Friday, December 26, 2008

Joy to the World

The. Best. Christmas. EVER!

How awesome was it to see this Notre Dame football team play the way we all expect Notre Dame football teams to play? When faced with a 7-6 team from the Western Athletic Conference, the Irish did what Notre Dame should do to teams from the WAC - they crushed 'em.

I had a lot of questions and an uneasy feeling in my stomach going into the game. In my pre-game post I wanted to know if the team would be their traditional bowl-game slow, sluggish and sloppy or if they would show up focused, fast, and physical. I guess those questions were answered. Granted, we weren't playing a top-tier team in a BCS bowl, but after watching the Irish lose at home to Syracuse and fritter away games against Pitt and UNC this season, the key questions were about team morale and whether these players still wanted to play for Coach Weis. Clearly, the team is still behind Charlie, and just as clearly Coach Weis and his staff figured something out about how to prep for a bowl game, because the team was dominant. They totally out-classed, out-played, and out-coached Hawaii. Memo to U of H coaching staff: Nobody in the WAC can cover Golden Tate one-on-one.

The preparation and focus is all the more impressive when you consider that the team was taking semester final exams through Friday of last week, and had to deal with the long (and delayed) flight from South Bend to Hawaii to play the Warriors on their home field.

Jimmy Clausen had all his weapons available and looked as good as he has ever looked as Notre Dame's quarterback. He was throwing the ball with impressive zip and pinpoint accuracy. He was calling the game perfectly at the line, changing the play calls to take advantage of poor judgment by the Hawaii coaches whenever they had single coverage on Golden Tate. Boy did he make them pay for that. The offensive line gave Jimmy plenty of time to throw, and was just effective enough in the running game to keep the Hawaii defense honest.

It was great to see Michael Floyd back in the lineup, although I wonder if he's okay since he wasn't much of a factor after three Hawaii players went helmet-to-helmet with him on a 15-yard catch over the middle on Notre Dame's first drive of the game. TE Kyle Rudolph was excellent in the middle of the field with 4 catches for 78 yards. Three of his four catches were for gains of over 20 yards and an Irish first down. And of course Golden Tate was sick. He had just six catches on the day, but made them count for 177 yards and three touchdowns. And his best play of the day may have been his amazing punt return for a touchdown that was called back on a questionable roughing the punter call.

It was also great to see Armando Allen finally get loose on a 41-yard catch-and-run, a nice 18-yard TD touchdown reception, and a 96-yard kick return for a TD. We've been waiting for AA to break out, and I hope we see a lot more of that #5 in the future.

The defense was aggressive and opportunistic, harassing the U of H QB all day, deflecting a bunch of passes and forcing a couple of turnovers.

All-in-all, a great day to be Irish.

I want to congratulate coach Mike Haywood on being named the new Head Football Coach at Miami University of Ohio. Good luck Coach Haywood.

Which opens up the discussion heading into 2009 of what changes we will see in the Irish coaching staff moving forward. Jack Swarbrick and Coach Weis made it clear that some "obvious" changes would be made in the program in the very near future. Replacing Coach Haywood is obvious enough. Charlie hinted in talking to reporters that he had a pretty good idea who he wanted to bring in to fill that position. The question is: Who?

Will he be grabbing a coach from the stockpile that is created by coaching changes in the NFL and college at the end of each season? Will he be poaching a coach from a position on a stable NFL or college staff by offering a nice promotion to OC?

I would really prefer that Coach Weis find a seasoned, successful coordinator and play-caller. Charlie really caught a bad break when David Cutliffe developed heart trouble and left the staff. That was actually a brilliant hire by CW that I hope will be the template for hiring a new coordinator. Charlie needs somebody he can trust with game-planning and play-calling so that he can worry about being head coach, not an OC. He can't spend another four years mentoring a young coach to be an OC and eventually a head coach somewhere else.

What other "obvious" changes will we see?

I have been hoping for a new O-line coach for years now. John Latina may be a heck of a guy, but his linemen can't run-block. Even in a dominant win over Hawaii two days ago, Notre Dame had a net 65 rushing yards on 34 attempts, for an average per rush of just 1.9 yards. Not good enough. (Our best rusher, Robert Hughes, averaged just 3.2 ypc versus Hawaii).

Ron Powlus is another guy who is a development project as a coach. We need a QB coach who has proven ability at developing top QBs, especially as Charlie moves away from full-time devotion to the offensive side of the all. If CW wants to be more head coach than OC, he needs a proven commodity developing his young, talented quarterbacks. This is also important for recruiting future QBs as well.

