Sunday, August 30, 2009

Notre Dame Shaking Down the Thunder in 2009

Put up or shut up. That seems to be the consensus among the Irish faithful and the college football cognoscenti regarding Notre Dame's 2009 football season. The Irish return almost the entire offense from a year ago, led by quarterback Jimmy Clausen, a junior heading into his third year as a starting QB who completed 61% of his passes for over 3,000 yards last year with a 25/17 TD/INT ratio. Clausen will be playing behind an offensive line that has already amassed 100 career starts between them, which puts them among the most experienced offensive lines in the country. That line experience should translate into time to throw the ball for Clausen, and a new offensive line coach, Frank Verducci, will hopefully mean improved O-line play in the running game.

If Clausen does have time to throw, and he should, that means trouble for opposing secondaries. With Golden Tate and 2008 OC Domer Player of the Year Michael Floyd at wide receiver and Kyle Rudolph at tight end, Notre Dame has among the best receiving corps in the nation. All three players can stretch the field (they average 18.6, 15.0, and 11.7 yards per catch, respectively); none can be effectively covered by a single defender. And you can't double-cover all of them. If these three stay healthy, Clausen and the Irish offense should put up Brady Quinn-esque numbers in 2009. Tate, Floyd and Rudolph are complemented most notably by junior Duval Kamara (who has terrific size but needs to have a bounce-back year) and freshman Shaquelle Evans who has looked impressive in camp and is really pushing for early playing time.

The ability to stretch the field with the passing game should really benefit the Irish running game, led by 2008 leading rusher Armando Allen (134 carries for 585 yards; 50 receptions for 355 yds), who has been announced as the clear starter by Coach Weis. Allen will be accompanied in the backfield by James Aldridge (91 carries for 357 yds in '08), now the starter at fullback. Robert Hughes (112 carries for 382 yds in '08) will be first to spell Allen, but sophomore Jonas Gray and exciting freshman Cierre Wood will both see carries in 2009. The expectations with the running game are that the vertical threat of the passing game prevent defenses from stacking 8 defenders at the line of scrimmage, thus giving the running backs some room to work. Key will be whether the new offensive line coach can solve the short-yardage woes that have plagued Charlie Weis' offense since he arrived in South Bend. If these experienced backs, running behind an experienced group of linemen, can finally be counted on to reliably move the sticks in short yardage situations, thus sustaining drives and keeping our defense fresh, Notre Dame fans should be treated to a very enjoyable year.

In the off-season Charlie Weis shuffled the duties of his coaching staff a bit (he now has an associate head coach and two assistant head coaches), but the most significant result is that Jon Tenuta is now the defensive coordinator. Most expect that this will therefore be an aggressive, attacking defense that attempts to dictate the tempo of the game to opposing offenses and keep opponents back on their heels. In some respects the approach can be high risk - high reward, as the frequent blitzes Tenuta employs leaves defensive backs working in single coverage. Fortunately, the Irish secondary looks to be top-notch this year and should be more than capable of handling the assignment. The loss of safety David Bruton to the Denver Broncos will certainly be felt, but safeties Kyle McCarthy (110 tackles in 2008, most ever by an Irish defensive back) and Harrison Smith (57 tackles in '08 was 4th on the team) should fill in ably. Notre Dame is deep at the corners, led by Darrin Walls, Raeshon McNeil and Robert Blanton. If teams are going to move the ball on Notre Dame, it will not be through the air.

As in previous seasons, the concern with the Irish defense is up front. Once again, D-line is considered to be talented and scrappy, but probably a bit undersized. Nose Tackle Ian Williams weighs in just north of 300 lbs, but the other projected starting defensive tackle, the very disruptive Ethan Johnson, weighs just 275 lbs. The defensive ends, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Kerry Neal weigh in at 265 and 246 lbs. These players are all well suited to Jon Tenuta's aggressive defensive system, but it remains to be seen how stout they can be against teams that are content to run the ball straight at you. The defensive front seven have to show the ability to take on blockers heads-up and stuff a hole. The past two seasons have seen too many defenders trying to run around blocks, leaving big seams for opposing ball carriers to run through until a defensive back came up to make a tackle.

The top tackler among defensive linemen last season was the departed Pat Kuntz, whose 42 was 6th best on the team. The next D-lineman in tackles was nose tackle Ian Williams with 40 (8th best in '08). Digest that for a minute. Notre Dame's top five tacklers in 2008 did not include a defensive lineman. You might argue that it's the scheme, that the D-line is supposed to occupy blockers and let the linebackers run to the ball. I'd buy that, if the stats backed it up. But the top two tacklers for ND last season weren't linebackers. They were safeties. And it wasn't close. Kyle McCarthy led all Irish defenders with 110, David Bruton was 2nd with 97. Linebacker Maurice Crum was a distant third with just 65 tackles. Notre Dame's front seven needs to be much more effective this year stopping the run, so that the defensive backfield can worry less about run support and concentrate instead on defending the pass.

While the loss of Maurice Crum's leadership in the middle of the defense will be felt, the fact is that the guys replacing Crum are much more talented. Super-recruit Manti Te'o will get on the field early, likely playing alongside junior Brian Smith and sophomore Darius Fleming, although the competition for starting linebacker jobs is intense this season, and that's a good thing. Whoever plays, the linebackers have to step up this year in both stopping the run without DB help and in getting home and sacking opposing quarterbacks on Coach Tentuta's blitzes.

