Flashes Before Your Eyes
"Let's be honest - this is some bad football." -- Pat Haden, who probably requested he be pumped up with funny gas from the dentist's office in order to dull the pain of having to broadcast a matchup between a pair of 1-9 football teams.
Notre Dame's 28-7 win over Duke was anything but poetry in motion - a sloppy game played in sloppy conditions on a sloppy field, complete with sloppy officiating and the most uncoordinated referee I've ever seen (seriously - twice he started making the wrong signal on penalty calls before catching himself. And his delivery was about as precise as my high school biology teacher: "After review...unnecessary four-second pause...the ruling on the field...yet another pause...has been reversed...another long pause, just for the hell of it...the ball will be placed...") In short, this was the kind of game only a masochist could love.
If it truly was a matchup between the two worst teams in the Bowl Subdivision, Notre Dame at least put a healthy amount of distance between themselves at 118 and the Blue Devils in dead last at 119. The Irish piled up 414 yards of offense, and it was very close to that even split Charlie Weis so craves for - 194 passing, 220 rushing. For the second straight week, Jimmy Clausen had a serviceable game that could've been a lot better with a little help from his friends: after 8 drops last week, Irish receivers tacked on five more against the Blue Devils. Clausen finished 16-of-32 with three touchdowns against no interceptions for the second consecutive game. While his deep ball still leaves something to be desired, for most of the game he was showing the confidence and precision that left all the Tom Lemmings of the world with their mouths collectively agape when he watching his high school film. Particularly impressive was his first touchdown pass, a 25-yard FedEx laser into the crease between two defenders, pulled in by a lunging David Grimes. Clausen had made a similarly well-executed throw just minutes earlier on a fourth-down attempt, but Robby Parris dropped the ball.
On the whole, it wasn't the most inspiring victory. Not even close to the kind that deludes one into thinking the solution is just one short step away. But in the middle of a fine and proper send-off for a Notre Dame senior class (a mix of the last remnants of Willingham's one good class and the cobbled-together haul of 2004 which was universally-hailed as the worst in Notre Dame history, at least since internet dorks began evaluating such things in earnest) that has been through so much, the Irish also gave their fan base a few sustained flashes of the kind of team they might yet become. Clausen, as is to be expected from a guy who was dubbed "the LeBron James of high school football", is the one who will have every second of his development scrutinized. But a host of his peers are also beginning to establish themselves.
Robert Hughes had his best game yet, becoming the first freshman to crack 100 yards on the ground since Darius Walker back in 2004. Hughes' role expanded as James Aldridge suffered a tweak of his already-injured ankled, and he pounded the Blue Devils into submission, tallying up more than half his yards after first contact in the eyes of the stat sheet. Armando Allen ran well; Duval Kamara bounced back from an academic shortcoming to pull in another touchdown pass on a play eerily reminiscent of many Maurice Stovall jump-ball catches in 2005.
On defense, freshman nose guard Ian Williams wound up taking just about every snap as a fill-in for Pat Kuntz and performed fine, while Brian Smith kept attacking from a linebacker spot that is now firmly his. Kerry Neal kept flying after ball. David Bruton was a terror on special teams coverage, recovered a fumble, and had six tackles. Kyle McCarthy forced another fumble. Darrin Walls had another good day at corner, rarely being thrown at and batting away one deep ball.
All the Duke game represented was two things - an opportunity for an Irish team that's been bruised and battered almost beyond recognition a chance to take out some frustration on a truly awful opponent, and a chance to see quick glimpses of the future. The quarterback was a freshman, the best receiver was a freshman, the top two running backs were freshmen, freshmen and sophomores were all over the offensive and defensive lines; of the 22 players in the starting lineup for the Irish, 12 have multiple years of eligibility remaining, while key reserves who'll be stepping into bigger roles (like Hughes, Parris, Golden Tate, Mike Ragone, Morrice Richardson, and Raeshon McNeil) all have a big ceiling in front of them and a ridiculously talented stable of freshman coming in behind them.
The big riddle, of course, is how close Weis and his staff can get them to that ceiling. Obviously, Weis' emphasis on brute force, "welcome to college football" training came well short of what his team needed this year. In hindsight, you could see it in the Georgia Tech game; the first few series in particular. The Irish were rotating four to five players in and out after every play, scrambling to get as many as possible in tune with the speed and physicality of college ball. But comfort with that doesn't come in measured doses during the heat of a live game; it comes with knocking the snot out of each other all spring and summer long, to the point where the season comes as a relief - we're tired of hitting each other, it's time to go smack around somebody else! As Weis now (hopefully) knows, the time to do that is in the offseason. In his first two springs, he had the luxury of a veteran crew that needed to be taught how to win, how to string together an effective gameplan - not how to play. It was the exact opposite coming into 2007, and Weis made the fatal mistake of putting the cart before the horse anyway, brainstorming and scheming week-to-week instead of breaking in the young colts first. Result: by the time he truly saw how horribly off-course the Irish were, the damage had been done. You can get away with that kind of mistake once - do it again and you'll be on the unemployment line.
Fortunately/unfortunately, with recruiting progressing well and no bowl-game prep to concentrate on, the long offseason clock will begin ticking as soon as the final game against Stanford ends this Saturday. So debating Weis' teaching style and how much you can really value a so-so performance that still beat Duke by three touchdowns are questions for another time and place. For now, just enjoy a good Senior Day win. It doesn't ease the pain of 9 losses, but few players deserved one more home win celebration than Trevor Laws. That the young guns of the Irish stepped up and assured he got one speaks well for the future.
Laws (98) never quit this season despite having every reason to, going full-out on every single snap regardless of score, opponent, or circumstance. As a result, he's the only defensive lineman in the nation's top 100 tacklers. To paraphrase several famous coaches from New Jersey, 2-9 is what it is, and it's certainly not good enough - but even so, this year Trevor Laws proved he's a winner in every sense of the word.