Saturday, November 28, 2015

Notre Dame Football: Time-Out Edition

The dream is alive at 10-1, with a make-or-break matchup against Stanford this afternoon (or evening, I guess) that should decide our playoff-worthiness once and for all. Probably. 
Except I kind feel like we’ve been kicked off the playground at recess and been told to take a time-out.
It’s like the playoff committee looked at the BC game and said, “Whoa! Five turnovers? All right, Notre Dame. Why don’t you just go sit at #6 for a while. Let us know when you feel like you’re ready to play with the Top 4 again, and then maybe you can come out.” 
From this view, two spots out of playoff contention, this seems a tad unfair. After all, there are three one-loss teams ranked ahead of us now, and who did their losses come against? Now-#18 Ole Miss, unranked Texas, and unranked Nebraska. Whereas our only loss of the season came against #1 Clemson. And our strength of schedule, while apparently not A-plus SEC-worthy, is nothing to sneeze at. 
Of course, suppose you’re looking at the way Notre Dame played against Boston College, and you’re asking yourself, “Does this look like a team that could beat Alabama in a playoff game? Does this even look like the same team that was a 2-point conversion away from tying Clemson?” the answer would be no.
So many fumbles. So many dropped passes. BC was stripping harder than a dancer at a gentleman’s club. However, I don’t think anybody who’s watched more than one BC-ND matchup (or really, more than one BC-against-a-highly-ranked-opponent matchup) should’ve be surprised to find the Irish in a near-nailbiter against the Eagles. (Upsets are really the only thing BC is good at.) As Winston Shi at the Stanford Daily put it: “The Irish played ugly against Boston College last week, but everybody plays ugly in Boston.” 
Of course I would’ve liked to see us put forth more of a dynamo effort against our Catholic nemesis-in-arms--but not for a second did Notre Dame play like it was going to be defeated. No matter what happens, this team does not give up, does not concede, and does not let anything--not even an outrageous number of season-ending injuries--stop them from playing to win. It’s not just mental toughness. It’s mental resilience. 
But those kinds of intangibles don’t matter so much if you don’t look good while you’re winning. Apparently. And the selection committee (like most pollsters before them) is playing with a system of weighted grades. How you finish the season matters far more than how you started it (as the now-#3, lost-to-bleeping-unranked-Texas Sooners can attest). It doesn’t matter that we creamed Texas in the season opener if we can’t shellack 3-7 Boston College in our second-to-last game. It doesn’t matter who we lost to if the other 1-loss teams fighting for a playoff spot score more points against their lesser-ranked opponents than we do.
Because of course all championship-worthy teams improve steadily over the course of the season. Nobody ever has a hard-fought brawl against an old rival at a “neutral site” in their opponent’s backyard the week right before they’re supposed to play top-10 Stanford in the game that decides their playoff contention once and for all. I mean, what kind of team loses the ball four times and then holds their opponent scoreless for an entire half? What kind of team kills its own momentum over and over and over and yet never allows their opponent to lead or even tie for the entirety of the game? 
Obviously I’m not going to say we played well against Boston College. But I think it’s a testament both to how bad BC’s offense is and how good ND is overall that we kept a five-turnover game from getting out of hand. (Just like we kept all those turnovers against Clemson from getting out of hand.) And it’s a little bit hard to swallow being dropped two spots in the polls after a win. 
Then again, some of the things I dislike about the playoff committee are also the things I like about the playoff committee.
For example: I like that the playoff committee refused to rank Ohio State #1, even though when the first playoff poll came out the Buckeyes were still the undefeated defending national champs. Because come on--let’s not be slaves to last season. 
I also like that they’re currently giving Iowa kudos for being 12-0, even though the Hawkeyes have defeated pretty much nobody of interest in the Big 10 west and whoever they face in the championship game next week (either Ohio State or MSU) is probably going to send them hobbling out of the top 4 with skinned knees and a bloody nose. (Though interestingly, no matter who emerges victorious from the Big 10, it probably isn’t going to help ND.)
I really don’t know how I feel about Oklahoma jumping four spots to #3 after a one-point victory over TCU. I mean, it’s kind of exciting the playoff committee is willing to bounce teams around like that--but did the Sooners look so much better beating #18 TCU by one point than they did beating #6 Baylor by 10 points the previous week? Or was it just that beating two ranked opponents in a row finally convinced the playoff committee to forget Oklahoma’s little hiccup against Texas and catapult them into true playoff contention? 
With any luck, Oklahoma State will dispatch Oklahoma this evening and keep the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein hopefuls from snagging a lead in the playoffs, and then we’re back out of the corner and swinging from the great crazy road-to-the-championship jungle gym again. 
Of course, let us knock on wood (NOT JINXING US) because absolutely none of this matters if we don’t manage to beat Stanford this evening.
Which will be tough. Stanford is a good team. We’re pretty evenly matched in terms of size and cunning--and apparently ND’s performance at Fenway rattled confidence in the Irish so much that the ninth-ranked Cardinal are favored to win by four. I haven’t looked up many score predictions for the game, but I was amused to see that all of the sportswriters for the Stanford Daily (except one, who picked ND to win--smart man) predicted Stanford would score at least 30 points on the Irish. Which I suppose makes sense considering Stanford has rarely scored less than 30 in a game this season, but seems a bit cheeky considering the only team to score more than 30 on Notre Dame this season is USC. 
Stanford has beaten Notre Dame by a touchdown or more the last three times they’ve played in Palo Alto, so playing on the Cardinal’s home turf is no joke. Stanford’s also got a huge playmaker in running back Christan McCaffrey, which could be lethal, given Notre Dame’s tendency to give up huge plays on defense.
Everyone’s predicting a high-scoring, big-12 style brawl this evening--but considering neither team has put up more than 30 points on the other for the last 5 years, I’m not convinced. Though always hopeful for an ND breakaway victory, I think the teams are evenly matched enough that this game is going to be tighter than people expect. 
But who knows. I’m terrible with predictions. Don’t listen to me. 
All I know is our players came here to win. 
Time-out’s almost over, guys. Let’s get out there and kick some schoolyard ass.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Notre Dame Football: Understudy Edition