On special teams, freshman Nick Tausch came into camp and took control of the kicker position, winning both the kick-off job and the place-kicking job. I am very anxious to see the young man kick. Lack of a consistent place-kicker has plagued the Irish for two seasons, and the inability to kick the ball into the end zone for touchbacks has been frustrating. If Nick Tausch can bring Notre Dame's not-so-special teams up from "awful" to "average" it will be a big boost to Irish fortunes in 2009. Eric Maust remains the ND punter.

So how do I see this team shaping up in 2009? As I wrote in an earlier post:

With respect to Notre Dame football, there just isn't much uncertainty this year, other than the ultimate uncertainty of how many wins the Irish will put in the books. [...] For 2009, there just aren't many unknowns. The players in 2009 are almost without exception the same guys we watched lose at home to Syracuse and then win impressively in Hawaii. Same quarterback, same running backs, same linemen, same receivers. Same defensive players, with the exception of an opening at linebacker and an opening at safety.
So, given that we're going to see what is essentially the same group of players, each of them a year older, a year more mature (physically and emotionally), a year more experienced, what can we realistically expect?

The 2008 Fighting Irish posted a 6-win, 6-loss regular season and had a dominating performance in winning the Hawaii Bowl 49-21. That's a 7-6 overall record. Digging just a little deeper, however, one quickly learns that the 2008 squad, from a talent perspective, should have posted a 9-3 regular season record. The losses to Michigan State (argh), Boston College and USC were never really in doubt. But ND blew double digit leads against North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. A team with a little more experience, and a little more maturity, doesn't lose those games in 2008. So while they fully earned their 6-6 mark, from a talent and ability standpoint the Irish were arguably playing at the level of a 9-3 squad.

Is it unreasonable to expect the 2009 Fighting Irish, with the added maturity and experience, to play at least at that 9-3 level this season? I do not think that's unreasonable at all. And that's before you even begin to look at the 2009 schedule.

Let's go ahead and look at that schedule. (Confidence level is my subjective prediction of the percentage chance of a Notre Dame win).

Sept. 5: Nevada. The danger in this game is that the Irish fail to take this good team from the wacky WAC seriously enough while looking ahead to the Michigan game. In 2008 the Wolf Pack's offense was potent and balanced, led by QB Colin Kaepernick who is a true dual threat with 1,100 yards rushing and 2,800 yards passing last season. 2009 will be his third season as a starting QB. The Irish defense's speed and athleticism should be able to slow Kaepernick enough to allow Jimmy Clausen and the ND offense to win the game by scoring at will against a poor Nevada defense whose main weakness is in the secondary. Key to the game will be the Irish defense getting off the field on 3rd Down and the Notre Dame offense controlling the ball and avoiding costly turnovers. (Isn't that always the key?). The point is, Nevada is dangerous and if you don't take care of business they are good enough to ruin your entire season in Week 1. I will be watching this game closely to see if the 2009 Irish dominate a less talented team like they should, rather than playing down to the level of the opponent and keeping the game "interesting" far longer than they should (see: 2008 season opener against San Diego State). Prediction: Win. Confidence: 80%

Sept. 12: @Michigan. It was a party in Notre Dame Stadium as the Fighting Irish blew out the Wolverines in what must have been a cathartic 35-17 victory following the travesty that was 2007. While Notre Dame looked impressive that day, they were helped by 6 UM turnovers and actually had some problems slowing down the Wolverine running game in the person of Sam McGuffie. I expect UM to cut down on the turnovers and put up a better fight in the Big House, but they are still in a serious re-building mode and are expected to start a freshman at quarterback. Add to their already substantial problems the exploding controversy about the Wolverines and Dick Rod being a bunch of cheaters and I expect UM to be distracted and confused enough for the Irish to get a nice road win in a physical game. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 70%

Sept. 19: Sparty. I hate those guys. Coach Weis is 1-3 against Michigan State which, to coin a phrase, is not good enough. In 2007 MSU beat ND by 17 pts. In 2008 the margin was 16 pts. This is not progress. Notre Dame's problems against Sparty have been in the trenches. MSU has been more physical than the Irish on both sides of the ball and that has told the tale. ND has been unable to run the ball with any success, and has had difficulty contending with the Spartan power rushing attack. This game will be an important test against a very good team. Will the experienced Irish O-line finally be able to assert itself in the running game? Will the Irish front seven on defense be able to man up and compete with MSU's power game? MSU will be a very good team and probably the second toughest game on the Irish schedule. But Sparty will badly miss the leadership of talented QB Brian Hoyer and the production of RB Javon Ringer. Irish win a battle at home. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 60%

Sept. 26: @Purdue. Notre Dame beat Purdue 38-21 last season. Purdue's top three rushers, top two passers, and top two receivers from that team are gone, to be replaced by untested players led a by a first year head coach. The defense does return a lot of experience, and talent, but Purdue is going to have a tough year. The Irish defense should force some turnovers and lead Notre Dame to a convincing win in West Lafayette. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 75%

Oct. 3: Washington. The once proud Huskies were winless in 2008 and own a 14-game losing streak. But they got rid of Coach Tyrone Willingham and brought in former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to be the new head coach. No doubt they will eventually get better, but the Irish crushed UW last year 33-7 in Seattle, and one would have to expect a similar result when the Huskies visit Notre Dame Stadium in '09. Sarkisian will have the team playing with more heart and pride, no doubt, but even with touted QB Jake Locker healthy again, Notre Dame fans know all too well how hard it can be to overcome a Ty Willingham-created talent deficiency. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 90%

Oct. 10: -Bye-. Great spot for the bye week. Five games played and USC next up on the schedule. Gives the coaches and players a chance to re-group, get healthy, and take some time to prepare for the Trojans.

