Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Trojan Excuses Are B.S.

I just have to get something off my chest about the USC Trojans.  Living in Orange County, we get a lot of Trojan talk.  All Trojan talk, all the time.

In the wake of USC's humbling loss at Stanford on Saturday, Head Coach Lane Kiffin was not very subtle in blaming the lack of offensive production on the fact that USC's starting center Khaled Holmes was not available to play due to an injury.  Kiffin said that Stanford was the worst team on their schedule to play without their All-American center.

I call bullshit.

1.  All teams have to deal with injuries.  Half of Notre Dame's starting defensive backfield is now lost for the year due to a couple of blown Achilles tendons, just to name one random example off the top of my head.  Losing one offensive lineman hardly seems adequate explanation for the utter ineffectiveness of what the media were proclaiming just a week ago to be the greatest offensive football team of all time!  "Nine players from USC's offense will be playing football on Sundays" declared one pundit.  If USC was really as awesome as everyone says (Pre-season #1!), the loss of one lineman wouldn't be that big of a deal.  So maybe USC isn't as great as everyone says?

2.  Holmes' injury wasn't a surprise.  He didn't get hurt during the coin toss.  The Trojan coaching staff has known for at least week that he was hurt and probably wouldn't be able to play.  The media asked questions about Holmes' status all week.  So Kiffin & Co. had plenty of time to come up with a plan to deal with the situation.  The problem is, whatever plan Kiffin came up with didn't work.  The plan, assuming they had a plan, failed miserably.  That's a coaching failure.

3.  Kiffin and Trojan Nation have been quick to note that Holmes was replaced at center by "a freshman."  That's baloney.  The backup center is Cyrus Hobbi, who is a red shirt freshman.  In other words, he is really a sophomore.  Graduated high school and started college in 2011.  And he's no slouch.  Hobbi was a 4-star recruit on both Rivals.com and Scout.com, just like Khaled Holmes (who was a 5th-year senior).

4.  Hobbi wasn't playing alone out there.  The tackles on the Trojan O-line are Aundrey Walker (Sophomore, 4-star recruit) and Kevin Graf (red shirt Jr., i.e., a Senior, 4-star recruit).  The guards are Marcus Martin (Sophomore, 3-start recruit) and John Martinez (red shirt Junior, i.e., a Senior, 4-star recruit).  It must be noted that Martinez, who was playing right next to Hobbi, was rated by Scout.com coming out of high school as the #1 prospect in the country AT CENTER.

So Kiffin, faced with the loss of his starting center, is able to pluck yet another 4-star center off the shelf and plug him in among the rest of his 4-star offensive line.  He has at guard an experienced 4-star player who was at one time considered the top center prospect in the country.  But Kiffin can't crack the code of how to get the line calls made against Stanford.  I'm not a genius like Kiffin, but maybe, just maybe, USC could have slid Martinez over to center once Holmes got hurt.  Or maybe leave Hobbi at center, but let Martinez (or even Graf) make the protection calls from the guard (or tackle) position.

That doesn't seem so hard.  So what happened?  Hubris happened.  Despite the fact that USC was 0-3 in their previous three games against the Cardinal, Kiffin didn't respect Stanford enough to think that he needed to change anything to compensate for the loss of Holmes.  He just thought USC would roll into Palo Alto, throw their jocks onto the field, and the Cardinal, playing without Andrew Luck, would roll over.  Kiffin has gotten a lot of mileage about his "prep versus hype" mantra.  But he started reading his own press clippings and he bought into the hype.  He and his staff failed to properly prepare his team and they got whipped.  He can't blame one injury.  He can't blame Matt Barkley.  He can only look in the mirror and blame himself. 


Monday, August 20, 2012

'Ray Bucknell

The wisest parenting advice I have ever heard or read, the source of which I have forgotten, is that one's goal as a parent is not to raise children, but to raise adults.  "Success" as a parent is achieved when your child leaves the nest and is able to confidently fly away under the power of their own wings, rather than plunging dramatically to earth or timidly returning to the nest for more nurturing.

My wife and I have raised both our kids with the goal that they would be prepared to confidently go away to college and thrive there when the time came.  The focus of our energy and our resources for the past 21 years has been on this moment.  We knew it was coming.  Yet when we gave our son one last good-bye hug in the shadow of Harris Hall at Bucknell University, the moment still hit us like a sledge hammer.

You might think that having been through this with our daughter three Augusts ago it would be easier.  You would be wrong.

Our boy has gone away to college.

 We are incredibly proud of him.  Bucknell is a wonderful university.  It has been called a "Hidden Ivy" by some, and it offers him a world-class education and a superb collegiate experience.  His ability to gain admission is a testament to the years of hard work he invested in high school.  Even Uncle Sam agrees, as they awarded Luke an Army R.O.T.C. scholarship which will pay for most of his education and enable him to chase his dream of serving America as an officer in the U.S. Army.  That's a win-win.

Bucknell is not terribly sentimental about the move-in process.  The dorm is open at 8:00 a.m., and you have until about 1:30 p.m. to get done what you need to get done before the students and parents are called away to separate information sessions, and the parents are politely informed that they are expected to hit the road by 5:00 p.m.  In the limited time available you need to arrange the furniture (i.e., loft the beds) so that three 18 year-old boys can live, sleep, study, watch football, and play video games in a space that was originally designed to house two students.  Three duffel bags of clothes need to be hung neatly on hangars, organized by function and color (it's a Mom thing).  A lifetime supply of pens, pencils, highlighters, spiral notebooks, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, Advil, Claritin, and laundry soap need to be organized in the desk drawers and closet.  Multiple runs to WalMart and Bed, Bath & Beyond need to be made for items that that wouldn't fit into the duffel bags (futon sofa, Golfish crackers, cases of water bottles, window screens, desk lamps, oscillating fans, extension cords).  A computer has to be picked up at the I.T. Help Desk.  A visit needs to be paid to the Catholic Campus Ministry to meet Father Fred.  A local bank account has to be opened.

It all goes by in a blur.  But through the blur you meet the roommates from New Jersey and Massachusetts and they are clearly really good kids with really good families.  You see your son walking confidently and comfortably around campus, saying hello to the guys and the very cute girls he has met and knows by name already.  You see the excitement in his face when he gets his class schedule and pronounces that it is "awesome," despite the 8:00 a.m. start most days.

And then, suddenly, it's 4:30.  The desk drawers are organized, the duffel bags are empty.  The bed is made.  The roommates are assembling the new WalMart futon sofa.  And its time to say good-bye to your son.  Not for good.  Not forever.  He'll be home at Thanksgiving, and for Christmas.  But he won't ever be back home again for long.  The Army will have plans for big chunks of his summers.  And once he graduates and pins those gold bars on his shoulders, he'll be sent wherever our nation needs him.  It isn't good-bye forever.  It just feels that way.

He walks you out to the car, so you don't have to do this in front of the roommates.  Everyone is choked up, and the first tears come.  For everyone.  He hugs his mom.  And he looks you straight in the eye.  Has he gotten taller?  You wish him luck, tell him how proud you are of him.  You hug him and tell him you love him.  He says I love you too, and that he misses you (already).  And then he's gone, back into Harris Hall, without you.

You don't know what else to do.  You didn't get any lunch, so before long you're staring through your tears at the menu at the Applebees in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, trying not to make a fool of yourself.

The emotions of the past several days are a powerful mix.  My wife and I are extremely proud of Luke, and we are so incredibly happy that he is where he should be - at a great University, surrounded by great kids, having the time of his life and getting a great education.  We wouldn't have it any other way.

But we sure do miss him.  I find myself regretting the things we didn't do together before he was all grown up.  I should have taken him camping a few more times.  Gone for bike rides with him on those nights when he asked but I said I was too tired.  Played more games of catch.  Figured out a way to take him to a San Diego Chargers game or a Zac Brown Band concert.  But you only get so many days to try to fit it all in, and I guess we must have somehow done enough.  Despite the inevitable regrets, Luke's an intelligent young man, with a great work ethic and a terrific sense of humor.  He has a strong sense of honor and integrity.  He's a patriot and a gentleman.  He'll make a fine Army officer and be a wonderful husband and father when his time comes.

