Saturday, November 29, 2014

Notre Dame Football: Used Car Edition

How. Did. We. Get. Here.

SERIOUSLY--how do you march your way up to the Top 10 and then bottom out so badly that you lose in your last game by the LARGEST MARGIN EVER? I thought we were done with defensive statistics like this when Charlie Weis left and we got back to actually coaching fundamentals. Although based on the tackling in the last few games, apparently we've lost sight of fundamentals this season as well.

Since mid-season, our team has become a textbook illustration of Murphy's Law.

And a perfectly good season has rapidly deteriorated into a lemon.

Deflating Tires

As far as I can tell, Golson's confidence started to deflate after the Florida State game, and it's been taking the air out of the entire offense ever since. Until today, when Golson appeared so afraid of making a mistake that his favorite receiver became the sideline, and then he threw two interceptions, anyway, and everything...went...flat.

Zaire managed to pump some life back into the team with a two-play TD drive, and there were a few pretty sweet runs after the catch (including a doozy of a stiff-arm scramble by C.J. Prosise). But it was all too little, too late. Apparently there are leaks in our offense everywhere now. Not all of Zaire's passes were spot-on--but there were an appalling number of drops on the passes that were. I'm not sure if it was mental errors, or if the receivers weren't used to catching Zaire's wicked-fast spirals--whatever the case, the team couldn't finish. Which is a shame, because I stand by what I said before: when our offense is on, they can move the ball against anybody in the country. We've seen flashes of that all season. But with so many turnovers, it's become impossible to maintain momentum.

Maybe it's not even accurate to say our tires are constantly deflating. In the middle of drives, we just keep blowing them. And it's pulled our season to the side of the road, while the rest of the Top 25 zooms past.

Broken Parts

But the real struggle of this season has been on the other side of the ball, where almost every major component of the defense has broken down.

Here's the injury list for the USC game:
*Ridiculous un-blockable man-beast and defensive captain Sheldon Day--OUT (but hopefully back for the bowl game. since weirdly there will be a bowl game).
*Junior defensive lineman and other-half-of-the-Sheldon-Day-man-beast team Jarron Jones--OUT.
*Team leader in tackles and everyone's-favorite-Rudy-story Joe Schmidt--OUT.
*Returner and only-player-in-the-secondary-with-any-real-experience Cody Riggs--OUT.
*Other defensive captain-and-primary-leader-in-the-secondary Austin Collinsworth--OUT, and then in, and then OUT again.
*Freshman safety and one-of-the-top-ten-leading-tacklers Drue Tranquill--OUT.
*Junior safety Nicky Baratti--OUT.

Combined with the suspension of corner KeiVarae Russell, safety Eilar Hardy, and linebackers Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, running the defense has become an exercise in improvisation.

It's kind of like trying to fix a car with only the parts you have lying around in your shop. You can't order new ones; you just have to work with what you've got. Even if Sheldon Day is a grade-A non-replaceable part. Tough luck. So you swap in parts you know might not run as well; try to jam things in where they don't exactly fit; and basically jerry-rig the shit out of your schemes until it looks like MacGyver went to town on your playbook.

Only MacGyver's tricks basically only needed to work once--whereas our defense has sixty minutes of football to play each week. As our roster grew more and more hodge-podge, our opposing offenses only increased in difficulty. Our young, untested secondary got burned. Opposing offenses picked up Van Gorder's schemes--not necessarily because the schemes were bad, but because we could no longer execute them at the highest level. Confidence wavered. Fundamentals weakened. Too much was put on the shoulders of our weakest unit, and--perhaps in an attempt to overcompensate--parts began to break down at a rapid pace.

Fried Sensors

As you will most likely know if you have driven a car to a ripe old age, the most joyous parts to fix on any vehicle are the sensors--delicate, sensitive instruments that cost three times as much to replace as the average car part and can completely crap out your engine even when they control something that seems like it should have nothing to do with the overall performance of your vehicle. Such as the fan.

I cannot blame Kyle Brindza for the way things have gone this season--although it certainly would've been great if Brindza's holder hadn't decided to start fumbling snaps and completely deteriorate his confidence to a point where the field goal unit couldn't do anything to help the team win, even from extremely advantageous field goal ranges.

Which is a shame, because prior to this season, Brindza had scored more field goals for Notre Dame than any other kicker in Irish history. His accuracy has dropped from an average of 75% over the last two seasons to 59% this year. The sensor's on the fritz. Which is terrifying--because when it's not working properly, it can cause huge momentum shifts.

But if you don't have the exact right sensor to replace it, there's pretty much nothing you can do except take the risk of removing it entirely (usually not a good option) or just cross your fingers and hope it decides to start working again.

The Mechanic

With everything grinding to a halt in dubious fashion (no-win November, at your service) it's impossible not to look at the mechanic and go, "WHAT GIVES?"

Should Kelly have put Zaire in four games ago? Maybe. Maybe not. How do you a bench a quarterback who keeps winning despite his mistakes? Who makes last-minute touchdown passes against Florida State that get called back on penalties? Who nearly engineers a ridiculous comeback against ASU after five turnovers in a game where literally nothing went our way? (Though to be fair, whenever ASU decided to step on the gas, we were totally at their mercy. And at least 2 of those turnovers were directly engineered by the ASU defense.)