Oct. 17: USC. Toughest game on the schedule, again. It's great to get USC in Notre Dame Stadium. Unfortunately the Trojans are coming off a bye week as well. But they may well need it, having already played Ohio State and Cal, both on the road. A third tough road trip this early in the season could have the boys of Troy feeling a little ragged. Of course, USC is loaded, particularly at running back and receiver. But they just announced that true freshman Matt Barkley will be the starter at QB, and they return only three starters on defense. Recalling last year's painful game in the Coliseum, the Notre Dame defense actually played pretty respectably against the Mark Sanchez led Trojan offense. But the complete inability of the Irish to move the ball meant the defense was on the field all night, usually with their backs against the wall. Given the loss of so many 2008 Trojan defensive players, the Irish offense should fare better in 2009 (It really hurt that Michael Floyd was injured and unable to play against USC in '08). Likewise, the Irish defense should have more success this year playing against a true freshman at QB. I still can't predict an Irish victory, given that the gap between the two programs is too wide to close in the space of one season. Two things can really help Irish chances in this game. First, the students MUST go to the game. October 17 falls on the first weekend of Fall break, and it would be tough to win the game if the students go home for break and leave empty seats in the stadium. The team will be pumped up if everyone stays for the game and gets LOUD. Second, pray for snow. Or at least a really miserable cold, rainy day. Those Southern California kids HATE the cold. Prediction: Loss. Confidence: 40% (i.e., 40% chance of Irish win)

Oct. 24: Boston College. My irritation at losing to Boston College (6 straight) is probably second only to my irritation at losing to Sparty. BC has a new head coach, although he's been in the program for a while, in Frank Spaziani. They do return some experience for '09 (13 or 14 starters depending upon who you read), but will be breaking in a new quarterback and installing a new offesnive system. The Irish lost to the eagles at BC in '08 by a 17-0 score, in a lackluster game featuring awful playing conditions and reportedly an Irish QB battling the flu. Despite the score, ND had more yards and more first downs than BC, but Jimmy Clausen threw four interceptions that killed off any chance te Irish had of scoring. Bring this game home to the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium (and hopefully in front of the students on Fall break who stayed on campus or came back early to cheer on the team), eliminate the INTs, and sprinkle in a little payback, and Notre Dame should FINALLY get over the hump against the Eagles. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 70%

Oct. 31: Washington State (@ San Antonio). That's right, San Antonio. wtf? Presumably, a lot of die-hard Notre Dame fans living in or near Texas will pack the Alamo Dome (or wherever the game is being played), giving the Irish a nice "home field" avantage for this neutral site game. I am also presuming that Charlie Weis will be using this game as a showcase of the program for Texas-based high school recruits and potential recruits. Otherwise this game makes no sense to me. All that said, the Cougars beat Portland State and Washington last season (in OT, at home). They lost every other game, most of them by very ugly lopsided scores. They'll be better this year (they would have to be, wouldn't they?), but they won't give the Irish much trouble. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 90%

Nov. 7: Navy. The Middies had a very nice 8-5 season in '08 under first year coach Ken Nimuntuukomuntotrklo, and gave the Irish a scare last season in a 27-21 ND win. But Navy has to replace all their top offensive weapons from '08 (rushing, passing receiving). They will play valiantly but lose to ND @ ND. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 75%

Nov. 14: @Pittsburgh. The third toughest game on the schedule, Notre Dame lost at home to the Panthers last season in quadruple overtime, 33-36, blowing a game they led 17-3 at halftime. This year the game is in Pittsburgh. The Panthers return nine offensive starters (but not LeSean McCoy), and four defensive starters (but not defensive leader Scott McKillop). It should be a real tester for the Irish on the road, but hopefully the desire to atone for last season's embarrassing collapse will be the difference. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 65%

Nov. 21: Connecticut. The Huskies lose their top rusher (Donald Brown, 2083 yards in '08) and starting quarterback (Tyler Lorenzen 48.8 pct., 869 yds passing) off a team that went 8-5 with a Bowl win last season. Starting at quarterback for U-Conn in '09 is a familar face - former Notre Dame QB Zach Frazer, who was 46 of 83 (55.4%) for 536 yds, 2 TDs and 6 INTs for the Huskies in '08. You may recall that Zach was the first big recruit to commit to Coach Weis after he took over at Notre Dame. Upon his transfer out of the program I wrote:
I can only wish Zach all the best. When they write the book on the Charlie Weis era, Zach Frazer should have a small chapter in it all to himself, as he was a pivotal character in the Weis story. Zach was the first big recruit landed by Coach Weis. Zach was the answer to the question: Will this former NFL assistant coach be able to bring premiere talent into the Notre Dame program when competing against experienced college head coaches in the recruiting wars? Zach Frazer was a high school junior with a big arm, big numbers, and big hype. He was rated four stars at both and His verbal commitment sent shock waves throughout the Notre Dame community and throughout college football. It served notice that Coach Weis was a serious, energetic, and aggressive recruiter. No longer would Notre Dame wait, and wait, and wait before finally tendering offers to 4- and 5-star athletes. From now on, we were going to get into the hunt early and force other programs to play catch up. With one verbal commitment from Zach Frazer, Coach Weis (and Zach) changed the perception of Notre Dame's talent level. Zach took the Irish from being a program of mostly 3-star talent with some 4-star athletes sprinkled in, to being a program with 4-star talent sprinkling in some 5-star players. After his verbal commitment, Zach continued to help build the program by actively recruiting other top talent to come to Notre Dame. [...] Prior to the arrival of Charlie Weis, Notre Dame was losing 1- 2- and 3-star quarterbacks to transfer when they learned they either weren't going to be the starter (LoVecchio) or weren't going to be the primary back-up QB (Wolke, Olsen). Notre Dame now expects to lose a 4-star quarterback who can't crack the top 3 positions on the depth chart. That is a dramatic change, and we ironically owe that change, at least in part, to Zach Frazer.
Frazer's 2 TD / 6 INT ratio last season is worth noting, since interceptions were a problem for him at Notre Dame as well. In the 2007 Blue & Gold game Zach was 0 for 4 with an INT, which set the table for his departure from South Bend. I'm guessing Coach Weis will be able to find some Zach Frazer videotape for Coach Tenuta to digest in preparation for the U-Conn game. U-Conn comes to Notre Dame after a bye week and they will be looking to get a BIG win for their rising program. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 75%

