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.