Saturday, December 28, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Stumped

So...if each season is like a forest, and each team is like a tree, then at the end of this season our tree is one of the nice, tall, leafy-looking ones with four of its limbs hacked off.

For most of the year, we've looked strong and sturdy enough to weather our weekly storm. If you compare our manner of weathering the week to our opponents', I think you'll find few deficiencies so grievous that they should have resulted in loss of limb. We could have made it through the season with more of our branches intact. Maybe all of them. But we didn't.

There were times it seemed we'd contracted turnover-causing termites that began chewing our offense out from the inside. There were other times it seemed we'd suffered from an obscure defensive disease that sapped our game-winning strength and softened the bite of our bark until it looked as though we were ready to drop leaves and go into hibernation, mid-season. But we didn't do that, either. We came back with all the force of an angry Ent to purge our weaknesses and defend our turf on Senior Day. Unfortunately, this surge of rage-limbed prowess didn't last long enough to vanquish those tree-appropriating orcs from California. And now we're left, slightly battered, to face a lackluster opponent in a baseball-themed bowl game in NYC.

Which pretty much sums up the sawed-through feeling of our season. 8-4 is not always a bad year. But after last year's marvelous 12-0, anything less was going to be a downer. Even if we were expecting it to be a downer season. Even if the downer really started at the end of last season, when we lost to Alabama in the championship game. It was no given that this year's team was going to match last year's squad in strength of spirit or execution--but I think there was some general feeling that with so many returning starters on defense, the acorn should not have fallen quite so far from last year's tree.

Sometimes I get the frustrated notion that it would be nice if we didn't have to start over every single year with brand-new foliage. I mean...isn't there some way to avoid this starting-from-sapling feeling? Can't we just transplant the mighty victorious strength of last season, prune the limbs, and grow ever mightier, year by year?

But you can't do that, really. You can't uproot roots if you expect them to stay strong. Let the memories grow tall and the branches grow thick enough to build a treehouse on--and then you can stuff it full of memorabilia and string up Ye Olde Rope Ladder to Yesteryear, and go up whenever you want to take admiring looks around, and ruminate over things like Manti Te'o (before he became associated with jokes involving moustache-tentacled aquatic animals of any kind)...or magnificent, heart-stopping goal-line stands...orsigns lit up atop Grace Hall...or Bob Diaco's hair. Or what have you.

And then you can clamber back down and face the reality of this season, which actually looks kind of similar to last season, only with less last-second victories and a lot more grinding of potential wins into a pile of woody pulp.

That's what I see when I look back on this season. Not the eight wins, not the things we did right, not the flashy potential of our younger starters--but the sawdust-scented pile of mulch we're going to have to use to sow our plot for next season.

This doesn't feel optimistic enough for Christmastime. Probably it would be better if I did a fun clever look-back at all the high points of our season. And there were plenty, it's true. You could put together a very nice highlight reel of us outscoring ASU in Texas; beating USC at home; laying the ever-loving smackdown on Air Force; winning on Senior Day four years in a row.

But it's all over now--finito--and we didn't make it to the BCS, and there are few things to be excited about in the coming bowl game, unless maybe you're using it as an excuse to party in NYC. Or perhaps you are privately rejoicing that at least you'll be able to watch this game without having a complete heart attack over the outcome. (We hope.)


So I gather that there were some good reasons Notre Dame wanted to play in the Pinstripe Bowl. Namely:
A) We didn't have enough wins to qualify for a BCS Bowl, and we don't have any tie-ins with the ACC bowls until next season-ish, so our options were basically the Pinstripe Bowl or the Hawaii Bowl (or maybe the Holiday Bowl? But ASU's playing in the holiday bowl, and we already played them, so possibly that's why we didn't go there). I'm not entirely sure why we accepted our bowl game a week earlier than most other teams...the only reason I can fathom is:

B) We weren't expecting Rutgers to actually make it to six wins. If Rutgers had lost, we probably would have been matched up with an 8-4 Houston team. Although I also recall reading that if we had been matched up against Houston, we would've had the option to "buy out" our opponent (since Houston doesn't really have a conference tie-in with the Pinstripe Bowl) and get some other opponent that would've given us more of a "headliner" kind of game (which totally sounds like the kind of thing Notre Dame would do...but this is all complete hearsay so don't quote me on any of this). Other reasons we accepted the Pinstripe Bowl bid include:

C) Notre Dame wants to keep up good relations with the Steinbrenner family, and:

D) Seemed like a good opportunity to play for all the alums/subway alums in the NYC area.

Which is fine. And all makes sense. And...whatever.

But my number-one greatest hope for this season (after we lost to Michigan) was that we would play a ranked team in a bowl game and win.

And instead we're playing a .500 Rutgers team. I would say nobody is happy about this, but actually I've been hearing a lot of binary opinions about our postseason matchup.

Opinion #1: It's a shame.

...that we accepted this bowl bid, that we're not playing a more evenly-matched opponent, that we're playing someplace cold (where we've already played), that the season had to end this way when we had so much potential to do better (etc etc). Some of which A) sounds like an insult to Rutgers, and also B) makes it sound like we've completely forgotten the fact that football is a game (which people ostensibly play for fun), and that despite any personal disgruntlement we may have with the completely excessive number of bowl games and the ridiculous amounts of corporate money flying around, this is nonetheless an excellent opportunity for many of these 18-to-22-year-old players to visit one of the greatest cities in the world and experience some of its sights and culture in a way they may not have had a chance to when they played Army in Yankee Stadium during the regular season three years ago. (And so on.)

Opinion #2: It's awesome.

...because we're going to watch Notre Dame kick the shit out of somebody, so the whole day is totally going to be an excuse to drink and have fun. Right, guys?

Which also sounds like an insult to Rutgers (sorry, Scarlet Knights). We are 14-point favorites, which seems reasonable enough, given our respective seasons, but my general opinion on the game is this:

Brian Kelly didn't come here to win the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

Neither did our players.

Look, I know this is the point in the season when you're supposed to lick your wounds and move on (or whatever)--but from everything every athlete has ever said about losing a big game: all you want after a loss is a chance to get back out there and play again.

After you lose the national championship game, you don't get that chance. Playing again is not an option. All you have left is the weight room and the off-season and the choice to work, work, work to get back where you were. So you can try again. So you can WIN. Which you know may never happen. But you were JUST THERE. It makes the whole idea of getting back there seem not just possible, but tangible.

Never mind what the press said or what you thought the outcome of the 2013 season was going to be. Never mind the graduating players or the injuries or the losses in personnel. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the schedule Notre Dame posted in the locker room at the beginning of the season that had a slot for "January 7, 2014 - BCS National Championship Game."  Maybe it smacked of hubris, putting it on the actual wall. But as a coach, as a player--as a human being--getting that close to attaining something that big and walking away empty? OF COURSE they want to go back and try again. OF COURSE that's the goal.

But this whole season became less an exercise in victory and fortitude than an exercise in scaling back expectations. If we can't make it to a championship, then let's make it to a BCS Bowl. If not a BCS Bowl, then let's at least anoint ourselves well enough to make it to a good bowl game against a well-matched opponent. And if we can't have that, well...okay...let's just at least make sure we play in a bowl game. Right? Even if it's a bowl game nobody's ever heard of and we're expected to trollop our opponent. Because that's what the postseason's all about. I mean...the post-season's definitely NOT about all of the best teams in the country getting the chance to play one another in a series of increasingly exciting and meaningful match-ups culminating in the crowning of a national champion. Because that would be insanity.

On the one hand, who am I to complain about being able to flip on the TV practically any time of day for the next week and a half and find a college football game on or soon-to-be-played? And as a former college band member, I cannot help thinking every college band member (or, you know, football player) should have an awesome bowl game trip experience. But seriously guys--this is kind of lame. There are too many bowls and there are too many teams going to bowls that have barely scraped .500 records, and you end up with matchups like this one, which you can be sort-of excited about, but not really, because if we win, then no big deal. But if we lose? Horrific.

I'm really not trying to be offensive to Rutgers; I haven't watched the Scarlet Knights play this season and I don't know anything about this year's team other than that they limped their way to six wins, and then their head coach fired a bunch of his coordinators (presumably because he thought they should've gotten more than six wins). So probably Rutgers is more talented than their record indicates. They've gone to bowl games 8 of the last 9 years, including a victory in the Pinstripe Bowl two years ago against Iowa State. So, you know, they've covered this ground before. Rutgers knows how to play in the postseason.

I just feel like watching this game is going to be like watching another Sun Bowl or Hawaii Bowl. It'll be fun, of course, but this time around it doesn't mean much of anything. It's not like we're recruiting Manti Te'o. And we're not facing off against an old-school foe like Miami. I mean, the last time we played Rutgers we beat them 42-0 (that's just off the top of my head, but I'm pretty sure that's right because I was there). And we don't have anything to prove in the way of "yes, we can win bowl games," because we HAVE been winning bowl games. Just not against ranked opponents. Which we can't accomplish today, so that will leave me way too much time during the game to ruminate over the off-season and how the departure of Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco might affect recruiting and whether Everett Golson might genuinely get beaten out by Malik Zaire (seems unlikely, but you never know).

Well, anyway. Obviously the game's in like ninety minutes so you don't need me to babble to you about it anymore (or leave you on a total downer). Let's just finish out this season looking nice and leafy--and see if we can't find some nice-looking acorns to take with us into next season.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Senior Day Snow Bowl

First things first--you might want to watch the ICON video from this week. It features choice game highlights, snippets of Coach Kelly's locker room speeches, and several extremely fierce Hawaiians:

Epic Bulldog
I've long thought that Brian Kelly looks a bit like a bulldog when he gets angry on the sidelines. His jowls quiver. His jaw clenches. He sometimes looks like he's prepared to latch onto the ref's arm and shake it in fury until the refs make the correct call.

At some point during the BYU game, in the midst of some furious texting, one of my friends posited that Brian Kelly's sideline rants were nothing short of epic, and I said yes. They are epic.

Epic bulldog.

