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!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Here Come the Black Knights of the Hudson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go Irish! Beat Army!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My Cousin Vinny (IBG)

The Irish are playing the Utes this week. Every time I say (or even think) "Ute" my mind flashes to that hilarious scene in the movie "My Cousin Vinny." Do you remember it?

Anyway, the Utes are coming to town, looking to redeem themselves after being humiliated by TCU in their last game. The Irish, meanwhile, are looking to get back on track and salvage a bowl berth after suffering a string of very difficult losses over the course of the longest two weeks in the history of Notre Dame football.

Navy simply crushed the Irish in the Meadowlands. I have never liked the Irish in the Meadowlands, despite having been informed that, prior to this year, they had never lost a game there. Losing to Navy is tough to take. Getting completely out-classed by Navy is another thing altogether. I have been too busy to keep my blogging up to satisfactory levels this season, but my Twitter/Facebook comment on the game was "Memo to Brian Kelly: Honeymoon Officially Over."

Tulsa came into Notre Dame Stadium just hours (or so it seemed) after Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan was tragically killed while filming an Irish football practice in high winds. I honestly didn't know what to expect from the Irish in that game. Given all the emotions of the week, I thought they could get blown out, or they could have blown out the Golden Hurricane. Instead we saw something in the middle, with the Irish playing a close game and being in position to win the game at the end despite losing starting quarterback Dayne Crist for the rest of the season with another freaky knee injury. Unfortunately, the Irish lost the chance to kick a game-winning field goal when a ball that never should have been thrown on a play that never should have been called was intercepted in the end zone. The team really surprised me with their resilience against Tulsa. Coach Kelly also really surprised me when he blew the game with a really poor decision. He can rationalize it all he wants that he liked the match-up, or that Tommy Rees should have thrown it away. But Tommy Rees is a freshman, and he should not have been put in the position to make that decision. Once again, my wife had her head in the game more than the coach did. She was shouting at the T.V. that Kelly better not throw that d*&# ball! They better run the ball to the middle to get a good angle for the field goal! I can only imagine that Declan's death was weighing pretty heavily on Coach Kelly that day, and he wasn't in top form.

So a two game losing streak. A bad two game losing streak. Starting quarterback, running back (Allen), tight end (Rudolph), wide receiver (Riddick) all out with injuries. The Utes coming to town still ranked #15 in the country. It is serious gut check time for Coach Kelly's Fighting Irish. A loss removes all margin for error if a bowl game is to remain in play for this team. They would have to beat Army and USC to go 6-6 and be bowl eligible. A win, especially over a ranked team, would be a much needed boost to the program. It would be some measure of validation that the "process" Coach Kelly constantly talks about is actually yielding some results.

The OC Domer household is especially excited for this week's game because in about five hours we are heading for the airport to go back to South Bend to visit the OC Daughter (Hi Katie!) and see the Fighting Irish play Utah on Saturday. But wait, that's not all! On Sunday we fly to Newark, New Jersey and drive up to West Point, New York where the OC Son is scheduled to take a campus tour of the U.S. Military Academy on Monday. A late flight home gets us back to the OC late Monday night. A very exciting and busy weekend that we have been looking forward to for a long time. I just hope it doesn't rain too much!

It hasn't just been a crazy season for the Irish. I was tied up in some litigation at work for a couple of months, and spent a lot of time on the road. The case is over now, so I am trying to get back into my normal routine. Which means posting my response to the Irish Blogger Gathering questions for this week. Very quickly. Here we go:

1. Notre Dame is currently 4-5 with three games left in the season. First, are you surprised by the wins and losses so far? And second, given how the Irish have played, what is a realistic expectation for the remainder of the season?

None of the wins have surprised me. The losses to Navy and Tulsa, and the magnitude of the loss to Stanford all surprised me. I think Utah has been a bit of a pretender all year and is still overrated. I think we'll find a way to rally and beat the Utes. We have to. A win over Army and a loss to USC in a more competitive game than recent years should round it out.

2. A little report card in the spirit of the bye week. What player or position unit has been the biggest surprise of the year and what player/position unit has been the biggest disappointment?

The defense has been a disappointment to me. I don't know which sub-unit on "D" is the culprit, but the simply awful performances against Michigan and Navy were an abomination. The O-line's inability to impose its will and get a first down in short yardage is a real disappointment. I can't say I really have a positive surprise. Manti's prodigious tackling numbers and his speed to the ball have been impressive.

3. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco caught plenty of flack after the debacle against Navy, and rightly so. But his unit bounced back with arguably their best performance of the year against a prolific Tulsa offense. So which version is the real Diaco? Is it the one that had no answer for Navy? Or is it the one that had his troops prepared against Tulsa (and most other Irish opponents)?

Didn't Tulsa score 28 points on us? Didn't they have 203 net rushing yards and a 5.2 yards-per-rush average? Diaco's grade is still "incomplete." The defense needs to come up big in a big game that we win. Good statistical performances in valiant losses are not good enough. Make a play.

4. Off the heels of a near miss against Air Force, Utah was undressed by TCU in their first "real" test of the season. Are the Utes pretenders and does Notre Dame have a shot at winning Saturday? What will be the key matchup next week in South Bend?

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

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Thoughts and Prayers Aren't Enough

It's Wednesday night. This blog post should be about how disappointed I was by the Irish loss to Navy last Saturday.

Instead, tonight I am a sickened, saddened, and angry Notre Dame parent.

A Notre Dame student died needlessly and senselessly today, in an accident that never should have happened. Declan Sullivan, a junior at the University, was filming Notre Dame's football practice from atop a scissor lift when it "fell" over, causing his death. "Fell" is an interesting word to use in this context. "Fell" obscures the fact that there also just happened to be 50 m.p.h. winds blowing in the South Bend area today. I wonder if those high winds might have had anything to do with why the lift "fell"?

Actually, I don't wonder that at all. It seems pretty clear to me that the high winds blew the tower over. It also seems pretty clear to me that neither Declan Sullivan nor anyone else should have been on top of a scissor lift in those conditions. I live and work in Southern California. I wasn't in South Bend today. But even I knew about the severe weather there the past couple of days.

