Thursday, September 15, 2011

Irish Blogger Gathering: Role Play Edition

1. Let’s go ahead and talk about the big pink elephant in the room. After two absolutely horrid, heart-breaking, and downright mind-boggling performances, how do you feel about this team moving forward? Are we simply a bad team or a team that just hasn’t put it together yet? This is your chance to talk Irish fans of the ledge…or push them over.

The fact that any chances of a dream season have been completely shattered by mid-September puts a pall on the rest of fall. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't used to it happening each September--which is depressing in and of itself--but it doesn't make it any easier to swallow. The maddening thing is this is one of the most complete Notre Dame squad in years. There's talent on each side of the ball and the potential for greatness on both lines, but much like the high octane 2009 squad this one seems completely hell-bent on self-destructing in the most excruciatingly torturous ways possible.

You can't say we're a good team because good teams don't commit 10 turnovers. Good teams don't commit 10 turnovers in a year, let alone two games (see: the 2000 Fiesta Bowl squad). But there is undeniable potential on this squad. If Kelly can coerce some discipline out of it then--as ridiculous as it sounds--10-2 is not out of the question. Has there been anything in the first two weeks that suggests suddenly we're going to squash those mental lapses and realize the potential? Noooooope.

I'm not here to sugarcoat anything nor am I here to push anyone over the ledge. The silver lining right now is the fact that Notre Dame has the talent to compete on an elite level. There are still some positions that are lacking depth (see: cornerback...please for the love of God don't bail on me Ron Darby), but at its core in terms of personnel and direction this is a healthy program.

Yes, just like in the last couple years of the Weis Era a toxic cloud still hovers around it thanks to an unrelentingly negative and vocal section of the fan base. The difference right now though is the chasm between mediocrity and elite is more mental than physical. It’s not easy to take that last step, but if Kelly can drill the necessary discipline, focus, and mental toughness through his kids’ skulls through teaching, yelling, paddling, or any other means necessary then this team is still at least in theory capable of making some noise on a national level. That’s not something you could legitimately say about any other Irish squad since Brady Quinn graduated.

2. It’s time to put on the headset and step into the shoes of Brian Kelly. In the first quarter, it seemed like your message and plan to recover from the USF disaster worked, and then the rest of the game happened. How do approach this week? What message do you give your players?

It all comes down to mental focus. If Notre Dame didn’t self-destruct in each of the first two games they would be 2-0 and ranked in the top ten. Instead, the Irish sit at 0-2 and the majority of national media and fans are having a funeral for the future of the program. Focus and play with discipline. A 10-game win streak is not impossible if they can start winning the game played on a six inch field between the players’ ears.

3. Keep that headset on, you are still playing Kelly. Based upon what you’ve seen these last two games, do you see players that need to start riding the pine or are you still confident in your depth chart?

Sorry, let me put the headset back on. I’d taken it off to unhinge my jaw and eat Ben Turk whole. One cause of my aneurysms solved. In all honesty, think I just ate the only player I really would liked to see planted on the bench through the first couple games. Gary Gray has had a HORRENDOUS start to the season, but I still want him out there. Prior to this year I thought he was the best corner we’ve fielded since Shane Walton. He’s done everything in his power to try to kill that claim, but I still have a little faith left to spare on him.

I just want everyone to start playing smart. Apparently that’s a lot to ask.

4. Overall, how do you feel about Rees’ performance against Michigan?

The kid is mistake prone and his unforced fourth quarter error in the red zone was a colossal turning point in a game that was still completely in Notre Dame’s control. That being said, he does a fantastic job keeping his poise in the pinch. The offense clearly moves better with him at the helm, it’s just that turnovers will continue to be an issue as long as he’s the trigger man. If I were to give it a grade I’d go with B—great out of the gate, sputtered in the middle, a terrible turnover in the fourth quarter, and a clutch drive that should have been the game-winner.

5. Let’s talk about something happy: the Irish running game. After a 198 yard performance by the Irish do you feel that this rushing attack led by Cierre Wood (134 yards) is for real or have we not run into a tough enough defensive test yet?

It’s legit with a caveat. Stats don’t lie—Notre Dame is running the ball effectively out of the spread, especially on first and second down. The eyes don’t lie either though: we’re still atrocious in short yardage situations where we line up under center. Yes, it’s incredibly predictable as to what we’re going to do. But elite offensive lines and elite running games can line up and will their way to a single yard even when everyone in the world knows where it’s going.

Currently, the Irish are acres from being elite.

When ND gets to the point where fans expect them to come through and get a yard when they need it, we can start talking about an elite running game. Until then we can tip our cap to marked improvement while hoping for more.

6. Looking ahead to Michigan State, how do you gauge them? Is this the best team that we’ve faced off against yet or is this just an untested team that beat up on two cupcakes in Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic?

They’re definitely better than Michigan, which may be one of the five worst teams we’ve lost to in the past decade (and that’s an brutal label to carry). They haven’t been tested and are overrated as of right now in terms of ranking (Vegas agrees…line open at ND -3.5 and jumped almost immediately to -5 which means the sharps loaded up on the Irish), but they’re no pushover by any stretch. If Notre Dame plays well they should handle Sparty. That’s a huge “if” though, compounded by the fact that Sparty normally throws their best game of the season at the Irish. Look for another tight slugfest.

7. Is the key to winning simply not turning the ball over or do you see other crucial keys to beating Sparty?

DON’T SHOOT YOURSELF IN THE FOOT. JUST STOP DOING IT. It’s not just turnovers, it’s mental mistakes in general. Stupid penalties, missed blocking assignments in short yardage situations, broken coverages that lead to 60-yard passes with under 30 seconds left that are stroke-inducing.

8. Obviously every week should be a must win, but I think there is definitely more of an urgency this week. How crucial is this game for the rest of our season?

Believe it or not, this season is salvageable if we win this game. The team needs to get things snowballing in the right direction and it starts with one win. A victory over a team ranked in the Top 15 is just what the doctor ordered.

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