Saturday, September 30, 2006

Fighting Back

Notre Dame vs. Purdue, an in-state rivalry 75 years in the making. If there's one thing the Boilermakers have traditionally been good for, it's raining on Notre Dame's parade. The boys from West Lafayette were a consistent thorn in the side of Ara Parseghian's Irish squads. While Lou Holtz had his way with a series of incompetent Purdue units, the series began to turn under the leadership of Joe Tiller, as Notre Dame bounced from Davie to Willingham to Weis.

Purdue pulled stunners in both 1997 and 1999, and were in position to take the 1998 and 2000 contests at Notre Dame Stadium. Nick Setta field goals as time expired were the difference on both of those occasions. Each team's last visit to the opposing stadium is remembered as an unmitigated disaster - Kyle Orton led a 41-16 thumping for the Boilers in South Bend that signaled the beginning of the end for Ty in 2004, and Brady Quinn was sensational during a 28-0 first half against the Boilers in primetime a year ago.

Preview 5 of 12...

#12 Notre Dame vs. Purdue
2:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame Stadium -- Notre Dame, IN

Why Purdue Will Win

Quarterback Curtis Painter is on the rise, taking over for the beleaguered Brandon Kirsch and leading Purdue on an overall seven game winning streak. Still, nobody's got them tagged as USC in the making, probably because the streak includes an overtime win against Miami (Ohio), a struggle to beat Ball State, and two I-AA teams.

Even so, Purdue still has the offensive system to compete with anybody. "Basketball on grass" has fundamentally changed how the Big 10 as a conference plays football. One curious factor to watch for here - Tiller always seems to want to run the football when in South Bend, rather than attack on the obvious passing front in the face of a suspect Irish D. But this year Notre Dame has struggled early against the run. If Purdue gets a ground attack moving early, they could stretch the game and use Charlie Weis' favorite plan - playing defense with a ball-control offense - against him for the upset victory and a 5-0 start.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

This is another firm test for the Irish, because they've gotten back something they've not had since the middle of the 4th-quarter against Penn State: momentum. The good vibes from early on in the season after the Irish gritted out a tough road victory and then gutted a challenger in their home debut are now back. Last week the challenge was to avoid a spillover effect, and the Irish flopped on that front in the first half. The whole team looked like they were still trying to figure out what had gone wrong the week before against the Wolverines. Now the script gets turned in the other direction - can the same confidence and urgency that propelled the comeback in East Lansing be channeled from the first snap in South Bend?

The defense looked paper-thin in the first half vs. Michigan State, but rose to the challenge in the second and earned back a little swagger bottling up the Michigan State offense, preventing them from closing out the victory, and then taking charge with three late turnovers. Purdue presents many of the same looks as the Spartans, particularly from the quarterback position. Their receivers lack the overall depth of previous years, but with Tiller it has always been the system more than the individual skills. That's why 2005 was such a shock to the Boiler faithful after 8 consecutive bowl bids.

The first two series for both sides of the ball will be telling for the Irish. Will they play with fire and intensity straight out of the gate, or wait until things get really sticky before kicking it into gear? Purdue's defense is shaky and their offense has potential but is inexperienced in an environment like Notre Dame Stadium. If the Irish exploit the advantages they have on both fronts, they win easily.

The Prediction

Notre Dame can go in one of two directions after Saturday's thriller: play loosey-goosey and assume they'll win the game on paper, or realize that they've yet to prove to people how good they really can be. Here's guessing Charlie Weis has prepared for the latter.

Notre Dame 37, Purdue 17.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Dream Is Over

Sox officially eliminated last night, and they didn't even bother to fight to the bitter end, losing in Cleveland 14-1. A Twins victory over the hapless Kansas City Royals (something the Sox should've had a few more of) ended the agony about a half-hour later.

Seriously, the Sox went 11-8 against Kansas City, AKA the Worst Team in Baseball. The Detroit Tigers are on track to go 17-1 against them. Something just didn't click with this year's guys.

More to come on this later. For now, a moment of silence please...


Monday, September 25, 2006

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 40, Michigan State 37

Saving the season, or merely postponing the inevitable crash and burn?

Redeeming the offense for its struggles, or using lucky breaks to mask defensive weaknesses?

Doesn't it always feel good to be asking these questions after a win?

The 40-37 slugfest in East Lansing had a little bit of everything - sideline fights, trick plays, gutsy 4th-down calls, and crucial turnovers and bizarre changes of fortune that swung momentum wildly in either team's favor all night long.

From the get-go, the Irish looked like the first half against Michigan had never ended. The offense stalled. Special teams committed killer turnovers. The defense got caught with their pants down. And they went into the locker room down 31-14.

And the game was more lopsided than the score indicated.

