Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Random Thoughts: Purdue Edition

In a week where the nation's #4, #5, #6, #9, #18, #22 and #24 teams all lost and, in every case but #9 Miami, to non-Top 25 teams; maybe it's not surprising that Notre Dame had to struggle to pull out a win over Purdue. Throughout a large swath of college football last Saturday, Davids were rising up to topple Goliaths. Thankfully, in West Lafayette, Goliath fought back.
Still, the question remains - is Notre Dame lucky or good? To be honest, much like The Biscuit over at Her Loyal Sons, I have no idea. I'm not sure I've ever been this confused as to what type of an Irish team I'm watching. Like so many others, I'm happy with beating Purdue but, other than getting halfway to bowl-eligibility, I really don't know what it means in the grand scheme. So, with that backdrop of bewilderment, I offer the following random thoughts from Saturday:

  • Jimmy Clausen: I recognize that it's been stated to the point of cliche, but the kid's a winner, a leader and just a tough dude. For all the crap Jimmy has gotten from the punditocracy of college football, he now deserves to be recognized for the many positives he brings his team and for the performances he's had. Many have commented on the poise and lack of panic on the part of Notre Dame, even when they fell behind late in the game. I noticed it as well, and I think Clausen's a big reason. The guy gives you a chance to win just by being in the game and there's a confidence he projects that his teammates seem to feed off of. To me, the game-winning drive against Purdue on Saturday ranks right up there with Brady Quinn's last minute pass to Jeff Samardzija to beat UCLA in 2006 in the annals of great finishes in Irish history. Terrific stuff.
  • Charlie Weis: Is there a more maddening coach in college football than Charlie Weis? Given the limitations in personnel with which he was dealing, Weis drew up a really nice game plan. Mixing and matching Crist and Clausen, drawing up some great running schemes and just generally confusing Purdue's defense was Weis at his best. Of course, he wouldn't be Charlie without a bone-headed decision. I am, of course, talking about the pass on 4th and 10. For the love of God, why are you not punting there? Given Maust's inability to punt the ball long, you're probably looking at pinning Purdue deep in their territory. At the very least, you put them at their 20 with 80 yards to go. Let's face it, it's not like ND's offense was lighting it up and tossing the ball all over the yard to that point. This is exactly the kind of "too cute" play-calling I referred to a few weeks ago. Charlie seems to think that, by virtue of the fact that he's called it, it's a brilliant play. How often does that work out, Chuckles? I suppose that, after 5 seasons, this isn't going to change. If Weis remains Notre Dame's head coach, fans are just going to have to get used to these types of brain farts happening at least once a game.
  • Golden Tate: While we Irish fans have legitimately felt that Jimmy Clausen ought to be given more Heisman consideration, how about Golden Tate? In addition to being one of the most dangerous wide receivers in the country, Tate showed on Saturday that he's a threat out of the backfield as well. With Michael Floyd shelved for the season, Tate is clearly going to be a much bigger part of the offense whether catching the ball, running the ball or just drawing defensive attention away from other players. While the numbers may not yet put him into the rarified category of Heisman contender, Golden Tate's versatitilty may just force that conversation to take place by season's end.

  • The Running Game: Allow me to preface my praise by saying, the rushing yards put up by the Irish (167) came against a defense ranked 102nd in the country against the run. With that out of the way, it was still a good performance. We finally got a chance to see three things which need to continue if ND is to have anywhere near the type of success that fans expect/hope for this year - 1) the success of multiple running backs, 2) the offensive line won the battle in the trenches and 3) the running plays dialed up were, by and large, very good. If all three of these factors hold up and, in fact, improve, the loss of Michael Floyd will not be nearly as devastating to the offense as originally feared.

  • The Defense: A small step forward, to be sure. The improvements against the run that were made in the second half against MSU seemed to carry over to this game. In particular, Darius Fleming and Kapron Lewis-Moore looked like much different/better players this week. Stopping a runner as prolific as Ralph Bolden was a big accomplishment for this defense and, hopefully, something it can build off of as the season moves forward. On the other hand, the porous pass defense continues its sieve-like ways. How the hell does Joey Elliot go for 289 yards in the air?! What's more, go back and watch the tape of that game - how many passes were on the money that his receivers dropped (it's a bunch, incidentally). For me, this game featured two quintessential examples of how poorly the secondary has played this year with Aaron Valentin's 36-yard TD catch in the 1st and Jaycen Taylor's 38-yard TD catch in the 4th quarter. On Valentin's TD, the weak attempts at tackling would have been considered bad if they had been made by a freshman team in high school. At this level, they're inexcusable. On Taylor's, coverage was completely blown and no one was even remotely near him, including stalwart Kyle McCarthy. These have been, by far, the unit's biggest problems. Tackling is atrocious and coverage is just bad. With this much talent and as good a secondary coach as Corwin Brown, I have no idea why this continues to be a problem week in and week out.

  • Nick Tausch: It's obviously still early in both the season and Tausch's career at Notre Dame, but it's looking more and more like this kid's going to be a great one. He is an increasingly reliable placekicker and his kickoffs seem to be improving as well. This is a weapon that Notre Dame really hasn't had in some time and, if Tausch can manage to become something akin to this generation's Craig Hentrich, the Irish will be a much better team for it.
  • The Officiating: I am not going to dwell on this subject too intensely, but I do want to add the following: in two games with Big Ten officials this year, Notre Dame had 20 penalties for 174 yards. This week, with a Big East crew, they had 6 for 41 yards, or 4 penalties and 46 yards less than the average of the two previous games. Sure, some of this could have been players being more conscientous but, having watched all three games, I can't help thinking that the officiating was just as big a factor. Add in the bogus interception call in the Indiana/Michigan game this past weekend and I think it's fair to say the Big Ten leaves a lot to be desired with the officials it's hired.