Holy showstopping musical number, you guys. Playoff picture--playoff picture--playoff picture!
If you drew a picture of what the playoff was gonna look like, Notre Dame would be right there in the friggin’ corner. (#4! YEAH!!!!)
We’re not the star of the show this season. And I’m totally okay with that.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to be #4.
This might sound like crazy talk coming from me. But I feel like I’ve had an apostrophe (I think you mean an epiphany) about what a privilege it is to be here. Not just in the Top 5, but to be watching this particular epoch of Notre Dame Football.
I mean--Back In My Day (during my brief interim as a student), Notre Dame Football wasn’t the star of anything. In fact, if they’d been auditioning for a spot in College Football’s Greatest Hits, they’d have barely made it into the chorus. (And even then, only because they’re a Name.)
Basically, when I was a student, ND Football did three things: 1) look really sexy during the regular season and then lose in a major bowl game, 2) look really skunky during the regular season and slink off in 3-9 shame, and 3) look really bipolar during the regular season and then flee to Hawaii for some Vitamin D and a bowl win (which the band was not present for, for the first time in school history--not that I am still bitter about missing a free trip to Hawaii or anything, I AM JUST SAYING).
Since then, we’ve had one diva-esque year of Jimmy-to-Golden with virtually no defense, followed by the Brian Kelly Era. Which nobody can make up their minds about, because A) it is still happening, and B) Brian Kelly has not won us a national championship yet.
For decades, players have been saying that they came to Notre Dame to win a national championship. But since Lou left, no team has legitimately had the bones to come close to a national championship except the 2012 squad.
And those guys are seniors now.
My mind boggles trying to imagine what it must be like to be a student in Notre Dame’s current senior class. At least in terms of being an insane, monomaniacal sports fan. I mean--you come in as a freshman, and the football team has the most epic season in living memory. Overall, you get 4 straight winning seasons and 2 straight bowl wins (including a long-awaited postseason victory over an SEC team), and as a senior, now you’ve got another top-5 team with a legitimate crack at the second-ever college football playoff. Assuming they win out. (Knock on wood and all that.)
In my head, this is what Notre Dame football should always look like. Not always in the playoff picture--not always with a spectacular season (I mean, with all the injuries we had last year on defense...what can you do?)--but always making hits. Always with the potential for the squad to come together and pull out a major-bowl-worthy run.
Just like they’ve done this season.
Without six of their key starters.