Things weren't looking much better heading into the 4th quarter, as the rain evolved into a steady downpour, the wind turned back against Notre Dame, and the Spartans went in for a 37-21 lead. Then a funny thing happened on the way to complete disaster: Brady Quinn and the Irish offense finally took advantage of the opportunity they'd been given.

Let's clear up this "luck" thing. Of course Notre Dame was the beneficiary of the same type of Spartan miscues that seem to happen every year at right about the same time in the season for John L. Smith's team. Kirk Herbstreit didn't mince words in Saturday's broadcast, saying, "If you've been watching Michigan State football for the past 50 years, you know that this is why you're Michigan State." Not the last 5 years, or the last 20, or even 40. This apparently has been a recurring theme for half-a-century.

So to recap: Michigan State's Drew Stanton committed three turnovers in the final 8 minutes, Brady Quinn threw 5 TDs to help rally the Irish, and the now (once again) much-maligned Irish defense made the killer blow with an interception return for a touchdown by Terrail Lambert. Not a bad day at the office, all things considered.

Of course, many holes remain. For one thing, how to get the Irish to play with a sense of urgency straight out of the gate, rather than waiting until their actually in an emergency, down 17. On the whole the offense is still sputtering in and out of gear, and the defense of course still has major problems.

Coach Weis wasn't really in the mood to discuss any of that just yet on the rain-soaked field Saturday night. For one night, while students danced wildly in Stonehenge next to LaFortune, Weis let his players whoop it up. "I'm not bringing them down until Sunday", he said.

Nobody's confusing them with the '66 team just yet, but these Irish pulled
off what couldn't be done 40 years earlier - win the tough battle at Spartan Stadium.


Friday, September 22, 2006


Last year's 44-41 overtime thriller in South Bend was Michigan State's fifth consecutive victory in Notre Dame Stadium, seventh in the last nine games of the series, and a personal point of emphasis due to what happened immediately after the finish: a band of Michigan State players, apparently under a severe amount of emotional distress due to the absence of the precious Megaphone Trophy, spiked the Spartan flag at midfield.

A little churlish? Maybe. Out of line? Who cares? Neither side seems content to forget about it though, with media types baiting Notre Dame into saying something stupid and Michigan State players flashing a mix of ignorance and quiet pride at marking their 'territory'. Whatever the setup might be, Charlie Weis isn't in the mood to forget about it (behind closed doors), while John L. Smith's troops keep trying to spin it as simply an act of aggression born from the temporary dissociative insanity that was wrought by the emotional trauma of being separated from the one, the only, Megaphone. Seriously, that's what one of them said...

#12 Notre Dame vs. Michigan State
8:00 PM EDT
Spartan Stadium - East Lansing, MI

Why Michigan State Will Win

All it takes is one look at the Michigan game film to know how to beat Notre Dame. Go deep, go fast, go often. The neutralizing factor could be that the Spartans don't have a receiving corps the likes of Breaston, Manningham, and Arrington. But they do have Drew Stanton.

Stanton is one of the top QB prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft, drawing a lot of Jay Cutler comparisions. Quick feet, strong arm, killer instincts, and a thirst to beat the Irish. He entered the 2004 contest in the second half and directed a pair of scoring drives, pulling MSU within 31-24. Who knows what might've happened had he started the game. He was 16 of 27 for 327 in the 2005 game when State carved up the Irish for 488 yards and 44 points. The attack has been even stronger in 2005, ranking now as the #3 total offense in Division I-A.

Stanton is the key to the Spartan offense, no surprise there. The Irish have the experience of a dual-threat QB already this season with Georgia Tech's Reggie Ball, but Stanton has displayed a much higher "football IQ" during his tenure at State. The key matchup again lies in the trenches - Notre Dame gets pressure on Stanton, they buy time for their offense to play the preferred method of "grinder ball". They don't pressure Stanton, and it's a shootout under the lights.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

There are statement games, coming-out parties, arrivals, bounceback performances, and clutch performances. Is it possible to have all 5 in one?

Brady Quinn needs to abuse the suspect Spartan defense - they rank #49 with 300 yds/game allowed through their 3-0 start, but they've been tested against Idaho (#73 in total offense), Eastern Michigan (#95), & Pittsburgh (#50). Notre Dame clocks in at just #68 in those rankings as of now, but that's artificially low thanks to a total of 4 yards rushing vs. Michigan.

Anyway, if you're Brady Quinn and your Heisman hopes are essentially DOA, national titles dreams fading fast, you need to use primetime on ABC as a statement game - Michigan didn't rattle me. And a coming-out party - he's yet to have a lights out game this season. And an arrival - when will he develop the rythm with Samardzija of a year ago? And a bounceback performance from the 4 turnover debacle against the Wolverines.