Now we come to the Washington game. During the offseason, this looked like it would fall into the category of 'easy win' but, then the season began and Washington nearly upset LSU (who, while I think overrated, is a Top 5 team) and did knock off USC. Even with the beating they absorbed at the hands of Stanford this past week, the Huskies are dangerous and represent a tough challenge for Notre Dame. The big questions on which this game will hinge: 1) was Washington's loss this week a let-down post-USC or representative of who they truly are as a team, 2) can Notre Dame's offense shut down a Jake Locker-led offense, and 3) what can the Irish offense do against a bad Husky rushing defense (106th nationally) and fairly decent pass defense (41st nationally)? I'll have more to say on that later in the week. For now, I'm just going to sit back and enjoy one of the oddest 3-1 starts I can ever remember watching.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

IBG: Life After Michael Floyd Edition

This week's IBG is brought to you courtesy of the consistently awesome, UHND:

1. The obvious question for the week, how does Notre Dame deal with the loss of Michael Floyd? What wide receiver steps up? How, if at all, does the offense change?

What I think you'll likely see is more of a ball-control offense featuring short, high percentage passes mixed with runs and, on occasion, the long ball. With the exception of an inexperienced Shaquelle Evans and Golden Tate, who will be the focus of a lot of attention, the personnel does not lend itself to much in the way of a deep threat. At the same time, Charlie is quite used to choreographing long, sustained drives with a balanced offense from his days in New England. From the perspective of receivers, I think Duval Kamara, both because of his blocking and experience, and Shaq Evans because of his big-play potential will be the most important. That said, the key to this whole offense is Jimmy Clausen. His development as a very accurate and poised quarterback is what will make this offense, and its young receivers, click.

2. After seeing three games from Notre Dame in 2009 have your expectations increased, decreased, or remained the same?

While, in the preseason, I expected Notre Dame to be around 9-4 or 10-3; with Michael Floyd in the lineup all year, I think they may have done better. Yes, the defense has been a work-in-progress but, with a healthy Floyd, the offense gave the Irish a chance every week, including USC. Without him, however, I think ND probably does drop at least another two games. So, bascially, my answer is, the same as in the preseason, a little bit decreased from the eary portion of the regular season.

3. The last two years against Purdue, a Notre Dame player has had their breakout game. In 2007 it was Golden Tate and in 2008 it was Armando Allen. Who do you think could have their breakout game against the Boilermakers this year?

Jonas Gray. With Michael Floyd out and, in my opinion, the offensive focus about to shift to small ball, who better to take the reins than Jonas Gray? Purdue is 102nd in the country in rush defense and Gray is a beast when he gets a head of steam behind him. Allen's a little dinged and giving him an opportunity to get a bit of rest while Gray leads the charge would be a smart strategy for ND. Much like Allen's breakout against the Boilermakers in '08, I think we could be talking about a 100-yard + performance by Gray this year.

4. How would you grade the three new coaches on this year’s staff based on the first three games?

This is tough because there's such a small sample size with which to work, but I guess I would go with:

Verducci: B+. The line has opened up running lanes in both conventional formations and via the Wildcat and their pass blocking has been outstanding. This is easily the best the starters on this unit have played in several seasons and the reserves have also played well. Two things keep this grade from being an A - 1) This is a very experienced unit that should be doing at least as well as it has, and 2) when it counted against Michigan, they couldn't move a smaller defensive line back a few yards to run out the clock. The fact that these guys hadn't worn out the Wolverine front seven by that point in the game is somewhat inexplicable.

Alford: B. Allen has really improved and is a much more consistently solid runner than he has been previously. This, in some part, deserves a nod of the cap to Alford. On the flip side, while Jonas Gray has shown flashes of brilliance as a runner, he has been pretty terrible at pass blocking. Moreover, while it looks like Theo Riddick is going to be very good, what's happened to Robert Hughes? Hughes was once viewed as a candidate to be a featured back and now he's an afterthought. Sure, some of that is competition, but when he's been in the game, I've not seen anywhere near the same progress as with Allen. If we're going to give Alford credit for Allen, we need to deduct for Hughes. All in all, a better rushing game, but certainly not yet an A.

Hart: C. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think the defensive line is not as far away from being good as many may think. They have shown the potential to penetrate, but either overpursue or miss tackles. A lot of this is youth and inexperience. I do think that Hart is doing a good job technically with his troops, but they really need to provide better results on the field before this grade can improve.

5. Your thoughts on Golden Tate’s stage dive into the Michigan State band? Was he trying to avoid running into the band? Was the whole thing intentional? Little of column A, little of column B?

Little from Column A, little from Column B. I think that Tate probably made the catch, figured he couldn't stop and decided to make the best of it with the most theatrical post-touchdown performance I can remember seeing from an Irish player. I know the Spartan band probably hated it, but it was the kind of good-natured and silly fun that seems to be part of Tate's nature and makes him such an enjoyable player to watch.

6. How has your opinion of the Notre Dame schedule changed from how you felt about it in the pre-season?

It's probably around the same. Michigan is certainly better than I thought, but Michigan State and Nevada are worse. Looking forward, I am still not sold on Washington (they've played well but, ultimately, could prove to be Stanford 2007 redux), USC is probaby worse, BC, Washington State, Navy, Pitt and UConn about the same and Stanford slightly worse. Starting this week, I think the season will start to come in to much clearer focus as teams are more than a quarter of the way through the year and will start to settle into what they'll be for the rest of it.

7. Should Jimmy Clausen be getting more hype for the Heisman?

Absolutely, yes. People always say that being a QB at ND automatically puts you into the Heisman conversation. True, but it can also be a detriment. There is an awful lot of anti-ND sentiment in the media (shocking, I know, but press on) and, when you've received the same hype as has Clausen, expectations tend to be totally unreasonable. Even with that, find me another player, at any position, who has been as infallible as Clause this season. Can't be done. Ridiculous completion percentage, 300 yards + passing every game, nine TD passes and ZERO interceptions. Tremendous. And, since the last time I checked, Clausen doesn't pay defense, it's awfullly hard to hold Irish shortcomings against him...though Heisman voters clearly will.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Random Thoughts: Michigan State Edition

A little bit of a delay in posting this week thanks to the unwelcome advances of real life but, nonetheless, here we go:

  • Ok, it wasn't pretty and it was too close for comfort but, at the end of the day, it was a win. This is more than just platitude. Notre Dame absolutely, positively needed a victory on Saturday; regardless of how it came about. The program needed it because of the losing streak at home to Michigan State but, more importantly, this team needed it to get past the Michigan loss. Consider the corollary to 2006. That year, Notre Dame came off a brutal, error-filled beatdown at home to Michigan to play at Michigan State. After playing horribly most of the game, the Irish finally got themselves together late, rallied and claimed a last minute victory over the Spartans. They would go on to win their next seven games, with only the classic battle against UCLA being a close affair. Would they have had similar success if they'd lost to Michigan State? Doubtful. Losing tough games, especially back-to-back, tends to wear on a team's psyche and makes it exponentially harder to win. Similarly, I'm not sure this team could have survived another loss; especially after losing Michael Floyd. Which brings us to...
  • How big a loss to the offense is Michael Floyd? Consider the following stats: of Clausen's 62 completions in 2009, 13 (21%) were to Floyd. Of Clausen's 951 yards passing, 358 were to Floyd (38%). Finally, of Clausen's 9 TD passes, 5 (56%) were to Floyd. So, to put it another way, over 1/5 of Clausen's completions, 1/3 of his passing yards and 1/2 of his touchdowns are the result of Michael Floyd. Ouch.

  • Hearing those statistics, one might be inclined to think this offense is doomed to the same type of failure they endured last year when Floyd was out. While I'm certain it will not be quite as productive as when #3 is available, I am also sure we will not see a drop-off as severe as that which took place last year. There are two reasons for this guarded optimism: 1) the running game, and 2) Jimmy Clausen. To me, the running game is still very much a work in progress, but it has made great strides in the offseason and has added a great deal of balance to the offense this year. After only three games, Armando Allen is not yet someone I'm ready to consider a consistent "go-to" player, but he has played tremendously well this season and is now a guy defenses have to account for and scheme around - that hasn't happened with an Irish back since Darius Walker left. In addition, I think the flashes of potential we've seen in guys like Jonas Gray and Theo Ridddick are very encouraging. The more important factor, though, is Clausen. Clausen has become a tremendously good, tremendously accurate college quarterback. As a result of that improvement in accuracy (and general decision making), Notre Dame will be better on offense. Take a look at what the Giants did Sunday night against Dallas. With one receiver down and two young, green receivers (Irish scourges Steve Smith and Mario Manningham) in the game, Eli Manning was able to be very productive (25-38, 330 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs)...and keep in mind, this was without a functional running game. The reason is that talented, experienced quarterbacks make good decisions and can, ultimately, make inexperienced receivers look good. I think Irish fans will see something similar in the weeks to come.
  • And then there's the Wildcat. Yes, it was great on two touchdowns (one running, one throwing), but it was also a lousy call on Notre Dame's first drive of the second quarter, with Golden Tate going for a loss of a yard and the Irish suffering a loss of momentum(compounded by penalties on the next two plays and a sack on the third on which Clausen was injured). Can I blame all of that on the Wildcat? No, but it was unnecessary and the kind of "too cute", gimmicky call which, I was hoping, Charlie had gotten past reverting to this year.

  • The officiating was, again, awful. Beyond the much-discussed Floyd non-TD catch (where, incidentally, the Big East got into the act of screwing the Irish - it was their crew in the booth), there was something else that stood out. Two plays occurring within minutes of one another highlight the problem. On the drive after Michigan State's flubbed punt return in the second quarter, Robert Blanton was called for a late hit out of bounds after inadvertently taking a guy down on a tackle that had started in the field of play. A short time later, after a nice Jonas Gray run to get inside Michigan State's 10-yard line, he was taken down out of bounds by Greg Jones of MSU in an almost identical manner to what Blanton had done earlier, and it happened right in front of an official -no call. Those examples are exactly the problem. It's not that any of the calls against Notre Dame (other than the Floyd catch) were wrong, it's that the officials refused to apply the same standards to both teams. While I prefer refs to take a more laissez-faire approach to things anyway, if they are going to be ticky-tack, at least be consistent to avoid the appearance of impropriety and charges that you are a biased douchenozzle.

  • And now for the defense. While the d-line and linebackers have come in for a lot of criticism over the last few days, I actually don't think they're all that far away from being pretty solid units. In reviewing the tape, a lot of the problems tend to stem from technique rather than strategy. Oftentimes, guys were in the backfield, but either overpursued or just missed tackles. A big reason for the latter is that, with regularity, Notre Dame players still "catch" ball-carriers rather than hit them with a head of steam. You do that and you put yourself in a position to get run over, stiff-armed or otherwise avoided. Run to the guy with the ball, wrap-up and drive. Do those things and a lot of these problems solve themselves.
  • As for the secondary, I thought the coverage was very spotty. Sure, they were often left on islands because of blitzes that didn't arrive, but they were also giving way too much cushion for a large part of the afternoon and, in other cases, they were where they needed to be, but failed to make the play (dropped interceptions were a particular problem....Darrin Walls, I'm looking in your direction). Those things need to improve quickly. With as much talent as the defensive backfield possesses, they should be a bigger help to the overall defensive effort than they've been thus far.
  • While I know many Irish fans were disappointed with the team's performance on Saturday, bear in mind that Notre Dame had to overcome both a devastating loss to a key rival the week before and the mental hurdle of a Michigan State team who has owned them in recent years. That's a lot, even for a group as talented as ND. With that now behind them and the team back to its winning ways, I expect we will see a lot more of the squad we believed them to be as the season began.

Friday, September 18, 2009

IBG: Redemption Begins With A 'W' Edition

This week's IBG comes to us courtesy of the always delightful Sarah over at Bad Trade.
1. Still trying to get the taste of last weekend's game out of my mouth, so let's start with something fun. With Sparty on its way into South Bend, give me your favorite memory of the ND-MSU series. I don't care what it is: John L. Smith losing it, the image of MSU guarding against nothing, an actual game memory, whatever.

