Monday, October 27, 2008

Irish Blogger Gathering: Trick or Treat Edition

Is there a better holiday than Halloween? Sure, Christmas, Easter, and even Thanksgiving, get all the credit, but Halloween just quietly goes out and produces. Think about it. Do people get stressed out over Halloween shopping? No. Do you have to get dressed up all nice to go to church? Not unless you're a satanist. When was the last time your brother sparked a family throwdown by coming out at Halloween dinner? Uh, never. In every way possible, Halloween has all other holidays soundly beaten...and that's even before we get to the whole "based on free candy" concept. Yes, Halloween is terrific. It is also the theme of this week's Irish Blogger Gathering hosted by the incomparable Charlie's Nasties. Here's this week's questions:

1. A loss to Washington would have been spooky, but we were able to pull it out. What was your favorite part of the victory?

Yes, yes, I know that, in the name of magnanimity, much of ND Nation has agreed to some type of omerta regarding Ty in the wake of the Irish victory. Sorry, I don't care. Let other bloggers talk about the dominance of the defense or the effectiveness of the running game; my favorite part of winning was pure, unrefined vengeance. When Ty was let go in 2004, large swaths of the sports media establishment got themselves worked into a state of high dudgeon over the decision of the university to do something like that to such an "esteemed" coach. Accusations and invective ranging from racism to immorality to shortsightedness were hurled wildly at Notre Dame for having the temerity to fire someone who wasn't doing their job. For his part, Ty was a royal douche. Instead of standing up, being a man and accepting his fate gracefully, he passive-aggressively validated the worst assumptions of all of the Notre Dame haters (see his 2005 interview with John Saunders). So now, four years later, Notre Dame finally has the greatest of all revenge. Not only have they gone 2-0 against Happy Gilmore since he left; this most recent victory led to Willingham being forced to step down as coach (I don't believe for a second that decision didn't come without a push). On the flip side, had Notre Dame lost, all of the "experts" would have been discussing "Ty's redemption." Not only would it have been a loss to a terrible team, it would have given cover and credence to a no-talent charlatan who deserves to ooze back into obscurity. Suck it, Ty. I hope your handicap never breaks 25.

Losing to Washington would have been the functional equivalent of having this waiting for you in your closet. Sweet dreams, by the way.

2. Charlie's Nasties does a Duds and Studs segment to reflect on every game. Name one player/coach that could have done better against the Huskies and one player/coach that stepped it up.

Not to belabor the point, but Jimmy didn't look great on Saturday. As has been much discussed, it was likely due to a little rust from the off week and, ultimately, it didn't matter. Still, any time your starting quarterback has just north of a 50% completion percentage against a dismal pass defense, a little concern is justified. Conversely, the defensive coaching tandem of Brown and Tenuta (sorry, hard to separate the two), stepped it up in a big way. They designed a defensive gameplan that absolutely stifled the Huskies. Even allowing for how bad Washington's offense is, only giving up 124 total yards (with about 65-70 coming on the last drive against the third-string defense) is remarkable. I have absolutely no idea if this is a harbinger of things to come or an aberration, but it has been years since a Notre Dame defense was able to deliver that level of dominance. If the Irish 'D' can look half as good against Pitt, it's going to be a very long afternoon for the Panthers.

The Notre Dame defensive gameplan for Washington.

3. Halloween involves people abandoning reality for awhile to dress up and imitate something that they are not. Pick one Halloween costume with traits you would like to see from the Notre Dame football team the rest of the season.

This one was a no-brainer. Last season, the brilliant Every Day Should Be Saturday referred to LSU as being "a werewolf with a chainsaw for a dick." To me, this perfectly epitomizes what Notre Dame should also aspire to be. I can imagine nothing more terror-inducing than a razor-clawed lycanthrope with a Stihl for a johnson. Well, I suppose him finding me to be arousing would be more terrifying, but whatever. The point is, this is what I would like to see Notre Dame morph into as we move into the last five games - a bloodthirsty killing machine capable of intimidation and wanton destruction of all who stand in their path. In other words, a team with, not only the ability, but the unquenchable desire to roll over opponents.

"If you think this is scary, you should see my genitals."

4. When trick-or-treating as a kid, there always seemed to be at least one house that handed out apples. What aspect of the football team this year is the biggest apple in your candy bag (aka biggest disappointment)?

Oh man, apples were the worst. Well, the small box of Sun-Maid raisins were probably the worst, but apples were right up there. In addition to the total suckitude of the apple versus, say, a Snickers Bar or Reeses' Peanut Butter Cup, there was also the potential (if urban legends are to be believed) that some psycho would have stuck a razor or a pin in there. I don't mind taking a pin to the mouth over a good piece of chocolate, but an apple?! Anyway, on to Notre Dame...
For me, the running game has been the proverbial apple in the bag. Notre Dame's inability to generate a consistent running game has been as baffling as it has been upsetting. To begin with, the Irish have a massive offensive line that has improved dramatically in their ability to pass block this season. Unfortunately, they have not made a similar jump in their run blocking aptitude. Then, there's the fact that the Irish have a stable of backs (Allen, Hughes, Aldridge, Gray) that is deeper than 90% of the teams in the country. These guys should be absolutely perplexing opposing defensive coordinators with the different looks they bring. On paper, Notre Dame should be running the ball down people's throats at will, and they just haven't been able to with any kind of regularity. While it hasn't been a huge factor thus far, eventually, in a close game, not having the ability to run the ball will be costly.

"Friggin' running game...I mean, apples."

5. This year, October 31st is coincidentally also the opener for ND's Men's Basketball team (preseason against Briar Cliff). Say a few words about one player that will make have the biggest impact on the success of the team this season (apologies to non-bball fans, but I couldn't resist).

Well, I have to admit, I am not nearly as into college basketball as football, so this one was a little tricky for me. With that in mind, I went with Luke Harangody. The guy averaged a double-double last season (20.4 points, 10.6 rebounds) and, in conference play, he was even better (23.3 points, 11.3 rebounds). He is an absolute monster who can dominate a game in a number of different ways. Coming off a year in which he was Big East Player of the Year and a second-team All-American, it's hard to think of anyone else being more important to the prospects of the Irish.

Luke Harangody arrives in Tokyo for a little spring break R n' R.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Irish Put Down Huskies

All hail Notre Dame's new mascot - Travis Coates. Film fans will remember Coates as the character who, with a heavy heart, is forced to shoot and kill the rabid dog, Old Yeller. On Saturday night in Seattle, the Irish similarly dispatched the Huskies; though with more glee and cool precision than distress. As a result of the 33-7 drubbing they received from Notre Dame, the UW administration is now preparing to tell their fans a story about how Ty went to go live on a farm upstate.

Have you seen this movie? Hilarious!