And who knows, depending on how flimsy both teams could play defense, he might need to come through in the deep clutch. Another tough environment, another hostile crowd, a lot of history in the building due to the Spartans' honoring their 1966 team (which played Notre Dame's '66 championship squad to the infamous 10-10 tie), and an opponent that's no pushover. Want to get back in the national limelight, Brady? Come to play Saturday night.

The Prediction

Sometimes you throw the conventional wisdom out the window - it says high-scoring, tight battle, rough environment for the Irish.

What do I say? PAYBACK'S A BITCH.

Notre Dame 48, Michigan State 13.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Oh What's the Point...

The Last Stand isn't turning out to be a very rousing one (although this junk might actually be better than a certain X-Men movie which was in fact
The Last Stand).

Ozzie's only words after tonight's 9-0 loss to the Mariners was "embarassing". And then some. The Sox even wasted a chance to revive their playoff hopes from flatline to asystole by failing to take advantage of both Detroit & Minnesota losses.

The only bright spot in this 1-3 opening half of the homestand was Freddy Garcia's follow-up masterpiece in the 7-0 win over the Tigers on Tuesday. Otherwise, it's just been confirmation of what the 2006 White Sox Eulogy should be: Good, But Not Good Enough.

Tonight's Chicago Tribune asks the question: What reason stands out as to why the Sox will miss the playoffs? Choice A was the obvious - the Twins & Tigers were both better. Some times that's how baseball is. You can have a team capable of 92 wins - my final prediction for the Sox - and be stuck at home, even in the Wild Card era. That would be good enough for the playoffs in the NL this year, and most AL years, but not in 2006. Oh well.

To get back to the point, while Choice A seems pretty obvious, the poll is quite strange because Choice C is directly responsible for the fact known as Choice A. It shocked me to learn this statement made in Choice C, but after about 2 seconds reflection it sounded about right. The 2006 White Sox have won 21 fewer games against opponents with sub-.500 records. 21 fewer than 2005. And somehow they will only lose about 6 to 7 games off of their total won-loss record. It's the definition of underachieving, of not taking care of business. If that number at this point in the season were 13, the Sox would be preparing to clinch the AL Central.

And can I just ask: for the love of God, what happened to Neal Cotts? It was like I turned around one day and his 4-0, 1.94 ERA was gone, replaced by an ERA close to five and a pathetic string of appearances with at least one run allowed. The most alarming numbers for him: 10 HR allowed in 53 innings for '06, compared to 1 in 60 all of last season. Also just 43 strikeouts vs. 58 a year ago. That's what it took to ignore 23 more hits allowed (61 vs. 38) as his most damaging statistic.

We'll keep bantering about this wheeze to the finish line later. For now I'm just going to savor the last few games of the season, then pop in the Complete 2005 Playoff Run on DVD during October.


Monday, September 18, 2006

The Last Stand

Now coming to a theater near you - the end of a fun ride.

I want to be supportive at a time like this. In fact, you need to be supportive at a time like this. But the time for hopes and kisses has long since passed.

Here's the reality, about to be written in stone during the final 13 games: in 2006, the Chicago White Sox were good, but nowhere near good enough.

If it wasn't a letdown from the starting pitching, it was a complete meltdown in the bullpen. If it wasn't suspect defense by players who don't belong on the field to begin with (Rob Mackowiak, please pick up the white courtesy phone), it was the offense completely forsaking the concept of a clutch hit.

Here's where the SOX STANDINGS are as of now, before the start of play on September 18th:

WHITE SOX, 84-65
4 games back in the Wild Card, 5 games back in the Central
Magic # for the Playoffs: 18

The sliver of good news: the Sox begin a three game set with Detroit tonight and have a three game set with Minnesota to finish the season. Sandwiched in between are 4 games with the last-place Mariners and three with fourth-place Cleveland.

13 games. To have any chance the Sox need to go 11-2, maybe even 12-1 or hit the jackpot with the Baker's Dozen. It would be damn near impossible for a club playing out of its mind, and the Sox just aren't anywhere close to that this year.

And here's something else. If I pulled away anything from this weekend, in which Notre Dame got spanked and Frank Thomas delivered what will probably be looked at as the finishing blow to the Sox playoff chances, it's this: players come and go. Managers, owners, media pundits, hypesters, they come and go. But the fans remain. Fans give a program some measure of pride, confidence, a sense that no matter what, they'll always have somebody in their corner.

When I go down, I go down swingin', and I know what I went down for. Let's "give 'em a finish", as the Hawk would say.


Can't ever take it away...


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Post Mortem: Michigan 47, Notre Dame 21

Let's start with the obvious. You know, any time you're minus four in the turnover ratio in a game, with our five turnovers to their one, you really have no chance of winning the game.

