Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cardinal Rule: Stanford Game a Must-Win

Ah, rules. All our lives we're inundated with them - moral rules, rules of thumb, Road Rules. There's simply no getting around them. While, admittedly, most rules fall into the category of "gee, this is a pain in the ass", some actually do provide benefit. Take for example, "look both ways before crossing the street." It would certainly be delightful to go bounding across the road with nary a care in the world; but, as anyone who has devoted large portions of their youth to Frogger can tell you, such activity can definitely result in your being squashed and denied 50 points.
While we're on the topic of rules, we ought to admit that they apply to football teams as well as the mere mortals who root them on. No, I am not discussing those rules dictated by sad, older men wearing ridiculous striped shirts and white pants (in most cases, post-Labor Day, I might add). Rather, these types of rules are more like your mother telling you to look both ways; just good advice.
In that vein, in order to be successful, two very important rules apply explicitly to this Notre Dame season - 1) win at home, and 2) take care of business against the teams you should beat (particularly savvy fans will note that in Week 1, the Irish managed to nearly break both of these in one fell swoop). In spite of that early scare, Notre Dame is now 3-0 at home to start the season for the first time since 2002 (they haven't finished undefeated at home since '98) and have beaten three teams that, one might argue, they should have. And that, my friends, brings us to the Cardinal of Stanford....

Before I get into the particulars of this year's game, I would just like to take Irish fans on a journey of terror through some previous Stanford/Notre Dame games. This is not for the squeamish, so feel free to skip ahead if the mangled detritus of past ND seasons is a bit much for you. For the rest, behold:

1990 - Stanford 36, Notre Dame, 31: When one considers all of the factors that were present, this may rank as the worst upset in Irish history. The Irish entered the 1990 season having won the 1988 national championship and just narrowly missing out on it in 1989. After beginning the season 3-0 with wins over Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, Notre Dame was ranked #1 in the country and had what looked to be a laugher against Stanford at home as the Cardinal were 1-3 and coming off a home loss to San Jose State. At one point in this game, Notre Dame led 24-7...and then the bottom fell out. Fumbles, offensive ineptitude and a stout effort by Stanford made the score 31-29 Irish with 36 seconds left. It was at that point that "Touchdown" Tommy Vardell plunged into the endzone giving Stanford a 36-31 lead. After a few desperate heaves towards paydirt by Rick Mirer failed to connect, it was all over. Notre Dame would go on to finish the year at 9-3, while Stanford would limp to 5-6. I still gag a little remembering this one.

1992 - Stanford 33, Notre Dame 16: While this Stanford team was better than the 1990 version (they were coached by Bill Walsh and finished 10-3), so was Notre Dame. The Irish ended the year 10-1-1 and #4 in the country (they ended #6 in 1990). Of course, this would end up as their only loss...and, of course, it was at home. It bears mentioning that, on the first play from scrimmage, Demetrious Dubose recorded a safety and, in the second quarter, ND led 16-0 before crapping the bed royally. For these reasons, this one also ranks highly on my list of "games that will induce vomiting."

1997 - Stanford 33, Notre Dame 15: Not nearly as awful a loss as the first two for a couple of reasons - 1) Bob Davie was coaching the Irish (though, Willingham was coaching Stanford), 2) it was on the road, 3) this wasn't a great Notre Dame team. In spite of not being as monumental a choke job, this one was still pretty bad. We're talking here about a Notre Dame team that finished the regular season 7-5 and bowl-bound versus a Stanford team that would end 5-6. Moreover, that Stanford team won by three frickin' touchdowns! In my estimate, this should have been ND fans' first clue that the Davie era would not be a pleasant one.

I bring up these past disasters because, if they're not careful, this year's Notre Dame team could find itself in the same situation for a couple of reasons. First, Stanford is not a bad team. They are currently 3-2, having beaten Oregon State (and, I suppose, by transitive properties, USC), San Jose State and the Washington Huskies (or Tyrriers, as I like to call them). Their two losses were blowouts, but to decent teams - Arizona State (41-17) and TCU (31-14). Beyond all this, Stanford has also done something Notre Dame hasn't yet - win on the road. Simply put, Harbaugh is making great strides and will have these guys fired up and ready to go.
Now, of course, Notre Dame does have some major advantages here. First off, they're coming off their best game in two years and will be playing in front of, what will no doubt be, an energetic home crowd. Second, Notre Dame beat this same Stanford team on the road to end last season and, since then, Notre Dame has improved in much more substantial ways than has Stanford. While both teams were young in 2007 and return a fair number of players (ND lost 26 letterman, Stanford 20), Notre Dame went out and got the top recruiting class in the country; whereas Stanford's came in at #50. More importantly, Notre Dame has six members of that recruiting class in their two-deep and several others contributing regularly (for their part, Stanford has two true freshman in their two-deep). If this were the NFL, it would be the equivalent of Notre Dame having drafted well and signed a number of high profile free agents during the offseason. In other words, while this is no doubt a better Stanford team than last year, this is a much better Notre Dame team. To put it yet another way, this is one of those games the Irish should win.

Beyond talent differentials, the other reason this game is a must-win for the Irish is that it is the last home game until November. After Stanford, Notre Dame goes on the road to take on a tough North Carolina team before a bye week. Following their open date, the Irish travel to Seattle to take on a depleted Washington team who, no doubt, will be desperate for a win; especially against Ty's former team. These are two games that Notre Dame could lose. In the case of UNC, one might even bump that estimate up to probably will.
Things don't get any easier after that. The next home game is against Pitt, a tricky team and a toss-up game. Then, it's off to Chestnut Hill for BC - need I say more? Given this upcoming schedule, it's critically important the Irish dispatch Stanford this weekend. Heading into that slate at 4-1 gives Notre Dame a lot more leeway than would 3-2. A loss would send ND into this stretch on a particularly bad note. It would be a regression and, ultimately, detrimental to the team's ability to finish with a winning record and a decent bowl berth. The last thing a young team like this needs is an emotionally crippling loss at a critical point in this season. This week is a crossroads for Notre Dame - win and you have the wind at your back, lose and the ship starts taking on water. For these reasons, this week's Stanford game is an absolute must-win.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Future is Now

For Notre Dame fans, the expectations for this season were pretty simple: win enough games to put 2007 in the rearview mirror and be in position for a nice run in 2009. After seeing the way Notre Dame's younger players took apart Purdue yesterday, we Irish faithful may want to set our expectations a bit higher.
Yes, I know, the Purdue win, much like the loss to Michigan State, was "just one game", but it was the type of game that Notre Dame hadn't played in two seasons. More than that, it was a game where Notre Dame's ridiculously talented younger players were completely dominant and, in so being, showed that the darkest days of ND Nation may be behind us.
Make no mistake, this was a great win. While Purdue may not be a Top-25 team, they are a solid and experienced squad with talent. Anyone looking at Notre Dame's schedule in the preseason (or even a week ago), would have to have seen this game as a potential loss for a young Irish team. Far from that, it was, ultimately, a comfortable win.
So, having now had the chance to rewatch the game, here are my thoughts:

  • While it may not be thought of as such, the most important play of the day came in the first quarter. With Purdue leading 7-0, Desmond Tardy raced down the sideline seemingly on his way to a touchdown. At around the Notre Dame 10, Kyle McCarthy made a shoe-string tackle to keep him out of the endzone. Notre Dame's defense then managed to stop Purdue on three straight plays before the Boilermakers missed a 28-yard field goal. McCarthy's hustle kept Purdue from taking a 14-0 lead which would have been absolutely devastating so early on. A week after losing a tough game in East Lansing, going down by two touchdowns at home in the first quarter would have been very difficult for the Irish to overcome. This play gave Notre Dame a chance they desperately needed.
  • The second biggest play of the day was Robert Blanton's interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter. Shortly before, Notre Dame's offense had marched down the field only to come away with no points after Duval Kamara was cheated out of a touchdown by the refs (more on that later) and Brandon Walker missed a 31-yard field goal. Purdue had a 7-0 lead and were starting to move the ball once again. Blanton provided a spark by jumping the route, getting in front of Painter's pass and then weaving his way 47 yards to paydirt. This not only brought Notre Dame even with the Boilermakers, it gave them a shot in the arm that enabled them to get past their earlier red zone disappointment and get their heads back in the game. Blanton looked terrific all game. He's a solid tackler, good in pass coverage and brings an enthusiasm that is infectious.

