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.

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