Nov. 28: @Stanford. Coach Jim Harbaugh has brought some toughness (one might say dirty play) to the Farm, and Stanford is no gimme for anyone. Notre Dame beat the Cardinal 28-21 in '08 in Notre Dame Stadium, so a road game against a team that returns 17 starters from last season, including all the key playmakers, is no picnic. Still, it is Stanford, who will be hosting the Irish the week after hosting the Cal Bears in the annual "Big Game." There's a significant chance that Stanford could have a letdown when Notre Dame shows up. This game reminds me of the 2005 game between these two teams. Brady Quinn's Notre Dame squad was highly ranked and traveling to Palo Alto in need of a win to secure a berth in a BCS Bowl game. The game was a real battle, with the Irish coming out on top 38-31 and on their way to the Fiesta Bowl to face Ohio State. The '09 ND v. Stanford game could have similar implications. If Notre Dame has the kind of season they are capable of having, a win against the Cardinal could punch their ticket to a BCS Bowl game. In that case, I would expect ND to be very motivated, and to be playing very well if they are in that position. Stanford would be pesky but ultimately no match for Notre Dame. If, however, Notre Dame does not live up to expectations and needs a win against Stanford to earn a trip to a lesser bow game, and if Stanford could improve their bowl outlook with a big win, this game could be close again. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 75%

Conclusion: You've already heard all about the predictions of Lou Holtz and Beano Cook, who each have Notre Dame playing in the BCS Championship Game against Florida, so I'm not sure what else I can add. I am as optimistic as any Notre Dame fan, but even I don't predict an appearance in the Championship game. To get there would require a 12-0 season, which of course means beating USC, which I personally think is only about a 40% possibility. I do pick Notre Dame as the favorite to win eleven of its twelve regular season games. Does that mean I think they will go 11-1? I certainly hope so, but that's where the "confidence" ratings included for each game factor in. Using the confidence ratings and a little math you can get a better idea of what outcome is more likely for the season win total, just like the guys in Vegas. Adding together the confidence ratings I assign to each game:

.80+.70+.60+.75+.90+.40+.70+.90+.75+.65+.75+.75 = 8.65 wins

Depending upon where you look, I've seen over/under win totals for Notre Dame set between 8.5 and at 9.0 wins, which is right in line with my own estimations as set forth above. I may be more optimistic or pessimistic than you, but I encourage you to try this yourself. Assign your own confidence values to each Notre Dame game and see what your personal over/under is for 2009. For me, 9 wins is what the Irish "should" achieve in 2009, all things being equal. If they earn less than nine wins, they have under achieved and only a very, very nice Bowl win would bring Coach Weis back in 2010. If they manage to win ten games, they will have beaten the odds in my view, and the extra win would have to be credited to Coach Weis who will have earned the chance to stay on as coach. If they win eleven or twelve, that would be a superior job of coaching and you'll need dynamite (or another year like 2007) to dislodge Charlie from the Gug.

What do I think will really happen? I bet the over. And got 25-1 odds on the Irish winning the Championship.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


I am not an emotional guy. Really. I like to think of myself as cool and detached, even in my relationships. The Original Mr. Macho Tough Guy Man's Man. No touchy-feely get in tune with your inner self meditation for me. Go ahead - smash my pinky finger between a metal dormitory bed frame and the metal head board - I can take it!

But this is a tough post to write.

My daughter is a freshman at the University of Notre Dame. We (Mom, Dad & Brother) took her back to South Bend last weekend to move her into her dorm and attend freshman (and parent) orientation activities. It was an amazing time for our family, which I fully expected. What I didn't expect, naively, was the emotional kick in the groin the trip entailed for me.

Logistically the trip was almost flawless. American Airlines non-stop from Orange County to Chicago's O'Hare on Wednesday the 19th. Each of our five checked duffel bags came in at just under the 50-pound limit (do not get me started on checked baggage fees!), and nobody questioned the size or weight of our four carry-on items and our four "personal" items. If nothing else, our daughter arrived at Notre Dame prepared for any fashion situation.