With a power running game and stifling defense (note: neither of them Irish strong suits this season), ND was able to take care of business and gain their first road win of the season. While the final score was certainly commanding; a combination of offensive rust, liberal substitution and a refusal to pour it on kept it from being much worse.
This was a very important win for the Irish as they are now one 'W' away from bowl eligibility with five games to go. Furthermore, they were able to bounce back from a devastating loss to UNC and get a win against a team very motivated to play them.
A few other observations from the game:

  • Jimmy was very rusty. Particularly in the first half, he forced a number of passes, held on to the ball far too long and was generally off-target. In spite of this, he still put up over 200-yards in the air and, by the second half, seemed to have gotten into a rhythm. He'll be much better in the next few weeks.
  • The running game looked very good (as well it should have given the sieve of a defense they were facing). It was great to see Aldridge getting so many carries. I have long thought him to be the most complete back in the Irish stable and he showed why last night; combining power, speed and moves to lead the attack. In addition, it was tremendous that Jonas Gray got some PT. I have been excited to see him carry the ball in live action since hearing reports about his ability going back to training camp. He did not disappoint. This kid is going to be a star before he leaves South Bend.
  • The offensive line was a bit inconsistent. They looked great in run blocking, but their pass blocking left something to be desired. Clausen was rushed and sacked (2-22 yards) far too often against a bad defense. They need to get back to the form they showed earlier in the season before playing Pitt and BC. Sam Young looked very good on the two Irish touchdowns in the first half and is really starting to show the skills Irish fans have been waiting to see from him since he arrived on campus. It would be a huge loss if Olsen's injury were serious. Here's hoping he was kept out as a precaution rather than a necessity.
  • Michael Floyd turned in another 100-yard receiving performance and just missed on a few other passes during the course of the game. I absolutely love watching this kid play. The level of excitement he brings is unbelievable. He is electrifying.
Charlie Weis greets Ty Willingham at midfield.
  • This was absolutely the best the defense has looked in years. Yes, it was a terrible team playing without its star QB and, yes, there were several dropped passes by Husky receivers, but the Irish 'D' was still dominant. Anytime you are able to hold a team under 60 yards in a half, you are imposing your will upon them. Most impressive was Notre Dame's ability to stuff the run; holding the Huskies to 26-yards on 23 carries for the game.
  • Overall, Notre Dame's defense held UW to 124 total yards (most of them coming on their lone touchdown drive at the end of the game) and just nine first downs. Regardless of the opponent, this is impressive. Going into a tough two-game stretch, this was exactly the kind of shot-in-the-arm the Irish 'D' needed.
  • Harrison Smith looked unreal. He led the defense with two sacks (the team had four), had five tackles AND had a 35-yard run on a fake punt. He is an absolutely remarkable talent and it was great seeing him show his athleticism and versatility against the Huskies.
  • Good for Brandon Walker! The much-maligned kicker went 3-3 on extra points and, even better, 2-2 on field goals. While his first field goal (a 28-yarder in the 2nd quarter) just about made it, his 42-yarder in the 3rd quarter was straight down the pike. I remain convinced that Walker has all the physical tools to be a very good kicker and just needs a slight correction in technique and a huge boost in confidence. Hopefully, he got both against UW.
That's it, Huskies, drink to forget, drink to forget...

The next two games for Notre Dame will be very telling. It is undoubtedly their toughest two-game stretch of the season and how they perform will go a long way towards determining what kind of season this will be and what type of bowl they'll be going to.
Both Pitt and BC are tough opponents, but were humbled this past weekend. Pitt was thumped at home by lowly Rutgers, 54-34, and the Eagles were toasted on the road by UNC, 45-24. A big question this week will be, how does Pitt respond? Resilience has not been a hallmark of the Wannestedt era, so it will remain to be seen if this team can bounce back from such a humiliating defeat. BC, conversely, was largely exposed. They have a mediocre offense and a defense who has overachieved against average competition. In short, these suddenly look like two winnable games. If Notre Dame wins both, this season suddenly becomes very special (9 wins likely). If they split them, this season is very good (8 wins likely). If they lose them both, we start looking at the games against Navy and Syracuse as "must wins." Regardless, Irish fans should feel very good about what this young team has been able to do this season and what promise the future holds. Judging by the current state of Washington football, they should also be thankful that Willingham was sacked when he was.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Irish Blogger Gathering: Washington Edition

Welcome to another edition of the Irish Blogger Gathering. This week's questions brought to you by the delightful and talented Sarah over at Bad Trade. Here we go:

1. You're having some beers and brats outside Notre Dame Stadium, just chilling with friends. If you could have one Notre Dame player or coach drop by to share a drink, a brat and some stories with you, who would it be?

I will assume this means any Notre Dame player, living or dead. If dead, I also assume that I have the power to regenerate them into the condition they were in while in their prime, rather than some horrible, zombified, Paternoesque version. If that is the case, then it's a no-brainer - George Gipp. Drinking, gambling, whoring - could you possibly pick a cooler dude to hang with? You'd be asking him about beating Army and he'd be doing body shots off a stripper while doubling down. Best.Tailgater.Ever!

"Ol' Gipp's gonna split aces...then we'll play cards"

2. What was your best experience with a tailgate party?

Since the question did not specifically reference football tailgating, I will relate an experience from a concert. Several summers ago, friends of mine decided to get tickets to a Bon Jovi concert at Giants Stadium (with apologies to Charlie, the guy is awful but, what can I say, I'm a sucker for peer pressure). It was an oppressively hot day (one of the many charms of Jersey being the six-inch-thick air in summer), and we had brought roughly a small distributorship worth of booze and little way in the way of food. Since drinking and heat go together like ambulances and hospital trips, in a short period of time, we were all in rare form and displaying all the grace, charm and joie de vivre that comes from drinking Hand Grenades on an empty stomach. As a result of our condition, networking among our fellow tailgaters became the order of business and we quickly made friends. Among these was a group of local ladies who, due to poor planning, had run out of beer and asked if they could have some of ours. Since we are firm believers in a robust system of capitalism that supports a free exchange of goods and services, we felt simply giving them beer would represent a form of welfare, thus taking us on a slippery slope towards socialism. So, in a moment of sheer inspiration, one of my friends asked if they'd be willing to show us their, well, how can I put this delicately...boobs, as compensation for beer. And so they did. So, dear readers, this is what made it the best tailgating experience ever. And yes, I just wrote a few hundred words so that I could tell you that I once saw boobs at a tailgate. Don't you dare judge me...

Unlike the women at a Bon Jovi concert, beer ain't cheap.

3. There are lots of great tailgate experiences around the country - what school's tailgate tradition do you most want to experience?

LSU. As history tells us, the State of Louisiana was founded as a refuge for French citizens who consistently rocked the party that rocked the body in their homeland and, simply felt that France was not nearly libertine enough for their tastes. As such, they took off for the new world and founded a place where, no matter how perverse a person might be, there was always someone else who could make you look chaste (his name's Sebastian). Several hundred years later, the modern citizens of the Bayou State still know that no party is complete without copious drinking, graphic nudity, fisticuffs and the occasional round of police brutality. That means that, while Big Televen fatties are sucking down brats and commenting on the foliage, LSU tailgaters are mud-wrestling drunken alligators. Count me in. I don't want to tailgate in a place where I might pick up an amusing anecdote; I want to tailgate somewhere that I'm likely to come away with a "Did I ever tell you how I lost the arm?" story. There is only one place for that kind of awesomeness - LSU, baby!

"Might want to step back a bit. He's had a lot to drink."

4. Indiana decides that their drinking laws are far too un-draconian (I'm from Wisconsin. I don't understand these things like "kids aren't allowed in bars," "your parents can't give you liquor if they are supervising" and "no alcohol purchases on Sunday"), and drinking is now forbidden on Saturdays. The Excise Police stop by your tailgate, and proceed to dump out the liquor you were attempting to hide from them. What do they pour out?

Tough one. Knowing that Indiana's answer to The Crucible would likely be playing out in my tiny piece of parking lot, I would probably plan in advance and bring several kegs of exceptionally cheap beer. Cheap beer so that I didn't mind so much that it got poured out. Kegs because, if they want to violate the sanctity of fandom by preventing alcohol consumption, they should really have to work for it.

5. OK, so I couldn't leave it alone completely. How do you feel about the impending end of the Coach Willingham era at Washington?

