Friday, November 30, 2007

Before & After

One of the key concerns going into this season was how a very young Notre Dame was going to navigate a tough early schedule, from a challenging home opener to back-to-back road trips versus Big 10 powers, potentially having to play the top two teams in the Pac-10 over a three week span, and being giving the usual business from Michigan State, Purdue, and Boston College. People figured the schedule would be tough, and it probably wound up even tougher than first imagined. Couple that with a Notre Dame team that flat-out wasn't ready for the season to begin and you have a recipe for disaster that ultimately ends with 3-9. Let's take a look, blow-by-blow with the benefit of hindsight, at how the season played out...


The Pre-Season Consensus: Charlie Weis was making a dangerous gamble with his team's psyche by shrouding the quarterback competition in secrecy...The Irish would be very young and very inexperienced, but had the benefit of opening at home...The Yellow Jackets had lost the best offensive weapon in school history but still had a dynamic running back and an aggressive defense that thrived on nailing young quarterbacks making their first start in openers...Tough to gauge what impact Corwin Brown's defense would have...On the whole, Tech probably should be a contender in the ACC but, never underestimate Chan Gailey's ability to do only 'just enough' despite having more.

What Happened
: 33-3 drubbing, the worst loss in a home opener in Notre Dame history. Demetrius Jones spent a half trying to run a crazy concoction of the regular Irish offense and the West Virginia spread - though it was actually quite effective on some drives, the Irish undercut their own momentum with two Jones fumbles, false starts and holds galore, and being generally unprepared for the speed of the game. In a preview of coming attractions, the defense puts up a game effort but can only beat Tech backwards so many times - 16 points come off from four Tech possessions that begin in Notre Dame territory due to the three fumbles and a crappy punt.

Post-Season Analysis
: Tech uses the blitzkrieg opener and a romp over Samford the next week to vault into the Top 25, with Tashard Choice proving his 2006 ACC rushing title was no fluke as he leads the conference again in 2007. Unfortunately, it's the same old song for the Yellow Jackets under Gailey, as they go 7-5 while squandering late leads in losses to Virginia and Maryland, plus needing a buzzer-beater field goal to triumph over North Carolina. Gailey receives his walking papers.

So, is that how it should've gone down?
Well, it shouldn't have been 33-3 if that's what you're asking. But with Tech's penchant for flooring rookie quarterbacks (2003 - home upset of Auburn in Jason Campbell's first road start; 2005 - road upset of Auburn in Brandon Cox's first start) and a great running back matched against a team so young, a loss shouldn't have been so shocking. The way the Irish looked, however, was another matter.

Game 2 - @ Penn State

The Pre-Season Consensus: Veteran crew in Happy Valley figures to be Michigan's biggest hurdle in the Big 10 race, sleeper national title pick since they get Ohio State & Wisconsin at home while traveling to Michigan early...Most Irish players will have only a week of experience before wandering into the lion's den for their first road starts, in front 110,000 hostiles...Beaver Stadium traditionally hasn't been kind to the Irish - losses there in 1985 & 1991 were by wide margins, while 1987 was a 1-point heartbreaker...Chalk this one up as an expected 'L' for Notre Dame, a near total reverse of the '06 game in South Bend when the Irish were the veteran team and the Nittany Lions were young and inexperienced.

What Happened
: Jimmy Clausen makes his first start and shows some potential on the opening drive, guiding the Irish 47 yards on 11 plays before Nate Whitaker pushes a long field goal attempt. The rest of Notre Dame's drives basically can be summed up as "3 plays, 0-5 yards, PUNT." Penn State's not much better, and the only scoring in the first quarter is a long interception return by Darrin Walls for the Irish, a long punt return by Derrick Williams for PSU. Like Tech the week before, the sheer ineptitude of Notre Dame's offense and advantageous field position grind down the Irish defense, and RB Austin Scott asserts himself in the fourth quarter as the Lions ice the game with two touchdowns. 31-10 Penn State victory.

Post-Season Analysis
: Penn State was, like the rest of the Big 10, a mere pretender to the throne. Lions drop consecutive road games to Michigan and Illinois, rally to pummel Wisconsin, but blow a huge lead in their finale against Michigan State and also squeeze in a home beatdown at the hands of the Buckeyes. Anthony Morelli's every bit the mediocre QB he displayed himself as the previous year in South Bend, despite having a year of "seasoning" and "being more in tune" with his receivers. Penn State may have had the talent (and certainly the lackluster conference schedule) to be 10-2, but finishes 8-4.

So, is that how it should've gone down?
The Irish looked to have some momentum building between the first drive on offense and Walls' game-changer on Penn State's first possession, but they take their own legs out from under themselves with a mind-numbing 14 penalties and six sacks allowed. The game goes the way most figured it would at the outset of 2007 - veterans at Penn State earn payback for 41-17. But they sure don't look like an elite team and prove it by going 4-4 in the Big 10. The loss isn't what bothers you at this point, it's how Notre Dame could be playing so poorly.

Game 3 - @ Michigan

The Pre-Season Consensus: Not even the most die-hard Notre Dame dreamer is considering this game winnable...Stud running back, veteran QB, NFL-cornerstone tackle and a host of other talent returns on offense from an 11-2 squad that lost only to Ohio State & USC the year before...Though the Wolverines suffer heavy losses on defense, coordinator Ron English orchestrated one turnaround and most believe he'll do it again with new starters...Michigan's a pre-season top 5 and trendy national championship pick, with most having them as shoo-in Big 10 champions.

What Happened
: Both teams arrive at the game, stunning or not, in train-wreck mode. Michigan becomes the first ranked I-A team to ever lose to a I-AA team (Appalachian State), then gets bombed by Oregon a week later. The Irish have been going backwards all season. The Demetrius Jones drama begins Friday afternoon and hangs over Notre Dame all weekend. Chad Henne misses the game, putting the fragile Wolverine psyche in the hands of true frosh QB Ryan Mallett. Something's gotta give - so, naturally, Michigan flattens Notre Dame 38-0. It is the official bottom-out point for Coach Weis' early season philosophy.

