Monday, October 19, 2009

Settling for Moral Victories...

This was supposed to be a glorious post talking about what it was like finally toppling the giant, rushing the field, partying at The Backer until 3am, breaking into the hotel pool to celebrate more at 4am, and missing my flight home on Sunday and not caring at all. Instead we have another week of trying to find silver linings in what people are calling a moral victory. The saying “moral victory for Notre Dame” makes me want to gag. How many moral victories until we’re the all-time leader? I’ll breakdown the “State of the Irish” at the midway point later this week, for now let’s fire off ten topics about the game/weekend today.

10. Robby Parris

When Robby committed to ND I was really fired up. He had been a monster his senior season before he broke his leg and after watching his tapes and reading up on him it sounded like we had a slighter version of Jeff Samardzija (under the radar 3-star, 6-2+, great hands, gamer). He was slow to make an impact and I soured on him after what seemed like fifty drops over the past two years.

This season he’s done a complete 180, showing up in big spots when we’ve needed someone to step up and make a clutch play. Against USC he had two HUGE catches to convert a third and fourth down on the final drive, the latter an unbelievable snare in which he got totally lit up by two defensive backs.

A lot of people questioned preseason why Shaq Evans, Deion Walker, or John Goodman hadn’t leapfrogged Parris and whether it was another example of Charlie allegedly playing favorites with upperclassmen. I think at this point in the season it’s easy to see why he’s on the field. He’s grown much more confident and consistent over the course of his career and it’s translating on the field. He deserves a lot of credit for battling back up the depth chart with so many talented guys in the mix.

9. Jimmy Clausen

The guy is an absolute competitor. He was knocked around more than he had been all year, but he hung in there and made some great throws down the stretch to give Notre Dame a chance. Three plays from the game really stick out to me. The first was his touchdown pass to Golden Tate in the third quarter. I was talking with my buddy Pat after the game and he said “the defense was in a Cover 2 with safety help from Taylor Mays over the top, which means that pass should never be thrown. There was literally one spot he could’ve thrown it and he put it there.” It was a thing of beauty—almost as beautiful as the catch Tate came up with.

The second play was his touchdown run. How many called runs has Clausen had in his career at ND? Two? Great playcall by Charlie and a gutsy run and dive there (turf toe and all) by Jimmy to bring ND to within a touchdown. The last play is probably slipped under the radar more than the previous two: Jimmy’s pass to Robby Parris to convert 4th down on the final drive. He was under heavy duress on that play, hung in there, and delivered a bullet to a well-covered Parris. A lot of quarterbacks would have tried to find a lane to run out of there with the pocket collapsing but he stood tough.

I think that this game probably cost him a shot at the Heisman. It’s not because he didn’t play well—because he was superb—but because this was his shot at that necessary signature win. In an objective world he still should be at the top of the list right now with three comeback victories, four 300-yard games, and a 14-2 TD to INT ratio…I just don’t think voters will push him over the top unless he just goes gangbusters over the remainder of the season—which is entirely possible—and other big names like Tebow and McCoy totally falter.

I just hope that he comes back for his senior season. The deeper we go into the year the less I think he’ll come back (and 99% of that opinion is based on the seemingly inevitable 2011 change to rookie NFL salary structure), but goodness can you think about one more year of Clausen-Tate-Floyd-Rudolph? Someone get me a bib.

8. Harrison Smith

He started the season as one of my favorite players. He’s officially morphed into my least favorite player on the team. I just rewatched the game and my count was five missed tackles. One time it cost an extra 14 yards. On the screen play touchdown to Damian Williams, Smith had the angle to at least get there and knock him out of bounds around the 20 but barely even got a hand on him. He was burned over the top by the tight end on an all-out blitz and then let him rumble another 20 yards inside the five while he grabbed at McCoy’s jersey instead of TAKING HIM TO THE TURF.

We’ve had some pretty poor performances in the secondary over the last ten years here, but he’s entering rarified air. His coverage isn’t as bad as some of the guys in the past, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone miss so many tackles so consistently on ANY team at ANY level since I’ve followed football. I would venture to guess he’s missed almost as many tackles as he’s made to this point. It’s time to plant Hayseed on the bench.

7. O-Line Performance

We all knew what the O-Line was going up against. Every player they lined up against on the SC defensive line was a four or five star recruit who probably will be playing on Sundays as soon as their eligibility runs out. It has been pointed out many times since Saturday so it’s not like I’m revealing anything new, but it was staggering to see the pressure the Trojans could apply with just their four man front. The O-Line has significantly improved from last year—all you have to do is look at the offensive output from last year’s SC game and compare it with this year’s—but it still was overwhelmed at times by the talent on the other side of the ball.

