Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Post Mortem: North Carolina 29, Notre Dame 24

Damn it. Sorry...it's just....damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it.

Perhaps the most sobering truth to come out of this is that this was actually the first time in a long time that Notre Dame played competently enough early that you could truthfully accuse them of choking away the game late. If there's been a time in the last three seasons when the Irish were so thoroughly in control of a game only to foolishly turn it into a loss, I can't remember it. And that is actually a significant, positive development. Why does it have to piss me off so much, though?

Wrapping up the loss both immediately and one day after, Charlie Weis asserted that his (still very) young team was "finally starting to get it". He'd never seen a locker room so down after a loss since the 2005 USC game. While there certainly isn't much of a comparison of those two games regarding what was at stake - win that '05 game and the Irish may very well have gone on to the BCS championship game, while this Saturday was merely for a spot in the Top 25 - the fact is that the first half against UNC was about as perfect as the Irish have played versus a quality opponent since those breathtaking 60 minutes against the Trojans on 10/15/05. That's why the second half was so hard to stomach.

A lot of armchair quarterbacking took place the next morning as people floated various punches and counter-punches: Why didn't Notre Dame run the ball more? Why didn't Weis kick a field goal early in the fourth quarter after the Irish fell behind by five? What was going through Clausen's head on that mid-fourth interception? Why didn't Michael Floyd immediately drop to the ground after catching that last pass? How could the replay officials so brazenly interject into a game as they did in the last two minutes, once with a pretty inexplicable overturn that allowed the Irish to get the ball back?

Valid inquiries, all. But the simple fact is that the reason for Notre Dame's loss can be boiled down to one simple number: 5. As in five turnovers by Notre Dame, all in the final 31 minutes of the game, to North Carolina's zero (although there was one forced turnover, a strip by Robert Blanton on a 3rd-and-18 completion that went unchallenged). Only a team with superb raw talent could lose the turnover battle 5-0 and still be in the game until the final play. Look at it another way: the Irish played well enough early that they would've survived losing the turnover battle 4-0. It was Jimmy Clausen's pick-six on the first play of the second half that provided the winning margin. So at least there's discernible progress made on the front of being a team that can withstand going -4 in the turnover category (not to mention big-time progress in pass blocking, pass catching, QB decision-making, playcalling, general emotional approaches, etc etc).

Is it too trite to invoke the "Rome wasn't built in a day" scenario now? The Irish reached the halfway point at 4-2, going 4-0 at home while competing (but not winning) in two road games against Top 25 teams. This is the mark of a team trying to rebuild itself from the scorched earth crater of a 3-9 season. As fans we naturally (and foolishly) expect the rebuilding process to be far ahead of schedule. It isn't. It's right where it's supposed to be. Maybe that puts the program somewhere different from where we all historically expect Notre Dame to be, but put it like this: the Irish have proven themselves good enough that a loss now comes as much from their own shortcomings as any talent or coaching deficiency. A year ago it was a pleasant surprise to actually lose to a good (not even a great, just a good) opponent by less than 28 on the road. One year later the Irish now have nothing to blame but their own mistakes for such a loss.

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