Karen and I got home late last night.  The house is 2600 square feet of suburban silence.  Luke's bed is unmade.  He never was one for making beds, and we left home for Pennsylvania at 4:00 in the morning.  A green '98 Ford Explorer is parked out front, with a Bucknell decal in the rear window, but no one to drive it.  I saw two mushrooms in the back yard this morning, but on second look they were two lacrosse balls waiting for a game of catch.  We have been looking forward to this day for a long time, but that doesn't mean we were really ready for it.  We look forward to our future as just a couple again, but it's also going to take some getting used to.

In the mean time, we now have another favorite college sports team to root for in addition to the Fighting Irish.  Go Bison!

’Ray Bucknell
’Ray Bucknell, ’Ray Bucknell,
’Ray for the Orange and the Blue,
’Ray, ’Ray, ’Ray, ’Ray,
’Ray for the Orange and the Blue  

Friday, October 7, 2011

Loyal Son of Notre Dame Bob McBride Passes

Bob McBride, legendary Notre Dame player and coach, and an American war hero, passed away Wednesday at the age of 89.  Fittingly, he spent his final days in the shadow of Our Lady's statue atop the Golden Dome.

Bob's official obituary is here.

Some press reportage of his passing is here.

Bob McBride played and coached (superbly) for the Fighting Irish, and he fought and nearly died for our country.  He embodied the ideals that make Notre Dame fans and alumni most proud.  As offensive line coach under Frank Leahy, Coach McBride worked tirelessly to ensure that all Notre Dame players succeeded in the classroom as well as on the field and earned their Notre Dame degrees.  He was also instrumental in recruiting the first black football players to Notre Dame in the early 1950s. 

I hope all the readers of the OC Domer Blog will remember Bob, his wife Mary, and the entire McBride family in their prayers. 
Notre Dame Our Mother, tender strong and true,
proudly in the heavens gleams thy gold and blue,
glory's mantle cloaks thee, golden is thy fame,
and our hearts forever praise thee, Notre Dame,
and our hearts forever love thee, Notre Dame.

Rest in Peace Mr. McBride.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Defense Keying Irish Rebound

I just wanted to interject with some quick thoughts to get the blog caught up on the season so far.  Things have been busy at OC Domer HQ, as the OC Son has started his senior year of high school and is smack in the middle of the college applications process with all the essays to write, letters of recommendation to procure, meetings with clueless guidance counselors to attend, etc...  In fact we will be taking a road trip to look at a few more schools VERY soon, so I won't be able to blog much in the next several days either.

In my last post I dissected the brutal loss at Michigan, and hammered the defense pretty well for its 4th quarter collapse.  I am very happy to report that the "D" has taken that criticism to heart and deserves the bulk of the credit for the Irish wins over Sparty and Pitt.  These past two games played out much more like my pre-season vision for this team:
As this season unfolds, I expect the signature unit of the team to be the aggressive, stifling defense, rather than the efficient, potent offense.  There will be weeks when the offense sputters a bit, but the defense will be consistently good and will key Irish success in 2011. 
The impressive 31-13 defeat of the Spartans was NOT the result of brilliant offense, as the 31 points would lead one to believe.  It was sparked by a defense that completely took Michigan State out of their preferred game:  rushing the football.  MSU was held to just 29 net rushing yards, for an average of 1.3 yards per rush.  Even though MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins put up some decent numbers throwing the ball, he was harassed enough by an aggressive Irish defense to blunt his effectiveness.  Cousins was sacked twice and intercepted once, and Sparty scored just one touchdown (and one field goal) in five Red Zone possessions.  That's terrific defense.  Add in a Robert Blanton 82-yard interception return, an 89-yard kick-off return for a touchdown by George Atkinson III (where has GA3 been all my life?), and some efficient offense, and you have the recipe for a win.

Kudos to Robert Blanton for a most impressive game:  In addition to the INT and return, #12 had an 11-yard sack, two other tackles for loss, six total tackles, and three pass break-ups.  Dominant.

Perhaps we should add "total offense" to the list of irrelevant statistics in Coach Kelly's system. 

The Irish outgained USF 508-254, and lost.  They outgained Michigan 513-452, and lost.

Notre Dame was out-gained by Sparty 358-275, and whipped 'em. 

And ND outgained Pitt 398-268 and barely escaped with a win. 

I Tweeted after the Pitt game:  "Better to win ugly than lose ugly. But make no mistake - it was ugly."  Poring over the stat sheet, I don't see anything to change my initial impression.  A sack/fumble by Rees that results in a Pitt 3-0 lead.  On First & 10 at the Panther 24, Rees throws  an  interception at the 4-yard line, squandering yet another scoring opportunity.  Mrs. Domer wonders aloud "What must Dayne Crist be thinking?"  He was benched for throwing a single interception against USF, and Tommy has thrown six interceptions and lost three fumbles since then.

I was very worried by the success Pitt had in confusing Tommy by disguising the coverages until just before the snap, and I was even more worried by how long it took our coaching staff to make the necessary adjustments.  The Irish were very lucky that Rees didn't throw more interceptions, as he threw several balls right at Panther defenders that were dropped.  I was very unhappy that Tommy (and Kelly) kept trying to force the ball to Michael Floyd.  As much attention as #3 was getting, surely Riddick and/or Jones were wide open.  How about a pump fake to Floyd to draw the safety and a lob down the field to TJ Jones?  That should loosen the defense up.  But instead we kept throwing those maddening horizontal passes into tight coverage.  It was a flashback to the worst tendencies of Charlie Weis' offense.  Throw it down the field!!!

Or run it.  Maybe with Jonas Gray - who took his second carry of the game 79 yards to the house and was promptly placed in the Federal witness protection program.  What was up with that?  Against Sparty, Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray split the running load 14 carries to 12.  Jonas goes off for 79 yards on one carry against Pitt - was I the only one shocked by his speed? - and gets only three carries against Wood's 23 carries.  Did Jonas pull a hammy?  

Fortunately, while the Irish "O" was stumbling around, the defense was putting in a very solid day, holding the Panthers to just 2.7 yards per rush and just 3.8 yards per offensive play.  Pitt QB Tino Sunseri was sacked FIVE times.  He threw for just 165 yards, with 18 yards as his longest completion.  Pitt only got into the Red Zone twice, resulting in one TD and one field goal.

Eventually of course Coach Kelly and T. Rees figured something out and Tommy put together the game-winning drive which clearly illustrated why he remains the starter despite his rookie mistakes.  Down 12-7 in the 4th quarter, Rees and the "O" take over at the Irish 15-yard line.  Tommy goes 8 for 8 passing on the 85-yard TD drive, and tacks on a 9th completion for the 2-pt conversion.  I think the word Coach Kelly likes to use is "moxie."  Nice job by Rees, and by Riddick and Eifert who keyed the drive with multiple receptions each.

State of the game:  The 15 points scored by Notre Dame was the fewest en route to a victory since Sept. 2, 2006, when the Irish slipped past Georgia Tech, 14-10.

Bottom line:  For the past two weeks the Irish defense has kept the opponent almost completely in check, while the offense has been just efficient/productive enough to get the win.  I think this is the formula for Irish success this year.

Up next is Purdue.  According to the Sagarin rankings at USAToday.com, the Boilermakers (2-1) are the 88th-best team in D-I football, having played the 181st-toughest schedule in the country.  Notre Dame slots in at #25 according to Sagarin, and have played the 5th-toughest schedule in the country so far.  Nobody ranked above the Irish by Sagarin has played as tough a schedule as Notre Dame.

It's a prime-time ESPN game under the lights at Ross-Ade though, so you know the crowd and the Boilers will be jacked up.  Back-to-back roadies for ND.  I expect Purdue to put up a good fight for about a half, then reality will set in and the Irish will win comfortably.  I do think Coach Kelly will put a premium on taking care of the ball, so we might see a lot of ball control runs on the offensive side that will keep scoring down a bit as we rely on the defense to overpower the Boilers and win the game.  

