Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy Christmas (Losing Streak Is Over)

Finally, a decent Christmas present. Since Christmas usually consists of exchanges of poorly wrapped socks, monumental efforts to suppress disappointment and awkward silences punctuated by drunken outbursts; Notre Dame's 49-21 throttling of Hawaii was a welcome addition to the lineup. For one night, at least, the Irish looked like the team we'd all hoped they'd be this year. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on the game, the future and all other miscellany concerning ND football.

  • As mentioned in the title of this post (with apologies to John Lennon), Notre Dame's nine-game, 15-year exercise in bowl futility has finally come to an end. Many have opined that getting this monkey off their back will provide a boost for the Irish program. I have absolutely no idea if that's true or not, but I can say that, as a fan, it feels terrific. How long was this streak? Well, when ND last won a bowl game, I was a senior in high school. I am now 32. So, for those of you keeping score at home, I have essentially waited half my life for Notre Dame to, once again, win in the post-season. And yes, reading that last sentence does make the term "existential crisis" come to mind, thank you.
  • Jimmy Clausen was amazing. 22-26, 401 yards, 5 TDs. I don't care on what level of football you're playing or against whom, those are phenomenal statistics. For anyone who may doubt the brilliance of this performance (and I know there are still many Jimmy haters out there), grab a friend and try to complete 22 of 26 passes to them in your backyard. This was, unquestionably, the best performance by a Notre Dame quarterback I've ever seen.
  • Speaking of amazing, Golden Tate is the most exciting and fun Notre Dame player to watch since, at least, Reggie Brooks. On every play, he gives the Irish a chance to score, regardless of where they are on the field. To really see how terrific he is, watch his 69-yard TD reception. The separation he gets from his defender is mind-boggling. And how about his production - half of his six catches went for touchdowns.
  • I would be remiss if I didn't mention Michael Floyd. While he only had two catches for 17 yards, his mere presence opened up opportunities for other receivers. It's impossible to overstate this young man's importance to the Irish offense.

  • Between Clausen and Tate's record-breaking performances, it's easy to overlook the day Kyle Rudolph had - 4 catches, and a career-best 78-yards. In just one season, Rudolph has already established himself as "the next great Notre Dame tight end". If he stays healthy, we may one day be referring to him as the greatest there ever was.
  • The running game, unfortunately, is still a complete disaster. Notre Dame running backs had 27 carries for a grand total of 77 yards (2.9 ypc) against a defense that was giving up 148 per game coming into the contest. The lack of production was not for lack of trying. To put it in perspective, the Irish threw the ball 28 times during the course of the day. ND probably did not need 148 yards on the ground but, given the number of carries, somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 -120 (a 4.0 -4.5 ypc average) should have been a given. For those that would argue that the running game was irrelevant, I would counter the following: A) the number of running plays ND called would suggest the coaches don't necessarily agree, B) Jimmy isn't going to throw for 400 yards every game and C) not being able to run puts A TON of pressure on the defense and gives opponents more opportunities and more clock than they otherwise would have. Lack of a running game is precisely the reason ND was such a lousy second half team this year. By the second half of games, the defense had worn down and opponents had plenty of time to overtake the Irish. Moreover, since Notre Dame's offensive line was not wearing down defensive lines, it created a significant challenge for offensive production as well. If this problem is not fixed, I guarantee, 2009 will be as disappointing as 2008.

  • The defense looked very good. Eight sacks, two turnovers and consistent stops were great to see from a defense which had trouble generating any of the above this season. Granted, Hawaii's offensive line is nearly as sieve-like as the 2007 Notre Dame version (giving up 57 sacks this season, one short of ND's NCAA record) but, eight sacks is eight sacks. As with the offense, this was the defense we all expected when Tenuta signed on. Given the returning starters (including Darrin Walls), experience gained by underclassmen as well as comfort and familiarity with the system; 2009 should be a banner year for this unit (assuming Kuntz and Bruton can be replaced).
  • Armando Allen's 96-yard kickoff return score was a great step forward for Notre Dame's special teams as it ended a six-year drought for the Irish (Vontez Duff had the last one in 2002 against Navy). Quietly and deliberately, Notre Dame has made significant strides in special teams. Their kick coverage unit was the nation's best this season and, after a disastrous start, Brandon Walker became a consistently solid field goal kicker. If Allen's TD signifies a similar improvement in the return area, that will go a long way towards success for ND in 2009.