Post-Season Analysis
: Like their Penn State brethren who they defeat two weeks later in a 14-9 "thriller", UM simply is nowhere near as advertised for the 2007 season. The blowout is more the result of Notre Dame finally being thrust completely off the edge than anything Michigan does to pull themselves off it, and they finish the season with back-to-back conference losses and an 8-4 record.

So, is that how it should've gone down?
For the third week in a row, it's a very young Irish team in a loseable game which they lose. The act of losing's not maddening or even uspetting - the manner by which it occurs is. Michigan follows the formula of Notre Dame's first two opponents. The first five Irish possessions end like this: punt from the back of their endzone after losing 21 yards, fumble, punt, fumble, interception. The Wolverines score 24 points in the first 17 minutes of the game without once having to start on their own side of the 50 yard line. The Irish finally push them back into their own territory and they drive 56 yards for a score before half, and the game's over.


The Pre-Season Consensus: Probably the most winnable game in Notre Dame's opening month...first-year coach Mark Dantonio's big challenge is changing the culture of losing and expecting the worst among Spartan fans and players...Spartans have strong running game but suspect passing prospects with the loss of Drew Stanton and Matt Trannon...Notre Dame will be returning home after two brutal road tests, ready to play a more even match-up before the home crowd...By this point it should be clear how close the Irish are to replacing Brady Quinn and moving in the right direction defensively under Corwin Brown.

What Happened: In the aftermath of the Michigan debacle, Weis scraps game-planning in favor of the school of hard-knocks, returning the Irish to "training camp" practices where everybody's getting taken to the ground on every play. It pays some dividends, as the Irish finally run the ball with some authority, but Michigan State becomes the first opponent to consistently drive the field on the Irish, having two touchdown drives that cover 67 yards, but also (sound familiar?) three drives that begin in Irish territory, one deep after a fumble, two others on atrocious special teams play (a bad punt and a big return). Despite good offensive returns early, particularly running the ball, the Irish have nothing doing in the second half and fall 31-14 after a 17-14 halftime score.

Post-Season Analysis: This is the first game where it begins to really hit home, "It's not that this team is any good, it's just that Notre Dame's that bad." The Spartan win put them at 4-0 for the year, but Dantonio's squad goes 3-5 in the Big 10, following the familiar John L. script of close losses that could've been wins with at least one feel-good comeback, this time in the finale against Penn State. They and the Wolverines don't exactly take the high road late in the season either, behaving like frat brothers in the middle of a prank war which culminates with Dantonio's comment (threat?): "I guess I can't help myself. As I said earlier, it's not over. I'm going to be a coach here for a long time. It's not over. It's just starting."

So, is that how it should've gone down? If Weis had been on the Irish hard from the start of training camp and come out for Georgia Tech with the battering-ram philosophy he put in for Michigan State week, the Irish might've been okay by the fourth week of September. As it is, they're still way behind the 8-ball and scrambling to catch up, which shows in a game where they do enough in the first half to have a chance at winning, then fall flat in the second. Defensively the Irish are making strides but can't get the stop when they truly need one, particularly on the drive which opens the second half for MSU. Notre Dame should've made enough progress from Week One up to this point and beaten the Spartans; the loss shows just how far back they've slid on the progress scale.

Game 5 - @ Purdue

The Pre-Season Consensus: Joe Tiller's offense should be its old reliable self, particularly with a well-groomed veteran QB in Curtis Painter...Matchup bodes well for the Boilers, since they torched the Irish secondary a year ago and all the players for Notre Dame who torched them - Walker, Quinn, Samardzija, & McKnight - have moved on...Irish have been hot-and-cold down at Ross-Ade, losing in '99, winning in '01, losing in '03 (with a freshman quarterback...bad omen), and winning in a blowout in '05...Preseason predictions look at this game as the moment where Notre Dame hopefully grows up, having navigated a tough opening month with two super difficult road games.

What Happened: Purdue does nothing flashy, just takes care of business and lets the Irish hang themselves in the first half. The Boilers have the best display of offense by any Irish opponent thus far, with Painter leading a pair of crisp 80-yard touchdown drives. Purdue also capitalizes on a Clausen interception and Armando Allen fumble (deep in Irish territory, go figure) to pad the lead at 23-0 going to the break. Amazingly the Irish fight back in the second half, first with Clausen and then Evan Sharpley at QB, ripping apart a Purdue defense that finishes 72nd against the pass. But special teams (or lack thereof) play another role in crippling Irish chances, as a blocked FG and a blocked extra point leave the game at 26-19 instead of 26-23 midway through the fourth. Purdue then drives for the clinching touchdown and wins 33-19, but Weis says he finally saw in the second half what could be mistaken for "winning football".

Post-Season Analysis: If the Irish could've somehow placed the first half against Michigan State and the second half against Purdue together consecutively, they'd have won at least one of the two games, probably both. Neither of these Big 10 teams proves anything to write home about - they both finish 7-5 and whiff against the conference's top teams. Hell, MSU goes on to paste Purdue 48-31. It's not that either of these teams were good enough to the point where they were supposed to beat Notre Dame (that at least was true of UM and Penn State), but Notre Dame is so bad that they were expected to beat them.

So, is that how it should've gone down? You figure that at this point, a lot of the early growing pains are behind the Irish and they've cut their teeth and are ready to prove themselves against the next three opponents, all of whom seem to build in difficulty before the #1 team in the nation comes to town. Unfortunately, the Irish take a major step backward in the first half and it's tough to take many positives out of the loss. No question Purdue's the more experienced team, but it was clear by game's end Notre Dame was at least as talented as they are. Something's just wrong with the Irish this year - you can't define it, but you know it when you see it.

Game 6 - @ UCLA

The Pre-Season Consensus: Bruins figure to be in the thick of the Pac-10 race and maybe even a dark-horse national title pick, though probably the #3 team in the Pac-10 behind Cal & USC...senior-laden team returns 20 starters and has two strong options at QB, Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan...get the most challenging games (Cal, Oregon) at home before season-ending showdown with USC...A perfectly scripted chance for payback after last year's Notre Dame escape act, especially with all the principals from the Irish team gone...If nothing else, a great road trip environment for the Irish to experience at the Rose Bowl.