Going into the game, we always emphasize ball possession. We obviously did a very, very poor job of that starting with that second play on offense, interception for the touchdown followed by the kickoff return of which unit we were horrendous the whole day on. We'll get to that here in a minute. That's another turnover.

Then we got hit one time on a pass for a turnover. Then we threw across our body one time for a turnover. Then to put the icing on the cake, the fumble return for the touchdown at the end of the game. You're basically giving 24 points.

When you're playing against a formidable opponent like Michigan, you can't do something like that and think you have any chance of winning the game.

Say this for Charlie Weis - he's got a commitment to the truth. Michigan came, they saw, they forced mistakes, and they conquered.

Take nothing away from the Wolverines - they outmanuevered and outgunned the Irish in all three phases of the game. But Notre Dame contributed quite a bit to its own demise.

On the second play of the game, a Brady Quinn bullet deflected straight off the hands of John Carlson and into the arms of Prescott Burgess, who waltzed into the endzone for a 7-0 lead. That early bad break seemed neutralized when Chinedum Ndukwe picked off Chad Henne to set up an easy 4-yard scoring drive.

That would be as good as it got all day for the Irish. Henne kept his composure while Quinn seemed at times to be desperately evading ghost tacklers. Let's not sugarcoat things - Michigan's line generated the best front four pressure Quinn has seen this season. But it wasn't like he ended every play on his duff. More often than not, the front five of the Irish gave Quinn time. The key was Michigan's effective coverage and some curious playcalling by Coach Weis. But when the game was 34-7 in the middle of the 2nd quarter, exactly how many options did they have?

It was eerily familiar to the game that had been played just one week earlier against Penn State, only this time with the Irish being throttled due to their own incompetence instead of the other way around. There's plenty of blame to spread on this day, but during the first half the Irish were without question their own worst enemy.

Three plays stand out - the Carlson deflection, Manningham's 70-yard TD during which no defender got within 20 yards of him, and (most importantly) David Grimes' fumbled kickoff return after the Wolverines had gone up 13-7. You could pick any number of players, coaches, schemes, mistakes, blown assignments, dropped passes, whiffed tackles...the list goes on.

And it's a complete list, a true team failure on every level. Suddenly, the match with Michigan State isn't just a revenge game - it's become the most important game of Charlie Weis' tenure.

Zbikowski and the Irish defense had no answers on this day.


Friday, September 15, 2006

It's In The Game...RIVALRY GAME

Michigan's coming to town. One of these teams is ranked in the Top 5 with national title aspirations. The other is on mend from a 7-5 record. But unlike many past meetings, its a case of role reversal - Charlie Weis and Irish are #2 in the AP Poll, while LLLLLoyd Carr is fighting off the antsy alumni from a Wolverine program that can't seem to break back to the next level. Since Carr's shared national championship in 1997, Michigan has never lost less than 2 games per season. Much like Larry Coker, Carr is discovering national title good-will ain't what is used to be in today's college football world.

The Irish-Wolverines rivalry is defined only by the intensity within the past 20 years - 1980's Harry Oliver kick, 1989's Rocket Ismail show, 1991's Desmond Howard tour-de-force, 1999's nailbiter, 2005's Irish Upset. Unlike USC, there is NOT what you could call a healthy respect between the two schools. The teams genuinely don't like each other before the game, during the game, and after the game. Here comes Preview 3...

#2 Notre Dame vs. #11 Michigan
3:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame Stadium - Notre Dame, IN

Why Michigan Will Win

Michigan's Defense. It's as good as any the Irish will face this season, and it's largely the same unit that handcuffed Brady Quinn throughout last year's game - Quinn was 19 of 30 last year in Ann Arbor with a pair of touchdowns, but totaled just 140 yards through the air and the Irish offense as whole tallied just 244. Led by Lamarr Woodley and Alan Branch up front, this will be the stiffest challenge yet for an Irish O-line that's had trouble picking up blitzes during the first two games.

On offense, the Wolverines have a solid but unspectacular group of performers when you consider all the hype attached to them. QB Chad Henne has been the in system for three years and had only occasional flashes of brilliance, while Mike Hart has struggled with injuries ever since his breakout freshman season. Wideout/return specialist Steve Breaston has been touted as the next Desmond Howard since he arrived on campus 4 years ago, but the results (like the rest of the Wolverines squad) haven't matched the expectations.

Bottom line, the Wolverines present the most complete package of speed, athleticism, leadership, and experience the Irish will face before the season finale against USC. If Michigan springs the upset, it will be because of their attacking front seven doing what Georgia Tech and Penn State failed to do - not only to pressure Brady Quinn, but force him into game-changing mistakes.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Notre Dame's offensive line has been called a 'disguised weakness' during the first two games, its faults being covered by the fact that the Irish won their first two contests in spite of their sometimes suspect work. Now they face their biggest test and (quite possibly) the strongest defense on their schedule.

