Monday, November 27, 2006

Post Mortem: USC 44, Notre Dame 24

So close, and yet so far.

What a strange game to be associated with, and not just because the LA Coliseum has got to be the least appealing, worst-sounding stadium to watch football in the land-locked United States, or because there were somehow empty seats across the USC student section for what was supposed to the biggest game of their season.

Looking at everything except the score on the stat sheet, this was an even tilt contest. Yardage - identical at 404 yards, and well spread between running and passing for both teams. First downs - comparable, ND's 18 to USC's 21. USC committed two turnovers and had a bunt blocked versus Notre Dame's one fumble in the red zone, which was neutralized by that blocked kick. Time of possession was a draw, penalty yardage was a wash (42 yards against the Irish, 39 against the Trojans), and Notre Dame never started with field position worse than its own 20, twice taking over the ball at or beyond midfield.

Yet the Irish never significantly threatened, and the reason this time was pretty simple: USC was just too good.

Blaming coach and scheme is the easy way out, most of the time. Obviously personnel will always be the deciding factor in football and, over time, consistently meager personnel is the quickest way for a coach to get fired. But what a lot of Notre Dame fans love to do after a loss, whether by one point or by 50, is rant and rave about how coaching is the root of all problems, as if Rick Minter alone could devise a way to have four guys with 4.5 speed cover a quartet of receivers who all run a 4.3 (Not that anybody, least of all Charlie Weis, should absolve Minter of blame. It's one thing for a guy to be fast, but when he's also ridiculously wide open, that's partly on the coach. More on that later).

Now comes the refrains that boiled over during the Michigan aftermath: "Weis is too uptight. He's too wrapped up in the professional mentality. He doesn't get how special college football is, he doesn't let his kids be kids, he doesn't give them time to have fun. Look at Pete Carroll - he's a guy who knows how a college program should be run. Weis isn't there yet, and his team being uptight is the reason ND has lost 4 of their 5 games during his tenure."

Yeah, the Fiesta Bowl loss had nothing to do with the athleticism of Troy Smith, the speed of Ted Ginn and Antonio Pittman, or the fact that Ohio State showcased 5 first-round NFL draft picks. It was because Coach Weis limited the extracurricular activities to a team screening of "King Kong". Riiiiiggghhhtt....

Or, the Michigan game this year had nothing to do with Mike Hart or Prescott Burgess or Mario Manningham or Steve Breaston. It was because Weis spent the week not referring to Michigan by name, playing it as "just another game" instead of a civilization-as-we-know-it-will-end-if-we-lose cataclysmic event. Oooookkkkaaayyy...

If I hear one more person suck off Pete Carroll for his "Peter Pan meets Van Wilder" routine, lauding it as the greatest coaching style in the history of recorded sport, I'm going to puke. If USC were an 8-4 program, I guarantee people would not be amused by his fake suicide stunts and his pokes that opposing coaches look like their going to pick up the morning paper. But at USC Carroll is the Don of the Trojan Family - he can get a doorknob into what is otherwise a fine academic institution, set the kids up with ins to meet Snoop and Will Ferrell, entice them with the concept of three to four years of fun in the Los Angeles sun without the hassle of having to attend class, and God knows what else. (Before deciding I'm just a hopelessly bitter ND fan, bear in mind that I used to attend USC and encountered more than one football player in an "academic" setting, and I use the term academic in its broadest sense.)

Pete Carroll is basically Larry Coker but with continued winning. Got a running back who for FIVE STRAIGHT SEMESTERS can't get academically eligible? No problem with Reggie Bush, LenDale White, CJ Gable, and Emmanuel Moody all in the pipeline. Got a cornerback busted dealing out HUNDREDS of extascy pills? No sweat with Taylor Mays waiting in the wings. As long as the Trojans win Carroll will be the gold standard, but should he trip, he'll wind up like Coker - the fun-loving uncle who lets the kids get away with the things their parents won't allow. Just keep racking up wins, and nobody will have a problem.