I can't get out of my head the image of one of our offensive linemen in the Boston College game literally being tossed backwards into an Irish running back like a rag doll. Coupled with our generally woeful power running game, that play told me that our strength and conditioning coach Reuben Mendoza needs to be replaced. Our big guys are constantly being pushed around by our opponents' big guys, even when our our big guys are bigger. That has to change.

Coach Weis was able to bite the bullet and re-make the defensive coaching staff when it was clear that changes were necessary. Hopefully the Christmas glow of a great bowl win won't obscure the fact that he needs a similar makeover on the offensive side of the ball this off-season.

The pictures in this post are from the (Click on the pics for terrific larger views). The Smoking Camera belongs to Joe Marquez, a photographer who lives in Hawaii. He went to the Hawaii Bowl and has a gallery of 144 images from the game on his site. If you like these pictures, go check out his site. (You might also like his gallery of NFL cheerleader pictures).

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What's Hawaiian for "Must Win"?

Normally a Hawaii Bowl match-up between a 7-6 Hawaii Warriors squad and some 6-6 team from the Midwest would best be described as "meaningless" or "forgettable." Not so this year, because that 6-6 team from the Midwest is Notre Dame, everyone's favorite soap opera college football program. Love 'em or hate 'em, few are neutral on the Fighting Irish. And ESPN, which has rights to the broadcast, is making the most of it in hyping today's only bowl game at every opportunity. So the sports world will be watching tonight - and for good reason.

Certainly this game is inconsequential as far as the final BCS standings go this year, as neither of these teams threaten to shake up the Top 25, win or lose. But tonight's game has HUGE implications for the future of one of the most storied programs in the history of college football. A win tonight for the Irish would avoid the stinging (and very rare) stigma of back-to-back losing seasons for Notre Dame. If the Irish look good in a win tonight it will be an enormous step in the right direction for the program. It will mean a winning season following the 2007 3-and-9 debacle, it will mean an end to the most publicized bowl losing streak in the history of the world (finally), and it will mean that this team and these players are still committed to playing hard for each other and for Coach Weis. A win for ND would bring a measure of stability back to the program. It will (for the time being) vindicate Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick's decision to retain Charlie Weis as head coach, and will likely calm the jittery recruits who are wondering if committing to Notre Dame and Charlie Weis is a smart thing to do right now.

On the other hand, a loss in this "meaningless" bowl game could send the Notre Dame football program into a death spiral. Back-to-back losing seasons, an extension of the bowl losing streak. If, worst case scenario, the team looks flat and uninspired in a loss, questions will be raised about whether Charlie Weis has lost his team or whether he even has the ability to be an effective college head coach. Although Jack Swarbrick has decided to retain Coach Weis for now, he clearly did so in a manner that leaves open the possibility of revisiting that decision at any time. If the team looks bad in a loss in Hawaii, I think the Weis era could be over. If that happens it will be a huge setback for the program as the University scrambles to find a replacement while salvaging as much of the 2009 recruiting class as possible.

So those are the stakes in this meaningless, forgettable football game. Ho hum.

What about the game itself? On a neutral field the Irish would probably be favored by about a touchdown. In Aloha Stadium the Irish are a slight favorite (maybe 2 points). Clearly Notre Dame has "better" athletes than Hawaii. But as we have seen with this Notre Dame team, that counts for precisely "squat" (See "Syracuse"). Hawaii has a history of playing very well on their home (hard as a rock) turf, and of making things very uncomfortable for their guests from the mainland. By contrast, the Fighting Irish have a recent history of showing up at bowl games in warm-weather venues looking slow, sluggish, and sloppy. Not a great combination.

In reading the pre-game coverage of the teams, it is obvious that the Warriors will be "up" for this game. It is essentially "senior day" for them. They want to send their seniors off in style by getting a big win against a big-time program in front of their home fans. Hawaii is a senior-laden team that will be playing with a huge chip on their collective shoulders. The Aloha Bowl will be a hostile environment.

How will Notre Dame respond? That is the big question. As I sat high up in the corner of the L.A. Coliseum for the game against USC, one of the two positives I took from that game was that the team had not quit. They played against USC with some attitude and refused to be pushed around by the more talented Trojans. Although they were overmatched, they were not resigned. If they can bring that same attitude to Hawaii it will be a good start, especially since Hawaii has a reputation for being pretty chippy and cheap themselves (much like USC).

The good news for this bowl game is that we aren't playing the 2005 OSU Buckeyes or the 2006 LSU Tigers. Talent-wise, Notre Dame should be able to handle the Warriors. The teams have similar records and similar statistics, and Notre Dame has amassed its records and stats against a higher-caliber schedule than has Hawaii. On paper, this is a game that Notre Dame should win. The key question is: Will they show up? Has Coach Weis learned from his 2005 and 2006 bowl experiences how best to prepare a team to play after a layoff? Has the team practiced hard and fast and done their homework? Does the team have the pride and the desire to do what it takes to win this game?