But how do you bench Everett Golson against Northwestern? That was supposed to be a bounce-back game, right?

And benching Everett Golson on Senior Day....

I don't know. See, this is why I'm not a coach.

The thing is, we knew turnovers were going to be a problem coming in. We were just assuming our offense was going to score enough points that we'd be able to survive it. And that performance would improve over the course of the season, as everything settled in.

Instead, Golson went nearly as much on the fritz as our kicker, and we sputtered to a halt.

The Lemon

So this is maybe the most confused I've felt about a 7-5 team in my entire life.

The Florida State game almost felt like a flashback to USC 2005.

Almost everything after that felt like a flashback to 2007. Or no--maybe 2008. Because, see, it's impossible for me to concede that we've played as poorly this season as we played in 2007. Because in 2007, the team was never a team. And this season--for a good solid 7 games--we were a team. On all sides of the ball.

And now we're not.

I honestly don't know how much to blame Kelly for (except maybe lack of commitment to the run game). We have new coordinators this year, which always changes the team dynamic slightly. We've had coaches out with illness. We've had the players suspended and then forced out for the season. Plus a combination of all the maladies mentioned above.

But it seems like there should be come consistency in our approach--some cohesion on some deeper level--that prevents us from falling so spectacularly apart.

Maybe Brian Kelly relies too heavily on his players to create that cohesion. I think it was pretty clear in 2012 that Manti Te'o was the heart and soul of the team. As long as he was on fire, we continued to win games we may or may not have had any business winning. A perfect storm of a season. At least up until the post-season. And the scam which (whatever your opinions are about it), I am convinced, took some of the heart out of the heart and soul of the team. I mean--Alabama is still Alabama, and maybe they would've won anyway. But I think Irish fans can agree that the defense we saw in the first half of that championship game had none of the fire or aggression or passion it played with for the majority of the season.

And this season... We lost all of our leaders on defense to suspension or injury. There's only so much you can do from the sideline; and I think players on the field tried to step up--but there's only so much you can do if you're not 100% sure you know what you're doing. As mentioned, I think we lost Golson at some point after the FSU game. And it's possible Cam McDaniel's fumble took a bit of the air out of him, too. (Though I certainly don't want to cast aspersions on Cam the Man's leadership. And would like to point out that there's only so much you can do when you're not in charge of calling audibles and you only get the ball once like every thirty plays.) There's no been no time to gain confidence with Zaire in the driver's seat (um...I guess that's where the quarterback belongs in this metaphor).

So here we are: bowl eligible, but stalled. Maybe we can make something out of the post-season. Maybe we can find the right spark to get things running again. Another three weeks of practice with Zaire at the helm couldn't hurt. (Although really, you guys, I do still love Everett Golson. If he could just figure out how to simmer down and play his game he would be TOTALLY FINE.)

But mostly I'm just hoping we can coast through to next year with all of our parts still intact. I think we've had more than enough injuries for one season.

I suppose this is a melancholy way to end things. But really, four losses is a damn melancholy way to end the year.

So I can only say, steadfastly and as always: GO IRISH.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Notre Dame Football: Magic 8 Ball Edition

So here's my prediction for the FSU game: Everett Golson's going to turn the ball over.

I know it. You know it. We all know it.

I am not saying we couldn't end up with another miraculous, turnover-free victory against a Top 10 team on the road (a la the Oklahoma game in 2012); Golson often has a freakish ability to play better in hostile road environments than he does when the Irish are at home. (Maybe all the animosity helps him focus. Who knows)

But every time I consider the possibility of a turnover-free game against the Seminoles, some internal, Magic 8 Ball-esque voice tells me: Don't count on it.

I still hope for the best, of course. But in an effort to brace myself for any inopportune possession changes, I've decided it's best not to simply wish for the costly mistakes to disappear. Instead, I've decided to focus on the potential outcomes of any turnover malarkey by asking myself: okay, what happens AFTER we turn the ball over?

Better not tell you now, says Magic 8 Ball.

But what we've learned so far this season is that it is apparently possible to turn the ball over five times and still win by a sixteen-point margin. And that we have a special teams unit strong enough to help us out in this endeavor, by gaining key field position, making key tackles, and blocking key kicks. We've also learned that we're capable of orchestrating a comeback--of scoring fifty points when necessary (scoring 6 out of 6 trips to the red zone), if that's what it takes to win the game.

The obvious response to all this--the one generally agreed upon by the greater college football universe and all statistical common sense--is Outlook not so good. Because obviously you can make crazy turnover mistakes against Syracuse. Or North Carolina. Or Purdue. Or...Stanford.  But you can't do that against a team like FSU. They will make you pay for it.

It makes sense. In fact, it's an argument I've made myself. Turning the ball over five times or digging a 14-0 hole in the first five minutes of regulation isn't a good idea unless you've been cast as the underdog in a heartwarming sports movie (preferably involving overcoming the odds by beating your big brother in a cross-town peewee football rivalry). And no--I don't think we can beat FSU if we make as many mistakes against the Seminoles as we made against North Carolina or Syracuse.

