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.



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