Well, since I posted a bunch of videos yesterday showing some of my favorite games in the series, I am going with a non-game moment - Detroit talk show host Mike Valenti's meltdown after Notre Dame's come-from-behind win in 2006. For those of you who've not heard this gem, it is a classic study in delicious, delicious schadenfreude, complete with references to "choking on applesauce", Hurricane Katrina and, everyone's favorite, Teddy Ruxpin. Enjoy:

2. Since 1997, Michigan State has won 9 of 12 games against the Irish. I view this as a classic case of Sparty having ND's number. What worries you most about Michigan State this weekend?

One of the theories that has floated around as to why Notre Dame has done so poorly against Michigan State over the last decade, is that the game against the Spartans tends to follow a tough, emotional, high profile game against Michigan and the Irish come out flat. If this is true, than this week is likely to be brutal for Notre Dame. True, both teams lost heartbreakers last week but, for Michigan State, getting fired up for ND after facing Montana State and Central Michigan should be no problem. Can the Irish be similarly motivated and emotionally grounded after back-to-back games against Nevada and Michigan? Those are going to be the questions that determine the outcome - which team can bounce back better from a tough loss and which team is more fired up, generally. If history is any guide, I am concerned about Irish chances.

3. Between my lingering bad feelings from last weekend and the history of this series in the last decade plus, give me a good reason or two or three to feel optimistic about a change in fortune for the Irish, because right now, I could use some optimism.

Well, Michigan State did just lose at home to Central Michigan. Whatever you think about Notre Dame's loss to the Wolverines, it's better than that. More importantly, though, this seems to be a very mature Irish team that understands the gravity of the situation in which they find themselves. They know that their credibility, their coach's job and the program's prominence is in their hands. As a result, I have no doubt that this team will have put the Ann Arbor debacle behind them by Saturday afternoon. So long as they do, they should certainly win this game. They are more talented and more experienced than Michigan State and they're playing at home. Combine all these factors and I think you'll see a fairly comfortable Irish win (somewhere around the 10 points they're favored by).

4. As it is my week, I get to address my current ND obsession. Have the last two games changed your opinion/reinforced your opinion re: Charlie in the box versus Charlie on the field?

First off, if Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has taught us nothing else, it's that nobody wants a Charlie-In-The-Box. Beyond that, though, I'm not sure it matters. Yes, Charlie called a great game against Hawaii while in the box but, I think anyone would be hard-pressed to say that the performance of the offense in the first two games suffered because of Charlie being on the field.

5. If nothing else, I can count on one thing to look forward to on Saturday - tailgating. Anyone have a good recipe for me to try? I make no limitations on what it can be - a drink recipe, dessert, appetizer. So long as it can be made on a grill, camp stove, or ahead of time, I am happy to listen. The better the suggestion, the more likely you are to get invited to my own tailgate.
An easy, tasty and potentially lethal rum punch combo that I stumbled upon this summer goes as follows:

- Light rum
- Coconut rum
- Pineapple juice
- Grenadine

Yes, men will have to drink this with a pinky extended, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable cocktail. While I'm sure this mixture already has a name, for IBG purposes I am going to name it after the one Irish player who hails from a tropical locale...I call it, "The Manti."

6. Finally, any predictions for the game? I encourage your predictions to involve something other than a final score, but otherwise, I make no suggestions.

I predict that Notre Dame will score seven touchdowns but, because it is yet another Big 10 officiating crew, will only be awarded four points for each. Michigan State, conversely, will have three touchdowns, but will be given nine points per. After extra points, ND sneaks out a 35-30 win over the Spartans in spite of having to play the last two-and-a-half quarters with six men on the field thanks to an official's questionable interpretation of the penalty that applies to offsides.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Misty Water-Colored Memories: MSU Edition

With a huge game against Michigan State coming up on Saturday, I thought I'd take a stroll down memory lane and revel in the joys of past Irish victories over the Spartans.

And, because it's been a rough week and we could all use a laugh, a little Spartan-related humor:

Monday, September 14, 2009

Parting The Clouds

Thank God for Mondays. While yesterday was one of the worst days of my Notre Dame fandom (and there've been some beauties over the years), today felt a lot better. With the benefit of a little extra time, some insight from other Irish fans (foremeost among them, my esteemed colleague, Subway Domer) and, frankly, a desire not to give up on a season that's just two weeks old, I've turned a corner. The Michigan game is dead, let's move forward. As readers know, I am no pollyanna when it comes to this team. In fact, in the past, I have even been excused of being, ahem, too negative. Against that backdrop, I am issuing the following request/directive to my fellow Irish fans: Do not lose heart. Do not give up. In this, our darkest hour, I put to you reasons for optimism.

