Saturday, December 28, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Stumped

So...if each season is like a forest, and each team is like a tree, then at the end of this season our tree is one of the nice, tall, leafy-looking ones with four of its limbs hacked off.

For most of the year, we've looked strong and sturdy enough to weather our weekly storm. If you compare our manner of weathering the week to our opponents', I think you'll find few deficiencies so grievous that they should have resulted in loss of limb. We could have made it through the season with more of our branches intact. Maybe all of them. But we didn't.

There were times it seemed we'd contracted turnover-causing termites that began chewing our offense out from the inside. There were other times it seemed we'd suffered from an obscure defensive disease that sapped our game-winning strength and softened the bite of our bark until it looked as though we were ready to drop leaves and go into hibernation, mid-season. But we didn't do that, either. We came back with all the force of an angry Ent to purge our weaknesses and defend our turf on Senior Day. Unfortunately, this surge of rage-limbed prowess didn't last long enough to vanquish those tree-appropriating orcs from California. And now we're left, slightly battered, to face a lackluster opponent in a baseball-themed bowl game in NYC.

Which pretty much sums up the sawed-through feeling of our season. 8-4 is not always a bad year. But after last year's marvelous 12-0, anything less was going to be a downer. Even if we were expecting it to be a downer season. Even if the downer really started at the end of last season, when we lost to Alabama in the championship game. It was no given that this year's team was going to match last year's squad in strength of spirit or execution--but I think there was some general feeling that with so many returning starters on defense, the acorn should not have fallen quite so far from last year's tree.

Sometimes I get the frustrated notion that it would be nice if we didn't have to start over every single year with brand-new foliage. I mean...isn't there some way to avoid this starting-from-sapling feeling? Can't we just transplant the mighty victorious strength of last season, prune the limbs, and grow ever mightier, year by year?

But you can't do that, really. You can't uproot roots if you expect them to stay strong. Let the memories grow tall and the branches grow thick enough to build a treehouse on--and then you can stuff it full of memorabilia and string up Ye Olde Rope Ladder to Yesteryear, and go up whenever you want to take admiring looks around, and ruminate over things like Manti Te'o (before he became associated with jokes involving moustache-tentacled aquatic animals of any kind)...or magnificent, heart-stopping goal-line stands...orsigns lit up atop Grace Hall...or Bob Diaco's hair. Or what have you.

And then you can clamber back down and face the reality of this season, which actually looks kind of similar to last season, only with less last-second victories and a lot more grinding of potential wins into a pile of woody pulp.

That's what I see when I look back on this season. Not the eight wins, not the things we did right, not the flashy potential of our younger starters--but the sawdust-scented pile of mulch we're going to have to use to sow our plot for next season.

This doesn't feel optimistic enough for Christmastime. Probably it would be better if I did a fun clever look-back at all the high points of our season. And there were plenty, it's true. You could put together a very nice highlight reel of us outscoring ASU in Texas; beating USC at home; laying the ever-loving smackdown on Air Force; winning on Senior Day four years in a row.

But it's all over now--finito--and we didn't make it to the BCS, and there are few things to be excited about in the coming bowl game, unless maybe you're using it as an excuse to party in NYC. Or perhaps you are privately rejoicing that at least you'll be able to watch this game without having a complete heart attack over the outcome. (We hope.)


So I gather that there were some good reasons Notre Dame wanted to play in the Pinstripe Bowl. Namely:
A) We didn't have enough wins to qualify for a BCS Bowl, and we don't have any tie-ins with the ACC bowls until next season-ish, so our options were basically the Pinstripe Bowl or the Hawaii Bowl (or maybe the Holiday Bowl? But ASU's playing in the holiday bowl, and we already played them, so possibly that's why we didn't go there). I'm not entirely sure why we accepted our bowl game a week earlier than most other teams...the only reason I can fathom is:

B) We weren't expecting Rutgers to actually make it to six wins. If Rutgers had lost, we probably would have been matched up with an 8-4 Houston team. Although I also recall reading that if we had been matched up against Houston, we would've had the option to "buy out" our opponent (since Houston doesn't really have a conference tie-in with the Pinstripe Bowl) and get some other opponent that would've given us more of a "headliner" kind of game (which totally sounds like the kind of thing Notre Dame would do...but this is all complete hearsay so don't quote me on any of this). Other reasons we accepted the Pinstripe Bowl bid include:

C) Notre Dame wants to keep up good relations with the Steinbrenner family, and:

D) Seemed like a good opportunity to play for all the alums/subway alums in the NYC area.

Which is fine. And all makes sense. And...whatever.

But my number-one greatest hope for this season (after we lost to Michigan) was that we would play a ranked team in a bowl game and win.

And instead we're playing a .500 Rutgers team. I would say nobody is happy about this, but actually I've been hearing a lot of binary opinions about our postseason matchup.