My daughter sent me a text message early Tuesday morning telling me about the tornado warnings that had her entire dorm hunkering down in their chapel waiting for the "all clear." I saw on the internet this afternoon the reports of very high winds in the South Bend area. I actually sent my daughter a tongue-in-cheek text message about it. My text read: "I hope you are tethered to something sturdy so the wind doesn't carry you away!" That was at 12:27 p.m. Pacific time, which is 3:27 Eastern. About an hour and twenty minutes before the lift "fell over."

I haven't been able to confirm it, but the rumor among the students is that Declan had expressed serious concern about going up onto the lifts before practice began on Wednesday afternoon.

As a parent of a Notre Dame student, I am panic-stricken at the thought of a phone call from the University telling me that something has happened to our daughter. I know that to some degree kids will be kids and that they can get themselves into trouble. The Administration can't always protect the students from themselves. But how many coaches and other University representatives were attending practice today without anyone speaking up about what seems to me to have been an obvious danger? Coach Kelly and Jack Swarbrick and many others will have many questions to answer, and heads should roll. Well compensated heads should roll. I'm not talking about the lead student manager, or the head of the video department.

The University will be holding a Mass of Remembrance for Declan Sullivan on Thursday night. Coach Brian Kelly said in a brief statement that "Our thoughts and prayers go out to Declan's family and friends."

Am I the only one who feels that "Thoughts and Prayers" are not enough?

A family lost their boy. A son. A brother. A Notre Dame man. Lost because nobody had the good sense to speak up and say "Hey, maybe we shouldn't put anybody up on the towers today. I don't think it's safe."

Are we really just going to have a Mass of Remembrance and a moment of silence and then play football on Saturday?

I'm not sure we should. I can't speak for the players, or for the students. But as I type this I just don't feel that it would be right to play a football game at Notre Dame this week. I think it would trivialize this tragic loss and would fairly open the University to criticism about its priorities. Given what he was doing when he died, I have no doubt that Notre Dame football was important to Declan. But it was not worth his life. And if the Fighting Irish play football this Saturday I would wonder myself whether the University of Notre Dame was placing football and a big pay day ahead of its students and the need to truly pay proper respects for the loss suffered by the Sullivan family.

And it won't change my mind if the University and NBC trot out the cliche' that "Declan would have wanted us to play the game."

Of course my thoughts and prayers go out to the Sullivan family. But really it is my heart that goes out to them. I cannot imagine the pain and the grief they are feeling, and I find that beyond the sadness and the grief what I feel most is anger on their behalf. Because it never should have happened.

Note: Before you write it in the comments, let me say that I was not at the football practice. I don't yet know all the facts. But I know what I feel. This post is about what I feel right now. Maybe I will learn that the University did in fact take all reasonable steps to ensure Declan's safety atop the lift in 50 m.p.h. winds. I hope I find that out. But I'm not holding my breath.

Friday, October 8, 2010

OC Domer Trying to Catch Up. Brian Kelly Earns a B-.

This is not how I planned to spend my 2010 football season. I am a lawyer by trade, which means that every now and again I have to strut my lawyerly stuff and earn my paycheck. For most of the past month I have been on the road and putting in long hours in preparation for a trial that will take place next week. I could tell you more, but I'd have to kill you.

Seriously, it's not a big deal of a case by any means, but it is important to my employer and it is sucking up a lot of time and resources as my total failure to blog anything since September 12 proves. I apologize to all of the subscribers to the blog and refund checks will be sent out shortly.

Yes, that was a lame attempt at humor. Clearly I have lost my edge.

I want to take this quick opportunity to give thumbnail reviews of the Michigan State, Stanford, and Boston College games, and then toss up here a quick version of the Irish Blogger Gathering post for Pitt Week.

Michigan State Loss (34-31). In my pre-season predictions post I wrote that "I am not convinced yet that our guys can go toe-to-toe with a very physical Sparty squad" and I predicted an Irish loss by virtue of my 45% win confidence. The team actually held up pretty well physically and played an amazing game only losing in OT on a very gutsy fake field goal that was made possible by the officials failing to notice that the play clock had expired well before the ball was snapped. Should have been a delay of game, and then who knows what happens. The game was so exciting that Sparty's coach literally had a heart attack. Tough loss, but Michigan State is a pretty decent team (16th or 17th in the country depending on whether you like the USA Today Coaches poll or the AP poll), so one can take some encouragement from taking them to OT. One interesting stat: The team that won the Average Starting Field Position battle (ND, averaging starting at the 29 versus MSU's average start at the 23) actually lost the game. Hard to make too much of it, since their game went to OT and could have gone either way, but since I harp on ASFP a lot, I thought I'd mention it.

Stanford Loss (37-14). Pretty much a whipping. Not much else to say. In the pre-season I had a 65% win confidence on this game, which means I was waaayyy wrong. I thought the departure of Toby Gerhart would set the Cardinal back a bit. Yeah, well, not so much. You want stats? Stanford punted once. They converted 11 of 16 third downs. The Irish had 44 net rushing yards (a 1.9 yard-per-rush average). Notre Dame had zero sacks of Andrew Luck. Notre Dame of course lost the ASFP battle, 39-26. Stanford is also a pretty good team (16th in the AP, 18th in the USA Today), but we can't find any solace in that since, unlike the Michigan State game, we didn't play them close. This game looked like a Top 20 team putting a beat-down on a team that is not yet ready for prime time. Thanks for playing, we have some lovely parting gifts for you.

