Sunday, September 27, 2015

Notre Dame Football: Tug of War Edition

4-0, people. FOUR-AND-O!

For the 3rd time in the the last 4 years, we are unbeaten in the month of September.

Though as everybody who watched last season knows, that will mean precisely squat if we managed to win 0 games in the month of November.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Based on our performance in the last two games, I think our destiny is genuinely in our hands this season (barring an excessive number of injuries, which we SHAN'T TEMPT FATE TO GRANT US). I say this based not on the fact of victory, but on what happened in the last minute of the Georgia Tech game, the second quarter of the UMass game, and during large chunks of the Virginia game (when we lost not only our starting quarterback but apparently the mental focus of our entire defensive line).

That is what will carry us or break us this season. Not necessarily the coaches or the strength of the team or even the personnel we're able to put on the field. I think we've got the coaches, and (if the second half against UMass is any indication) we've certainly got the personnel.

So what it comes down to is the will to win. Not wanting to win--everybody wants to win. Wanting to win is the same as wanting to backpack through Europe or go bungee jumping or write a novel. It doesn't mean you're actually going to trek through foreign countries carrying all your worldly possessions on your back for several months, or strap a harness attached to a wibbly cord around your waist, or peck away at your keyboard every day for three months convinced that every phrase that leaves your fingers is complete and utter drivel.

No. Simply wanting to win is not enough.

Rope Burn

I figure the will to win is a bit like tug-of-war. Theoretically, tug-of-war is all about which team has the most collective brute strength. Each person on both sides of the rope tugs with all their might, and whichever team has the most muscle mass wins.

But of course that's not what really happens in tug-of-war. At least it isn't if you ever attended field day at my elementary school.

Occasionally, the powers that be would decide to pit the girls against the boys--a fair enough contest in the days before puberty, I guess. The boys would always be like, "ha ha like that's gonna be a contest," and the girls would mostly be like, "whatever--if we must." I would always be that crazy ass at either the back or the front of the line being like, "C'MON LADIES, WE CAN DO THIS!" (Or at least, that's what I'd be thinking in my head.)

That first yank was a big surprise to the boys. And possibly to all the girls standing anywhere near me in line. I don't mess around with battle of the sexes tug-of-war. I will pull until I have rope burn if that's what it takes to prove a point to those chicken-legged, skinny-armed jerkwads who think they're automatically going to win just because they've got Y chromosomes in their DNA. (Pshh. PSSSHHHHHH.)

See? I was nuts even when I was ten.

Anyway--I don't actually remember who won. Mostly what I remember is the girls giving a big ol' yank, and the entire line of boys getting jerked forward, and being like, "Whoa. Hey. We might actually have to try."

And then they did, and the match evened out a bit. There was enough apathy on both sides of the rope that I am pretty sure 50% of the participants were not trying at all.

But that's precisely the point.

You can line up whoever you want on the field; you can look at the matchups and say, man, this person or this team or this defensive line is going to win every time.

But maybe they won't. Because maybe they aren't ready for the enormous yank their opponent's going to give at the start of the game. Maybe they're going to surrender their focus for a second (or a second quarter) and find themselves dragged through the dirt a bit. Maybe they feel so assured off victory they give up slack on the end of the line and get jerked back within one score of a tie.

Every game is a battle of wills. But I think when you get to a point where you know you have the personnel, the strength, the coaches--basically all the pieces you need to put a victory together every week--then that's all the game becomes. It's all mental. A test of who's willing to get the rope burn each week.

Some weeks, of course, your opponents are going to be more evenly matched than others, and the actual personnel matchups are going to matter more. Sometimes you're going to execute to the best of your ability, and sheer speed or a great block or a tricky scheme is going to beat you and there's just nothing you can do about it.

But it's not about that one play that gets away from you. It's about the way you fight through the entirety of the game. It's about convincing an entire team of people to tug with all they have on that line until they succeed in dragging their opponents, inch by inch, into defeat.

