Wednesday, September 03, 2008

"We'll never be anything but OK until that happens"

Back to football for a moment - though we're going to have a follow-up commentary on the state of the Dillon Pep Rally before the weekend's over. But there's a game to be played and a mentality to be forged, and that brings us to rung #4 in our top 12 ladder...

#4 - Fire in the Belly

Right at the top of the list of Notre Dame Fan's Theses concerning the 2007 team was a detectable lack of emotion. I myself have trended more with Charlie Weis on this issue - the 'rah rah' stuff doesn't hold up past the first whistle; at that point it comes down to who's better prepared.

It wasn't very long ago that a certain mentally unhinged radio host decried his own team's collapse against the Irish in a fiercely emotional contest by noting that Notre Dame "played with fire, emotion, poise, and tact" (while Michigan State "sat there and CHOKED ON APPLESAUCE!"...never gets old). During 2007 though, the Irish were too often hit with the "tin soldiers" label in contrast to their looser, more fired-up opponents.

We've seen this card get played before, and it was interesting at the time because the man who threw it down was none other than Charlie Weis. Reflecting on reason's for why his team lost the home opener in 2005 (his Notre Dame Stadium debut), he reasoned that the team came out wound way too tight due to his efforts to insulate them from every little distraction that might pop up in the hoopla of Notre Dame home game. The next home date was one where he emphasized soaking up the attention and the spotlight, remembering that high-stakes moments were the reason they came to Notre Dame. That game, you might recall, was the USC game of October 15, 2005, arguably the finest and most inspired performance the Irish have mounted under Weis.

14 months later, after a relapse into his control freak tendencies of the NFL saw the Irish and their bunker-mentality get worked over by the hang-loose and party-down Ohio State Buckeyes, then watching his attempts to back pedal the Michigan rhetoric blow up badly in a 47-21 home loss, Weis again tried to cut loose and let the kids have some fun before the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. The Irish made a game of it for a half, but went down 41-14. And in 2007, a young team seemed at times far more concerned with getting a Weis tounge-lashing than they were with the reality of the performance. The "emotion" of the college game had them playing in a constant house-of-cards mentality rather than geeking up for the Gipper.

The fact that Weis hasn't quite "nailed" the emotional pulse of his team isn't a total surprise, because it's something that can change from week to week, moved in large degree by the results - we want the Irish to exude some confident body language, but do we want them to be the kind of team where an offensive lineman celebrates landing a hit on a defensive back who just intercepted a pass? (As happened in USC's loss to Stanford last season...go ahead guess on which side) Emotion being spat out just because the head coach said, "Let's see some fire and intensity around here!" is probably more harmful than helpful.

Which is why the spring and fall has seen Weis seizing on those "teaching moments" he prefers to show when the right and wrong time to press the 'freak out' button is. It's why he printed up shirts and spread the philosophy of "Dive Right In". This year's Irish will probably be as flawed as thier most recent counterparts in some areas - one area they will not lack for is the burning desire to punch the other guy flush in the mouth. No more reacting, no more waiting on things to happen. As Weis pledged in his opening fall media session, "We're gonna find the 22 guys who are out there making stuff happen."

This could wind up being the single defining characteristic of Notre Dame football in 2008. Many message board posts have waxed poetic of the glory days when Lou Holtz and his boys would pick fights in tunnels, in contrast with an Irish squad that seemed content to roll over in the face of provocation last year (or perhaps be smart enough to walk away and avoid putting an already impotent offense in 3rd-and-30 with a personal foul penality). Whether this newfound emphasis on emotion after previously being so blase about it shows development or desperation on Weis' part, as some media types feel content to debate, wholly misses the point and shows how much they aren't paying attention. One of Charlie's key maxims is to not keep repeating something that's not working, and his business-is-business approach has been too hit or miss to stay on as a trustworthy blueprint.

And ultimately, it's the players and not Coach Weis who have to step up and take charge of their season, as he was quick to remind them during the opening week of camp. Remember that pressure field goal Weis had Brandon Walker take during the open practice in August? That "wild celebration" I alluded to wasn't good enough in Weis' eyes, to the point he made the team 'practice' the dog-pile after a game winning kick. He didn't sugarcoat why either (premium content alas, but one quote in particualr I think the Irish Illustrated guys wouldn't mind sharing):
When I pulled the 22 guys together in the huddle, I told them that sooner or later, you guys are going to have to take over the team. I told them we can never be great if emotion has to be coached. We’ll never be anything but okay until that happens.

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