If you are skeptical, then you should definitely watch the ICON video from this week. Zoom ahead to approximately the 2:47 mark, and check out Brian Kelly yelling at the team during halftime: "I ABSOLUTELY LOVE WHAT I SEE."

Because if that's not Epic Bulldog, then I don't know what is.

So here's to you, Brian Kelly, and the first graduating class at ND that you've coached for all four years.

This is an interesting class, because next year is the first year Brian Kelly will be graduating a class of seniors that he both recruited and coached. This year's seniors, by and large, were brought in by Charlie Weis to play his pro-style system--and we've seen some bumps in the road as Brian Kelly attempted to work some of these less-versatile players into a "you-must-be-versatile" system.

Last year's senior class had a little more flash, fame, and obvious NFL futures (not to knock Louis Nix, of course), but this year's senior class has done some things no senior class has done for a while. Like winning on Senior Day four years in a row. Beating USC 3 times. Going 11-1 in Notre Dame stadium over the last 12 home games. Playing for the national championship. And, you know, playing in bowl games four years in a row (which, btw senior band members, I am not jealous of you for at ALL). The overall record under Brian Kelly is 35-13, which puts us at a .729 win percentage--the best mark for any head coach at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz (.765). (Just think--if only we'd had a better showing against Alabama, we could've continued with the grand tradition of Notre Dame coaches winning a national championship in their third season.)

So it's frustrating to think that this season is, somehow, a disappointment. At the beginning of the year, the team was talking about gunning for a national championship, which without Everett Golson seemed unlikely at best...and then we had to recalibrate to aim for a BCS bowl...and then for an outside BCS berth...and now we're mostly thinking we'll be lucky if we can beat Stanford. It's the opposite of the trajectory we had last season, and that makes it harder to swallow.

Part of the reason these losses have been so bitter and untenable--and the reason I was so pessimistic yesterday--is because NONE of our losses were out of reach. It was mostly mental mistakes. Lack of edge. Lack of focus. And I bemoaned our ability to get the edge back.

But we did. And on Senior Day, no less.

Sayonara, Seniors

The goal on Senior Day is no different than the goal on any other day: win. But Senior Day always feels a bit different, because it marks the beginning of the end. The end of the season. The end of the year. The end of college, for those being honored. It's surreal, that "last time," because it both does and doesn't feel like the last time at all. By the time you're a senior, it just feels familiar. Game Day is something you've done twenty-three times already. Your brain knows the routine too well already; the majority of that gray sludgy mass in your head refuses to acknowledge that anything about this is different or new. Besides--it's not like it's the last last game. There's always that game in California over Thanksgiving. And if you're lucky, a bowl game.

And then, of course, there's the entire rest of your life to come back and tailgate and sneak into the student section and watch the players get progressively younger and younger while you grow old giving yourself ulcers over last-second touchdowns. Until one day you start saying, "When I was a student..." and you realize you don't actually know anybody who goes to school here anymore. Which brings you to approximately Phase VII of the life cycle of a Notre Dame Student.

(And since I just made that up right now, I guess I'd better elaborate on what the phases are:
Phase I: Prospective Student "Please pick me oh please pick me oh please oh please oh please"
Phase III: Disillusioned Student "I am so sick of dining hall food. I can't believe anybody pays for this. I never want to eat at South AGAIN."
Phase IV: First-semester Senior  "My brain never really came back from study abroad..."
Phase V: Second-semester Senior "Oh God Oh God WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MY LIFE?"
Phase V: Poor Young Alumni "Wait, I have to donate HOW much to get into the football lottery next year?"
Phase VI: Old Young Alumni "Guys, I don't know anybody who lives in South Bend anymore. We're gonna have to get a hotel."
Phase VII: Cranky Young Alumni "Man, when I went to school here, quarter dogs were still twenty-five cents."
Phase VIII: No Longer A Young Alumni  "Wait, I have to donate HOW much to get into the football lottery next year?"
Phase IX - XI: TBD

I don't know how many phases there actually are, because I haven't reached them yet. I suspect there are three more levels, and at least one of them is "Crotchety Old Alumni Who Still Thinks The Students Should Be All Guys." Though I suspect this will be modified by the time I get there.)

Anyway. Back to the football.

So on Senior Day, everything's the same, except you're kind of rooting for all of the seniors to get playing time, in addition to the win. You want to see those backup players take the field. You want to see Danny Spond in full uniform again. (You want to see Zibby in at QB.) And when you play a team like BYU, you know it's going to be nigh-impossible to get a comfortable enough cushion to send out your third- and fourth-string. Especially when your team's just had two weeks to mull over an unconscionable loss to Pitt.

So you worry. You obsess.

And then you watch in delight as your team comes out swinging, dominates the line on both sides of the ball, and basically owns the field for the majority of the game.

Mental edge = recovered.

And it's sharper than a vorpal blade. Or a subtle knife. Or the sword that cut the ring from Sauron's finger.

Gunning for Touchdown Mode

Tommy Rees has two modes: Touchdown Mode and Turnover Mode. Yesterday, we mostly saw touchdown mode, but I guess Tommy  couldn't resist throwing one more pick in the endzone (you know...for old time's sake). I don't mean to be hard on Tommy (yes, I do), but hey, the kid's tough. He's done everything that's been asked of him, and he's done it with aplomb (you know, except when he's busy throwing interceptions). And he always comes back fighting. That's become true of this team as well: even when they've suffered a knuckle-headed loss, even when they're getting run over in a national championship loss to Alabama--they come back fighting.

I guess I shouldn't have doubted this senior class would make a mental comeback on Senior Day. After all--on Senior Day, they've never lost. The senior-class mindset was perhaps epitomized most fully by linebacker Dan Fox, who led the D with 9 tackles, and obscene amount of focus, and probably the best game of his entire career.

But what's most impressive about this win, perhaps, was the total team effort. The kind of effort we've been expecting to see more of all season, where everyone's locked in, everyone steps up--so that when your starting center goes down with a season-ending injury in the middle of the game, the next man in plays so well (and the rest of the team continues to perform so consistently) that you hardly notice the switch was made at all.

So many of the players who helped us corral the Cougars yesterday weren't seniors at all: Tarean Folston, who scored the first TD of the game; Cam McDaniel, who kept us barreling forward on the ice-slicked ground; DaVaris Daniels, who had the two biggest catches of the game; Jarron Jones, who had 7 tackles and a blocked kick; and Kyle Brindza, who, when they said they were sending the punt unit on the field prior to his 51-yd field goal, said "Are you kidding? That's in my range!"

Now THAT's Notre Dame football.

As Coach Kelly put it in his presser:
This is the way we need to play. This is what we're capable of playing. It's a much more physical brand of football. [...]  I think the Pittsburgh game was an anomaly for a number of reasons that I just can't get into right now [...], and they had a chance to go out and show in their last home game the kind of football team that they really are.

The Clash of the New Ivies & The Search for Self-Actualization

So as we head out to play our frenemies next week in Palo Alto, let's hope that we continue to play like the football team we really are, instead of a football team that looks like it got mugged twenty feet outside the stadium and then ran onto the field with its pockets emptied of a decent run-blocking scheme and proper tackling technique. (Sorry. Still angry about the Pitt game)

The 8th-ranked Cardinal (the color, not the bird) have beaten five out of five ranked teams they've faced; their two losses came against unranked Utah (26-20) and then-unranked USC (20-17). This does not necessarily bode well for #25 Notre Dame (now ranked again in the BCS standings). On the one hand, Notre Dame beat USC. On the other hand, Stanford beat Oregon.

What does bode well for us is the way we played against BYU. If we can keep up that level of focus and avoid turnovers of any kind (excepting possible leftovers from Thanksgiving), there's no reason we shouldn't be able to control the line of scrimmage against the Cardinal. Also boding well for the Irish is that Stanford seems to have taken its frustration out on Cal this weekend (63-13), so hopefully they'll be facing the Irish on an even keel.

Although I have to say--for as much as I deplore Stanford's band (for example), and for as much as I want the Irish to win and prove (yet again) what they're made of--I'm kind of frustrated that Stanford had the gall to lose to Utah and USC. We need more teams like Stanford in the top 10, for the sake of college football. To make a point about not compromising academic standards for the sake of sport. We need these teams to win BCS bowls--if for no other reason than to score a Pyrrhic victory in a war we may have already lost.

But in the meantime, I hope we both end this season 9-3.

Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune
Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Points too late to matter

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of [a loss], I shall fear no [future losses], for thou art [football].

And that is just how thou art.

Words too late to matter
I feel like I should apologize for how lackluster this is going to be.

I meant to write when the wound of the loss was still fresh and oozing, riper than a spoiled pomegranate. I mean to write when I had the horror of the game still clearly in  my head; when words of yin and yang could act as a balm to ease the sting of loss and my thoughts were still raw enough to be wrung into clever metaphors. Instead I wrapped a bandage over things and went about my business, while below the gauze things bled and scabbed and then peeled off, only to scab and peel again. Now I press at the tiny pinkish flesh where the wound has healed and find that I don't know what words I had there at all.

I recall expounding on several theories in a series of frantic texts during the Pitt game (because how can I understand my angst about sports except through electronically-enabled cogitations?). I present them to you now in no particular order and with no particular amount of relevance:

1. I feel like we've been playing a bowl game every week. I mean--our team hasn't necessarily been playing like they're in a bowl game every week, but I feel like our opponents have. I mean, I know people like to say "every team gets up when they play Notre Dame," but that's not always true. Sometimes we lay the smackdown (like at Air Force). And in some seasons (let's face it) it's not always so hard to beat us.

But this season...Oklahoma and Arizona State looked like they were playing us for the freaking Fiesta Bowl. Navy's game against the Irish was near-perfect, even though we beat them; Oklahoma's game wasn't, even though we lost. The Michigan game was the same old train wreck it's been for the last five years, and the USC game is the only discernible evidence that last year's defense came back to play this season. And though we've got seven wins; though we can move the ball well; though we've still got vestiges of the defensive adjustments we were able to make last year...we can't win unless we play clean. And that's been hit-or-miss. If we turn the ball over once, we'll turn it over twice. And our opponents, for the most part, aren't making mistakes back. They just let us shoot ourselves in the foot, watch us hobble around trying to cover all the gaps in our defense, and dare us to win by sheer grit and the skin of our teeth.