Will Sam Young continue to quietly perform under the intense pressure of being the first freshman to start a season upfront for the Irish? Can the veterans - Santucci, Morton, & Harris - eliminate the dumb mistakes they've been prone to during the opening games? For all the talk about Brady Quinn's Heisman candidacy and Darius Walker's vision as a running back, the Irish offense won't be able to build on their 34-point display against Penn State if they can't beat back the Wolverines in the trenches. It might be repeated ad nauseum, but it's also true - the football game is won and lost in the trenches.

That goes for Notre Dame's defense too. Derek Landri and Trevor Laws have been awfully quiet this year - they'll need to blow up the protection early and often against Henne and harass him into the key mistakes he made in the Big House a year ago when he committed two red-zone turnovers. The real X-factor will be Chinedum Ndukwe: he's becoming the Glenn Earl of this unit - aka The Hit Man. Having decked Calvin Johnson and Derrick Williams in back-to-back games, look for him to welcome Steve Breaston to the neighborhood at some point on Saturday.

The Prediction

There's no such thing as a "trap game" when the opponent is ranked #11. This is no surprise attack coming from Ann Arbor. This is a good football team that - most importantly - wants blood in a tough rivalry contest. Nothing would give the Wolverines more satisfaction then knocking the Irish down a few pedestals on their march to a perfect season. This will be a close, intense game that the Irish seize with the help of solid special teams play and methodical offense, allowing them to grind the clock and win the field position battle.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan 17.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006


OK - Freddy Garcia pitching 7 and 2/3 of perfect ball qualifies as a reason to believe.

In other news: Minnesota not only loses the game to Oakland, but has now lost Francisco Liriano for the rest of the season. Could this be the break the Sox need?

SOX STANDINGS: 84-62, 1.5 Back in the Wild Card, 3.5 in the Central
MAGIC # for the Playoffs: 19

8:20 PM ET Update -- Rangers 4, Tigers 0.


The Death Knell...

In 2005, the White Sox rallied around "Don't Stop Believin'", that awesomely bad '80s power anthem from awesomely bad '80s pop rockers Journey.

No word yet if AJ Pierzynski has adopted another late-season rallying song, but at this point a good suggestion would be Rod Stewart's "Reason to Believe".

With the Tigers winning by virtue of 3 solo homers and a good pitching performance from Kenny Rogers, and the Twins AGAIN dipping into their magic well for a comeback win against Oakland, last night's extra-inning affair in Anaheim was a game the Sox needed to have. For their own psyche, 1.5 is a lot less a mountain to climb than 2.5.

Well, mission un-accomplished. First, the Sox squandered a quality outing from Mark Buehrle - 7 innings, 3 runs, and two of them coming off a Juan Rivera homer in the first. I only mention that because if you happen to catch the replay of Rivera's blast, your thoughts will be the same as mine: WHAT THE HELL IS HE DOING SWINGING AT THAT PITCH? It wasn't even a little below his knees. It was tailing towards his ankles. Yet somehow he golf-balled it over the left field fence.

Then the Sox wasted the outstanding relief effort of Matt Thornton, who retired Garret Anderson with the go-ahead run on 3rd in the 8th. In the top of the 9th they had first and third, 1 out and couldn't score. Then Bobby Jenks came on to intentionally walk Vlad Guerrero and needed only one pitch to get Rivera to ground into a double-play to end the 10th. Then in the 11th Ross Gload was at second and nobody could pick him up. (This all relates to the fifth when the Sox gambled with the double-steal and lost; I know a lot of people hate Scott Podsednik for this, but stealing 3rd is about the only thing he's been consistently great at this season - 26 of 28 before last night's attempt).

So finally, with all these blown chances you knew it was coming - Chone Figgins (who, if you believe the LA Times might be part of a package for the Halos to get Joe Crede in the offseason, thereby sparing Kenny Williams the torture of having to negotiate with Scott Boras) singled in the winning run with 2 out in the 11th.

SOX STANDINGS: 83-62, 2.5 Back in the Wild Card, 4 Back in the Division
Magic # for the Playoffs: 21

But really - if the Sox can't win that game, what can they win in the big picture this season? Grinder Rule #30 is that "Good Enough, Isn't". While that may sound like Yoda talking, it's gonna wind up being a pretty neat summation of the 2006 White Sox. If any of these 3 teams battling in the AL Central were in the NL, they'd be about one win away from clinching and already setting up their postseason rotation. The Sox have been good, sometimes great, but ultimately not great enough this year. They need to gain 2.5 games in the final 17. It can definitely be done.

I'm just looking for a reason to believe THESE Sox can do it.


Monday, September 11, 2006

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 41, Penn State 17

Well, that was a pleasant surprise.

