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

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