Because we've also learned this season that our defense can't stay on the field for 90 plays. That a hurry-up offense destroys our ability to make key substitutions and stay dominant on third down (see: North Carolina game). That our holder really needs to wear gloves during field goal attempts in the rain. And that it's more or less impossible to tell what's going on in Everett Golson's head, and we should probably abandon hope that the team (or Everett Golson's brain) will have eradicated all their stupid mistakes by the time the Irish trot out on that field in Tallahassee tonight.

But we can also say with absolute confidence that we've gotten lots and lots of practice recovering from our own mistakes. You may rely on it. The last four games have not been stellar in terms of dominance, and there have been so many obvious errors it's easy to fixate on them. But in the midst of the glaring snafu's, that when we're down--when things are starting to go wrong and the breaks are beating the boys--we go out there and WE WIN ANYWAY. Even if we miss two incredibly crucial field goals in a tight game against the top-ranked defense in the country. Even if we're watching the lead teeter back and forth like a see-saw until time finally expires.

It doesn't matter that some furious, selfish, unsportsmanlike part of me wants the team to shape the hell up and stop making turnovers, stop missing tackles, stop looking like they're a work-in-progress and start looking like a bunch of dominant mo-fo's--not because obviously they should be doing this anyway but so that people can STOP SAYING THINGS like, "Ha, well, even if Notre Dame does manage to scrape by on their suuuuuuuuper difficult schedule and go undefeated and make it into the playoffs, it's just gonna end up like this again: [post link to 2012 national championship debacle]"

Maybe I should just stop going on the internet during football season. Because I'm sick to death of these snarkastic comments and I'm sick of people saying ND has a ridiculously tough schedule at the beginning of the season and then taking it back three weeks later, and I'm sick of pre-season rankings in general; and I'm SUPER sick of the effing selection committee even though they haven't done anything yet, because HOW THE HELL is appropriating two of the major historic bowl games each season and pissing off a ton of Top-10 teams' fans by cherry-picking four teams each year instead of two ANY BETTER than the original system of "Hey, everybody just play your bowl games and we'll pick the winner from there"? (I guess that's an entire rant on its own, for another time.)

Anyway. Back to the point: I know everybody thinks we should be all quaking in our buckled leprechaun boots about the possibility of turning the ball over against the defending national champions (or whatever), but I say screw that. I will of course be a lobster-faced vision of fury should we turn the ball over three times and have it cost us the game. But I am not afraid of making mistakes. Go ahead, Irish. Give my blood pressure a spike. Do what you do.

Because even if this team DOES screw up, I don't believe it's a sign of imminent failure. Because this year, the one thing we've been really, really good at is overcoming our mistakes.

Now, perhaps this does not sound as optimistic or violently comforting as YEAH--let's go break some wooden boards apart with our faces and then go out there and smash in the faces of those Seminoles!!!!!! (

I'm afraid I don't really have a lot of face-smashing conviction about this game. Whenever I try to ask myself what I think, I mostly get a gloop gloop gloop...Try again later.

But I do know, with certainty, that we are capable of fixing our flub-ups. Even if we're just fixing them with duct tape and spackle to hold us over til the end of the game. (That's as long as it needs to last, anyway.)

And this is a new week. A new game. We get to start all over. Leave the lopsided, shoddily constructed structure from last week's caper behind and build something new. Maybe even something that will last. Something we'll look back upon--maybe even feel the urge to gild and commemorate for future generations. Because, you know, there are few things Domers love more than gilding victories for posterity.

So let's go out there and lay a new foundation. Doesn't matter how unstable the thing looks in the midst of construction; you pull this one out, and some combination of glee and nostalgia will fix that sucker right up until it looks like the friggin' Parthenon.  (Well. Or something like that. It's only the seventh game of the season; let's not get carried away.)

It is decidedly so.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Notre Dame Football: Haiku Edition

Apparently ND football haikus are a thing this week, thanks to Subway Domer's fit of poetic inquiry in the Irish Blogger Gathering. Kind of takes me back to the Weis era, when Haiku Notre Dame had its sterling run. Speaking as someone who once wrote a blog post entitled "Notre Dame Football: Moby Dick Edition," I can't entirely discount the appropriation of classic works or art forms to get the point across about exploits on the gridiron. So this week the blog will be, erm, poetic.

Frozen Five

Five men wait, frozen--
while wins rush past like rapids--
dangling like hooked fish.

No word on the hearings. Rumors leaking that no matter the outcome, the five suspended Irish players won't see the field this season. Brian Kelly denying any knowledge of the outcomes. The whole situation is appalling. It's bad enough that the investigation had to happen at all (don't even get me started on integrity and the apparently inversely proportional relationship between academics and athletic prowess in America)--but if it had to happen, just make it HAPPEN.

It's a sticky situation: if you let the players play and they're found guilty of academic dishonesty, they'll be suspended or expelled from school, and then become retroactively ineligible for all games and practices in which they participated (from the time the academic dishonesty started onward, presumably). Which then opens up the NCAA quagmire of Notre Dame potentially vacating wins in which those players participated.