What Happened: UCLA was already lost in the woods by the time ND came to town, at 4-1 but seeing all hype and belief vanish in a 44-6 beatdown from Utah; the Utes were winless at the time, making Notre Dame and UCLA kin by virtue of losing by 38 points to 0-2 teams (Notre Dame's came vs. Michigan). And in this game, the shoe is finally on the other foot for the Irish: a conservative game plan and astonishingly bad play from their opponent bond together for a 20-6 victory.

Post-Season Analysis: The Bruins certainly are a prime contender for Flop of the Year, with Karl Dorrell probably managing the best job in the country of getting less with more. Unforgivable sins include losses to ND and Washington State, who will not go to a bowl, as well as Arizona, to offset whatever accomplishment might come out of beating BYU, Cal (a huge disappointment themselves), and Oregon (a shadow of the team they should've been since they played the Bruins minus Dennis Dixon). In the surest proof yet that the football gods have a sense of humor, UCLA can still go from being on the fence of the bowl season to the Rose Bowl with a win over UCLA and an Arizona State loss tomorrow.

So, is that how it should've gone down? No matter how it's sliced, the Bruins should've been better this season and Notre Dame was awful. It's a huge steal for the Irish.


The Pre-Season Consensus: Besides petty bickering from within the two fanbases over if this is a rivalry or not, should be an entertaining game between two teams with history and a lot to prove this season...BC is also breaking in a first-year coach with Jeff Jagodzinski...The beginning of the last leg of the series, with the home-and-home slated to end after 2010, puts an added incentive for both schools...Lots of questions and unknowns for both squads going into 2007 - this game should be one of the keys since it marks the turning point into the second half.

What Happened: The Irish couldn't get a handle on success, first by being a sputtering offense and then by apparently enjoying themselves too much after freshman Brian Smith returned a Matt Ryan interception for a touchdown. The 15-yard excessive celebration penalty and sloppy kick coverage set up the Eagles in plus-territory and Ryan cooly drove in for the game-sealing touchdown in a 27-14 win. The Irish again seem to do two things wrong for every one thing right, and the last gasp at long-lasting momentum goes out the window. Had the Irish managed to steal this game, they would've put themselves in position to play for a bowl bid in the last month.

Post-Season Analysis: BC blew off the ceiling off expectations, rising to the "top" of a mediocre ACC, but suffered consecutive defeats to Florida State & Maryland, and should've been beaten at Virginia Tech before a great two-minute drill by Ryan. Still, it was a tremendous first season for Jagodzinski and the Eagles will likely be a 10-win team and finish in the Top 20, and make the Orange Bowl with a second win over VaTech tomorrow. Notre Dame was in the game against them, but a combination of great plays by Ryan and Irish letdowns squash any chance at victory.

So, is that how it should've gone down? Save the final result, the overall trajectory of the BC game was what I expected to start the season against Georgia Tech - the Irish would struggle early against an aggressive veteran defense, but start to piece things together and play a competitive game, which would even in a loss provide the springboard toward better things down the road. Instead, it took them until the seventh game of the season to get anywhere close to that, and the springboard effect's time had long since passed. BC deserved the win, but the Irish needed to be much further along than they were (a broken record at this point, but it needs to be said).


The Pre-Season Consensus: Expectations for USC range from national championship lock to "maybe the greatest team ever" according to Jim Harbaugh...veteran QB John David Booty and deep stable of running backs behind veteran offensive line will allow Trojans to develop new receivers with the loss of Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith, and Chris McFoy...Trojan defense will be ferocious behind best linebacking group in the country, top defensive lineman in Lawrence Jackson & Sedrick Ellis...This will be the eighth and final game of a tough first two months for Notre hope is for the Irish to learn each week and put together their best performance before getting two weeks off, even though it's a near-certain loss.

What Happened: USC comes in looking nowhere near invincible in the wake of losing to Harbaugh and the Stanford Cardinal; Notre Dame comes in seeming to be even worse than advertised. Weis plays against his own type by starting Sharpley and deferring to the second half, hoping to keep the game a close, ground-bound defensive struggle. For the first 20 minutes, it works, as the Notre Dame defense actually makes several key stops - but the offense isn't just stuck in neutral, it's going backwards. The floodgates finally open late in the second quarter with 10 USC points in the final 4 minutes, and a Travis Thomas fumble early in the third (all together now: deep in Irish territory) helps the Trojans put the game away en route to another 38-0 loss.

Post-Season Analysis: At this point USC would really like to have that Stanford game back, because they've played as well as any team in the country the past three weeks, including a throttling of supposed Pac-10 contender Arizona State in Tempe. A win over UCLA tomorrow puts them in fourth straight Rose Bowl. For all their struggles USC still should be considered a Top 10 team.

So, is that how it should've gone down? USC came into the game bruised in both the ego and injury departments, but there's no question they had the stronger depth chart and more experienced team. Again, the Irish didn't have anything remotely close to a solid foundation to build on until four weeks into the season, and it's still showing against elite competition. A big loss isn't shocking, but like most of the games, the level of play the Irish come out with is a lot more discouraging than the result.

Game 9 - NAVY

Pre-Season Analysis: The first of a much-easier final four slate for the Irish, and coming after a bye week, should provide them a chance to recover after a tough opening two months...Navy always plays the Irish hard, and it's a great historic rivalry between the two programs, but the annual round of questions concerning why the Irish bother to play the Midshipmen still come up from the outside...The first two games of the Weis Era against the Mids have been competitive for awhile, but the Irish have easily pulled away both times...Navy coach Paul Johnson always had the Academy ready to play, taking them from a 1-20 program in the two years before his arrival to 35 wins in the past four years along with four straight bowl berths.

What Happened: A better question might be "what didn't happen?". The whole week sent Notre Dame on an emotional roller coaster on and off the football field. In the after-midnight hours of Monday morning, Robert Hughes' brother was murdered in cold blood on the west side of Chicago. Weis had to tell Hughes around 8 o'clock that morning, then arranged as the week went on to drive Hughes home himself on Thursday evening, and got clearance from the NCAA to have two buses transport Notre Dame teammates to the funeral on Friday morning. Corwin Brown, a fellow Chicagoan who's no stranger to tragedy from back home, cried as he spoke at that night's pep rally. The next morning, Notre Dame alum Ryan Shay, described as "the Brady Quinn of Olympic sports", died during the US Marathon Trials. A moment of silence was held for both Shay and Hughes before the game. And finally, the Irish and Midshipmen teed it up and played the 80th football game of the series, one that ended with Travis Thomas being stopped on a 2-point conversion attempt in triple overtime. Navy won 46-44.