I'm of two minds on the subject. On the one hand, seeing Ty get canned is, at long last, vindication for Notre Dame's decision to "allow him to pursue other opportunities." On the other hand, watching the forces of karma impose soul-crushing loss after soul-crushing loss upon Mr. Willingham fills me with a kind of hyper-schadenfreude bordering on delirium. Watching his stoic, "stiff upper lip" performance on the sideline as team after team curb-stomp the Huskies is one of my true joys. It's so remarkably surreal that you can't help but delight in its execution. I'll miss that.

"Taaaake it easy, Ty, no reason to get excited."

Sunday, October 19, 2008

State Of The Season: Gauging Things At The Halfway Point

Notre Dame's 2008 regular season is half over. Yes, folks, after an interminably long offseason of waiting, agonizing, hoping and, in some cases, praying; the season that we awaited is now halfway to its conclusion. With that in mind, I thought it was a good time to reflect back on where we've gone and where we still need to go.


  • Preconceptions: The preseason thinking with regard to the Aztecs was that they were a bad team (4-8 in 2007) that was likely to be worse in 2008 (lost several key starters to graduation). In short, a game Notre Dame was fully expected to dominate; especially after SDSU opened the season losing to IAA Cal Poly.
  • The Reality: Well, not so much the domination we all expected. Actually, without a fortuitous goalline fumble by the Aztecs, this is a game that the Irish very well may have lost. Luckily, McCarthy and Bruton made that play, the ND offense found the spark they'd been missing all afternoon and Notre Dame was able to open their season with a victory.
  • The Aftermath: San Diego State does in fact stink...badly. To date, they have only one victory and it is over lowly Idaho. Most recently, the Aztecs were routed, 70-7, by New Mexico. Seriously. 4-4, New Mexico. Without question, had the Irish lost a game like this, it would have been absolutely devastating to the program. While not a great win, it was a necessary one.

MICHIGAN (35-17, W):

  • Preconceptions: The expectation here was, in spite of Michigan being in rebuilding mode, this would still be a difficult game due to Michigan's existing talent and the level of intensity generated by this rivalry.
  • The Reality: Notre Dame's offense was able to capitalize on early Wolverine turnovers to jump out to a quick lead which the Irish never relinquished. While Notre Dame didn't put up gaudy offensive numbers (260 yards total), it did rack up four touchdowns against the Michigan defense; which turned out to be more than enough. On the other side of the ball, the defense generated six turnovers and had a score of their own to close things out.
  • The Aftermath: In spite of a surprising come-from-behind win over Wisconsin, this is starting to look more and more like a very bad Michigan team and, therefore, not a particularly quality win. On the season, the Wolverines are 2-5 with blowout losses to Illinois and Penn State and a home loss to Toledo.

  • Preconceptions: Definitely one of those games looked at as a toss-up, or potential Irish loss, coming into the season. The Wolverines returned a solid offense centered on running back Javon Ringer and guided by senior QB, Brian Hoyer. Add to that, the fact that it would be the first road game for the young Irish and this had the potential for tough sledding.
  • The Reality: Pretty much exactly what Irish fans expected. Javon Ringer battered ND with 39 carries for 201 yards and 2 tds to lead the Spartans to victory. In many ways, this was a transformational game for Notre Dame, however, as they finally found their offensive identity in the second half and had a chance late. Unfortunately, mistakes and a tired defense ultimately doomed Notre Dame's chances in East Lansing.
  • The Aftermath: Unlike past Spartan teams, this one may actually be able to finish the year as well as they started it. Yes, they were just crushed at home, 45-7, by Ohio State, but they are 6-2 overall and still have games against Michigan and Purdue on the schedule. Wisconsin's a toss-up and Penn State's probably a loss, but there's no reason MSU should finish worse than 8-4, which would be their best record since 2003. They haven't finished with more than eight wins since 1999. Given everything, this is not a loss the Irish should feel badly about.

PURDUE, (38-21, W):
  • Preconceptions: Another one of those toss-up games coming into the season. Purdue's defense was not expected to be dominant, but the offense returned a very talented group that included QB Curtis Painter, WRs Greg Orton and Desmond Tardy and RB Kory Sheets. Throw into the equation that it would be Joe Tiller's last game agains the Irish and this one looked like it could be anybody's game.
  • The Reality: After a sluggish start, the Irish offense blew the game wide open in the 3rd quarter; outscoring Purdue 21-7 in building a 35-21 lead. On the day, Jimmy Clausen threw for 275 yards and 3 TDs and Armando Allen had 134 yards on the ground (7.9 yards per carry) and one touchdown to lead the onslaught.
  • The Aftermath: Purdue is not a good team. The Boilermakers are 0-3 (2-5 overall) following their loss to the Irish. Granted, they played Penn State and Ohio State in close games, but they were just thumped, 48-26, by Northwestern and you have to wonder if they've given up on the season. In the next two weeks, Purdue has very winnable games at home against Minnesota and Michigan. Anything less than two wins and this season may be beyond rescue.

STANFORD (28-21, W):

  • Preconceptions: A game the Irish were certainly expected to win but, with a quickly improving Cardinal team, anything was possible and Notre Dame would have to earn a win.
  • The Reality: This one fit the bill to a 'T'. After a number of Stanford miscues allowed the Irish to jump out to a 28-7 4th quarter lead, the Cardinal stormed back with two late TDs to make it 28-21. After several tense moments late in the game, the Irish were finally able to subdue Stanford and claim victory.
  • The Aftermath: A bit of a mixed bag for Stanford. Since their game in South Bend, they've upended Arizona and lost to a fairly bad UCLA team. It won't be a cakewalk for the Cardinal to get to six wins from here, either. Their remaining schedule consists of Washington State, Oregon, USC and Cal. At this point, this is a good, but not great win for ND. Depending on how the rest of Stanford's season plays out, that assessment may be downgraded.


  • Preconceptions: The most-often stated description of this game is that it was two teams who were "mirror images" of one another. Both struggled in 2007 (UNC: 4-8, ND: 3-9), but were stocked with young talent of whom much was expected in 2008. The game was considered a toss-up; however the fact that it was at UNC, certainly gave the Heels an edge.
  • The Reality: A brutal way to lose for the Irish. A game that Notre Dame had in the palm of its hand, but lost due to far too many turnovers (five). The Irish were in prime position to put the Tar Heels away too as the ND offense was clicking and UNC lost star receiver Brandon Tate in the first quarter.
  • The Aftermath: I suppose it was predictable that, after winning in such dramatic fashion, UNC would have a letdown game this week against Virginia. Predictable or not, the Tar Heels did lose to the Cavaliers to bring their record to 5-2. Tough games still remain against BC, Georgia Tech, an up-and-down Maryland, rival NC State and (slightly) resurgent Duke but, for the moment, this is not a bad loss for Notre Dame. While it was a game they should have won, the opponent is good enough that losing to them is not terrible.
That covers the games that Notre Dame has played thus far. Now we'll take a look at how the remaining schedule was viewed entering the year and how they've held up to those expectations.

  • Preconceptions: Virtually no one expected Washington to be a great team this year. They entered 2008 with little true talent, a coach who could run the '85 Bears into the ground and a brutal schedule that kicked off with games against Oregon, BYU and Oklahoma. The one ray of light was QB Jake Locker or, as some hyperbole had it, "The Tim Tebow of the West Coast."
  • The Reality: While no may have thought Washington would be a great team, I'm also sure no one expected them to be 0-6 right now. The Huskies have been AWFUL. Yes, they lost Jake Locker to injury against Stanford but, even with him, they were winless. Simply put, this is a bad team that Notre Dame has no reason to lose to.