What's any of this have to do with what happened on Saturday night anyhow? You could single out certain playcalls as a problem for the Irish - going to endzone on a managable fourth down in USC territory stands out, one that earned Weis a slap from resident Chicago Sun-Times doofus Jay Mariotti for "being arrogant". Of course, had it worked, it would've been another example of gutsy genius. But overall it would be tough to say Weis had the wrong gameplan in place and let that be the lone factor in Notre Dame's losing this game. The Irish didn't make the move when they had to, didn't steal the momentum of the game when it was right there to be stolen during a second quarter that featured two Trojan interceptions and a blocked punt. Those three plays had a residual effect of just 7 points and left the Irish in a 21-10 halftime hole. Part of that is playcalling, but a much bigger part is the fact that USC has a motherlode of the nation's top athletes, while Notre Dame has maybe a handful.

Ask Michigan how easy it is to mount a comeback on a top-tier opponent in their stadium when down double digits at halftime. The only reason Michigan has a case for an Ohio State rematch is because they DID turn Buckeye miscues into points during the 3rd quarter of that game, and the only reason they didn't lose by 11 was because of an atrocious pass-interference call in the waning moments of the 4th. Factor in that the only reason the Irish lost by 20 was because of an atrociously bad onside kick being housed by Brian Cushing, and the two of them had similar days during the biggest road tests of the season. Michigan fans can holler at me all they want, but the Wolverines couldn't stop Smith and Ginn any better than the Irish could contain John David Booty and Jarrett, so the comparision's valid in my mind.

So where does Notre Dame go from here? Most likely to a BCS bowl, with their credentials under much scrutiny from anybody without allegiances to making money. Not that the Irish did much to inspire confidence by losing the two biggest games of their season by a combined score of 91-45. But as long as they can cling to the top 14 of the all-powerful BCS standings, they're a good bet for either the Sugar, Rose, or Orange Bowls, in that order of likelihood. How intriguing might it be for Notre Dame to meet Florida in a Sugar Bowl the pundits say it doesn't deserve against a young hothead of a coach with no shortage of baggage in relation to Notre Dame? If that scenario sounds familiar, it's because it already happened once in 1992, with Jerome Bettis helping 8-3 Notre Dame provide an unhappy ending for Steve Spurrier's beautiful renaissance in Gainesville.

In the long run, Notre Dame still has some major holes, but they're not any different than what people already were saying. In the team speed department, they still are a step behind the elite programs, and not even the greatest schemes in the world can solve that. It cannot be disputed that two years in, Rick Minter's defensive philosophy has yet to prove consistent results. Maybe it can as youngsters Darrin Walls, Raeshon McNeil, and incoming elite prospect Gary Gray take over in the secondary, but Lord knows few Irish fans have the patience to find out. My gut tells me Minter will be here for at least another season, but I wouldn't call Charlie Weis the kind of man who hesistates if he sees a need for things to change.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Heavyweight Championship

Charlie Weis has termed Notre Dame's November schedule as "playoff mode". Made sense, especially when you see the Irish taking care of business two weeks ago against Air Force while nearly half the Top 10 fell in head-scratching upsets, and Florida narrowly avoided disaster against the Ol' Ball Coach. You have to play Week 1 well in order to get to Week 2.

And once the Irish were in Week 2, they spent most of that time getting prepped...for Week 3. Except that nobody other than Weis knew it. By the coach's count, roughly 66% of the practice time during the last week was focused on stuff the Irish would only need against USC. Smacks of Tiger Woods tanking early season tournaments just to perfect shots and strategies he's only going to need at Augusta National. Difference of course being that in this metaphor, the Trojans would have to be considered Tiger and the Irish, on their best day, might be Jim Furyk.

So it's come to this: a meeting of two powerful rivals on a Saturday night in the City of the Angels, one loss dangling over the head of each team, nearly everything still in front of them. The Trojans have the inside track all the way to "The Game" against Ohio State. Notre Dame would probably need to win this game by 17, have Florida and Arkansas respectively implode in their final two games, then pray for enough voter amnesia to vault past Michigan. Still, a spot in one of the four BCS bowl games is a virtual lock for the Irish, provided they don't embarrass themselves. Game 12...

#6 Notre Dame vs. #3 Southern California
5:00 PM PST
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum - Los Angeles, CA

Why USC Will Win

They're good. They're very, very good. And they know it.

