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

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