At O'Hare we picked up our rental car. I got an excellent deal through Priceline on a "premium" class car, as I needed as much space as possible for all our luggage but didn't want to pay the outrageous cost of renting an SUV. The Mercury Grand Marquis we got fit the bill for us (huge trunk!), although I felt like I was driving a grandpa car the whole time.

The drive from O'Hare to South Bend was the non-flawless part of the trip. Worst traffic I have ever seen in Chicago. It must have been a combination of time of day (late afternoon), construction on the freeway, and weather, but it took us over three hours to get through Chicago and onto the Indiana Toll Road. Once we cleared most of the traffic in Chicago, we were hit by a tremendous Midwestern thunderstorm. Traffic slowed way, way down because visibility was so bad and there was so much water on the road. Many cars did pull over to the side of the road to wait out the storm. We were treated to a terrific show of lightning bolts lighting up the sky. By the time we finally cleared the storm, everyone was exhausted, starving, and/or in need of a comfort break. So we pulled off at the nearest exit (I'm still not sure exactly what town we were in) for dinner, and found a nice family-style restaurant that suited us very well. After eating and whatnot, we hit the road for the push to South Bend. Of course, while we were eating the storm had passed over us so we had to drive through it a second time! In any event, we finally made it to the Marriott in downtown South Bend a little after 10:00 p.m., just a 5 1/2 hours after leaving O'Hare (accounting for the time change). But our room was waiting for us, no problems with the Marriott Rewards certificate we were using for our stay (big relief!). We schlepped all our bags up to the room, and then hopped back into the grandpa car for a quick trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond. (Why, what else did you expect us to do? Go to sleep?).

So at about 10:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night in August, all four of us strolled into the Mishawaka branch of BB&B to pick up all the dorm-room accessories that our daughter had ordered through the BB&B in Orange County and asked to be ready for her in Mishawaka on August 19th. Yes, they would have held the stuff for an extra day. Yes, they were still open at 10:30 (extended hours for dorm move-in week). No, we could not wait until morning to pick the stuff up. No, I'm not sure why. In any case, BB&B has a pretty good racket, errr, service going with the "scan your items at home and pick them up at college" service. Certainly somebody at BB&B deserves a big bonus. Nice service for us too, as it saved us a lot in shipping and/or baggage charges.

We loaded all the pink goodies into the car, and headed back to the hotel, with a quick midnight stop at campus to see the Golden Dome all lit up and peek at our daughter's new home.

Thursday we slept in (much to the OC Daughter's dismay), before heading to campus for some errands and wandering around. ID card, lunch, credit union, bookstore, etc.... We visited the Grotto and lit one candle of thanksgiving, and one candle asking that Our Lady watch over our daughter and keep her safe. We stopped by the dorm in the hope that we could get in a day early and see the dorm and the room. It was open and we got to meet the R.A. and see the room. We also found out we could bring a load of stuff over from the hotel if we wanted. Of course the girl who needed to hit Bed, Bath & Beyond at 10:30 at night didn't need to hear that twice. So we went back to the hotel, loaded up the Grand Marquis with all manner of dorm room goodness, and returned to campus to unload it in her room. It actually turned out well in that it saved us having to make two trips the next day. The highlight for me was learning that our daughter's room has a terrific Dome view, which is a pretty nice bonus for a freshman. In my experience, Dome views are pretty hot commodities for the upperclassmen during room lottery in the Spring.

That evening, we met our daughter's roommate and her family for dinner. The two girls hit it off immediately, although they had already become fast friends through the miracle of It was great to have a good meal (although I admit to being generally suspicious of Mexican food served in Northern Indiana), and we especially enjoyed meeting the newest members of our extended family. (There must be a term for your kid's roommate's parents? Roomies in-law?) All were relieved that nobody else was a chain smoking weirdo.

Friday was the official move-in day, and the girls were ready! The wall-to-wall carpet went in first (thanks to our Roomies-in-law for getting the carpet!) and the two Dads just needed to quickly assemble the pre-fab loft kits that were waiting for us at Home Depot before the girls could decorate and accessorize the room.

HaHaHaHaHaHaHaHa!!!!!!! (Insert sinister belly-laugh here).

Yes Home Depot has loft "kits." No, ours weren't waiting for us at the local Home Depot when we got there at about 8:30 on Friday. So after talking to "Don" about our missing kits, we went back to campus to unload the SUV, and by the time we returned to Home Depot and hour later our "kits" were just about ready. They just needed to visit the hardware section and pull the bolts we needed. It dawned on me that we were in a lot of trouble when Don started counting out 42 6-inch bolts and 14 3.5-inch for EACH of the two lofts. Yes that's 56 bolts per loft, times two lofts. A lot of bolts.

Did I say pre-fab "kit" earlier? By "kit" I mean of course a pile of lumber and a crude drawing. And 56 bolts (with washers and nuts). The lumber is pre-cut (well, mostly pre-cut), but it is not pre-drilled.

"Man plans, God laughs" as they say. What we thought might be a couple of hours of kit assembly turned into a full day of drilling and bolting and re-engineering a faulty design. The girls were too sweet to say anything, but they paced the hallway itching to get into the room and get their things all situated just the way they had imagined.

When we had finally put the last bolts in place and figured work-arounds for the erroneous dimensions on the "University-approved" Home Depot design, we were tired and sweaty but feeling pretty good about having accomplished something that meant a lot to our little girls (and their moms). Then we tossed the mattresses up onto the lofts and realized that they were too tall! University-approved design my ass. The girls, being grateful for all our effort and no doubt worried about pushing their Dads over the edge, didn't utter any complaint as they climbed up onto the loft to make their beds in the maybe 20 inches of clearance between the top of the mattresses and the ceiling above. They slept snugly that night, but admitted that they bumped their heads when the alarm clocks went off in the morning.

