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.
SAN DIEGO STATE (21-13, W):
- 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.
AT MICHIGAN STATE (7-23, L):
- 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.
AT NORTH CAROLINA (24-29, L):
- 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.
- 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.
AT BOSTON COLLEGE:
- 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.