Those are things I will be looking for. If I see a Notre Dame team that comes out focused, fast, and physical, then I'll feel that Jack Swarbrick has made the right decision for Notre Dame. But if the team looks like they ate too much at the luau, like they'd rather be home for Christmas, like winning the game just isn't that important, we'll know that Jack bricked. And that maybe he should revisit his decision.

So, you know, no pressure.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
not a computer was stirring, not even the mouse.
The widescreen was tuned to the Worldwide Leader,
with hopes that Bob Davie would not be on-air.

The children were nestled all snug on the couch,
while visions of leprechauns danced in their heads.
And OC Wife in her sweatshirt, and I in my hat,
had just settled in for a long bowl game broadcast.

When out in the street there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my seat to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
tore open the shutter, and threw up the sash.

The sunset reflecting through the OC marine layer
gave the lustre of Vegas to objects below,
when, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a Cessna Citation, N42ND painted on the tail.

With a deplaning passenger so large and so gimpy,
I knew in a moment it must be Coach Charlie.
More rapid than blitzers, his entourage came,
and he whistled and shouted and called them all names:

"Now Jimmy! Now Bruton!
Now, Wenger and Olsen!
On, Allen! On, Aldridge!
On, Floyd and Golden!
To the top of the porch!
To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away!
Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the November winds fly,
when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the Indiana sky
so up to the house-top the Domers they flew,
with a golf cart full of toys, and Coach Charlie too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
the shifting and cutting of each players' cleats.
As I drew in my head and was turning around,
down the chimney Coach Charlie came with a bound.

He was dressed all in polyester, from his head to his foot,
and his sweats were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of playbooks he had flung on his back,
and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes--how they smoldered! His dimples, how dour!
His cheeks were all windblown, his nose it was runny!
His droll little mouth was drawn up in a snarl,
and the beard on his chin showed he needed to shave.
The cap of a Sharpie he held tight in his teeth,
and his crewcut sat on his head like field turf.
He had a broad face and a really big belly,
that shook when he hobbled, like a bowl full of jelly.

He was large and grim, a right frightening old elf,
and I gasped when I saw him, in spite of myself.
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
and wrote on my wall - his plan - will it work?
And lifting his laminated play card aside his nose,
and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

He sprang to his biz-jet, to his team blew his whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, 'ere he flew out of sight,

"A BCS Bowl in '09 - and we'll beat the Warriors tonight!"

Monday, December 22, 2008

2nd Annual OC Domer Player of the Year Award

The ballots are in. The results have been tabulated. It's time to announce recipient of the 2008 "OC Domer Player of the Year Award." The OC Domer Player of the Year Award is intended to recognize the Notre Dame football player or players who played the best when it mattered the most. The award is based on a horrendously complex and intricate scoring system that would take too long to explain and that you wouldn't understand anyway. Suffice it to say that the primary criterion was a consistently high level of play, with significant bonus points awarded for exceeding expectations.

Last year, the winner of the first ever OC Domer Player of the Year Award was David Bruton. Congratulations to David for having another terrific season in 2008, and good luck to him in the upcoming NFL draft. I look forward to watching him play on Sundays for many years to come.

The OC Domer Player of the Year for the 2008 football season goes to: Michael Floyd.

The freshman wide receiver from St. Paul, Minnesota came to Notre Dame as a highly regarded prospect. From his Notre Dame bio page:

Gatorade Player of the Year for Minnesota as a junior and senior ... named Minnesota Player of the Year as a junior and senior by the Associated Press ... named first-team All-American by USA Today following his senior season ... placed on Parade All-America team as one of the 58 best players in the country and one of four all-purpose players ... one of 30 players named to the EA Sports All-America first team ... named a second-team All-American by ... earned first-team all-state accolades from the Minnesota Associated Press as a junior and senior ... recipient of 2007 Minnesota Mr. Football award ... named the state's Player of the Year by St. Paul Pioneer Press ... ranked the top wide receiver and the third-best player on the Detroit Free Press' Best of the Midwest Top 20 list ... rated the 15th-best player in the nation by Tom Lemming and CSTV ... ranked him as the 16th-best prospect in the country ... touted as the 27th-best player in the country by ... ranked No. 28 by Sports Illustrated/ ... rated the 29th-best player on the ESPN 150 list ... labeled by as the top player in Minnesota and the fifth-best wide receiver in the country ... considered him the top player in Minnesota and sixth-best wide receiver in the nation.
But, quite frankly, I've seen recruits arrive in South Bend year after year with impressive accolades and lofty expectations only to watch them get mired in the depth chart, or lost in the crowd, or hurt, or to just fizzle out once they get onto the field. Can anybody say "whooosh!"? So I was hopeful that Mike Floyd would inject some talent into the roster at wide receiver, and that he might actually push for playing time in 2008.