  • The offense is frighteningly good: As has been widely discussed, this offense is, quite possibly, the best in school history. How good are they? On one of his worst days, Golden Tate still led the team in catches (9) for over 100 yards and two scores. More important, though, is the fact that, in a pass-first offense, Notre Dame has a better running game than at any point in the last three years. Yes, there were some problems against Michigan, but this team has now gone over 150 yards on the ground in each of its first two games in spite of the run being largely an afterthought in this offense. Now with a balanced attack, the potential for this offense is off the charts. That fact alone gives this team more than a chance in every single game this year.
  • The defense will improve: Coming into this season, we all knew that the defensive line was an area of concern, but we also knew that it had a great deal of young talent. The good news is, this defense will only improve as the season goes on. As the younger players get reps and become acclimated to the college game, their abilities will start to take over and the results will be better. Think of it another way, would you rather have the defenses of 2005 and 2006 or this one? In terms of pure talent and potential, there is no question as to the answer. The 2005 and 2006 teams had very marginal defenses whose shortcomings were glossed over because of a prolific offense. The 2009 team has a much more talented core of defensive players around which to build and a phenomenal offense to carry them through the growing pains (see above). Plus, in Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta, the Irish have two outstanding defensive minds (not to mention guys like Bryant Young and Randy Hart) which is something they did not have in the past either (uh, Rick Minter, anyone?). I know it may not seem it right now, but all of the tools are there for this to be a very, very good defense in 2009.
  • The schedule improves: While it obviously remains to be seen as to how difficult the schedule will ultimately be, what is undeniable is that Notre Dame will be at home for four of the next five games. And, of those away from Notre Dame Stadium, one is against a rebuilding Purdue team and one is in San Antonio against a still bad Washington State team. The best thing for a team coming off a tough loss on the road is the comfort and support of a home crowd. If the fans that show up on Saturday are raucous, supportive and get the place rocking, the Michigan game will be a distant memory for Irish players.
  • Stuff happens: On the same day that Notre Dame was losing to Michigan, the fifth-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys were losing at home to an unranked Houston team. Earlier in the day, a Michigan State team that was supposed to be a dark horse contender for the Big Ten title lost to Central Michigan. In both cases, the better team lost...and that's just one Saturday. Yes, it always sucks when it's your team that loses and, yes, it's even worse when the loss comes to a rival but, unfortunately, sometimes upsets do happen. Obviously, if this loss begets others, it's a problem; but what if it doesn't? What if this is an isolated incident, one of those early season upsets I briefly discussed in last week's IBG. Is 11-1, 10-2 or, even 9-3 not a good season? I know, at Notre Dame the goal is a national championship every year, but let's face it, that was probably a long-shot at best in 2009. What's more, in past years, the reason a 9-3 record wasn't considered "good enough" was because it was more anomaly than trend. It was because at some point, in the subsequent two years, Notre Dame would drop to 6-6 or worse. At this point, though, recruiting is great, depth has improved and there's every reason to think that, with a good season in 2009, the Irish will be heading for even brighter seasons down the road. Consider this, while most Notre Dame fans (myself included) remember the Holtz era as "the good old days"; even then the team routinely lost a handful of games. In '87 they lost four games, they lost three in '90 (including a brutal upset at home to Stanford while the Irish were #1...the Cardinal ended the year 5-6, by the way), another three in '91 (including a loss at Michigan in their second game and a heartbreaking loss at home to Tennessee late in the year...ND was up 31-7 at the half and lost 35-34), then they lost five games plus a tie in '94 and three in both'95 and '96. So, yes, Lou had '88 (12-0) and '89 (12-1) and he had '92 (10-1-1) and '93 (11-1), but he had an awful lot of three loss seasons, too. If a three-loss 2009 were the start of a Lou-like run, would anyone complain?

My point in bringing all this up is, while spirits may be low right now, as fans, we really need to lift up our chins, grit our teeth and root like hell for this team come Saturday. Being a fan, a real fan, can be both the most exhilirating and nauseating experience imagineable. In good times, we celebrate, in bad we mourn, but we always come back...that's the deal. Indeed, Saturday was a very bad time but, as I've hopefully shown above, there's an awful lot to get excited about with this team. More importantly, even if you're fed up with Charlie or think Tenuta's overrated or whatever, there's a team full of kids who came to this school and who've worked their asses off to be a part of this program and to help it regain its prominence - they deserve both our respect and wholehearted support. With that, I say to you, my fellow Irish fans, quit your bitching, quit your moaning and let's kick some Spartan ass on Saturday. Go Irish, beat Spartans!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Random Thoughts: Michigan Edition

Terrible. Heartbreaking. Atrocious. Those are just a few of the adjectives that describe what took place in Ann Arbor yesterday. After having (somewhat) calmed down, here are my general thoughts on the debacle:

The Officiating: Simply put, this cost Notre Dame the game. Yes, there were plenty of things Notre Dame did to give Michigan an opportunity to win, but if the Big Ten officials don't call back Armando Allen's screen pass touchdown, this is a whole different game. In fact, the margin of victory for Michigan (four points) is precisely the difference between the touchdown ND would have had and the field goal for which they were forced to settle. Here's the thing: I can see why you would want to review that play - Allen's foot was close to the line. However, upon reviewing it upstairs, there is no way any reasonable person could reach the conclusion that his foot was out; nevermind that it was so conclusively out that the call on the field ought to be overturned. Add in any number of absurd holding calls and pass interference non-calls, and there's your game. This is a travesty. Both teams battled too hard to have a game come down to biased officiating. These men deserve to be fired.

Charlie Weis: Very much a mixed bag on this one. On the one hand, Charlie Weis - Offensive Coordinator, did a pretty terrific job. Hard to argue with 490 yards of total offense and 34 points; and, while people can debate the merits of throwing the ball with the lead and two minutes to play, Shaq Evans was open. A better throw and nobody's debating this point. Also, for the most part, Charlie called a very good offensive game (Statue of Liberty play, anyone?). Still, he is not merely Charlie Weis - Offensive Coordinator, he is, primarily, Charlie Weis - Head Coach and, in that role, it is hard to give him much credit. This was a game Notre Dame absolutely should have won. They were the better team all day and there's no reason they should have come away with a loss. Worse, depending on how the team responds, this is the type of loss that can unravel an otherwise promising season (particularly with a talented and angry Michigan State team coming to town next week). Keep in mind, it was Notre Dame's come-from-behind win against Michigan State in 2006 that destroyed the Spartans season that year and led to Coach John L. Smith's firing. Simply put, we will know all we need to about this team and the future of Coach Weis at Notre Dame by next Saturday night.

Brian Smith: Allow me to blunt - shut the fuck up. Smith's comment before the game that Michigan was "stupid" for starting two freshman quarterbacks lacked both class and commonsense. Worse, after Tate Forcier shoved it right down the throat of Smith and his colleagues, the comment seemed phenomenally asinine. Brian Smith's a good football player, but he really needs to keep his big mouth shut when reporters are around.

Jimmy Clausen: There is no one for whom I feel worse than Jimmy Clausen. This kid went out and did absolutely everything you could possibly ask to get a win and the team really let him down. 336 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 60% completion rate in a hostile environment is a good day for any QB. It's a complete shame that ND wasted such a great performance.

Michael Floyd/Golden Tate: Yes, Tate had a few uncharacteristic drops, but combining for 16 catches, 246 yards and three touchdowns is still a pretty solid afternoon. I just hope that Floyd's injury is minor and he's back out there next week.

Armando Allen: Definitely a banner day for Allen. Just when people (including me) were wondering whether it should be Jonas Gray getting the majority of carries, Allen comes out and cranks out 139 yards on the ground at nearly 7 ypc. Great game for Armando and something to build on as the season moves forward.