The game against Pitt was enough to take the last of our hope for a BCS berth and stab it to the wall like a butterfly in the early days of entomology. Look, folks! Look what they've caught. Look at the bright streaks of optimism in its wings!

Maybe this is all karma coming back to slap us in the face for beating Pitt in overtime last season. Or for the way we won the MSU game this season. Win one game on penalties--yea, so thou shalt lose.

(............or not.)

2. The actual theory that I posited via text during the game: maybe we lose all of our bowl games against ranked opponents because the whole season is like one long bowl game for us. By the time we reach the end of the regular season, we're so so mentally drained from having all of our opponents swarm us like maggots in a meat market that we sink too far into our rest, and we lose our edge.

Mostly I posit this because I used to get sick every spring break in college. Or any school break, really. I'd run myself so ragged during the semester that by the time I had time to rest, my body was like, "GREAT we are now shutting down ENTIRELY." And I became totally useless for many days.

Maybe that's what happens to the team. Maybe you can only play so many bowl games before your mental edge starts to dull--and then you give yourself a break to sharpen up again, but you can't. You can't. Look at the shape that blade's in. It would be easier to just melt it all down, start things over and re-forge. So--essentially--that's what we do.

Of course, I do think we would have done better against Alabama if the heart and soul of our defense hadn't been distracted by a HORRIBLE CATFISHING SCAM for like two whole weeks before the game (yeah, I'm sticking with the press-conference version on this one). But hey. What can you do?

3. We're still hungover from the national championship loss. Not mentally, this time. But physically.

Because last season we did have the mental edge in every game. His name was Manti Te'o. And this was what allowed us to play so incredibly hard; what allowed us to make a miraculous goal-line stand against Stanford and hang on for every--single--win (save one).

But you can't play that hard for that long without it taking a toll. The defense put it all out there, again and again and again, in a way you just don't in a normal season. And then you get to the championship game and you lose and your spirit breaks. You have no endorphins to temper the sheer ache of your effort; no wave of euphoria to wash away your bruises and carry you into next season. Instead, you feel the hurt. Every ache settles deep in your bones. Bruises become proof of defeat instead of effort. Joints throb like they're predicting the weather.

And by next season, your whole defense shows up injured.

Maybe this sounds slightly mad. But even Manti Te'o's been injured this season. [Also, I swear the same thing happened after the Bears lost to the Colts in Superbowl XLI. Chicago's defense was so good that they carried the team to the championship--despite the best efforts of Rex Grossman to turn the ball over as many times as he possibly could (including one memorable Monday night game in which Grossman threw six interceptions and the Bears still won)--then they lost to Peyton Manning (who is afraid of literally no defense ever), and the following season half the defense came back injured and they went 7-9. Perhaps there were other extenuating factors but I really don't remember now.]

To further our defensive woes, Louis Nix is now out for the rest of the season due to knee surgery and will most likely abscond for the NFL next year. (Not that we can blame him, I guess; he's graduating in January, so he'll have his senior day this weekend...and if there's any concern about potential future injuries, probably better to face those fears in the NFL than risk getting hurt again in college and not get drafted at all. Though it is sad we won't be able to see him play out all four years of eligibility.)

The valley of the shadow

I can't rehash the Pitt game. I can't do it. If I was going to, I would've done it weeks ago, and maybe it would've involved a metaphor form the Count of Monte Cristo about how we're all either kings or pawns (and Pitt got to be king-of-the-moment)....but if anyone's still trying to figure out what happened against Pitt (besides some truly outrageous penalties), I don't know, either. The answer's probably turnovers.

Notre Dame has turned the ball over thirteen times this season--10 interceptions and 3 fumbles lost. However, we've also gained the ball ten times from our opponents, so overall our turnover margin is -3. Which, uh, sounds slightly better but still is not exactly great.

Here's the part of this statistic that matters most:
In Notre Dame's wins this season, our overall turnover margin has been +4.
The cumulative turnover margin for our losses is -8.

This pretty much sums up Notre Dame's entire season: if we can hold onto the damn ball, we can win the game.
If we can't, we're screwed.

More or less.

I think this is the part of the rant where I'm supposed to give you an inspiring speech about Senior Day, but actually all I'm thinking about right now is my own Senior Day. Aka the day everyone almost froze to death watching us lose to a 2-7 Syracuse team. Aka the Worst Senior Day Ever.

In an attempt to eradicate this horrific mental image, I've been reading bits of Coach Kelly's presser (about how Tommy Rees is always the first one to show up for practice and the last one to leave). And scrolling through my Twitter feed (@Kegsneggs I have no idea what is targeting. // @KeithArnold Neither do the rest of us. I think Stephon Tuitt just knocked down a dorm in frustration.) And reminding myself that somewhere beneath this festering canker of frustration, I know that this team is better than its record; that we had no business losing to Pitt; and that no matter what, I have faith that we can turn the yin to the yang.

Plus it's Game Day, and I'm an addict. (Somebody stick an IV in my arm. I'm ready for a fix.)


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Fixin' for Victory Edition

So the Irish are 7-2 and ranked #23 in the BCS, with three not-so-easy games left before we can start talking about bowl bids in earnest. Despite the inevitable anger and frustration during the nail-biter against Navy, I'm actually feeling pretty good about us at this point in the season (especially if I don't think about how things might have been different if certain players had had the scholastic fortitude to comply with the university's extremely clear stance on academic dishonesty. But no matter). There's lots of stuff to be impressed about (and some stuff to be distressed about)--but one thing I wouldn't do is pay attention to anyone who says we're vying for a BCS bowl bid until we've played Stanford. Then--and only then--shall we have proved whether we are worthy.

But let's start with first things first.

Notre Dame 45, Air Force 10
aka This land is your land, this land is my land, but the air over Falcons stadium is f***ing ours

Remember that time Notre Dame went to Air Force and Tommy Rees threw for five touchdown passes to five different receivers for like the first time in school history?
Or that time Kyle Brindza kicked a 51-yd field goal like it was nbd, because, pshhh, that's not even his career longest?
Or how about that time half of our starting players got to sit out for the entire 4th quarter because we had so much of a lead WE DIDN'T NEED THEM ANYMORE?
Or the time Andrew Hendrix got to redeem himself after a stupendously poor showing against USC by coming in against Air Force and throwing a ridiculously beautiful 47-yd pass to freshman WR William Fuller before running the ball in for a TD on the very next play?
Or what about that time the defense held its opponents scoreless in the second half for the second week in a row?
Or that game where seven different defensemen were credited with tackles for loss? And the team as a whole had one penalty and zero turnovers? And the entire game was pretty much the equivalent of sitting there and eating your way through a large pumpkin pie Blizzard--delicious and filling and stomach-aching-ly satisfying, and so infused with the pumpkin-ripe of autumn and the nutmeg-spice of the holidays that by the time you've finished you can think of nothing else except to lie there in a semi-euphoric stupor, your limbs jazzed from too much sugar (or possibly too many touchdowns), wondering why things can't be this good and rich and satisfying all the time?


I only ask because I can barely remember the last time I felt so hazy and full and satisfied after a game. It seems like we've gotten maybe one game like this per season. In about fifty percent of our seasons. For the last fifteen seasons. Give or take.

And for the first time in a while, I thought to myself, "Oh yeah. This is why teams try to schedule cupcake opponents early in the season."  Because sometimes you just need a game where you can boost confidence, give your team a chance to gel, and (before you run through your entire playbook and reveal too many secrets to your future opponents) give your second string some time to play.

Only we don't do this so much at Notre Dame, because we don't believe in starting the season with dessert. Even games we start out *thinking* might be cupcake-y often turn out to be more than we can stomach.

It's like our opponents show up with the attitude of, "Ohhhhhh, so you think we're gonna be some big soft pudding, eh? You think you're just gonna schlep right through us, eh? Well, we've got news for YOU, you great bunch of dome-brained Bloody-Mary-swillers. We ain't pudding. Oh, no--today we're gonna be RANCID TAPIOCA."

And you can't digest that sort of thing at all.

Even in years when we are genuinely too good to let rancid tapioca get the better of us, it's often easy to forget how good we really are. Because there's no amount of retroactive Pepto-Bismol that can cure the heavy, greasy, fried-onion-log consistency of that loss to Michigan, or the overcooked-steak toughness of that twice-pick-sixed tragedy against Oklahoma. And since our O-line still isn't strong enough to push opposing defenses aside (like a mound of buttery mashed potatoes) and create neat seams up the middle (for the smooth gravy train of our running backs), we still rely too much on Tommy to make things happen. And on defense? Our consistency is harder to to predict than the quality of a souffle in the hands of an inexperienced chef.

I'm not accusing Bob Diaco of being an inexperienced chef (you all know how I feel about Bob)--it's just that it was pretty hard to stomach the half-raw tuna steak that was the Navy game after watching our D perform so beautifully against Air Force. And it's still hard not to wonder what happened to all those truffles and bon-bons the defense was doling out last season (even if we've already posited that it probably has something to do with our current lack of a master chocolatier at linebacker).

But we can't fixate on these things.

We've got to aid our digestion by chomping on the cool mint leaves of reason and reminding ourselves how much we're capable of doing RIGHT.

And it's when you're watching a game like the one against Air Force that you remember, "Oh, yeah. EVERYTHING. We are capable of doing just about EVERYTHING right."

And you just remember that (when things are going wrong and the breaks are beating the boys). You look at what the D did against both Air Force and USC and you remind yourself it was not a fluke.

The other sweet spot of the Air Force game (at least for me) was being able to watch the CBS Sports Network Broadcast, which featured A) less commercials than the average sitcom, and B) Aaron Taylor. Seriously, NBC needs to figure out a way to hire Aaron Taylor right now. The man is full of insight (and Lou Holtz impersonations). He cares about the team. He knows how to pronounce the players' names. He TALKS ABOUT ACTUAL FOOTBALL. Somebody please hire him immediately.