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Friday, September 16, 2011

That is Gonna Leave a Mark

I'm a little late getting in here with reaction to the Michigan game.  But today is the first day I have been able to walk upright since taking that kick to the groin last Saturday, and I'm still feeling a little queasy.  There is obviously plenty of blame to go around for the loss, but for some reason I have been fixated on figuring out whether it was more the fault of the offense or the defense that we once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  It is a really close call, but I have decided that while nobody is blameless, the defense gets tagged with this loss just a tiny bit more than the offense.

The "O" has to take the heat yet again for its turnovers.  How many times have we heard the yapping heads on the TV tell us that the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game 350% of the time?  The stat sheet says the Irish had five turnovers, but I don't really count the fumble on the final kickoff with time expiring.  That was inconsequential.  That fumble aside, we still have to deal with two interceptions thrown and two fumbles lost. 

1.  With the Irish up 14-0 early in the 2nd Quarter (do you even remember the Irish being up 14-0?) Tommy Rees threw an INT on 3rd-and-9 which gave Michigan the ball at the ND 45.  That's a bad thing, giving the opponent the ball with a short field.  Bad Tommy.  But the defense, which had been bottling UM pretty well, gave up a 43-yard TD pass on the second play of the UM drive.  Big chunk of yards, fast score.  We'll develop that theme.

2.  On the very next possession, still up 14-7, Rees and Irish march down the field but the drive ends on another Rees INT, caught at the UM 2-yard line and returned out to the 18.  It was a Red Zone scoring opportunity wasted (awful), but at least the Wolverines were backed up inside their own 20-yard line.  Michigan goes 3 & out and the Irish get the ball back at the 50 after a short punt.  Good job by the "D", and the turnover doesn't cost us additional points.

3.  In the 3rd Quarter, leading 17-7, Notre Dame's Cierre Wood fumbled the ball at the UM 29-yard line, recovered my Michigan.  Probably the only obvious mistake Wood made all game.  But we're still up by 10 points, and Michigan doesn't get great field position out of it.  Michigan gets one first down, but then Zeke Motta hauls in an Irish INT, and we're back in business at the ND 29.  Good work again by the "D", and the turnover doesn't cost us any points.  Rees and the offense then mount a beautiful 7-play, 71-yard touchdown drive that puts ND up 24-7.  Do you remember being up 24-7?

4.  Fast forward a bit to later in the 4th Quarter and the final (meaningful) Irish turnover.  It is probably the one everyone remembers.  With ND still ahead 24-21, they are driving and get to 1st-and-Goal at the Wolverine 7-Yard line.  Rees has a HORRIBLE, BUMBLING fumble and Michigan recovers at their own 9-yard line.  This is the second Red Zone opportunity wasted, and at this point the game is very tight.  Yet disaster did not ensue.  Michigan was pinned deep, and they went on a long drive that only ended when Robert Blanton intercepted a Denard Robinson pass in the Irish end zone.  Phew!  Bullet dodged.  Irish still lead, 24-21.  

Four turnovers, but miraculously only one of them led directly to a Michigan score.  Of course, two Red Zone opportunities were wasted and the team certainly could have used those points.  But when all is said and done, the offense once again amassed over 500 yards (out-gaining UM 513 to 452). The "O" did put 31 points on the board, staked the team to a 24-7 lead, converted 8 of 14 3rd downs, and possessed the ball for just over 37 minutes (37:01 to 22:59). The team averaged 6.0 yards per rush, and 7.1 yards per offensive play.  But for the inexcusable turnovers, that's a pretty impressive display of offense.  It should have been good enough to win.

The story of this loss has to be the collapse of the Irish defense.  From the start of the game until about midway through the 3rd quarter, the defense stymied the Michigan "O" pretty well.  Here are the numbers on the first nine Michigan drives:

3 plays, -1 yard, Punt
3 plays, 8 yards, Punt
4 plays, 15 yards, INT
4 plays, 21 yards, Punt
2 plays, 45 yards, TD
3 plays, -1 yard, End of Half
4 plays, 42 yards, Punt
4 plays, 14 yards, INT

That's actually some really good football.  One gaffe led to a quick TD, otherwise very, very solid. 

Now here are Michigan's next 5 possessions:

4 plays, 83 yards, TD
5 plays, 40 yards, TD
3 plays, 61 yards, INT (Whew!)
5 plays, 58 yards, TD
3 plays, 80 yards, TD

That was 28 points in the last 17 minutes and 13 seconds of the game.  Touchdown drives of 83 yards, 40 yards, 58 yards, and 80 yards - all of them like a hot knife through butter.  If the "D" had been able to just slow down Denard Robinson and the Michigan offense (never mind actually stopping them) ND would still have won the game.

I don't know the "why" of the defensive collapse.  Irish tacklers had pretty well contained Robinson the whole game, but in the 4th Quarter they were suddenly unable to catch him and bring him down.  Was it just fatigue?  Clearly the Michigan coaches decided that Gary Gray was the defensive back to pick on, and it paid off handsomely.  The whole planet sees that Gary needs to work on getting his head around sooner to find the ball when it is in the air.  And he better figure it out soon, because he is going to see a lot of jump balls in the end zone in the near future.

So at least I have settled the "who is to blame" question in my own mind.

Some quicker impressions of the Michigan game:

  • Night game in Michigan Stadium, under the lights, was pretty cool.  Amazing atmosphere.  It would have been cool to have been there.  Except that I would have been surrounded by 100,000 drunk and obnoxious Michigan fans.  I was glad my daughter stayed back at ND for the game, rather than being in Ann Arbor in the middle of the night when that game let out.
  • The Michigan throwback uniforms with the big "M" on the chest were awesome.  I didn't think the Irish uniforms were that great.  It'll be okay if I never see the green shamrock on the golden helmet again.   
  • The Notre Dame cheerleaders throwback Catholic schoolgirl uniforms were awesome.  But probably I better say no more on that because it would make all of us uncomfortable.
  • Glad to see Theo Riddick get back up on the horse and have a good game.  Apparently Coach Kelly agreed with me that having Theo work offense, kick returns and punt returns was too much.  
  • Also glad to see TJ Jones make a nifty TD catch & run.  Nice bounce-back for him.
  • Cierre Wood is the real deal.  Did you know he had 134 net rushing yards?
  • Jonas Gray had a very nice game.  We need him to be solid.
  • I really wish Ben Turk would show some consistency.  He had a better week but still shanked a 25-yarder early in the 4th Quarter that set UM up at the Irish 40-yard line.  Michigan was in the end zone 5 plays later.  We need to be able to control field position better in special teams overall. 
  • Despite the painful turnovers, Tommy Rees is the right quarterback to lead this team.  That drive and TD pass to Riddick with 30 seconds remaining to put the Irish back on top 31-28 was cold blooded (even the TV announcers agreed) and I don't think Dayne Crist has shown that kind of moxie in tough spots. 

Just two weeks ago I picked the Irish to win 10 games and get to a BCS bowl game.  The 0-2 start has removed all the margin for error and this team has to be perfect for my prediction to come true.  I am not sure I see ten games' worth of perfection in this team which has coughed up ten turnovers in two games.  But that doesn't mean I'm not open to the possibility.

Sparty comes to town this week ranked #15 in both the AP and USA Today polls.  Clearly they deserve such praise, having dispatched of Youngstown State of the Missouri Valley Football Conference (an FCS school) and Florida Atlantic of the Sun Belt Conference.  According to the Sagarin rankings at USA Today, Sparty has played the 177th toughest schedule in the country so far this season.  Impressive!  But MSU must go on the road for the first time this year and take on a hungry and (hopefully) pissed-off Notre Dame squad that would like nothing better than a nationally televised win over a ranked opponent.  Notre Dame's schedule-to-date is ranked #20 by Sagarin.

Of course the Irish lost to Sparty on a fake field goal in OT last year.  The desire to atone for that bitter disappointment, in addition to playing in our house this year should make for a nice Irish win despite MSU's spot in the rankings.   