  • Preconceptions: 2008 was widely predicted to be the year that Dave Wannestedt got it right with the Panthers. After ending 2007 with an impressive win against West Virginia, Pitt returned a very talented team led by RB LeSean McCoy and LB Scott McKillop. Pitt began the 2008 season ranked in the Top-25 (#25).
  • The Reality: The Panthers started the season in familiar Wannastache territory; dropping their home opener to Bowling Green, 27-17. After sneaking past Buffalo, Iowa and Syracuse the next three weeks, Pitt finally broke through with a huge win on the road against South Florida. This past week, they blasted Navy 42-21 to run their record to 5-1. Still, in spite of their record and ranking (#17), the Panthers are a bit of a curiousity. They have one solid win (South Florida), one decent win (Navy), one bad loss (Bowling Green) and a bunch of close calls. A lousy schedule (which continues this week with Rutgers) is probably a bigger factor in their success than coaching or talent. Still, a tough game for the Irish and a good win if they can get it.

  • Preconceptions: BC entered 2008 having lost a bunch of talent from the 2007 team that finished 11-3. Beyond QB Matt Ryan, the Eagles also lost RB Andre Callender, WR Kevin Challenger and S Jamie Silva, among others. As a result, the Eagles were expected to go through a bit of a transition year. While their defense looked strong, most felt the offense was still at least a year away.
  • The Reality: As much as it pains me, BC is a very tough team. At 5-1, they have certainly put the concerns about their offseason losses behind them. The Eagles just dumped Va Tech 28-23 and will play at UNC in a huge ACC game this week. If they can win there (where Notre Dame didn't), that will certainly bode badly for the Irish. As of this writing, BC is the second best team on the Irish schedule. Beating them in Chestnut Hill will be a monster task.
  • Preconceptions: The biggest story coming out of Annapolis this offseason was coach Paul Johnson taking his talents south to man the helm at Georgia Tech. Without Johnson and his offensive genius, it was expected that the Middies would slip a bit from their recent run of success.
  • The Reality: This one has pretty much gone as expected. Navy is still a good (4-3 record) and dangerous (wins over Wake Forest and Air Force) team, but they are not quite where they were in previous seasons. That said, they will be extremely well-prepared and ready to see if they can win two straight against the Irish. If Notre Dame's run defense does not tighten up by November 15th, this could turn into a very long game for the Irish faithful.


  • Preconceptions: Syracuse was expected to be one of the worst teams in college football this season. 2008 was to be coach Greg Robinson's long overdue swan song as a totally overmatched team of Orangemen were led to weekly slaughter.
  • The Reality: Hard to argue that the pundits were wrong on this one. Syracuse is currently 1-6, with its lone win coming over IAA Northeastern (by nine whole points!). Syracuse is absolutely terrible. With the exception of that win, their two best games were keeping it within ten against Pitt and playing close (17-6) with a mediocre West Virginia squad. Anytime you play a team like this, there is danger as they have nothing to lose, but this is a game Notre Dame should win comfortably.


  • Preconceptions: If you listen to ESPN, this year's Trojans were to be THE BEST TEAM EVAH!!!!!! If you listened to the rest of the punditry, they were merely supposed to be the best team this year. Wave after wave of talent on both sides of the ball and they play in a conference that makes the ACC look stout by comparison.
  • The Reality: In spite of having their annual brain-fart/"how the hell did they lose to that team?" game against Oregon State, the Trojans are just an embarrasment of riches and dominance. How good are they? They are currently outscoring opponents by an average of 42-8 and have shut-out their last two. Now, allow me to say the following - I would love nothing more than to see ND go into the Coliseum and just trounce the Trojans. My visceral hatred towards all things USC knows virtually no bounds. John Wayne? SC grad - commie. George Lucas? SC grad - derivative hack. Will Ferrell? SC grad - unfunny douche. There is simply no one on the planet who hates that "school" more than I. Now having established my bonafides, there is not a chance in hell Notre Dame wins this game. I know, I know, "but what about Stanford and Oregon State?" Neither are rivals, Notre Dame had one chance to "sneak up" on USC, and it was in 2005 AND someone has already caught the Trojans napping this year. Our time will come, Irish fans, but it ain't in 2008.

Conclusion: To review, Notre Dame has managed no "quality" wins thus far and two losses to solid teams. As bad as that sounds, consider that, a year ago, the Irish were 1-5 and reeling. This team has clearly made strides and will likely only get better as the season wears on.
The remainder of the schedule is treacherous. Each game is fraught with its own peril, but Pitt and BC will be of particular difficulty (I am not including USC for reasons mentioned above). Given the pitfalls that lay ahead, 7-5 would be a perfectly reasonable outcome. Anything better than that, is overachieving, anything less, disappointing.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Irish Blogger Gathering: Brawling Hibernian Steps Up

With the doldrums of the bye week upon us, I take a look at this week's Irish Blogger Gathering courtesy of Frank V. at UHND.

1. With our beloved Irish on the bye this weekend, how much college football will you be watching Saturday and what games are you most looking forward to watching?

I'm really pretty torn on this one. On the one hand, the Hibernawife has been dropping subtle hints that she would like me to clean up the yard ("rake, monkey, RAAAAAAKE"), on the other hand, there are several games that have piqued my curiosity. Assuming I can escape my domestic servitude, I will be taking in the following:

  • Kansas at Oklahoma: Because there's just something about watching a fat man cry.
  • North Carolina at Virginia: The Tarheels have their inevitable letdown against the Sybil of the ACC.
  • Pittsburgh at Navy: Five straight for the Wannastache?
  • Virginia Tech at BC: Any opportunity to watch Fredo lose is must-see-TV.
Pictured here, the author attending to his appointed rounds.
2. Not to look too far ahead...but in looking at the 2009 schedule, do you think the Irish will be set up for a title run if they continue to improve each week as they are doing now?

Great question. I think 2010's probably a better bet. While Notre Dame will certainly be a very, very good team next year, their schedule does get a bit trickier than it is this season. For one thing, we swap out San Diego State for a solid Nevada team led by QB Colin Kaepernick who, if the stories are true, is 10-feet tall, bulletproof and capable of swatting a bi-plane straight out of the skies of Gotham. They follow that up with a trip to Toledo's bitch in Ann Arbor. Later, we get back-to-back home games against USC and BC. Given the enthusiasm surrounding both of those games, I can't imagine Notre Dame wins both (my money's on them losing to BC like they always do after a big win). The Irish then conclude the season at Pitt, home for UConn and on the road against Stanford. Those are going to be three tough teams that will be very up for ND. Given all of this, I think ND probably works its way back into the Top-10 next year, but doesn't actually make a serious run at the title until 2010.

3. If you could take 1 recruit we missed on from each of the last 4 years (1 from each year), who would they be and how differently would this team look like right now if we had gotten that 1 player each year? (Note, the players should be players the Irish either led for at one time or were at least a finalist for).