  • Armando Allen got it done big time. AA rushed for 134 yards on 17 carries (7.8 YPC) and a touchdown. In addition, he had one reception for 9 yards and 4 kick returns for 105 yards (one of which he was very close to breaking before his own momentum got the best of him). In all, Allen had 247 all-purpose yards on the day. It's good to see Allen doing the kinds of things we'd all hoped he would when he came here. Much like Hughes was during the last two games of 2007, Allen is now the running back with the hot hand and I'd assume Stanford will see an awful lot of him next week.

  • Duval Kamara has had a rough start to the year. In addition to his issues catching the ball (he dropped another one against Purdue), he can now add being screwed by the refs to his list of early-season woes. I've now watched his second quarter "should have been a touchdown catch" about 15 times and it is clear that he had control of the ball and got his foot down prior to going out of bounds. The refs had no issue with reversing themselves on calls as they did so both on Tardy's touchdown and Golden Tate's 38-yard catch, so I can't imagine how they missed this one.
  • On a brighter receiving note, Michael Floyd just keeps getting better. He consistently makes good decisions, runs tremendous routes and puts himself in position to make catches. His 6 catch, 100 yard effort yesterday was, at times, breathtaking. He really kept the Notre Dame offense going on a number of occasions. I realize he's only four games into his ND career, but I feel confident saying he's the best freshman player for the Irish I've ever seen.

  • Yet another freshman who came up huge was Kyle Rudolph. Rudy managed 3 catches for 32 yards and his first collegiate touchdown on Saturday. More importantly, he blocked exceptionally well the entire day in helping the offense to 200 yards on the ground. If you want evidence of how good a blocker Rudolph can be, go back and watch him on Allen's touchdown run. He absolutely owned his man and enabled Allen to get past the line and into daylight. With all of the concern over the tight end position stemming from Ragone's injury, Yeatman's legal issues and, this week, Schmidt's migraines, Kyle Rudolph's performance against Purdue was a godsend and evidence that the position is in good hands.

  • It was great seeing David Grimes getting involved and making some plays (4 catches, 65 yards, 1 touchdown). With the ascendance of the younger receivers, it's easy to overlook a guy like Grimes, but he is still an integral part of this offense and it was good to see him get some chances.
  • In a just world, people would be talking about Golden Tate as a Heisman candidate. The guy is just a wonder. He has speed, hands, balance, strength and smarts. He is a perfect package and just makes things happen. His touchdown catch was absolutely textbook, his 38 yarder (which, thankfully, replay upheld) was acrobatic and his downfield blocking was awesome. He is an absolute joy to watch and a nightmare for teams to defend.
  • Simply put, this was Jimmy's best day as Notre Dame quarterback. With 275 yards, 3 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 57% completion rate, he really looked like the player who earned so many accolades coming out of high school. While there were a few passes that were questionable (2 were nearly picked) , the majority of Clausen's decisions were rock solid. For the first time, I found myself thinking how much fun it's going to be watching a quarterback with this much talent play with these kind of skill-position guys.
  • Brian Smith seems to be involved with every play for the defense. I was shocked to see he only had five tackles on the game. I could have sworn it was easily twice that. The guy has a motor that never quits and is clearly the heir-apparent to Mo Crum as the leader of the defense.
  • I am still a bit concerned about the inability of the defense to reach the quarterback. While they did a much better job this week of applying pressure, they did not manage to sack Painter on any of his 55 pass attempts. In total, the Irish have one sack in 168 opponent attempts. Given the amount they blitz, this is just unacceptable and it is something that will need to change as the season moves forward if Notre Dame is to fulfill its potential.
  • Another concern in watching the defense is their continuing issues with making solid tackles. Painter's gaudy 359 passing yards were largely the result of his receivers getting YAC after short(er) completions. This is another area the Irish simply need to improve upon and, what's more, it's one they should be able to. Wrapping up and driving while making tackle are simple fundamentals. They are highly teachable and Notre Dame should be working on them overtime.
  • Notre Dame's kick coverage continues to be brilliant. Facing the NCAA's top return team, the Irish limited Purdue to an average starting position of their own 19-yard line (less than a touchback). That is very impressive and one of the little things (field position) that helps overall team success.
  • I can't tell you how happy I was to see Brandon Walker hit that 41-yard field goal. I truly think that Walker's issues were largely of the mental variety and nailing that had to be a big weight off his shoulders. Hopefully, it will be similar to a hitter in baseball breaking out of a slump with a single.
  • I am very, very happy that this is the last time the Irish will face the likes of Curtis Painter, Greg Orton, Desmond Tardy and Kory Sheets. The four of them have consistently given the Irish fits during their time in West Lafayette. I wish them all well and am not sad to see them go.
  • Ditto for Joe Tiller. Tiller's been a heckuva coach. While never having the most talented teams, he always got a tremendous amount out of his players (he was basically the anti-Lloyd Carr). It's hard to remember, but before he arrived, Notre Dame's game against Purdue was basically considered a "gimme" every year. Not so after Tiller showed up with his "basketball on grass" version of the spread. He was a great competitor and we wish him the best of luck in his retirement.
  • Isn't it remarkable how good a team can look when they're not constantly shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers and stupid penalties?
  • So, after a week in which 9 ranked teams went down (6 of them to unranked teams), including USC, Florida and Wisconsin, does anyone still want to comment on how bad Notre Dame looked against San Diego State?

A quarter of the way into this season and we've already matched our win total from 2007. That is cause for both relief and happiness. While the October slate provides a number of significant challenges for this team, they could not have hoped to be in better shape to face them. Later in the week, we'll take a look at the Stanford game but, for now, raise a glass, Irish fans, we're 3-1!!!!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Brawling Hibernian's Factually Suspect Guide to the Purdue Boilermakers

Last week, I skipped "Brawling Hibernian's Factually Suspect Guide to..." Last week, the Irish lost their first game. Message received, fate; I won't let it happen again.
On Saturday, Notre Dame will take on their in-state rival, the Purdue Boilermakers. Purdue is a school deeply shrouded in mystery. Of course, by "deeply shrouded in mystery", I clearly mean, "is a culturally-devoid hole that no right thinking person would ever waste a neuron wondering about." Admittedly, this makes the job of finding interesting things about Purdue rather difficult. Lucky for you, dear reader, I persisted and, in doing so, uncovered the following:

  • Caught up in the era's zeitgeist, in 1997, former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees had beloved South Park character, Mr. Hankey, tattooed on his right cheek. To this day, he is the only player in NCAA history to ever be adorned by a fecal cartoon character.

"Howdy ho!!!"

  • For years, Purdue has claimed that the large drum it carted onto the field during football games was the "World's Largest Drum." Upon learning of this, in 2007, the citizens of Kathmandu, Nepal (owners of the ACTUAL world's largest drum), immediately filed suit over use of the name. In addition to a cease and desist order, the court also immediately ordered Purdue to pay restitution in the form of 100 of the school's finest female students, as cattle is considered sacred in Hindu culture.

Moove over Purdue drum...

  • Upon graduating in 1981, Purdue drum major and valedictorian, Thomas Lee Bass, headed to Los Angeles, CA to pursue dreams of stardom. After being introduced to lipstick, foundation and the simple joy of home movies, Bass finally found success as both a musician and film star under the pseudonym, "Tommy Lee."
"Give it up for hepatitis C!!!!"

  • In 2006, members of the Purdue football team made history when they became the first NCAA team ever to be given a pictorial for men's magazine, Jocks and Cocks.

My apologies if your Google search brought you to a college football blog in error.
  • In 2005, as part of their effort to improve Purdue's overall aesthetics, the School of Agriculture was able to successfully clone a team of five attractive females using only hair and silicone. Sadly, just weeks later they were killed by a stampede of highly jealous Purdue co-eds.

Pour a little out for what might have been...