The Secondary: I said it last week, and I'll say it again, Notre Dame's secondary is wildly overrated. Tate Forcier is going to be a good quarterback, but allowing a freshman in his second collegiate game to throw for 240 yards, 2 tds and a 70% completion rate all without his best receiver is unforgiveable. While everyone's been wailing about the rush defense (which definitely created its own cause for concern), the secondary has been Notre Dame's dirty little secret. A unit that was supposed to be among the best in the country has been terrible in its first two outings.

The Rest of the Defense: Did a nice job in the first half containing the run and really limiting the effectiveness of Michigan's offense. Then, in the second half, the wheels came off. My charitable read is that some of it was exhaustion brought on from the no-huddle but, whatever the case, they played a very poor second half against a very average offense. Tenuta really needs to make some tough personnel choices this week. If what we've heard about Notre Dame's improving depth being a benefit to the team is true, this is the week it needs to manifest itself.

Summary: Contra college football punditry, Michigan is not a good football team. They are quite average and, under no circumstance, should Notre Dame have lost this game. Just when we thought that the travails of the last two years, particularly the collapses of 2008 (UNC, Pitt, Syracuse), were behind us, we find out that this team really isn't much different than last year's version. Sure, their stat lines look better but, ultimately, they still don't have the ability to put a game away and they still make incredibly stupid mistakes at the worst possible times. While I don't want to be a defeatist and give up on the season two games in, having watched this team the last few years, I am not filled with abundant optimism with regard to their ability to rise to the occasion. Still, most of the games on the schedule are still very winnable and the potential, however remote it may seem ths morning, of a BCS bowl still exists. As I said earlier, this week's game against MSU is going to be a referendum on whether Charlie can, or should, continue on as Irish coach. I only wish I had any sense as to the answer.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

IBG: "Ann Arbor's No Lady" Edition

With ND's annual game against their ethically compromised rivals to the north nearly here, Her Loyal Sons steps up with this week's IBG questions:

1) Being that you're a ND blogger, and thus follow a Catholic university's football team religiously and/or are Catholic yourself, you're probably very familiar with the notion that bad things happen to good people. For a concrete example of that, look to every Irish player, coach, and fan who had to suffer through the last 2 seasons. But never forget that bad things can happen to really rotten people too. For a really fun example of that, look to Rich Rod going 3-9 in his big debut season in Ann Arbor. Now let's mess with your heads a bit: Give me one very good reason why great things might happen to very bad people by explaining to me A) How and why Michigan (sucks!) might beat ND this weekend and B) How Michigan (sucks!) will compete for a BCS berth in 2009.

The answer to A) is simple - "pride goeth before the fall." Notre Dame is justifiably happy with their performance against Nevada on Saturday; but it's a short trip from joy to pride. Should Irish chests swell too far, they will no doubt be served a heaping helping of humility by Satan's minions in Ann Arbor. As for B), the only rational explanation for a Michigan BCS bid this year would be, at some point this fall, Armageddon takes place with "The Beast" knocking off "The Lamb" in an upset for the ages. In other words, good is defeated, evil prevails and we are all sentenced to an eternity in the bowels of Bo Schembechler.

2) After week 1, just as in 2008, the leading tacklers for the Notre Dame fighting Irish are both safeties: Kyle McCarthy with 7 and Harrison Smith with 5. DE Kerry Neal isn't even on the stat sheet, Brian Smith, while making 2 very big plays, didn't make a single other tackle, and Ethan Johnson had 1 tackle all game. Convince me that Michigan (sucks!) wont just run a "9 yards and a cloud of dust" offense against ND all freaking game.

Before I answer this question, a few related thoughts. If a Nevada team, which averaged 37.6 points and 508.5 yards in 2008, couldn't score and only eked out 308 yards against the Irish, why do we think a Michigan team who was 109th out of 119 teams in total offense last year will be able to impose their will? Is it because Michigan's "back" after scoring 31 points at home against Western Michigan? Guess what - in their opener last year, Michigan nearly knocked off a Utah team that would end the season undefeated and ranked #2 in the country. Did that make them a good team? Not a chance - they ended up with the worst record in the history of the program. Look at it another way, was there a pundit in the country who didn't expect Michigan to beat Western Michigan? Why then are we declaring the program "back" after a game everyone expected them to win? Or, for yet another perspective, pit Nevada against Western Michigan - who do you see winning and by how much? Still think Michigan deserves the accolades they've received this week? So, I guess my answer to the original question is, "who gives a shit?" Until Michigan shows they can consistently play well against reasonable competition, it makes no difference whether they plan to run, pass or crawl against Notre Dame.

3) We've now got the concrete data of 1 game to bat around. Aside from any answers involving T'eo, tell me what position changes/depth chart engineering you hope to see the staff at least tinker with during the Michigan (sucks!) game.

Developing a defensive line rotation. I would like to see Tenuta/Brown get a solid rotation of their defensive linemen into the game in order to 1) to keep fresh legs on the field, 2) give Michigan's offense some different defensive looks and 3) get some experience for the talented, but untested, Irish d-linemen. As much as it pains me to say this as a Giants fan, the Philadelphia Eagles have used a similar approach to great effect, finishing seventh in the league against the run in 2007 and fourth last year (former Irish stars Victor Abiamiri and Trevor Laws have been a part of this strategy). While doing this might result in a few growing pains here and there, I think it would give Notre Dame a great chance to have a dominant and healthy d-line as they move forward.

4) The state of Michigan has decided that they've ripped off the Rudy soundtrack long enough and need a new advertising scheme to attract people to their state and support tourism. "Pure Michigan (sucks!)" is so two-thousand-and-late. Give me the new hotness. Give me your best new tourism slogans for Michigan (sucks!).

How about, "Like Canada, But With Ugly Strippers."

5) Navy took tOSU down to the wire, Washington actually looked like a team that's coached to play football games, WSU put up some fight. After Week 1, do you now feel like the Irish '09 schedule is tougher or easier than you felt heading into last week? Why?