When you lose focus--that's when the opponent regains inches. That's when you get momentum swings and trap games. Lack of focus is how good teams can topple face-first in the mud.

We didn't fight in the second quarter against UMass. We didn't fight in the last minute against Georgia Tech. We didn't know WTF to do with the fight Virginia gave us.

But we still found an answer, every time.

The answer for UMass came in the second half, when the defense buckled down and refused to allow a score until long after we'd secured a 40-point lead and let the 2nd string take over the game.

The answer for Georgia Tech came in the first 59:00 of the game, when we shut down their (apparently) un-shut-down-able option attack for (almost) an entire game.

The answer for Virginia came on a last-second bomb to Will Fuller from unknown entity Deshone Kizer, who assured us with one brilliant sling of the pigskin that the season was not yet lost.

Yes--this is a team that has the will to win.

Time will tell if they can keep that will for all four quarters.

Notre Dame 30, Georgia Tech 22

So Notre Dame's defensive field day against Georgia Tech seems slightly less impressive now that 20th-ranked Tech has lost 30-24 to unranked Duke and dropped out of the Top 25 entirely.

Maybe we broke them. Maybe we showed opposing defenses how to handle their option. Or maybe Georgia Tech's offense just straight-up isn't that good this season.

Whatever the case, I don't think the current state of affairs should diminish the way our defense flew around the field last weekend. Joe Schmidt had one of the best games of his career, leading the team in sheer badassery and tackles, with 10 total including 2 for loss, 1 sack, and 1 QB hurry. For the majority of the game, the defense looked like they'd been blowing apart the option their entire lives instead of only facing the dreaded cut-blocking beast once per season.

On the flip side of the ball, Kizer went 21-of-30 for 242 yards and 1 TD in his first official start. His only major hiccup was an interception on a fade to the back of the end zone. Kizer doesn't have Zaire's footwork, or his so-charismatic-you-can-sense-it-through-the-TV-screen confidence, but he's a solid presence in the pocket, and he's looking pretty darn good at the helm--particularly because of the way the rest of the team is playing around him.

Speaking of:

Can we just pause for a moment to consider C.J. Prosise?

Holy guacamole, C.J. Prosise--where have you BEEN? What on earth was Folston doing in practice that put you at the #2 position? What weren't you doing in practice that put you at the #2 position?

I'm willing to contemplate the glorious probability that Folston is just that good. But I can hardly envision a running back playing better than Prosise has this season. The man does not quit. He does not go down on the first tackle. He spins. He jukes. He stiff-arms. He breaks Notre Dame stadium records by running the ball 91 yards for a touchdown, and he's on pace to average nearly 100 yards per half. (Slight exaggeration. But not really.) The man looks like a freaking professional. Someone's even started a Twitter feed @CJforHeisman.

I know we're only four games in--but when was the last time we had a running back with this kind of breakout season? Armando Allen had a pretty good senior year. Darius Walker had a solid run during the Weis era. We've had plenty of good backs in recent years.

But after these last two games, I'm starting to feel like the last time we really had a running back punishing our opponents the way Prosise has been is when we had Julius Jones.

The main difference, of course, is that when we had Julius Jones, he was pretty much our entire offense all by himself.

Whereas by the end of the game yesterday, a bunch of our freshmen running backs were also rolling over UMass like professionals.

Because the real heroes so far this season are the guys anchoring the offense.

O-line for Heisman

Let's be real: the main reason Kizer is looking so steady in the pocket and Prosise is putting up 200-yard games and Will Fuller has had a string of 100+ yard receiving games is because the O-line makes it possible. They're opening up holes you could drive a Hummer through. We averaged 9 yards per carry against UMass--a leap up from a pretty solid 6.7ypc against Georgia Tech. We did have that worrying failure-to-convert-on-4th down (and, uh, on 3rd down ever) against Virginia; since then, we've improved to 4-of-11 on 3rd down against Ga Tech and 8-of-13 against UMass.