Wow, this one actually required some research. Here we go:
  • 2005, Lawrence Wilson, DE (tOSU): I mean, not that the Irish need help rushing the passer or stuffing the run. No, no, this whole going sack-less/hemorraging rushing yards thing is going just fi...oh God, here come the waterworks again.
  • 2006, Gerald McCoy, DT (Oklahoma): (sniffle) As I was saying, it would be nice to have some help along the d-line this season.
  • 2007, Arrelious Benn, WR (Illinois): Tough call on this one. Given how stacked we are at WR this year, I know it's not a huge need BUT, it would have helped out Jimmy and the offense tremendously last year (and given us a big headstart developmentally going into this season). Also, let's face it, in an offense as pass-oriented as ours, it never hurts to have one more uber-talented receiver to throw to.
  • 2008, Omar Hunter, DT (Florida): It's pretty amazing how different our defensive line could have looked this year had we landed some of the guys we had in our cross-hairs. It actually could have been a team strength, with decent depth, rather than the liability it is today. We've seen the benefits the synthesis of talent and depth along the o-line has brought; it would have been great to have that same thing happening on the other side of the ball.
If anyone needs me, I'll be staring at this picture and listening to 'Everybody Hurts'

4. If Notre Dame could only land 1 more recruit on each side the ball in this recruiting class, who would you like it to be? (Again, it should be someone we have a reasonable chance with).

Unquestionably, Shaquelle Evans on offense as it serves two purposes: 1) it enables Notre Dame to add a freakishly talented wide receiver to its current stable of Pegasi, and 2) it prevents SC from landing said ridonkulously-talented manchild. Where I come from, that's known as a win/win. On defense, I would go with Manti T'eo (as long as we're still on his list, I consider us to have a reasonable chance). For one thing, the kid's a five-star linebacker, and let's face it, those can be nice to have. For another, he's from a state (HI) from which ND has not scored many recruits over the years (Reggie Ho annnnnd, uh, Reggie Ho). Much as Charlie and company have opened a real pipeline in CA post-Jimmy, this could open us up a bit in the Aloha State.

5. If you could take one of Notre Dame's bowl losses since the 1994 Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M and turn it into a win, which one would it be? Why? And What if any impact do you think that win would have had on the Irish.

Tough call. I'm going to go with the Sugar Bowl loss to LSU due to the following practical considerations: 1) it would undoubtedly have helped Brady's stock in the draft and he deserved better than what he got, 2) it likely would have kept a few recruits from wandering off the reservation (Little, Benn, etc.) and, 3) it would have gotten two HUGE monkey's off the program's back - a bowl victory and a "quality win" for Charlie - thus giving the team a big boost of confidence heading into a transitional year. No, I don't think losing that game doomed ND to the Rimbaudian season that 2007 became, but I have to think knocking off LSU in New Orleans would have been big for a young team's swagger.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Trail of Tears

While we can certainly talk about both the positives and negatives to come out of Saturday's loss to UNC, I think we can all agree that the way it ended was painful. With that in mind, I started thinking back to other Irish heartbreakers I've endured over the years (Note: in the interest of space, I am not including any of last season's games). I did this, not to wallow in misery but, instead, to remind myself that tough losses happen to even the best of teams. Hopefully, if there are Irish fans still bemoaning Saturday's outcome, this will give you a little perspective (or push you into a suicidal frenzy - you know, whatev).

11/21/87, Penn State, 21 - Notre Dame, 20: This was really one of the first truly gut-wrenching games I remember as a kid. Notre Dame came into this game 8-1 and ranked 7th in the country, fresh off a 37-6 throttling of Alabama. Penn State, conversely, was 6-3, unranked and coming off a loss to Pitt. What's more, earlier in the season, they had lost to the same Alabama team Notre Dame had just dismantled. Surely, I figured, Notre Dame would win comfortably. Instead, Blair Thomas ran all over ND's defense to the tune of 214 yards and a touchdown to lead Penn State to a late 21-20 lead. Then, with 31 seconds left, Tony Rice was tackled short of the endzone on a two-point conversion attempt sealing Notre Dame's fate.

10/6/90, Stanford, 36 - Notre Dame, 31: As I've already reviewed this debacle in my Stanford preview, I will not force either myself or my readers to endure another retelling.

1/1/91 (Orange Bowl), Colorado, 10 - Notre Dame, 9: This game will always rank highly on the list of devastated losses because of Rocket Ismail's 91-yard punt return touchdown being called back due to a "phantom" clip being called on Greg Davis. That touchdown would likely have sealed the game for the Irish. Instead, five plays later, Rick Mirer threw his third interception of the day and, Colorado, playing without starting quarterback Darian Hagan, would claim the national championship. To add further insult to injury, exactly one year earlier, Notre Dame had thumped Colorado 21-6 on the same field in the 1990 Orange Bowl.
11/9/91, Tennessee, 35 - Notre Dame, 34: It's been 17 seasons and I still have a difficult time with this loss. Maybe that's because Notre Dame had a 31-7 lead at one point, before Vols quarterback Andy Kelly led a furious comeback to put Tennessee up 35-34 late in the 4th quarter. The Irish still had the opportunity to win when Rob Leonard, who was replacing the injured Craig Hentrich, came in to attempt at 27-yard field goal with just four seconds on the clock. Sadly, the kick was partially blocked resulting in a Leonard miss as time expired. This might just rank as the most devastating Notre Dame loss I've ever watched.

11/20/93, Boston College, 41 - Notre Dame, 39: In the annals of Irish football history, perhaps no villain has been more cruel than David Gordon of Boston College. It was Gordon, you see, who kicked a 41-yard field goal as time expired to snatch Notre Dame's national championship hopes from their clutches. This game was, in some ways, the anti-Tennessee game. Notre Dame, clearly in let-down mode after the previous week's win over Florida State, were dominated all day by BC, who led 38-17 early in the fourth quarter. Then, in a flurry of scoring, ND rattled off three touchdowns in 11 minutes to take a 39-38 lead. And, that's where the miracle died. Enter, David Gordon. Exit, the 1993 national championship. Yet another insult to injury moment, Notre Dame had beaten BC 54-7 the previous season.

9/9/00, Nebraska, 27 - Notre Dame, 24 (OT): Notre Dame came into the 2000 season unranked after a craptacular 5-7 1999 campaign. After dominating #25 Texas A&M, 24-10, in Week 1, however, the Irish moved into the polls at #23. Still, few thought ND had a chance when the #1 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers, led by star QB (and 2001 Heisman winner) Eric Crouch, came to town. Midway through the third quarter, it appeared that Nebraska had the game well in hand as Dan Alexander's 28-yard touchdown run gave them a 21-7 lead. Then, on the ensuing kickoff, Julius Jones raced 100 yards to paydirt to bring the Irish within seven. Later, in the fourth quarter, with the score still 21-14, Joey Getherall fielded a punt at his own 17, stepped right and then blasted up the middle for an 83-yard touchdown to tie the game. Sadly, the overtime session proved to be Notre Dame's undoing. After Nick Setta's 29-yard field goal gave them a brief lead, Crouch took it in himself from the 7-yard line to give the Huskers the win and Notre Dame fans some heartache. 11/2/02, Boston College, 14 - Notre Dame, 7: If ever anyone wants to know how truly useless a coach Ty Willingham is, they need only look at this game. Notre Dame entered the game 8-0 and ranked #4 in the country after beating down Florida State in Tallahasee, 34-24, the week before (note to ND's athletic department: STOP scheduling BC after Florida State!). BC, on the other hand, was unranked and just 4-4 on the season. Ty, in his infinite wisdom, opted to provide the team with new, green jerseys prior to the game. Sadly, the jersey's material caused them to be rather slippery which made hanging onto the ball rather difficult. As a result, ND fumbled the ball eight times, losing three. In spite of the miscues, Notre Dame completely dominated BC, yet, thanks to Ty, somehow found a way to lose. The Irish outgained the Eagles, 357-184, led in first downs 22-9 and held BC quarterback Brian St. Pierre to 9-20 for 77 yards. Only a coach like Willingham could manage to lose a game like this in the manner the Irish did. The list of errors in both coaching and execution in this game by ND is practically endless. Yet another insult to injury moment - after the game, showing all the class they could muster, BC's players vandalized the visitor's locker room at Notre Dame stadium.
9/17/05, Michigan State, 44 - Notre Dame, 41 (OT): Until the disastrous 2007 campaign, this game had to be considered Charlie's worst loss. Not because of the score, but because it came at home to a team that would finish the season 5-6 and which was coached by John "The 'L' stands for 'Lunatic'" Smith. One could argue that this was really something of a letdown game. The previous week, Notre Dame had traveled to Ann Arbor and knocked off, then #3, Michigan. Notre Dame was dominated in this game right from the get-go and it appeared as though they would lose rather badly as they entered the 4th quarter trailing 38-24. From that point, though, Brady Quinn (who would finish with 487 yards passing and 5 TDs) would hit Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija for scores to tie the game and send it into overtime. It was there that ND ran out of steam. After a 44-yard DJ Fitzpatrick field goal gave the Irish a 41-38 lead, Michigan State's Jason Teague took an option pitch 19-yards to the endzone to give the Spartans the win. As with most of these losses, there was the obligatory insult to injury moment as Michigan State players planted their flag on the field at Notre Dame Stadium in one last taunt to the Irish following the game.