Thursday, September 8, 2011

I'd Feel Better About A Four-Leaf Clover

As announced last June, Notre Dame will be honoring the first night game to be played in the Big House by wearing "throw-back" uniforms:

Paying homage to the rich football tradition of Notre Dame football, the Irish "Under the Lights" adidas uniform includes a white jersey with Kelly green lettering and two Kelly green shoulder stripes, old gold-colored pants, white socks with green stripes and white shoes. A large shamrock logo appears on the traditional gold helmet for the first time since the early 1960s. The years the Fighting Irish won National Championships are listed inside the bottom hem of the jersey. 
A picture of the retro-helmet was recently tweeted by @NDFBEquipment -

I saw some comments on the web earlier this week where some were objecting to the "new" helmets, saying that they preferred the "traditional" solid gold helmet.  It seems to have been lost on the audience that this shamrock helmet IS PART OF Irish history.  Mulling it over, I recalled that Blue-Gray Sky had done a retrospective on Irish uniforms at some point, so I thought I would dig that up and post the link here, since BGS isn't active anymore.  Which sucks.

As an added bonus check out this piece, and this piece from Helmet Hut which have more detail on the shamrock helmet.
Now don't get me wrong - my first reaction upon seeing the shamrock helmet was "Ewww."  But I'll keep an open mind until Saturday night.  And if the team plays well, I'll be demanding they wear the same helmets all season.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Wasn't That Special?

I worked feverishly last Saturday morning to complete my "2011 Irish Could Be Special" post before kickoff, so that I would have the right to bask in the glow of my own genius once the season was officially underway and had begun to unfold exactly as I had foretold.  Because that's why bloggers blog.  Well, the Irish performance wasn't exactly "special" in the way I had expected.  Saturday Night's "special" was more like this:

After watching the USF debacle I am having a very hard time deciding which was more bizarre: Two stadium evacuations due to lightning? Or the performance of the Irish on the field?  What follows here are my thoughts about what went down, as briefly as I can put them down.  Which is never brief enough, which is why I should quit doing this and get a life.

1.  It wasn't as bad as it looked and felt in the moment.  The Irish out-gained the Bulls by a factor of 2-to-1, 508 yards to 254 yards.  Although the performance was marred by atrocious lapses, you can't get too despondent over an offense that compiles 500+ yards, including 100+ yards and a 5.0 yards per carry average by the feature back.  The running backs had holes to run through, the quarterbacks generally had time to throw the ball.  What the QBs did with that time is another story.  The defense, in addition to holding USF to 254 yards, also allowed only one extended drive and yielded just one offensive touchdown.  That's a formula for success. South Florida's average gain per offensive play was just 3.5 yards, while ND had a 6.5 yard average gain per offensive play.

2.  In my "Irish Could be Special" season preview one common theme was that I expected the Irish defense to really be the backbone of this team and the key to its success.  The USF game was exactly the scenario I was contemplating.  The offense was struggling mightily to put points on the board, but the defense was stout and kept the team in the game.  Unfortunately, the offense was simply so inept that no amount of great defense could salvage the situation.  The "O" won't be THAT bad in the weeks to come, and this defense is good enough to win games for us.

3.  One really good thing I saw in the course of the game was the ability to make adjustments.  Early in the game the edge defenders were regularly losing contain and giving up some big plays around the end.  That wasn't happening any more in the second half.  The adjustments were made, the defensive ends/linebackers kept contain, and the same plays that hurt us in the first half were turned inside and snuffed out for short gains in the second.  As we move through a schedule that has Michigan's Denard Robinson and the twin option attacks of Navy and Air Force, the ability to adjust and play proper, disciplined assignment football will be critical.

4.  The one thing I didn't see from the defense was the big play - more specifically, getting the key turnover.  That was tied to a general lack of heat on USF QB Daniels, who the Irish sacked just twice for -7 yards.  While sound assignment defense is good, I really expected our defense to be more aggressive and disruptive.  Maybe we were being a little too cute with the game plan and saving some of those defensive wrinkles for Michigan?

5.  It really isn't fair to bash the entire offense for what happened on Saturday.  The O-line played a very good game, with only a couple of significant breakdowns that I recall.  As mentioned above, the running backs had room to move, the QBs had time to get the ball out.  The problem was limited to everyone on offense who actually touched the ball.

6.  I am guessing that Theo Riddick hasn't slept very well the past three nights.  His play on Saturday was awful.  Theo is a dynamic and exciting threat with the ball in his hands, which is why Coach Kelly has him returning kicks and punts in addition to being the number two wide receiver in the offense.   But if #6 can't figure it out and hold onto the ball, he's going be watching from the sideline.  Next man in.  I am wondering if Coach Kelly hasn't put too much on Theo's plate, and if we need to find someone else for punt return so Riddick can focus on his wide receiver duties.

7.  I feel a little bad for Jonas Gray.  His fumble (resulting in a record-long fumble-return TD) was a mistake, but I didn't think that it was completely egregious.  He was actually holding the ball pretty well.  Only when he was being held up by several USF defenders was one player able to really dig in and pry the ball loose.  Did anyone else think the referee was a little slow to blow the whistle on that play?  I thought Gray's forward progress was pretty clearly stopped.  And how is it that nobody in a gold helmet was in the area of the fumble to make the tackle and prevent any return at all?  Too much standing around.

8.  I mentioned in my season preview that I don't know who our third running back is, and also that I didn't know who was going to replace Robert Hughes.  The Gray fumble highlighted both issues.  Cierre Wood (who played a great game) is an exciting back.  He runs incredibly hard.  But that is a good news / bad news situation.  His hard running produces yards and points for the offense.  But it also wears him out.  He seems to need a lot of "breathers", and I am worried that he could get hurt.  He is not a bruiser.  He's tall and angular and reminds me of DeShaun Foster, who fought injuries throughout his short NFL career.  When he needs a break, Jonas Gray seems to be the only option right now.  Gray is not as dynamic as Wood, nor is he the power back that Hughes was.  The Gray fumble came in the type of goal-line situation that we saw Hughes in last year.  But I don't think Gray is going be a success in that role.  The point is, I think we need to see what our options are at running back after Wood and Gray, and develop that depth in a hurry.

9.  Speaking of the Gray fumble.  It occurred on 3rd down and goal to go from the 1-yard line.  Notre Dame had six Red Zone opportunities on Saturday and netted just two touchdowns, both of which came in the 4th quarter.  I haven't had the time to do a thorough analysis yet, but at some point I am going to take a hard look at Red Zone performance to get a feel for whether the Red Zone is an Achilles' heel for Coach Kelly's offense.  Has anyone seen a good analysis of that question?  To me, when you're trying to throw the fade route to Floyd on 3rd and goal you've run out of good ideas.  That damn fade route is such a low-percentage play, yet we run it all the time.  And we run it when everyone in the stadium knows we are going to run it.  It's a lousy call.  Roll the quarterback out, drag three receivers across the end zone, hit the open guy or run it in yourself. 

10.  I feel bad for Dayne Crist.  He has worked his butt off to come back from two knee surgeries and has given Notre Dame football his heart and soul.  Everyone says he is a great guy and an awesome teammate.  But I don't think he's going to make another start at quarterback for the Irish.  Although Dayne has the physique and the big, strong arm of the prototypical NFL quarterback, it doesn't appear that he has the calmness under pressure that makes some players "gamers."  It is said of the great ones (Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Joe Montana, Wayne Gretzky) that they experience the game in slow motion.  They are able to scan the field of play and clearly see what everyone is doing, and understand what his teammates and the opponents are going to do next, and then make the right play calmly and (seemingly) effortlessly.  One does not get that sense when watching Dayne play QB.  He just seems tight out there.  Trying way too hard not to f*$% it up.  Getting even tighter after he makes a mistake.  Although Dayne throws a beautiful ball, he takes too long to make the decision of where it needs to go and/or he misfires and throws an inaccurate pass resulting in an incompletion.

