Friday, September 05, 2008

What's #1?

Finally, at long last, game day is...almost here. One day more, Irish fans. One last night of having to beat back the nightmares of a five-man rush and a zero-man block against Michigan. One last night of waking up and thinking, "There's no way we actually lost to Navy...right?" One last time having to think about how nice it would be to rush for merely 20 yards. One final evening of going to bed with only the hypothetical to fall back on.

At 3:30 PM EDT, Irish football is back. Which brings us to the final stop in the countdown, our #1 key to the season. Hit it (no, seriously. I mean HIT it.)

#1 - Passing the Physical

How many times did you see Notre Dame blow somebody away at the point of attack? How many times did they make a solid, true open-field tackle? How many times did it seem like the Irish shied away from blunt force and let their opponent dictate the pace of the game? How many lineman does it take to protect Jimmy Clausen? While the answer to these first three is a consensus "Hardly ever", "Not many", and "Too often", nobody knows about that fourth one - it's never been done before. (I'll be here all week, be sure to tip the waitress)

Notre Dame's biggest "identity" crisis last year wasn't one of playcalling, or scheming, or even emotional makeup. It was the simple meat-and-potatoes of what the jump to the next level entails. In college you don't get six weeks of training camp and unlimited practice time each day. You don't get four preseason games and the luxury of "easing up" the contact of your starters so they can stay fresh for the games that really count. There are no dress rehearsals in the NCAA - every game counts and you need to be ready for the trials as soon as the lights go up. There is no grace period. This was something Charlie Weis either did not grasp, or he dismiessed it as unimportant next to his all-powerful playbook.

The time to get a team featuring more greenhorn starters than anybody can remember ready is during spring and fall camp - having them knock the snot out of each other so that the games come across as easy, not waiting until the opening drives of the year to rotate players like crazy so they learn to "play fast" against the real deal. This is the litmus test on which the entire season is going to hinge - how physical can the Irish be? I'm not asking for total domination at the line, for 10 sacks per game defensively, or 250 yards rushing. But last season was like a walking nightmare, and too often the Irish were out there playing like nothing more than the walking wounded. If that patten turns, hopefully the Irish win total will too.

Well, 12 days of articles and clever cliches and prognostications, and now it's gut check time. After all that, how do you see the Irish season unfolding? Well, let me totally cop out by announcing myself to be out of the prediction business. Personally I don't see the same things that are making people predict 9, 10, or even 11 (God bless you, Lou Holtz) wins. Even factoring in some expected improvement, that's an almost impossible leap for a team that good-and-earned every one of its 9 losses a year ago.

Tomorrow's game could let some people down because the near-uniform expectation is that the Irish will come out, steamroll the Aztecs into submission, and win 48-3 (and people will instantly hit the NDNation message boards bitching about how the defense let up a field goal). Personally I doubt such an explosion is coming, and there's no way to quantify how much San Diego State's already playing a game versus the Irish making their debut will register. Don't be stunned if the Irish make some of those classic, infinitely correctable errors that occur in an opener. I still think it's a relatively comfortable to automatically go against my vow to stay out of the prediction business forever, let's say ND 27, San Diego State 10.


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