Post-Season Analysis: The Irish finally got untracked a bit on offense, abusing a Navy team ranked 107th in total defense for 235 yards rushing despite being the worst rushing team in the country. Defensively it's a game of paradoxes for the Irish - they held Navy well below its averages for rushing and total offense and surrender 21 points - the biggest play of the game is when Navy returns a fumble for a touchdown, 7 points that rightfully do not count against the defense. But even so, the Irish allowed three long touchdown drives and couldn't get any key stops until the fourth quarter. Navy has a great offensive system and a terrible defense, and the same pattern that works in their favor against Notre Dame, Duke (46-43), Pittsburgh (48-45 in double-OT), and North Texas (74-62) also works against them versus Delaware (59-52), Ball State (34-31 in OT), Rutgers and Wake Forest. For 2007, Notre Dame's no different than any other opponent on the Navy schedule - they need to score a ton of points, because they are a terrible team on defense, and then cajole and fight and claw for a big stop in order to win.

So, is that how it should've gone down? With all appropriate respect to the US Naval Academy and the tremendous men and women who serve our country, there is only one person who can be credited for this game turning out as it did: Charlie Weis. This is the game in which Weis' long-held maxim that college defenses are easier to scheme against than pro ones somehow turns him inside out. Yes, Charlie, the defense Navy plays is different than the NFL. In the NFL, even a 3-13 team can effectively see you're running the ball and make adjustments. Navy is not the New York Jets. Navy knows you're going to run the ball, and there's not a f&*king thing they can do about it. So there's no need to call a screen pass in the first quarter after Armando Allen just ran the ball down to the 15. There's no need to be calling pass plays after Navy just missed a field goal in the fourth quarter. There's no NEED to throw the ball when you have the ball in Navy territory with 2:01 to play. Without the returned fumble (which came on pass call), it's hard to see how Navy wins the game, and the reason is simple: Notre Dame was running the ball at will. James Aldridge went over 100 yards. Allen was close to joining him and averaged better than 5.5 yards a carry. And Notre Dame had the ball on the Navy 24 with 45 seconds on the clock. Instead of a field goal try for the admittedly shaky Brandon Walker, Weis put the onus on Sharpley to pick up a 4th-and-8. He got sacked instead, one of four sacks for a Navy team that had put up just five in their previous 8 games. Navy played a tremendous game and made the stop when it counted. But for the first time in his tenure, Charlie Weis was unquestionably the biggest in-game factor for Notre Dame's demise.

Game 10 - AIR FORCE

The Pre-Season Consensus: The Academy is moving on after two decades under Fisher DeBerry with a DeBerry protege and former NFL coordinator, Troy Calhoun...Air Force has traditionally been the strongest football school among the three academies since the 1970s...While everybody bemoans the Irish putting the academies on the schedule as some sort of foolish attempt to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, Air Force has beaten the Irish five times since 1980 and played several other close games...Air Force's brand of the option is more diverse than its Navy brethren and has the athletic Shaun Carney & Chad Hall pacing the attack...Hopefully Notre Dame will be getting close to a veteran squad by now with all those young players in their 10th game.

What Happened: The game quickly dissolves into "Here we go again" for Notre Dame. Clausen and Carlson flawlessly execute a 28-yard pass (with ample protection from the line), only for Carlson to be stripped of the ball at the end of the run. And from there on it's another broken record - the Irish take two steps forward and then two steps back all day long, and despite a solid effort in the first half they can't contain Chad Hall (or, more damningly, Air Force fullback Jim Ollis, which speaks to how poorly they were containing Hall). Clausen shows some moxie in moving the ball on two long touchdown drives to get the Irish within 10 points, but a failed fourth-down attempt lets Air Force punch in a touchdown for the 41-24 final.

Post-Season Analysis: Air Force was better than a lot of people expected, maybe even some folks at the Academy. With two great players in Carney and Hall executing a better-designed offense by Calhoun, the Falcons finish 9-3 (with their losses to 10-2 BYU, 8-4 Navy and 8-4 New Mexico).

So, is that how it should've gone down? Like the previous week, the Notre Dame defense is reduced to claiming pyrrhic victories: they kept Hall out of the endzone, and that was about it. Hall still ran for 142 yards and Carney threw two TDs and ran one in himself. By the 1oth game, it's not shocking that Notre Dame at 1-9 is bad, and Air Force at 8-3 is good. Yet even here Notre Dame's undoing is as much self-inflicted as ever: the first 10 Air Force points come directly off turnovers. The last 10 come on two drives that begin at the Notre Dame 33 and 25 yard lines, respectively. It's tough to give an honest evaluation of the defense when any modest gains they make get offset by being hung out to dry, time and time again. Most discouraging: that this is still happening in the 11th week of the season. Even more discouraging: despite having two weeks to prepare, the Irish can't get effective stops on the option game versus either service academy. So I guess, ultimately, you'd have to say they got what was coming to them.

Game 11 - DUKE

The Pre-Season Consensus: Boy, Notre Dame didn't exactly reach for the stars when they added a 12th game this year...Assumed far and wide as a layup victory for the Irish, being that Duke comes into the season riding the longest active losing streak in NCAA football...Duke will be excited in that it's their first appearance on national TV in a decade...Should be an opportunity for Notre Dame's seniors, particularly the fifth years, to enjoy an easy home win and let the youngsters grab some significant playing time.

What Happened: As we all know, the youngsters had been having some significant playing time for quite awhile. Notre Dame pulls away by pouncing on Duke turnovers and leads 28-0 before having a little fun, such as allowing Tom Zbikowski the chance to run a few plays at quarterback and giving little known players and walk-ons some time before the clock runs out. Duke scores a very late touchdown to end the shutout bid in a game that earns no style points but at least sees several positive developments, especially Robert Hughes, who steps into the void of bruising runner after Aldridge leaves with an ankle tweak.