11.  Tommy Rees, who will make the start against Michigan, seems to be a "gamer."  He isn't perfect.  He has shown the ability to make mistakes and throws too many interceptions.  He isn't as tall as you'd like and he doesn't have the running ability or the rifle arm you'd like.  But he sure seems to have a better grasp of the offense than Crist, and he is definitely much quicker and more decisive about getting the ball out of his hand.  He seems to have no fear, and total faith in the offense.  If the pre-snap read calls for a pass to the tight end going down the seam with three defenders converging, then by God that's where the ball is going and he trusts his own ability to get the ball where it needs to be, and he trusts the receiver will make the play. He seems to have the memory span of a goldfish. (Goldfish were long thought to have such short memory spans that every lap around their tiny tank was filled with exciting "new" discoveries.  Scientists have since proven this to be untrue and unfair to the noble goldfish, but I have always loved this scientific tidbit and I cling to it for the purposes of this post).  Tommy is able to shrug off a bad play and approach the next snap as though the previous play never happened.  He is also very accurate with the ball.  The announcers on the broadcast were too distracted by Coach Kelly's teaching moment with TJ Jones to pick up on it, but did anyone else notice that on the Jones deflection and interception Rees literally stuck the pass in TJ's earhole?  Given that TJ wasn't looking for the ball and therefore did not adjust to the throw, that was very impressive.

12.  The team was 5 of 14 on 3rd-down conversions.  Not counting the 3rd-down rushing attempts, Dayne was 0 for 5 converting 3rd down via the pass.  He had one 4-yard completion on a 3rd-and-9, three incomplete passes, and one interception in the end zone.  That's four punts and one INT on five attempts to move the chains on critical 3rd-down.  Rees was 3 of 4 converting 3rd-downs via the pass.  He had one incompletion that set up the missed field goal attempt.  The other three times he completed passes to move the chains.  What is really remarkable when Tommy is in the game is how seldom he puts the team in a 3rd-down situations.  He led a 12-play, 76-yard drive that had only two 3rd-down plays: a 3rd-and-4 (converted via the pass) and a 3rd-and-goal from the 1 (converted by a Wood TD run).  He also led a 10-play, 99-yard drive that had only one 3rd-down play (3rd-and-9, converted by 12-yard pass to Eifert).

13.  So Tommy Rees is the Irish quarterback for now.  Did I mention that Rees was the OC Domer Player of the Year for 2010?  Just a little tidbit for you.  The question I have now is:  Who is number two?  If Tommy struggles, or gets hurt, is it Crist again?  Is the gap really that big between Crist and Hendrix or Golson?  If Tommy is the guy, the fact is that Dayne is a senior and is not likely to be your starter again.  When does Coach Kelly start getting Hendrix more practice reps, and game reps, to see if he gives the Irish a better chance to win that Crist?

14.  Much has been made of Coach Kelly's somewhat animated coaching style on Saturday.  Okay, I admit that I thought the guy was going to blow an aneurism and drop dead on national television.

I love Kelly coaching his team hard.  And I really, really love reading his lips when he is sharing a heartfelt moment with his team.  But even I thought he was over the line on Saturday.  Potential recruits don't want to see that.  Kelly lost his poise, and I thought he was unprofessional.  My guess is that Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick has addressed this issue.  Can I just say one thing though?  There are critics out there who have opined that Notre Dame should fire Kelly for treating his players this way, asserting that such behavior is unacceptable and should not be tolerated by a Catholic university.  When I first read this line of argument, all I could think is that the Catholic Church defended and protected pedophile priests for decades, if not longer.  Yet an angry football coach is beyond the pale.  Really?

15.  I didn't get the chance to put some of the final touches on my "Could Be Special" post Saturday, as I ran out of time.  I received some comments about being a "homer" and calling for a 12-0 season.  Those who have been with me a while know that I always put confidence level rankings next to my pre-season predictions.  My confidence level indicates how likely I feel it is that the Irish will win each of the games.  For example, my confidence level against USF was 70%.  Obviously, the result on Saturday fell within the 30% likelihood that we would lose.  I actually felt pretty good about my confidence level even after the game, because what were the odds, going into that game, that Notre Dame would commit the string of errors necessary for a South Florida win?  What were the odds of a 96-yard fumble return touchdown?  It has never even happened before.  The odds that David Ruffer misses a short field goal?  The odds that Harrison Smith gets personal foul penalties on back-to-back plays?  The odds that all those things happen in the same game?  And yet, despite all the disaster, Notre Dame lost by 3 points.  But to finish the thought, my confidence levels for the twelve games on the Irish schedule (posted here) are (in percentages):  70, 85, 70, 80, 90, 75, 70, 80, 90, 85, 85, 65.  If you add all those percentages up (using decimals, so 70% becomes .70), the result is a likely total of 9.45 wins.  So while I did think that Notre Dame had a shot at winning each of its twelve games, the math makes clear that a much more likely result is 9 or 10 wins.  With just a little luck we can still hit that target.  If it's ten wins instead of nine, this team can still hit my prediction of playing in a BCS bowl game.  It is much better to lose early than late, and I believe that South Florida will make some noise in the Big East and this loss, as painful as it was, won't hurt that much in the final polls.  But make no mistake, the loss to USF reduces the margin for error.

16.  Michigan is up next.  One thing we know for sure:  The Irish have more finish in them than the Wolverines.  The Big House experienced the same weather that caused the evacuations of Notre Dame Stadium, and it had to be emptied as well.  But unlike the Fighting Irish, the Wolverines decided to cancel the rest of their game against Western Michigan with 1:27 remaining in the 3rd quarter.  How embarrassing.

17.  The Wolverines had a fairly easy go of it against the Broncos, besides not having to actually play four quarters.  Denard Robinson was pretty balanced run versus pass, and didn't break any huge runs.  The key to the game on Saturday will be whether Coach Diaco has figured out what went so horribly wrong in trying to stop Robinson last season, and whether the Irish defense can make amends.  I expect the Irish to bounce back and play well under the lights in Ann Arbor.

Go Irish!  Beat Wolverines!               

Saturday, September 3, 2011

2011 Irish Could Be Special

With kickoff for the new season less than 3 hours away, it's time to get myself on the record with my expectations for the 2011 Fighting Irish.  Bottom line:  BCS Bowl or Bust.  The 2010 edition of the Notre Dame football team compiled an 8-5 record that could have been (and arguably should have been) 11-2.

There is no way to argue the losses to Stanford and Navy.  Stanford was a very good team and there was no doubt that they were much better than N.D. last year.  The final score was 37-14, but the Cardinal was up 34-6 with less than eight minutes to play.  Navy gashed the Irish for 367 yards rushing yards, the most ever by Navy against Notre Dame.  The Middies put some wrinkles into their option attack that Notre Dame was unprepared for and unable to adjust to.  It was probably the worst coaching performance so far in the young Notre Dame career for Coach Kelly and his staff.

But the other three losses were all games that should have been won, and which almost certainly would have been won by the more seasoned Irish team that played the final four games of the season.  Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson had 502 total yards against N.D., and yet the Irish still led the game 24-21 before Robinson's game winning touchdown with 27 seconds left in the game.  Had Dayne Crist not been sidelined by a strange head injury for most of the first half, or had the defense been able to collect itself and contain the dynamic Robinson even a little bit, Notre Dame wins that game.

The Michigan State loss in overtime on a fake field goal was an even battle that could have gone either way.

The Tulsa loss was a gut-wrenching affair.  Even before kickoff the team was in emotional turmoil following the tragic death of Notre Dame student-videographer Declan Sullivan.  Although the Irish were in control for much of the game, Dayne Crist was knocked out of the game early due to a season-ending knee injury, and Tommy Rees, while throwing for 334 yards and 4 TDs, also threw 3 interceptions, including one that was returned for a Tulsa TD.  Add a Tulsa punt-return TD, and a failed two-point conversion returned by Tulsa for 2-points, and you get an awful loss.  It was a sloppy game marked by the loss of our starting quarterback in an emotionally difficult week.  In almost any other circumstance you have to figure the Irish find a way to win that game.

So, an 8-5 year that ended on a high note with four straight wins, including a thumping of The U in the Sun Bowl, could have been even better.  What does this mean for 2011?  With most of the key pieces coming back for another year in Coach Kelly's system, and with a very manageable schedule, I expect the Irish to win 10 games (and possibly more) and play in a BCS Bowl Game, with an outside chance of playing for the National Championship.

