Sunday, November 24, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Senior Day Snow Bowl

First things first--you might want to watch the ICON video from this week. It features choice game highlights, snippets of Coach Kelly's locker room speeches, and several extremely fierce Hawaiians:

Epic Bulldog
I've long thought that Brian Kelly looks a bit like a bulldog when he gets angry on the sidelines. His jowls quiver. His jaw clenches. He sometimes looks like he's prepared to latch onto the ref's arm and shake it in fury until the refs make the correct call.

At some point during the BYU game, in the midst of some furious texting, one of my friends posited that Brian Kelly's sideline rants were nothing short of epic, and I said yes. They are epic.

Epic bulldog.

If you are skeptical, then you should definitely watch the ICON video from this week. Zoom ahead to approximately the 2:47 mark, and check out Brian Kelly yelling at the team during halftime: "I ABSOLUTELY LOVE WHAT I SEE."

Because if that's not Epic Bulldog, then I don't know what is.

So here's to you, Brian Kelly, and the first graduating class at ND that you've coached for all four years.

This is an interesting class, because next year is the first year Brian Kelly will be graduating a class of seniors that he both recruited and coached. This year's seniors, by and large, were brought in by Charlie Weis to play his pro-style system--and we've seen some bumps in the road as Brian Kelly attempted to work some of these less-versatile players into a "you-must-be-versatile" system.

Last year's senior class had a little more flash, fame, and obvious NFL futures (not to knock Louis Nix, of course), but this year's senior class has done some things no senior class has done for a while. Like winning on Senior Day four years in a row. Beating USC 3 times. Going 11-1 in Notre Dame stadium over the last 12 home games. Playing for the national championship. And, you know, playing in bowl games four years in a row (which, btw senior band members, I am not jealous of you for at ALL). The overall record under Brian Kelly is 35-13, which puts us at a .729 win percentage--the best mark for any head coach at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz (.765). (Just think--if only we'd had a better showing against Alabama, we could've continued with the grand tradition of Notre Dame coaches winning a national championship in their third season.)

So it's frustrating to think that this season is, somehow, a disappointment. At the beginning of the year, the team was talking about gunning for a national championship, which without Everett Golson seemed unlikely at best...and then we had to recalibrate to aim for a BCS bowl...and then for an outside BCS berth...and now we're mostly thinking we'll be lucky if we can beat Stanford. It's the opposite of the trajectory we had last season, and that makes it harder to swallow.

Part of the reason these losses have been so bitter and untenable--and the reason I was so pessimistic yesterday--is because NONE of our losses were out of reach. It was mostly mental mistakes. Lack of edge. Lack of focus. And I bemoaned our ability to get the edge back.

But we did. And on Senior Day, no less.

Sayonara, Seniors

The goal on Senior Day is no different than the goal on any other day: win. But Senior Day always feels a bit different, because it marks the beginning of the end. The end of the season. The end of the year. The end of college, for those being honored. It's surreal, that "last time," because it both does and doesn't feel like the last time at all. By the time you're a senior, it just feels familiar. Game Day is something you've done twenty-three times already. Your brain knows the routine too well already; the majority of that gray sludgy mass in your head refuses to acknowledge that anything about this is different or new. Besides--it's not like it's the last last game. There's always that game in California over Thanksgiving. And if you're lucky, a bowl game.

And then, of course, there's the entire rest of your life to come back and tailgate and sneak into the student section and watch the players get progressively younger and younger while you grow old giving yourself ulcers over last-second touchdowns. Until one day you start saying, "When I was a student..." and you realize you don't actually know anybody who goes to school here anymore. Which brings you to approximately Phase VII of the life cycle of a Notre Dame Student.

(And since I just made that up right now, I guess I'd better elaborate on what the phases are:
Phase I: Prospective Student "Please pick me oh please pick me oh please oh please oh please"
Phase III: Disillusioned Student "I am so sick of dining hall food. I can't believe anybody pays for this. I never want to eat at South AGAIN."
Phase IV: First-semester Senior  "My brain never really came back from study abroad..."
Phase V: Second-semester Senior "Oh God Oh God WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MY LIFE?"
Phase V: Poor Young Alumni "Wait, I have to donate HOW much to get into the football lottery next year?"
Phase VI: Old Young Alumni "Guys, I don't know anybody who lives in South Bend anymore. We're gonna have to get a hotel."
Phase VII: Cranky Young Alumni "Man, when I went to school here, quarter dogs were still twenty-five cents."
Phase VIII: No Longer A Young Alumni  "Wait, I have to donate HOW much to get into the football lottery next year?"
Phase IX - XI: TBD

I don't know how many phases there actually are, because I haven't reached them yet. I suspect there are three more levels, and at least one of them is "Crotchety Old Alumni Who Still Thinks The Students Should Be All Guys." Though I suspect this will be modified by the time I get there.)