I had no idea that he would absolutely blow up the depth chart and establish himself as one of the top 2 Irish receivers before there was even a hint of Autumn cool in the air in South Bend. Yet that is what he did, as he set about re-writing the record books for Notre Dame freshman receivers. He scored a touchdown on his first catch for the Irish in the first game of the year, against San Diego State. Welcome to Notre Dame!

Floyd absolutely transformed the Notre Dame offense.

Pre-Floyd, the Irish had one real threat at the receiver position, Golden Tate, who could be taken out of the game fairly easily with one good cornerback and a little safety help. The other Notre Dame receivers did not strike fear in any defensive coordinators, as they lacked the speed to stretch the field or run away from coverage. The result was that opposing defenses were confident in their ability to defend the Irish down the field with minimal manpower, thus freeing up defenders to play run defense at the line of scrimmage or to blitz Jimmy Clausen. But once Floyd took the field, the game changed. You can't double team everyone, and both Tate and Floyd are talented enough to make any single defender look really bad on the instant replay. If you choose to focus on either of them, the other will kill you. Both guys can score from anywhere on the field. If you try to taken them both away with safety help, TE Kyle Rudolph will exploit the seam in the middle of the field. The bottom line is that having both Tate and Floyd in the lineup causes major headaches for opposing defenses, presenting them a lot of tough choices. The obvious choice is to respect Notre Dame's passing game a lot more by committing more defenders to the secondary, which frees up the ground game for guys like Armando Allen, Robert Hughes and James Aldridge.

Although only a freshman, Michael Floyd changed the personality of the Irish offense from a dink-and-dunk attack with a pedestrian running game to a dynamic quick-strike attack that could score touchdowns from anywhere on the field. In essentially a nine-game season (he was injured very early in the 10th game, against Navy), Floyd broke Notre Dame's single-season receiving records by a freshman with 46 catches for 702 yards (15.3 yards per catch) and seven touchdowns. Floyd has earned all-freshman second team honors from Sporting News,, and Phil Steele.

Congratulations to Michael Floyd on a great freshman campaign and on being named the 2008 OC Domer Player of the Year. I look forward to seeing Michael back on the field for the Irish against Hawaii on Christmas Eve
, and for the next three full football seasons.

OC Domer Player of the Year Runner-up was: Golden Tate. When I asked for input from OC Domer readers about who the Player of the Year should be, Golden was right there with Michael Floyd as a vote-getter. Golden had a great year and he should be congratulated and thanked for his terrific play. In the end, a key factor in choosing the OC Domer Player of the Year is the degree to which a player surprises the voters (i.e., me) by far exceeding expectations. Golden was outstanding this year, but for the most part he was expected to be very good. Thus he didn't garner as many points for exceeding expectations as Floyd.

OC Domer Player of Year Honorable Mentions go to: Mike Anello and Brandon Walker.

Who are your Notre Dame Players of the Year? I'd love to hear from you.

Mustangs Run Away with the Championship!

The Nevada Mustangs won a close Championship game over runner up "Go T. Harding on D. Anderson", 125-115 to win the 2008 OC Domer Fantasy Football League title. Congratulations to the Mustangs and to THDA on a great 2008 season. Enjoy your trophies. The Big LB captured the 3rd Place medal for 2008. Everyone else gets a "participation" ribbon.

I hope you all enjoyed playing in the OC Domer FFL this year. I enjoyed being the commissioner and I hope you'll all come back for more next season.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Welcome Home

Lots of tears in the OC Domer household tonight, but they are all tears of joy. The OC Domer Daughter received a letter today from the University of Notre Dame Office of Undergraduate Admissions. It was a large flat envelope, and when she opened it up and slid out the contents, all I could see was a picture of the Golden Dome emblazoned with the words "Welcome Home."

Our Katie has been admitted to the First Year of Studies Class of 2009! Wow.

She has worked so hard for so long toward this goal, and we are all so happy for her and so proud of her. She did it!

The picture above was taken earlier this Fall by Tammy, an OC Domer reader who went back to campus for a game and lit a candle and said a prayer for our Kate. Then she went the extra mile by taking this photo of the candle she lit and sending it to me. Thank you again Tammy, and I hope you don't mind if I share these candles with everyone. I also want to thank all the Grandmas and uncles and aunts and cousins and friends and neighbors (and teachers and counselors and high school principals) who have kept Katie and her dream in their prayers.

Go Irish! Beat Hawaii!