  • I have to admit, I hated the names on the back of the players' jerseys. For one thing, I was in attendance the last time they had them (the 1988 Cotton Bowl) and the sting of that 35-10 beatdown has never really left me. For another, I kind of like the "team first" concept that not having names on jerseys embodies. That having been said, if something as simple as that provides enough of a spark to generate outcomes like this, I can certainly get over my objection.

Having now ended the bowl losing streak, finished with a winning record and played easily their best game in over two years; what does this do for Notre Dame's chances in 2009? Certainly, Notre Dame should go into the offseason feeling very good about themselves. Hawaii may not be a great team, but they're not terrible either and the Irish thoroughly dismantled them at home. Still, how much this will mean when the Irish kick off against Nevada next September still remains to be seen. Can the momentum from this game last nearly ten months? Probably not. What can happen, though, is that Notre Dame can have yet another offseason where they continue to improve. Bear in mind, as disappointing as the 2008 team may have been, they were leaps and bounds better than the 2007 squad. The pass blocking was better, the offense could actually score and the defense did a much better job of stopping opponents. This offseason, run blocking will need to be the top priority with defensive line play right behind. Assuming those areas are no longer liabilities, 2009 may become something very special, indeed.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Irish Blogger Gathering: Mele Kalikimaka Edition

With Notre Dame gearing up for its most recent attempt to end the nation's longest streak of bowl suckitude, the venerable Domer Law Blog was gracious enough to provide the questions for this week's Irish Blogger Gathering.

1) Hele mei hoohiwahiwa. There has been some controversy about the Irish accepting a Christmas Eve bowl bid, as we are a Catholic institution, and many feel that the bowl game will get in the way of celebrating Christmas. Give me your thoughts.

Of all the arguments for Notre Dame not taking part in this game, the "it's Christmas Eve" line seems by far the most lame. Let's face it, what we're really talking about here is attending Mass and, if memory serves, Mass is still offered on, you know, Christmas Day so, I'm not quite sure why the Irish playing the day before would prevent attendance. Even if your particular family tradition centers on Christmas Eve services, just hit Midnight Mass instead of one of the earlier ones. Either way, the religious objection to this game is complete bunk. The "we suck so bad, we shouldn't be in a bowl game" argument, however...

Roughly the echelon of lameness the Christmas Eve argument falls into
2) 'Onipa'a. The Notre Dame administration has decided to stand by their man and bring Coach Weis back as head coach next year. What specific changes (a) do you think ought to be made in the offseason? (b) do you think will be made in the offseason?
I'm glad Domer Law broke this question out in this way because I think there will be a world of difference between what should be done and what actually will be done. On the what needs to happen now, now, now side of the ledger are - fire Latina and Haywood, bring in a real, honest-to-goodness offensive coordinator, let Powlus go hang out with Beano Cook while Charlie attends to the QBs and, for the love of God, prepare an offseason regimen that is completely draconian so that this team is no longer the bunch of limp-dicked, pinky-out, tea-sipping crybabies they've been the last couple of years. This team needs to discover anger and toughnesss immediately. As for what will happen? Charlie will make one or two sacrificial firings, hire the wrong people, make a bunch of assertions which will not match reality, become consumed with minutiae and lead a largely unprepared team into the 2009 season.
A Notre Dame player showing the team's customary tenacity
3) Pupukahi i holomua. What are your expectations for next season?
Next season will likely be a 12-game version of Bergman's The Seventh Seal with Charlie as Antonius Block engaged in a chess game with Death for the future of Irish football. I anticipate that, in spite of a favorable schedule and a great deal of talent, Notre Dame will still disappoint. They'll likely lose five games with, at least, two of those losses being mind-boggling.

Can we try this again with Chutes and Ladders?

4) O ka makapo wale no ka mea hapapa i ka pouli. Also, if we start looking for a new coach next year, who do you think we (a) can get, and (b) would be the best possible hire? (i.e., is all of this Urban Meyer talk hot air or substance?)

While I do believe it will become necessary to begin a coaching search in earnest next year, I have absolutely no confidence that any top-flight college coach will be coming to South Bend any time soon. With it already being reported that Bob Stoops was contacted by ND and opted not to respond; one can only imagine Urban would follow suit. Notre Dame is his "dream job" in much the same way that the hottest girl in your high school was looking for a smart and funny guy who treated her well, yet always seemed to date vapid, but handsome, bastards.
With this in mind, I think the Irish may as well cast their lot with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. He loves ridiculous hyperbole, is equivocating and often contradictory, is useless in spite of a reputation for brilliance and has helped to oversee the demise of a once august institution. In short, he's Charlie Weis. Sure, it's not technically an upgrade, but he'll likely be available shortly.

