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.)


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