Which, if you ask me, is pretty much the stupidest punishment ever. Those games happened the way they happened. Who can say whether the game would have turned out any differently because of that single player? But, you know, clearly something must be done to show people the seriousness of academic violations. So obviously the best solution is to wipe entire seasons off the record, thereby invalidating the play of every other person on the field and stripping the games of any meaning or outcome.

Yes. That will show them.

Anyway: If the players AREN'T found guilty, then at least they've been going to school and attending class, so they won't fall behind in their credits. But now they've missed six games--half a freaking season--and suffered the ignominy of an investigation and suspension for no reason. And will probably have to face not playing for the entire season, because of eligibility issues. And lack of practice. And so on.

If the players ARE found guilty, then they'll have to deal with suspension or expulsion, plus additional appeals and hearings. And if they're suspended from school immediately, then all the academic work they've done so far this semester (presumably of their own volition--?) will have been for naught. Although considering they're under investigation for academic fraud in the first place, I'm really not sure how to feel about this--only that it seems odd, given the circumstances, that they've been stripped of athletic privileges but still been allowed to go to class.

So clearly there was never an ideal way to handle this situation. Having uncovered the potential Honor Code violations during the summer session, the administration had no choice but to wait until school officially reconvened in the fall to assemble a hearing committee, which must include Notre Dame students (by code of the...Honor Code).

But it seems like the best option in a less-than-ideal situation would have been to get it over and done with as fast as humanly possible. Obviously the students, professors, and administrators involved in the hearings have enough else on their plates without having to decide the fates of five students who potentially committed the ultimate act of disrespect toward an institution of higher learning. But come on. Seven weeks? No verdicts?

Considering ND is filled with obsessive overachievers collectively invested in the outcome of collegiate sporting events probably more than is reasonable or wise, it is hard to believe this is the best we can do.

As to the outcome of the investigations: I have no idea what is going on. None at all. Given that Everett Golson was suspended last season due to Honor Code violations, it's not like we can exactly point to the entire team having squeaky clean records or anything. It's still depressing. But I don't know anything about the situation and don't care to speculate. The only thing I can say is that this catch-and-release job they're pulling on the five students in question has dragged on so long it's borderline cruel, and whatever the outcome, it just needs to COME. Let's get this over with.

Anyway. Enough depressing ranting. On to actual football!

Notre Dame 17, Stanford 14

By Golson's faith, strength, and arm
Cardinal sins die.

The Irish are 5-0 for only the third time since Lou left.

Five years into Brian Kelly's program, this is what we want to see: a team staying alive until the very end; playing physical without getting pushed around; recovering from mistakes by playing with confidence--and absolutely no fear.

Everett Golson is a winner. As he's been the perpetrator of our greatest pitfalls so far this season, so has he been the engine of our victories.

The man will not stop. He will not quit. He is 15-1 as a starter.

He will not be defeated.

I'm not just talking about the scoreboard at the end of the game (although that is obviously the most crucial statistic). I'm talking about the mentality it takes to win the game. Never mind that our ground attack has been sputtering at best. Never mind the unusually high number of turnovers in the red zone (actually wait, do mind those; just be grateful they're happening so deep in enemy territory our opponents have had to work hard to make anything out of them). Just keep in mind that whatever happens, Golson will go out on the field next play and try to win. And everyone around him will try to win. And even if it takes until 4th-and-11 in the last minute of play, he will keep trying to find a way to win.

Full satisfaction lies in full effort. You can't ask for more than that. (Although srsly guys, STOP TURNING THE BALL OVER.)

In many ways it feels like we are in the Top 10 by default. Just because we're undefeated. Which, you know, we've earned--but people are still acting like we haven't earned our stripes. Our defense is still young and our secondary relatively untested (though so far we're being pretty punishing against the run). Our offense can move the ball against anybody--we gained nearly as many yards in the first HALF against Stanford than the top-ranked Cardinal defense had allowed in a single game all season. But we've had lots of mistakes, lots of turnovers these last three games. With Michigan's season going down the tubes, there's still some sense that we haven't played any "real" opponents. That everything will somehow be decided against Florida State next week.

But make no mistake: beating Stanford is still a tremendous victory. Not a statement victory (whatever the hell that is) or proof positive that we "belong" in any particular place in the rankings. But five weeks into the season, we've at least proved that we're not going to stop fighting. That we're going to keep plugging at it, without loss of confidence or resolve. That we don't get rattled. The way the players talk about the team is only ever positive, only ever "everyone on the team can play."

It's not just confidence, you know, it's faith. We're not winning because of the offense, or because of the defense. We're not winning because we're executing so perfectly on every play. We're winning because the WHOLE TEAM PLAYS. Even if they botch an assignment, they botch it 100%--which, if you're going to make a mistake on the field, is the only acceptable way to do so. Even when Golson's scrambling for his life, it's just because he's trying to get another play off. Trying to make something happen. Playmakers. That's what we've got. Everybody trying to make plays, all the time.

So if you're not going to be the most experienced, most perfectly executing team in the history of teams, that's about all you can ask for.