Boston College Win (31-13). Finally, something that looked "normal" to me. I had just about concluded that I had been kidnapped by aliens and dropped into some freaky parallel universe where Stanford owns Notre Dame in football, Texas get humiliated by UCLA, and Boise State and TCU are Top-5 college football powers. But the the Irish went to Chestnut Hill and put a hurting on a pretty bad Boston College team in a very workmanlike performance. A nice homecoming for Coach Kelly. I watched the game by streaming ESPN3.com through my HDTV via an S-video cable. One could tell that the game was very, very important to Brian Kelly as he was coaching his mouth off! I don't know if NBC is maybe more committed to the Irish home games being a G-rated show, but ESPN was giving us close ups on Kelly engaging in full and frank sharing of his opinions with his players all game long. I, for one, welcome our fiery, foul-mouthed overlord. Am I in any way offended? Are you kidding me? I mean, are you f&%#ing kidding me? You should hear the OC Wife cuss like a sailor when the Irish aren't playing well. It's about time the head coach at Notre Dame is at least as into the game as my wife. Key stats: BC held to 5 net rushing yards, Irish sacked BC QBs 5 times. Irish did just barely win the ASFP battle, 32-31. The only thing to take away from this game is a win. The Irish should have beaten BC soundly and they did. It is a good sign that the team took care of business by winning a game they were supposed to win. That hasn't always happened in recent years, not by a long shot.

The Irish Blogger Gathering is being hosted by the Irish Round Table this week. Go check them out to read all the bloggers' responses to this weeks questions. Without further ado here very quickly is the OC Domer contribution to the IBG for Pitt week.

1. Grade Brian Kelly’s performance to date. We’re not interested in how you think he will perform going forward. How has he done through the first five games? Grade scale is A+ to F-.

Well, I might argue that the grade scale is 00% - 100%. At 2 wins against 3 losses, that's a winning percentage of 40%. Where does 40% fit on the A+ to F- scale?

It's pretty early to give a grade, but so far I'd give a B-. The Irish have played five games. They got worked by Stanford (which is NOT a good thing), but had every chance in the world to win the other four games. Of the four winnable games, they won two and lost two.

Notre Dame was up on Michigan 28-24 with 3:41 remaining in the game. In order to lose the game the Notre Dame defense gave up a 12-play, 74-yard touchdown drive, allowing UM to score the winning TD with just 27 seconds remaining.

The Irish manage to take Michigan State to Overtime, but when they get the ball first in OT can't make a first down, instead having to settle for a field goal on 4th-and-1. The defense stiffens against MSU forcing Sparty into an untenable 4th-and-14 on the Irish 29, but then give up the game winning 29-yard TD pass on a fake field goal.

What grade do you get for winning 50% of winnable games?

The Irish offense is still a work in progress. We have a new quarterback in a new offensive system, and we have seen some expected inconsistency. It seems that in each game we see short spurts where the offense looks dynamic and explosive. We're seeing big plays that we haven't regularly seen in recent years. One can see that once the players mature in the offensive system this team will be able to score some points. There are signs, however, that the running game is already lagging seriously behind the passing game. The ability to "impose our will" with a power running game and ice a game by taking the air out of the ball is nowhere to be seen.

The defense is bend but don't break, and has only given up a very small number of really big plays. But the defense is bending a little too much, and they are having a hard time getting off the field in key situations. We've seen really good plays on the back end of the defense, but we need to get more pass pressure against teams not named Boston College and we need to be more stout against the run.

Special teams play has been a mixed bag. Kick-offs have been decent, place kicking is good. Kick returns very inconsistent, and punting needs to improve.

Coach Kelly's game management and play calling has been very questionable at times.

Based solely on his on-field results so far, I think B- is generous. If, as I expect, the team looks better in November than they did in September, I think he will earn higher marks by the end of the semester.

2. Much has been made of Brian Kelly’s sideline rants. Some fans like the excitement and energy others are worried that they are excessive and will wear thin on the players. Where do you stand?

Love them



He is colorful, but he's teaching. He's not just calling them names and screaming at them for being incompetent. He usually fires off an expletive-filled "What are you doing?" and then asks the player why they did what they did, and then he tells them what they were supposed to do and why. He's fiery, but it is to a purpose.

I can't help but think back to the many times under Charlie Weis when the team just looked flat and disinterested. Sometimes a coach has to get the team's attention and raise expectations.

It also seems to me that Kelly's passion level was way up for the Boston College game compared to the previous three games. My assumption was that he expected the team to dominate B.C. and was trying to teach them to hold their boot on the Eagle's throats and really put the away. He had higher expectations for that game against a lesser opponent. Against a much better team like Stanford (Wow, did I just type "a much better team like Stanford"?), I think coach realizes that yelling isn't going to be productive and the teaching needs to be more patient.

3. What is the best storyline for Notre Dame football this year? The best storyline in college football?

I love the Chris Stewart story. Do you remember that he came within a whisker of leaving the team and the University because he was frustrated and homesick? Now he has his Notre Dame degree and is starting at left guard while attending law school. Take that all you Kinesiology degree mills out there. I'm looking at you Michigan.

But Denard Robinson it absolutely amazing. If he can stay healthy he is going to rewrite the record books and I can't imagine any Heisman voter not having him at #1 on their ballot.

4. We are going to test your prognostication skills with a little IBG prediction contest. Predict the following for this week’s Pitt game:

Kyle Rudolph receptions: Four.
Points scored by Notre Dame’s defense: Zero.
Carries by Robert Hughes: Two.
Points Notre Dame wins by: 11.
Tackles Manti T’eo registers: 12.
Pass attempts by Tommy Rees: Zero.
Taylor Swift in Attendance: No.

5. What would you like to see in place of the yellow mums on the Notre Dame sidelines?

Well, if you must have yellow, why not yellow bikini girls? If it's good enough for Lambeau Field it's good enough for Notre Dame Stadium.

Go Irish! Beat Panthers!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Can I Change My Pick For Heisman? Michigan Reaction.

I actually have a lot of work to do today, but I wanted to very quickly throw out my thoughts on the tough loss to Michigan yesterday in a hard-fought, dramatic, and at times bizarre, football game.