Not that Notre Dame's offense isn't capable of scoring 41 points. But even the most optimistic of (unbiased) prognosticators wouldn't have figured this would be the game for them to do it in.

Technically speaking the Irish hung only 34 on Penn State's young defensive unit, and surprisingly they did it by going straight at the stellar linebacking unit of the Nittany Lions. Rather than go deep early and often against an untested secondary, Brady Quinn was often looking for (rather than settling for) TE John Carlson across the middle as well as Darius Walker out of the backfield. Walker was bottled up in the running game with only 56 yards on 20 carries, but he compensated by being the top pass catcher with 7 grabs for 72 yards and a touchdown.

Brady Quinn's Heisman candidacy is alive and well: 25 of 36 for 297 and 3 TDs, and (what new?) absolutely zero mistakes. Quinn said after the game he'd like to have a few throws back, but overall the unit had a good day against a good (but overvalued) team.

Now the real question: where do the Irish go from here? Penn State was supposed to be the opponent that would drain them leading into the Michigan game; the starters were all gone by the end of the 3rd quarter. The defense held Penn State to 211 yards through the first 3 quarters before the second and third stringers allowed a pair of meaningless (though long) touchdown drives during garbage time. So did the Irish simply benefit from a bevy of early Nittany mistakes, or are they really that good?

Probably a mix of the two at this point. Coach Weis had a lot of compliments to dish out in the post-game presser, but by Sunday afternoon was back to his churlish self having glanced at the tape. He correctly pounced on the fact that the Irish left scoring opportunities out there during the first half, tallying only 6 points through the first 20 minutes, and the same bug that cut down drives against Georgia Tech - penalties - reared its ugly head on Saturday. There were definitely some slip-ups, but they didn't hurt the Irish due to sheer Nittany Lion ineptitude. The Wolverines are unlikely to be as forgiving.

Paterno has been coaching since before Weis was born, but
the "young gun" came out on top Saturday.


Friday, September 08, 2006

Snow Bowl Revisited

It's one of Notre Dame football's most indelible images - Reggie Brooks, every inch of his body extended, corraling with his fingertips a desperation bullet from the pressured arm of Rick Mirer, stabbing his foot in bounds for a successful 2-point play and a thrilling 17-16 win over Penn State in 1992. It's more than a game. It will live on forever as "The Snow Bowl".

Now, 14 years later, the Nittany Lions return to expanded Notre Dame Stadium riding momentum from an 11-1 campaign in 2005 - and, quite frankly if you ask me, an inflated opinion of themselves. Maybe seeing the Irish struggle in the face of the Georgia Tech blitzkrieg defense has provided a boost to their confidence, but confidence carries you only so far when you're breaking in 8 new defensive players who've never made a road start, let alone one on as big of a stage as Notre Dame Stadium will be on Saturday.

Will the Irish win it all? We'll see. One thing is for sure - they'll have no chance if they don't take care of JoePa and the Nittanies. On to preview #2 of 12:

#4 Notre Dame vs. #19 Penn State
3:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame Stadium - Notre Dame, IN

Why Penn State Will Win

Its linebacking corps is the swiftest and deepest in the country. All-America candidates Paul Pozlusny and Dan Connor certainly feel better about themselves after watching Ga. Tech's Philip Wheeler become the most noticeable player in the Notre Dame backfield on Saturday. They're smart, athletic, and carry a badge of pride as the de-facto leaders on a defense that lost 8 starters, including monster rush end Tamba Hali and the entire secondary.

The thing to watch with the Nittany Lions is how all their young guns on both sides of the ball react to the intensity of the spotlight. It's one thing to be on the sidelines when Michael Robinson is leading a late-charge at Michigan's Big House; it's quite another for Anthony Morelli to assume that wheel on his own in what is sure to be a fired-up Notre Dame Stadium. And lemme ask - if Morelli is the best arm JoePa has ever coached, why'd he ride the bench behind Michael "WR/RB/KR/DB" Robinson?

Make no mistake though, the Nittany Lions are a talented bunch. Most of them very green, but very talented none the less. If they block out distractions and hype and play to their potential, they can pull off the upset.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

All it took was one average game, his first, on the road in a hostile environment, and suddenly Brady Quinn is asking the Heisman voters, "Hey, what about me?"

Quinn knows he dropped opportunities to blow the game open against the Yellow Jackets. The hallmark of a great QB? Never making the same mistake twice. All eyes are on Quinn, and not just because NBC's cameras would rather not show Tom "Man Eater" Zbikowski and his mohawk. This is Quinn's statement game, just like Troy Smith's will be later on tomorrow in Austin. Forget about individual awards and all the other superflous crap - if Notre Dame expects big things to come from this season, it needs a big performance on the biggest of stages from its 4-year starter.