On offense, Dayne Crist has been tapped as the starting quarterback.  This shocked nobody, although I expect that Crist will be playing on a very short leash.  Before being knocked out of the Tulsa game last season on his second freaky non-contact knee injury in two years, the Irish were a disappointing 4-4.  Although Crist's numbers over those first eight games were actually pretty good (about 60% completions for over 2,000 yards and 15 TDs), a starting QB gets judged (or should be judged) on wins and losses, and on leadership.  A great quarterback exudes confidence and inspires the whole team to a higher level of play.  I don't feel that the Irish were getting that confidence and inspiration from Dayne in 2010.  To me, Dayne too often looked a little overwhelmed last season, with just a little bit of a "deer in the headlights" quality to his play.  By contrast, Tommy Rees, although lacking that stud QB physique and rifle arm, generally seemed very calm and in control of the game (even while throwing multiple interceptions).  The team certainly played better as a whole when he was the starter, and I am hesitant to just shunt aside they guy who led the most impressive four-game winning streak seen in Domerland in many years.  As alluded to above, Tommy did have a penchant for throwing a few more picks than did Dayne last year.  Crist threw 7 INTs in 294 attempts in 2010, compared to Tommy's 8 INTs in just 164.  Folks tend to focus on that stat, which is fair, but which needs a little context.  Three Rees INTs were in the Tulsa game, a game in which he had no idea he would be getting meaningful snaps.  He came off the bench and threw for over 300 yards and for 4 TDs, along with his 3 picks.  Three more picks came against USC in the L.A. Coliseum, in horrible conditions.  On the flip side, Rees' completion percentage on the season was actually better than Crist's (61% vs. 59.2%) and he threw 12 TD passes in just 164 attempts, while Dayne had 15 TDs in 294 attempts.

So while there is something noble in allowing Dayne to be the starter again coming off his injury, he needs to play well right away.  This team is good enough to make some noise nationally if the QB gets the job done.  I don't believe Coach Kelly will be as patient as he was last season, knowing that Rees is a proven winner off the bench.  In his press comments Coach Kelly has said some very glowing things about how Dayne has progressed since last year.  Am I the only one who read between the lines and heard the inference that Kelly was not terribly impressed or pleased with Dayne last season?  And it doesn't end with Crist and Rees.  Andrew Hendrix showed some impressive ability in the Blue & Gold game, and you can't help but be excited about Everett Golson.  Golson fits the mold for Kelly's offense of being a good passer who can drive a stake through the defense's heart with his legs.  It seems to me that the Irish have done well in the past with exciting dual-threat QBs from South Carolina.  The Irish seem to have four quarterbacks who could come in and be very effective.  I can't help but contrast this situation with what the team faced going into the 2007 season when we had four quarterbacks and were wondering if ANY of them could play.  (Frazer, Jones, Sharpley, Clausen).

I am excited about Cierre Wood at running back, spelled by Jonas Gray.  But I honestly don't even know who our third RB is.  Coach Kelly stated in one of his pressers that he would put his first 22 against anyone, but that depth was an issue.  Looking at the running back position, I can see what he means.  Cierre is a dynamic playmaker, and Gray has some toughness and reliability.  But those guys need to stay healthy.  I am very concerned that we don't have anyone on the roster to replace Robert Hughes.  Hughes was a real leader and embodied toughness when the Irish needed it.  Who is going to be the guy when we need that late, dominating drive to win the game like the Irish did at USC last year, with Hughes and the O-line imposing their will?

At receiver, we have Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick, and TJ Jones.  That is an awesome starting trio.  Floyd will be a key to our offensive success, but I hope he has actually gotten his off-field act together and we have seen the last of his immature behavior embarrassing the team and the University.  As at RB, the depth behind the starting receivers is a pretty steep drop-off as far as game-breakers go.  We have guys who can be be effective, but neither Toma nor Goodman strikes fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators like our starters can.  Tight end is not a feature position in Kelly's offense, but those duties should be very capably filled by Eifert and Ragone.

The offensive line appears to be very talented, and deep.  This line should give the offense some stability and give the team the chance to be effective from the get-go, in both the running and passing games.  They should also enable to Irish to control the ball and the clock when needed.

It's the defense that really has me excited bout 2011.  Although the D had some egregious low points in 2010 (Navy, Michigan, Tulsa), this unit clearly gelled late in the year allowing an average of less than 10 points per game in the final four contests (3, 3, 16, 17).  The performances against USC and Miami were dominant and inspiring.  Most of that unit returns, and for the most part the key losses will be very capably replaced.  On the back end, I am very comfortable with Robert Blanton replacing Darrin Walls at corner.  I am a little unsure about the two safeties.  Harrison Smith is a ball hawk and can make plays, but he is also the same guy who fell down at the end of the USC game and almost gave up the game-winning TD but for a lucky dropped ball.  There's a lot of Zibby in him, risk-reward.  Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta are both upper-classmen with ample playing time and experience who should play well, but both players have been a bit under the radar and I don't have a real feel for my confidence level at that second safety position.

The front seven of the defense should be dynamic, disruptive, and at times flat-out dominant.  For the first time in a very long time the Irish D should be talented, deep, and stout at the point of attack.  This unit should be very difficult to run on, and the recruitment and development of explosive pass rushers will make opposing quarterbacks miserable.  Unlike the depth issues on offense, the problem on defense will be finding enough playing time for all the talent.  It will be fun to watch the upper-classmen rise to their potential (Manti Te'o, Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Darius Fleming) while also seeing the young guns flash their talent (Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo, Troy Niklas).

As this season unfolds, I expect the signature unit of the team to be the aggressive, stifling defense, rather than the efficient, potent offense.  There will be weeks when the offense sputters a bit, but the defense will be consistently good and will key Irish success in 2011. 

Special teams will be very solid.  Ruffer, Tausch, Turk all return to capably share the kicking/punting duties.  Theo Riddick has been named to return kicks and punts.  He will be very good as a returner, but I admit to being nervous about having such a key offensive player at risk of injury in the return game.  The fact that Riddick is by far the best man for the job confirms the lack of depth at RB and WR. 

I'll give a quick bite on each of the games for this season, as well as my confidence level for each game, as is the custom here at OC Domer.

South Florida (9/3).  The Bulls are a talented team that has was somewhat inconsistent in 2010.  What worries me is their head coach.  Skip Holtz is a former Irish player, an ND alum who coached at ND under has Dad.  He "gets" Notre Dame and I have to believe this game is a big-freaking-deal for him.  He is also a terrific coach, as he demonstrated by his success at East Carolina, a team nobody had ever heard of before he got there.  But Coach Kelly has familiarity with Holtz as a coach from their time together in the Big East, and Kelly has the more talented squad.  The defense will key an Irish win, but I don't expect a blowout.  ND 24, USF 13.  (Confidence level:  70%).

At Michigan (9/10).  The Irish lost a bizarre game last year.  Crist was on the sideline for most of the first half with vision problems, Denard Robinson was inexplicably impossible to tackle, and yet the Irish were with 27 seconds of winning the game.  Michigan is undergoing a coaching change and has seen a lot of layer defections in the off season.  The Irish are a significantly better team than they were a year ago.  Michigan is in a tough transition.  Irish earn a workmanlike win.  ND 30, UM 20. (Confidence level:  85%).

Michigan State (9/17).  I'm guessing Brian Kelly will remember losing in OT on a fake field goal forever.  I'm also guessing it doesn't happen again.  Mark Dantonio is a heck of a coach, and MSU will be very good again this year.  They just seem to reload with more of the same each year.  This will be a physical battle, but the Irish D is more stout up front than in previous years, and the offense should have an advantage spreading the field against Sparty.  And this time the game is at our place.  Irish win another close game, 24-21.  (Confidence level:  70%).

At Pittsburgh (9/24).  Irish won a close one at home in '10.  Pitt projects to have a very good defense in '11, but have a new head coach and are learning a new offense.  I expect the Irish D to win this game for us as the Irish O struggles a bit.  ND 20, Pitt 10. (Confidence level:  80%).