10/15/05, USC, 34 - Notre Dame, 31: With under 2 minutes left in this game, I remember thinking to myself, "Oh my God, they actually did it. They actually beat SC." Who could blame me? Brady Quinn had just snuck into the endzone to give ND a 31-28 lead and now, USC was looking at 4th-and-9 from their own 26. What could possibly go wrong? As we all know, it was on that play that Matt Leinart launched a 61-yard pass to Dwayne Jarrett, just past the fingertips of Irish defender Ambrose Wooden. From there, the Trojans moved down to ND's two-yard line. On the next play, Leinart was hit by Notre Dame's Corey Mays, fumbling the ball out of bounds. The timekeeper however, let the clock run and Irish fans were able to briefly and erroneously celebrate victory until seven seconds were added back to the clock. The subsequent play is one that will live in infamy as long as Notre Dame players take the gridiron. Matt Leinart attempted a QB sneek into the endzone, but was met by a wall of Irish defenders and was stopped short. It was at that point that teammate Reggie Bush literally pushed Leinart over the goalline into the endzone. This should have resulted in a five-yard penalty; however, due to inattention and general stupidity on the part of the refs, it instead went down as the winning touchdown. This was easily the most sickened I had been by an Irish loss since Boston College in 1993. To this day, I still root against both Bush and Leinart as a result.
So, Irish fans (myself included), cheer up. We've been here before and, on most occasions, with much more at stake. While I'll admit, I was disappointed by a number of things about Notre Dame's performance on Saturday, progress is being made and I feel confident that they'll be more than ready to face down the Tyrriers in two weeks.
One last note from Saturday's game. I haven't seen it mentioned much but, in retrospect, I can't help thinking the biggest moment of the game was Notre Dame allowing UNC to get their field goal right before halftime. Notre Dame had just scored to take a 17-6 lead with less than a minute to go before the half. UNC, with about 45 seconds left, marched down into Irish territory and nailed a field goal to make it 17-9. In addition to making it a one score game, it also gave the Heels a little bit of momentum going into the half and, conversely, took a bit away from the Irish. In practical terms, had UNC not gotten that field goal, they would only have been up 26-24 after Cam Sexton's 4th quarter touchdown. This would certainly have been a factor in the Irish decision making later in the game. Instead of going for it on 4th down (when the pass to Grimes came up short), a field goal may have been attempted. Then, in the frantic final drive, ND would only have had to get to about the 20-yard line to have a fair shot at a game winner. Obviously, no one can know what the outcome might have been, but it does show how important it is to maintain defensive discipline throughout the whole game.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Chapel Hill Chronicles - Live-Blogging ND/UNC

It's gametime so, today, I thought I try something different and do a live-blog of the ND/UNC game. Here goes nothing:

3:33 - Here we go...

3:34 - Short kick, nice field position at the 35 for UNC

3:35 - Sexton a little high on the first pass. Let's hope that keeps up.

3:36 - Brooks Foster just dropped what would have been a HUUUUGE catch. Whew.

3 :38 - Duval Kamara! Where the hell have you been?!

3:39 - Offsides on UNC. Nice!

3:40 - Another offsides for UNC. Whose stadium is this?

3:41 - Oh, dear Lord, seeing Jimmy run is scaaary.

3:42 - Golden Tate, ladies and gentleman!!!!

3:43 - First down Irish! Is Rudolph really a freshman?

3:44 - BTW, since when are we running the spread? Announcers have said it about four times.

3:45 - Yikes! That's nearly two INTs in a row for Jimmy.

3:46 - Touchdown Irish!!!!!!! YEAAAAAAAH BABY!!!!!! 7-0!

3:49 - Annnnd we're flipping to ABC. But we were doing so well on ESPN!

3:50 - Fumble, Heels. Still, good field position for UNC

3:52 - Must. Wrap. Up. The. Quarterback!

3:53 - Mo Crum has terrible hands, but that still brings up 4th down.

3:54 - Damnit, Brian Smith! Not a good spot for a personal foul.

3:56 - Michael Floyd - wow! That's how you get some field position!

3:57 - Matt Winer has a most unfortunate name. Grade school must have been awful.

3:58 - Why is Stacey wearing UNC's colors? C'mon ABC!

3:59 - Oh man, that's a huuuuge sack. Crap!

4:01 - Awful close on the punt. Good coverage, though.

4:05 - Damn! The big completion was bad enough. The facemask - unforgiveable.

4:07 - I have to confess, Shaun Draughn is just a fun name to say.

4:08 - Why am I not surprised that UNC has a 'Cooter' on their team?

4:09 - Shit! Thought for a second that field goal wasn't going to make it.

4:12 - Brandon Tate done for the game for the Heels. Here's hoping he's ok.

4:14 - Nice run, Armando! 16 yards.

4:15 - Casey Clausen's playing for us now? Amazed he has eligibility left.

4:19 - I might challenge that non-catch call. That looked kinda close.

4:21 - Grimes comes up a little short. Probably have to go for it here.

4:22 - We made a field goal! That looked about a mile off when he first kicked it.

4:26 - Really needed to stop UNC on that 3rd and 2. They had him short.

4:29 - Sexon continues to be a bit high on his throws. Interception potential.

4:30 - Can we please stop the run? I'm not above begging.

4:31 - Please take Lambert off of Nicks. He was five yards away from him on that pass.

4:32 - Nice work, Hayseed! Way to stuff the run.

4:35 - The defense looks terrible against a bad offense missing its star WR. Not good.

4:38 - Big stop, Mo Richardson. Good to see him in there.

4:39 - Good to see UNC shooting themselves in the foot with the dropped snap.

4:40 - Field goal, Tar Heels.

4:42 - UNC has done an awesome job on kick coverage thus far. Impressive.

4:44 - Big run in a short yardage situation. That's refreshing! Nice run, Aldridge!

4:46 - What a catch by Golden Tate!!!! I would have bet money that was picked.

4:50 - Touchdown, Michael Floyd!!!!! It's a thing of beauty!!!

4:53 - UNC has one solid receiver out there and we can't cover him. Embarrasing.

4:56 - ND caught a huge break with that incompletion. He was open.

4:57 - Crap! Hate to see UNC put up points right before halftime. That hurts.

4:59 - What the hell was that?! How did he not get that ball?!