Paul Duncan was totally overmatched all day and Sam Young had plenty of problems as well. The thing that boils my blood the most though is the inexcusable mental lapses that still occur. There was one sack where Everson Griffen came up the middle totally unblocked and Trevor Robinson didn’t realize it until after Griffen was already barreling toward Jimmy. How do you lose track of the best player on the line like that? That just doesn’t seem to ever happen to opponents.

6. Dead Ball Personal Foul

Now this is apparently me not knowing the correct rule, but did anyone else think the clock should have been dead after the personal foul against SC when they hit Robby Parris in the head on the final drive? It almost seemed as if Jimmy didn’t realize the clock was running—twenty seconds elapsed before they snapped it and lobbed it to Rudolph in the endzone. I’m not at all offering this as an example of bad officiating; it’s really a legitimate question.

I’m guessing since there seemed to be zero outrage I just didn’t know the proper rule and what happens in that situation is that once the ball is set the clock begins moving again. I’d be very curious to hear if Jimmy thought that was the case as well because he let the playclock wind all the way down to five before snapping it with 15 seconds left.

5. Random Game Notes

I loved seeing Te’o destroy Barkley when he scrambled toward the sideline in the first quarter. Does anyone remember someone bursting onto the scene and making such an immediate impact on the defensive side of the ball as a freshman? He’s an animal…

Huge hustle play by Ian Williams to force USC’s punt on their final drive. The Trojans had set up a great screen to the left and he came out of nowhere to knock McKnight out of bounds short of the marker…

Taylor Mays is HUGE. Go back and look at when he was standing next to Armando after the late hit—Armando looked like a midget…

Robert Blanton had some pretty good reads and jumps on the ball throughout the game. Seems like his confidence is returning and I wouldn’t be surprised if he breaks through this week against BC with a pick…

That was a very, very, VERY late fair catch signal on the play where Jordan Cowart was whistled for interference. He still shouldn’t have put himself in that position—would’ve been interference even if it wasn’t a fair catch. That being said, I was impressed by both coverage units on the day…

Joe McKnight is not Reggie Bush. He’s probably better positioned to succeed in the pros because he’s a stronger runner, but his game doesn’t have the same “this could go to the house” feel every time he touches the ball. Every time Bush had the ball in his hands during the 2005 game you could feel the entire stadium hold its breath…

One of Griffen’s sacks was allowed by Ragone. Credit Carroll for scheming a way to create that matchup—Ragone had no chance...

I forgot how much I missed tailgating in Tower Lot. It truly is the field of dreams...

4. Gary Gray

In his first start Gray played pretty well, justifying his move into the starting lineup. It wasn’t a flawless performance—he was flagged for pass interference on USC’s first play and got turned around and allowed the first touchdown—but it was encouraging. He came up with a huge interception in the fourth quarter that breathed life back into the stadium and he provided solid coverage for most of the afternoon. He’s strong, fluid, and to this point in the season has shown that he has the best pure man-to-man cover skills of anyone in our secondary.
He seems to be the type of player whose confidence goes up exponentially with playing time, which will be plentiful for the rest of his career. The other thing that really endeared him to me was the fact that he was so distraught after the game that he sobbed in front of the student section during the alma mater. I love guys that you can tell care with every ounce of their energy.

3. The Front Seven

If you would’ve told me we’d hold USC to less than 150 yards rushing I would’ve said we’re winning the game without a doubt. The defensive line has been criticized—and deservedly so—for being a sieve over the course of the season, but I thought they really stepped up and delivered with few exceptions during this game. Manti Te’o and Brian Smith both played inspired ball (far and away Smith’s best game of the year) and KLM showed that he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with over the next couple years once he matures. They did a great job in not letting USC run all over us like many—including myself—thought was a very realistic possibility. They also tightened up in the red zone, causing two field goals and almost keeping them out a third time when McKnight snuck in on the right sideline.

The difference between ND’s front seven and SC’s is the fact that on passing plays there’s just no push from ND’s without bringing two-three extra men on blitzes—and even then there’s no guarantee pressure will get there. Southern Cal was in Jimmy’s face all day with minimal blitzing, which gave them the ability to drop six or seven players in coverage to combat our offensive weapons. Defensive line is the one place where Charlie struck out in recruiting since he’s been at ND—thanks in large part to the last second defections of verbal commitments Omar Hunter and Justin Trattou.

There’s some help on the way with Tyler Stockton ready to go next year and (hopefully) big time recruits Chris Martin/Louis Nix, but now we’re seeing the consequences of striking out on the bigger name prospects (Gerald McCoy, Everson Griffen, Hunter, etc.) year in and year out.