And overall, I think the evidence is just in the way the team is starting to roll. Four freshmen scored touchdowns yesterday. We had 8 different receivers and 4 different running backs and 62 points on the board--the most scored by an Irish squad since Lou left.

You can't move the chains like that without a dominant O-line.

Round of applause for Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer, and Mike McGlinchey for being one of the most dominant units in college football. YOU COMPLETE ME.

Notre Dame 62, UMass 27

So did everyone enjoy playing NCAA Football '15 yesterday? See, I thought they discontinued that franchise after a lawsuit against EA, but--


Ahahahaha - someone please pinch me like it's St Patrick's Day and I forgot to wear green.

No. I take that back. Lemme just sit here and watch the highlight video a few more times.

Like, what--what--what was that?

A lot of this ridiculousness has already been discussed--but just to recap, yesterday's game included:
-681 yards of total offense
-62 points scored by 8 different players
-4 touchdowns scored by freshmen, including:
-CJ Sanders's punt return for a TD (the first in Notre Dame Stadium since fellow #9 Tom Zbikowski took it to the house vs UNC in 2006)
-Tyler Newsome breaking Geoff Price's game record by averaging 52 yards per punt
-Our first string taking the bench midway through the 3rd quarter
-25 defensive players recording a combined 74 tackles

I mean, seriously, I haven't seen that much of the bench out on the field since the last time we won Senior Day. Which--okay, just never mind about when that was.

But THAT, my friends--that is what I've been waiting for. For a team to look as good on the field as they do on paper. For the Irish to take up the slack after halftime and play to their highest level instead of whatever level their opponent happens to be playing.

When was the last time a Notre Dame team looked that good?


In the immediate aftermath of the Georgia Tech game, our performance had me feeling equal parts terrified and optimistic about the Navy game. Terrified because now Navy has a whole extra game's worth of footage to study--and as we know, Ken Niumatalolo and his staff have proven exceptionally skilled at throwing monkey wrenches into our defensive schemes.

Optimistic because C'MON--did you see how we manhandled that offense?! We absolutely swarmed them. Even if Navy executes their option better than Georgia Tech (which they probably will; Navy, if nothing else, can usually be counted upon for clean execution)

Onward to Victory

We're only a third of the way through the season, and our toughest games are still to come--including next week's primetime showdown against Clemson (which will be featured on ESPN College GameDay).

The bad news for us is that the 11th-ranked Tigers are coming off a bye week, and we're playing them in Death Valley.

The good news is that Clemson has played pretty much nobody so far this season. Their first two victories came against FCS opponent Wofford, 49-10, and newly-minted member of the Sun Belt conference Appalachian State (in the FBS since 2014! who knew?), 41-10. Clemson's first game against a Power 5 conference opponent was an underwhelming 20-17 victory over the 0-3 Louisville Cardinals.

So based on that, I'm assuming...nothing. I would say Clemson is overranked, but it's kind of hard to tell. Especially in a season where Alabama's already been knocked off by Ole Miss, Utah just kicked the stuffing out of Oregon, UCLA is apparently the best team in the PAC-12, Stanford and Michigan have clawed their way back into the rankings after early losses, and Northwestern is ranked higher than USC. I'm not sure how MSU ended up at #2, but after the first four weeks of college football, I'd say that makes about as much sense as anything else. I'm kind of looking forward to the Top-25 rankings imploding as conference play begins in earnest. Everyone knows pre-season rankings are BS, anyway.

But I digress.

I don't think Clemson's as good a team as Oklahoma in 2012, but this game kind of has that feel to it--our first big road test against a ranked opponent with a young QB at the helm. Based on absolutely nothing except my own instincts--I don't think Clemson's as good as we are. Not this year. But they tend to play brilliantly at home. They'll bring their A game, and it will be better than the A game of any opponent we've faced this season. Huge test for our O-line. For our defensive front.

But if yesterday is any indication, our team has started to heat up. Offense, defense, special teams--after that slack-line of a second quarter, everybody came to play. There's no mistaking what our team is chasing this season.