But we were all worried about the girls, and the next day the Dads figured out a way to lower the mattresses by six inches without a total re-build while the girls and moms were making a Target run. Much better. Of course the next day the dorm was plastered with flyers from entrepreneurs offering to build custom lofts in your room for less than we paid Home Depot. Sigh.

Friday night (still move-in day) we drove the OC Son back to O'Hare so he could spend the weekend in Colorado with his Aunt, Uncle & Cousin, the highlight of which would be a day of mountain biking in Vail. We wanted him to be part of moving his sister into her dorm and getting her settled at college, but didn't think he would want to sit through the weekend of parent orientation sessions. In contrast to Wednesday, the Friday drive to O'Hare and back went very smoothly and much more quickly, and our son had a great weekend in Colorado (where he now wants us to move).

Friday night as we got back from O'Hare was the first hint, for me, that it was going to be a tough weekend. We got back to our hotel room after midnight and realized that instead of four people and about nine suitcases, our merry band was down to the two of us and two small bags. Our son was winging his way westward, and our daughter was happily settling into her dorm and meeting all her new college friends.

Saturday morning was the "meet the dorm staff and listen to how we'll keep your daughter safe" session. After that was the big official "Welcome to the University" session at the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center (JACC), highlighted by wonderful remarks from Father Jenkins (University President). But the student speaker stole the show that afternoon. She gave a heart warming and personal welcome to the freshman. She spoke of letting Notre Dame pull you in. She spoke of how her father had, when she was a child, changed the words of the Notre Dame Victory March and sang "while her loyal Sons ... and Daughters ... march on to Victory" in order to make her feel part of the Notre Dame family. She never realized what he had done until she arrived at the University as a freshman and everyone was singing the Victory March differently than she was. I could not help but think of my own Daughter of Notre Dame, and I wasn't the only Dad in the house wiping his eyes while trying like heck to maintain my cool detachment.

Sunday was an intimate Mass for the two-thousand freshman and their families in the North dome of the JACC (since the arena in the South dome is under renovation), followed by the "Spirit of Notre Dame" session involving short talks from Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, Football Coach Charlie Weis, and the President of Student Government who once again welcomed the freshman and spoke with great humor of his own Frosh-O weekend and his tearful good-byes to his parents. But the stars of the session were, of course, the Notre Dame Glee Club and the Band of the Fighting Irish, which is what I believe they call in show business the "big finish."

I am not an emotional guy. The first time Notre Dame made me cry was 1974 when Anthony Davis and the USC Trojans came back from a 24-0 hole and beat the Fighting Irish 55-24. I was ten years old and watching the game on T.V. from 2,000 miles away.

The next time Notre Dame made me cry was during my own Frosh-O weekend, when I sat by myself in the ACC and the Notre Dame Band marched into the arena blasting out the Victory March.

And I cried during my graduation weekend when I knew that my time at Our Lady's University had drawn to a close.

So how do you think it went as my wife and I stood in the bleachers and looked down at our own daughter, who was locked arm-in-arm with her Notre Dame classmates and swaying back and forth as the Band of the Fighting Irish played the Alma Mater? Cool and detached I wasn't.

After that we walked our daughter back to her dorm, and said good-bye. I tried to think of something wise to say without bursting into sobs, and we left her there in the care of Our Lady.

The University has grown a lot since my time there. Our daughter's classes are almost all in buildings that didn't exist when I was a student. The athletic facilities are world class. But the feel of the place, and the emotions it evokes haven't changed a bit. The Dome, the Grotto, the lakes, the leafy trees, the thick grass, and the stadium all feel the same.

We could not be more proud of our daughter, and we could not possibly have left her in better hands. We could not be happier for her as she goes confidently in the direction of her dreams.

But we sure miss that little girl.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Taking Care of Business

Coach Charlie Weis' season opening press conference was very interesting to me, particularly because it is clear that Coach Weis and I see the 2009 season in much the same way. The soundbite from the press conference that received the most attention, on the theme of expectations, was:

There's a lot of things going into this year that I'd rather not say because I'd rather get it done on the field. That's really one of the main deals or goals going into training camp, is, Fellas, don't tell me about expectations, show me.
Just a few days before Charlie's "show me" remarks, I wrote the following about 2009:
If we have learned nothing else the past two years, we have learned this: No matter what we see or hear about how things are going at practice in August, fans will know nothing about this team until they take the field for real in September. [...] We know this team has the POTENTIAL to be great. But until they line-up on a Saturday, we have no inkling of how they WILL play.
In other words: Show me.

So while it's mildly interesting to watch all the videos at with practice highlights and interviews from players and coaches, I find that my patience for pre-season hype and talk is worn very thin.

All I want to know about the Fighting Irish for 2009 is: Will they take care of business this season?

What do I mean by "taking care of business?" It is playing consistently at a high level. It means winning in convincing fashion over lesser opponents, and playing very competitively against top teams. The pain of 2007 and 2008 was not so much the games Notre Dame lost to better teams. There is no shame in losing to a better opponent. No, the real pain of 2007 and 2008 was losing games that, despite not having our best talent level, we still should have won.