At Purdue (10/1).  It's Purdue.  Back-to-back road games for the Irish, but talent will tell.  Irish win comfortably, 45-20.  (Confidence level:  90%).

Air Force (10/8).   Glad to be back home in the friendly confines, but maybe peeking ahead to the USC game, this could be a trap.  Air Force is very experienced, and they beat a Navy team that whipped the Irish in 2010.  But the Falcons will be coming off a road game at Navy, and playing their first game of the season on grass.  Uncomfortably close, the Irish win 20-13.  (Confidence level: 75%).

Southern Cal (10/22).  The Irish get two weeks to prepare.  This year both teams should have their starting QBs healthy, and it should be a battle.  Barkley is really good, but his supporting cast is young.  NCAA sanctions are hurting Trojan depth, but bowl ban turns this night game into a Bowl game for USC.  The atmosphere of the night game should be electric, and I expect the Irish defense to build on last year's success to win another low-scoring contest.  ND 24, USC 14.  (Confidence level:  70%).

Navy (10/29).  This is Bob Diaco's big chance to redeem himself after getting burned badly by the Middies in '10.  I think he does so.  Could be a letdown game after USC though.  I think the Irish solve that pesky Navy offense and overwhelm them, 27-14.  (Confidence level:  80%).

At Wake Forest (11/5).  I love this game, because I like playing top level universities that take the concept of sudent-athlete seriously.  But the Demon Deacons aren't very good.  Irish win big, 40-13. (Confidence level:  90%).

Maryland (11/12).  The Irish are rolling now.  I would predict another blowout, but the Terps have a new coach, Randy Edsall, who proved at UConn that he doesn't buy into any Irish mystique.  Irish win comfortably, 35-17.  (Confidence level: 85%).

Boston College (11/19).   ND beat up the Eagles pretty well in 2010.  No reason for that not to repeat.  ND 38, BC 20.  (Confidence level:  85%).

At Stanford (11/26).  If they had asked me, I would have gladly hosted Jim Harbaugh's going away party.  This could be a HUGE game for the Irish.  If all goes well, a win in this game sets the Irish up for a BCS Bowl game.  If all goes REALLY well, this could be a game to decide whether ND gets to play in the BCS Championship.  For Stanford, the game figures to be "big" but not "BIG."  The Cardinal's fate in the Pac-12 will already be set.  Win or lose, they either will or won't be playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game.  If they are in the conference title game, they could be looking past the Irish.  If they aren't, then this is a consolation game.  I much prefer a first-year head coach to playing Harbaugh.  The Irish are a much better team than they were in week 4 last year, and Stanford figures to take a step back, even with Luck at QB.  Irish win a real battle, 27-24, and earn a BCS Bowl berth if not better.  (Confidence level:  65%).

Conclusion:  I see the Irish with the very real potential to run the table.  But there very few gimmee games on the schedule, and if they have a couple injuries or show up flat, they could lose three or four.  I would predict that the breaks beat the boys a couple of times, and they end up 10-2, playing in a BCS Bowl.

Sorry I don't have time for pictures, etc... but it's almost kickoff!  Go Irish!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Zen and the Art of Irish Blogging

Forgive me Father, for I have not blogged. It has been 261 days since my last post.

With so much happening in and around the Fighting Irish program, how in the world can any self-respecting blogger go silent for 8 months and 19 days? I have been asking myself the same question, off and on, for months.

The answer, I believe, is inner peace. Not inner peace about the world, or America, or even my own personal or professional life. But rather inner peace about the state of Notre Dame football. Over the past 261 days I realized that the reason I wasn't blogging is that I wasn't feeling the urgent need to write that has driven the OC Domer Blog since I started it 1,611 days ago (March 14, 2007). My motivation for blogging has generally been my personal angst about what the Fighting Irish were, and what they weren't.

In the spring of 2007 the Irish were coming off a 10-2 regular season and a Sugar Bowl appearance. But they had been hammered by USC in the regular season finale (44-24), and were pummeled by LSU in the bowl game (44-14). Brady Quinn was heading for the NFL and four young, untested quarterbacks were vying to replace him. Jimmy Clausen eventually won the job over Zach Frazer, Demetrius Jones, and Evan Sharpley. The three seasons of the Weis/Clausen era (3-9, 7-6, 6-6) did little to ease my Irish angst. Of course, the excitement of Brian Kelly's first season under the Dome made 2010 a great year to blog Irish football.

But something funny happened in over the final four games of last season: The Notre Dame football team started to play the way the Fighting Irish are supposed to play. Following back-to-back losses to Navy and Tulsa (can you feel the angst?) Notre Dame hosted the #15-ranked Utah Utes, and in miserable rainy conditions the Irish dominated. After the game I wrote about the experience of being there:

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.
The Utah game did feel like a real turning point in the program. That feeling was reinforced when Tommy Rees and the Irish went to the new Yankee Stadium and did what a Fighting Irish football team is supposed to do to a service academy team - beat them soundly (27-3).

A week later the Irish were in OC Domer country, playing the Trojans in the L.A. Coliseum. It was a glorious day of rain and unseasonably cold temperatures. Both teams were playing back-up quarterbacks in the game. It was only the four Irish turnovers that kept the game close, as the Irish out-rushed and out-gained USC, capping the game with a punishing 7-play, 77-yard drive featuring Robert Hughes power runs of 6, 12, 13 and 5 yards, the final rush for the game-winning TD. I stood with my wife in our typical end zone Coliseum seats with all the other Domers, the rain dripping off us, and I was very happy and excited. But I was also overcome with an intense feeling of relief. The Irish had finally snapped the streak of eight straight losses to the Trojans. To me, the world was once again restored to its proper balance. Notre Dame had gone into the Coliseum and had pushed the Trojans around, literally shoving them backwards the length of the field to score the final touchdown (20-16). It was clear to me standing there in the rain, cheering for Old Notre Dame as the clock wound down, that the Fighting Irish were back. Maybe not all the way back, yet. But Coach Kelly clearly knows what he is doing, and while there may be some bumps along the way, Our Lady's University finally has the right man for the job.

My feeling of inner peace with respect to the Irish was obviously boosted by their impressive performance in the Sun Bowl. Media darling Miami, with all that "speed", couldn't hang with Notre Dame on either side of the ball. The final score was 33-17, but the game wasn't that close.

Although I was hugely impressed with how the defense had matured over the final four games of 2010, and how Tommy Rees had stepped in and led the offense after Dayne Crist went down with injury, I didn't feel the urge to sit down and write about it. It's hard to be interesting when the substance of your posts boils down to: "Wow! We're really good! Did you see how good we looked!"

So where does the OC Domer blog go from here? I have been giving it a lot of thought. The Blue-Gray Sky set an awfully classy example of how a blog should probably just ride off into the sunset when the sense of urgency fades, and real life intrudes. But I don't think I can be that classy. The OC Domer will endure, but it will probably change from what my readers have seen over the past few seasons. I'll still be blogging, but posts will, I expect, be a little less regular. I probably won't write as many long game-preview posts or post-game analyses. I will be gracefully (I hope) bowing out of the weekly Irish Blogger Gathering. But when I notice something that moves me to offer my two-cents' worth, I'll be here. You'll probably see more non-football topics as well. (I know I have threatened that before).

The changes here don't mean I am less passionate about my team, or my alma mater. It just means that I'm more at peace with the state of the Fighting Irish, and that other aspects of my life will be getting a little more of my attention. At least for now.

A Little Blogkeeping

There are a couple of items I want to address before we can move forward with the 2011 season.

1. Congratulations to Tommy Rees, who has been named the winner of the 4th Annual OC Domer Player of the Year Award for 2010. What can you say? A backup QB who takes the reins of a team on the brink of collapse and leads it to wins over Utah, Army, USC and Miami is a no-brainer for this award. Past winners of the OCDPOTYA include David Bruton, Michael Floyd, and Golden Tate. Tommy is no less deserving of this prestigious honor just because I am months late handing it out. The runner-up for 2010 was defensive sensation Manti Te'o, with honorable mention going to kicker David Ruffer.

