been following Pitt, they entered this game 4-4, equal parts domineering and incompetent. They opened the season with a 31-17 loss to AA opponent (or FCS, if you prefer the new-fangled lingo) Youngstown State. Two weeks later, Pitt knocked off 13th-ranked Virginia Tech, 35-17. Subsequent games included a 14-13 loss at Syracuse  and a 47-17 whomping of Temple at home.

I think it's safe to say Pittsburgh was a little hard to prepare for, considering they've been playing with approximately 0% consistency all season.

But I think Pittsburgh also did what Notre Dame did last week against Oklahoma: they came in with a killer game plan, and they executed. Pittsburgh's defense stymied our run game (particularly in the first half), and their corners did a ridiculous job of containing The Beast, Tyler Eifert, in the endzone. They were also not the least bit fooled by our long over-the-middle pass to freshman Chris Brown (though really, if BK wants that to work in the future, he's going to have to put Brown in on offense for more than one play). Of course, there were a couple of suspicious moments when I felt that a nice little pass interference nod from the refs would not have been unduly uncalled for--but for the most part, I think Pitt's corners made a lot of heads-up, bat-the-ball-down plays, and our O-line did not do a consistent enough job of keeping the pocket secure.

There was too much penetration in the backfield; too much stuffing of the run. Too much of Everett Golson scrambling around in the pocket, and definitely WAY TOO MUCH of our team committing stupid penalties and turnovers, and generally playing as though A) they all still had the flu, and B) they are somehow less comfortable playing at home than they are on the road.

Pitt's offense burned us on the run early in the game. KeiVarae Russell saved us from surrendering a rushing TD by chasing down Ray Graham on a 55-yd run that looked eerily similar to Cierre Wood's 62-yd scoring run last week. And when Pitt scored a rushing TD two possessions later, everyone was secretly glad that Oklahoma managed to score one, just so Pitt wouldn't have the dubious honor of breaking our nice little streak.

However, the most impressive unit on the field, on either side of the ball (the unit that allowed Pittsburgh to do what it did for most of the game), was Pitt's special teams.

Holy sh*t, guys. They were ridonkulous.

Cameron Saddler averaged 19 yards per punt return. Lafayette Pitts took advantage of some truly fantastic blocking to run five kickoffs back for a combined total of 128 yards (25.6 yards per return). (Why we chose not to kick the ball to the endzone for a touchback at ANY POINT during the game is an unknowable, unsolvable mystery.)

Matt Yoklic averaged 40.7 yards per punt on six punts, including one punt for 56 yards and three inside ND's 20-yard line. Pitt even purposely took a delay-of-game penalty to give their punter a better chance at landing the ball inside the 10. Which he did.

As a result, Notre Dame started four drives from inside their own 20-yard line, which led to one field goal, two punts, and an interception. Pitt only had to do this twice; both drives resulted in punts.

Pitt also had five drives starting from the 30-yard line or better, resulting in two touchdowns and a field goal before ND's defense finally buckled down and started forcing Pitt to punt from the shorter field.

Never underestimate the power of good field position. This is what gave Notre Dame the edge versus MSU, and sure as a shiv in a cell block, it's what galvanized Pitt to slice away yards from the Irish all game long. Without the grindstone of the return game to sharpen the Panthers' offense, I don't think they would have been capable of stabbing so deeply into the Irish defense.

The Gauze

Right, so here's the good news--such as it is. Based on nothing more than watching this game and glancing at Pitt's win-loss record, I think it's probably safe to say that this is the best game Pitt's played all season. They were fierce. 

Conversely, this is probably the worst game Notre Dame's played all season.

And yet--somehow--WE WON.


It's hard not to feel as though this game was tipped in our favor at the end via divine intervention, but this is not the case. Having watched the Irish at their best, we know what they are capable of. It just took Notre Dame almost the entire game to show it.

After playing a no-turnover, practically-penalty-free game versus the Sooners, the Irish committed six penalties for 46 yards against the Panthers, and turned the ball over twice in regulation. We also turned the ball over once in overtime, which would have spelled doom for the Irish had Pittsburgh's kicker not shanked his field goal wide right on the Panthers' subsequent possession.

It was rattling to the core to watch the game come so close, but in the end the Irish did what I expected them to do. They came out and they fought, and they did not stop fighting. They were benched and brought back in, and they did not give up.

And every mistake they made, they were lucky enough to have a chance to atone for. That's the real kicker here: Pittsburgh made us pay for our mistakes.

They just didn't make us pay enough.

Kyle Brindza missed a game-winning field goal in regulation. Kevin Harper missed one in overtime.
Notre Dame turned the ball over three times. Pittsburgh only scored off our turnovers once.
Notre Dame gave up one sack. Pittsburgh gave up five.

As terrifying as this game was to watch, there are some kind-of-keen statistics here to help mop up the mess.

Pitt was 1-of-14 on third-down conversions. Notre Dame went 10-of-20.
Notre Dame outgained Pitt on the ground (231-144) and in the air (254-185).
The Panthers scored on zero possessions starting from inside their own thirty-yard line. Notre Dame marched all the way the f*** down the field from the 9, the 2, and the 20-yard line...for an underwhelming two field goals and an interception.