  • In 1997, The Simpsons set a scene in the episode, "Homer's Phobia" on famed Purdue club, The Anvil.

"We work hard, we play hard..."

So there are your six highly suspect "facts" about Purdue University. It is my sincere hope that this helps Notre Dame fans feel even more assured of their superiority over the lessers in West Lafayette. Go Irish, beat Boilermakers!

Questions Abound

Before I begin, full disclosure: Based on Saturday's loss to Michigan State, I don't believe the world is ending, I don't believe the sky is falling and I don't believe the Irish are doomed to wallow in 2007-like misery for the remainder of this season. I do believe the Irish had a bad game. They were listless, lacked confidence and made far too many mistakes.
Now having said that, three games into the season, Notre Dame is still something of a curiosity. While, certainly, there have been improvements, a tremendous number of questions still persist. Answering these will go a long way to determining where this season will ultimately take us:
  • Is this year's Michigan State game just a carbon copy of last year's Purdue game? In both cases, ND went on the road, played poorly in the first half, came out firing in the second, got the score close and, ultimately, watched the other team pull away. Does this loss say anything different about this team and, if not, have they actually progressed?
  • Are Notre Dame's shortcomings due more to youth or inexperience winning at this level? As I had mentioned here, this year's team is not much different than the 1988 squad in terms of overall experience. That team, however, had learned to win the season before. Can this team forge its own winning identity and shed the mindset of losing from last year?
  • In a similar vein, how does this year's team deal with adversity? Teams comprised largely of younger players tend to rise and fall on emotion - can Notre Dame pick themselves up, get fired up and beat Purdue or will there be a hangover following their first loss?
  • Can the Irish succeed without a running game? Not being able to run the ball hurts your ability to burn clock which puts a lot of pressure on the defense. If a tired defense is continually asked to stay on the field, does Notre Dame have enough talent to win shootouts?
  • Running back is arguably the deepest position on this team. If the Irish aren't focused on running the ball, but still want to have their 12 best offensive players on the field at any given time, how do they incorporate Hughes, Aldridge and Allen? Of the three, only Allen appears to be consistent receiving threat; can you afford to not have the other two involved in the offense?
  • Can Notre Dame win a close game? It has become painfully obvious that the Irish lack the ability to kick a field goal (0 for their last 6 going back to last season); what happens if the game comes down to one? Will ND risk it or will we have a repeat of last year's Navy game?
  • Can the Irish stop the run? Looking at the upcoming schedule, the Irish face three solid running teams (BC, Navy and USC) and, at least one other, with the potential to move the ball on the ground because of their running back (Pitt). Can ND's d-line and linebackers rise to the occasion? Will Notre Dame's safeties be completely worn down by mid-season?
  • Can Notre Dame be a team or just a loose collection of talented players? With three top-10 recruiting classes in a row, there's little doubt the Irish have talent, but will it translate into wins? Are they less than the sum of their parts?
  • Will Notre Dame get better as the season progresses? Given their youth, talent and schedule, the Irish should be a markedly better team in November than they were in September thanks to the experience they'll gain along the way; can they progress from week to week?

For fans, one of the most frustrating things about team like this year's Irish is you just don't know what to expect each week. With a more established team (good or bad), it's usually safe to approach games as either "we should win" or "we are screwed." Typically, only a handful of games during the season fall into the toss-up category. Unfortunately, unless there is dramatic and consistent improvement, every game Notre Dame plays between now and their November 29th date with the Trojans will be more question mark than exclamation point.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Notes From Hell...

Well, that certainly sucked. Losing to Michigan or USC is gut-wrenching because of the rivalry and what's often at stake. I can stomach those better, because those teams are usually good. Losing to Michigan State is so much worse. They're a second-tier program who's better than average about once a decade. Moreover, ND and MSU have played exactly one meaningul game out of 70-plus...and it ended in a tie...in 1966. Why the hell do we even have them on the schedule?! I'm sure purists would say, "you can't just drop every team you struggle against". Agreed. Which is why I would never ask them to drop, say, Michigan or USC. But, what exactly does Notre Dame get out of this game? I can see what Michigan State gets - national prominence, TV exposure, assistance with recruiting a nice payday. If I were the Spartans AD, I would cling to the Irish like grim death. For Notre Dame, though, it's a different story. ND's on TV anyway, doesn't need the gate or the prominence or the help in recruiting. What's more, the week after playing against one of their biggest rivals (Michigan), ND should be playing a game against a lighter opponent, not one who's peaking (take a look at MSU's record the last decade or so, this is almost inevitably their high-water mark for their season).
In any event, on to today's unpleasantness:

  • Michigan State is not a good football team. They will absolutely lose at least six games this year. The offensive line is solid which is why Ringer, a slightly above-average back, looks like he's all-world. Dell is a solid receiver, but Hoyer's remarkably average as a quarterback. As for their defense, a more competent offense who is not throwing stupid picks or fumbling the ball or who, you know, isn't totally one-dimensional, should be able to put up a bunch of points on them (see: Cal). They overpursue way too much and leave themselves susceptible to giving up big stuff and stuff underneath (alas, Notre Dame did not capitalize).
  • Notre Dame was bad. Real bad. Stupid turnovers (see above), inopportune penalties, the lack of a running game, the defenses's inability to stop the run or get to the quarterback...the list goes on. In spite of all this, Notre Dame probably should have won this game. Two stops on defense and one more score (they were in position to do it) and they win.
  • Golden Tate may end up being this team's Tim Brown or Rocket Ismail. He can do it all and he keeps getting better and better.
  • What the hell were the coaches doing on the first couple series? Not throwing the ball at all seemed like what? A good idea? Wow, this too clever by half approach that Charlie and his offensive staff have implemented needs to stop.
  • Defensively, Notre Dame actually played pretty well. They kept the Irish in the game until late in the fourth quarter in spite of being on the field quite a bit. Yeah, Ringer had his big day but, we knew that the Spartans were going to use him like crazy. Look it at this way, Ringer's 39 carries were 57% of MSU's total offensive plays. In addition, his 201 yards rushing were 58% of Sparty's total offensive production! And, for what it's worth, a TON of those yards came late in the game.
  • Can no one kick a field goal at Notre Dame? Didn't the football team used to recruit kids from the soccer team? Can't we still do that? If it were just about missing, I wouldn't be as upset; but, for the love of God, get it somewhere remotely near the uprights.
  • Jimmy Clausen has done a much better job this season of avoiding sacks (though I could do without the constant grounding), but he still throws some bad balls. I don't know if it's his decisions, what the coaches are asking him to do on given plays or a little bit of a both, but it's starting to become a real problem. The first pick came when ND was on MSU's 24-yard line - let's take 3-7 points off the board from that one (that would have been enough to tie the game or take the lead at that point). The second pick happened deep in Irish territory and lead to a Spartan touchdown. That's anywere from a 10-14 point swing on two interceptions.
  • Either John Latina needs to be fired or we need to start a new offensive line. Yes, they've been better with pass blocking (for the most part), but any offensive line incapable of generating more than 16 yards rushing (and, by the way, it's only about 50 yards when you take out sacks) is doing something very, VERY wrong. Keep in mind, this wasn't even a particularly stout defense; what happens against USC?
  • Unrelated to today's game (mercifully), but Terrelle Pryor throws 4-tds against a bad Troy team to help Ohio State sneak past them and he's the All-American of the day?! Exactly how much do the media love the Buckeyes? It's past the point of reason.

So, it comes down to this - are you a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person? If you're glass-half-empty, you view this game as a regression. All the worst tendencies that were evident in last year's team and during the first three quarters against San Diego State, reared their ugly heads yet again as Notre Dame lost to, at best, an average football team. If you're glass-half-full, you can hang your hat on a young team, going on the road and overcoming adversity to give themselves a chance at the end. At this point, I honestly don't know. Feel free to add your thoughts, lamentations and venom in the comments - vent a little.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

ND/MSU 2008: A Break From History?