It was clear early in 2007 that Notre Dame was going to have a very difficult year. Getting hammered by Georgia Tech (33-3), Penn State (31-10), Michigan (38-0), and Michigan State (31-14) in the first month (that's a combined score of 133-27) was sufficient to drive home that reality for even the most optimistic of Irish fans. While losing game after game to quality teams was tough, we became numb to all but the most bitter of defeats. In 2007 it was the losses to Purdue, Navy, and Air Force that were really hard to swallow. In the Universe of the die-hard Notre Dame fan, there just isn't any alignment of the stars that can explain how the Irish can lose those games.

In 2008, there were several painful losses, but the worst were the three games that the Irish lost after they had comfortable leads and were apparently entirely in control of the outcome. Blowing the games to UNC, Pitt, and Syracuse (and turning a pretty darn respectable 9-3 regular season into a mediocre 6-6). Those three losses are the most glaring 2008 examples of the inconsistency that is the Hallmark of NOT taking care of business, but they weren't the only examples. Week 1 of 2008 was a win against San Diego State that was much too close for comfort, and which actually required a 4th quarter Notre Dame comeback to avert disaster. The SDSU debacle was somewhat overshadowed by a blow-out win over Michigan the following week, but in retrospect we should have recognized it as an early warning signal.

We tend to forget it in the disappointment of the last two seasons, but there is ample evidence that Coach Weis' is capable of fielding teams that do take care of business. The 2005 team was impressively consistent. A big opening win over Pittsburgh in Coach Weis' debut, followed by a win over Michigan. After a tough overtime loss to Sparty (I hate those guys), the 2005 Irish won 7 of the next 8 games by about 20 points per game, the only loss being the 4th & 9, Bush-push game to USC (34-31). No messing around with Navy and Syracuse in 2005. That was taking care of business, and even the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State was closer than folks remember. That game was 27-20 OSU with 5:27 left in the game, and that was after a Tom Zbikowski fumble return for a touchdown was called back.

Weis' 2006 team lost only to Michigan, USC, and LSU - three very good teams. But they took care of business against everybody else. No close calls (or losses) to Purdue, Stanford, Navy, Air Force, Army ...

Which brings us back to 2009. The Irish open up the season against the University of Nevada, which feels a lot like last year's opener against SDSU. What will the 2009 squad show us? Will it be a replay of the close call against the Aztecs, foreshadowing more immaturity and inconsistency to follow? Or will it be more like the opening blow-out win of 2005 which set the tone for an entire year of play at a consistently high level?

With Michigan waiting in the wings, the game against the Wolfpack might not look very important. But from where I sit it is huge. If this Notre Dame team can establish in week 1 the ability to be focused and intense no matter who they are playing; If they can block out the looming Wolverines, and NOT play down to the level of their opponent; If they can take care of business and dismantle the 'Pack without conscience - then it will bode very well for 2009. If not, then we can all buckle up for another unwanted roller-coaster ride.

Much has been said and written about the 2009 Notre Dame schedule. The fact is, most Irish opponents this season are either weak teams or are expected to have down or rebuilding years. If the Fighting Irish can be focused and mature this year, they have the experience and the talent to take care of business and win a lot of games. The question is: Will they? We'll know a lot more about that on September 5th.

Bonus Content: Are you looking for a low-pressure yet enjoyable fantasy football league to play in for 2009? The OC Domer FFL is looking for owners. Click here for details.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Board Games & Michael Vick

Michael Vick is now a Philadelphia Eagle. I wrote a little about Vick a while back, but his signing yesterday caused me to give his situation a little more thought, as I was having trouble sorting out my feelings.

If you have kids you can follow me on this one.

When playing board games with your kids, sometimes you land on the "lose a turn" square, which is disappointing. You're forced to sit and watch the other players zoom around the board for a whole turn (which seems like forever when you're five). But in the big scheme of the game, losing a turn isn't really that big of a deal.

Other times you roll the dice or draw a card and you have to return all the way back to the "start" square and have to start your journey all over again. You might also lose any prizes or tokens you had collected so far in the game. You are literally back at square one and starting the whole game over. That's way worse than just landing on the "lose a turn" square.

Prison is no picnic, and I like to believe that redemption is possible. But Michael Vick signing with the Eagles for $1.6 million feels to me like his numerous crimes only landed him on the "lose a turn" square, when he should have had to return all the way to the "start" square and begin rebuilding his life from scratch.

We have seen great stories of redemption in other areas of life: The ballplayer who throws it all away with drugs or alcohol, or loses it all due to injury or poor judgment. The player who faded into obscurity but who, over time, worked and scraped his way back up through the minors and eventually made it back to the show. The businessman or politician who fell off the top of mountain and had to spend years climbing back to the top. Those are great stories of penance and forgiveness and perseverance and redemption.

I'm willing to forgive Michael Vick for is transgressions, but I'd feel a little better about the whole thing if I saw a little more time spent on the struggle for redemption before signing the fat contract and rejoining the millionaires' club. Maybe a stint in the CFL or the new UFL. Maybe a season spent coaching a local youth team while getting himself back in shape. Something other than a big pile of cash and an instant return to the spotlight of superstardom. It seems to me that redemption cannot be given, it has to be earned. And I don't think Michael Vick has shown us that he has earned it yet.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

OC Domer Fantasy Football Season III. Are You In?

The OC Domer Fantasy Football League is ready to begin it's third season. Who will dethrone last year's champion, the Nevada Mustangs? I have several slots available in the league for anyone who would like to play, and my goal is to get enough players to run a ten team league (split into Blue & Gold divisions).