It's not that we couldn't move the ball against the Panthers. It's just that we couldn't find the fershluggedah endzone.

All season long, Notre Dame has been a second-half team. Our defense tends to come out strong after halftime, making adjustments, settling into the game, and generally squashing all our opponents' hopes of glory, cleverness, and finding the endzone for pretty much the entirety of the third quarter.

So those of you feeling particularly concerned about Manti Te'o & Co. surrendering 10 points in the third quarter may want to take the following stat into consideration: Notre Dame's first drive of the game took 6:32 off the clock. Our second drive of the game chewed up 9:26 and took the game clear into the second quarter. Basically, our defense didn't really see Pitt's offense until the second quarter. (Keeping in mind that a team's first possession, in any game, is generally pretty well-scripted and often has no bearing on how the rest of the game is going to be played out.)

Which means that coming into the third quarter, we basically had one quarters' worth of data for our defense to process, which makes the third quarter of this game a lot more like the second quarter than the third (umm, y'know, statistically speaking). And in which quarter has our defense surrendered the most points this season? The second quarter. (Also it did not help that Tommy Rees decided to throw an interception on the 47-yard line.)

This logic could totally be a crock o'bull, I know. After all, our defense forced Pitt to punt on their first two possessions of the second half. And without that Notre Dame turnover, I'm not convinced Pittsburgh would have scored another touchdown on us. Pittsburgh's last four possessions of the game resulted in punt, punt, punt, punt--including three straight three-and-outs, with three sacks, two tackles for loss, and one fumble (recovered by Pitt).

And did the Panthers score a touchdown in overtime? NO. NO, THEY DID NOT.


The Sewn Suture

There is nothing about the future that is not fogged.

The top four unbeatens remained unbeaten last night, with Oregon winning a 62-51 touchdown derby against USC, Alabama pulling out a 21-17 heart-stopper against LSU, and Kansas State beating its third ranked opponent in a row in a 44-30 vanquishing of #24 Oklahoma State.

Though I could not have predicted it, the Irish (the only top-4 team NOT playing a ranked opponent yesterday) seemed most likely to lose. Now, even if ND wins out, our chances of making it to the national title game look somewhat less shiny than before.

K-State has now beaten as many ranked teams as Notre Dame, three of them by much wider margins (although it must be noted that the only top-10 team K-State has faced, Notre Dame has also faced, and we beat Oklahoma by a much wider margin).

Alabama has likely passed its biggest test of the season against LSU. If the hype is to be believed, the BCS officials already have 'Bama penciled in for the national title game.

Oregon just played an "anything-you-can-score-I-can-score-faster" shootout against USC, making it hard to believe that any school within a thousand miles of Eugene is capable of stopping the Ducks.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame survived a 29-26 triple overtime scare against unranked Pittsburgh and now has to ship up to Boston to play The Team That Ruined It All In 1993 (But Never Again, DO YOU HEAR ME?!).

Then again, this is college football we're talking about here. The Pitt team we saw yesterday was not the same team that lost to Youngstown State. And whatever incarnation of the Irish we saw was not at all the same team that knocked off Oklahoma. And hey--seven of the last eight meetings between ND and Pitt have been decided by 8 points or fewer. So should we be worried about the rapacious upstarts of Backup College? Well...yes. But not as worried as you might think, considering the team's probably got over the worst of the flu by now and Everett Golson's played much better in away games than he has at home (facepalm).

The season's not over yet, so let's nobody start counting chickens. Alabama's still got 16th-ranked Texas A&M and upset-alert Auburn on its schedule; likewise for K-State, with upcoming clashes against TCU and 23rd-ranked Texas. Oregon's probably in the hottest seat, with 14th-ranked Stanford and 11th-ranked Oregon State to close out their season. And of course the Irish have their own foes to vanquish, with the pesky Eagles, Senior Day Demon Deacons, and ever-tawdry Trojans to face down the stretch.

However--and somewhat alarmingly--based on the results of this past weekend, there is every possibility that all four currently-undefeated teams will win out.

If the Irish do not play in a Most Impressive Fashion for the rest of the season, both the human and computer polls will see every reason to impale them upon their strength-of-schedule rating (which is just obnoxious, considering the season started out with "ohhh Notre Dame's schedule is so haaaaard there's no way in five billion zillion gajillion years they'll ever win ouuuuuuut").

In which case, we will most likely end up with an Oregon-Alabama title game and an ND-KState Fiesta Bowl, with thousands of unruly fans clamoring for the four-team playoff system to implemented, like, immediately.

I'm sure most fans are counting on the Irish to knock themselves out of the title race at this point, but I'm not. Curiously, it was a pundit on Fox Sports last night who summed it up best: if the win against Oklahoma was a statement win for the Irish, this was a character win.

And I think if the Irish have the character to claw their way back, hang on, and win in triple overtime, then f*** it--they have the mettle to fight back and win against anybody.

Though it would be great if they would PLEASE NOT DO THAT AGAIN EVER. (Seriously, it's totally fine with me if you guys win in regulation. Toooootally fine.)

And hey: redemption for the quadruple-overtime loss to Pittsburgh in 2008? I think so.

Only one thing left to say.


South Bend Tribune/ROBERT FRANKLIN

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