The Irish are playing the Utes this week. Every time I say (or even think) "Ute" my mind flashes to that hilarious scene in the movie "My Cousin Vinny." Do you remember it?
Anyway, the Utes are coming to town, looking to redeem themselves after being humiliated by TCU in their last game. The Irish, meanwhile, are looking to get back on track and salvage a bowl berth after suffering a string of very difficult losses over the course of the longest two weeks in the history of Notre Dame football.
Navy simply crushed the Irish in the Meadowlands. I have never liked the Irish in the Meadowlands, despite having been informed that, prior to this year, they had never lost a game there. Losing to Navy is tough to take. Getting completely out-classed by Navy is another thing altogether. I have been too busy to keep my blogging up to satisfactory levels this season, but my Twitter/Facebook comment on the game was "Memo to Brian Kelly: Honeymoon Officially Over."
Tulsa came into Notre Dame Stadium just hours (or so it seemed) after Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan was tragically killed while filming an Irish football practice in high winds. I honestly didn't know what to expect from the Irish in that game. Given all the emotions of the week, I thought they could get blown out, or they could have blown out the Golden Hurricane. Instead we saw something in the middle, with the Irish playing a close game and being in position to win the game at the end despite losing starting quarterback Dayne Crist for the rest of the season with another freaky knee injury. Unfortunately, the Irish lost the chance to kick a game-winning field goal when a ball that never should have been thrown on a play that never should have been called was intercepted in the end zone. The team really surprised me with their resilience against Tulsa. Coach Kelly also really surprised me when he blew the game with a really poor decision. He can rationalize it all he wants that he liked the match-up, or that Tommy Rees should have thrown it away. But Tommy Rees is a freshman, and he should not have been put in the position to make that decision. Once again, my wife had her head in the game more than the coach did. She was shouting at the T.V. that Kelly better not throw that d*&# ball! They better run the ball to the middle to get a good angle for the field goal! I can only imagine that Declan's death was weighing pretty heavily on Coach Kelly that day, and he wasn't in top form.
So a two game losing streak. A bad two game losing streak. Starting quarterback, running back (Allen), tight end (Rudolph), wide receiver (Riddick) all out with injuries. The Utes coming to town still ranked #15 in the country. It is serious gut check time for Coach Kelly's Fighting Irish. A loss removes all margin for error if a bowl game is to remain in play for this team. They would have to beat Army and USC to go 6-6 and be bowl eligible. A win, especially over a ranked team, would be a much needed boost to the program. It would be some measure of validation that the "process" Coach Kelly constantly talks about is actually yielding some results.
The OC Domer household is especially excited for this week's game because in about five hours we are heading for the airport to go back to South Bend to visit the OC Daughter (Hi Katie!) and see the Fighting Irish play Utah on Saturday. But wait, that's not all! On Sunday we fly to Newark, New Jersey and drive up to West Point, New York where the OC Son is scheduled to take a campus tour of the U.S. Military Academy on Monday. A late flight home gets us back to the OC late Monday night. A very exciting and busy weekend that we have been looking forward to for a long time. I just hope it doesn't rain too much!
It hasn't just been a crazy season for the Irish. I was tied up in some litigation at work for a couple of months, and spent a lot of time on the road. The case is over now, so I am trying to get back into my normal routine. Which means posting my response to the Irish Blogger Gathering questions for this week. Very quickly. Here we go:
1. Notre Dame is currently 4-5 with three games left in the season. First, are you surprised by the wins and losses so far? And second, given how the Irish have played, what is a realistic expectation for the remainder of the season?
None of the wins have surprised me. The losses to Navy and Tulsa, and the magnitude of the loss to Stanford all surprised me. I think Utah has been a bit of a pretender all year and is still overrated. I think we'll find a way to rally and beat the Utes. We have to. A win over Army and a loss to USC in a more competitive game than recent years should round it out.
2. A little report card in the spirit of the bye week. What player or position unit has been the biggest surprise of the year and what player/position unit has been the biggest disappointment?
The defense has been a disappointment to me. I don't know which sub-unit on "D" is the culprit, but the simply awful performances against Michigan and Navy were an abomination. The O-line's inability to impose its will and get a first down in short yardage is a real disappointment. I can't say I really have a positive surprise. Manti's prodigious tackling numbers and his speed to the ball have been impressive.
3. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco caught plenty of flack after the debacle against Navy, and rightly so. But his unit bounced back with arguably their best performance of the year against a prolific Tulsa offense. So which version is the real Diaco? Is it the one that had no answer for Navy? Or is it the one that had his troops prepared against Tulsa (and most other Irish opponents)?
Didn't Tulsa score 28 points on us? Didn't they have 203 net rushing yards and a 5.2 yards-per-rush average? Diaco's grade is still "incomplete." The defense needs to come up big in a big game that we win. Good statistical performances in valiant losses are not good enough. Make a play.
4. Off the heels of a near miss against Air Force, Utah was undressed by TCU in their first "real" test of the season. Are the Utes pretenders and does Notre Dame have a shot at winning Saturday? What will be the key matchup next week in South Bend?
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.