Well, except for having a defensive coordinator who decides that instead of going into a "victory defense" at the end of the game he's just going to call an ALL OUT BLITZ and sack the ever-loving shit out of Stanford's quarterback (or pay dearly for the gutsy call).

I couldn't have scripted a better end to the game. At this point, I almost feel like I couldn't ask for any more from Van Gorder, who is absolutely capitalizing on the advantage of nobody-knows-what-my-game-is yet to shock the hell out of opposing defenses. NO HESITATION. NO OVERTIME. NO MERCY.

I feel like if I were to come back in my next life as a defensive coordinator, I would probably come back as something resembling Van Gorder. (He's my spirit animal, guys.)

Last but not least, can I just take a moment to commend the special teams for really, incredibly excellent play all season long? Never mind those two botched field goals (which were fixed later by the holder--here's a revolutionary idea, to quote Brian Kelly--PUTTING ON GLOVES so he could handle the ball better in the rain). The fact that we have a special teams unit worth speaking of is still kind of surreal. But also: awesome.

And against North Carolina, we are just going to keep bringing the awesome.

Onward to Victory
Cleats laced, run game go
Trap game test of tar on turf to see
whose heel stomps hardest

(Hint: it's ours.)


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Notre Dame Football: Schrodinger's Cat Edition

See, this is why I don't make predictions. They always come out feeling less like predictions and more like I'm tempting fate. Everyone please ignore me any time I start talking about the future. PAY NO ATTENTION to the woman behind the keyboard. (In other news: I predict we are going to play terribly against Stanford. Terribly.)

Nevertheless, despite a penalty-laden victory over Purdue and a terrifying five-turnover foot-shooting fest against the Orange, the #8/#9 Irish are 4-0 and heading into our first big test of the season against the 14th-ranked Cardinal. (You know, since Michigan has apparently decided to rock it like it's 2008 and all. Which I am totally okay with. As mentioned.)

On the bright side, the Irish have scored 30+ points in their first four games for the first time since 1943. Which would be a bit more impressive if the other members of the Top 25 weren't busy shellacking their opponents by scores of 56-14 (#9 MSU vs Wyoming) or 62-27 (#11 UCLA vs #15 Arizona St) or 63-7 (#16 LSU vs New Mexico St).

The usual arguments must be trotted out for inspection. It still seems both unnecessary and distasteful to beat opponents by a fifty-point margin just to prove how good you are--as though taking it out on clearly overmatched teams proves anything at all. There is this insidious sense that yes, if your team is REALLY that good, you should be steamrolling over all of your unranked, "lesser" opponents, and the best way to prove this is by racking up the score, and if you don't do this you are clearly not one of the elite.

Which is just poor sportsmanship.

But it's become so commonplace that I think this (horrible) mentality contributes to our frustration when we play, for example, Purdue.

Because the Spoilermakers have a tendency to give us the best game of their season. Which is the kind of grit and verve that should be commended. But instead Irish fans have a tendency to gnash their teeth and wail in frustration. Particularly this year, coming off the downright euphoria of blanking Michigan, heading into the Shamrock Series game with two solid wins under our belt that were so clean, so free of penalties or injuries or costly turnovers that it was downright flabbergasting to see the mental mistakes against Purdue. A team that, in the week prior to playing the Irish, lost 38-17 to Central Michigan. It was hard, in the midst of the action, not to want to yell "KNOCK IT OFF PURDUE. STOP PLAYING LIKE YOU ARE IN THE ROSE BOWL. THIS ISN'T THE POSTSEASON JUST SIMMER THE HELL DOWN."

Which, you know, is kind of like complaining, "Last practice and this asshole thinks it's the Super Bowl."

But unlike O'Hara, our actual frustration isn't that our opponents are playing like they're in the Rose Bowl. Our actual frustration is that our opponents look like they think they are playing in the Rose Bowl--and we do not. They may be having their best game of the season against us--but we do not look like we are having our best game of the season against them. And while I'll certainly take a win, no matter the form, it'd be nice to see us, you know, not stumble. (Or fumble.)

I am all for a good, tough, head-to-head matchup. I can even handle a close game EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE--if both teams are battling hard and only fail to score because they keep thwarting one another.

But just once, guys--JUST ONCE--I would like to go through an entire season without having more questions about our team than answers.

Because staring the season with 2 solid wins, followed by a rocky first half (but a reasonable pull-together in the second half) against Purdue, followed by a bye week (during which you think, "Okay, all that nonsense against Purdue will have worked itself out by now") followed by a trip to the Meadowlands involving five turnovers and more mental mistakes than we've seen in out first three games combined? WAY MORE QUESTIONS. NOT ENOUGH ANSWERS.

It was too easy, in the wake of 31-0 shutout glory, to get carried away with visions of a dominant season. Which we may yet have. If we can get our act together.

And it would be easy, too, to blame a lot of these recent errors on the youth of our team. Particularly the defense.

But that's unfair because most of these errors were perpetrated--and then fixed by--Golson. Who, I am now vividly recalling, has always needed a bit of time to settle in and get his head on straight before he really starts executing at a high level. So you end up with a game that includes five turnovers and five scoring drives (if I'm remembering that right). 31-15.


What a victory.