5:02 - Big hit by Mo Crum on Sexton.

5:04 - Talk about dodging a bullet. That field goal looked pretty good for a second there.

5:05 - Halftime. ND up 17-9. Concerns about defense and momentum setting in.

5:26 - SHIT!!!!! That was NOT the way to start the second half.

5:32 - Oh man, Carolina is fired up. This is really not good.

5:33 - Maust gets hit! Sweet, sweet redemption!

5:33 - Is that UNC player really named Ritchie Rich?!

5:35 - Kamara suddenly becoming an impact player.

5:36 - Yikes, that was a a little too close for my comfort. Kamara to the rescue again.

5:37 - Kamara, great catch! Clausen, great scramble!

5:38 - Touchdown, Aldridge!!!!! Way to respond!

5:42 - Sexton goes high again (have I mentioned that already?)

5:43 - Why does ND not put Nicks in double-coverage?

5:44 - Sack by Pat Kuntz!!!

5:45 - Are you kidding me?! 3rd-and-18 and they convert?!

5:47 - This defense is absolutely awful. UNC's offense is atrocious and they're beating them.

5:49 - It's amazing that Paul Maguire can still talk while fellating UNC's players.

5:52 - Touchdown, douchebags. God, I hate this defense so much.

5:56 - NOW, it's touchdown, douchebags and, yes, I still hate this defense intensely.

5:57 - If only ND's D could play every play like that two-point conversion.

6:00 - Not a great effort by the line in getting Hughes stuffed there.

6:01 - Great call by Haywood in getting that pass to Hughes.

6:02 - Hang on to the damn ball, Jimmy!!! UNC will take the lead on this drive. Bet on it.

6:03 - Holding on UNC. ND's is damn lucky. And terrible at defense.

6:04 - My prediction: Notre Dame loses this game. Momentum's turned. T.O.'s blew it.

6:07 - What the fuck?! Does anyone even play defense on this team?

6:10 - Oh.My.God. Can this defense do ANYTHING right?! Interference, Crum.

6:12 - End of the third quarter. ND's two-game streak of good 3rds is officially over. Awful.

6:15 - Fuck you, Corwin Brown. Fuck you, Jon Tenuta. Fuck you, Notre Dame defense.

6:16 - I am truly glad we have such defensive "geniuses" on the coaching staff. Brilliant, really.

6:19 - Beautiful pass by Clausen and catch by Floyd.

6:22 - That was a terrible (and scary) pass to Grimes.

6:23 - Epic fail on 4th down by the Irish offense.

6:24 - If we actually had a defense capable of stopping anyone, I wouldn't be worried. Alas...

6:25 - Any chance whatsoever Notre Dame can somehow come up with a turnover?

6:28 - So that's what a 3rd down stop looks like!

6:29 - Wow, that absolutely should have been a roughing call.

6:33 - First down Jimmy on a sneek. Way to go off-tackle on that one.

6:34 - Close shave on that fumble recovery.

6:35 - First down, Hughes. Monster hit on that Tar Heel by Robert.

6:37 - Tough sledding on the last couple runs. Allen just went nowhere.

6:38 - Ugh, definitely didn't need to see Jimmy get taken down like that.

6:39 - Interception. Motherfucker! That's ballgame, folks.

6:40 - Any team that turns the ball over 4 times on the road should not win.

6:43 - This is the worst performance the defense has had this season.

6:48 - Nice work, defense. Way to play to type. You suck and deserve to lose.

6:51 - Longest review ever for an obvious call. He made the catch. Let's move on.

6:52 - Are you kidding?! I am a Notre Dame hyper-partisan and even I think he caught that.

6:53 - Last shot for the offense. This should be fun. And by fun, I mean excruciating.

6:54 - Golden! Nice catch and run!

6:55 - Throwing the ball away a good decision there. No need to be Brett Favre and force it.

6:56 - Not sure I agree with a run there. Clock an issue.

6:57 - Mr. Tate, you are magnificent!

6:58 - That was nerve-wracking. I was pretty sure a sack was coming.

6:58 - Oh man, I didn't think Clausen got out of bounds there.

6:59 - Oh my God, tip in the endzone. I thought maybe...but no.

7:00 - Fuck you, Paul Maguire. You are a miserable, no-talent, Mike Holmgren lookalike.

7:01 - What the hell?! You can't let the game end like that!

7:03 - Paul Maguire is the biggest cock gobbler in the world.

7:04 - He has to be called down. Shoulders were down before the ball came out.

7:07 - Either Stacey explained that wrong or Butch Davis is an idiot.

7:08 - That is complete horseshit!!!! Worst fucking call ever. His shoulders were down!!!!!!

7:10 - Terrible, TERRIBLE way to lose a game. I'm going to drink heavily now.

Conclusion: Is Notre Dame an improved team? Well, they suck less than last year - is that improvement? Yes, I know, they piled up a bunch of yards. And yes, they hung in there with a Top 25 team on the road. Big deal. It's not about yards, it's about wins. Notre Dame has proven they can beat bad teams at home. They have not proven they can beat a team with half-a-pulse on the road (actually, they haven't proven they can beat anyone on the road). Truth be told, Notre Dame lost this game more than UNC won it. The turnovers were just awful. That said, the Irish defense was completely unable to stop an offense that came into the game 88th in the country and lost their top receiver in the first quarter. That's pathetic.
As for UNC being a Top-25 team; it's only because they play in the atrocious ACC. This is not a good team. Bland offense that any decent defense would throttle, porous defense that counts on opponent errors. Put them in any other conference and they don't sniff the Top-25. Make no mistake, this was a miserable loss.
Notre Dame probably does have enough games against bad teams left in its schedule that they will qualify for a bowl, but that's not being a good team. Being a good team is beating teams outside your home stadium and beating decent teams. Notre Dame hasn't proven they can do either. They are not a good team. They have talent and they're doing more with it than last year, but four turnovers (I refuse to count that last so-called fumble) and a loss does not a good team make.
I'm sure I'm going to catch a lot of flak from my fellow ND fans about this but, if they're being intellectually honest, they'll admit it's true. Part of the problem is, this team was so bad last year that actually looking competent is grounds for big backslaps and atta boys. Are they on their way to being a successful, good team? I think so but, without a doubt, they are not there yet. It's a good thing they have a bye coming up because, after a loss like this, they would absolutely lose to Washington next week. This was a game the Irish should have won. They blew it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Irish vs. Tarheels: Gut Check Time

The University of North Carolina is known for several things - a phenomenally successful basketball program, an impossibly stupid team name and women that look like this.
Sadly, for their fans, one thing the Tarheels have not been known for is great football success. In spite of fielding a team since the tail-end of the first Grover Cleveland administration, the Heels have nearly two hundred fewer program wins than the Irish (650 vs 826). In addition, the school has never won a football national championship, and the last major bowl in which they played was the 1950 Cotton Bowl where they lost to a very stout (probably) Rice Owls team.
Why do I bring this up? In spite of all the talk about "Notre Dame having to play on the road", they will be playing a team without a distinguished winning tradition in front of a crowd more accustomed to booing Mike Krzyzewski than cheering Butch Davis. In other words, this isn't like playing Ohio State in the "Big Horseshoe."
That said, UNC does have a good, young team this year; not dissimilar to the one fielded by Notre Dame. Also similar to the Irish, the Tar Heels are 4-1 to start the year after a disastrous 2007 campaign (UNC finished 4-8). As has been said on numerous occasions, this will no doubt be ND's toughest test to date.