Post-Season Analysis: Duke's every bit as awful as predicted, going 1-11 and making Ted Roof the second Notre Dame opposing coach to be served his walking papers (Dorrell should be the third. Who knew that you could be fired simply for losing to the Irish?)  The Irish didn't look anywhere close to good, but for all the "rock bottoms" they've hit this year, not beating Duke by at least two scores would've been a new "high" low.

So, is that how it should've gone down? It's becoming clear that Notre Dame's playing through a lot of growing pains, especially on offense, and starting to get a peak and what could be there once they emerge on the other side. Nobody should be patting themselves on the back, but for a young team to use the game to grow up even more and win comfortably, sending the veterans out with smiles and the home fans out with a win, isn't something that should be summarily dismissed.

Game 12 - @ Stanford

The Pre-Season Consensus: The Cardinal have a major rebuilding project on their hands, going with just six wins in two years under Walt Harris, and no winning seasons in three years under Buddy Teevens - but they may just have the right man for the job in Jim Harbaugh...Optimistic thinking portends the Irish heading to Palo Alto with a chance to lock up a bowl bid...Notre Dame has played well in the series of late, winning five straight by margins as wide as 57-7...One hopes that by Game 12, the Irish will have completed the transformation from a very young and inexperienced team to one that is older, wiser, and ready to write a good finish before coming back stronger in 2008.

What Happened: The Irish do write a happy ending, but it was one of the most f&*ked-up novels any Irish fan ever read. Even this final chapter made no sense: a 97-yard, three-lateralled return of an interception waived off by a personal foul? Two fumbles in the red zone? A total of five missed field goals? Three quarterback sacks that weren't sacks so much as they were "the QB ran out of bounds for a nine-yard loss instead of throwing the ball away"? A completely, utterly bogus job by an officiating crew that ran for cover in the video replay booth so often they were probably reviewing the final episode of The Sopranos? Who comes up with this crap?

Post-Season Analysis: Stanford's got a long climb back to football respectability, but it's clear Harbaugh's the guy to lead them there. Not only do they claim USC's scalp in the most stunning upset of the year (apologies to Appalachian State), they fight hard in nearly every Pac-10 game even if the final scores wind up getting away from them. The Cardinal likely will finish 3-9 just like the Irish, but they're a lot closer to tipping things back in their favor then they were just 12 months ago.

So, is that how it should've gone down? In a word, yes. Notre Dame played most of the game like a 2-9 team, Stanford like a 3-7 one. And the Irish also got rogered by the officiating crew, especially in the utterly bogus overturn of what was a clear David Grimes touchdown catch. Couple those lost points (the Irish missed a FG after the overturn) with two fumbles in the Cardinal red zone and the wiped-out re-enactment of the Stanford Band Play, and the Irish should've hung at least 35 in this game. But, in another small step back to credibility, they play over their mistakes and win on the road. Hughes impresses once again, and Clausen still shows he's got plenty of upside.

So Notre Dame went 3-9. You were there for the before, what do you think after?

I think the season was a colossal miscalculation, and that Weis has (hopefully) learned the big difference between teaching a 21-year old a playbook and teaching 18 and 19-year olds how to play. The time to ram the new level of toughness and intensity into a young kid straight from high school is spring practice and fall camp, not desperately scrambling to acclimate nearly 30 players in the heat of a live competition versus Georgia Tech, Penn State, and Michigan. Going into the year, I had three games penciled in as sure losses: PSU, Michigan, and USC, and I felt the Penn State game in particular could get ugly just as the Nittany Lions had found out when they played an experienced Irish team early in 2006. I also had UCLA as a likely loss (kept only from being a sure loss by the comforting fact that Karl Dorrell can lose to anybody) and Boston College & Georgia Tech in the toss-up category. Going from the idea that the Irish would get at least one of those six games, I figured 7-5 was the worst that could happen, and maybe they'd steal one or two and surprise me with 8-4 or 9-3. 

But this? A team looking this maladjusted? Nobody expected this. It's humbling, it's humiliating, it's inexplicable, and it's certainly not Tyrone Willingham's fault. Although, lest anybody think Willingham is absolved completely, consider this: this kind of season would've happened under Ty. You know it, I know it, and the people at Washington who've yet to see a winning season from him in three years know it as well. 

Unfortunately, Weis relied too much on his own braniac tendencies at the start of the year, and it hurt the team's development. The attitude needed from day one of spring ball after the Sugar Bowl was fierce hitting and tough running, the attitude that flashed during the Michigan State and Purdue games after the Irish had hit the reset button. Obviously there are a ton of other issues, some strictly coaching related, that still need to addressed. But this offseason needs to be first and foremost about establishing that core identity Notre Dame was missing all season. They couldn't do anything well; even the simplest things seemed beyond their comprehension at times. 

But there is no mistake, talent the kind that takes a program to the next level, is coursing through the veins of the Irish. That's why this next 12 month cycle so critical. First, seal the deal with this terrific recruiting class. Far more importantly, get many of the essentials into the weight room for their first real offseason conditioning program (namely: Kerry Neal, Brian Smith, Gary Gray, Clausen, Allen, Matt Romine, Mike Ragone, and Golden Tate, among others in the sophomore class.) You know the leap David Bruton and Pat Kuntz made this season? If Neal and Smith make those same strides, teaming up with the man on a mission, Maurice Crum, Notre Dame's linebacking corps will morph overnight into one of the best in the country. It might be the height of foolishness to expect this. But not much was ever accomplished by people who thought small.