Pete Carroll's brand of coaching, which consists of part strategist, part motivational speaker, and part bats**t-crazy pep clubber on speed, has made USC into the team of the '00s for college football. No getting around it - a chance to play for a third title in 4 seasons, to say nothing of 5 consecutive Pac-10 championships and 3 Heismans since 2002, tell you everything you need to know about the type of program Carroll has built since migrating to college after two unremarkable stints at the pro level.

The big question mark for the Trojans coming into 2006 was how they would replace their All-Heisman backfield, and while John David Booty may not be Matt Leinart quite yet, he's certainly no young and inexperienced first-year starter (come to think of it, neither was Leinart when he stepped in for Carson Palmer back in '03. Coincidence? I think not.) What a lot of people didn't account for in assessing USC before the season began was how much they retained, and how it would more than offset losing the three-headed monster of Leinart, Reggie Bush, and LenDale White. Sure, the Trojans miss the Hollywood A-Listers, but they kept almost all of the supporting cast and beefed up their roles: OL Sam Baker and Ryan Kalil, WR Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett, DE Lawrence Jackson, DT Sedrick Ellis, and the deepest LB crop in the country with Rey Maulauga, Dallas Sartz, Keith Rivers, Thomas Williams & Brian Cushing. They're stacked, plain and simple, at every position, and they have outstanding coaching to boot.

So the Trojans don't even have to focus on any one element in order to succeed Saturday night - they've got a clear-cut edge in a lot of categories on the Irish, across the board: more depth, more speed, more athleticism, particularly across the front 7, which absolutely demolished the morale of the Cal Bears last weekend. If they don't beat themselves (like they did against Oregon State), it's tought to see anybody beating them.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

I have yet to see the movie, but I already like the overarching theme of "Glory Road", even though it's the same as every other predictable yet honest and outstanding sports film produced by Disney during this decade. Coach Haskins, cajoling his players during a timeout (which I'm assuming is from the NCAA Championship game which Texas Western won), tells them:


The Irish will need to reach down deep and get in touch with every axiom about "who wins football games and why". At day's end, after all the coaching and prognosticating, it's about which group of 11 guys on the field wants it more. Who's willing to do what the other guy can't? Who's ready to fight for that extra inch, throw that extra block, surrender that extra ounce of themselves for the good of the team? Can the Irish be that group? If not, then statistically and physically speaking, they might as well not show up on Saturday. And if they should fight valiantly and lose by 13, they can go home with a 10-2 season, the only losses being to 2/3 of the top 3 teams in the country. Sometimes there are no rational explanations for why one team beats another. Sometimes the other team just makes one more play than you do, even though you had all the skill. Notre Dame needs to be "that other team".

Even so, tangible needs have to be met for Quinn & Co. to have a chance. Turnover battle - a must-win for the Irish. Some protection up front on the offensive line - essential. Extreme, extreme discipline along the defensive back seven in matching up with USC's stable of receivers and running backs - indispensable. But all that is secondary behind one deal-breaking question:


Notre Dame does.

The Prediction

Notre Dame and USC battle it out in the cool Los Angeles night, producing another taut, exciting game. ND has not played 60 minutes of flawless football, and that's exactly what it will take just to have a chance with an opponent of USC's caliber. Want to silence the critics? Then Win. Sometimes you do things without any rational basis, which is what I'm doing with my prediction on who's going to win this game. Every other measuring stick says USC should take it by at least 10 points. If the game played out 100 times, USC would probably win 96 or 97 times. But anything can happen, especially with what turned out to be two weeks of game prep for the Irish and a senior class that doesn't want anything else in the world except to defeat USC.

Notre Dame 38, USC 37.


Post Mortem: Notre Dame 41, Army 9

We didn't do a preview of this past weekend's Notre Dame-Army game. Turns out to have been a smart move, because the build-up for it was equivalent to that of a bye week.

You know what I'm talking about. 2/3 of the plays ran at practice during Army week weren't for Army. At the Friday night pep rally, Leprechaun Kevin Braun extolled the Irish faithful to cheer their squad to victory late Saturday - but he wasn't talking about Army. And by the time the Irish left the field after a very successful Senior Day, the scoreboard had Notre Dame squaring off against somebody, and it wasn't Army.