In the meantime, let's talk about this:

Notre Dame 38, Navy 34

Part of me would like to characterize this game as one big toothache following the sweet overindulgence against Air Force, but that wouldn't really be fair--to our team or to Navy.

After two straight years of getting chomped on by the Irish, Navy came pounding into Notre Dame Stadium and churned out a near-perfect game: zero penalties, zero turnovers. Two punts.

Notre Dame played a somewhat-less-clean game, with 5 penalties for 55 yards and 2 turnovers--but 0 punts. That's probably the most significant statistic of the game; Notre Dame scored every single time they had the ball (that they didn't turn it over), and this effort, combined with Navy missing a crucial point-after attempt, probably kept the game from turning into another triple-OT debacle.

All the back-and-forth in this game wasn't so much like watching a tug-of-war as it was like watching Wreck-It Ralph and Fix-It Felix grapple over the facade of the Nicelanders' apartment building in Fix-It Felix Jr. (and if you haven't seen "Wreck-It Ralph," you're just gonna have to go with me on this one.) Notre Dame struck first, sending the shiny gold hammer--I mean helmet--of George Atkinson scampering to the end zone for the game's initial TD. The Middies responded by punching through Notre Dame's defense on a 9-play, 56-yd scoring drive, culminating in a pile-driving smash into the end zone for Navy's first TD.

And so it went. Navy's ground-pounding scoring drives sent Notre Dame hopping around, looking for a way to fix the score to our liking. Our defense had a few moments of brilliance, including Jaylon Smith's game-winning tackle on Navy's last 4th & 4 attempt--which was akin watching the Nicelanders throw Wreck-It Ralph off the top of their apartment building to end of the game. There were some other nice patch-ups on defense, too (1 sack, 5 TFL, etc.), but most of our repairs came from the swift, sure hammer-strokes of the offense.

TJ Jones and the endzone came together like the cross-sections of two perfectly cut beams. Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack rat-a-tatted their way down field with the force of two handheld nail guns. And Tarean Folston bore down the field with the strength and persistence of a power drill, leaving 140 yards and possibly some Navy-blue sawdust in his wake.

Whatever fumbling hits we may have made against our own hands, we never bruised ourselves too badly to go on. We had the conditioning to go blow-for-blow against Navy. We had the fortitude to keep coming back as the score fell out of our favor. And, most importantly, we had the right tools.

There are no teams I admire more than the military academies for the way they play the game. But when it takes six guys to tackle Troy Niklas; when a freshman RB can jump and juke (a la Julius Jones) and make guys miss--well, that's stuff you can't really coach for. That's stuff you can barely recruit for. And in this game, it made all the difference.

I know it's hard not to be nervous/vexed/confused/all in an internal kerfuffle over what's going on with the defense, but after considering these last two weeks, I say: don't sweat it. Coach Niumatalolo has had Notre Dame's number more than once, and he's smart enough to adjust his schemes to vex Diaco--especially after having a chance to watch what Notre Dame did to shut down Air Force. Yes, our defense had an extra week to practice defending the option, too. But Navy executes the option WAY BETTER than Air Force, and--let's face it--that near-perfect game against the Irish is was probably the best effort Navy will put out all year.

Plus, Notre Dame sustained a series of unfortunate injuries (Sheldon Day and Kona Schwenke both with ankle sprains, Ben Councell with a season-ending knee injury, Austin Collinsworth with a strained neck, and of course Louis Nix still out with knee tendinitis) that most likely set the tempo of our game slightly awry.

But I'm not losing sleep over it. If we can get it done against the option, we can get it done against anybody. In fact, I think we're gonna look much snappier on defense moving forward, because we'll be able to get back to playing the way we did against USC. (It'll be good to see a pass rush again, eh?)

To End: An Interlude

And to anyone who maintains that Notre Dame shouldn't have its players sing the alma mater with the student section after a home loss (*coughcough*BrianKelly*cough*): why don't you just watch the last few minutes of the Air Force game, when Notre Dame went to stand with Air Force as they sang their alma mater, and tell me if it doesn't cause some slight stirring in your soul; some notion that this show of unity hearkens to something greater and deeper and wiser than this game; something truer than a loss, greater than a win and more important than looking ahead to next week's game. You just think about what it means to be a family, and whether a show of unity means more in good times than in bad.

And you get back to me on that.

Oh, I know no one's ever going to read this who has the clout to make these kinds of decisions (none of THEM care what I have to say)--but DANGIT, guys. Singing the alma mater with the players after the game is a tradition to be proud of. Because it means more than just football. More than just win or lose.

And that's something worth fighting for. 

Bring on the Pittsburgh Pussycats
I  mean Panthers.

Okay, probably shouldn't jest about Pitt, considering all the debacles we've experienced against them in the past (including last year's 3-point OT victory). And especially considering that the only time we've beaten the Panthers by more than 7 points for, uh, the last fifteen years or so was when we beat them 42-21 in 2005.

I've got nothing but but respect for the tenacious, cat-scratch fever of Paul Chryst's kitty-cat crusaders.

I am just saying: I think we are too good to put up with any more of this nail-biting BS and I think we ought to pummel them into kitty litter.

Pitt is more of a powerhouse on defense than on offense, which works directly in our favor. We've already proved we can move the ball on anybody. We just need to go out and prove it against these pugnacious prowlers of the night without committing any turnovers (DO YOU HEAR ME TOMMY? Oh, and TJ, too--let's not leave TJ out of this after that stupendous slip-n-fall last week [ay ay ay caramba]).

Maybe I'm just hungering for another pumpkin-pie-Blizzard kinda game. And this hunger is especially voracious against Pitt because they were the team that nearly spoiled our championship hopes last season (y'know, before Alabama did), and they had NO BUSINESS DOING SO. I have no intention of allowing those feline philanderers to fight us down to the wire again. (Y'know. 'Cuz I have so much say in these things.)

Most of Coach Kelly's presser this week read like an extended injury report, but he did have this little gem about the Panthers in there:
But they always just play us so hard, and before I got here two losses I think in overtime, difficult games that went to overtime. So midwestern team, tough, blue collar, physical, they don't seem to like Notre Dame very much, and they want to beat Notre Dame. 


I absolutely couldn't tell you why, but those f***ers always get all over us like they're in heat or something. Well, you know what? BRING IT, BAGHEERA. We are sick of your hormonal rage and we are about ready to fix you.

Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Down the Rabbit Hole

ND 14, USC 10

Did anyone else feel like they fell down the rabbit hole on Saturday?

I mean--there we were, enjoying a lovely golden after-afternoon (courtesy of the field lights), sitting amongst a bunch of perfectly normal, non-anthropomorphized flowers (and all-natural grass), watching both teams drive up and down the field, scoring perfectly normal touchdowns--and then the second half came around and Tommy Rees got injured, and suddenly it was as though we'd followed the white rabbit all the way to Wonderland.

Both endzones swelled or shrank in size, too large or small to brook admittance. USC's drives fizzled and turned back on themselves, like Alice stumped by the twists of the Cheshire Cat's logic--whereas our drives had all the pointless feeling of an endlessly circling Caucus-Race.

For those in the stands, getting drizzled by the weather (for the weather never ever does a thing for me), it may have seemed as though Time was standing stiller than at a mad-Hatter's tea party, each tick of the clock like a frustrating riddle without any obvious end.

And yet--O Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay!--WE WON.

In our house, the heartless red Trojans will have off with our heads no more.

How doth the little crocodile...
...improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

I hope we are all in agreement that the Notre Dame defense was the crocodile on Saturday.

Stephon Tuitt was the jaws.

USC scored zero points in the second half. They also converted zero third downs, threw an interception, missed a field goal, accrued 11 total penalties for 95 yards, and turned the ball over twice on downs.

Stephon Tuitt was responsible for 2 sacks, 2 QB hurries, 2 tackles for loss, and 1 pass break-up, along with being such a conspicuous beast he probably deserves to be memorialized in his own passage of fearsome verse. Not that we can overlook the rest of the defense--like Big Louuu, Carlo Calabrese (who led the team in tackles), Jaylon Smith (who had that interception), Sheldon Day (whose propensity for playing like a bulldozer cannot be overlooked), KeiVarae Russell, Dan "don't-bench-me-again" Fox.... Yes--like a many-headed hydra (or, um, an unslain Jabberwock), the defense has risen again.

Time will tell, of course; we'll see how we play against Stanford. But ranked or not, USC is still a formidable team to blank out for an entire half. As Coach Kelly put it, you don't fire the coach of a 4-2 team unless you think that team should be 6-0.

The way USC played in the second half, it's fairly obvious why they aren't.

The way Notre Dame's defense played in the second half, it's fairly painful to think about why WE aren't.

But to vanquish such a burbling foe at home, after twelve long years of whiffling it--ah! 'Twas brillig! (and the slithy toves / did gyre and gimble in the wabe / all mimsy were the borogoves / and the mome raths outgrabe...)

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!

Did anyone else feel astonished by how much they missed Tommy Rees? I must've felt nearly as astonished as Alice after she ingested her first bottle of "Drink Me" and grew to approximately the size of Godzilla (aka Lous Nix & Stephon Tuitt combined).

Here's the big question resulting from this astonishment: why don't we have a back-up plan?

You would think, after Everett Golson was booted out for the season, that we would have come up with a back-up plan. I mean--Tommy WAS the back-up plan, right? Which means Hendrix is, in the grand scheme of things, third-string.

But you can't have a backup quarterback who only knows how to run the Wildcat. Hendrix kept chucking balls at the turf like he was trying to nudge a hedgehog forward in a croquet match. I imagine he wanted to avoid any accusations of stealing the queen's tarts (by which I mean...causing a turnover) so much that he refused to parlay with his receivers at all. One can only assume it was nerves.

But this led to two quarters of USC stacking the box, stuffing the run, and toppling our ball carriers like a trio of tripped-up flamingos (in a croquet match), so that we barely seemed to move the ball at all.

In case you forgot how ridiculous the second half was, there was a stretch in the third quarter during which Notre Dame and USC traded the ball six times for seven consecutive three-and-outs. That's three plays. Each. SEVEN TIMES IN A ROW. Aka nine and a half minutes of game time with zero first downs.