On the one hand--Syracuse is not exactly a dominant powerhouse threat; any good team should make you pay for turning the ball over 5 times.

On the other hand--holy crap, we turned the ball over five times and managed to score 31 points. And I think rack up 500 yards of offense? (I have not checked the statistics. Don't listen to me.)

So that's kind of astonishing.

But provides no decent theories about the rest of the season.

Alive or dead?

So we're left once again with Schrodinger's cat-in-the-box conundrum. Is it alive or dead? There's no way to know until we open the box. And I think most Irish fans are counting on this game against the Cardinal to tell us whether the rest of this season will be alive one--or one more deadly and fraught with self-immolation.

I'm really counting on it not being the latter.

There's so much uncertainty still hanging over our heads--the pending, ridiculously drawn-out investigation of four players for academic dishonesty (seriously, how can it be taking this long?); injuries; the mental state of QB1; Van Gorder's youthful defense--particularly the secondary--yet to be tested against a truly dominant passing attack.

I look out on the rest of the season and see only a box.

But I am ready for some answers.

It's gray. It's cold. It's dripping. But there are going to be like a thousand band members in the stadium today, so that should help.

Let's play this like it's the freaking Rose Bowl.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Notre Dame Football: Read It Like A Book Edition

Notre Dame 31, Michigan 0

You know that feeling when you're reading a good book and you don't want it to end, but you cannot put it down because it is SO GOOD--and then once you're finished you're desperate to talk about it with someone but talking about it only makes you want to read it again, and then after you're done re-reading it you think "DANGIT why isn't there a sequel?" and then once the sequel is announced you feel both thrilled and trepidatious, because how could the sequel possibly be as good as the original? It can't, of course--but there's always the hope that the author's only warming up and the sequel will be even better than the original and after enough days of rehashing and re-reading and re-reading and re-reading you become a bit desperate for the sequel because YOU MUST KNOW. WHY ISN'T IT PUBLISHED YET.

That is what this season's like.

At least so far.

Notre Dame's 31-0 shellacking of the Michigan Wolverines is a page of history I want to read over and over and over again. After the game, I went home after the game and scrolled obsessively through Twitter, liked every game-related Facebook status I could find, rewatched the game highlights, re-posted my favorite .GIFs; and all week long I've continued rewatching and rehashing and basically LIVING THE DREAM and still I cannot get enough of how awesome it was.

The last game against Michigan that even came close to being this much fun was the 2012 affair in which Denard Robinson threw four interceptions. In a row. On his birthday.

But it was not necessarily a game you want to take home and cherish. It was simply one wild victory amid a series of demoralizing, outrageous narrow defeats and equally hair-raising victories against the Wolverines.

Our final prime-time showdown against the Skunkbears (for the next twenty-odd years--or however long the series goes on hiatus this time) seemed destined to follow the same scurrilous plotlines as almost-every matchup for the last decade: another bloody, pulp-fiction mash-up--gory and gut-wrenching down to the last punctuation mark.

Instead it was a giddy, gloom-free adventure yarn, thick with touchbacks, touchdowns, turnovers, and--egads! can it be?--punt returns (fielded by the absolutely fearless Cody Riggs), dazzling its readers (I mean spectators) with a breathtaking, never-before-seen 31-0 conclusion.

At least, it was if you're an Irish fan.

Pursuit of Perfection

If I said this was a perfect game for the Irish, that would be a lie. Everett Golson needed three time-outs during the first series of the game to get the offensive tempo right. Our receivers dropped some key passes. Michigan came within scoring range on their first two drives of the game, notched 9 more yards of total offense than the Irish (289 to ND's 280), and converted a key 4th down early in the game.

But Michigan had four turnovers. We had none.

Michigan missed two field goals. We were so busy scoring touchdowns we only attempted one.

Notre Dame was 4 for 4 on scoring chances in the red zone. Michigan didn't even make it to the red zone.

The crazy thing is--Michigan didn't even look that bad. It wasn't like they were falling all over themselves, fumbling snaps or running all over the field like fools, the way my unfortunate and least-favorite-protagonist (aka JimmayJimmayJimmay) did when Michigan blanked us 38-0 in 2007. Michigan looked like a team that knew how to execute; and which is probably capable of executing at a much higher level.

Only they didn't, because we were too busy straight-up kicking their ass and everybody knows it. Including Wolverine head coach Brady Hoke:

"Number one, give Notre Dame credit for how they played. It was a total butt-kicking all the way around."

Step off, Balrog. You thought you had our number but we totally turned Gandalf the White on your ass.

Feel free to savor that for like the next two decades.

Double Double, Toil and Trouble...

I'm just going to say this now, even though it's only two games in and too soon to call it: something special's brewing in South Bend.

I'm not saying it to be cocky and I'm not worried about jinxing us (though feel free to knock on wood if you like); it's just a deep-down feeling in my gut, and it's been there ever since I walked out of the stadium Saturday night.

The crowd was different than I expected. Not rowdy or raucous or even necessarily electric. Just fierce. Because it wasn't a game filled with the thrill of a comeback or sudden, violent twists of fortune (despite the turnovers); it was a page-turning ADVENTURE, where from beginning to end, no matter what potential peril loomed ahead, everything always turned out all right. And you don't keep going along with the story because you want to see more peril; you keep going because every freaking page is full of WIN.

