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

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