Don’t cry for us, ND Nation--the truth is, we have a depth chart
During an on-field interview yesterday, Kathryn Tappen asked Brian Kelly how his team managed to have so much success despite losing six starters to season-ending injuries. Without hesitation, Kelly said “Good recruiting.”
Boom. That’s the key to this season. Not just having the “next man in” mentality, but actually having the personnel, all the way down the depth chart, to make the next man in as effective as the first man in.

Particularly after losing Zaire, I think most ND fans reflexively moved into an underdog mentality. We’ve got a tough schedule, and the more players we lost, the more reasonable it seemed to temper our expectations (while still rooting for Notre Dame to kick ass at every available opportunity, of course).
I’m not sure most of the fan base was as willing to go along with Brady Quinn’s yes-of-coursee-we-should-win-out-during-the-regular-season prediction as I was. But LOOK AT US NOW, PUNKS. EVERYTHING WE DREAMED ABOUT THE DEPTH CHART WAS TRUE. 
I mean--holy musical bonanza, my brethren! Can you even believe our running backs this year?! Of course I want Folston back. But just look at Prosise this season! The man is a slippery eel defenses can barely contain without doing their best impression of a brick wall. Or what about Josh Adams, stiff-arming his way to a 98-yd Notre Dame TD record (which Prosise had broken with a 91-yd TD run only a few home games prior)?
It seems like every running back we’ve put in this season has managed to do something spectacular. It’s a testament to our O-line and our recruiting--as well as what “next man in” can do for you when you’ve got all the right people in place.
We’re in the sixth season of Brian Kelly’s direction now. This is 100% Kelly’s team. All of the recruits, all of the fifth-years--everybody--has been subscribing to “next man in” all along. We’ve got some outrageous talent, true...but also I think we are conspicuously devoid of superstars.
I’m not saying Will Fuller isn’t one of the best receivers in college football. Or Jaylon Smith isn’t a first-round draft pick. Or Sheldon Day isn’t an unstoppable, impossible-to-block man-beast. 
I’m just saying I don’t think any one player--or even a small handful of players--is carrying the team.
This isn’t a perfect analogy, but it’s kind of like watching a high school production of a musical versus a professional Broadway version of a musical.
For whatever reason, my high school had a high concentration of talent in the drama club, so our performances were generally pretty good, but this being high school and all, the superstars really stuck out. And there was a certain magic to watching those people kick ass on stage. It was impossible not to go up to them afterward and be like, “OMG YOU WERE THE BEST they should’ve given you more songs I could literally have watched you all night.”
Kind of like how, in years past, I always wanted the ball to end up in the hands of Julius Jones or Golden Tate or Tom Zbikowski.
But if you go see a professional Broadway musical--the lead actors are going to be amazing, of course, but so is pretty much everyone else on stage. Because those people in the chorus? They’ve totally got the pipes to play the lead roles. In fact, most of them are probably understudies.
You’re still going to have your Nathan Lanes and your Bernadette Peters who stick out even among super-talent, much like the NFL has its Peyton Mannings and its Walter Paytons. But when everyone up on stage has the goods, the disparity is not so great. Because everyone came to play.
This is not to disparage Notre Dame players of years past. Playing anywhere at the D-I level takes an incredible amount of hard work, discipline, and talent.
But in terms of the way the team plays as a whole this year--I don’t think we’ve got any Broadway superstars here. I think we’ve got talent across the board, on both sides of the ball.
And everybody came to play.

