As I mentioned in my hastily-written USC preview post, I took my family back to South Bend for the USC game. We don't get back there very often to see Irish home games, but we were offered tickets, and the timing worked out pretty well since we wanted the OC Daughter to see the campus again before she starts filling out college applications a year from now. So we took a red-eye out of LAX to Chicago (via Atlanta), grabbed a rental car, and made it to Notre Dame by mid-afternoon on on a cool, gray Friday. First stop was the bookstore, then the rest of campus. We watched the Band rehearse their step-off, and sat in on the Glee Club's Friday afternoon practice, which was really neat. Then we visited the grotto and walked around St. Mary's Lake to my old dorm, Carroll Hall. By then it was getting late, we were really tired, it was getting cool out and we were starving. So we called it a night and went to dinner. As we were walking back to our car, a gentleman approached me somewhat tentatively. I was pretty sure he wanted to ask me a question, but he seemed a bit reluctant. Finally he asked "Are you OC Domer?" I wasn't sure how to react. "Yes I am. How did you know that?" He told me that he reads the blog regularly and that he recognized my kids from the pictures I have posted here! What an amazing memory he has. He was very nice and complimented the blog, and I thanked him for reading. How weird was that! If you're still reading after Saturday, friend, it was great to meet you!
The next day dawned gloriously. Bright blue skies and a perfect autumn day. I, of course, had been promoting my theory that the key to an Irish victory was heavy snow. Thus, my theory was not going to be put to the test. Instead Notre Dame and USC fans alike were to be treated to the most perfect day you could imagine for a college football game. We headed back to campus around 1:00. We wandered for a bit enjoying the sights and taking some pictures, eventually making it over the the Knights of Columbus Hall where we bought our steak sandwiches for lunch. Then we listened to the Band concert on the steps of the Architecture building and finally followed the band as they stepped off for the stadium. I took over 500 pictures in two days, and have selected the best of the bunch for a slide show which is embedded below. Click on any of the pictures to open a new window that will let you see the entire album in full size.
As you can see from the photos, it was a fantastic weekend to be at Notre Dame for a football game (or for anything else).
Unfortunately, the football game did not live up to its setting. I felt, going into the game, that the Irish actually had a chance against a banged up Trojan squad playing behind a second-string quarterback. That theory pretty much fell by the wayside when it turned out that many of the key USC players who had been nursing injuries felt just fine on Saturday. In particular, the Irish were really hurt by the fact that Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing seemed to be at full strength. As you know, I was at the game, and haven't seen any recordings of it, so I don't have any benefit of instant replays or announcers' analyses. All I can relay to you are some of my impressions from being present in the stadium.
A couple of things are clear at the outset. First, USC should never have lost to Stanford. They are much too talented for that. Second, this Notre Dame football team is getting emotionally fragile. They play hard as long as they still feel they are in the game, but once a few breaks go against them you can sense (from the crowd as well as the team) the "here we go again" fears creeping in. In my estimation, Notre Dame (especially the defense) was mentally and emotionally in this game until late in the second quarter. Down 14-0 and starting a "drive" with 1:57 left in the half, the Irish were faced with a 3rd-and-1 situation at our own 23 yard line. A poorly thrown ball to Kamara fell incomplete and the air went out of the balloon. We punted and USC went on a 70 yard drive in 1:30, capped by a field goal with 11 second left in the half. At 17-0 it was "Game Over."
Evan Sharpley was definitely NOT Evan Spark-ley. He looked exactly like Jimmy Clausen, holding onto the ball too long, unable to make the decisions on where to throw it. Looking at my photos today, I don't think we can lay it all on the O-line. While Sharpley certainly didn't have the time and space that Mark Sanchez had, and while he was frequently under pressure, he also had numerous plays where the protection was sufficient to complete a pass. The problem in many cases seemed to be that (1) nobody was open, or (2) receivers were open, sometimes wide open, but Sharpley never saw them. There were also accuracy and hands issues. All-in-all, anything that CAN go wrong with the passing game DID go wrong.
Although the defense clearly broke down in the second half, it was once again the futility of the offense that was the major culprit. Our defense is not good enough to win games all by itself, but it is good enough to win games if the offense can help just a little bit. But the offense has been utterly unable to provide that help.
I'm not going to break down the numbers in this post, but rest assured that they tell largely the same story we have seen all season - Notre Dame's offense cannot do anything. They can't sustain drives by converting third downs and moving the chains, and they can't score with the big play. Against USC the Irish only moved the ball late in each half. At the end of the first half USC was playing a very soft prevent defense, and Sharpley completed a few balls underneath. At the end of the game, USC had it's reserves in the game and we moved the ball down to the USC 25 before the drive sputtered out. How absolutely miserable it was to stand in Notre Dame Stadium and hope that Notre Dame could score a touchdown in the final seconds of the game so that they could avoid a shut-out and only lose 38-7 instead of 38-0. Humiliating.
I don't have any answers. I only have questions. How is it that we can't move the ball at all? We can't reliably execute an off-tackle run, or a toss sweep. We can't throw and catch a quick slant, a ten-yard out pattern or a seven-yard crossing route. We still can't get a single yard when faced with a crucial 3rd-and-1. How can it have gotten this bad?
Right now I am only clinging to one hope: We can't be as bad as we have looked. We've played an extraordinarily tough schedule against Top-25 teams. We aren't a Top-25 team right now, so we're 1-7. But we aren't the 90th best team in the country either, and we'll do fine over the last month of the schedule. Wins over Navy, Air Force, Stanford, and Duke will bring the Irish faithful back in off the window ledges and we'll start looking forward to next year, when all the pain of this season will bear fruit. I hope.