I don't know about you - but I have had an awful week. Yes, the election results were annoying. Hey Barack, if you could get that plan for world peace and an economic turnaround on my desk by the end of next week, that'd be great. Thanks. But what has really made me miserable these past seven days was the Notre Dame loss to Pitt last Saturday. Arrrrggghhhh! For me, that loss was the worst of the Charlie Weis era.
It was worse than losing to a quality USC in 2005 after an epic struggle. It was worse than getting pasted 38-0 by USC or Michigan. It's worse than losing to Navy. It was certainly worse than the two bowl losses to superior opponents.
Last Saturday hurt so much because the team lost a game, at home, that they needed to win, that they should have won, that they pretty much had in the bag, and that they just simply gave away. The Fighting Irish lost an important game to a lesser foe (yes, I do believe a one-dimensional Pittsburgh playing with a back-up QB is a lesser team than the Irish) simply because Pittsburgh wanted the game more than our guys did. It was more important to the Panthers to keep fighting and to come back and win one on the road than it was to our guys to come out in the third quarter and put the game away.
I have been a 100% supporter of coach Weis since the day he was hired, and I still believe he'll get the job done. I have excused bad losses to better teams as he rebuilds the program. I have excused close losses to mediocre opponents based upon our youth and inexperience. But last Saturday was the second time this season that the Fighting Irish had a game well in hand, were outplaying the opponent and had victory in sight, and then allowed the game to slip through their fingers. Coincidentally, both losses were triggered by coming out after half-time and getting whipped in the third quarter. What the heck is going on in the locker room at half-time?
Charlie, just in case nobody has explained it to you: At Notre Dame you are expected to win all the games you play against lesser opponents, and you are also expected to win your fair share of games against better teams. A typical schedule will have about 8 games on it that you "should" win and will have about 4 games that are "toss-ups." A "tossup" in Irish parlance is a game in which you are a decided underdog but which your fans expect you to win anyway. To get to 10 wins you need to win all the "gimmes" and half the tossups. So far, your teams have been losing far too many of the "should wins" and haven't won any of the "tossups," let alone winning any upsets.
Today, Notre Dame is in Boston to take on the BC Eagles. Odds makers have the Irish as a 3.5 pt underdog. That is an insult. Both teams are 5-3. Notre Dame has played a significantly tougher schedule than BC. The two teams have one common opponent - North Carolina. Notre Dame played at UNC and lost by 5 points. The Eagles played at Chapel Hill and got beat by 21 points. That point spread isn't based on the talent of the players on these two squads. That point spread is based on coaching and on heart. The odds makers look at the Fighting Irish and they see a team that still hasn't figured out how winners play football. They look at our coaches and see a group that hasn't yet figured out how to push the right buttons with this team. And who can blame them? Two of our three losses came in games where we had control of the contest at halftime, but managed to lose the game with a combination of lackluster play, poor execution, and bad play-calling.
How bad was it against Pitt? The Pitt game started coming off the rails in the third quarter, when the came roaring out of the tunnel with 14 point lead and managed to possess the ball in the 3rd quarter for 4:09, and had ZERO first downs on ZERO net rushing yards and 7 passing yards. The Irish were 0 for 3 on third down conversions and 0 for 1 converting 4th down. Meanwhile Pitt had one drive that went 8 plays and 71 yards for a TD and another than went 15 plays and 70 yards for a TD (that drive carried into the 4th quarter).
One of those teams made productive use of their time at the half, and one didn't.
The overtime periods were as woeful for the Irish offense as the 3rd quarter. In four OT periods, the Irish managed just 2 first downs, converting only 1 of 5 third downs.
- In OT1 the offense managed to get to 1st and Goal at the 10 yard line but couldn't score a TD.
- In OT2 the offense got to 1st and 10 at the 11, and couldn't score a TD.
- In OT3 the offense went backwards (-4 yards) and ended up kicking a field goal from the 29.
- In OT4 the offense gained 6 yards on 4 plays and had to settle for a FG attempt from the 19 on 4th and 4.
To be fair, the defense was outstanding in overtime, playing much better than they had during the 3rd quarter.
The bottom line for this team is that they need to learn how to play HARD for 60 minutes. You can't take a play off, or a series off, or a quarter off and expect to win a game. Your opponent is not going to give up, or roll over just because you played a good first half. They want to beat your brains in and you have to return the sentiment. You have to play every down as though the guy across from you just groped your girlfriend at a party and then called her a dirty name when she rejected him. Every down. The goal has to be to score 20, then 40 then 60 points until the coaches call off the dogs and empty the benches.
And that goes for the coaches too. Quit easing off the gas pedal and trying to nurse a 2 TD lead for 30 minutes. It's a prescription for disaster. Go with what has been working until you are up by 40 points, then worry about offensive balance or running out the clock.
I've been so fixated on the loss to Pitt that I haven't taken much of a look ahead to Boston College. Point spreads aside, the teams are pretty evenly matched on paper. The Irish are just a few spots above BC in the Sagarin rankings. Points scored and points allowed per game are pretty even (slight edge BC). Notre Dame's offense averages about 50 yards per game more than BC's offense. Notre Dame's defense allows about 60 yards per game more than BC's defense. Notre Dame's strengths are in the passing game, both offensively and defensively. The Eagles' strength is in the ground game, both offensively and defensively.
Thus, when the Irish have the ball, I expect to see a lot of the spread offense again. Not only has it been most effective for the team this season, it matches up better against the BC defense which is very good defending the run. The wild card here is that the weather in Chestnut Hill is expected to be cool and possibly rainy (50% chance of showers), which could make it harder to throw and catch the football.
When BC has the ball, expect a lot of what Pittsburgh did. The Eagles' passing game is very modest, with more INTs than TD passes. To win this game, Boston College will need to run the ball effectively and often. If they get behind and have to throw the ball to play catch-up, it should work into Notre Dame's hands.
The game is being played on an artificial surface, which I think gives a big advantage to Notre Dame. Hard enough covering Golden Tate and Michael Floyd on a slow grass surface. Put those two and Armando Allen on turf and I think the Irish offense will be dynamic. Plus, playing on turf lessens the impact of the potentially wet weather (no mud).
The Irish actually made a game of it against BC last season and might have had a chance to win it but for some bad officiating. Since that game Notre Dame has gotten much better, and BC lost their first round draft pick QB to the NFL and are not as good as they were during their Cinderella run. But statistics and game plans aside, for me this game will boil down to whether the Notre Dame players are as disgusted and embarrassed by last week's loss as I am. If they come out looking to make the Eagles pay for all that frustration, if they are aggressive and angry, and determined and focused for 60 minutes they should beat BC handily.
Come on guys - show us some nasty!