Opinion #1: It's a shame.

...that we accepted this bowl bid, that we're not playing a more evenly-matched opponent, that we're playing someplace cold (where we've already played), that the season had to end this way when we had so much potential to do better (etc etc). Some of which A) sounds like an insult to Rutgers, and also B) makes it sound like we've completely forgotten the fact that football is a game (which people ostensibly play for fun), and that despite any personal disgruntlement we may have with the completely excessive number of bowl games and the ridiculous amounts of corporate money flying around, this is nonetheless an excellent opportunity for many of these 18-to-22-year-old players to visit one of the greatest cities in the world and experience some of its sights and culture in a way they may not have had a chance to when they played Army in Yankee Stadium during the regular season three years ago. (And so on.)

Opinion #2: It's awesome.

...because we're going to watch Notre Dame kick the shit out of somebody, so the whole day is totally going to be an excuse to drink and have fun. Right, guys?

Which also sounds like an insult to Rutgers (sorry, Scarlet Knights). We are 14-point favorites, which seems reasonable enough, given our respective seasons, but my general opinion on the game is this:

Brian Kelly didn't come here to win the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

Neither did our players.

Look, I know this is the point in the season when you're supposed to lick your wounds and move on (or whatever)--but from everything every athlete has ever said about losing a big game: all you want after a loss is a chance to get back out there and play again.

After you lose the national championship game, you don't get that chance. Playing again is not an option. All you have left is the weight room and the off-season and the choice to work, work, work to get back where you were. So you can try again. So you can WIN. Which you know may never happen. But you were JUST THERE. It makes the whole idea of getting back there seem not just possible, but tangible.

Never mind what the press said or what you thought the outcome of the 2013 season was going to be. Never mind the graduating players or the injuries or the losses in personnel. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the schedule Notre Dame posted in the locker room at the beginning of the season that had a slot for "January 7, 2014 - BCS National Championship Game."  Maybe it smacked of hubris, putting it on the actual wall. But as a coach, as a player--as a human being--getting that close to attaining something that big and walking away empty? OF COURSE they want to go back and try again. OF COURSE that's the goal.

But this whole season became less an exercise in victory and fortitude than an exercise in scaling back expectations. If we can't make it to a championship, then let's make it to a BCS Bowl. If not a BCS Bowl, then let's at least anoint ourselves well enough to make it to a good bowl game against a well-matched opponent. And if we can't have that, well...okay...let's just at least make sure we play in a bowl game. Right? Even if it's a bowl game nobody's ever heard of and we're expected to trollop our opponent. Because that's what the postseason's all about. I mean...the post-season's definitely NOT about all of the best teams in the country getting the chance to play one another in a series of increasingly exciting and meaningful match-ups culminating in the crowning of a national champion. Because that would be insanity.

On the one hand, who am I to complain about being able to flip on the TV practically any time of day for the next week and a half and find a college football game on or soon-to-be-played? And as a former college band member, I cannot help thinking every college band member (or, you know, football player) should have an awesome bowl game trip experience. But seriously guys--this is kind of lame. There are too many bowls and there are too many teams going to bowls that have barely scraped .500 records, and you end up with matchups like this one, which you can be sort-of excited about, but not really, because if we win, then no big deal. But if we lose? Horrific.

I'm really not trying to be offensive to Rutgers; I haven't watched the Scarlet Knights play this season and I don't know anything about this year's team other than that they limped their way to six wins, and then their head coach fired a bunch of his coordinators (presumably because he thought they should've gotten more than six wins). So probably Rutgers is more talented than their record indicates. They've gone to bowl games 8 of the last 9 years, including a victory in the Pinstripe Bowl two years ago against Iowa State. So, you know, they've covered this ground before. Rutgers knows how to play in the postseason.

I just feel like watching this game is going to be like watching another Sun Bowl or Hawaii Bowl. It'll be fun, of course, but this time around it doesn't mean much of anything. It's not like we're recruiting Manti Te'o. And we're not facing off against an old-school foe like Miami. I mean, the last time we played Rutgers we beat them 42-0 (that's just off the top of my head, but I'm pretty sure that's right because I was there). And we don't have anything to prove in the way of "yes, we can win bowl games," because we HAVE been winning bowl games. Just not against ranked opponents. Which we can't accomplish today, so that will leave me way too much time during the game to ruminate over the off-season and how the departure of Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco might affect recruiting and whether Everett Golson might genuinely get beaten out by Malik Zaire (seems unlikely, but you never know).

Well, anyway. Obviously the game's in like ninety minutes so you don't need me to babble to you about it anymore (or leave you on a total downer). Let's just finish out this season looking nice and leafy--and see if we can't find some nice-looking acorns to take with us into next season.


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