"Past results do not guarantee future performance." If you've ever flipped through a prospectus, you've no doubt encountered this eloquent little qualifier. It is a legendary ass-coverer in the world of investments, but does it hold true when applied to football? In other words, does history give us any indication as to what we ought to expect from a team? Both Michigan State and Notre Dame better hope not.
As has been much discussed, commented on and parodied; traditionally, Michigan State has had a tendency to, well, stop showing up after around game #5. In looking back at the 11 seasons between 1997 and 2007, Michigan State, on average, started the season at a respectable 3-2 before finishing them 3-4. As a result, for Spartans' fans, the team's current 2-1 start is likely not as comforting as one might assume (MSU started 2007 4-1 before finishing 3-5).
Still, as craptacular as the East Lansingites have been as the season rounds the corner, the one thing they have consistently been able to do is beat the Irish. Over those same 11 seasons, the Spartans are 8-3 against the Irish. It's also probably no coincidence that, during that time, they haven't played ND later than the fourth game of their season.
So, this season, will the scripts stay true? In its fourth game, will Michigan State beat Notre Dame only to see the promise of a great year go spinning down the toilet once Big Televen play begins, or can Notre Dame continue to bounce back from 2007's paean to suckitude by knocking off the Spartans? Well, clearly, if I actually had those types of answers I would be laying down large chunks of my mortgage payment in a casino in Vegas rather than writing this blog. Still, it's probably worth a look and some speculation (to stick with the Wall Street analogies).
First and foremost, we need to look at what the teams have done thus far. As we know, Notre Dame has squeaked by San Diego State and shell-shocked Michigan. For their part, Michigan State has, in order, lost to a Cal team that subsequently lost to horrendous Maryland, crushed an Eastern Michigan team that was 4-8 in the frickin' MAC last year and slogged past Florida Atlantic, of whom I know two things, 1) they play in the Sun Belt (which, amazingly, is a conference and not a constellation) and 2) their biggest rival is Florida International (I'm not kidding). So, what does this tell us? Other than the fact that I'm glad Notre Dame's mascot is not a bird (MSU has already knocked off the Eagles and the Owls), not a whole lot. I would argue that Notre Dame has the only quasi-quality win of the two, so that probably counts for something. Granted, Michigan is probably going to be relatively bad this year, but they're also not playing in the MAC or Sun Belt (though these are probably the only conferences worse than the Big Televen this year...don't be jealous, ACC, you suck too).
So, how about the players? Well, Notre Dame's offense is starting to click a little bit. Clausen's looked good (56% completion percentage, 5 TD passes), the line's held strong and the running game has done what's necessary when called upon - they only have 68 rushing attempts as a team - MSU's Javon Ringer has 104 attempts on his own. As for Michigan State, while the aforementioned Ringer seems to be everyone's focal point (he has accounted for 86% of the Spartans' rushing yards), WR Mark Dell also bears mentioning as his 320 yards receiving represents 54% of the team's total passing yards. The bad news for Sparty is that QB Brian Hoyer is completing just 44% of his passes and only has 1 TD through the air. I'm no Knute Parseghian, but I think I'd be stacking the line and taking my chances on letting Mr. Hoyer try and beat my secondary (which has been pretty awesome).
With all this information, you may ask, what's the verdict? Well, as everyone knows, the away team in this series has won the last seven times they've played, so that certainly points to the Irish this week. I have a more important reason to like the chances of the Irish - they're the better team. Notre Dame is simply more talented and has more weapons than Michigan State. Keep in mind, as awful as the Irish were last year, they only trailed the Spartans 17-14 at halftime. This year, ND is a year older, more experienced and, as MSU coach Mark Dantonio noted, is having fun. While there are many downsides to a young team (see: 3-9), one of the major upsides is enthusiasm - especially with a few wins under their belts. It is for all of these reasons that I feel good about Saturday. No doubt about it, Michigan State is a good football team (they don't start to suck until October), but Notre Dame seems up to the challenge of not only upsetting the Spartans, but the odds as well.

"Hi, I'm Sparty..."

(door opens) Hi there, neighbor, the name's Sparty. Yeah, I know; kind of an unusual name. Uh, Greek, actually. Oh, are you familiar with Greece? In that case, I guess I should say I'm Laconian. Indeed, it is a beautiful area. Many's a day I sat under those very olive trees with a nice glass of mavrodafni, contemplating the delicate balance between joy and pain, life and death...
Anywho, as I was starting to say, I just moved into the neighborhood and...what's that? Really? Oh, I love block parties! Yes, of course I'll be there. I'll bring my famous spanakopita, it's TO. DIE. FOR.
Yes, yes, the clipboard. Well, the thing is, due to some recent contretemps, I'm afraid I have to introduce myself to my neighbors by requesting their John Hancock on this form. Uh, well, it basically says that, "technically", I'm not allowed within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, toy stores, carnivals, beaches, ice cream parlors, or dog groomers...it's complicated. (awkward pause)
Soooo, if you wouldn't mind signing right by the 'X', that'd be super duper....
Oh, I see, yes...yes, of course. I certainly will get off your "Goddamned lawn this fucking minute." It was nice meeting you and, just remember, I'm over at 362 if you ever need to borrow a cup of sugar... (door slams shut)

"I can explain..."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Deconstructing Pat Forde

In 2006, Michigan scored 28 points off of five Notre Dame turnovers in posting a 26-point victory over the Irish. The AP headline read, "Michigan Stuns Notre Dame, Puts Up 47 Points in South Bend Rout." This year, Notre Dame scored 21 points off of six Michigan turnovers en route to an 18-point victory over the Wolverines. Their headline for this win? "Notre Dame Takes Advantage of Mistake-Prone Michigan." So, in the AP's telling, while the Wolverines were "stunning" and "routing" Notre Dame in "putting up" 47 points, the Irish were simply the fortunate beneficiaries of a few goofs by Michigan. Interesting take.
Of course, the AP wasn't alone in their assessment of Notre Dame's victory. On ABC's pre-game show, prior to the USC-Ohio State game, John Saunders was equally unimpressed, citing Michigan's yardage and time-of-possession advantages as evidence that Notre Dame's win was nothing more than a lucky break (this was before Craig James helpfully pointed out that while Michigan had the yardage advantage, the Irish dominated the only stat that matters - the score). As expected, though, the biggest offender of the "Irish win means nothing" group was ESPN's Pat Forde. Of course, as Irish fans well know, Forde is, what word am I looking for here? Oh yes, Forde is an idiot.
For the most recent proof of his idiocy, let's take a look at the assault on reason and language Pat has managed to vomit into publication this week.
Entitled, "Irish Victory No Sign of South Bend Resurrection", Forde's remarkably thick-headed exegesis begins thusly:

Notre Dame traditionally produces a new "spirit shirt" every season, and tens of thousands of them can be seen on campus every football Saturday. This year's version reads, in part: "Notre Dame will rise again." As resurrections go, this is not exactly a Lazarus production. There is little here to inspire reverence."

It's good to see that Forde not only struggles with college football, but with theology as well. Per the New Testament, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. As such, both the "production" and "reverence" would belong to that Christ fellow Notre Damers tend to go on about; not old Laz. Beyond that, find me one Irish fan who has declared, "Yup, we beat Michigan, we're back, baby!" I'm sure this poor soul exists, but I hardly think he is representative of the wider Notre Dame fan base. ND fans have been happy with the win and feel it shows progress from last season, but no one I know's booking their ticket for the 2009 BCS Championship just yet. As for the t-shirt, Pat knows it was designed prior to the game, right? Ok, moving on...

The head coach is on crutches. The quarterback threw for 11 second-half yards Saturday. The longest running play of the season is 18 yards. The Fighting Irish have been outgained in both games. The new campus cult hero is a 5-foot-8 3/4, 175-pound former walk-on.

Whoa, whoa whoa - the coach is on crutches? God, this team must suck. I mean, honestly, crutches? Oh, and they're rooting for an underdog who's succeeded against the odds? Who does that?!

Yet after rallying past awful San Diego State in the opener and accepting a gift-wrapped 35-17 victory Saturday from self-destructing Michigan, the Irish are 2-0. Don't look now, folks, but they could be on their way to becoming the worst good team in recent college football history.