  • Denard Robinson is simply an astounding talent. He has been blessed with God-given ability, and he is making the most out of it in a system that is perfectly suited to maximize his potential. My Heisman Trophy ballot now has Robinson as my #1 choice, and I don't think anyone else is close enough to him to deserve to be #2 or #3.
  • The fact that Denard Robinson is an amazing football player does not somehow transform Rich Rodriguez from scumbag to coaching genius. I'm looking at you Kirk Herbstreit.
  • Robinson had 258 rushing yards and 244 passing yards, for 502 total yards of offense. By himself. All players not named Denard Robinson had just 30 rushing yards for Big Blue.
  • Everyone will want to lament the fact that the Notre Dame defense gave up 532 yards to the Wolverines. Are you surprised to know that even though Notre Dame's starting quarterback was out of the game for most of the first half, the Irish still out-gained UM on the day with 535 yards? Yeah, I was surprised by that too.
  • Despite Michigan's gaudy totals, I thought the defense played very, very well. Robinson certainly gashed us for a handful of big plays that were decisive, but Michigan only converted on 3 of 16 third downs in the game. Michigan was shut out in the second half until the final touchdown with 27 seconds remaining.
  • Dayne Crist is going to be really good, pretty soon. He played just a little over one half of football yesterday and had almost 300 yards of total offense himself. He was 13 of 25 for 277 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT. He also had 30 yards rushing and 1 sack for -11 yards, for a net 19 rushing yards. Total rushing and passing = 298 yards. His two touchdown passes were for 53 and 95 yards (to TJ Jones and Kyle Rudolph, respectively). But there is still a lot of room for improvement, in both accuracy and in decision making.
  • Coach Kelly better take good care of Dayne Crist, because "next man in" at quarterback is problematic.
  • I wonder if we'll ever learn what was going on with Dayne that caused him to sit out most of the first half. Loss of vision in one eye? So very strange, especially since he didn't appear to take any big hits on the noggin. I hope it was just a one-time thing and that Dayne is 100% healthy going forward. But it's a damn shame that such a freak thing probably cost us the game. Twenty-one of Michigan's 28 points came in the first half after Crist left the game.
  • Notre Dame quarterbacks threw three interceptions (one per QB). This was a huge factor in Notre Dame losing the field position battle. Notre Dame's ASFP (Average Starting Field Position) was it's own 25. Michigan's ASFP was its own 32. On the young season, AFSP is 2 for 2 as a predictor of who wins the game.
  • Another big factor in the field position battle was the inconsistency of Irish Punter Ben Turk. Turk punted 8 times on the day. Half of his punts were very good, pinning Michigan back inside their own twenty (two of them inside the 10). Half of his punts were poor: 38 yards to the UM 44, 37 yards to the UM 35, 29 yards to the 41, and 34 yards to the UM 48. Ben needs to step it up and drive the ball deeper when there's no danger of a touch-back.
  • It's really nice to see our linebackers leading the team in tackles instead of our safeties. Manti Te'o is really maturing as a player. He had 13 total tackles on the day (6 of them solo). Carlo Calabrese, the meathead from New Jersey was second on the team with 10 tackles (3 solo).
  • I like Mike Mayock as the new analyst. He's a football junkie who knows his stuff and doesn't mince words. He's actually value-added on the broadcasts.
  • Our defensive line play has been a very pleasant surprise. Ian Williams, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Ethan Johnson are all playing really well.
  • Armando Allen was clearly the lead dog among running backs yesterday, and I have to think it was largely because he provided some leadership on the field while Dayne was out. He looked good, and Cierre Wood never really got it going.
  • Did anyone else wonder if Kyle Rudolph's hamstring was going to hold up on his 95-yard race to the end zone? Nice job by the training staff getting him back to full health.
This was another amazing edition to the Notre Dame - Michigan series. It is painful that we came out on the losing end. But I think the team took some giant strides forward in the cajones department yesterday. They fought hard for sixty minutes in the face of severe adversity, and darn near pulled off a miracle. There will be no shame losing to this Michigan team once the end of the season rolls around, because as long as D. Robinson stays healthy the Wolverines are going to win some games.

Before the start of the season I thought we'd beat Michigan and quite likely lose to Sparty. I would probably revise that now. I think the defense is stout enough to slow down MSU's power game, and as long as Dayne is healthy we're going to score some points.

Go Irish!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Gipper

I'm a Notre Dame alumnus, a huge Fighting Irish fan, and heck, I even write a Notre Dame football blog. I've seen Knute Rockne, All-American and Rudy. So I always figured I had a decent understanding of, and the proper amount of respect for, the history of Notre Dame football. But a recent coast-to-coast plane trip provided me the excuse to finally dig into The Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne, and the Dramatic Rise of Notre Dame Football, which has been sitting in my stack of books to read for a few weeks. I'm glad I packed it in my bag, because it was thoroughly enjoyable, extremely educational, and it made my trip across the country jammed into coach class much more bearable (not that I ever fly in other than coach).

The Gipper, written by Jack Cavanaugh and published by Skyhorse Publishing, focuses on the improbable and inscrutable life and career of George Gipp, but really covers the intertwined Notre Dame careers of Gipp and his famous coach, Knute Rockne. I was astounded by how much I didn't know about Rockne, Gipp, and college football in general in the early twentieth century.

Notre Dame was a very respectable football program before Knute Rockne became the coach. In the ten seasons prior to Knute being named head coach, Notre Dame's record under four different coaches was 66 wins, 7 losses, and 5 ties, for a winning percentage of .878, which is just shy of Rockne's .881 winning percentage over 13 seasons. Notre Dame had already burst onto the national scene with its historic win over Army at West Point in 1913, which featured quarterback Gus Dorais throwing the ball to end Knute Rockne in a historical display of passing proficiency which truly changed the way football was played from that day forward.

But it was the ascendancy of George Gipp as Notre Dame's star player and the promotion of Knute Rockne from assistant to head football coach that took Notre Dame football to the next level. When Rockne first became Notre Dame's coach, during Gipp's second varsity season in 1918, a typical crowd at a big game would be 5,000 fans at standing-room-only Cartier Field. In Rockne's final season, 1930, Notre Dame opened a new 54,400 seat stadium on campus and played Army at Soldier Field in Chicago in front of a crowd estimated at 110,000 fans. And, of course, as the fame of the Fighting Irish grew, so did the reputation of the University of Notre Dame which has sought since Rockne to achieve recognition and respect for its academic accomplishments while it nevertheless embraces the fame and the financial rewards that accrue to its football team.