The 4th year is particularly key. The Irish may in fact be less talented than Penn State - but experience is one skill that lacks a tangible element. I can't define how much experience determines the outcome, but I know it when I see it. Look for Quinn and his 8 fellow returning starters to show some moxie and assert themselves early against a young and perhaps foolishly aggressive PSU defense. Getting off to a quick start is key - a young team not only can be deflated quicker, but on the flip side gains confidence and poise the longer you let them stick around.


The biggest thing working in ND's favor is a ton of veteran experience matching up with solid but unproven potential - particularly in the secondary where 4 new starters have to match up with Rhema McKnight & Jeff Samardzija. Much like last week, Irish fans should know that Penn State will make a game of it, but overall leadership and the surge of the home crowd carries the Irish to a late-game clinching score.

Notre Dame 31, Penn State 21.


It's Too Depressing

Sox Drop The Ball, 9-1 to the Indians.

STANDINGS: 1/2 Behind the Twins for the Wild Card
Magic # for the Playoffs: Stalled at 24

Panic time?


Monday, September 04, 2006

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 14, Georgia Tech 10

Better. Not great, but better.

That's the Irish defense I'm talking to. The offense turned out to be a whole 'nother story.

The Irish 'O' was flustered all night on Saturday, sweltering in the heat of Bobby Dodd Stadium and a jacked-up home crowd that defended their turf better than anybody expected. I know I personally was predicting Irish fans would achieve Nebraska 2000 levels of attendance for this game, and while it was an impressive turnout for the road team, the crowd in Atlanta still made their presence felt.

So did Georgia Tech's defensive mastermind, Jon Tenuta. He had Quinn rushed and popped and blitzed and confused through most of the game, but his unit never was able to get the key mistake the Yellow Jackets needed to turn the game back in their favor. Quinn finished 23 of 38 for 246 yards and no touchdowns, but he had a number of key runs and audibled for a daring QB draw TD at the end of the first half after Notre Dame had burned its last timeout. Weis schemed out enough plays in the final 35 minutes of the game, with the Irish posting consecutive TD drives of 14 plays (80 & 64 yds., respectively).

Then it was the defense's turn to make a statement. While nobody will be forgetting about the Fiesta Bowl just yet, as a unit they look much more in-tune with the speed of the game. Lee Corso crowed in the buildup to this season that while the Irish had made efforts to improve their "pure" speed, there would still be a glaring deficit in the "game speed" department. How soon would they react? How well could they communicate? And how on Earth would they contain Calvin Johnson?

While there were some cringe-worthy whiffs on tackles and a noticeable difficulty in pressuring QB Reggie Ball, the Irish neutralized his favorite target after being burned for 5 catches, 95 yards and a TD in the first quarter and a half. The biggest head turner was Travis Thomas at his new position of outside linebacker, who was displaying exactly the type of "fly-all-over-the-field" style that Weis envisioned when he proposed the switch. Chinedum Ndukwe looked a lot more comfortable (and far more agile) at strong safety. In a nod to conditioning coach Reuben Mendoza, his reputedly hellish workout routines seem to have paid off as the Irish were easily outpacing and outhitting the Yellow Jackets as the game wore on in the Southern night, despite being the Yankees from up North.

And then there was the kicking game. Geoff Price? Check-plus. Bobby Renkes? Check-plus. Carl Gioia? I'll get back to you.

While I think we all would have enjoyed another 500-yard, 42-point performance in the opening road win, fact of the matter is the Irish are 1-0 and survived the first tough test knowing they can play much better. The story shouldn't be so much about how everybody overestimated Notre Dame, but rather how unappreciated Georgia Tech is. Maybe Chan Gailey won't be able to get that team into the ACC title hunt, but his staff prepares for big games as good as anybody (see upsets over Auburn and Miami last season, both on the road, and five wins over ranked opponents the last two seasons).

It got the job done against Tech. Now Penn State and JoePa come-a-callin'.


Friday, September 01, 2006


8 months has seemed like an eternity. But ever since Notre Dame walked off the field in Tempe with the wind taken out of their sails by a 34-20 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, September 2nd has loomed large. So now we're just 25 hours away from Kickoff, 2006.

This is the most hyped Irish squad since the 1992 team. In fact, there are some intriguing similarities between the two:

-- Each had a cover boy QB with devilish good looks and a golden arm (Rick Mirer; Brady Quinn).
-- Each had a defense that sagged throughout the previous season yet brought back almost every key starter for another go round.
-- Each defense was coached by Rick Minter.
-- Each had a number of high-profile freshman tossed into the starting lineup from the get-go (Bobby Taylor; Sam Young)
-- Each was expected to bring home Notre Dame's 12th national championship.