Pat called us "folks", he's such a regular guy! As for "the worst good team in recent college football history", how can any team not named "Ohio State" possibly lay claim to that title? To review Buckeye futility: 2006, finished the season ranked #1 led by the (poorly chosen) Heisman Trophy winner, get slaughtered by Florida, 41-14. 2007, finish the season ranked #1 get slaughtered by LSU, 38-24. 2008, begin the season either #2 or #3 (depending on poll), play USC while ranked #5, get slaughtered, 35-3. Does anyone else see a pattern developing here?

San Diego State and (to hell with) Michigan were not ranked coming into South Bend. Nine more currently unranked opponents stand between Notre Dame and USC on Nov. 29. If those teams remain outside the polls, it would be a school record most unranked opponents played in one season.

Yeah, yeah and if the Queen had balls, she'd be king. What's the point? First off, schedules are made years in advance and no one has a clue as to how good or bad those teams will be when the game is actually played. Second, tell me what team in the national championship race doesn't play cupcakes during the course of the year. Third and fourth, in 1989, Notre Dame beat no less than six Top-25 teams, while Miami played a schedule consisting of fourth-place finishers in the Special Olympics - guess who won the national championship? In 1993, Notre Dame played an equally challenging schedule and knocked off Florida State, who had played an ACC schedule (and thus, a slightly easier slate than the Special Olympians Miami played) - guess who won the national championship?

Against that motley lineup, the highly average Irish conceivably could win enough to return to a big-time bowl game. Where they'd get crushed again.

If you're keeping score at home, that's two major assumptions Pat makes in the course of two sentences. If Pat is going to go ahead and make wild predictions based on little evidence, he should have some fun with it. Suggest things like, "With the proliferation of nuclear weapons increasing the likelihood of a fiery holocaust which could wipe out large swaths of the male population, I may be looking at People Magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" in 2009."

Put it this way: This Notre Dame team bears no resemblance to the 1988 national champions who were honored here this weekend.

Put it this way: Pat Forde bears no resemblance to Erin Andrews, yet both of them draw paychecks from ESPN.

But after the 3-9 fiasco of 2007, you won't find anyone at Notre Dame soft-selling 2-0. Not after beating a school that humiliated them the past two years.

Let me try writing this sentence another way that gets at the heart of what Pat actually means, "In spite of the fact that it is eminently reasonable for Irish fans to feel pretty good about being 2-0 after last season, I'm still going to write this completely slanted and pointless column under the guise of intelligent commentary."

Weis sucked it up and coached through the pain and rain. You can't blame him for not wanting to miss a play of this game, perhaps just to see how Michigan was going to give his team the ball next.

Hey oh! You just got served, Rich Rodriguez!

The young Wolverines turned it over six times, their most in a game in 16 years, which is how you outgain a team by 128 yards and still lose by 18 points. One of those turnovers was caused by Notre Dame and the other five were giveaways.

The "young Wolverines", as compared to the veteran squad of freshman and sophomores fielded by the Irish. As for the turnover business, two of them were interceptions so, by any reasonable standard, Notre Dame ought to be credited with "causing" at least three. Then, with regard to the others, does Pat feel comfortable in asserting that pressure played no role in causation? Can he absolutely assert that nothing Notre Dame did had anything to do with them? If he can't, then best not to draw a conclusion. At the end of the day, it doesn't even matter. There's only one relevant question - what did Notre Dame do with Michigan's turnovers? The answer is simple - they both scored and prevented the Wolverines from scoring. That is what good teams (or those who aspire to be good) do. End of story.

There was only one strip, by excellent safety David Bruton (who originally committed to Ty Willingham). The rest were a series of gaffes most self-respecting high school teams would avoid.

So, is David Bruton an excellent safety because he committed to Ty Willingham? Did Ty Willingham teach him to "strip"? (write your own punchlines, you sick bastards). If neither of those is the case, referencing Willingham in that sentence is a non-sequiter that ranks up there with, "The column was by abysmal ESPN writer Pat Forde (who enjoys barely-legal German porn)."

Especially the first two, which just about sealed Michigan's fate.

It's true. With about 10 minutes to go in the first quarter, I was shocked to discover the refs would allow the game to go forward. With Michigan's fate having been just about sealed at that juncture, it seemed awfully brutish for them to allow the teams to continue on for another 3 2/3 quarters. Why, no team's ever come back from such a forbidding deficit as 14 points!

Its first possession started with freshman Boubacar Cissoko fumbling the opening kickoff, retrieving it and being tackled at the 9-yard line. It ended with quarterback Steven Threet throwing a backward pass to running back Brandon Minor, who dropped it. The Irish recovered at the 11. Aided by a pass interference penalty, Notre Dame scored in three plays.

I love the addition of "aided by a pass interference penalty." I guess, inasmuch as the penalty was not a deterrent to scoring, one could argue it "aided" them. Well played, Pat.

Michigan freshman Michael Shaw fumbled the ensuing kickoff - straight through the hands, and then between the legs and then behind them. That one was recovered on the Michigan 14 by Irish special-teams star Mike Anello, the tiny former walk-on whose bio isn't even in the media guide but whose kick coverage is now the stuff of legend after two bang-up games to start the year.

Uh oh...sounds like Pat's found himself a new cult hero.

I couldn't have dreamed this up, " Anello said. "If you told me I'd be playing for Notre Dame, let alone getting on the field and earning a scholarship, I'd have laughed at you." On Saturday, the laughter you could hear seemed to be coming from Morgantown, W.Va, where there's nothing more enjoyable than seeing the Mountaineers' former coach flail to an error-ridden 1-2 start at Michigan.

Does it concern anyone else that Pat is hearing distant laughter?

When the Wolverines were not dropping the ball or hitting Irish defenders in the chest with passes, they did some decent things offensively. Freshman running back Sam McGuffie is more than just a YouTube phenomenon; he's a legit talent who ran for 131 yards and caught four passes for 47 more yards.

With a performance like that, you'd have thought this fellow might have been a highly-rated and recruited prospect coming out of high school. Well, no worry, it's finally settled; Pat Forde has declared him to be a legit talent.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, is still looking for a running game that it can count on. The Irish wheezed to 105 yards rushing against San Diego State and had 113 against the Wolverines. Averaging 3.2 yards per carry is well short of dazzling.

Conversely, the 3.7 that Michigan is averaging...lights out!

But the one thing the Irish are doing much better this year than last is keeping their quarterback upright. Last season, Notre Dame surrendered a school-record 58 sacks. So far this year? Zero. That left Weis knocking on the wooden podium he stood behind in the postgame news conference. So far, the bewildered blockers of '07 are now a pretty solid unit in '08.

You don't suppose this could have anything to do with the Irish being 2-0, do you? I mean, when has line play ever dictated the outcome of a game? Crazy talk.

Notre Dame will next go toe-to-toe with a Michigan State team that shut out Florida Atlantic on Saturday. But before then, the Irish would like some props. "Sooner or later," cornerback Raeshon McNeil said, "everyone's going to have to start giving us some respect." Shouldn't it be enough that Michigan gave Notre Dame the ball all day Saturday? Now the Irish want respect on a platter too? Respect will have to be earned, and it will take more than Notre Dame showed in this game for that to happen.

I'm sorry, did I miss the part of Raeshon McNeil's quote where he asked for members of the media to declare Notre Dame to be "Lords and masters of all they survey?" Geez, if respect is this tough for him, Pat must get positively apoplectic at the thought of having admiration for anyone.

And, so ends another Pat Forde classic. The sad part is, it was a column that didn't even need to be written. Notre Dame-Michigan was nowhere near the biggest game this past weekend and, as mentioned previously, Irish fans offered no groundswell of support for the idea that this win meant ND was "back". Still, Pat's got his agenda and ESPN lacks anything approaching journalistic standards, so these columns are inevitable. On the bright side, laughter is said to reduce stress and help in preventing heart attacks so, this perfect storm of incompetency may actually be allowing Irish fans to live longer. And you thought Pat Forde was good for nothing...

