I'm late with this, but life intrudes. As mentioned previously I have a few thoughts I want to share about our day at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, but I was just too exhausted to get them all in when we got back home Saturday night.
My son and I got to the Rose Bowl around 1:30, so we had very little traffic to contend with, which was something of a first for me and the Rose Bowl. Our first stop was the "IrishFest" hosted by the Notre Dame Club of Los Angeles. There was a terrific band, the American Wake, playing Irish music for the crowd. Lots of good food and beer (the chicken was terrific!). Notre Dame All-American and Super Bowl Champion Aaron Taylor was there promoting the LegendsofSouthBend.com website. I got to chat with him for a bit about the site and got a picture of him with my son that I posted to the blog via my cell phone. First time I had tried that, and it worked pretty well. There was a short performance by a bagpipe group and then the pep rally. Aaron Taylor emceed the rally with his good friend Derrick Mayes. The cheerleaders also stopped by for the rally and were very gracious with their time afterwards, posing for lots of pictures even though they had other appearances to make before the game. Embedded below (hopefully) is a slide show of some of the pictures I took throughout the day, including at the pep rally and at the game. (If you click on any of the pictures it will take you to the Picasa Web Album page where you can view all the pictures full size. I'd be very interested if you have any feedback about the slide show, since it is the first time I've tried it here).
Once the pep rally was over, the IrishFest was done and everyone headed for the stadium, which was very close by. On the walk over to the stadium I was very impressed by how cordial all the Bruin fans were. It seemed that half the tailgate parties were mixed affairs with Notre Dame and UCLA supporters reveling side-by-side. This was a marked contrast to the behavior of the UCLA students we encountered in the stadium.
Before heading inside, we found my daughter, who came to the game with a close friend and her family. They were tailgating on the South side of the stadium very near the big "Rose Bowl" sign on the side of the stadium. After a beer, a snickerdoodle, and a few pictures my son and I headed for our seats in the North end zone, about 10 feet from the UCLA student section. Can I say, as a taxpaying resident of California, that I am very disappointed in the quality of education that my tax dollars are providing to the youth of this state? Their ability to cheer seems to be limited to two-word chants, and one of the words must be an F-bomb. F_ _ _ Notre Dame! F_ _ _ USC! F_ _ _ Jimmy Clausen! Not very original, and it got old in a hurry. They did break out with the "0 and 5! 0 and 5!" which was really hysterical - NOT! The funny thing was that the UCLA student body seemed to care much more about the score of the USC-Stanford game being played across town than about the beat-down their own team was suffering in front of their eyes. There was one silver lining to the obnoxious behavior of the UCLA students -- the very special satisfaction I felt when they all shut their mouths in the third quarter! Sweetest silence I ever heard.
Sitting right behind us was a couple of UCLA fans who whined the whole game "sit dooowwwwnnnn! We can't seeeeeee!" People, this is Division I football! This is Notre Dame! You don't want to stand up? Go watch intra-murals, brother!
It was great to see and be a part of a massive turnout of Notre Dame fans for an 0-5 football team playing 2,000 miles from home as a three touchdown underdog. Both end zones, corner to corner, were filled predominantly with Irish fans. And they brought their A-game. Whenever the action moved down near either end zone, those fans were fired up to help the Irish, and I believe it helped the team stay energized for sixty minutes. I also really appreciated that the team ran all the way down to the North end of the stadium to celebrate with their fans at the end of the game, many of the players tossing wrist bands and other items into the crowd as souvenirs. Then they ran back to the South end to celebrate with the fans there before heading into the locker room. It was fun to look around the Rose Bowl at that point to see both end zones still filled with Notre Dame fans, while the UCLA band was on the field playing to empty seats, all the Bruin fans having long since departed.
What about the game? I still haven't watched the recording, and I viewed the game from down low in the end zone, so I can't say much about X's and O's. But I do have some thoughts about what I saw and felt.