Ironically, the best page to take in rebuilding the Irish psyche might come from the much-maligned Irish hoops coach Mike Brey. Last season, after three successive mediocre campaigns finally bottomed out, Brey told his two seniors (Russell Carter & Colin Falls) to take charge and issued this salvo during the opening of fall camp:
I told them yesterday, when we got done with our conditioning, that there is no reason we can't dream big dreams. I don't know if anyone has been closer than us to getting that (NCAA) bid...I told them that last year at this time, Florida wasn't being talked about and George Mason was George Mason. That is what's great about college basketball: it's crazy. We've been right there. You don't get anything for being close. We understand that better than anybody. But that doesn't mean you don't come back the next year swinging. I don't want them selling themselves short. Who knows? (The season) is so long and so crazy. You can get hot at the right time, it's so unpredictable, and you need some good karma.
There's your blueprint for getting 2008 off on the right foot: a solid finish in recruiting, a rough-and-tumble open competition during spring drills, and a simple message: we have every right to think big. Maybe it is foolish to think we can rebound from 3-9 to national title contenders. Why should we care if it is? Heck, we all shook our heads at Illinois and Ron Zook, but they went from 2-10 to 9-3 with a possible Rose Bowl trip coming up. Look at Kansas, Missouri, even Boston College and Arizona State. None of those teams were in the preseason rankings. There's no f&#king reason we shouldn't think big.

And so, here endeth the season from hell.

"I didn't always lose. I won't always lose again."

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

So This Is What a Real Basketball School Is Like...

Down in Westwood for UCLA basketball. Pat, we can only dream of this environment @ the JACC.

Updated, 11:20 PM: George Washington played tough for the first half and used a hot streak from three-point land to make it close at halftime, but Ben Howland's crew played its usual shutdown defense in the second half and pulled away for an 83-60 win. Having said that, I think Notre Dame could give these #1 Bruins a game - it would require a sharp night from both Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney, and Luke Harangody would need to really be on in the paint. That right now appears to be UCLA's big weak spot - they don't have a punisher inside, though Kevin Love certainly will develop over the course of the season. With how athletic UCLA is across the board and the aggressive defense they play, they'll be a tough team to beat come Tournament time.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Spanning the Nation: Two Game Winning Streak Edition

Well, the Irish played their 12th and final tackle football game on Saturday, a contest in which they had nothing to gain by winning but probably still would've lost something had things gone the other way. When you're 2-9, the knife is already stuck deep inside you; falling to 2-10 is just the little twist of it to slash up some more internal organs before you wither and die. So it was nice to avoid that. On a somewhat positive note, there are a lot of players on this ND team who clearly still have their best football in front of them. Now comes one of the most critical offseasons in program history between the conditioning and development of who's in the program and a solid job of closing on the recruiting trail. Having said that, how'd the week go for everybody else's teams?

Angelo Suozzi - Hometown: Pittsford, NY

Hot damn, the Sabres are on a winning streak! After wrapping up last week with a win over Montreal, the boys in marigold beat the best team in the NHL, Ottawa, then swept a home-and-home against the Canadiens for their fourth straight win. With a home date tonight against the Capitals, the current Worst Team in the NHL, the Sabres can break a tie with Toronto and climb out of the cellar in the Northeast Division. Lindy Ruff's crew may finally be coming together. Over in Orchard Park, the mood is decidedly less festive. A four-game winning streak that put the Bills over .500 sparked thoughts of a playoff run, but consecutive embarrassments versus the AFC's elite in New England and Jacksonville have Dick Jauron adjusting his thinking. And then re-adjusting his re-adjustments. This guy changes quarterbacks more often than Charlie Weis; today he announced the 5-6 Bills will go back to rookie Trent Edwards - trust me, he can loft a sure interception into double coverage and kill all the momentum of a fourth quarter drive just as efficiently as JP Losman.

Thomas McCall - Hometown: Lake Charles, LA

LSU Tiger fans had a lot to be thankful for over the long holiday break, and Thomas was only too happy to join in the festivities. Attending Les Miles' Farewell Concert at Tiger Stadium, T-Mac was wowed by the intensity of the Cajun faithful and the overwhelming support for Tigers quarterback Matt Flynn (the "You Suck" chants are just them sayin' they love you, Matt). Unfortunately, Gentleman Les tripped up an amplifier or two and blew out the speakers in his farewell concert before he retires home to Michigan, as LSU finally rolled snake eyes in losing 52-50 in triple overtime to the soon-to-be Nutt-less Arkansas Razorbacks. The post-mortem? "Dark and calm", Thomas reported. "No hang overs. Just tears." Across the state in NOLA, the Saints finally emerged from hibernation and tripped up the Carolina Panthers, with the added bonus of Marques Colston finally catching a f&*king touchdown pass. The Crescent City Warriors are nestled comfortably in the logjam of 5-6 teams fighting for the NFC Wild Card.

Pat Girouard/Joe Long - Hometown: Cretin Derham Hall, MN

I think Pat Girouard is too tough on the Vikings. What they did on Saturday is not easy to accomplish - returned not one, not two, but three interceptions off the Golden Arm of Eli Manning for touchdowns in a stunning romp over the G-Men in New Jersey (payback for that humbling 2000 NFC Championship game, I suppose). The Twins' week was less enjoyable, as Torii Hunter officially shunned them for the warm, sunny confines of Disneyland as a member of the six-man outfield platoon for the LA Angels of Anaheim. Things cooled off on the ice, as the Wild suffered defeats to divisional rivals Colorado and Vancouver, bunching things together in the Northwest division as four teams are separated by a total of three points. And Wisconsin kicked back to enjoy the first of six weeks off before their likely trip to the Alamo Bowl. 

Brian Fallon - Hometown: Grand Rapids, MI

It's all starting to crumble for Fallon's beloved Detroit Lions. For the third straight week they played sloppy, unimpressive football (those are codewords for "typical Lions performance") and righted themselves just long enough to give a faint glimmer of hope before proving they didn't belong when they couldn't stop Ryan Grant in the fourth quarter. Among the teams that have been known to stop Ryan Grant: Michigan, Michigan State, Navy, Rutgers, Oregon State, BYU, Washington, USC, Boston College, & Pittsburgh. Maybe Rod Marinelli should seek a consult. The Red Wings didn't have a very fun Thanksgiving weekend either, losing to the pesky Nashville Predators and then falling in a shootout to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Even with those hiccups, nobody on the Wings should be panicking when they're just a point behind Ottawa in the President's Trophy standings. But Fallon probably walks away the big winner in fantasy: his juggernaut First Round Wideouts established a league-high in scoring for the year with 106 points in drubbing Girouard's Gator Bowl Bound crew. In case you were wondering, yes, he did that despite having a player in the lineup who didn't score.