2. Congratulations to the winner of the OC Domer 2010 Fantasy Football League: OC Domer! I want to thank everyone who has participated in the OC Domer FFL over the past four seasons. I have really enjoyed running the league, and I hope everyone else had fun too. As part of the general reorganizing and re-prioritizing here at OC Domer HQ, I do not plan to organize/manage a league for the 2011 season. Not because I didn't enjoy it, but just because I want to use that time pursuing other interests.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Irish Blogger Gathering: The Fall of Troy

Living in Southern California as I do, Subway Domer is kind enough to let me be the host for this week's edition of the Irish Blogger Gathering. It's an exciting week here at OC Domer Headquarters. As I type this our daughter is on a plane flying home for Thanksgiving (and the ND v. USC game). She is bringing her roommate with her, and we are going to be seeing a lot of her OC and Notre Dame friends over the next several days. OC Headquarters is as clean and ship-shape as it has ever been, as Mrs. Domer has had us working overtime for weeks in preparation. But now that all the preparations are complete, we can turn our full attention to those heathens who call themselves the "Trojans." I don't think I can over-emphasize the importance of this game to all the Notre Dame alumni and fans here in Orange County. This is Trojan country, and this game is for a full year's worth of bragging rights. I don't know if you have a lot of interaction with USC's bandwagon fans where you live, but I can tell you that the last thing you want to give a Trojan is a year's worth of bragging rights. You might think that having a National Championship, a Heisman Trophy, and two years of bowl eligibility stripped from them by the NCAA would teach them a little humility. You would be wrong.

USC has had a nice little run lately against the Irish, having won eight in a row. It's almost enough to make you forget that the Irish owned USC for 13 years in a row from 1983 through 1995, or that Notre Dame leads the all-time series over USC 42-34-5.

Both of these teams are in transition. The Irish are beginning what they hope will be a long, successful run under new head coach Brian Kelly. USC said a tearful goodbye to Pete Carroll and is now led by Lane Kiffin. It hasn't been pretty for either team this season. USC of course got hammered by the NCAA, and they have lost four games to PAC-10 opponents so far, getting completely undressed by Oregon and Oregon State. The Irish have had troubles of their own, losing five games so far and having been whipped by Stanford and Navy. Yes, whipped by Navy. The Irish have not had any NCAA trouble, but they have been beset by a rash of injuries to key personnel and a tragic death within the program. The good news for Irish fans is that the team is playing its best football of the year behind freshman quarterback Tommy Rees and a defense that seems to have finally got its groove on with outstanding performances against Utah and Army in the last two games, whereas USC is coming off a beat-down at Corvallis and may have lost their starting quarterback to a high ankle sprain.

Which brings us to this week's IBG questions:

1. Notre Dame played perhaps its best game of the year in a win over the Utah Utes two weeks ago. Utah remains ranked at #23 in the Associated Press poll. Notre Dame likewise took Michigan State (AP #11) to overtime before losing on a fake field goal. Therefore the Irish should have no trouble with this unranked Trojan squad. Agree or disagree? Show your work.

Disagree. USC is unranked, but perhaps unfairly. Yes, Oregon and Oregon State whipped them pretty good. But those are two great teams (#1 and #22 in the Sagarin ratings). But USC has also beaten California, Arizona, and Arizona State (#27, #17, and #29 in Sagarin). They lost to Stanford (Sagarin #2) by just two points. You might recall that Stanford beat the Irish by 23.

Although the Irish win over a ranked Utah team was nice, let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Irish themselves are unranked in the major polls and Sagarin has them at #37 versus USC's #19.

But, a lot of that is history. Notre Dame is playing its best football of the year. The defense in particular appears to have had an enormous light bulb turn on over its collective head. The challenge for the Irish this week will be to take its high level of play into the Coliseum against a team with athleticism which is a significant cut above that of Utah and Army. The Irish defense was clearly faster, stronger, more athletic than the skill players of Utah and Army. How will they match up against the 4- and 5-star players of USC, even if they are playing with the same focus and discipline? The Notre Dame defensive line dominated the past two games. Can they dominate the USC offensive front?

Notre Dame's backups - at QB, receiver, tight end, running back - were able to outplay the starters for Utah and Army. Can our backups outplay USC's starters?

I think it will be a close game. Our spread O against a USC defense that has been out of sorts this year. USC's dynamic offense against an improving D that has been gashed at times. It may well come down to whether Matt Barkley is able to play. If we can put the Trojans in the same position we are of playing back-up QB, I like our chances. Our back-up quarterback is better than your back-up quarterback!

Bottom line: I like the momentum and mental toughness of the Irish. USC is feeling a bit besieged right now. The streak ends Saturday, as the Irish beat the Trojans 27-24.

2. It is almost time for the OC Domer Player of the Year to be named. This award is intended to recognize the Notre Dame football player or players who played the best when it mattered the most. Suffice it to say that the primary criterion is a consistently high level of play, with significant bonus points awarded for exceeding expectations. Injuries have taken many of the pre-season favorites for this prestigious award out of the running. Who is your nominee for this award, and why?

Well, there is still a chance for a star to emerge against USC and take the prize. And I am very interested to see who the other bloggers nominate. But the obvious candidates for me are Manti Te'o, Chris Stewart, and Tommy Rees. Manti has been a tackling machine and is a rising superstar at the national level. Chris Stewart is just an amazing story of character and perseverance. And freshman back-up Tommy Rees has been remarkable off the bench so far.

3. With a delicate flavor similar to beef, though slightly sweeter than other meats, horse meat can be used to replace beef, pork, mutton, and any other meat in virtually any recipe, though most aficionados prefer it in marinated or spicy dishes. Nutritionally, horse meat has around 40 percent fewer calories than the leanest beef, while supplying 50 percent more protein and as much as 30 percent more iron; and horse fat is considered an excellent health-conscious deep-frying alternative, especially for delicately-flavored foods that are easily overpowered by heavier oils. What is your favorite horse meat recipe?

Filet Mignon

This simple French classic serves 4.

4 four-ounce filets of horse
4 slices bacon
salt and pepper to taste

Prepare exactly as for a filet mignon. Wrap outside of filet with uncooked bacon slice and secure with toothpicks. Broil to taste.

4. Do you miss Pat Haden, who left the Notre Dame television broadcasts to become athletic director at USC?

Absolutely not! It was always a little weird that Notre Dame had a USC guy on its T.V. broadcasts, although I always thought Haden did a good job. But I have been blown away by his replacement in the booth, Mike Mayock. Mayock is outstanding in analyzing the X's and O's, as well as in relating his stories and his impressions of the student-athletes involved in the games.

As an aside, I think Haden was an excellent hire to replace Mike Garrett as USC's A.D.

5. USC is the Notre Dame rival I love to hate. What Notre Dame rival do you most despise, and why?

As noted above, USC is villain #1 in the OC Domer household. It started with watching Anthony Davis and that damn horse gallop all over the field against Notre Dame. Living amongst the Trojan faithful the past several years hasn't helped things. The contrast between flashy, west coast, Hollywood USC and wholesome midwestern values Notre Dame is just so stark for me. It's a clash between two different cultures.

6. Reggie Bush got a car, his parents a house. Cam Newton's Dad was looking for $180,000 in straight cash homey. Can Notre Dame compete for athletic recruits in this environment? Or do you believe these incidents are the exceptions to an otherwise clean recruiting landscape?

I think this type of stuff happens more than I would really care to admit to myself. But I still think there are enough kids of good character who are going to college for the right reasons that the Irish can field a strong football team. I do think, however, that in some parts of the country (cough *SEC* cough) the motto is still "If you ain't cheatin' you ain't tryin'." That's why the sanctions against USC and a strong NCAA response to the Cam Newton situation is so important.

As the other members of the IBG post their responses I will put links to those posts below.

The Domer Law Blog post is here.

We Never Graduate chimes in with some Gary Gray love and USC Hate.

Subway Domer goes on the record, in his own inimitable style.

Frank V. of UHND.com has some love for the Irish secondary.

Go Irish! Beat Trojans!