The game itself was a foregone conculsion; Bobby Ross conceded as much in his postgame comments that, "Notre Dame's just a lot better than we are, and we all know that." This Notre Dame team, while not actually looking past Army, was definitely looking USC.

Full preview coming tomorrow night. On a personal note, we here at Sox-Irish are happy to proclaim that the sixth (possibly seventh - historians differ over how far back the tradition reaches) annual TurkeyGate was, in the words of Borat, "GREAT SUCCESS!!! HIGH FIVE!" Now comes the follow-up: TurkeyGate in L.A.

See you Saturday.


Friday, November 10, 2006

Those Who Fail to Learn Air Force History...

...are doomed to repeat it.

1996 ought to be an example to every Notre Dame follower that Air Force cannot be taken lightly. The Irish have withstood some scares from Army and Navy, but the flyboys had 4 straight wins against ND in the '80s, then stunned the Irish 20-17 in overtime at Notre Dame Stadium in Lou Holtz's final season as coach. In fact, the Air Force game is looked to as the beginning of the end for Lou, which begat Bob Davie, which get the idea.

In 23 years under Fisher DeBerry, Air Force has proven that you can in fact build a consistent-if-not-dominant football program at a service academy, with their unique blend of the triple option often wreaking havoc in the Mountain West and delivering 12 bowl bids and 15 Commander-in-Cheif trophies. Add in that they play fearless: they went into Knoxville this season and played the Volunteers 'til the final whistle, electing to go for two after scoring to get the game to 31-30. The Irish know the history. Time to make it irrelevant.

#9 Notre Dame vs. US Air Force Academy
2:00 PM MDT
Falcon Stadium -- Colorado Springs, CO

Why Air Force Will Win

Shaun Carney and the triple option. The first half against Navy certainly should provide a boost to the Falcons' confidence that Notre Dame won't be able to grasp the option quickly enough. It's one thing to see it in practice - seeing it at game speed tends to knock teams back at first. But the Irish readjusted and clamped the Navy ground game in the second half, allowing only 60 yards rushing.

That's where Carney comes in. He's a versatile QB, and Air Force (no pun intended) feels a lot more comfortable taking flight than the Midshipmen do. They won't call 15 first down pass plays, but first down won't exclusively belong to the halfbacks in this offense. Air Force also utilizes a tight end and multiple formations, even for circumstances when they run the option. It'll be up to Carney to throw enough different looks (and a few timely completions) to keep the Irish defense off-kilter. That's the means by which Air Force pulls the upset.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija. Currently duking it out (kinda) for the ND records in receptions and receiving touchdowns, this game could be akin to the field day Samardzija and Mo Stovall had against BYU last year. Air Force's defense is an aggressive bunch, but that's gotten them only to #106 in pass efficiency defense, #55 overall. They also haven't seen anything resembling Notre Dame's top two pass catchers during their run in the Mountain West conference.

Samardzija becomes the deep threat in this matcup, exploiting his height advantage on every member of the Air Force secondary - the two starting corners stack up at a listed 6-0 and 5-11, far below his lanky 6-5 frame. Charlie Weis' gameplan, particularly against an Air Force unit that is far better this season against the run than last (only 132 ypg this season, down from 171 in '05) will extend the passing game to cover more screens and draws, hoping to let McKnight as well as Darius Walker and TE John Carlson create plays in the open space.

As always, the first couple of drives will dictate the tone for the Irish on both sides of the ball. Air Force has the nation's #3 rush offense and a defense which, physically, doesn't match up along the front trench. The Falcons have three starting D-lineman who weigh in at under 250, while the Irish boast an O-line average near 300 a man. Nobody's expecting anything dominant, but a few early scores to force Air Force to play catch-up with the limited range of the triple option are essential to get the team to 9-1.

The Prediction

Brady Quinn and the Irish assume control of the game with a couple of early scores, but a scrappy Air Force team that has a knack for creating turnovers and taking chances, particularly on special teams, will fight all the way. Ultimately, superior depth and scheming carries the day for the Irish.

Notre Dame 34, Air Force 20

EDITOR'S NOTE - We know we didn't bother recapping Navy or devoting any time to North Carolina. Can you blame us? The Tarheels were 1-7!