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Wow! That was the Notre Dame team we were expecting to see. I had forgotten how great it feels to beat Michigan - that was fun! A ton of thoughts swirling through my head. Here's a few:
  • I hate to be the "I told you so" guy, but we saw Aldridge, we had more throws to Floyd and we ran towards Young and Stewart/Robinson - anyone still think the coaches weren't holding a few things back last week?
  • Speaking of Trevor Robinson, great to see him get the start - he's going to be a monster.
  • For the second week, the offensive line looked solid in pass protection. Run blocking was improved as well against a very stout Michigan defensive line. There were some nice holes out there.
  • Jimmy Clausen just keeps getting better. He had two interceptions (though the one at the end was the result of a stupid throwaway call by the coaches), but he managed the game brilliantly, avoided pressure/sacks on a number of occasions and flat-out threw the ball well.
  • Robert Hughes looked quicker and less tentative than last week. In better weather and against weaker defenses, he's going to be unstoppable.
  • Golden Tate showed that, in spite of being a full-time wide receiver (and a damned good one), he still has the strength and ability to break tackles and work the open field from his days as a running back. The 60 + yard slant play was a thing of beauty.
  • The defense was of the "bend, but don't break" variety. The positives were their ability to cause turnovers and, for the most part, limit big plays. On the flip side, they didn't do a great job stuffing the run or pressuring the quarterback for most of the day - and this was a pretty mediocre Michigan line.
  • David Bruton is going to make some NFL team very, very happy. He was all over the place and his athleticism is really remarkable.
  • His partner at safety, Kyle McCarthy, was no slouch himself. Another week with double-digit tackles.
  • Brian Smith certainly redeemed himself for getting run over for a touchdown with that fumble return.
  • Great to see Gary Gray get some playing time and make an immediate contribution.
  • Special teams has now turned the tide for the Irish in two straight games (Allen's punt return and Brown's punt block last week and then the great coverage, ball strips and fumble recoveries this week).
  • Tough break for Charlie with his knee. Here's wishing him a speedy recovery. He showed some real toughness hanging in there on the sideline and then giving a post-game press conference. He represented Jersey well today.
  • Two games in, and I think we're starting to see the makings of a team Irish fans are really going to like. They're tough, they're scrappy, they're opportunistic and they play well together. It's still early, but these guys have a real special quality to them.

It's going to be a tough game up in East Lansing next week, but we'll have plenty of time to talk about that in the days ahead. For now, after two years of Wolverine domination, Irish fans should take a moment to savor this one. Lift a glass, Irish fans, we're 2-0!!!!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Let's All Take a Deep Breath...

Since Saturday's win over San Diego State, the ND faithful have been in high dudgeon over the team's prospects for the season. The general mood has been, shall we say, grim. Certainly, coming on the heels of last season's disaster, some of this is to be expected. The Irish were a terrible team in 2007 and, so, there is natural concern that comes after such a mistake-filled and unexpectedly close game. That said, these same fans spent a good portion of the offseason discussing improvements Notre Dame had made and potential for a solid 2008 campaign. Have we now given up on that sense of promise? After one game?!
Earlier in the week, I had referenced the way the 1993 team had kicked off the season with a lackidaisical win over Northwestern - a game in which they were consistently outplayed and trailed well into the second half - en route to an 11-1 record. Today, I thought I would cite two other historical precedents that, with any luck, will help calm the collective nerves of ND Nation:

  • The 1988 team (yes, I like referencing them but, hey, it's their twentieth anniversary this year) came into their game against a terrible Navy team (they finished the season 3-8 and suffered losses to Temple and The Citadel along the way) undefeated and 35-point favorites. Notre Dame then went out and played awfully; eking out a 22-7 win. Their poor performance prompted this assessment from Lou Holtz, "We couldn't control the line of scrimmage. We couldn't throw consistently, we weren't mentally alert and that's my fault. Our offensive line got beat up, we couldn't run inside. We weren't good enough to beat them inside." Does this sound familiar? Keep in mind this was the team's eighth game of the season, not their first. They simply played a bad game against a team that, on paper, they should have dominated. It happens.
  • It's worth recalling how our rivals on Saturday began their season last year. Michigan came into 2007 as the #5 team in the country, and promptly dropped two straight home games. They, of course, were famously stunned by Appalachian State (some Las Vegas oddsmakers were so confident of a blow-out Michigan win, they wouldn't put a line on the game) and then were crushed, 39-7, by Oregon. As Irish fans recall, they managed to snap out of this funk by throttling Notre Dame, 38-0. In spite of their difficult start to the year, the Wolverines ended the 2007 campaign 9-4 and with a victory over a very good Florida team in the Capital One Bowl.

So, will Notre Dame have similar results to the teams I've mentioned? Who knows. The point is not that the Irish are guaranteed success, but rather, that they're not guaranteed failure. Good teams sometimes struggle to beat bad teams and, on occasion, even lose to them. When this happens, though, fans need to keep some perspective. Unfortunately, I've heard from a great many Irish fans this week who simply have none. For some of them, the reason is they are young and have not had the benefit of decades of watching the Irish (or any other team). For others, it's that they're natural alarmists and prone to "the sky is falling" hyperventilations over each bump in the road. My advice to both groups is simple - step back, take a deep breath and let's see what happens on Saturday.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I just wanted to offer a quick thank you to the readers who've been checking in to Brawling Hibernian during this, our formative stage. The support and encouragement I've received from you has been really wonderful and, I certainly hope, I can continue to provide material for you that you find to be interesting, entertaining and informative. Notre Dame football has been one of my life's great passions and I really enjoy having the opportunity to share that passion with the best fans in all of sport. Thanks again and GO IRISH!!!!

Honoring Lou

At halftime of Saturday's game against Michigan, Lou Holtz will be honored for his accomplishments as coach of the Irish from 1986-1996. During that time, Lou compiled a record of 100-30-2 (second in victories at ND to only Knute Rockne), won the 1988 national championship (and should have won in 1989 and 1993), consistently brought in top-flight recruiting classes and prepared a generation of young men for life beyond football.
If it sounds like I'm a gushing Lou Holtz partisan it's because, well, I am. My first season as an Irish fan was Lou's first as coach, 1986. I was ten that year and, for the first time, really started paying attention to what it was my father was watching on those Saturday afternoons in the fall.
That first season was unbearably difficult as Notre Dame finished 5-6; with five losses coming by a combined 14 points. Still, there was hope for the future and the next year was much better. An 8-3 regular season led to a berth in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, which I attended. It was my first Notre Dame game and I couldn't have been more excited. That week, I was able to see Tim Brown (the newly crowned Heisman Tropy winner) and was anxious for an Irish victory. Sadly, after jumping out to a 10-0 lead, Notre Dame was swarmed by a tough Texas A&M defense (led by John Roper and coached by Jackie Sherrill) and lost 35-10. After it was over, I cried unashamedly amidst a sea of maroon-and-white-clad "12th men".
Of course, as every Irish fan knows, in 1988 Lou took us to the promised land. Against all odds, a team that was deemed "a year away" shocked everyone and claimed Notre Dame's 11th national championship. Overnight, it seemed, Lou went from good coach to Irish legend.
The next several autumns were absolutely brilliant years to be an Irish fan. Talent poured into South Bend and, each season, Notre Dame was in the thick of the national title hunt. It was an amazing return to glory for a program that, by the end of the Gerry Faust era, had been left for dead. It seemed all was right with the world, thanks to Lou.
Sadly, like all good things, Lou's time as coach of the Irish had to come to an end. In 1996, after 10 years, Lou Holtz left the sideline he'd walked (and picked bare of grass) and into Irish lore.
As each summer comes to an end, and another Notre Dame season draws near, my memory always wanders back to those amazing, dizzying, wonderful seasons that Lou gave us. There will always be something very special about that time for me and I will always be supremely grateful to Lou Holtz for giving me memories to last a lifetime. Thanks, Lou.
As a special tribute to his Notre Dame career, here are my 10 favorite Lou Holtz victories. Believe me, it was tough to whittle it down to ten. Feel free to chime in with your own favorites in the comments section:

1) Notre Dame, 31 - Miami, 30 (October 15, 1988)
This may be the best game I've ever seen at any level. So many amazing moments - Catholics vs. Convicts, the pre-game fight in the tunnel, the Cleveland Gary fumble, Pat Terrell's game-saver and, of course, Lou's classic "save Jimmy Johnson's ass for me" line.
2) Notre Dame, 31 - Florida State, 24 (November 13, 1993)
This was 1993's version of "The Game of the Century". Florida State came in with an offensive juggernaut led by Charlie Ward, who would win the Heisman that year. Notre Dame countered with a balanced offense and solid defense and walked away with a victory that should have propelled them to a national championship were it not for the leg of David Gordon and the whims of AP voters.
3) Notre Dame, 28 - USC, 24 (October 21, 1989)
This was really, really gratifying. Todd Marinovich, USC's freshman QB, is among the most unlikeable villains in Irish history. Throughout the game, he taunted, preened and put his team in a position to knock off the Irish. Luckily, the Irish countered with Tony Rice, Anthony Johnson and an opportunistic defense that kept the Trojans out of the endzone when it counted.
4) Notre Dame, 34 - West Virginia, 21 (January 2, 1989)
This was the game that gave Notre Dame's its 11th national champion. The Irish stormed out of the gate early, battering the Mountaineers' Major Harris and both running and passing all over their defense. This game left absolutely no doubt who the best team in 1988 was.
5) Notre Dame, 27 - USC, 10 (November 26, 1988)
#1 Notre Dame vs. #2 USC in the Coliseum, late in the season - does it get better? Prior to the game, Lou sent Tony Brooks and Ricky Watters home after they showed up late for a team meeting. During the game, it hardly mattered. Tony Rice raced for a 65-yard touchdown, Stan Smagala ran an interception of a Rodney Peete pass back for a 64-yard score and defense took care of the rest.
6) Notre Dame, 17 - Penn State, 16 (November 14, 1992)
"The Snow Bowl". This was the last scheduled game between the ND and Penn State for the foreseeable future (at the time, no one knew it would be resumed in 2006 and 2007) and the winner would have bragging rights for most wins in the series. Going into the final minutes, it looked that winner might be Penn State. That was before Rick Mirer hit Jerome Bettis with a TD pass and Reggie Brooks with a brilliant two-point conversion to give the Irish the 'W'.
7) Notre Dame, 24 - Michigan, 19 (September 16, 1989)
On a rain-soaked field in Ann Arbor, Notre Dame came in and knocked off pre-season #1 Michigan thanks to two kick-off return TDs by "The Rocket".
8) Notre Dame, 34 - Tennessee, 29 (November 10, 1990)
Great runs by both 'Rocket' Ismail and Ricky Watters propelled the Irish to victory over a tough Tennessee team in a tough environment.
9) Notre Dame, 39 - Florida, 28 (January 1, 1992)
"The Cheerios Bowl". A smart-assed waiter provided the Irish all the motivation they would need on the eve of their Sugar Bowl clash with the Gators by offering the immortal, "What's the difference between Notre Dame and Cheerios? Cheerios belong in a bowl". Notre Dame proceeded to prove they belonged by running Jerome Bettis over, around and through the Gator defense.
10) Notre Dame, 38 - USC, 37 (November 29, 1986)
Amazing how many great games ND played against SC during Lou's tenure. This was the season-ending game for the aforementioned trying first season of the Holtz era. Trailing 30-12 in the 3rd quarter, ND came storming back. Late in the 4th quarter, a 56-yard punt return by Tim Brown set up John Carney's winning 19-yard field goal with two seconds left.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Young Irish

Last season, it was widely noted, the Irish were a very young team and, as a result of their inexperience, their record suffered. This season, the Irish were expected to be improved, but still "a year away". Now, in the wake of the closer-than-expected win over San Diego State, the "Notre Dame is too young" excuse has been resurrected and/or given more full-throated support. The question then becomes, is this view accurate? Does Notre Dame's youth play against its chances for victory? Does the the fact that the Irish have the third most freshman in its two-deep in the country doom them to failure? Can talent ever trump experience?
To try and get some perspective on this, I took a look at the 1988 national championship team (sadly, the most recent for the Irish) to see what, if anything, that would tell me about the correlation between youth, experience and gridiron victory.
First, I examined those players deemed "key contribututors" to the '88 championship. These are both starters and reserves who logged significant time or added important plays (class years are in parentheses). Here's the list:


QB: Tony Rice (Junior)
RB: Mark Green (Senior), Tony Brooks (Sophomore)
FB: Braxton Banks (Junior), Anthony Johnson (Junior), Rodney Culver (Freshman)
TE: Derek Brown (Freshman), Frank Jacobs (Junior)
WR: Ricky Watters (Sophomore), Raghib "Rocket" Ismail (Freshman), Pat Eilers (Junior)
OT: Andy Heck (Senior), Dean Brown (Junior), Joe Allen (Sophomore)
OG: Tim Grunhard (Junior), Tim Ryan (Sophomore)
C: Mike Heldt (Sophomore)

DT: George Williams (Junior), Chris Zorich (Sophmore), Jeff Alm (Junior)
DE/OLB: Frank Stams (Senior), Darrell "Flash" Gordon (Junior), Arnold Ale (Freshman)
LB: Wes Pritchett (Senior), Mike Stonebreaker (Sophomore), Ned Bolcar (Junior)
CB: Todd Lyght (Sophomore), Stan Smagala (Junior), D'Juan Francisco (Junior)
S: George Streeter (Senior), Pat Terrell (Junior)

K: Reggie Ho (Senior), Billy Hackett (Junior)
P: Jim Sexton (Freshman)

Senior: 6
Junior: 15
Sophomore: 8
Freshman: 5

While, I might have overlooked a few people, I think that covers, at the very least, the starters. What we see is a heavy concentration in the junior class, but also very significant contributions from underclassmen as well. Not including the punter Jim Sexton, at least three freshman started during the 1988 season (Derek Brown, Ismail and Ale). Overall, the team featured 10 first-time starters. As for the schedule, that year, the Irish defeated three top-10 teams during the regular season (Michigan, Miami and USC) and another in their bowl game (third-ranked West Virginia).
Now, let's see how this compares to the current squad. I tried to include roughly the same number of players in both analyses.


QB: Jimmy Clausen (Sophomore)
RB: Armando Allen (Sophomore), Robert Hughes (Sophomore), James Aldridge (Junior)
FB: Asaph Schwapp (Senior), Luke Schmidt (Junior)
TE: Kyle Rudolph (Freshman), Will Yeatman (Junior)
WR: David Grimes (Senior), Duval Kamara (Sophomore), Golden Tate (Sophomore), Michael Floyd (Freshman)
OT: Sam Young (Junior), Mike Turkovich (Senior)
OG: Chris Stewart (Junior), Eric Olsen (Junior)
C: Dan Wenger (Junior)

DT: Ian Williams (Sophomore), Pat Kuntz (Senior), Ethan Johnson (Freshman)
DE/OLB: Morrice Richardson (Junior), John Ryan (Junior), Kerry Neal (Sophomore), Justin Brown (Senior)
LB: Maurice Crum (Senior), Brian Smith (Sophomore), Harrison Smith (Sophomore)
CB: Raeshon McNeil (Junior), Terrail Lambert (Senior)
S: Kyle McCarthy (Senior), David Bruton (Senior), Sergio Brown (Junior)

K: Brandon Walker (Sophomore), Ryan Burkhart (Junior)
P: Eric Maust (Junior)

Senior: 8
Junior: 13
Sophomore: 10
Freshman: 3

You can see a similar pattern with this year's squad. A strong concentration of sophomores and juniors with a sprinkling of senior leadership (hopefully) and some freshman already making their way onto the field. Ironically, for all the talk of youth, this is arguably a more veteran team than 1988. While there are the same number of upperclassmen contributing (21), there are more seniors (8 as compared to 6) and at least two are fifth-year (Crum and Lambert). Moreover, with the amount of playing time younger players received last year, there are nowhere near 10 new starters.
So, what does this all mean? Should we expect the Irish to compete for the national championship this year? No, I don't think so. For one thing, the 2008 team is saddled with the burden of getting past what might have been the worst season in school history. Conversely, the 1988 team came into the season fresh off an 8-4 season and a bowl game (albeit, a bowl game in which they were crushed 35-10, but that's another story). This team needs to get accustomed to winning before it can truly be a contender. That having been said, there's clearly enough talent and experience on this team for them to win a fair number of games (especially with this year's schedule). Arguments about the team's youth holding it back seem, to me, baseless. Per the aforementioned breakdowns, the 1988 team was similarly experienced, played a more difficult schedule and managed to win a national championship. Nobody's expecting a national championship in 2008, but 7-9 wins should be well within the realm of possibility.
For those of you who are still overwhelmingly concerned about Notre Dame's prospects after a rather lackluster start, I will leave you with one more historical footnote. The 1993 team, with 16 seniors in its line-up, struggled to a 27-12 home victory over Northwestern to start that season. It was a game in which they trailed 12-7 in the 3rd quarter and where Northwestern ended the day with more first downs and more total yards than the Irish. The following week, Notre Dame went to Ann Arbor and beat the third-ranked Wolverines 27-23 en route to an 11-1 season. I'm just sayin'....