Even if an undeniable part of the glee over beating the Wolverines is fueled by a borderline vicious desire to have the last laugh, the energy in the stadium was not one of anger or revenge; it was more the exuberant energy of JOY. Pure celebration. And contentment. Like lying on the beach reading your favorite book all day while people bring you free drinks kind of contentment. That sleepy, assured certainty pooling deep in your stomach that ALL IS RIGHT WITH THE WORLD, and whatever disasters are going on elsehwere, whatever uncertainties or doubts or pitfalls lie in our future, they cannot touch you at this moment. Nothing can touch you. At this moment, YOU ARE INVINCIBLE. And you do not want it to end.

In all honesty: the loudest thing I heard coming out of the student section all night was a booming chorus of "Notre Dame Our Mother," followed by most of the students just standing around for a while, not wanting the night to end. So naturally everyone went home and watched replays, accompanied by sudden uncontrollable bouts of maniacal laughter. (Well, okay. Maybe that was just me.)

But anyway. My point is--for most of 2012, it felt like we were playing with a chip on our shoulders. We had a year of amazing, nailbiting victories--of questions that needed to be answered, points that had to be proved. Our squad that year was driven by the defense; its heart and soul was undeniably Manti Te'o. And when Te'o got crushed by a hideous catcfishing scam, the team likewise faltered and went down hard. (That's my narrative and I'm sticking to it.)

But the team that played Michigan Saturday night? No questions. Only answers. As Coach Kelly noted in the post-game presser:

But, this team [...] probably its success is really in its youth. There's young guys out there that are playing for this football team, and we have embraced that. [...] It's a group of kids that has bonded really well together on both sides of the ball. So, it's not really just one side. It's not just the defense. It's not just the offense. When we won 12 games, it was definitely a defensive group that kind of led that. This, they feed off of each other one both sides of the ball. 

The team that was in the stadium Saturday night put forth an effort so complete, so unified, so viscerally present that our mistakes didn't matter. We made mistakes, but we absorbed them the way readers absorb minor typos in an otherwise perfect manuscript: we glossed right over them and moved on. 

As Lou Holtz reminds us, you don't have to be the best team in the country. you just have to be the best team in the stadium every week. So we don't need to play perfect every week. We just need to play like THAT every week. Not like we're out to prove something; just like we're out there to PLAY. If we play every game the way we played Saturday, we will win every game on our schedule.

Anyway. I know it's too early in the season to be saying any of this and that everyone is looking forward to Stanford as the next big test. But our goose-egg defeat of the Skunkbears isn't the kind of game you see every day. Or every decade. And I am just saying. If we keep this up--if we believe in Mt. Everett, the man who cannot be brought down--if we believe in a full-team effort led by the Prodigol5on.... There's something special about to start brewing in South Bend.

And in the meantime:


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Notre-Dame Michigan Postgame Tweets

Because there's nothing like reliving the moment over and over in 140 characters or less.

Last season: lost 41-30 at the Big House. Michigan plays the chicken dance to bid us farewell.

Notre Dame fans remain unintimidated.

Game Day: Under the Lights

1st half: Notre Dame 21, Michigan 0 

2nd half: Notre Dame continues to exceed expectations. Van Gorder lives the dream.


4th quarter: Better than the chicken dance


Final Score:


Postgame: Everything Is Awesome

Sunday Morning:

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Game Day Scavenger Hunt: Michigan Week

Game Day Scavenger Hunt

It's a long way to kickoff. You should tweet me pictures of your ND-Michigan game day preparations @shamrockhead

See if you can capture any of these gems:
-Cars plastered with Notre Dame paraphernalia
-People painted entirely green
-People wearing kilts (who aren't the Irish Guard)
-People dressed up as nuns and priests
-Wait...actual nuns and priests
-People taking Touchdown Jesus pictures in front of Touchdown Jesus
-Tailgates with pirate flags
-Someone wearing outrageously tricked-out Notre Dame tennis shoes (I know at least one person who has a pair)
-Someone who's converted an XXL version of "The Shirt" into a dress
-Dogs wearing spirit gear (not that I generally condone dogs wearing people clothing--I am just saying)
-The person wearing the most rally beads
-A bloody mary with an absurd amount of garnish
-Notre Dame fans photobombing Michigan fans
-People dressed up like leprechauns (who aren't the actual leprechaun)
-Random road signs (or, you know, Burger King signs) cheering on the Irish
-The tailgate that looks most like a formal banquet
-Food purposely shaped like footballs. Or shamrocks.
-Muck Fichigan shirts
-Anything so ridiculous it must be photographed
-Anyone not on campus who is still tailgating like a boss

Send them to me @shamrockhead and I will compile them into a Game Day Photo Post.  Dooooo ittttttttttt.

Notre Dame Football: Last Night of the Skunkbear Edition

I confess it: the season snuck up on me. The summer, the cheating scandals, the potential unionization of college football players, the ridiculous four-team playoff system that . I saw it all coming (well--maybe not the entire ND cheating scandal, but since that's indelibly intertwined with all the other major issues in college football it is, alas, is another post for another time). And I let it sneak up on me anyway.