So watch out, Clemson. We're ready to pounce.


Becky Malewitz//SB TribuneBecky Malewitz//SB Tribune

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Notre Dame Football: The Sky Is Falling Edition

Sometimes I empathize with Chicken Little.

Watching our starting running back go down in week 1 and our starting quarterback topple in week 2--following a season in which almost every single starter on defense got injured or suspended--kind of makes it feel the sky is falling. Again.

The loss of Zaire, like a sharp thunk to the head, is enough to send any fan scurrying in panic. Most of our hype this season was predicated on having a fleet-footed, gunslinging beast in the pocket. Who are we without him? Who is this Kizer fellow, anyhow?

Toss Zaire's injury in the midst of an underwhelming performance against unranked Virginia, and it starts to feel like more than one acorn against the noggin. It's a whole hailstorm.

Because seriously:

-WHERE was the pressure from the D-line?
-HOW did we fail to convert a 4th down? And also go 0-of-10 on third downs?!
-WHY did we give up on the run game after Kizer went in?
-WHAT was with our secondary? Aren't they supposed to be one of our elite veteran units!?
-WHEN did we become so weak-ass in the red zone?!
-WHO do these Hoos think they are? Don't they know we're supposed to be playoff-worthy this year?!

I mean, seriously--I don't know how much more I can take of these teams playing us so hard it looks like they're fighting for the Superbowl and we're just fighting not to get injured before we start playing ranked opponents.


Obviously this is a terrible mentality. Because of course I want to give kudos to Virginia for a game well-played. And of course I think we should be dominating no matter who we're playing. And in the words of every decent coach ever: we should approach every game like it's the most important of the season, because let's be real--if you falter once in college football, you're more or less screwed out of getting a playoff spot unless everyone else takes an unexpected dive along the way .

Really, I think what I can't take anymore is my own thwarted expectations. I know that we aren't going to be amazing every year. (I do. I really do. I promise.) And even in the years we're supposed to be amazing...part of the joy and agony of sport is that you literally never know how a game is going to turn out until it's played. There's always the villainous upset lurking just around the corner; the unexpected blowout buoying you through the next week's nailbiter; the thrilling comeback that turns a thwarted dream into a tale of triumph. That's what makes our gridiron gladiators worth watching every week.

But I think there's a general consensus among those addicted to the action that truly elite teams tend to play as well on the field as the statistics on paper say they're supposed to. And they do so with consistency.

This is what I'm really hoping for, of course: that the team that plays to its own highest level of execution. That every week, they go out on the field and do pretty much exactly what you think they're going to do.

It's an unfair expectation to put on the 2015 squad, considering that even with Zaire at the helm, we didn't really know what the team would look like this year.

In 2012, when we ended up having a ridiculously dominant red zone defense, we didn't really see flashes of what the team would become until at least 2 or 3 games into the season.

So the team has to become what it is. It has to manifest its identity before you (aka: me--take a chill pill, Lisa) can start expecting it to perform a certain way with any kind of consistency.

Whatever our team (specifically our offense) was going to be this season is gone; that particular future fractured along with Zaire's ankle. We have a new team now. A new identity to mold.

The greater sports world is betting on that team being a weaker incarnation than the one we touted at the beginning of the season. Somehow we got bumped up to #8 in the polls this week, but obviously nobody believes it since everyone's picking 14th-ranked Georgia Tech to beat us.

It's hard not to see their point. Georgia Tech has averaged over 65 points per game the last two weeks. They run a fierce option (full of dubiously still-legal cut-blocking that ALWAYS RESULTS IN INJURY) that we won't be able to stop from entering the end zone. Without the threat of Zaire on the ground, we're going to have a much more limited playbook, and even with Can't-tackle-me-on-the-first-try Prosise at the helm, we're not going to be able to open up our run game in quite the same way.

But we mustn't give in to the panic.

