Thursday, September 16, 2010

Irish Blogger Gathering: Chumbawumba Edition

This week's questions come from Keith Arnold at NBC's Inside the Irish blog. He had the tough assignment of developing a slew of questions in the wake of another heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Skunkbears. It's time to get up off the mat and get back to work...

Head over there to check out his answers along with others from the IBG.

1) Status check: How deflating was the loss to Michigan? I could argue that Crist's injury makes this loss both easier to swallow and even more maddening for Irish fans.

Deflating but not devastating. Sadly, Notre Dame fans are accustomed to seeking out silver linings after every heartbreaking loss and that's what I've been doing the last five days. It's too early in the season to get down about a loss--especially when a freak temporary injury was the root cause of it. This is a young team that's learning new systems on both sides of the ball, there are going to be some bumps in the road.

Entering this season my expectation was a year like 2008 except showing improvement over the course of the season as opposed to regression. In 2008 we stood at 4-1 through five games and before the floor dropped out en route to a 7-6 finish. This is what I want to see over the rest of the season and if I do then I'll deem it a success:

* Learn to step on a team when it's down--offensively and defensively
* Win a game on the road
* Win one game when coming from behind
* Win one game with a late score in the final quarter
* Win one game with a dominating run performance (I don't care if it's against Western Michigan or Southern Cal)
* Win one game because clearly the defense stepped up
* Beat Southern Cal in the final game

I said before the year nine wins was a reasonable prediction, give or take a game. It's still attainable, BK just has to get the boys to grow up quickly.

2) How critical is this Saturday's game? Walk away 2-1 and the Irish can feel good about taking on a very able Stanford squad at home next weekend. Walk out of East Lansing with a loss...

Very critical. If the Irish can go to East Lansing and win it'll be an enormous confidence boost and set the stage for what should be a slugfest with Stanford. If Notre Dame sweeps the next two games it will most likely re-enter the Top 25 and set the stage for serious progress and maybe a BCS run.

If they lose then doubt will creep into the minds of both fans and the team. Remember, this is a group that has collapsed each of the last two seasons so you can't help but assume that their confidence is at least somewhat fragile. While you have to think Kelly can handle the psyche of the players better than Weis did, you'd much rather maintain the positive momentum and mojo that's surrounded the program since BK's hiring.

3) Why does the rivalry with Michigan State seem to get so little respect?

I see two main reasons: the first is that historically there aren't as many huge, memorable games between the squads. When the most famous game between the two squads is a 10-10 tie you're off to a bad start.

The greater reason though is the fact that Michigan State isn't considered an elite program--historically or currently. Notre Dame's greatest rivals are Southern Cal and Michigan, both top 6 or 7 programs in history no matter how you slice it. Michigan State is never more than the 4th or 5th most important game on the schedule for ND each year. The reality is the red-headed stepchild of the state of Michigan just doesn't have the prestige to warrant the level of respect other rivals receive, whether that's fair or not.

4) It's hard to draw too many conclusions from victories over Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic, but what do you expect this Saturday night in Spartan Stadium?

First and foremost it will be a hostile environment. I went to the night game in 2006 (let's take a second to reflect on how glorious it was....thank you) and the fans/students/farm hands are VICIOUS and they'll be tailgating all day ready to spit their venom at the enemy. If you're at the game you can also expect one of the stupidest, most repetitive, generic fan cheers ever (Go Green!....Pause....Go White!) and the bell from Hells Bells to be gonged every third down.

Now I won't say that Michigan State sees Notre Dame as their most important game every year, but without fail they seem to deliver their best performance of the season against the Irish. Perhaps because it's the only guaranteed national television game going into each season? Who knows...

Michigan State has been thoroughly unimpressive in their first two games, but Irish fans can rest assured that Sparty will be fired up and ready to play right from the opening gun. I expect them to challenge Notre Dame's toughness along both lines. Become familiar with running back Edwin Baker. He's averaging a staggering 9.4 yards per carry through two games and there's no reason to believe they won't ride him against an Irish team that gave up 288 yards on the ground last week. That doesn't mean they won't test the secondary as well--after all, quarterback Kirk Cousins lit up the Notre Dame secondary to the tune of 354 yards.

On the defensive side of the ball they're going to be throwing everything possible at Dayne Crist. They're not dumb, they saw what happened to Notre Dame's offense when he wasn't in the game. They're going to try to rattle him and do everything possible to get him out of the game. This is going to be a great physical test for the Irish on both sides of the ball and a stern mental test as well.

5) Best case, worst case, most likely: The Irish's record after the first six games.

Best Case: 5-1...Every one of these games is winnable--ND has more talent than every opponent.
Worst Case: 2-4...None of these next four games is even close to a gimme. Each of these spreads will be between +4 and -4 so it's essentially 4 toss-ups. Heads has to come up at least once, right?
Most Likely: 4-2...I think Notre Dame is headed in the right direction and if Dayne stays healthy they'll only slip up once, setting up a great opportunity to make a run at the BCS down the stretch

6) Let's leave Michael Floyd out of this for a second. What Irish player needs to step up and play better football?

I'd like to see Theo Riddick start making some noise. The first two games of the Wide Receiver Experiment haven't exactly been a raving success. He's looked uncomfortable and out of sorts, dropping four or five balls while barely making a dent other than the long pass he snagged at the end of the half against Michigan.

It's far too early to deem the switch a failure, but I want to at least see some progress this weekend. The slot receiver has a chance to be very prolific in this scheme and if Riddick doesn't turn the corner it'll be time to give Robby Toma a chance. Theo flashed great playmaking ability last season, but right now I'm just looking for a baby step: show me flashes of being a serviceable receiver.

If he doesn't then Kelly has to consider sending him back to running back. The flip-flop wouldn't be unprecedented and doesn't mean he can't still be successful over his last two seasons. Remember: Autry Denson briefly shifted to receiver before returning to the backfield under Holtz and that turned out just fine for him.

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