That's even more absurd than a talking caterpillar smoking a hookah on top of a magic mushroom that will make you big if you eat from one side and small if you eat from the other.

However...can I just say that I do, in fact, appreciate Hendrix's efforts not to turn the ball over, even if it resulted in a whole lot of nada. We couldn't have afforded a pick-six, and as long as our defense was doing as well as they were doing, there was no reason to take unnecessary chances.

I believe the kid can throw the ball; I believe he's furious with himself over his performance; I believe he won't be caught unawares again when it comes to being the next man in (and I believe it is wise that we are committed to red-shirting Malik Zaire, because we're sure gonna need that kid in the future).

The good news is that Tommy's back. He suffered a neck sprain during the game, but he was cleared for practice today. According to Coach Kelly's presser, he should be fine to play on Saturday.

And only now can we appreciate how crucial Tommy is to this year's success.

I maligned the playbook before, missing the versatility Golson brought to the field; I complained that Kelly had hardly changed the game plan to accommodate Rees at all--he'd merely been painting white roses red. And though I've said, more than once, that I believe Tommy makes all the right reads, not until very recently did it seem as though all those reads were clicking.

The pace of our offense in the first half was like nothing we've seen all season. Like nothing we've seen for YEARS. It was the fast-paced, high-tempo offense we were promised when Kelly first came to South Bend.

Our first drive was astounding in its efficiency, and disappointing only in its lack of production. (Just imagine, if we'd scored on that one, how much less nerve-wracking the second half might have been.) It was not a speed I'd expected to see--not this year and not against USC--but what better time for it to manifest? What better time to make full use of our tight end? To split catches between Niklas, Jones, and Daniels? To balance the offense with Cam McDaniel's century-mark game?

If only the second half had matched the first one. If only Tommy hadn't gone out. Maybe then the smackdown I envisioned might have come to light, instead of just turning out to be a prolonged daydream.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,

"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."(And why the Irish, back-to-back
play ruddy option teams)

We've got Air Force this week, followed by Navy. It's a sheer stroke of luck we've got both option teams on our schedule two weeks in a row. A one-and-six Air Force squad isn't likely to give us too many fits (assuming our defense hasn't had too many Honey Buns over fall break), and it should have us primed and ready for facing Navy at home next week. (Holla if you're going to the Navy game. I should be out tailgating most of the day.)

I always like playing the service academies. Not because I think they should be easy W's (pffbt--have you seen us play Navy these last few years?). I just like the tradition. You can't boo your own military, and it's hard to hate on enlisted men and women who show up in uniform and celebrate by doing push-ups and defending our country from terrorists.

Plus it's kind of nice to take a break from all the angry bile I swallow every time I see Michigan's winged helmets, or the seething rage that threatens to consume me every time the "Spirit of Troy" assaults my eardrums.

So stay classy these next few weeks, ladies and gents. If you see and servicemen and women out there, give 'em a pat on the back. Maybe a beer. Leave the ass-whooping to our boys out there on the field.

Don't worry. They'll git 'r done.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Smackdown Edition

I have an extremely short time in which to write almost everything I should have said these last two weeks.

Let's start with the important stuff: GO IRISH BEAT TROJANS.

If the last decade of Notre Dame football has taught me anything, it's that playing the Trojans does not necessarily make or break your entire season.* There are things in the world of Notre Dame football that feel worse than losing to USC (assuming USC is good that year), and there is at least one thing that would feel better (like winning a national championship).


It has been a long time since we gave the Trojans a good old-fashioned smackdown. I would really, really like to see us send those cocky, latex-ridden little pustules home with a big fat lopsided score--or, better yet, a big ol' goose egg tucked between their legs.

I am sick--dead SICK--of these close-scoring games. We've put up with five or six long years full of nailbiters--against good teams, against mediocre teams, against teams we have no business coughing up the ball to--and it is time. To. Stop.

I don't care what USC's talent level is like this year. I don't care if they have a stable filled with five hundred running backs. I don't care whether they've got a strong offense or a weak defense or whatever the hell it is they have--and no, I don't particularly care whether their head coach just got fired, or whether their hometown's just been sacked and burned by a bunch of angry Greeks--I WANT. TO KICK. THEIR ASS.

I want to kick their ass for so many reasons. For 2005 when they really didn't beat us and 2007 when they really did; for the entire first decade of the 2000's when Pete "cut-and-run" Carroll was busy parlaying his juvenile shenanigans all over the Trojans complex (and kindly turning a blind eye to all the NCAA rules violations taking place under his distinctly post-pubescent nose); for every idiotic sports reporter who thinks the ND-USC rivalry has somehow waned in recent years; but most of all I want this for the players.

I mean--I'm sure I have slightly different priorities than the players. And at the end of the day, if it's a win--well, I'll take it. But I'm tired of people saying that if we beat the Trojans, it's because we're lucky, or because their starting quarterback was injured, or whatever. I'm tired of railing against the nay-sayers and I'm tired of waiting for another decade of dominance and I want us, for once, to be able to go out there and not have to battle on a goal-line stand in overtime in order to make a statement. I want us to make a statement on the board that NOBODY CAN REFUTE.

It'd be nice for them to have a game that leaves an indelible mark upon the psyche of the fans, so that the next time we have a highlight reel showing the great matchups in Notre Dame-USC history, we don't have to hearken back to the 1977 green jersey game or the 1988 #1 vs #2 game or--God forbid--the 2005 game to talk about a classic in the rivalry's history.

I guess what I really want is for this team to be the team that goes out there and makes a statement and then backs it up with a series of successive victories culminating in a quality bowl win against a ranked opponent. (It's on my Christmas wish list.) And there's no obvious indication that this year's team will necessarily be the team to do this thing. But there's no indication that they can't be the team to do this, either.

On paper, ND and USC look sort of similar. Both teams are both 4-2 and unranked after starting the season ranked. USC has had lopsided victories against Hawaii and Boston College, close wins against Arizona and Utah, a 3-point loss to Washington State, and a funtime touchdown carousel sort of game against Arizona State, which resulted in a 62-41 loss and the firing of head coach Lane Kiffin.

So I'd say the on-paper crap means next to nothing. Notre Dame's pair of losses this season were both coulda-woulda-shoulda games against ranked, then-undefeated teams (who both decided to lose last weekend), in which our main deficits were A) turnovers, and B) lack of team identity. Both of which can be fixed.

Keep in mind that this is an Irish team that's beaten USC in 2 of the last 3 meetings. Tommy Rees has more victories against the Trojans than losses. That hasn't been true of an Irish quarterback since last century.

Guys, I know this has no basis in reality, really--but we are DUE. It is our TIME. Let us go forth and make this smackdown happen.

I mean, did you see what we did against Arizona State?

*except in 2005

Right, so about that thing that happened in Dallas


I don't care that it ended up being a 3-point victory and I don't care (much) about Arizona State's late-game surge; DID YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENED OUT THERE? That was OUR--GAME. It was not Arizona State's. Five sacks, three forced fumbles (two recovered by ASU), three interceptions, three pass break-ups, and seven tackles for loss? YEAH. That was our game.I don't know where that defense came from, but they came BACK.

Maybe they've finally figured out where their nucleus is. Or maybe they were really fired up about Jarrett Grace's injury. Grace being out is a huge blow for the team; by all accounts, he was becoming a real leader and a real presence at the linebacker position (which, as you can imagine, is where the attention of the defense gravitated over the last couple years). But just as important as having those leaders on your team is having a team that gets fired up and rallies when a player goes down.

But of course we don't want players going down. We want our team to get fired up and fly around and play more like they did against Arizona State EVERY WEEK.

It wasn't perfect, of course. We had one stellar interception/pick-6 on ASU's 4th down attempt late in the game; on ASU's other 4th down attempt they scored a touchdown. So, obviously, room for improvement. But we're getting closer. SO MUCH CLOSER. (And just think--if our defense had played like that against Oklahoma...well, but never mind the past-tense hypotheticals; they will get us nowhere.) ASU was kind of like a coming-out party; now we just gotta bring that shit hoooooooooooooome. You realize we haven't beaten USC inside Notre Dame stadium since 2001?


One last word on the yin and the yang

Speaking of it being time for things--and the notion of ebb and flow--if you look back on the history of the ND-USC rivalry (, the peaks and troughs have become more pronounced over the last four decades--in the 70's, the Trojans dominated; by 1982, they'd closed the gap in the all-time series record to 27-23. Then they didn't win another game against the Irish until 1996, at which point the momentum of the series began to shift again, and by the early 2000's it was Notre Dame's turn to flounder.

A "great rivalry," according to certain sports writers, shouldn't have such large spikes of victory and defeat. It should be made up of smaller peaks and valleys; more evenly-spaced interstices of light and shadow.

But hey look, buddy--MOUNTAIN RANGES AIN'T SYMMETRICAL, all right? Sometimes you have to climb a REALLY REALLY REALLY high peak before you get to the next one. Sometimes one side of the mountain just kicks your ass for a while. It ain't all gently rolling foothills, or evenly-spaced rest stops, you big whinerbaby.

And besides--what makes a rivalry a rivalry isn't something you can define by how close the games are, or how evenly the wins are swapped back and forth. A rivalry is about the feeling in your gut and the energy in the game and the endless roar of the crowd, so loud and pervasive and enduring that you start to wonder--WHERE DID THIS COME FROM? Week in and week out, we have nearly the same demographics--nearly the same mix of first-timers and alumni and students in the crowd--but when we play the Trojans, that crowd is not the same. It becomes a tempest--a maelstrom--and in the center, the eye of the storm--that's where the game takes place. And we, the howling winds, we beckon--we challenge--we dare both teams to grapple for control of the storm.

Even in the worst of our years, I have seen this storm come alive.

THAT'S a rivalry game.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Yin-Yang Edition

*Note: My knowledge of yin and yang comes almost entirely from pop culture's appropriation of the taijitu symbol and a cursory reading of a Wikipedia article on the subject, so nobody take my interpretation of Taoist philosophy too seriously.