Even if VanGorder's zealous blitz attacks against the Hoos resulted in precisely 1 sack (by KeiVarae Russell...y'know, the cornerback), 0 hurries, and several unpleasant flashbacks to the porously blitz-happy Weis defenses of olde.

Even if Prosise got 0 yards on 2 carries after Kizer went into the game and Notre Dame converted 0-of-10 third downs against the 109th-ranked Virginia defense.

That kind of thinking will lead you straight into Foxy Loxy's den to be devoured.

With less than an hour to go until game time, I know that these thoughts are too late to matter.

But for the sake of my own sanity, I had to spit some of this out. I have no idea how we're going to play against Georgia Tech. Despite DeShone Kizer's brilliant, Matt Saracen-esque moment of football glory to win the game last week, it's impossible to say how he'll handle the helm for an entire game. Hopefully with all the pomp and confidence of a German emperor (only, you know, without the disastrous political consequences and global warfare. Or turnovers. NO TURNOVERS).

I still think we have the personnel to take on anyone in the country. Today is our chance to prove it.

So in the hopes that we will make all the Ramblin' Wrecks from Georgia Tech feel like Sad Virginia Fan today:


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Notre Dame Football: Everything is Easy edition

Notre Dame 38, Texas 3

The Irish made that look easy.

5 touchdowns, 500+ yards, 1 field goal, 0 turnovers, 0 punts, and 19-of-22 passing (86%) in Malik Zaire's first game as Notre Dame's official season-long starter.

In the first week of the season, a lot of things are easy.

It's easy to look at the depth chart and get misty-eyed realizing we've got Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, and James Onuwalu all starting at linebacker. Or get a little slack-jawed thinking about our five starting wide receivers: Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter Jr., Amir Carlisle, and Will Fuller--backed up by equivocally exciting freshman Equanimeous St Brown (the hands-down winner for this year's best football player name).

It's also easy to say Notre Dame looks like a contender after just one game (thanks, Pat Forde) following an opening weekend where Notre Dame laid the biggest beat-down on a fellow FBS team. (Although I must admit that my favorite run-down of college football's opening weekend comes from an SB Nation writer who desperately wants the Irish not to be the real deal. How he can stomach watching Ohio State win anything is beyond me...but that's a rant for another time.)

Above all, it's easy to imagine the rest of the season stretching out before us in one long, unbroken line of victories. (At least, it is if we don't think too hard about the past and decide to buy blindly into Brady Quinn's preseason analysis).

This, of course, is how I attempt to envision every season. It's just not always easy. Sometimes it's downright laughable.

Not this year.

This year, I can envision us slicing through opposing defenses like butter, beatin' people like they stole something and riding the gravy train of our success all the way to the four-team playoff in December. It'll be easier than falling off a log.

I mean--not really.

But make no mistake: that's what this season is about. That elusive white whale, the 12th national championship, is far off yet, but it's in our sights once more.

For the first time in decades, I think we might actually have the crew to pull it off.


So, after Notre Dame's unexpected-yet-not-entirely-unsurprising-(because-let's-be-real-that's-how-they-should-have-been-playing -all-season) victory over LSU, I kept thinking I was going to write a rant entitled "Notre Dame Football: Redemption Edition." But now it's September, so I guess the time for that has passed.

Nevertheless--Notre Dame's 31-28 victory in the Music City Bowl was a balm for all the vicious burns we suffered at the end of last season. Redemption for a team that dropped 5 of its last 6 games (including a 3-point loss to Northwestern). Redemption for Golson and the offense, who turned the ball over 0 times; for Kyle Brindza, who scored a last-minute, game-winning field goal; for Sheldon Day and our injury-riddled defense, who surrendered an average of 40 points per game during the last half of the season. (Not to mention redemption for anyone who had to spend like 12 hours in the Superdome before watching the Tigers trample all over a perfectly decent 10-win season the last time Notre Dame played LSU.)

Because our execution during the last half of 2014 belied our talent.