On offense, despite poor overall production, my sense was that the team was poised and very much in control of the game plan. They seemed to understand that the game plan was to be conservative, avoid costly errors, and be competitive in the field position battle. They took what the defense was giving (which wasn't much) and then they got off a good punt and let the defense go to work. When the defense created an opportunity for a quick score, the offense did a fair job of capitalizing. Run blocking was average, which is a big step up from most previous games, and although they didn't create big holes they largely avoided the tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Pass blocking was very good when you consider UCLA's reputation for an aggressive pass rush. Clausen generally had ample time to throw, but unfortunately did not generally have a target open down the field. Clausen had an excellent completion percentage, but almost all of them were very short completions out in the flats for little or no gain. From the stands the lateral passing game was very frustrating to watch, especially given the time that Jimmy had to throw. I was also disappointed when Notre Dame got the ball at the UCLA 1-yard line after a turnover and tried three passing plays resulting in a field goal attempt. First and goal at the 1 is time fr some character building up front. We still cannot get one or two yards from the run game when we need them. I think a good start would be NOT giving the ball to Travis Thomas. Give it to Aldridge or Hughes. Three times. Put Chris Stewart in at tight end next to Sam Young and run behind him. Figure something out. But, at the end of the day the offense did not turn the ball over and the team won the field position battle.
I thought Coach Weis took a step forward on Saturday. In the past he has been a riverboat gambler, seemingly feeling that it was always up to the offense to win the game. Old habits are hard to break and earlier this season that attitude caused Coach Weis to make some very aggressive/risky play calls that turned the ball over to the opponent in very good field position, with predictably bad results. Saturday was the first time that I can recall where he seemed to be putting the game in the hands of the defense. He was (mostly) satisfied to take care of the football and punt the ball deep, rather than call risky plays in an effort to keep drives alive. I also thought Coach Weis was uncharacteristically committed to running the football, even when it wasn't yielding much in the way of yardage. But running the ball is largely about attitude and asserting yourself physically. Even though we weren't getting big yards, we were running with effect and wearing down the UCLA defense. We were also forcing the defense to respect the run, which slowed down the pass rush and gave Clausen more time to throw. Certainly the offense will need to be more explosive next week if we are to keep up with a surprising Boston College team, but we saw some very good things we can build on in the UCLA game.
But the star of the game Saturday was the new Irish defense. I feel like this game was the real coming out party for Defensive Coordinator Corwin Brown. The D was stout against the run, and played like sharks at a shipwreck against the pass. They knocked out the starting QB and then forced the back-up into numerous costly errors. The key word there is "forced." UCLA fans and Notre Dame haters would have you believe that McLeod Bethel-Thompson (what were his parents thinking?) came into the game and just started throwing random, inexplicable interceptions. But those interceptions were the result of serious pass-rush pressure, tipped balls, and physically man-handling MBT for the whole game. It was the result of the same type of pressure that caused starters Ben Olson and Kahlil Bell to fumble the ball away. Bottom line - the defense was aggressive, relentless, and hungry for the ball at all times. They absolutely won this game, with both veterans and youngsters playing key roles. They will be severely tested the next two weeks, but I sure like the direction they are heading.
Special teams - I knew things were going our way when Brandon Walked connected on a 48-yard field goal in the third quarter. Except for UCLA's second possession (which started at the UCLA 47 and led to a field goal), the special teams did a remarkably consistent job of pinning the Bruins back in their own end of the field. Here were the starting positions for all of UCLA's possessions (all in their own half of the field): 7, 47, 20, 27, 22, 15, 28, 36, 29, 1, 30, 34, 32, 43, 31. That's a great job by the special teams, and a great job by the offense of holding onto the all and letting the special teams do their job. Hopefully this game can be the start of a pattern.
My son is thirteen years old. Several weeks ago, when we began planning a trip to see the Irish play USC, my son asked me: "Dad, have I ever been to a Notre Dame game when they won?" Well, he has. He was young, of course, but he's been to games when Notre Dame beat USC. He saw the Irish beat Stanford a couple of years ago. But what sticks in his mind are the losses to USC in recent years, and the loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. After Saturday, I know he'll always remember this underdog Irish squad playing in the Rose Bowl and upsetting a heavily favored and arrogant UCLA Bruin team. And that, my friends, is priceless.
Cheap parting shot: The University of Washington Huskies are now 2-3, riding a three game losing streak. That's one more win that the Fighting Irish have accrued to date. The Huskies played the UCLA Bruins on the same field the Irish did and got beat 44-31. I'm just sayin' ...