Kevin Braun - Hometown: Lancaster, PA

I think Andy Reid neatly summarizes Kevin's own thoughts at this time: "Three points, man. Three points. The Patriots and three points. They're killing me with it." It was the perfect Cinderella story - down-on-his-luck coach, scrappy cast-off backup quarterback better known for his hot girlfriend, aging and banged up veterans yearning for a second chance three years after getting defeated in the big one, all matched up against the titanic, unstoppable force of nature that cannot be tamed. But, because this is Philadelphia, the story ends with Cinderella getting caught and imprisoned for 10 years on the charge of soliciting the Prince under false pretenses. The Eagles lost, 31-28, despite hurling everything they could think of at the Patriots. But maybe this gives teams across the league renewed hope that a) Belichick's boys are human, and b) there's no need to toss a deep slant-and-go with 4 minutes to play, down by three, deep in New England territory.

George Heidkamp - Hometown: Hinsdale, IL

Nothing but good news for the Packers this week, with a 37-26 win over the Lions on Thanksgiving Day and a showdown against the NFC's Evil Empire, Dallas, on Thursday night. Meanwhile, the White Sox feel like they got kicked in the junk thanks to Torii Hunter signing with the Angels, but look at the bright side: they still get to throw way too much money at a modestly-talented hitter, and they get the benefit of him being two full years younger than Torii (Aaron Rowand)! Why overpay for a Mustang when you can overpay for a Corvair? The death-spiral continues for the Bulls, who are now so bad they've lost to the New York Knicks and earned Isiah Thomas another two-year extension, but the Blackhawks continue to surprise, earning five more points this week to stay with the pack of teams chasing the Red Wings in the Western Conference.

Paul Jacobs - Hometown: St. Louis, MO

The dream is over for the Rams, who bumbled away an opportunity to win against Seattle with a 4th-and-goal fumble at the 1-yd. line. Did Bob Davie take over for Scott Linehan this week? And hey, check out the Blues, who went 3-1 this week to shoot into second place in the Central Division. But Paul's only true love remains far in the distance, though if you want to share in the appreciaton, log on to and vote for Jim Edmonds' stunning, vertical lay-out grab in center as the Play of the Year. Unlike the Stanford replay officials, you won't need further review to know it's a catch.

Mike Devitt - Hometown: Marion, IN

Mike's Colts continue to search for their mojo, and it was in short supply during the opening quarter of Thursday's game against Indianapolis. Luckily, everybody settled down and remembered, "Guys, we're playing a team led by Joey Harrington. Let the win come to us." Peyton and Co. did just that and won going away, 31-13, setting up a showdown with Jacksonville for the AFC South lead this coming Sunday. 

Meanwhile, Back at Headquarters...

Irish power forward Luke Harangody continued his terrific start, dropping in 25 points and collecting 13 rebounds in an 87-75 victory over Youngstown State. The lead was actually a lot more comfortable, but get this: a Mike Brey-coached team allowed an opponent to stage a late run in the second half. I'm as shocked as you are. YSU went a 22-5 burst to get the game into single-digits before the Irish finally put it away at the foul line. Harangody was backed up by Kyle McAlarney (23 points, 5/10 on three-pointers) and Zach Hillesland (10 points) while Rob Kurz had 11 rebounds. The Irish were back to their ball-distribution style, as all 7 regulars recorded at least one assist; Notre Dame recorded 24 assists in total on 32 baskets. Having suffered two defeats at the Paradise Jam, the Irish probably now need to sweep their remaining non-conference games (not difficult to do, since they're all at home against meek competition with the exception of a neutral-site game against Kansas State) before even thinking about staying alive for a Tournament bid. The March destination for this team will be determined by conference play so long as they avoid another meltdown during December. But when Mike Brey is the coach, all bets are off.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Game Time: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Speech

Lou Holtz had his crack at the pep talk, and a stirring display of oratory it was. We all know I'm not one for an original thought, so here's what I'd do if given the chance to script Coach Weis' pre-game speech before 2-9 Notre Dame meets 3-7 Stanford...

I don’t know what to say, really. Three minutes to the one of the more meaningless battles in the history of this great football program. And yet, it all...comes down to today. Now, either we heal - as a team - or we're gonna crumble. Inch by inch, play by play, 'til we're finished. We're in hell right now, gentlemen. Believe me. And we can stay here, get the shit kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb outta hell... one inch at a time. 

Now I can't do it for ya, I'm too old. I look around, I see these young faces and I think, I mean, I've made every wrong choice a middle-aged man can make. I, uh, I've pissed away all my goodwill from two BCS bowls - believe it or not. It seems like I chased off every four-star recruit who ever committed to me. And lately, I can't even stand the numbers I see on the stat sheet, or the face I see in the mirror. But you know, when you get old in life, things get taken from you. I mean, that's... that's... that's a part of life. But, you only learn that when you start losin' stuff. You find out life's this game of inches. So's football. Because in either game - life or football - the margin for error is so small. I mean, one botched attempt at running the spread offense here or a fall camp full of non-contact practices there, and you don't quite make it. One foolish decision to go for it on 4th-and-8 instead of attempt a 41-yard field goal, or a slew of penalties against Boston College, and you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second. 

Starting now, on this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when add up all those inches, that's gonna make THE F&*KING DIFFERENCE between WINNING THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP and LOSING TO NAVY! Between living and dying!! I'll tell you this, in any fight it's the guy whose willing to always go for it on fourth-and-long, who's gonna win that inch. And I know, if I'm gonna have any life anymore, it's because I'm still willing to fight and die for that inch. Because THAT'S WHAT LIVING IS! The gold helmets, in front of your face! 

Now I can't make you do it!! You've got to look at the guy next to you, look into his eyes! Now I think ya going to see a guy who will go that inch with you. Your gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team, because he knows when it comes down to it your gonna do the same for him. That's a team, gentlemen! And either we heal, now, AS A TEAM...or we will die as individuals. That's football guys, that's all it is. Now, what are you gonna do?