I didn't have time to collect my thoughts before the Rice game, and sure as our special teams unit (NEWS FLASH: special teams unit now live -- good field position now available in all locations -- no limits on exchanges or returns) I didn't have time to write anything after. But it's Michigan week--the Last Night of the Skunkbear for probably twenty-odd years. I can't let that pass in silence.

First things first - I'm going to sum up some of my thoughts with

Shit I Didn't Have to Write

ESPN College GameDay's spot this morning about about walk-ons, featuring this choice quote from ND Running Back Tyler Plantz:
-How much did last semester's tuition cost you?
-Nine grand.
-Worth it?
-I would've paid nine million
The Odds from SB Nation:
The Michigan Wolverines are 6-2 SU and ATS in their last eight games against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but just 2-6 at South Bend since 1998.
Despite their recent success in this series, the Wolverines are the betting underdog this Saturday going off at +5 on the road against Notre Dame.

Everett Golson has never lost a regular season game under center at Notre Dame, improving to 13-0 SU and 8-5 ATS all-time in last Saturday's win over Rice. He is poised to improve to 14-0 when he leads the Fighting Irish to a win and cover as a 5-point favorite over Michigan on Saturday.
To pull off the road upset, Michigan will likely need to get the running game going against a Notre Dame defense that is replacing five of last year's seven starters in the front seven.

The West Wing clip:

Did you say Michigan sucks? I'm sorry, I thought you said Michigan sucks.'s take on the Last Known Matchup Between ND and Michigan For Some Tim:
"Much like energy, a rivalry can neither be created nor destroyed. So, Michigan’s hatred for Notre Dame will (probably) turn into more hate for Ohio State. Notre Dame’s disdain for Michigan will (presumably) scatter all over this great nation."

I don't really feel the need to defend Notre Dame's scheduling choices to Michigan fans (in the same that way I don't feel the need to waste my breath arguing integrity with USC fans), but since the ND-Michigan game is going on hiatus for an indeterminate number of years (which, let's face it, is another traditional part of the rivalry), it's hard to resist quoting Lou:
I just want all Michigan alums and administration to know--it's not that we're not playing you because we're afraid of you. We're not playing you because we're trying to upgrade the damn schedule.

But really, nothing sums up my thoughts on the Michigan rivalry better than Blue-Gray Sky's letter to Michigan fans:

In the end, perhaps we do owe the Skunkbears a few more tokens of thanks. If Yost hadn't taken his ball and gone home, perhaps we would now be in the Big Ten, and our idea of football excellence would entail two or three losses per year and a trip to the Rose Bowl twice a decade. But instead, you blackballed us, and tried to choke us out of existence. You should have finished the job. We survived, and because too many teams were under Michigan's villainous spell in the Midwest, we were forced to look elsewhere to find quality opponents. And we did. We scheduled and played the nationwide champions of the day: Army, Southern Cal, Georgia Tech, Stanford, and many others. We criss-crossed the country, we were Rockne's Ramblers, taking on all comers, what tho' the odds. In doing so, we won national acclaim, respect, and the hearts of countless Americans. It was Michigan's attempt to stamp out a budding rival that created the nation's most popular and successful football program, the University of Notre Dame's Fighting Irish.

This is why we don't approach the Michigan game with the same tradition-laden respect, the pomp and circumstance, or the "contest of equals" honor reserved for the Southern Cal game. Rather, like Inigo Montoya closing in on the six-fingered man, we come with a singular focus. We are Notre Dame Football. You tried to kill us. Prepare to die.

How Sweet it is (to be Loathed by You)

You guys...I kind of love to hate Michigan. It's oddly satisfying: like popping a pimple or demolishing a sandcastle or squashing a fly. It's a destructive energy--a homage to entropy--a union with the inevitable decomposition of the universe and a visceral representation of the state of Michigan's defense once Everett Golson's finished shredding them to pieces tonight.

Playing Michigan isn't the same as playing USC. Playing the Trojans (loathed as they are) sort of has a pomp to it--like the approach you might have to a yearly, organized fight-to-the-death between two patronizing and highly aggressive city-states. Or playing MSU, which feels more like fighting with a rude neighbor whose pitbull keeps trespassing on your lawn. Or playing f@$*ing Pittsburgh, which isn't even a rivalry game but which is lot like trying to fight the actual pitbull trespassing on your lawn. Every time Pitt plays Notre Dame, they play us like they've contracted f*$&-ing rabies. (Guess who I am NOT SORRY to not be be playing this season.)

But watching Notre Dame play Michigan is like watching two kids brawling in the schoolyard; kids who can't even pass each other in the halls without throwing a punch. Like James Potter versus Severus Snape. Or no, actually,  since there is no scenario in which Michigan is cool enough to be either of those characters. So really it's more like Molly Weasley vs. Bellatrix Lestrange.

And we must destroy the Bellatrix Lestranges of the universe. We must crush them, like cockroaches, under the heels of our vengeance. We must charge into our final meeting roaring with enough fury to last a century:


^This is the last time we beat Michigan. I am just saying.