The league is set up at It is an auto-pick league, since there is no way I can coordinate a live draft for a group of ten virtual people who could be located anywhere in the world. The auto-draft is set for the early morning hours of September 2nd, which is the Wednesday after the third week of pre-season games. That will give everyone a chance to see plenty of action before ranking players for the draft. Of course, with an auto-pick league you can (and should) make any adjustment you like to the default ESPN player rankings, which will allow the computer to draft your team based upon your preferences.

Some folks aren't keen on the auto-draft, as it can be quirky. However, ESPN has made some improvements that will make the auto-draft better. The first big improvement is that each owner can specify, if they want to, which position they want the computer to draft in each round. Thus, if you want, you can tell the computer to draft a QB in round 1, running backs in rounds 2 and 3, and a kicker in round 4 (and so forth). If you don't specify what position you want in each round, the computer will draft the highest rated player available in each round regardless of position as long as roster limits aren't exceeded. The second change is that each owner can specify (if he or she chooses) the maximum number of players at each position that they want on their roster. Thus, you can specify that you want no more than 3 QBs and no more than 4 running backs, etc... This will fix the problem of teams being way out of balance by position, especially on the bench, after the draft. I think both of these changes are excellent improvements and should greatly minimize the auto-draft issues we have seen in previous seasons.

League scoring is tweaked a little bit from the traditional to suit my tastes, so be sure to take it into account when preparing for the draft.

If you played last year in the OC Domer before and want to do it again, or if you have just been looking for a league to play in with a bunch of relative newbies (myself included), send me an e-mail (my e-mail address is in my "profile" linked to the right) and I'll have one of the league invites sent to you. My only request is that if you are a member of the league you commit to managing your team in good faith for the full season. The owner who just packs it in halfway through the season and stops managing his team screws it up for everyone.

(NOTE: If your first reaction to the above post is that I really MUST run a live draft instead of the auto-draft, then you are way too into it for this league!)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Too Quiet

It's been quiet here at OC Domer this Summer. My posting numbers have been down, and I've been scratching my head as to the reasons. After a little introspection, I've come up with a couple of factors. First, I've been busy/distracted. Work can really cut into a blogger's day, and a lot has been happening on the family front including the OC Domer Daughter heading off to Notre Dame in just 16 days. Oh My! But the other factor is that blogging, for me, is driven by news, controversy, uncertainty, and debate. With respect to Notre Dame football, there just isn't much uncertainty this year, other than the ultimate uncertainty of how many wins the Irish will put in the books. I'm not the only one to note this. There is no quarterback controversy like there was prior to the 2007 season (Sharpley? Clausen? Jones? You do remember Jones, don't you? And Frazer?). In 2008 there were question marks all over the depth chart, if not at quarterback. Which of the youngsters would play and would they mature fast enough to erase the nightmarish images of 2007? There was also the addition of coach Jon Tenuta to spark some discussion.

For 2009, there just aren't many unknowns. The players in 2009 are almost without exception the same guys we watched lose at home to Syracuse and then win impressively in Hawaii. Same quarterback, same running backs, same linemen, same receivers. Same defensive players, with the exception of an opening at linebacker and an opening at safety. The coaching situation is settled. Charlie is the Boss, and he's calling plays again. Corwin Brown is promoted to assistant head coach, and Jon Tenuta to Defensive Coordinator. The big unknown is new offensive line coach Frank Verducci. I'll be watching the O-line very closely this season, as once again (just like 2007 and 2008) I will no doubt predict that Fighting Irish fortunes depend principally on the performance of that group. But what can you post about the O-line in pre-season?

From a blogger's perspective, it is clearly too quiet on the Fighting Irish front. We know who the players are, we know the schedule looks pretty darn manageable. We think the pieces are in place. The question on everyone's lips is: How good are the Irish going to be this season? That sounds innocent enough to the casual fan, but for die hard Notre Dame fans, this ultimate question carries an undertone. The question is really code for the following mysteries:

  • How many games are they going to win?
  • Which team are we going to see - the team that lost to UNC, Pitt and Syracuse? Or the team that looked amazing against Michigan, Washington, and Hawaii?
  • Will Jimmy Clausen take that step up to "the next level"? Is Coach Weis really a good enough quarterback coach to take Clausen to the next level?
  • Is Charlie Weis going to be the "The Guy" at Notre Dame for the next decade? Or is he not up to the job?
Those are the real questions haunting the hard-core Domer in August 2009. The problem is, there is no way to divine the answers to any of those questions until the whistle blows on September 5th. If we have learned nothing else the past two years, we have learned this: No matter what we see or hear about how things are going at practice in August, fans will know nothing about this team until they take the field for real in September.

Video clips of warm-ups, staged scrimmages for the public, press conferences and interviews. Leaked news and rumors. All absolutely worthless. Because we know how well they COULD play. We know this team has the POTENTIAL to be great. But until they line-up on a Saturday, we have no inkling of how the WILL play.

And so it's quiet. Too quiet. I will post my pre-season previews and predictions, I'll share my hopes and fears. Or at least my hopes. But we're all just biding our time until kick-off against Nevada. It won't take long after that for us to learn an awful lot about this team and our season. Will it be a San Diego State close call that presages another year of mediocrity? Or will it be a continuation of what we saw at Hawaii, a prelude to greatness?

33 days until we know.