The Gipper covers what is known of George Gipp's life growing up in Laurium, Michigan and all his exploits as a Notre Dame football player and sometime student. Ample coverage is given to Gipp's very sporadic academic pursuits as well as his expertise as a billiards player, card player, and gambler. And the author tries to sort the fact from the fiction of Rockne's "Win one for the Gipper" speech and Gipp's tragic death. As amazing as Gipp's statistics and performance as a football player are, I was even more amazed by how easily it apparently all came to him. He rarely practiced football, and normally reported for the season at the last minute, if not a week or two late. He was a talented baseball player who was actively sought after by multiple major league franchises and was the best pool shooter in Northern Indiana. He broke a leg near the end of his first varsity season, and scored a key touchdown in his final game, against Indiana, after suffering a dislocated shoulder and a broken collar bone.

In addition to providing a real education about two Notre Dame legends, The Gipper offers real insight into what college football was really like in its infancy. The lax academic standards, the Sunday pro games played under assumed names, players playing at West Point for four years after exhausting eligibility in All-American careers at other schools. The 1918 season that was almost entirely canceled due to a nationwide flu epidemic. Michigan's campaign to keep Notre Dame out of the Western Conference (forerunner to the Big Ten) and to blackball Notre Dame from playing Western Conference teams. All are covered here in an entertaining, easy to read presentation that fans of Notre Dame will love, and that all fans of college football history will appreciate.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Purdue Review and Muck Fichigan (IBG Week 2)

Her Loyal Sons hosts the Irish Blogger Gathering for this week. I've been on the road for work this week, putting in some long hours in the office, and my blogging has predictably suffered. Who the heck schedules any sort of actual work between September 1st and the Super Bowl anyway? It's anti-American in my view.

So I want to put down a few very quick thoughts on the Irish win over Purdue in Coach Brian Kelly's first game.

The Irish beat Purdue by 11 points, making the wise guys in Las Vegas look pretty darn wise. I had predicted a 14-point win, so I was pretty close. But the game was actually closer than the final score indicated. The Irish only out-gained Purdue by 36 yards (358 to 322). Each team had 20 first downs.

The things I saw that I really liked included an obviously improved ground game (Armando Allen was solid at 5.2 ypc, Cierre Wood was eye-popping at 8.3 ypc), and a generally solid bend-but-don't break defense that also managed to generate some pressure on the quarterback. Purdue's longest play from scrimmage was a 23-yard scramble by the quarterback. The longest run by a non-QB was 14 yards. The longest Boilermaker pass play was just 16 yards. The Irish sacked Marve 4 times. The final really good thing was a very solid special teams performance that contributed greatly to the Irish win in the field position battle. Notre Dame's ASFP (Average Starting Field Position) was it's own 33-yard line. Purdue's ASFP was the 22-yard line.

Dayne Crist's stat line was "fine." 19 of 26 for 205 yards, 1 TD and zero INT. I don't know how things go in your house, but in my house if my wife (or my daughter) tells me that something is "fine" that's not synonymous with "good." "Fine" is synonymous with "not at all fine, and you better figure it out and fix it mister or there's gonna be trouble later." It wasn't all on Dayne, as his receivers dropped several catchable balls. But Dayne had quite a case of Brady Quinn-itis going on, allowing his adrenaline (or something) to severely affect his accuracy. I am going to chalk it up to first-start jitters and hope there are no second-start jitters. Thank goodness for Kyle Rudolph who appears in the early going to be Crist's security blanket. Michael Floyd and Theo Riddick need to step it up against Michigan, and of course catch and hold onto the ball. Between the drops and three fumbles, the ball was on the ground way too often in game one. And a safety? Really? I trust that's the last we'll see of that.

All in all, a "good " start for the Irish in the Kelly era. Better than "fine," but not great.

Now a quick, but pithy contribution to this week's Irish Blogger Gathering

1) You've now seen Notre Dame Football: The Kelly Edition, Volume 1, Episode 1. Was it everything you thought it would be? Were characters missing from this episode that you were expecting to see featured? Did it strike you as a carbon-copy of Kelly's Cincinnati teams, or is there something discernible between the 2 programs beyond the colors of the uniforms?

It was not everything I thought it would be, as discussed above. I never felt like the passing game was truly "clicking", although the success in the running game was a bit of a surprise. I hope we'll see more from Theo Riddick this week. If he doesn't step up, opponents will shut down M. Floyd and dare you to find another way to beat them.

Was it a carbon copy of Cincinnati? Seriously? What Notre Dame fan has ever watched a Bearcats game? I haven't seen more than 5 minutes of Cincinnati highlights that I pulled off You Tube once. I only watch football that matters.

2) Pick one positive play, offense or defense, by the Irish from last Saturday that you feel serves as a bit of metaphorical foreshadowing for the 2010 Irish. Extra points if you can stretch the metaphor to fit Kelly's entire tenure at Notre Dame.

Man, you piled the words metaphorical, foreshadowing and tenure into this one question. I guess we know who the English major is.

Okay, here's your play. Score still tied 0-0 in the first quarter. The Irish have had the ball twice, punted twice. Armando Allen is the featured back and has had runs of 4, -2, 1, and 4 yards and one reception for no gain. Purdue is in Irish territory and driving, when Darrin Walls intercepts a Marve pass at the Irish 16. The Irish offense takes the field, with Cierre Wood at running back in relief of Armando Allen. On the first play of the drive, Cierre Wood takes the hand-off and slashes his way up field for 16 yards and a first down. He follows up with a 15-yard rush on the next play, and also adds another 15-yard run later in the drive. To cap the drive Armando Allen scores a TD on a nifty 22-yard drive that had a lot more energy than any of his carries before Wood entered the game.

Metaphorically, Cierre Wood's first carry was an injection of youth, energy, and talent into the the Irish offense that picked the team up and propelled it to a touchdown and, ultimately, to victory. This foreshadows the injection of youth, energy and talent in the person of Coach Kelly and the players he will bring into the Irish program.