In fairness, he has as much head coaching experience as Charlie did
5) 'A 'ohe lokomaika 'i i nele i ke pana 'i. 'Tis the season, so tell me: what is the best gift you are giving someone this holiday season?
Given my overall food consumption this holiday season, the best gift I'll be giving is that of job security to my primary care physician. In these dire economic times, it feels good to know that the various cholesterol-related afflictions from which I'll be suffering will provide at least one family with a warm home and bright future.
Pictured here: the author in his doctor's waiting room

6) Mahalo nui loa na ho'olaule'a me la kaua. What are your predictions for the game? Will the Irish be celebrating on the long plane ride home, or will this be another long offseason of listening to the chatter about our decades-long bowl losing streak?

The Gallic name should have been a clue - Notre Dame has become the French Army of football teams. In spite of (largely undeserved) prominence, Notre Dame, like their etymological forebears, has been failing magnificently in the clutch for as long as anyone can remember. Given this history, I believe ND will, somehow find a way to lose on Wednesday. Whether it's Jimmy Clausen eating rotten poi, Michael Floyd being sacrificed at a volcano, David Bruton uncovering a cursed Tiki relic, or the team just sucking as they're wont to do; the Irish will leave Honolulu as losers.

Notre Dame prepares for the Hawaii Bowl

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Brawling Hibernian Presents The Notre Dame Fans' Guide to Hawaii

As Notre Dame prepares to play Sanger Rainsford to Hawaii's General Zaroff in this bowl season's version of The Most Dangerous Game, I thought I would provide a much-needed service to Irish fans everywhere who find themselves wondering, "Why the hell are we going to Hawaii on Christmas Eve?"

Welcome to the island, Irish...start running.
While the real answers, of course, are desperation and malaise; I chose to keep my focus on the similarities between the University of Notre Dame and The Aloha State.

Hawaii Fact: In 1893, Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani attempted to impose a new constitution claiming more authority for native Hawaiians, but opposition leaders occupied the government office in Honolulu and overthrew the monarchy.
Notre Dame Corollary: Monk Malloy. Sadly, for Irish fans, Monk was able, at least partially, to impose his concept of a world where Notre Dame football was castrated and hamstrung upon the faithful of ND Nation. To this day, we are living through the "Brave New World", old Eddie conceived. If only Irish partisans had shown the same pluck as their Hawaiian counterparts, we might have deposed this tyrant before he had done so much damage.
As every Hawaiian schoolboy knows, 'Liliuokalani' literally translates to "pretentious douche". Coincidence?
Hawaii Fact: When measured from east to west, Hawaii is the widest state in the United States.
Notre Dame Corollary: Charlie Weis. Combine a failed gastric bypass surgery with a love of empty carbs and you get the NCAA equivalent of Jiminy Glick. While nowhere near as delightfully tropical as Hawaii, Weis' breadth is of a similarly epic level.

Hawaii Fact: The island of Kahoolawe was once used as a target by the U.S. Navy and Air Force.
Notre Dame Corollary: Notre Dame football program. In 2007, after 43 consecutive wins, Notre Dame lost, at home, to Navy 46-44. Not to be outdone, the following week, Air Force flew into South Bend and strafed the Irish, 41-24. This season, both Air Force and Navy finished with better records than Notre Dame (8-4 to ND's 6-6) and Navy fell just short of a second-straight upset. To put this all in context, it is now safer to pull up a beach chair and bottle of Coppertone on Kahoolawe than it is to be an Irish player lining up against either the Middies or Falcons.

Hawaii Fact: Hawaii is considered the nation's endangered species capitol.
Notre Dame Corollary: Notre Dame head football coach. Once considered the premier job in all of coaching, Notre Dame has now burned through 3 coaches in 11 years and is on the verge of placing an ad in the classifieds for yet another. Worse, as precarious as the job is, the list of candidates lobbying to fill it is depressingly small.
Much like his human counterpart, Charlie Weis, the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat faces an uncertain future.