2. Across the Country (rapid fire reactions to this weekend)

If Steve Spurrier would’ve had the quality of defense he’s had since he’s been at South Carolina when he was at Florida in the 90’s he may have had four national titles.

This season has been goofy enough that Boise State or TCU could find a way into the championship game. Is it likely? No. Is it possible? Yes. How crazy is it that it’s even a plausible scenario?

Colorado, you just rushed the field after beating Kansas. That’s not a good sign for what’s supposed to be an elite program in the Big 12 conference.

Danny Hope has to get a lot of credit for what he’s done at Purdue this year. The Boilers were left for dead preseason, but he’s come within a whisker of beating ND and Oregon in addition to the upset of Ohio State this weekend.

First loss to Kentucky since 1966? Uh oh Gene Chizik…

Big win for the Pittsburgh Panthers at Rutgers this weekend, putting themselves in a great position to be 8-1 by the time Notre Dame rolls into town in three weeks. Now, what are the odds of the Wannstache Mobile tripping up against South Florida or Syracuse? Judging by his track record I’ll put them at high to extremely high.

I think everyone that’s not a Florida Gator fan is sick of hearing about Tim Tebow (me included), but when you get down to it you have to tip your cap to the kid. He’s a polite, well-mannered, hard-working, competitive young man that’s never in any sort of trouble and has been very successful. Isn’t that the type of person that SHOULD be celebrated ad naseum?

1. The Game Atmosphere

This was one of the most important games for Notre Dame in recent history and it was a good atmosphere, but this was not the 2005 game. Not even close. The two weeks leading up to the game my roommate had been a wet blanket, continually saying this is not 2005, it’s not Miami ’88, nor is it FSU ’93 and you can’t force it to be. He was right. The biggest difference I felt between this year’s USC game and the 2005 game was the crowd. There seemed to be a “give me something to cheer about” attitude as opposed to 2005 where I looked to other sections and saw 75 year old men standing on their benches screaming “KILL” at every point in the game.

In 2005 everyone believed that Charlie Weis was a borderline miracle worker and had total faith that even when we fell behind to the Trojans, that he could orchestrate drives that would put us back in the game. This year when ANYTHING went wrong you could hear critics—no doubt incredibly qualified to give insight—chirping about how terrible a coaching decision this or that was and how Charlie should have done X, Y, or Z instead.

I’ve read some things online about how the student section didn’t show up for the game. I wouldn’t go that far if only because it’s wrong to lump everyone together. It was loud and rowdy—especially during the comeback—and it wasn’t like boos were raining down like they were in 2003, but there’s definitely division and it’s not discreet. I sat in the student section during the second half and I’ll share a quick story.

There was a kid from Morrissey Hall who was holding court in our row. He was going off after every play—and I do mean EVERY play—about how fat Charlie Weis was and how Notre Dame would “suck until he was gone.” He was far too cool to do any of the cheers, but at the Overture of 1812 he found it within himself to raise his hands to salute Coach Weis with both middle fingers. I asked him what his name was because I really wanted to include it in this column for two reasons. First, so that any students that knew him could give him a pat on the back for being just a class act and a great representation of the student body, and second, so I could pass his name along in hopes that a major television network would consider interviewing him for some sort of analyst position. The general public shouldn’t be deprived of his quips about Charlie’s eating habits and analysis on what SHOULD be done to turn this program around. He gave me a false name though (Ron Vierling, the rector of his dorm Morrissey Hall…for thinking to pull that name without hesitation I tip my cap, that is pretty funny) so unfortunately his contribution will have to go unrecognized. Crying shame.

He was definitely in the minority of students, but he certainly wasn’t alone. All you had to do was look around during the Overture to see how they felt about Charlie. I would guess that MAYBE half the students did the W, I saw about a dozen or so had their middle fingers extended, while the rest just didn’t care to participate. It stinks that the student body can’t totally be on the same page—the rest of the stadium really does feed off of them—but I guess that’s the reality of the situation when some people lose faith in the coach.

I will tell you one thing though: there is a distinct difference between the student body’s attitude during Willingham’s demise and now. With Willingham everyone kind of knew what was coming and most people wanted him gone, but there wasn’t a whole lot of animosity towards Ty the person. The general opinion was that he was a nice guy and a class act but not a good football coach and it was time to find someone new. Definite contrast with what’s going on right now. There are far more people that believe Weis should be here than there were Willingham supporters, but there is such a ridiculously high amount of venom for Charlie Weis the person from detractors that it blows me away. Being frustrated when things go wrong is natural and not everyone is going to always be positive, but listening to Notre Dame fans berate him for being fat and stupid makes me cringe.
No diary for the game this week. I've rewatched the game once and frankly I can't bring myself to break it down play-by-play. It'll return next week for BC.

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