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.


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