3) Pick another play, offense or defense, by the Irish from last Saturday again, but this time, make it a negative play. Tell us how that play serves as a bit of metaphorical foreshadowing for the 2010 Irish. And again, bonus points for stretching it over Kelly's tenure.

Is it too easy to pick Michael Floyd's great catch and run, followed by his horrible fumble that cost the team a touchdown and put the outcome of the game in doubt?

That was a foreshadowing of the growing pains that we will see for much of 2010. We'll see flashes of brilliance, signs of great potential, and then we'll see flashes of failure, signs that we aren't ready to be champions yet. We saw all that on just that single painful play.

4) You know us, we're stat geeks. Give us a stat that we should be watching this season that will A) Tell us something enlightening about the 2009 Irish and/or B) Tell us something enlightening about the average Top-5 teams at the end of the 2009 season.

I love Average Starting Field Position (ASFP). It tells you a lot about the hidden yardage within a game. A team that takes care of the ball and makes few mistakes will generally win the AFSP battle, and they will usually win the game. Against Purdue, as noted above, the Irish won the ASFP battle by 11 yards (the 33 versus the 22 yard line). That's a fairly sizable margin, and that's why the Irish won by 11 points even though we barely out-gained the Boilers and both teams had 20 first downs. Turnovers is arguably the most important stat in football, and special teams play is the most under-appreciated. ASFP usually reflects a team's performance in both these important areas.

5) Notre Dame is currently a 4 point favorite in the coming Michigan game. You get 3 points for being at home. The AP poll actually ranks Michigan higher than ND. ND is 1-4-1 in the last 6 games with Michigan in which the Irish were favored and 9 and 6 in the last 15 games in which Michigan was favored. Does any of this worry you? Why or why not?

Let's see. Last November, with Irish QB Jimmy Clausen passing for 329 yards, UConn beat Notre Dame 33-30 in double OT in Notre Dame Stadium. One week ago, Michigan whipped UConn 30-10. So therefore Notre Dame is favored to beat Michigan this week by 4 behind a young QB making his second start.

Makes. No. Sense.

I'd prefer to be the underdog against UM any time. But I doubt that Coach Kelly is going to let the boys be over confident going into this game.

6) Last week, Frank at UHND put the Gathering on the spot with our predictions for the season. After week 1, are there any of those predictions that you'd like to alter? Any upon which you'd double down?

Clearly I was giving the Big East and Pittsburgh too much credit. I had Pitt ending the season as the highest-ranked Irish opponent, and I had their running back Dion Lewis winning the Heisman. Pitt has serious QB problems, which allowed Utah to just pack the box against them and stuff Dion Lewis. Lewis is in for a long season.

7) Describe in no fewer than 30 words why you hate Michigan.

Over the summer there was much discussion about a major re-alignment of college football, and many felt that Notre Dame could not survive as a relevant, national football power if it remained independent. So-called experts have repeatedly opined that it was obvious that Notre Dame should join the Big Ten. What most commentators fail to understand is that Notre Dame is independent for one reason, and one reason only: The University of Michigan, under a succession of football coaches and athletic directors, led a conspiracy fueled by anti-Catholic bigotry and jealousy which aimed to keep Notre Dame out of the Western Conference (forerunner of the Big Ten) and to discredit Notre Dame as a University and as a football program. Notre Dame became an independent and America's college football team playing coast-to-coast because the other universities in its own back yard refused to respect them enough to put them on the schedule. Given the long and inglorious history of despicable treatment of Notre Dame by the members of the Big Ten generally and Michigan particularly, Notre Dame should not EVER consider joining the Big Ten until the members of that conference issue a formal, public apology to Our Lady's University.

More on the ugly history of Michigan's treatment of Notre Dame can be found here:


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Burning Questions: IBG 2010, Week 1

Frank V. at UHND.com hosts this weeks Irish Blogger Gathering. If you are new to the IBG concept, it was the brainchild of Subway Domer, who thought it would be cool to virtually gather a group of Notre Dame football bloggers around the campfire each game week to get their reactions to a common set of questions or issues. Each week a new host gets to pose the questions, and his or her blog serves as the centralized collection spot for the links to each blogger's posted response to the questions for that week. As I said, UHND.com is hosting the IBG this week, so head over there once you're done here to see how all the other IBG members reacted to his very challenging set of questions. It's fun, and you might meet some interesting bloggers. Just as a program note: I will be proudly hosting the IBG during USC week this season. You won't want to miss that one!

Without further ado, here are this week's questions and my reactions.

Name one offensive player and one defensive player you are most excited to see in the new systems and why.

There are a lot different ways to go with this one. How can you not say "Dayne Crist"? Damn near the whole enterprise is on his shoulders. If he plays well in the system and stays healthy, the year is going to be a success. If he struggles or gets hurt, things are going to be a whole lot tougher. I wish I were deep enough to pretend that I was "excited" about an O-line player. But I'm shallower than that. I want to see Cierre Wood, who really impressed me in the Blue & Gold Game. I want to see if he really is as explosive as he looked in the spring. I want to see Theo Riddick at receiver. He might be the key to the spread this season. He needs to be really effective to make defenses pay when they try to shut down M. Floyd.

On defense the easy answer is "Manti." He was so hyped and showed such promise, that I want to see if he can maximize that ability and really control the game from the middle of the defense. But I also want to see if Ian Williams can be a dominant nose tackle and really control the middle of the line. If he can gum up the middle, that will go a long way in improving the Irish run defense. If he gets pushed around that means the defense is getting pushed around. Finally I want to see if the cornerbacks (Walls, Gray, Blanton & Wood) can be consistently "sticky" in blanketing opposing receivers and shutting down the passing game. Has the new coaching staff been able to teach them better "ball skills" (i.e., what to do when the ball is in the air, other than flailing about helplessly and watching the receiver catch it for a touchdown).

What’s one reason you think Brian Kelly is the right coach this time. What’s one reason you think he might not be?