Well, some 15 weeks after hope sprang eternal, here we are. Back at absolute square one for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Maybe it's not such a terrible thing - when a forest grows too wide, a purging fire is necessary. The inevitable life cycle of birth, death, and renewal catches up with every program sooner or later. And so with a firm resolve, the final chapter of the 2007 Notre Dame football season is upon us.

Game 12...
Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Stanford Cardinal
12:30 PM PST
Stanford Stadium - Palo Alto, CA

Why Stanford Will Win

Jim Harbaugh is shaping up to be an excellent coach in a perfect situation. He knows Stanford will never be able to recruit toe-to-toe with the big boys of any conference, let alone his own. And he doesn't care. He mouthed off at USC more than once this summer by appearing to be too effusive in his praise, then called out his own alma mater for answering to a lower calling in the field of student-athlete dynamics. Harbaugh shoots from the hip, and what his team will always lack in sheer talent he's a good bet to make up for in tenacity. That's a big reason why, some five months after being deadly serious in appraising USC '07 as "maybe the greatest college team ever", Harbaugh's team of Davids pounced on a lazy Goliath, beating the Trojans on their home turf 24-23 in what is (according to the spread) the greatest upset in the history of college football.

So if the Cardinal can beat the #1/#2 team in the nation on its home field, stands to reason that they ought to be capable of beating anybody. Yet, the performance of each team since that landmark upset seems only to confirm how truly monumental, off-the-wall loony it was. USC has lost just once, to an Oregon team that probably would be making New Orleans hotel reservations but for Dennis Dixon's left knee, and cleaned out other supposed Pac-10 powers Cal and Arizona State in the process (not to mention a 38-0 dressdown of Notre Dame). The Cardinal have just one win since, another one point nailbiter over Arizona, and after 11 games rank 106th in total offense and 106th in total defense. It all begs just one question - how in the world did these guys actually beat USC? A lot of the credit goes to Harbaugh, and if he can tap into that reservoir of belief in the final two weeks of the season by beating Notre Dame and winning the Big Game against Cal, he'll further validate the fact that sometimes, someway, you can basically will yourself to a victory.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

This is not a misprint or a product of my falling into a drug-induced haze, but Notre Dame can win this game if it leaves its fate in the hands of the secondary. Before you tell me to put the bottle of crazy pills down, remember that for a second straight week, Notre Dame has the benefit of facing a team every bit as inept running the ball as they are (the Cardinal average 103.6 ypg). And, just like Duke, Stanford relies on an average-to-above-average passing attack to move the ball. That's where the Irish secondary comes in. 

A cynic would say that the fact ND has allowed less than half the number of "20+" yarders and ranks as the country's third-stingiest pass defense at 162.45 ypg  just reflects how teams see no need to stop abusing the atrocious Irish run defense. That may very well be the case, especially when you consider Notre Dame didn't face Chad Henne or John David Booty because of injuries, and many of the teams on their schedule either had no quarterback to speak of (UCLA), or were more reliant on dominating running games (Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Navy & Air Force) than on game-changing quarterbacks. The one QB who truly went at the Irish all game long, BC's Matt Ryan, didn't have eye-popping numbers and threw a pick-six, but still got every big completion whenever he needed to get it, as did the rare-throws of the academies.

Having said all that, the lofty statistics of the Irish pass defense are not a total mirage. Darrin Walls has emerged as a soon-to-be-great cornerback. David Bruton's been a completely different player from the first play of the year onward. Terrail Lambert and Tom Zbikowski may just be the target of fewer long bombs, but at this point in this season you can't call them a total fluke. Last week was a good example: everybody knew Duke couldn't run the ball, and they had one legit hope in terms of the passing game: lanky senior Eron Riley. While Thaddeus Lewis (again with all the weak quarterbacks!) certainly didn't help the Blue Devil cause by badly underthrowing balls and missing receivers in the rain, the Irish secondary held its own and gave Duke just 138 passing yards, well below their season average. A similar conquest in this Saturday's game against a shaky quarterback spot (oft-injured TC Ostrander may play, he may not, and then there's the cult hero of the USC game Tavita Pritchard, who's a 50% passer with a nearly 2:1 interceptions-to-touchdowns ratio) and two tall receivers - Mark Bradford and Evan Moore - provides another opportunity for the Notre Dame defense to take away a weak opponent's only weapon. If they accomplish that goal early, it helps Jimmy Clausen and the offense hopefully re-establish the rhythm they had going throughout stretches of the Duke game. This is also another opportunity for the offensive line to bond and prove they're not as bad as everybody thinks in advance of next year, facing a team that has 31 sacks on the season.

The Prediction

Not even the drunkest of "drunk-on-Irish-Kool-Aid" fools would consider closing out the season with wins over 1-10 Duke and 3-8 Stanford to constitute a worthy accomplishment. But it would still be significant: whether it's a post-season bowl or the last game of a disappointing season, the Irish are 1-12 in season finales the last 13 years (the lone win being a victory over Purdue in Bob Davie's farewell game). Even more sobering: the Irish haven't closed the season on a winning streak since 1992, when they closed with 7 straight wins (and came back stronger for 1993). Not that a ton of pride and momentum should be pulled from beating Duke and Stanford, but the simple accomplishment of winning multiple games to close out the season can only be a positive. 

Stanford's good enough to beat USC on what was a very bad day for the Trojans, but it doesn't change the fact that SC should've been able to sleepwalk their way to a five-touchdown win in that game. And yet the Cardinal is bad enough to be in triple digits territory for both offense and defense, and to lose handily to UCLA, Oregon State, & Washington. However, when the moment has called for it this season, Harbaugh's team has answered the bell, playing score-for-score with Oregon for a half, battling TCU all the way to the wire, and of course beating Pete Carroll in his own backyard. A lot will depend on which team comes mentally ready to fight for 60 minutes despite the game's overall meaning of nothing. The last time Notre Dame was in this situation, a lost season crashed & burned in the Carrier Dome with a 38-12 loss to equally bad Syracuse, one of the lowlights of the Willingham era. A similar ending would be a depressing, yet somehow appropriate last act for this year. Here's hoping things go differently.

Notre Dame 23, Stanford 17.