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.

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