Friday, September 21, 2007

Circle the Wagons

Fear, Fear for Old Notre Dame. The Frightened Irish. The Fighting Rash. Three-and-out Jesus. If it was a 'clever' pun designed to tweak Notre Dame's storied past in comparison with its stormy present, you heard it this week.

Not without good reason, mind you. The Irish have been historically bad up to this point in the season, dropping to 0-3 while scoring just 13 points, none of them in the form of an offensive touchdown. And now the Irish, who've allowed 23 sacks through the first 12 quarters of 2007, get to face the upstart Michigan State Spartans, 3-0 under a new head coach (Mark Dantonio) and still ticked about blowing a 37-21 lead in last season's downpour that produced the single greatest rant in the history of sports rants. If Sparty pulls a similar trick this weekend, everybody tune into 1270 WXYT on Monday morning to hear Mike Valenti's thoughts. You will not leave disappointed.

Game 4...

Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Michigan State Spartans
3:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame Stadium - South Bend, IN

Why Michigan State Will Win

Describing Notre Dame's offensive line as a 'sieve' is an insult to sieves everywhere. The Irish would probably have better pass blocking results if they unveiled a big sheet of Charmin-Ultra in front of Jimmy Clausen on every play. Under the aggressive schemes of former Ohio State defensive whiz Dantonio, Michigan State has racked up 17 sacks, tied with Penn State (gee, wonder who helped them get up there) and Indiana for tops in the nation. Georgia Tech and Michigan are tied for second nationally with 13, before you ask. And yes, the Irish "lead" the nation in sacks allowed with 23.

So there's no big secret behind what the Spartans want to do here - pressure, pressure, and more pressure, until the Irish finally start to beat some of it back. MSU's defense is a hodgepodge of youth and experience, with vets like DE Ervin Baldwin (who picked-six Brady Quinn last year), LB SirDarean Adams (who did the same thing to Quinn in '05), and LB Kaleb Thornhill. The front seven are, for the most part, a battle-tested group. The back four are not, as Sparty trots out no seniors on the two deep at either corner or free safety - if the Irish do open up the passing game, look for them to stay away from team captain Travis Key at strong safety. For the moment though, Michigan State's concerns about inexperience versus an explosive passing attack are academic - the Irish may be a lot of things at the moment, but nobody would apply the word 'explosive' towards their offense in a positive light. If State controls the line of scrimmage and collapses on top of the Irish running game, allowing them to tee off on young Clausen in the backfield, it'll be another long day for ND and its fans.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Can we invoke the rule that, at least once a season, the Irish win a game they have absolutely no business winning? Sometimes this occurs because the Irish trip over themselves and outplay a superior opponent, other times because they do just enough to overcome their incompetence when playing a lesser opponent. Recent examples of this rule being executed include: 2002 Michigan, 2003 Navy, 2004 Tennessee, 2005 Stanford, 2006 UCLA. Somehow, when all seems lost forever, ole Notre Dame pulls yet another rabbit out of the hat and makes you think, "Ya know what? Everything's gonna be ok."

Saturday is going to have to be one of those days. In terms of raw physical talent, the Irish match up just fine with the Spartans. It's the psychological disposition of each team which will determine whether it's a tough, competitive football game or just another "go-through-the-motions" affair for the Irish. They spent all week back in a barebones, training camp mentality, bunkered in from the negativity swirling around the national media and what surely must've been a depressingly bad on-campus environment. How bad did things get? Even a well-intentioned attempt by student government to let the boys know we're still behind them went horribly awry, caught in a net by the P.C. Police - Kelly Green has the blow-by-blow of how it went down; check out Tuesday's entry on the main page. Shame on the Student Body Prez for leaving the GaTech game with 3 minutes to go.

So if the Irish win, they're gonna have to take all that anger and emotion and vortex of doom and spit it back in the face of the guys they line up across - in other words, I don't think it'll take very long to tell if the last week of "training camp"-style practices made the team hungrier. Things are going to get better, or they'll just continue to get worse. Look for the Irish to spend a lot of time in the first quarter asserting themselves in the trenches; if they succeed, that'll mark the first time this season. And it'll be why they can carry the momentum deep into a game they desperately have to win.

The Prediction

Too much was expected too quickly out of many areas for this 2007 Notre Dame team. Not that we should just excuse the level of awfulness they've managed to plummet too, not that it has somehow become okay to get taken behind the woodshed by an 0-2 Michigan team, but we have to recoginze that not only fans but the coaching staff expected a lot of players to climb the ladder quicker than they were able to. The Irish are back to basics this week, and look for that to mean a lot of running plays and the expectation of tough, aggressive spirit, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines. That should yield at least an offensive touchdown or two, and beyond that...who knows? This is the first time in a while where I'm picking against the Irish even though I feel it's a game they can definitely win. Too many variables surround the squad right now to go into the game with a good feeling.

Michigan State 24, Notre Dame 14

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