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

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