A Little bit less like Phantom and a little bit more like A Chorus Line
I am, of course, getting ahead of myself, since we’ve still got 2 regular-season games we’ll need to win in convincing fashion in order to stay in the playoff picture. But I can’t help comparing the 2012 squad to this one. Since the commentators have already begun doing so during ND game broadcasts, I can’t possibly jinx anything by speculating that hasn’t already been jinxed. (You know. Probably.)
In 2012, it was indisputably the defense carrying our team. Specifically, we had Manti Te’o out there to amp everyone up, keep everyone focused, and perform outrageous feats of athleticism, such as recording twenty-one tackles in a single game.
This year, we don’t exactly have a Christine Daae out there, belting unmistakable sopranic leadership from the backfield--which I think has hurt us in some ways. We haven’t really seen our defense put together a solid performance for four quarters (except maybe in the Texas game). Particularly in the fourth quarter, we’ve seen lapses in focus that have allowed our opponents to sneak up on us again when they had no business doing so.
Our offense has been much more consistent at putting up points this season--but sometimes they don’t put in a full performance, either. At times they’re only half there, getting only the run game or the passing game going at a time. Sometimes they jump out of the scene completely, sputtering and stalling for entire quarters at a time. And sometimes (like yesterday, for example) it takes us almost the entire game to find our rhythm.
Somehow it doesn’t matter.
Because if the offense goes blank, the defense will jump in and pick up their lines. Or if the defense just bombed a huge play, Kizer & Co. will trot out there for a big ol’ showy touchdown pass to even things out. And if offense and defense have both decided to take prolonged, diva-style breaks in their dressing rooms, special teams is there to cover our ass until one or the other of them decides to show up again.
It’s brilliant.
And frustrating.
And it doesn’t feel a thing like the last time we were in the vicinity of the national championship conversation.
Because despite the devastating season-ending injuries, the way we’ve been playing largely lacks that high-school-musical style drama. We had one nailbiting “omg-can-Kizer-do-it?!” moment, after Zaire got injured in the VA game (and happily, the answer was, “Why yes, Sad Virginia fan--yes he can”). But we haven’t had a string of outrageous goal line stands. We haven’t had the same chills-n-thrills, down-to-the-wire heart-pounding victories.
We’ve just been winning. Putting up a cheery storyline for ND fans, week after week.
You know...except for that one game where we didn’t.

The Understudy
I wouldn’t trade that 2012 season for anything. (Except maybe for a 2012 season where we won it all.) The angst. The blog posts. The being-in-the-stands for most of the games. The sublime, stars-aligning Saturday that shuttled us to #1.
Honestly, though, I would rather have the sign atop Grace Hall lit up after the curtain closes on the season than while the play is still being acted out. (Well--okay, I would rather have it lit up all the time, but never mind that.)
I know, I know--TOTALLY JINXING US. 
But holy jazz hands, twelfth man--just look at where we are! We’re just one grapevine and a chaine turn away from true playoff contention.
And maybe we haven’t been stirring up standing ovations all season long, but it’s not an exaggeration to say we’ve been straight-up winning week after week, either.
Our closest games this season have been Virginia (34-27), Georgia Tech (30-22), Clemson (22-24), and Temple (24-20). Of those, I would say Virginia and Clemson are the only true nailbiters. Virginia Tech we dispatched in meme-producing glory, and Georgia Tech snuck up on us in the 4th quarter after we completely manhandled their option. Temple played a tough game, but we played tough right back; it didn’t ever feel like that win was going to slip away from us.
For every other W on our schedule, we’ve pulled away by 10 points or more, leaving little doubt of our victory by the 4th quarter, if not long before.
It’s not a spectacle-saturated Andrew Lloyd Weber-style season, but it’s incredibly refreshing, all the same.

We still have two games to go, so I should probably stop talking flowery nonsense about the playoffs. (It’s not just me, though. NOT JINXING US.)
All I’m saying is: we were a 2-pt conversion away from taking the now-#1 team in the country into overtime (or, you know, one less turnover and a FG away from beating them). Up against bad weather in a hostile environment, Kizer played like a young QB and our offense got off-rhythm at crucial moments. We moved the ball pretty well, but we couldn’t find the end zone, and we flubbed possession enough times to befoul our best shots at victory.
But we still battled back, for an almost-comeback. We went toe-to-toe against the Tigers, and I think if we could take them on again, we’d find a way to outshine them.
Here’s hoping we get to prove it.

There’s only us / there’s only this / forget regret / or Kizer’s pass is yours to miss / no other win / no other play / no game but this game
So I like our chances in this not-top spot. In fact, I’d be content to stay at #4 (or #3) the rest of the season. We’re playing the understudy right now. Let’s keep the target off our backs and our noses down. Let’s put together the best performance we can for the next two weeks. So when the spotlight comes, we’ll be ready.
Our next stop is a “neutral-site” home game against a 3-7 BC squad at Fenway Park. Don’t even think about Stanford, or we’ll trip and stumble like an amateur fumbling a kick ball change. No letdown, guys. NO LETDOWN.