Anyway. Back to the football.

So on Senior Day, everything's the same, except you're kind of rooting for all of the seniors to get playing time, in addition to the win. You want to see those backup players take the field. You want to see Danny Spond in full uniform again. (You want to see Zibby in at QB.) And when you play a team like BYU, you know it's going to be nigh-impossible to get a comfortable enough cushion to send out your third- and fourth-string. Especially when your team's just had two weeks to mull over an unconscionable loss to Pitt.

So you worry. You obsess.

And then you watch in delight as your team comes out swinging, dominates the line on both sides of the ball, and basically owns the field for the majority of the game.

Mental edge = recovered.

And it's sharper than a vorpal blade. Or a subtle knife. Or the sword that cut the ring from Sauron's finger.

Gunning for Touchdown Mode

Tommy Rees has two modes: Touchdown Mode and Turnover Mode. Yesterday, we mostly saw touchdown mode, but I guess Tommy  couldn't resist throwing one more pick in the endzone (you know...for old time's sake). I don't mean to be hard on Tommy (yes, I do), but hey, the kid's tough. He's done everything that's been asked of him, and he's done it with aplomb (you know, except when he's busy throwing interceptions). And he always comes back fighting. That's become true of this team as well: even when they've suffered a knuckle-headed loss, even when they're getting run over in a national championship loss to Alabama--they come back fighting.

I guess I shouldn't have doubted this senior class would make a mental comeback on Senior Day. After all--on Senior Day, they've never lost. The senior-class mindset was perhaps epitomized most fully by linebacker Dan Fox, who led the D with 9 tackles, and obscene amount of focus, and probably the best game of his entire career.

But what's most impressive about this win, perhaps, was the total team effort. The kind of effort we've been expecting to see more of all season, where everyone's locked in, everyone steps up--so that when your starting center goes down with a season-ending injury in the middle of the game, the next man in plays so well (and the rest of the team continues to perform so consistently) that you hardly notice the switch was made at all.

So many of the players who helped us corral the Cougars yesterday weren't seniors at all: Tarean Folston, who scored the first TD of the game; Cam McDaniel, who kept us barreling forward on the ice-slicked ground; DaVaris Daniels, who had the two biggest catches of the game; Jarron Jones, who had 7 tackles and a blocked kick; and Kyle Brindza, who, when they said they were sending the punt unit on the field prior to his 51-yd field goal, said "Are you kidding? That's in my range!"

Now THAT's Notre Dame football.

As Coach Kelly put it in his presser:
This is the way we need to play. This is what we're capable of playing. It's a much more physical brand of football. [...]  I think the Pittsburgh game was an anomaly for a number of reasons that I just can't get into right now [...], and they had a chance to go out and show in their last home game the kind of football team that they really are.

The Clash of the New Ivies & The Search for Self-Actualization

So as we head out to play our frenemies next week in Palo Alto, let's hope that we continue to play like the football team we really are, instead of a football team that looks like it got mugged twenty feet outside the stadium and then ran onto the field with its pockets emptied of a decent run-blocking scheme and proper tackling technique. (Sorry. Still angry about the Pitt game)

The 8th-ranked Cardinal (the color, not the bird) have beaten five out of five ranked teams they've faced; their two losses came against unranked Utah (26-20) and then-unranked USC (20-17). This does not necessarily bode well for #25 Notre Dame (now ranked again in the BCS standings). On the one hand, Notre Dame beat USC. On the other hand, Stanford beat Oregon.

What does bode well for us is the way we played against BYU. If we can keep up that level of focus and avoid turnovers of any kind (excepting possible leftovers from Thanksgiving), there's no reason we shouldn't be able to control the line of scrimmage against the Cardinal. Also boding well for the Irish is that Stanford seems to have taken its frustration out on Cal this weekend (63-13), so hopefully they'll be facing the Irish on an even keel.

Although I have to say--for as much as I deplore Stanford's band (for example), and for as much as I want the Irish to win and prove (yet again) what they're made of--I'm kind of frustrated that Stanford had the gall to lose to Utah and USC. We need more teams like Stanford in the top 10, for the sake of college football. To make a point about not compromising academic standards for the sake of sport. We need these teams to win BCS bowls--if for no other reason than to score a Pyrrhic victory in a war we may have already lost.

But in the meantime, I hope we both end this season 9-3.

Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune
Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune

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