Saturday, November 20, 2010

Here Come the Black Knights of the Hudson

As luck would have it, the OC Family was in New York last weekend, and there was a big part of me that really wanted to hang around for a few days so that we could see this week's historic match-up between the Fighting Irish and the Black Knights in Yankee Stadium. Earlier in the week I posted to my Facebook page a link to a short article that gives a terrific overview of just how HUGE the games between Notre Dame and Army were when they played in the old Yankee Stadium "back in the day" as they say. If you aren't up to snuff on your Notre Dame football history, you really need to read that article or others like it before kick-off so that you fully appreciate today's game.

Last weekend was a frenetic and amazing one for our family. The OC Wife, OC Son, and I flew to Chicago on Friday and drove over to South Bend to visit the OC Daughter and see the Irish play the Utes. We made it to town in time to have dinner with our daughter and her close friends (purposely ambiguous description to avoid embarrassing anyone by mentioning them by name). It was a a great time and we continue to be impressed by all the amazing people our daughter has met and befriended while at Notre Dame. We were hosted on our visit by the amazing McBride family. Thanks Tim and Tisha once again for putting up with us!

Our high school junior son spent Friday night on campus and slept in the dorm room of one of her friends (Thanks Brett!). He is just now recovering from the sleep deprivation, but he had a blast hanging out on campus with his sister and her friends.

On Saturday we did our usual rounds before the game, lighting a candle at the Grotto and eating a Knights of Columbus steak sandwich for lunch. The rain started about 30 minutes before kick-off and it was pretty steady until after half-time. But the weather did not bother us at all because the Irish were taking it to the visiting Utes on the field. It was an amazing game.

I won't give a game re-cap, but I wanted to share a couple of impressions. First, although I don't get to South Bend for a lot of games, the game against Utah was the first I can remember for a long while where I felt that the crowd was being vocal enough to give our team a true home-field advantage. It has seemed to me in recent years that the Notre Dame home crowd is generally pretty flat, and not too fearsome for opposing teams. But the crowd was into it last week (sparked by Robert Blanton's punt-block touchdown!) and I really felt that Utah was having trouble communicating and that they were rattled by the crowd. It was awesome!

Second, the scene after the game was unlike anything I had ever seen. I stormed the field as a student at Notre Dame, but I have never witnessed anything like the celebration last Saturday. It was clearly a catharsis. On one level it is silly for a 5-5 Notre Dame team to storm the field after a win over Utah. We're the Fighting Irish for crying out loud. On another level, this team, these seniors, those students have experienced tremendous adversity over the last four years and even in the last few weeks. They needed some good news like nobody's business. The first win over a ranked opponent for this senior class was a sufficient excuse to celebrate. The students poured onto the field, and it didn't take long for the ushers and security staff to switch from trying to stop it to just making sure nobody got hurt. The team and the band and the students were all partying together, and the crowd was so jammed in that the band couldn't march out through the the tunnel. So they just kept playing! The fact that my wife and I watched from the stands while both our kids were down on the field (somewhere!) just made it that much more special.

Third, and this is probably just the optimist in me, but the outstanding play of the defense and the efficient play of the offense (including the appearance of a power running game) really felt like a turning point for this team and for Coach Kelly's program. From the stands you could feel the confidence of the team grow as the game wore on. I sure hope we're able to look back at this game and say "We were there" when Coach Kelly and the Irish turned the corner.

On Sunday the three of us flew from Chicago to Newark, New Jersey and drove up to West Point New York to see the United States Military Academy, which our son is very interested in attending. We sat through an information session on Monday morning, then we each took a tour of the campus. The students were each assigned their own cadet escort, and the parents had their own guided tour. Our expectations for West Point were high before our arrival, but our expectations were exceeded by the beautiful campus on the banks of the Hudson River and by the people we met there. There was definitely a bit of a buzz on the campus about the upcoming game against Notre Dame, although honestly it is all about the Navy game there. "Beat Navy" is everywhere on campus, including the doormat for every door you walk through. As a Notre Dame alumnus I am very proud of the tradition and the amazing campus of my alma mater, but West Point gives Notre Dame a run for its money in both categories.

Embedded below is a slide show of some of the pictures we took of the campus at West Point during our visit. Click on any of the pictures to bring them up in full size.

Here, very quickly, is my contribution to the Irish Blogger Gathering for the week.

Saturday’s result against Utah was a very pleasant surprise, but an unexpected one, to say the least. What was the biggest positive you took from the win over the Utes, and what concerns you most as the Irish head into their final two games of the regular season?

Well, I didn't go so far as to predict an Irish win last week, but I had the game pegged pretty well:

The Utes are pretenders in my book. They are a good team that has built an over-inflated reputation on an easy schedule. They may still be better than the Irish, but I think it will be a competitive game. The key match-up is Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco against the Utes' spread offense. I believe the Irish will have success on offense. I actually think Tommy Rees has a better grasp of the Irish offense than Dayne Crist does, although he may not be as athletic. He (generally) makes sound decisions quickly and moves the team. The key is whether the Irish can slow the Utes down enough to keep us in the the game.
Biggest positive for me was the way the defense stepped up and dominated. A close second was the confidence the Irish showed. A good team needs a little swagger.

Biggest concern for the final two games are (1) did the Irish learn anything from the Navy game that will help them stop Army's option attack? and (2) Will the Irish be able to overcome the loss of so many starters when they play USC?

The Irish will have to take a completely different approach against the Army option than they did against the Navy attack a few weeks ago. Who do you see playing the biggest role in slowing down the Black Knight attack? Who will be the big performer on offense?

It has to be a team effort on defense. All eleven guys, and their subs, have to step up and play with speed, aggression, and discipline.

On offense, the offensive line simply has to take control of the game. We have to be able to control the ball, and we have to move the chains. A huge part of the woes against Navy was that the offense kept giving the ball back to the Middies.

3. Should Notre Dame win one of their final two games, they’ll likely be going bowling. There are a lot of tie-ins that may or may not be fulfilled from other conferences that will likely end up deciding their postseason fate, but what bowl do you see the Irish playing in?

I'm on deadline here. I have no idea. I just hope it is a decent enough bowl game that nobody laughs out loud at us when it is announced.

4. This isn’t a question any of us thought would be an issue at the start of the season, but who do you see as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback against South Florida next year?

We're playing South Florida next year? Geez. I'm going with Tommy Rees at QB. Even before Dayne Crist's injury, I felt Rees had a better grasp of the offense that Dayne did. He doesn't have a big arm like Dayne, but he seems to make the reads and get the ball out more consistently. To me Dayne looked a little overwhelmed at times, and he was very inconsistent with his accuracy. It's hard to knock success and Rees is 1-0 against ranked teams. Andrew Hendrix is the wild card, of course, but I know nothing about his progress in the offense. Under Brain Kelly it is very clear to me that quarterback play is more mental than physical. A big arm is useless if a guy doesn't grasp the mental aspects of the offense.

5. We’re all very excited for Saturday night at Yankee Stadium, which is a nice turn towards some pretty exciting neutral site games (Miami at Soldier Field, Arizona State at Cowboys Stadium) after a rather lackluster start (Washington State in San Antonio). What are three neutral site games you’d like to see down the road?

I'm out of time. I need to get this post up and take a shower. It's clear from the question that neutral site games can be great (Army in Yankee Stadium) or awful (Wazoo at San Antonio). Let's all agree to not schedule the crappy ones.

Go Irish! Beat Army!

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