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.


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