Well I've written quite a bit on this in the past (It's okay if you want to go read it, I'll wait here for you), and all of what I have written has been very supportive of the new hire. Short version: He fits the model that has produced the most successful coaches at Notre Dame in the past:

For me, the preferred model is the one that has made Notre Dame most successful in the past. Hire a coach who has been a very successful college head coach elsewhere. Find a guy who has displayed a knack for over-achieving at a "lesser" program, of doing "more" with "less." Frank Leahy was very successful at Boston College before coming to Notre Dame. Ara Parseghian won at Northwestern. Dan Devine won at Arizona State and Missouri. Lou Holtz won at William & Mary, North Carolina State, and Arkansas.
What could, maybe be possible stumbling blocks? I'd have to reach, but maybe his spread scheme doesn't work as well against the elite teams Notre Dame regularly plays. Maybe the guys he recruits to fit his system don't match up well against the elite athletes at places like USC. Maybe the academic challenges don't allow the players to devote enough time to football. Maybe truly elite players don't want to come to ND to play in the spread. If you held a gun on me and made me name reasons why Kelly might not succeed, those might be the reasons. But I don't believe any of them.

A lot of people are labeling Purdue, Boston College, and Michigan State as toss up games. Considering Notre Dame beat all three of these teams during the disappointing 2009 season, do you consider these games toss-ups or games you expect Notre Dame to win?

Purdue is an easy win. Purdue usually makes a game of it against the Irish because they are overlooked most years sitting on the schedule as the "breather" game behind Michigan and Michigan State. They can't hide this year. They are the opener. and they will have the full attention of the Fighting Irish on Saturday.

Boston College and Michigan State will both be close. I think we get by B.C. in a close one, and I think we lose Dayne Crist's first road start in a night game at Sparty's house. I just think that we still will have trouble matching up physically against an old school power team, especially in a hostile environment. Michigan State is the only game on the schedule where I don't pick the Irish as the likely winner.

What’s one reason you think Notre Dame could shock the world and pull of another 1964-type season? What’s one reason you’re concerned we might see more of a 1997-type season?

(Please hold while OC Domer fires up google to learn what happened in 1964 and 1997).

Oh, okay. As I wrote just last night, I favor the Irish in 11 of 12 games, although I think the learning curve and general inexperience will most likely cost us a few games. But the 2009 Irish lost six games in 2009 by a combined 28 points. If this coaching staff is as good as we think it MIGHT be, are they worth 5 points per game? Can the 2010 Fighting Irish be, on average, 5 points per game better than in 2009? If they can be just that little bit better, they can have a 1964-like year. (1964 was Coach Ara Parseghian's first at ND. The Irish won their first 9 games before losing their only game of the year to USC. I hate those guys).

1997 was Boob Davie's first year as Head Coach at ND (or anywhere, for that matter). The Irish started the year ranked #11 in the country, but went 7-6 and finished unranked. (By the way, go check out that schedule. Very tough). We have young guys all over the two-deep, playing in a new system. If Dayne Crist is no Jimmy Clausen, if the learning curve is just a little steeper than we HOPE it is, then a 7-win season is very, very possible.

Which freshmen do you see contributing the most on the field this year (outside of TJ Jones – that’s too easy)?

Let me use my Nostradamus-like powers to peer into the two-deep and see who the Freshman are. Hold on a sec.

Okay, the answer is: Prince Shembo. The coaches clearly like him. When asked where they like him, Coach Kelly said "on the field." Plus, you have to love a guy named Prince. I also expect early enrollee Lo Wood to contribute. We are now scary thin at CB, so we need him to step up.

TJ Jones. I said it anyway.

Other than Dayne Crist (too easy again) who is the one player Notre Dame can least afford to lose to injury for any significant period of time?

I say Michael Floyd. He is the true #1 receiver. By being the Alpha play maker and drawing a lot of attention, he allows Theo Riddick and TJ Jones to be very effective #2 and #3 receivers. If Floyd goes down, who is the true #1? Last year we had Golden Tate to step up, and teams doubled him and still shut down everyone else. I don't know if we have a #2 of Tate's caliber. Maybe it's Riddick. Maybe it's Jones. Maybe not.

The other area where injuries would really hurt is at CB. If Walls or Gray get hurt we have a real problem. Blanton can step up from #3 corner to #2 corner. But who plays corner in the nickel then? Or the dime? We're looking at freshman then. Hi Lo!

2010 Season Predictions:
  • Notre Dame record: 9-3
  • Bowl game for Notre Dame with opponent: I really have no idea, and I won't insult you by pretending that I do.
  • Final ranking: 21
  • Opponent with the the highest final ranking: Pitt
  • Notre Dame’s offensive & defensive MVP: Michael Floyd & Harrison Smith
  • Best opponent offensive & defensive player: Ricky Dobbs (Navy QB) & Greg Jones (Mich. St. LB)
  • Best opposing coach: Mark Dantonio, MSU. Honorable Mention to Jim Harbaugh, Stanford
  • Game you are most excited to watch: Tie. Utah, because I'll be there. And USC, because it's USC.
  • Game you wouldn't mind watching on DVR: Western Michigan. Seriously? We're playing Western Michigan?
  • National Champion: Nebraska. Just because it would drive all those SEC people crazy.
  • Heisman Winner: Dion Lewis
  • Purdue game prediction: The Boilermakers won't know what hit them! (31-17, Irish).

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Brian Kelly Takes the Field: 2010 Expectations & Prognostications

The Notre Dame faithful have been waiting impatiently for the Brian Kelly edition of the Fighting Irish to take to the turf at Notre Dame Stadium, and now suddenly the first game of the 2010 season is bearing down on us like a runaway train and there doesn't seem to be enough time to brace for the inevitable collision. It's game week and there is much to do before kick-off on Saturday:

  • Write my "Good Luck Coach Kelly" blog post. (Done).
  • Prepare my pre-draft strategy and pre-rank players for the OC Domer Fantasy Football League draft. (Done).
  • Submit my weekly picks for Subway Domer's college football pick 'em pool. (Done).
  • Write my 2010 Fighting Irish season preview blog post (You're reading it).
  • Write this week's contribution to the Irish Blogger Gathering. (Pending).
  • Study NFL point spreads, pre-season college and NFL power rankings, and handicap three or four games for the contest against my Dad and my youngest brother. (Pending).
  • Pre-trial preparation on my day job. (Really cramping my style!)
With so much still to be accomplished, I'm afraid the OC Domer season preview will be fairly short and sweet. Let's dive in!