And people (Lee Corso) need to stop saying things like, "Notre Dame's returning 10 starters on defense--but that defense surrendered the most yards ever in the second half of the season." Because most of those returning starters didn't actually play during the last half of 2014.

But all that's behind us. (At least, it had better be.)

With a ridiculous number of returning starters on both sides of the ball, we have the chance to jump right back where we were last season (while we were still good)--and hopefully make it through the season unscathed.

Mid-season form

"We didn't want to start off with the mentality of it being just the opener. We wanted to start off mid-season, with a mid-season mentality as far as the execution and things like that. We showed great confidence." --linebacker Jaylon Smith

Confidence! This may be the most crucial component of our team this year. Or at least it's the one I'm most craving, considering the confidence-draining codswallop that crippled us last season (aka turnovers, injuries, and specious playcalls that make me feel not at all sorry about the "touchdown" LSU may or may not have had after their fake field goal attempt in the first half of the bowl game).

Maybe it's just me, but I think Malik Zaire blares confidence like a gigantic 90's boom box.

I mean--it's easy to be confident when you're winning.

"When your guys are playing at a high level - offense, defense and special teams - it really just allows you to relax. It reassures you that we are going to be fine." --cornerback KeiVarae Russell

The trick is to keep executing at the highest level. And that's always the snag, isn't it? How do you maintain that all season long?

I mean--first, you avoid injury.

Unfortunately for us, starting running back Tarean Folston is already out for the season with an MCL tear. This is devastating to what is perhaps our least-deep unit on the offense (though the merry-go-round at TE is a thing of uncertain beauty as well).

Fortunately for us, our offensive line is looking sick this year. Led by All-American Ronnie Stanley at left tackle and grad student Nick Martin at center, the O-line paved the way for C.J. "you-can't-tackle-me-on-the-first-try" Prosise to chew up nearly 100 yards on the ground, and Josh "I'm-just-gonna-score-a-touchdown-on-my-first-ever-collegiate-play" Adams to average 9.8 yards per carry (on five carries).

"We were having fun, to be honest. We were just ready to play. I thought we did well." --center Nick Martin

Yes, Nick. Yes you did.

Of course, it's still difficult to predict what this game means for the rest of the season.

Is Texas quite as bad as they looked? Seems unlikely.

Is Notre Dame quite as good as they looked? The answer to that is slightly less easy. But looking at the rest of our schedule (from the luxurious vantage point of a one-win, top ten team), I don't see why we couldn't win out if the Irish continue to dominate the line of scrimmage, communicate well, and avoid turning the ball over. Looking at the rest of the season:

@ Virginia
Ga Tech
@ Clemson
@ Temple
@ Pittsburgh
Wake Forest
Boston College
@ Stanford

I'd say our keys to victory are:
-build confidence against Virginia before a bludgeoning battle against the ramblin' wrecks of Georgia Tech
-don't get injured against Navy so you can trample all over the Trojans
-don't go into overtime against Pittsburgh
-don't lose by a field goal to Boston College
-and don't worry about Stanford, they lost to Northwestern

Okay, JUST KIDDING about that Stanford thing (especially considering we lost to Northwestern last year). Actually it would be great if Stanford could kick ass the rest of the season so that when we come to Palo Alto over Thanksgiving weekend, the showdown will be--you know--a showdown.

As for our immediate opponent: I know almost nothing about Virginia, except that they lost 36-14 to #13 UCLA in their season opener and they have the most terrifying state flag in existence. Also their mascot has too many syllables. Oh--and one of their coaches is John Tenuta, former defensive coordinator at Notre Dame during the blitz-happy end of the Weis era.

Virginia might be well-coached, but I just don't think they have the personnel to battle us down the line. I say we're looking at a repeat of the Texas game, unless for some reason the players completely lose their cool. Considering the team seems to have less jitters playing away than they do at home (drawback of all that darn tradition, I guess), that shouldn't be an issue.

Photo: Matt Cashore // USA Today