The relationship between yin and yang is often described in terms of sunlight playing over a mountain and a valley. Yin (literally the 'shady place' or 'north slope') is the dark area occluded by the mountain's bulk, while yang (literally the 'sunny place' or 'south slope') is the brightly lit portion. As the sun moves across the sky, yin and yang gradually trade places with each other, revealing what was obscured and obscuring what was revealed.

In football, winning and losing are the yin and the yang. There are no victories without small dark spots of defeat; there are no losses without small bright spots of victory. The whole of the game is both a win and a loss, merged together; the outcomes are inseparable, and one without the other means nothing.

During the course of the game, the win and the loss are always present. Both forces exist on every play, big or small; when one team has a succession of small victories, we call it momentum.

Momentum shifts, ebbing and flowing, like ripples in a pond. The higher the peak of the ripple, the lower the trough. But the water moves, and the trough eventually becomes the peak.

This is why sporting events must be timed; whoever holds the peak when the clock stops gets the win. Otherwise the games would never end.

Sometimes one team beats another so soundly that it is impossible to imagine the losing team ever capturing a win. But over the last few weeks, Notre Dame's wins have looked so similar to its losses--and its losses have been so close to its wins--that the whole season seems to be ebbing and flowing like the curves of a taijitu--the black-and-white symbol we recognize as representing the yin and the yang.

The Yin: ND 21 - Oklahoma 35

Yin is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, and passive [...].

Shadows fell at the very beginning of this game. Two turnovers within the first two series isn't something you can do and expect to beat a team like Oklahoma. Even so, there were plenty of spots of daylight moving over our proverbial mountain. We didn't look defeated, even after going down 14-0 so early in the game. In fact, our offense looked very in control of itself on its fourth possession, putting together a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive that chewed five minutes off the clock. We rushed for 220 yards--our highest number all season. George Atkinson III had a massive 80-yard breakaway TD run (which I personally think serves as its own advertising campaign for why Notre Dame should try to run more sweeps instead of running up the middle from the SHOTGUN all the time--seriously, can we not snap the ball from under center? Have we seen the O-line open up any holes large enough to justify that much downhill running?). Tarean Folston's big almost-TD run was ALSO up the sideline to the left (you see? You SEE?), and Troy Niklas made another one of his, "Oh hey! A tight end! Where have you been all season?!" grabs.

Our defense made several huge stops against the Sooners, the likes of which we haven't seen since last season. Oklahoma only went 5 of 14 on third-down conversions. They did score on three out of four trips to the red zone--but two of those were field goals, and one was the result of a turnover.

Our defense is steadily improving. You can see things beginning to settle in. Flashes of brilliance have started to emerge.

But three turnovers is too many against a team like Oklahoma, and our defense is not yet good enough to stop a good offense at will. In the third quarter, after our offense put together a 75-yard scoring drive to make the score 28-21, it seemed as though the game was within reach. But Oklahoma responded immediately, chewing up 75 yards of their own for a TD and capping off the scoring drive with 2-point conversion.

We were not over-matched--not really--but as in the Michigan game, we fell behind too early and couldn't get out of the shadows.

Interlude: The voices in the box

Listening to the great sports broadcasters of the past is like listening to a form of art. Like great jazz musicians, the commentators must improvise to riff off the action on the field, fusing all the passion of a die-hard fan with an intricate know-how of the game in order to recreate for the listener an echo, a mirror, a snapshot of the game; to give them with a clearer lens through which to view the action on the field.

Such art does not exist in TV broadcasting. Instead of navigating the game with the smooth ebb and flow of a jazz artist, today's voices in the booth function more like hack musicians who were taught how to play a few bars of ragtime once, and now they sit down every week and play the same thing in a different key and hope nobody notices.

TV commentators aren't really paid to be experts, anymore--just to know more than the casual fan. They're not even paid to care.

And that's television's big mistake. In pandering to a national audience, they've eliminated the one element absolutely crucial for success in any art form: PASSION. The ability to show that you give care.

By far, the TV commentators I despise the least are the ones who cover the Olympics--because they're allowed to show bias. The 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team's victory over the Soviet Union would not have been dubbed the "Miracle On Ice" if it weren't for Al Michaels's ebullient cry of, "Do you believe in miracles? YES!" as the clock ticked down to zero. He was allowed to cheer for the team; he was allowed to let his passions take over. He knew darn well that he was sharing this victory with other Americans, and that his voice would not, for example, be broadcast in the Soviet Union, where you can be damn sure no one was standing around calling that game a "miracle."

But this is not possible for national football broadcasts. Bias is only allowed for hometown radio announcers--the last potential wielders of an art form that has, for the most part, died from the national consciousness. (Or rather, been brutally stabbed to death by television.)

Here's an idea that will never happen: instead of having to listen to the idiotic pandering of the "unbiased" commentators in the booth (who rarely know more about the teams they're covering than the average enthusiastic fan), why not stick two hometown announcers in the booth together and let them duke it out? Hometown announcers don't have training in national TV broadcasting, of course. But they do follow their teams week in and week out; they know what they're talking about, and more importantly, they CARE. Let them get into a knock-down, drag-out fight over who should be beating who, or which team's getting it worse from the refs. And here's a radical concept--why not let them talk about the GAME? The ins and outs of the plays; why they're being called now and why they are or aren't working and whether they fit with the play-calling trends the coaches have been employing this year. Talk about who missed what assignment, and whether it was the quarterback or the receiver's fault; talk about who opened up the gaps to make a run play happen; talk about why the hell coaches feel, EVER, that a prevent defense late in the fourth quarter is a good idea.

It can't possibly be any worse than the inane pandering we have to put up with from the booth every week (let's talk about golf! let's talk about Eminem! let's interview LeBron James! let's talk about the refs! oh wait, is there a player injured down there? do we know who it is? nope? okay, let's talk about the refs some more!).

In fact, the casual viewer might actually learn something about the game of football.

But I'm sure that's too much to hope for.

The Yang: ND 17 - MSU 13

Yang, by contrast, is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive[...].

This is the way to win--by being solid, focused, aggressive. By not turning the ball over, capitalizing on your opponent's mistakes, and defending your turf late in the game.

If you believe the talking heads in the booth, then Notre Dame won this game because of the referees. But I wouldn't listen to that claptrap if I were you. MSU was penalized 10 times for 115 yards; Notre Dame was penalized 8 times for 86. If the refs are throwing flags left and right, there's nothing you can do about it except adjust your game and stop whining.

Coach Kelly had no way of knowing what the TV commentators were going on about in the booth all game--but trust me, it was mostly a prolonged discussion about how many pass-interference penalties were called against MSU--but it was nevertheless extremely satisfying after the game to hear Kelly say something akin to, "MSU's defense was playing man coverage all game. They were all over us. I thought they should've gotten more penalties."

As far as shadows-in-the-midst-of-our-sunshine go, our offensive numbers weren't pretty in this game. We only averaged 2.8 ypc on the ground against the nation's top-ranked defense, and Rees completed 40% of his passes for 142 yards (less than half his total from the previous three games) and 1 TD.

On the bright side, MSU's offensive stats weren't much better (3.2 ypc and a 50% completion rate from their QB)--and if MSU had the best defense in the country, ours didn't look too shabby in comparison.

However, there are still bits of the yang that have not yet been fully realized. Our defense is probably no slower than they were last season--but they LOOK slower, don't they? Even when our D-line breaks into the backfield, we don't regularly come up with a sack. Either the quarterbacks we've faced are too mobile (and we've forgotten what having a mobile quarterback is like?), or there's just something missing. We're not flying around the field like we used to. We're not being aggressive. We're not taking control.

We're not ANGRY enough.

But we should be.

Interlude: Pride

I've been thinking lately ( usual) about why it is we get so crazy about football. I posited this to a former professor a few weeks ago, and she said: "Pride."

That's all it is, really, isn't it? The desire to win. To have bragging rights. To be able to wax poetic in crazy blog posts about the athletic prowess of people you've never even met. To say that our team, our school, our football players have one-up on someone else's. On everybody else's, if you manage to win the ultimate bragging rights.

But why does it matter so much? It's just a game. Just a collection of wins and losses. We've given it such attention, such prestige--such a ticket price--that it's become a stage on which to win personal, local, national glory. This is both to its benefit and to its detriment.

For Notre Dame fans, so much of our pride rests in the past--on the laurels of previous championships, previous trophies won, previous coaches who shaped the legends that are long gone. But we insist there's something else in our pride, too; a notion something must be different about how we win and how we lose. 

There's been some outcry over the past week over whether the players ought to sing the alma mater with the students after every game, win or lose. According to this letter from Jack Swarbrick, he and Coach Kelly sat down after the 2011 season and determined that the players would only sing the alma mater with the students after a win. It's been almost two years since the Irish have lost at home, so there was confusion after the Oklahoma game; some of the players ran into the tunnel straightaway, but others, hailed by their fellow students, remained behind to sing the alma mater.

This is a tradition that's only really been in place since 2006, but already we've grown proud of it. It's an impressive sight, watching ~7,000 students (let's face it, some of them punk out) remain in the stands after a loss, just to sing the alma mater. Even if it's a big, big, big, big loss. It impresses the hell out of a lot of people. And that show of solidarity, for many, has become almost an emblem of what Notre Dame represents: a family--a community of students and alumni and fans predicated on something more than just a win/loss column.

Despite our collective monomania over winning another national championship, football is not all that Notre Dame stands for. It has never been. The basilica is the highest point on campus for a reason, followed by the dome and the library: religion, family, education. In that order. And on purpose. I feel like I say this at least once per season, but the faith and the community of Notre Dame are more important than academia. Football doesn't even make the list.

As imperfect as Notre Dame's execution of this ideal is, the important thing is that we are still and always fighting to achieve it. ALL of us are fighting against our own vices, our own weaknesses, our own setbacks, to try to be what we want to be. Our ideal selves. And that's the important part, really: the fight. (What would YOU fight for?)

And that's why, during the Oklahoma game, I despaired over the last five minutes. Not because of the points on the board--not because of the ultimate result of the game--but because of the way we fought. Or rather...didn't fight.