The same. Week 1 upsets, or near upsets, are rarely a good arbiter of what type of season a team will have. There is far too much volatility in terms of who's prepared, who's fired up, who's still coming together as a team, etc. early on in the year. If those schools who have come out of the gate strong, or stronger than expected, are still playing well after three games, then we can talk about the impact on the Irish schedule. I just don't think that will be the case, though - I think most of those results will prove to be anomalies. As seasons progress, talent levels start to show, losses start to happen and a team's will to fight tends to wilt. As a result, things end up leveling out. It's easy for a team to be better than expected for one game, especially if it's the first. Every year, upsets and near upsets happen in the first two weeks of the season and the pundits start salivating. It's an annual event, and rarely do those results serve as harbingers of a team's impending success.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Get To Know A Fan Base: Michigan Wolverines

With the season upon us, Brawling Hibernian provides the Irish faithful with insight into the fans who will be looking across the parking lot at them each week.
Completely Fake Word That Best Describes Them: Douchetards. Known throughout the college football world for being both "smug" and "dickish," Michigan fans are an unbearable gaggle of Cliffs Notes intellectuals. While they are known to enjoy peppering conversations with quotes from Neruda, Camus and Kierkegaard; in reality, most Michigan fans are barely capable of grasping the plotline complexities in the average Perfect Strangers episode.

"Wait, I'm confused, which one's from Mypos?"
Antithesis (Chief Rival): Ohio State Buckeyes. If ever one needed solid evidence of how badly government wastes taxpayer dollars, they should look no further than the intellectual compost heap these two state colleges produce annually. The game, and its attendant frenzy, further underscore the massive, publically-funded vortexes of doom that are these two schools.
Other than the faint hope of a stadium implosion, there is little to recommend this matchup for non-fans of these programs. The action on the field is typically dull (who doesn't love conservative offenses that occasionally crack 30 points), the level of competition is weak (in recent years, Michigan victories have come with the same frequency as a lunar eclipse) and the melange of vomit, pepper spray and car fires that follow the game can be off-putting to most.
Pop Culture Depiction (Exemplification): Moby. Politically correct, vegan poseur who has incomprehensibly attained fame in spite of making "music" that is one step above cow flatulence in terms of sonic appeal. Moby is the type of insufferable a-hole who always seems to take the empty seat next to you on the train or start chatting you up at a cocktail party. Because of these characteristics (as well as his neo-hipster/boho image), he would fit in nicely amongst the doucherazzi in Ann Arbor.

This man used to sleep with Natalie Portman. BTW, that feeling you're now experiencing is the crushing unfairness of life. Enjoy.

What To Bring To Their Tailgate: Brie and a copy of The New Republic. Neither will actually be used, but you will be viewed as a trendy, fellow traveler with whom the Ann Arborites can freely associate. While there, the following will serve as outstanding icebreakers: the genius of Atom Egoyan, the versatility of arugula and the self-evident awesomeness of thick-rimmed glasses.
Arugula: Is there anything it can't do?

Friendliness Factor (Out of 5): Three. While not terribly warm, fans of the Wolverines are incredibly vain and will seek out anyone they haven't yet bored with anecdotes about sustainable energy or how underrated Richard Dawkins is. Though it's questionable as to whether this compulsion technically qualifies as "friendliness," it's likely enough to cause you to endure time with a UMer.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Random Thoughts: Nevada Edition

Wow - that was impressive. I have watched a lot of ND season openers and that may have been the best I can remember. Sure, it wasn't beating a ranked team or winning in dramatic fashion, but it was going out and absolutely dominating a solid team that will be playing in a bowl game this year. More importantly, in back-to-back games, dating to last year's Hawaii Bowl, the Irish finally look as though they are playing up to their enormous potential. So, without further adieu, a few random and disconnected observations from the game:


  • Jimmy looked fantastic yet again. In his last two games, he has two more touchdown passes than incompletions (9 to 7). Let that sink in for a second. There's still plenty of season left to play, but I hope that what Clausen is doing will begin to silence his critics. The kid deserves some serious respect.

  • On each of his four catches, Michael Floyd showed why he was such a highly-recruited player. He managed to use his size, speed, strength and soft hands to blow the game wide open. I'm not sure I've ever seen an Irish receiver have a game like Floyd did.

  • With all the focus on Floyd, it's easy to overlook Golden Tate, Kyle Rudolph and the rest of the receivers, all of whom played very well. For me, the best part is, ND was able to win big by showing only a little of what it's capable of bringing to bear. There is so much depth for defensive coordinators to worry about, I wouldn't be surprised if each week someone new is stepping up in a big way.

  • I hated the Wildcat. Yes, it's something for other teams to consider in their game-planning, but it was not well-executed and served as a bit of a momentum drain.

  • The offensive line looked much, much better. Against a good run defense (6th nationally in 2008), the Irish managed 178 yards on the ground. That's 90 more than teams averaged against the Wolfpack last year. They also provided outstanding protection against a pass rush that was 11th nationally in sacks last year. On top of all that is what they didn't false starts and no stupid holding penalties. While they're an experienced group, there was some position shifting that took place in the offseason. To perform this well in their new roles the first game out is a very good sign.

  • Speaking of the running game, this may have been the first time we've had a chance to appreciate the depth the Irish have in the backfield. In all, five backs got carries and all did well. Among the rushing leaders, Allen looked good, but I thought Gray looked better. It's going to be tough for Weis to not give him more and more carries as the season progresses. Riddick looked surprisingly good, but he really needs to stop trying to leap over people before he gets himself hurt (full disclosure, the first time he did it, I thought it was great).

  • Overall, nice gameplan for Charlie. He took what the defense was giving and didn't really try to force anything or get too fancy.


  • This team is nothing if not a streak breaker. In December, they ended the program's nine-game, 15-year bowl losing streak which included the first kickoff return TD since 2002 (and first in a bowl game since 1973). This season, they open things up with Notre Dame's first shutout in seven seasons.

  • While I am definitely concerned with the way the Irish defended the run - giving up over 150 yards on the ground and over 5 ypc - I can't help wondering if a big part of that wasn't The Pistol. As I mentioned in the IBG this week, it's an offense Notre Dame has never faced before, so it would be natural for them to struggle in defending it; particularly when it's run as expertly it is by Nevada. No, the Irish don't get a pass on this, but I'm not sure I'm as freaked out yet as some other ND fans.