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Brawling Hibernian's Factually Suspect Guide to the Michigan Wolverines

As the ne'er-do-wells from Ann Arbor prepare to make their way south to face off against the Irish, Brawling Hibernian offers Notre Dame fans a helpful guide to their very strange neighbors to the north:

  • Scholars have long debated the origins of the name "Michigan". While some feel it is Chippewa for "Ohio State is my overlord", others contend it is actually Ottawa Indian for "faux intellectuals who quote Camus while sipping lattes".
  • The wolverine is actually a type of weasel. That is all.
  • New Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez first became a Wolverines fan when he met former coach Bo Schembechler in 1985 on the set of gay porn epic, "The Power and the Glory(Hole)". At the time, the two worked as fluffers for star 'Bone Malone' and formed an immediate bond.
  • In addition to his many football-related accomplishments, famed Wolverines coach Fielding Yost is credited with having invented the practice of sexual harassment through his habit of showing his genitals to office staff, members of the clergy and neighborhood children.

"I'm not wearing any pants"
  • Michigan cheerleaders can do this (What? It's not all bad):

"So, I see that you're limber and dumb as a rock - wanna grab a drink?"

  • Michigan running back Sam McGuffie was a founding member of noted boy band Ballz Deep. Sadly, the band was forced to break up in 2006 in the wake of a scandal involving McGuffie, a 13-year old girl and an Orange Julius machine at the mall in which the band was performing.
McGuffie (on right) and bandmate Brian "Da Shizzle" McKenna in happier times.
  • 1991 Heisman Trophy winner, and Michigan alum, Desmond Howard, died tragically in 2002 after he ingested a large quantity of ceiling insulation which he had mistaken for cotton candy. In 2005, an animatronic Howard, designed by the Walt Disney Company, began appearing on ESPN's College Gameday as an homage to the fallen Wolverine. A remarkable facisimile, the Desmobot 2.6 has a full range of motion and a vocabulary of 300 words. This represents a nearly 78-word improvement over the actual Desmond Howard.

Hopefully that will help the unindoctrinated get a feel for the Wolverines and all they represent. Did I miss anything? Are there other important, and factually suspect, Michigan facts I missed? Let me know in the comments section.

Notre Dame, 21 - San Diego State, 13

Originally, I was going to title this post something juvenile and witty like, "Irish nearly take it in the Az(tec)" but then, after reading comments from despondent ND fans all over the interweb, I thought it was more important to post the score...we won, people! Geez, you would think that a season in the abyss would have given fans some perspective, but apparently not.
Since simply winning has not slaked the thirst of Irish fans, I am happy to play the role of Mr. Glass Half-Full in order to prevent ND Nation from becoming Jonestown, Part II. So, without further adieu, here are your optimistic thoughts:

  • JIMMY STAYED CLEAN: Yes, I recognize that this was a banged-up defense (and a pretty awful one even when healthy), but keeping Clausen upright all afternoon, after the horrors visited upon him last year, has to be considered a step forward for the O-Line.
  • THE RECEIVERS ARE SOLID: With Golden Tate, Michael Floyd and David Grimes all stepping up, it hardly mattered that Duval Kamara had an AWFUL day. Also, bear in mind, tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Will Yeatman had exactly two catches. They will certainly get more chances as the season progresses (more on that later).
  • THE RUNNING GAME WILL BE FINE: Though the Irish offense did not stick to the "pound it" script we were promised, there were flashes of promise from the backfield. Armando Allen has clearly become a stronger and more complete back since last year. He is still quick and fluid as a runner, with the added ability to shed tacklers. If he stays healthy, he will pay huge dividends. Add in to the mix, the power of Hughes, the hybrid that is James Aldridge (more on him later as well), and the monster-in-waiting that is Jonas Gray and this is a group that's going to give teams fits. In order to be able to conduct a successful running offense, you must be able to commit to it. Unfortunately, against San Diego State, stupid mistakes prevented Notre Dame from being able to do that. Rest assured, before the season is out, we will be speaking fondly of the Irish ability to wear down opponents with their running game.
  • THE DEFENSE IS GOING TO BE VERY GOOD: While I admit, I would have liked to have seen Ryan Lindley on his back a bit more, the defense did do a fairly good job of pressuring him. Moreover, the defense backs (who were consistently in single coverage), did a great job of shutting down YAC. Keep in mind, this was the first time this defense has played Tenuta's blitz-happy attack in live action - they're only going to get better as they get more comfortable with the schemes.
  • NOTRE DAME BECAME A TEAM: Through the first three quarters yesterday, Notre Dame's offense was, at best, erratic. They never seemed to be in synch, there were stupid mental mistakes and they were unable to take advantage of the considerable talent gap that existed between them and SDSU. Then, after David Bruton recovered Brandon Sullivan's fumble, the switch seemed to click 'on'. The offense was able to roll, impose their will and get points. For their part, the defense was also reinvigorated and shut down the Aztecs the rest of the way. Simply put, this was not the same team that played the first three quarters. I have seen this type of thing before. A team survives a near-catastrophe and becomes much better for the experience (think the 2004 Red Sox going down 3-0 to the Yankees and then storming back to take the AL pennant and the World Series). Put it in writing, the rest of this season, the Irish will be the team you saw in the fourth quarter. That may not be enough to beat every team on their schedule, but it will be enough to beat most.
  • MICHIGAN WILL SEE MORE: Per my earlier comments re: the tight ends and James Aldridge, Notre Dame clearly did not tip its hand and offer up the full compliment of offensive threats it possesses this week. I believe this was largely by design. Given San Diego States struggles, I would suggest that Charlie and the offensive coaches felt as though they could get by without unleashing the full arsenal. With Michigan coming to town next week, they were no doubt conscious of what looks and personnel they showed. Consider that, as mentioned previously, Aldridge didn't play at all and the tight ends were an insignificant part of the offense. Beyond that, after his touchdown catch, Michael Floyd didn't see another ball thrown his way and, in spite of their early success running towards Sam Young and Chris Stewart, most of the later runs were towards Eric Olsen and Mike Turkovich. If I had to bet, I'd lay good money the Wolverines are going to see a lot of things from the Irish that SDSU did not.
  • WE'RE NOT ALONE: In the first two weeks of this new season, Notre Dame has not been the only team to struggle against an opponent that, on paper, they should have easily vanquished. Virginia Tech, Pitt, Ohio State, Michigan, West Virginia and a host of others have either lost and/or struggled in games against competition that was deemed inferior to them prior to the game. Part of this is parity, part of this is looking past a team and part of this is the famed "on any given day" phenomena. While it's certainly disconcerting to fans, it's part of the game and, at some point, it happens to everyone (talk to USC about its home loss to Stanford last year).

There, do you feel better now?

Welcome Aboard!

Welcome to Brawling Hibernian! Seeing as how the web only had about 3,029 blogs dedicated to Notre Dame football, I thought it was important to add another voice to that cacophany.
Brawling Hibernian will be providing analysis, commentary, high-falutin thoughts and drunken ranting on all things ND football-related. So, if you're a fan of the Irish (or a thick-skinned partisan of one of their rivals), sit back, enjoy an adult beverage and prepare to be dumber for having visited here.