Sunday, September 07, 2008

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 21, San Diego State 13


To me, the result of this game has wound up meaningless. I mean, good and truly meaningless. It doesn't even concern me, which it should because for most of the game the Irish manage to take the concept of "playing down to your opponent" to a sickening new level.

What I mean is that there was literally no way for Notre Dame to win yesterday. No matter what type of progress they managed to make, no matter what they did or didn't do, it was a classic no-win situation. If they'd come out with the "as expected" result of a 48-3 beatdown, the prevailing attitude from people outside would've been "Big deal, it's SDSU and they just lost to Cal Poly. Call back when you beat a real team". Then there was the sickening alternative that the Irish could embarass themselves by failing to win by four touchdowns or (gulp) losing.

In a lot of ways this was, plain and simple, Notre Dame's moment on the brink. At least as far as it concerns Charlie Weis. There's no recovering from an opening day loss to a team you had 9 months to prepared for, that's not only terrible but coming off a loss to a Championship Subdivision opponent. And the margin for error wound up being fractions of a centimeter - that's how much further away David Bruton would've needed to be to give the officials a clear view on the replay of San Diego State's goalline fumble in the fourth quarter. The play would've put the Aztecs up 20-7, had fruit raining down on the field, and NDNation's Suicide Hotline switchboard lit up like the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas Tree.

Now, that was my prediction of what would follow an Irish loss. How maddening is it that it's basically what happened despite the fact that they won?

Not that much so when you factor in how the Irish made enough mistakes to crowd two or three games worth in a span of 50 minutes. This type of performance, it goes without saying, will not get the job done against Michigan. It barely - emphasis on barely, a sad commentary in and of itself - got the job done against San Diego Flippin' State.

Since I've ranted on without merit or actual contribution to the discussion for a solid three paragraphs, it shouldn't be surprising that I can parse this game down to one thing: turnovers. The Irish committed six of them - four in the actual (2 fumbles, 2 interceptions) and two in the practical with a pair of missed field goals. Of those six botches, we can safely assume that three of them (the fumble and two FGs) cost the Irish points, while another (an interception thrown in the endzone from the 17-yard line) costed the Irish some likely points. Assuming the bare minimum of succes in all four instances (made FGs), the game winds up being 33-13 and only three in five Irish fans are trying to slash their wrists instead of four.

To me, that's the story of the game, just like I kinda-sorta predicted it would be on Friday - you can argue all day about the benefits of multiple years in the system, experience, savvy, arm strength improvements, etc. Fact is this is still a) a very young team and b) a very young team playing its opening game. Screw-ups on some scale were inevitable, and while plenty of people put up the face that they would stomach such mistakes, the reality is everything got shot to hell the first time the Irish didn't run the ball on third-and-two. The knives were out and it only got worse.

Everything about the offense was still screaming "awkward! out of synch!" While it certainly cannot all be explained away by "first-game jitters", you cannot dismiss the fact that this was Game 1. The unfortunate reality is that everybody convinces themselves that you're gonna come out of the chute looking like a finished product from the first snap. Maybe a team laden with juniors and seniors can do it. A team that counts just two seniors on the entire two-deep (WR David Grimes and QB Evan Sharpley, along with just three juniors) and it was again something people decided to ignore in the hope that it will go away.

Not that "youth" explains every problem either. To start with, whoever was calling the plays did a terrible job of trying to get a read on what was working. Obvious run downs became lob passes. Long downs when one might try to stretch the field gave us swing routes. A rhythm was finally established once and for all when the Irish went for broke with an up-tempo response to that game-changing fumble which probably wouldn't have been a fumble but a back-breaking touchdown with the proper replay angles. Of course, we can say that about Robert Hughes' "fumble" too at the three yard line early in the second quarter.

Which now brings me to what I consider the silver lining, a chance to turn a heap of negatives into a positive: the Irish did absolutely everything they could to give the game away and still came out with a win. To quote the omnipotent Vin Diesel: "It doesn't matter whether you win by an inch or a mile - winning's winning." The prevailing reaction for a long time among Notre Dame fans is to see the results and then reverse-engineer everything back to either a lack of emotion or a lack of coaching. Emotion wasn't why Robert Hughes got stripped at the goalline, or why Duval Kamara let a perfectly-thrown laser bounce off his hands into a SDSU defender (seriously, when somebody went on to NDNation last night and tried to blame that pick on Clausen with the logic of "You can't throw it that hot", I knew the place had officially gone off the deep end. It restored my faith ever so slightly to see most of the board renounce that poster on the spot).

Here's one humble take on this opener: there was a near-fatal amount of mistakes in this game, but every single one of them was correctable. Last season had a terrible vibe to it from the word go - there was no way to define it but you knew it when you saw it. This year it's thankfully simpler: Hughes needs to work on ball security near the goalline. Kamara on catching the ball, particularly on a slant, with his hands and not his body. Clausen on the timing and sequencing of his reads, something that grows with time as a quarterback. And in another brilliant step forward, he audibled out of a planned comeback route on 3rd-and-11 and told Mike Floyd to head for the endzone. Perfectly thrown ball, touchdown Irish. Here's hoping it was the first of many more to come.

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