The Tar Heels come into the game ranked 22nd in the country with wins over McNeese State, Rutgers, Miami (Fl) and UConn and a loss to Virginia Tech. While this is ND's first top-25 and second road opponent of the season, it is actually a fairly even match-up (if we are to believe the statistics). Here's how the teams compare:

Notre Dame UNC

106 Rushing Offense 91
34 Passing Offense 71
70 Total Offense 88
59 Rushing Defense 67
91 Passing Defense 58
85 Total Defense 57

All in all, pretty even. The area where UNC has managed to gain a significant advantage over their opponents is with turnovers, specifically interceptions. The Tar Heels lead the nation with 12 interceptions (ND is 26th with seven) and are 12th in turnover margin (ND is 20th). This has enabled them to overcome a relatively bad offense. While Notre Dame can hang its hat on being a proficient passing team (34th in the country), UNC is almost equally bad running (91st) and passing (71st). This should be a big benefit to the Irish defense which has struggled against the run, but (in spite of their ranking), has actually been decent against the pass. Moreover, while the Heels have two outstanding receivers in Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate, the man throwing to them (Cam Sexon) is a second-string quarterback with a 45% career pass completion percentage.

With such a closely matched contest, Notre Dame will need to continue to play in the disciplined manner they have in the last two games. That means they need to keep both the turnovers and penalties to an absolute minimum. They will also need to answer these, by now, familiar questions:

  1. Can Notre Dame run the ball? It's tempting to think they may not have to if the passing game is clicking, but in, what looks to be, a tight ball game, being able to burn time off the clock is huge. If the Irish can get a push from their linemen up front and allow the running backs to move the chains, they likely win. Watching the Stanford game again, there were actually some decent runs, but they were not done consistently. That has to change.
  2. Can Notre Dame reach the quarterback? Last week, against Stanford, Notre Dame's pass rush finally paid off with five sacks against the Cardinal. This week presents an opportunity for the Irish D to have some more success bringing down the QB. UNC is 67th in the country in sacks allowed with nine (Notre Dame is 25th with five). If the Irish can hurry and bring down Sexon, they keep him from getting the ball to either Nicks and Tate and give themselves a great chance.
  3. What happens if it comes down to a FG? We're a Catholic school, so prayer is definitely an option. In fact, at this point, I feel much more confident in the likelihood of divine intervention than Notre Dame converting on any, nevermind a crucial, field goal attempt.

This is absolutely going to be a tough game for the Irish to win. They are playing a very good opponent at home. That said, it is a team they match up well with and, if they can keep mistakes to a minimum and momentum to a maximum, they will likely leave Chapel Hill victorious.

UPDATE: It just dawned on me how similar this year's UNC game is to last year's against UCLA. Like last year, Notre Dame will be on the road as underdogs to face a 4-1 team being led by a back-up quarterback. Let's just hope the outcome is the same for the Irish.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Keeping the Ball Rolling

Apologies for the delay in getting my recap of the Stanford game up here, but real life intervened the last few days. In any event, before I start, I just want to offer up a quick message to Stanford's Chris Marinelli - you sir, are a certified bitch. Talking trash in the manner that you did prior to the game was stupid. However, it jumped past stupid and into full-blown douchery when you personally gave up two sacks, your linemates gave up another three and your team lost its game. Next time, you may want to be sure you can back things up before having a tantrum with a reporter in the room.As for the game itself, for 3 1/2 quarters, Notre Dame played tremendously well and for about half a quarter, well, not so much. Still, at the end of the day, the Irish did what it took to win and that, my friends, is what really matters. Keep in mind, too, this was a solid team that we were playing. No, Stanford is not a powerhouse and yes, they do have their issues; but they are a solid enough team that will almost certainly find itself in a bowl when the season ends. Good win.
In addition to putting another 'W' in the books, beating Stanford enables Notre Dame to head into what is easily its toughest game of the year with momentum and confidence. Losing to Stanford would have been bad. Losing to Stanford after leading 28-7 late in the game would have been disastrous. That's the kind of thing that, frankly, I'm not sure this team could have bounced back from.
So, a win safely secured, here are my collection of random thoughts on the game:
  • Opponent turnovers must be turned into points every time. Three first half interceptions by Stanford led to seven points for Notre Dame. While I realize our kicking game is shockingly awful, we simply have to find ways to score when our opponents give us the rock. You only get so many chances to bury the other team during the course of a game and, if this isn't remedied, at some point in the season, it will cost the Irish dearly.
  • Pat Kuntz is the anti-Marinelli. Having declared at Friday night's pep rally that he would rip Chris Marinelli's head off, he went out and had a game that included two sacks, an interception and a tipped pass that was intercepted by David Bruton. That is how you back up talk.
  • After a relatively slow start, Jimmy Clausen is now averaging 250 yards passing a game and has twice as many touchdowns as interceptions (12/6). It is almost impossible for me to think of him as a sophomore. He just looks so much more polished and mature this season than he did last. It's almost as though he jumped up two or three classes during the offseason.
  • Could Golden Tate and Michael Floyd both end the year as 1,000 yard receivers? At their current pace, Tate would end with 950 and Floyd with 802, but with Notre Dame now firmly committed to being the midwest's answer to Texas Tech, it is certainly not much of a stretch to think these two can do it.
  • Speaking of Notre Dame's passing offense, they are quickly becoming an offensive coordinator's nightmare. Solid outside threats with Floyd and Tate, danger over the middle and in the slot with Grimes and Rudolph and, just to keep everyone honest, Allen coming out of the backfield. While I would love to see Notre Dame run the ball with a bit more consistency (any consistency?), at the moment, they are clearly playing to the team's strengths. No sense in trying to put put a square peg in a round hole.
  • As for that running game, I can't help but wonder if Notre Dame's lack of success isn't partly the result of how and when running plays are called. For one thing, success on the ground is typically a cumulative effort. In other words, it comes as the result of an offensive line continually battering and wearing down a d-line and a running back getting more comfortable with where the holes are and how the defense is playing things. When you only run the ball 22 times, it's very difficult for those things to happen (hell, most solid running backs get 22 carries themselves). Moreover, when you ask the offense to run in an obvious running situation (i.e., short distances, while leading late in the game) without having gotten in a groove first, you're inviting failure. Just a thought.
  • I know this is going to be a very unpopular opinion among the ND faithful but, in spite of his behavior this weekend, I have to admit, I do like Jim Harbaugh. He's a heckuva good coach who gets the most out of his players and, based on Stanford's 2009 committments, can recruit. What's more, he was willing to speak out against the lack of academic standards for athletes at his alma mater (Michigan) and, just for kicks, talked a little trash to SC, which his team then backed up. In other words, there are things for Irish fans to like about the guy. That doesn't mean that he wasn't woefully wrong about the interference call or that he didn't act like an ass, it just means he probably shouldn't be put in the same category as Jimmy Johnson or Bo Schembechler just yet.
  • I definitely liked the earlier start time. Much less of my day was spent anxiously awaiting kickoff.

The comfortable introduction to the season now comes to an end and the Irish enter a string of challenging games. Over the course of the next three games, we'll have a good sense as to just how good this team can actually be this year. North Carolina on the road will be a huge challenge because of their talent and the confidence they've gained from their success thus far in 2008. Washington, while certainly a winnable game on paper, will be wrought with distractions stemming from the presence of Willingham on the opposite sideline and, what will no doubt be, a feeding frenzy by the press. And, Pittsburgh may finally have settled into the role of talented, top-25 team that so many cast them in when the season started. In short, three unique challenges. An interesting journey yet to come; this truly does mark the end of the beginning.