Of course, the '92 squad battled to a memorable tie with Michigan, saw its title dreams dashed in a 33-15 shocker to Stanford, then rallied for an amazing 17-16 win over Penn State and a 34-24 triumph over USC to close the year. (The Penn State game was particularly memorable, not just because Reggie Brooks' fingertip grab of the 2-point conversion with 20 seconds left stands out as THE play in Notre Dame football from my younger years, but because it was considered to be the last game the two schools would ever play. Next week's opponent for the Irish? JoePa and the Nittanies.)

So first up for the Irish is Georgia Tech, the fifth team in the ACC with a knack for playing like the first when the situation calls for it. They topped Auburn and Miami last season, but also got thumped 51-7 against Virginia Tech, squeaked by Clemson and dropped games to underachieving Virginia and North Carolina State. And that was before they lost their bowl game to Utah 38-10.

So, without further ado, here's your first of 12 Notre Dame football game previews...

#2 Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech
8:00 PM EDT
Bobby Dodd Stadium -- Atlanta, GA

Why Georgia Tech Will Win

Calvin Johnson. Calvin Johnson. Calvin Johnson. Did we mention Calvin Johnson? The Yellow Jackets most potent weapon is a freakishly good 6'5" specimen with hands of glue and a 4.4 40-yard dash. With all due respect to Dwayne Jarret and Jeff Samardzija, Johnson certainly is the most talented wideout in the country. Will he have the best season? TBD.

At the very least, though, Georgia Tech will need Johnson to bring his 'A' game in order to spring the upset. Despite a lighter Chinedum Ndukwe and more seasoned Ambrose Wooden, Mike Richardson, & Tom Zbikowski, the four returning starters in the ND secondary ought to have their hands full.

Ought is the operative word in that sentence. The wild card in the Ramblin' Wreck's plan is 4th-year QB Reggie Ball, who after 4 years in The ATL still has happy feet and an unflattering ability to run 30 yards for a net gain of two on a scramble. Still, when Ball is on he's a nightmare - just ask Auburn. If Chan Gailey and his staff were smart, they spent plenty of time with the Fiesta Bowl game film, which spelled out perfectly how to exploit Notre Dame's defensive weaknesses thanks to an athletic, scrambling QB.

Despite what Ball can potentially due with his legs, he still is going up against an experienced defensive unit with a lot to prove. Victor Abiamiri surged late last season and is looking to finish with a flourish. And as an acknowledgement to how thoroughly humbling the Troy Smith was against Ohio State, slash back Travis Thomas switched to linebacker to boost the unit's overall speed. If the Yellow Jackets win though, it'll be because of a steady diet of Calvin Johnson.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Simply put: "Have you SEEN the Irish offense?" And before everybody chimes in with the chorus of "They didn't beat anybody last year!", let me say it for the 7,000th time: the 2005 schedule had the #1, #3, and #4 teams among its 8 ranked opponents when the season started. A 9th opponent, Michigan State, climbed into the Top 10 before a last-second loss to Michigan and a meltdown against Ohio State sent them spiraling to a 5-6 record. You don't get to have it both ways - you can't chide Notre Dame for it' murderous schedule, inflate your opinion of its opponents, then discredit Notre Dame's victories as meaningless. If the Irish had lost to Michigan and Tennessee, the howls of how impractical the ND schedule is would be in full swing, and the Irish would enter the year with significantly less hype.

But I digress. Offensively, look for things to diversify in Year Two under Charlie Weis, as Brady Quinn will add another element to his arsenal - complete freestylin' at the line. Weis says it isn't quite "Peyton Manning" type freedom, but Quinn has gained a comfort level inside the complicated pro-style attack to the point where he'll no longer be checking off, but changing the entire play right at the line.

And then there's his weapons. Jeff Samardzija, Darius Walker, a healthy Rhema McKnight, four returning starters on the offensive line. The Irish are built to win because they can match and beat what any team on their schedule puts on the scoreboard. The biggest factor working in favor of the Irish - Georgia Tech is breaking in a brand-new secondary against a Heisman-caliber quarterback, two top-flight receivers and a 3rd-year starter at running back.

Pratfalls still exist, however. One in particular: Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, who deserves most of the credit for Tech's five upsets over ranked opponents in the last two years (Tech has allowed an average of 15 points in those wins). He prides himself on variety of inventive blitz packages and coverage schemes. Ordinarily that would be alarming, particularly if this ND squad was still coached by You-Know-Who.


It's not hard to see Georgia Tech turning in a competitive game. It is hard, however, to see them winning the in-game strategic chess match long enough to pull out a victory. For all the fears of complacency and talk of an overconfident Irish squad, the "overrated" whispers may leave them more motivated than anything else.

FINAL SCORE: Notre Dame 37, Georgia Tech 20