We're still lacking that edge--that transcendent quality that makes it possible to come back against a team when you're two scores down and there are less than five minutes left. It's not a matter of strength and conditioning; it's all mental. We lack a rallying point. Someone's got to step in and fire up the troops. SOMEONE. But who?

Yin and Yang: Arizona State

Yin and yang transform each other: like an undertow in the ocean, every advance is complemented by a retreat, and every rise transforms into a fall.

In case you missed it, Arizona State scored 62 points in victory over USC last weekend, which resulted in the Trojans firing head coach Lane Kiffin. (Between you and me, though, Kiffin is such a little piece of sewage that this cannot possibly have been the only factor leading to his demise.) The 22nd-ranked Sun Devils are averaging 44 points per game, led by QB Taylor Kelly (1,370 yards, 11 TDs) and coached by Todd Graham (formerly of Tulsa and Pittsburgh). For a full run-down of ASU's (depressing? terrifying?) offensive statistics, I recommend this article.

But before you have a panic attack, let's consider a few things.

1) Notre Dame has not looked over-matched in any game this season. I don't care what sort of fancy things Arizona State's been doing with the football--Notre Dame is not a bad team, not a slow team, not an under-conditioned team; we're a good team suffering from an identity crisis. Which means...

2) The breakthrough could happen at any time. It took until the Michigan game last year for our defense to start lighting it up. Without a Manti Te'o figure in the backfield or an anchor like Kapron Lewis-Moore on the D-line, I don't know who's going to be the catalyst for us. But I'm convinced that if we get one, it'll flip some sort of switch. Things will click into place again. A new order, a new identity will be established. And considering how well Arizona State's been playing,

3) This could be the game. I know it seems illogical, since this is probably the most terrifying offense we've seen so far this season--but that's exactly it. This is the challenge. Think of the yin-yang; the trough becomes the peak. This is the peak we have to become in order to defeat them.

4) Arizona State has faced two ranked teams so far this season: Wisconsin, who they beat by 2 points, and Stanford, who they lost to by 14 points. Notre Dame isn't as good as Stanford this year, but we're definitely on par with Wisconsin (even if we did get booted out of the rankings this week), and there is absolutely no reason this game should be out of reach.

Just as long as we don't commit any egregious turnovers, we should be fine.

Also, keep in mind that the "neutral-site" Shamrock Series games have treated us very well thus far. This alone is no reason to go placing bets, of course, but do keep in mind that when we played Miami(FL) last year, the commentators were still insisting that we "lacked the team speed" to keep up with a much-improved Hurricanes...and then we went to Soldier Field and kicked their butts 41-3.

So I don't want to hear it about Arizona State. Doubt the Irish all you like, but I don't think we've seen the best of them this season, and I don't see any reason why tomorrow can't be the defense's coming-out party--or Cam McDaniel's homecoming party--or (however frustrating the play-calling might be) the Reesus' next chance for ascension.


Yang, by contrast, is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Antacid Edition

Notre Dame 31, Purdue 24

Sometimes things just don't sit right in your stomach.

Sometimes your team's down late in the third quarter and your defense can't put up a stop and your run game feels like a lump of lard, just SITTING there while everything else churns around it; and after enough dropped passes and stuffed run plays, you get so queasy you start thinking nothing is ever going to settle; this feeling his never going to pass; holes are gonna get poked in your stomach lining before you can properly digest this game--and before you know it you'll have so many metaphoric ulcers you'll hardly be able to watch the games at all.

We went in as three-touchdown favorites. It seems as though it should've gone smoothly--as though the offense should've chomped up yards faster than Pac-man in pursuit of a bouncing fruit and the defense should've swarmed Purdue like a game-freezing maelstrom of Pinky, Inky, Blinky, and Clyde.

Instead, Purdue seemed to be running on a surplus of skill and extra lives, scoring points and stuffing our run game while we haphazardly turned all the wrong corners, dropped crucial passes, and couldn't travel far enough down the field to find the end zone. The first half of the game was almost as bad as a mixed metaphor involving Pac-Man and acid indigestion.

But then--after three long, fruitless quarters--Notre Dame finally pieced together a scoring drive to tie the game 10-10. Our defense forced Purdue to punt, and our offense took advantage of the momentum swing by lobbing the ball to DaVaris Daniels, who stiff-armed Purdue's best corner to stay in bounds and run the ball in 82 yards for a touchdown.

I don't know about you guys, but this was the moment I decided to pop some proverbial Alka-Seltzer and try to chill out for the rest of the game.

On the very next drive--and with a wave of relief akin to the moment your antacid kicks in--I watched Bennett Jackson intercept the ball and run in ND's first pick-six of the season. Purdue's subsequent scoring drive and Amir Carlisle's fumble (which was not entirely his fault) provided the last few stabs of discomfort before everything settled into a bleary haze of content, culminating in a 61-yard, 7-and-a-half-minute possession by the Irish to end the game. Possibly the best part of this drive was the series of handoffs to Cam "I-bled-from-the-head-but-I-ain't-dead" McDaniel before we finally took a knee in the victory formation. (Obviously would've been more exciting if we scored a touchdown instead, but whatever.)

And the Irish came home with a win.

Get tough on heartburn

Despite last week's yoke of oppression, we had the potential to come home with a win from Ann Arbor, too. We didn't, of course, but we had similar late-game surges against both Michigan and Purdue. I know nobody wants to spend the season watching last-second nailbiters with a container of Tums in one hand and a bottle of aspirin in the other--but given the choice, I would much rather have our team show the conditioning and wherewithal to keep fighting all the way through the fourth quarter than have them suffer a bruising, straight-up, all-game-long defeat.

The whole "late-game-rally" strategy doesn't work so well against teams like Alabama, which are well-versed enough in last-second comebacks to beat out even Johnny "I'm the biggest dick in" Football. But as we're not playing Alabama this season, it's probable that ND's late-game dominance could work to our advantage as the season progresses. (I continue to hope for us to dominate the entire game--but for right now, I'll take what I can get.) Our biggest challenges will most likely be MSU (because trick field goals, etc.), Oklahoma, USC, and Stanford. Oklahoma is actually my biggest worry right now, as we're playing them so soon and our secondary did not exactly look dominant against Purdue. (Although at least Bob Stoops has already named Blake Bell the starter for the ND game, so at least we know which QB to prepare for.)

However, given how spirited Temple looked in the opener and how hard we had to battle to beat Purdue, it's probably wise not to overlook any of the opponents left on our schedule. Apparently making it to the national championship game puts an even bigger target on your back than usual. (Even if you do not emerge victorious.) Who knew?

It is because of this that I refuse to develop pre-emptive ulcers while looking ahead to the rest of our games. Yes, our defense should be playing better. Yes, our lack of ability to establish a run game early is a concern. But based on how our opponents have played us thus far, we shouldn't expect to make a clean sweep of anyone--not until we've got some of our own issues worked out. So I'm gonna try not to sweat it if we get down early in the game.

BUT OUR DEFENSE, you may be thinking.

I know. I hear you. But I think things are starting to happen on defense that don't necessarily translate into what we, as fans, would prefer to see on the field. For example, Stephon Tuitt has only had, what, two tackles in the last two games? Granted, one of them was a sack against the Wolverines--but still. How is Tuitt supposed to break Justin Tuck's single-season record if he's not averaging 1.2 sacks per game?

However, after the Purdue game, Coach Kelly said in his presser:

Yeah, this is probably [Tuitt's] best game of the year in terms of just being on every play, just physically at the point of attack, two gapping, doing the things we want him to do, effort level. I really liked his play up front.
Tuitt, Nix, Sheldon Day, Shembo. An offense predicated on running the football, [Purdue] can't run the ball, your front four, those guys in particular, have to be doing something right. They played very good football for us.

Considering we've let our opponents score on 7 out of their last 8 trips to the red zone (and the lone stop was a missed FG by Purdue), it's kind of hard to think of our defense playing "very good football" right now. However, we held Purdue to just 38 yards rushing on 21 attempts--that's 1.8 yards per carry (an even more abysmal mark than Notre Dame's 2.5 ypc!). We've scored on defense two weeks in a row. And we forced Purdue to punt after ND fumbled the ball in the 4th quarter. Those are all pretty solid defensive statements, even if it doesn't quite feel like we've got a lot of dominance going on right now. (Especially considering we also let Purdue convert a 4th down for a TD in the 4th quarter.) But we're piecing things together.

Pop pop, fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is!

Personally, I am committed to enjoying this win. I'm enjoying having a winning record, too. And being ranked in the Top 25 for an entire calendar year. (We've been officially ranked in the AP poll since Sept. 8, 2012.) When was the last time THAT happened? 2006? Anyway, if you are for any reason feeling remotely glum about the Irish, just go watch some Purdue game highlights and replay that 2-yard DaVaris Daniels TD a couple times. See if it doesn't make you feel better about life, the universe of sport, and the gridiron in general. Some rewinds of Bennett Jackson's pick-six wouldn't hurt, either. Personally, I always find watching highlights after a win to be kind of soothing. Like an after-dinner mint.

Be sure to let this all sink in before you turn your sights ahead to the Spartans and college football's top-ranked defense (no joke). I'm expecting nothing less than the usual gritty brawl from the This Is Sparta crowd; but we've won nine games in a row at home now, and I think we're finally at a point where we can Protect This House with more than just lip service. Plus, nine in a row hardly seems like a streak when you play six games a year at home? But ten in a row--that's a start.

MSU has looked extremely solid in its first three games of the season, particularly in its 55-17 beat-down of Youngstown State, during which QB Connor Cook threw for 4 TD's and the Spartans racked up 547 yards of total offense. However, considering MSU's first two opponents were Western Michigan and South Florida, I wouldn't say MSU has exactly had a tough start to the season. ND's the first real test on their schedule, and it will be interesting to see what they make of the newly rejuvenated Irish offense--especially if the Reesus can stay turnover-free. And dagnabbit, guys, our defense better show up to PLAY.

Robert Franklin/SB Tribune
Robert Franklin/SB Tribune

Friday, September 13, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Tchaikovsky Edition

All right, fellow band nerds...this one's for you.