  • The pass rush was awesome. It seems as though the team has finally "gotten" Tenuta's system and the right players are in place to make it work. Kaepernick was harassed all day and, were he not as mobile as he is, would have been sacked a bunch more.

  • In spite of being touted as one of the best defensive backfields in the country, I thought the secondary left a lot to be desired. Nevada does not have a particularly good group of receivers, but they managed to get open with regularity and, if they had been better able to hang on to the ball, this would have been a more competitive game.

  • Manti Te'o was great. That young man has quite a motor and who didn't love watching him apply the "Te'o KO" to a few ball carriers. I can't imagine he doesn't see the field a ton this year.

  • While the depth on offense is obvious, the defense is no slouch either. In spite of wholesale substitution in the latter portion of the game, ND's defense continued to be intense and very solid throughout. Great to see.
So, I was right that ND would win and I was nearly right on the points they'd score (I said 38), but I was way off on the type of contest it would turn out to be (I thought ND would win, 38-31). Each game, there are going to be things fans can criticize, but it's hard not to really love what the Irish did against Nevada. They managed to carry the momentum they gained against Hawaii into this season and start it off already in midseason form. What I think we witnessed on Saturday was the great benefit that has been gained from the last two years. Despite still being a relatively young team, it is one that has is very experienced and, as a result, knows how to pick up where it left off. As always, each week will be a unique challenge but, after watching the way things have started off, I feel very confident in what this team can and will do this year.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Irish Blogger Gathering: "Let's Light This Candle" Edition

With the long offseason finally near an end, Domer Law kicks off the first edition of the second season of Irish Blogger Gatherings:

1. My season preview included music video footage for each position group. What song or video do you feel typifies this year's Notre Dame team heading into the season? Embed a youtube or other similar video if possible.

Irish band? Check. Rocking song? Check. Sweeping anthem with themes of drinking, fighting, friendship and return? Checks across the board. This one was a no-brainer.

2. Post a picture that to you portrays the attitude of this year's team and discuss.

Poor grammar aside, I hope this pretty much encapsulates what the Irish will be thinking each time they show up to play.

3. What do you perceive as the team's biggest weakness heading into the season?

Lack of testicular fortitude (see above). This team really needs to develop some nasty. Too often it has seemed that, rather than chomping at the bit to absolutely destroy their opponents, the Irish would prefer to curl up with a Snuggie and a warm glass of milk. Go back and watch tapes of Holtz's teams, particularly the '88 and '89 squads. They were very talented, but they were also enthusiastic about kicking the other team's ass. In watching those teams play, you'll see that, with some regularity, the Irish were flagged with some type of late hit, roughing the passer, etc (watch the Miami and Fiesta Bowl games from the '88 season). While I'm obviously not advocating penalties, those types are indicative of a team playing with passion and intensity, rather than the passiveness we've seen for most of the Weis era. So, yeah, I'd rather an Irish defender be so fired up he drills someone out of bounds, than have him engage in the kind of weakass, Kennedy Compound two-hand touch that has come to epitomize the team. Hopefully, this season, ND puts the Snuggie away and breaks out the hammer.

4. With the exception of the 1990s, Notre Dame has won a National Championship in every decade since the 1920s. What are the chances (a) that Notre Dame wins a championship this year, and (b) if not this year, when do you predict the next championship for the Irish?

Wow, is this a tough question. First off, while some sort of unexpected, 1988-esque national championship could take place this year, I think it's pretty doubtful. While the talent has improved tremendously, we still don't have nearly the depth of talent as places like USC and Florida. Secondly, let's face it, Notre Dame was pretty erratic in 2008 (please see losses to UNC, Pitt and Syracuse and narrow wins over Navy and Stanford). I would be very surprised if, during the offseason, the Irish developed the type of consistency necessary to win a championship. I'd be thrilled to death if it happened, but I just don't think it occurs in 2009. So, when will it happen? With a nice nucleus of talent slated to come back and, what will likely be, another deep and talented recruiting class coming on board, 2010's a very real possibility. If not next year, I think in the next 3-5 (assuming recruiting trends continue), the long championship-less drought will come to an end.

5. Nevada runs the Pistol offense, Navy the Triple Option, and Michigan the Spread Option. Which offensive scheme do you think is the most difficult to prepare for, and why?

The Pistol - Simply because ND's never seen it live. The Irish play against the triple option every year and have faced the spread with Michigan as recently as a season ago. On the other hand, with The Pistol, they only have tape of porous WAC defenses trying to stop it in order to go on. More importantly, Nevada's players are more talented than Navy's and more experienced in their system than Michigan's. This is going to be a tall order for the Irish 'D'.

6. Is Colin Capaernick the best quarterback we'll see this year? If not, who is?

With apologies to Colin "The Quarterbeast" Capaernick (Nickname courtesy of Brawling Hibernian Industries, all rights reserved), I am going with Matt Barkley of USC. Being inexperienced and being untalented are two completely different things and, I don't think anyone can doubt Barkley's talent. Consider that he just won the honor of leading one of the best teams in the country by beating out two other highly-recruited quarterbacks (Aaron Corp and Mitch Mustain) as a freakin' incoming freshman! Sure, he could suck, but I doubt it. For one thing, Pete Carroll is too good a coach to take a flyer on someone he perceives to be a question mark. For another, the talent surrounding him is enough to give him the confidence he needs to grow into the position.

7. Prediction time. We have to get on the record before the season kicks off. Give me:

(1) Overall prediction for wins/losses.


(2) Projected bowl game and result.

A non-national championship, BCS game that the Irish manage to win.

(3) Predicted final ranking.


(4) Best player on the team.

Jimmy Clausen

(5) Heisman trophy winner.

Tim Tebow...because sportswriters relate to him the way he relates to Jesus.

(6) National Champion.

Florida - in spite of managing to lose at least two regular season games, they'll win their conference championship and the familiar refrain of "The SEC is sooooooo hard" will be enough to get them into the title game.

(7) Prediction for Nevada game, including score.

Irish win a nail-biter, 38-31.