Hawaii Fact: Hawaii has its own time zone.
Notre Dame corollary: NBC. While it may not be as impressive as having its own time zone, Notre Dame is still the only NCAA program to have its own exclusive television deal with a major network. Though, in fairness, any network that trots out Pat Haden and Tom Hammond really shouldn't be considered "major" by any sane mind.
Hawaii Fact: Hawaii's Iolani Palace is the only royal residence in the United States.
Notre Dame Corollary: The Golden Dome. In spite of the recent downturn in Notre Dame's football fortunes, the Golden Dome remains not only the most recognizable administration building in America, but also the royal palace of collegiate sport.

Meh...without the gold and religious iconography, it just falls flat.

Hawaii Fact: Kalaaupapa, on the island of Molokai, was once a leper colony administered by Father Damien.

Notre Dame Corollary: Once again, Notre Dame football program. This time, administered by Father Jenkins; the program has become a vast wasteland where the affirmed come to await death at the hands of terminal contagions like Syracuse.

Hawaii Fact: James Cook, the first European to land in Hawaii, was clubbed over the head and then stabbed to death by Hawaiian natives in the surf of Kealakekua Bay in 1779.

Notre Dame Corollary: The future of Irish football. Substitute Aloha Stadium for Kealakekua Bay, and the Irish may be looking at their own murder at the hands of a pack of angry Hawaiians come December 24th.

Artist's depiction of the 2008 Hawaii Bowl

Monday, December 1, 2008

Death of a Program?

The Backstory
Empires fall. Egypt gave way to the Persians. The Persians gave way to the Macedonian Greeks. The Macedonian Greeks gave way to the Romans. For their part, the Romans allowed their empire to rot and decay from the inside until hordes of barbarians kicked in its walls and brought it to an end. Which brings us to Notre Dame football.
For the better part of the twentieth century (1913-1996, to be precise), Notre Dame was the crown jewel of college football. During that time, the Irish amassed 11 national championships, 7 Heisman Trophy winners, legions of All-Americans and a combination of success and mythology unparalled in college athletics. In just 83 years, a small Catholic school in northern Indiana became known the world over; almost entirely thanks to its accomplishments on the gridiron. And then, after an excrutiating procession of failure, it was all over.
ND fans know the story well enough - Lou Holtz leaves in 1996 and is followed by a carousel of unworthy heirs who proceed to steer the Notre Dame franchise further and further toward the abyss of irrelevance. Then, every few seasons, fans (and t-shirt manufacturers) declare a "Return to Glory" after a rather pedestrian accomplishment leads to false hopes which are dashed by the following season's failures. So, how bad have the last 11 seasons been? By any objective measure, the worst in school history.

The Comparison
Most Irish fans would consider the Gerry Faust era (1981-1985) to be the low-water mark for ineptitude in the program. While Faust's 30-26-1 record was pitiful, it lasted only five seasons and, ultimately, was followed by the dominance of the Holtz era. In reality, the only comparable period to the current one in the history of Notre Dame football came in the ten years (1954-1963) between Frank Leahy's retirement and Ara Parseghian's hiring.
From the time Terry Brennan's first team set foot on the field in 1954 to the day Hugh Devore stepped aside in 1963, Notre Dame went a combined 68-48 (.586) as three different coaches (Brennan Devore and Joe Kuharich) tried desperately to bring the program back to the prominence it once enjoyed. From 1997 through the end of the 2008 regular season, Notre Dame has gone 84-62 (.575) while, again, three consecutive coaches have failed to return the Irish to the lofty position to which fans and alums had become accustomed.
With such a similar winning percentage, why is the current era worse than the post-Leahy (or pre-Parseghian, if you prefer) period? Well, for one thing, in spite of some bad or mediocre seasons mixed in, Notre Dame was still a highly ranked team roughly half the time. Between 1954 and 1963, the Irish finished in the the Top 5 once (1954 - #4), the Top 10 three times (1954, 1955 - #9 and 1957 - #10) and, overall, in the Top 20 five times (1954, 1955, 1957, 1958 - #17 and 1959 - #17). Conversely, from 1997-2008, ND has never finished in the Top 5, has finished in the Top 10 once (2005 - #9) and in the Top 20 four times (2000 - #15, 2002 - #17, 2005 and 2006 - #17). The only other season during this timeframe that a Notre Dame team ended the season ranked was in 1998-1999 when they were #22 after losing the Gator Bowl to Georgia Tech.
Beyond rankings, the Irish were also still able to produce historically significant moments for the program in the post-Leahy era. In 1956, in spite of playing on a team that finished 2-8, Paul Hornung became Notre Dame's fourth Heisman Trophy winner. Then, in 1957, the team scored one of the program's biggest victories when they went into Norman and snapped Oklahoma's record 47-game winning streak, 7-0. In the last decade, Brady Quinn's third-place finish in 2006 is the closest ND has come to the Heisman and, can anyone really name a significant win the school has had in that time? Really, the most memorable game during the period was the 2005 loss to USC. Moreover, ND has gone just 17-34 (.333) against ranked teams and have fared poorly against their rivals, going a combined 6-18 against USC and Michigan State and 3-7 against Boston College. To put things another way, the barbarians are in the foyer.

