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.

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