I decided to bust out my flute this morning (for the first time in forever), and I spent about an hour playing through random bits of music until I got to Tchaikovsky's "Marche Slave." Then I decided to give it up and listen to the full recording of "Marche Slave" while I puttered around the kitchen making breakfast. Amid what was possibly a hunger-induced delirium, it hit me: this is what football season feels like.

I'm not just talking about the obvious connection between classical music and college football game day. Snippets from "Ride of the Valkyries," "O Fortuna," the "Mars" theme from Holst's Planets suite, and the closing bars of the "1812 Overture" can be heard in college stadiums all across the country, alongside contemporary classics such as "Crazy Train," "Livin' on a Prayer," and the bass line from that one White Stripes song I can never remember the name of.

The power of music to unite--a country, a fan base, a disaffected generation of hippies, etc.--cannot be denied. It's always stirring, the moment when everyone rises to put their hands over their hearts and sing the national anthem before the game; we are all united as Americans and sports fans for one shining moment before we go back to acting like we all want to kill each other. Just as every country has a national anthem, every college team has a fight song.

Fight songs are meant to inspire, uplift, and remind us of our common bond as students, alumni, fans, and raving-lunatics-in-arms (except, of course, for the Michigan fight song, which as everyone knows is the audio equivalent of a hyena vomiting all over your child's crib). As a former band member, I can tell you that playing the fight song always felt more effective in a hostile away environment than it did at home--at least in terms of uniting the crowd. (Having four hundred screaming fans in wool uniforms standing directly behind one of the opposing team's endzones didn't hurt, either.) There were, of course, times when playing the fight song didn't seem to have any effect whatsoever on the team's morale; and after the 2007 season, there were certain pep songs I would have been glad to never play again (*cough*CELTICCHANT*cough*). But there were other times when playing the fight song felt downright giddy, almost euphoric--such as in the aftermath of the 2006 dramatic-comeback-game-in-the-rain vs. MSU.

But that wasn't what I thought of this morning while listening to "Marche Slave." Instead I thought, "Holy shit! This whole song is like a metaphor for how I feel during football season!!!"

It's not a perfect metaphor....

If you don't make a regular habit out of listening to classical music (and/or instrumental music in general), there's one very noticeable difference between classical stuff and the stuff you hear on the radio, and it's called dynamics. Pop music mostly wavers between FORTE and FORTISSIMO (aka the rockin-in-the-club strategy of BUY DRINKS! and BUY MORE DRINKS!!!). The quietest pop songs ever get is maybe a mezzo-forte. (You know, like if it's a ballad or something.)

Whereas if you put on a nice long piece of classical music, you'll probably start out thinking, "Oh man, that's really quiet--I better turn it up." And then two minutes later you'll be like, "Holy shit that's quite loud I guess I'll turn it down." But if there's a bigass crescendo going on, ten seconds later you'll be like, "HOLY SHIT THAT'S STILL TOO LOUD! I JUST TURNED IT DOWN! HOW DO THEY KEEP GETTING LOUDER?!?!"  (Because musicians are BAMFs, that's why--and don't you forget it.)

And so on.

Most college marching bands don't bother much with dynamics; when you're playing to a crowd of 80,000, anything less than forte is gonna get lost in the shuffle. (Unless, you know, you're one of those pretentious bands *cough*OhioState*cough* and you feel like playing really complex music nobody can hear.)

But there are dynamics in the stadium on game day, and it's something everyone notices--even the talking heads in the booth. (You know, when they're not distracted by the upcoming golf tournament or the latest Eminem single or whatever else it is they're being paid to sponsor instead of talking about the actual game.) The cheering thousands move through peaks and troughs of sound, like the great strains of a orchestra being conducted by the actions of the players on the field.  Like a sheet of music, the lines of the gridiron define the form and the limits into which the coaches can inscribe an infinite number of plays and combinations, drawing an infinite number of reactions from the crowd.

But it all uses the same notes, over and over again. The cry of victory. The groan of defeat. The great gasp of the almost-caught pass. The stone-dead silence of a crowd whose team has just been sacked and stripped and had the ball run back on them for a touchdown. The notes are drawn out of us almost without our consent; when the playing starts to hurt, we say, "I can't watch." But we do. We build up calluses and we move on.

There is always another game to be played.

"Marche Slave" = loss to Michigan = yoke of oppression

"Marche Slave" (also written as March Slav) is the French (and most common) title for Tchaikovsky's "Serbo-Russian March," which was commissioned by the Russian Musical Society in support of the Serbians during the Serbo-Turkish war (c.1876).

My interpretation of this piece of music has nothing to do that, in the same way that the Notre Dame Band playing the "1812 Overture" at the end of the 3rd quarter has nothing to do with Russian's defense of the motherland against Napoleon. As mentioned, this morning, my reaction to Marche Slave was more like, "Holy shit! This is how I feel during football games!"

I'm not saying I want "Marche Slave" to be piped into the stadium on game days. I'm just saying: if you were going to take my internal landscape following the loss to Michigan and interpret it as a piece of music ( you do...), it would kind of sound like this.

And now, fourteen paragraphs later, we get to the point.

If you've never listened to Marche Slave, you can do so here:

 Or you can just take my word for it and interpret the song based upon my comments below.

Marche Slave begins in B-minor, which as everyone knows is the key you write in when you want to sound oppressed. It's slow, like a funeral march, and its downward-slipping melody skips around the orchestra in a somber refrain until everybody in the audience feels deep within their souls that We Are Being Oppressed (By Michigan)--And This Is Not Okay. But it is not the sound of true despair, or true defeat; it turns to the lyrical, almost poetic march of those who refuse to let their notes ring atonal, even in the face of skunkbear-scented defeat. Then, at about the 1:27 mark, you get the first rebuttal. The spark of rebellion. The rallying of the troops--the refusal to accept defeat. And there, at the 2:16 mark, comes the rage, the fury, the frustration--and the angry f***ing piccolo who cannot believe her defense--our defense--the f**ing just went to a national championship defense--gave up 41 points and 96 rushing yards to some punk quarterback from Michigan who isn't even Denard Robinson. I mean, come on. You have GOT to be kidding me. I CAN'T GO THROUGH ANOTHER FOUR YEARS OF THIS.

Oh, wait. Except we won't have to. Because we're not playing Michigan anymore after next year.

But in the meantime, back to our regularly scheduled oppression

It's been a long while since we've been in the frustrating position of playing catch-up all game long against a team that we are, genuinely, pretty evenly-matched with. But Michigan wrested control from us early, and--like any true oppressor--they never gave up the high ground. There were times when the Irish drew even; times when it even seemed as though we might surge forth to victory, as we did in so many last-second comebacks last year.

But we couldn't throw off the yoke this time.

Every ghost of a worry that plagued us during the Temple game came back to haunt us this game: two drives sputtered because we couldn't establish a running game early on; our defense looked porous against a mobile quarterback; we let Michigan score on 4 out of 4 trips to the red zone; our offense has not yet produced a consistent deep threat at receiver; Tommy continues to underwhelm while scrambling; and yes--the Reesus threw another turnover. We lost two of our possessions on interceptions and two on failed 4th-down conversions. The only marked improvement in scoring this week was Kyle Brindza's return to place-kicker; he made 3 of 3 field goals, two from 40+ yards.

I don't mean to be entirely bleak, of course. We did score on six of our possessions; Rees threw for over 300 yards and 2 TDs, spreading the ball out fairly evenly between Jones, Niklas, and Daniels; and once we got something going on the ground, Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III each averaged over 5 ypc.

But any game in which you score 30 points and do not win is not a stellar defensive effort--and that, more than anything, is worth an angry Serbo-Russian ballad. Our offense is improving, but they're not good enough yet to win on their own volition. We need our defense to be the anchor, and they just aren't anchored yet. Maybe they're in the process of untying knots before the anchor can be lowered--but dang it, I wish they'd hurry up.

If you look at the defensive stats, there are some things there to be pleased about. We had eight tackles for loss, 3 pass break-ups, 3 QB hurries, 1 sack, and 1 extremely badass interception courtesy of Stephon Tuitt. But all of that amounts to bloody nothing when your opponent puts up 41 points on you. Also it doesn't help when you have a specious pass interference call against your defense on a key drive late in the game...but never mind that; what's done is done.

I also think this is something of a testament to the leadership we had on defense last year; the bend-but-don't-break mentality really only works if you're committed to not breaking in the red zone, and we don't seem to have that right now. There's no point lamenting players lost, but I do hope that as the season goes on, our team finds a way to reincarnate what made us so clutch last year. Because sometimes it isn't about the opponent. Sometimes it's just about going out there and acting like you're the baddest mother on the field--even if you're not.

And now on to zen mode.

So perfect regular-season this year. Despite the initial fiery rage, I think I'm going to be okay with that. Not only because I have no choice, but also because it allows us to fade into the background and do what we do best: be the underdog.

Of course it makes no sense for Notre Dame to be the underdog, really. We're still ranked; we're still good; more likely than not, we're going to make it to a good bowl game. And honestly, now that the monkey's off our back about making it to the national championship game, that's all I want us to do: I want us to go to a good bowl game, and I want us to beat a freaking ranked opponent. No more of this "Notre Dame being overmatched in the postseason" BS. I want us to figure out how to take a three-week break from the season, come back, and WIN. Then--and only then--can we talk about winning another national championship.

In the meantime...let us skip to 3:22 in Marche Slave and contemplate how the rest of the season might go. Let's contemplate playing Purdue, shall we? I am not saying this will be a game without peril. We only beat Purdue by 3 points last year. I'm just saying I think we can count on our guys being focused and a little angry after all of that thundering oppression in the Big House. It's going to be a hard fight against the Boilermakers (lots of angry brass, blaring trumpets, that sort of thing)--but yes, I expect us to emerge victorious without inducing any heart attacks.

Not until we face MSU at home next week do I expect we'll hit something like the 4:32 mark of Marche Slave and have some serious, blood-pressure raising anxiety. And as for the Oklahoma game the week after that? All bets are off.

But if you listen all the way to the end of the song--it builds. It gets better. It becomes more intense. More electrifying. More satisfying.

And I assure you, fellow Irish fans, it ends in triumph.