In light of how far the program's fallen, Notre Dame football has, essentially, just two cards left to play - one with Charlie, one without.
With the administration having now decided to bring Charlie Weis back in 2009, what needs to happen in order for him to be the program's savior? The short answer - Tom Coughlin. While Irish fans will always remember Tom Coughlin as the coach who led BC to victory and denied Notre Dame a national championship in 1993, his recent record with the New York Giants should give them something to pin their hopes on as it is a classic tale of coaching redemption.
In Coughlin's first season with the Giants (2004), the team raced out to a 5-2 start before faltering, down the stretch, to a disappointing 6-10 finish. Along the way, Coughlin opted to play for the future and replaced veteran QB Kurt Warner with highly-touted rookie, Eli Manning (shades of ND 2007). The following season, the Manning-led Giants won the NFC East with an impressive 11-5 record before being thumped at home, 23-0, by the Carolina Panthers in the first round of the playoffs (shades of Notre Dame's 2005 and 2006 seasons). 2006 began much like 2004. The Giants began the season 6-2 before injuries and inconsistency forced them to a 2-6 finish (shades of ND 2008). Of those six losses, the most disheartening was a 24-21 collapse to the Tennessee Titans in a game the Giants led 21-0 in the fourth quarter. After eeking out a win against the Washington Redskins in the season finale (in a game which ended up being much closer than it should have...much like Notre Dame-Navy this year), the Giants snuck into the playoffs where they lost in the wild card round to the Philadelphia Eagles. Following the playoffs, it was widely assumed that Coughlin would be fired. Fans and NY sports writers all clamored for him to be sacked. Then a funny thing happened - in a surprise move, the Giants gave him a one-year contract extension. 2007 would be the make or break year for Coughlin (does this sound at all familiar?). As everyone now knows, in 2007 Tom Coughlin was able to guide his team past injuries, low-expectations and the continual role of underdog to win the Super Bowl in one of the biggest upsets in the history of sport. Charlie Weis needs to somehow undergo a Tom Coughlin-like transformation this offseason. Clearly, it can be done. Giants fan (and former assistant) Charlie just needs to figure out how.
Assuming Weis doesn't manage to summon his inner-Coughlin and is forced out after the 2009 season, what needs to happen? There can be absolutely no doubt - the Irish must somehow secure the services of a proven, top-flight, college head coach. They can no longer afford to settle for an assistant taking the reins for the first time, head coach of a mid-level program or someone whose primary experience is in the NFL. Simply put, they need someone in the league of an Urban Meyer or a Bob Stoops. It doesn't necessarily have to be either of those two, specifically, but it would have to be someone of their caliber. This is a tall order. For one thing, Notre Dame no longer commands the same level of prestige it once did and getting a coach is in a comfortable position at a perennial winner to come to South Bend would take quite a lot. For another, this individual would have to deal both with a massive and ravenous fanbase clamoring for instant gratification as well as the pressure of knowing that failure would relegate Notre Dame football to the ash heap of history. This strategy is not a silver bullet, it's a Hail Mary.

Whither the Irish
The future of Notre Dame football now comes down to scenarios akin to the miraculous. Can a seemingly mediocre coach somehow achieve greatness? Would a proven champion agree to lead the Irish into the future? At this moment in time, neither seems particularly likely. Sadly, for Irish fans and, really, all of college football, it is beginning to appear that Notre Dame football, as we've come to know it, is dead. Sure, the Irish will still line up on Saturdays - the stadium will fill, the band will play and the fans will cheer; but they will do so largely out of reverence for the past, rather than excitement over the present and future. Notre Dame football will become like a Civil War re-enactment or a '50's themed diner - an anachronistic piece of nostalgia played out against the backdrop of a new world. I hope I'm wrong. I hope that a solitary candle burning in the Grotto somehow brings the blessings of providence down upon Irish football. I hope that future generations can grow up as I did; watching Notre Dame contend for college football supremacy year in and year out. Mostly, though, I hope that the barbarians can be pushed back and the empire rise again.