What do I expect from Coach Kelly and the Irish in 2010? We've got a new coaching staff, a radically different playbook, but mostly the same players (although there are some surprises in the two-deep as several starters in 2009 have been passed up by new faces). Clausen & Tate are gone, but they are replaced by some outstanding, if raw, talent.

In trying to come up with a rational way of looking at the coming season I start with a few core assumptions:
  1. Brian Kelly and his staff are at least as good at coaching today as they were at Cincinnati a year ago.
  2. The player talent at Notre Dame is at least as good as the talent at Cincinnati.
  3. The player talent at ND in 2010 is overall at least as good as it was in 2009.
  4. The significant changes in coaches and system, coupled with a new quarterback, will result in a learning curve of some unknown duration and will result in some bumps in the road.
Viewing 2009 and 2010 through the prism of these assumptions leads me to some observations. The Cincinnati Bearcats went 12-1 last season (losing only to the Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl). The Fighting Irish were 6-6 in 2009. According to Jeff Sagarin, Cincinnati had the 44th toughest FBS schedule in 2009, while Notre Dame's schedule was ranked #37. That's not a significant difference. How is it that a team with less talent than Notre Dame could win six more games in 2009 than the Irish did when they both played comparable schedules?

The answer, of course, is that the Bearcats were better coached. They were significantly better coached.

And now, the coaching staff that won 12 games in 2009 with Cincinnati's talent is at Notre Dame with its more talented players (See Assumption 2). If the more talented players are coached as well as the Bearcats were last year (Assumption 1), then the Fighting Irish should be at least as good as, if not better than, the Bearcats of 2009, eventually (See Assumption 4, Learning Curve). At the very least, better coaching in 2010 should make the Irish better than they were in 2009 with a similar overall level of talent.

On offense, I expect that ND will end up with similar overall numbers as we saw under Charlie Weis when the offense was clicking. In 2009 the Irish ranked #32 in scoring offense (30.1 ppg) and #8 in total offense (451.8 ypg). Cincinnati was ranked #4 in scoring offense (39.3 ppg) and #11 in total offense (447.5 ypg). That isn't a huge gap between the programs in 2009. The difference I expect to see is that with the new scheme the offense will be more consistently productive. Fewer three & out drives. Less reliance on just throwing the ball up in the air and hoping that Tate or Floyd will make a great play. Less coming from behind and hoping Jimmy can pull off a miracle. I expect the new offense will steadily and reliably move the chains (albeit with a high tempo) rather than operate in fits and starts as we often did in 2009. Although the final numbers might look similar, the new offense will do a better job of controlling the game and managing field position. The receivers are a talented group (Floyd, Riddick, Jones, Rudolph), and after watching him in the Blue & Gold game I expect Cierre Wood to be a real home run threat every time he gets a small gap to run through. Much will of course depend on Dayne Crist. But Coach Kelly has a proven track record of getting his QBs ready to play at a high level.

On defense I expect to see improvement, but not drama. The Irish defense was a severe disappointment in 2009. The Corwin Brown & Jon Tenuta tandem blew up in Charlie Weis' face to some degree. There seemed to be some talent there, and it flashed occasionally, but the season was marred by atrocious tackling, missed assignments, and players out of position. The Notre Dame defense was ranked #63 in scoring defense in '09 (25.9 ppg) and #86 in total defense (397.8 ypg). Really, really disappointing. The Bearcats were better on defense in 2009, but only by about 20 spots. They were #44 in scoring defense (23.1 ppg) and #67 in total defense (374 ypg). That isn't a dramatic difference, but it is significant. Those 20 spots of defensive ranking appear to have been the difference between winning and losing close games. Notre Dame lost 6 games in '09 by a combined total of just 28 points. They lost to Michigan by just 4, Navy by 2, Pitt by 5, and UConn by 3. Cincinnati didn't lose any close games, but won three real nail-biters: By 3 over West Virginia, by 2 over UConn, and by just 1 over Pitt. The new defensive scheme seems to emphasize assignment football and keeping the play in front of you. No big plays, no high-risk high-reward blitz schemes. The D will be bend-but-don't-break, with an emphasis on fundamentals like TACKLING. The big plays will come when the opponent makes a mistake with an ill-advised throw, or a missed block, or a fumble. Make the opponent earn every yard and every point, and figure that we can slow teams down enough that the offense can out-score 'em.

I think the biggest difference we'll see will be very subtle. So subtle that you really won't see it unless you're looking for it. That difference will be game management. Coach Weis' teams were plagued by "bad breaks" or "bad luck" that resulted in blown leads, or wasted possessions, or missed opportunities that ended up costing the Irish winnable games. The lessons that Brian Kelly has learned in 20 seasons as a head coach will enable him to minimize the gaffes and the bad breaks and to maximize and seize upon the opportunities. Coach Kelly and his staff have a handle on the myriad small details upon which the outcome of a game can turn. As noted above, the Cincinnati Bearcats won all the close ones in 2009. And they won all the close ones in 2008 as well. Coincidence? I think not.

So I see a dynamic, entertaining offense, with the ball getting quickly into the hands of numerous play makers who will be fun to watch. I see a scrappy, fundamentally sound defense that makes offenses earn every yard. And I see a team that will look well-coached and disciplined and which minimizes mental errors. How do all these things translate into Win and Losses?

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

Sept. 4: Purdue. We beat the Boilers in '08 and '09, so getting them in our place with all the excitement of a new coach and a new season should mean a win. Normally Purdue is somewhat overlooked on our schedule as the third or fourth game of the year, typically coming off tough games against Michigan and Michigan State. This usually means that Purdue is a little more focused and "up" for the games than the Irish are. Not this year. This year Purdue is batting lead-off, and all Irish eyes are on the Boilers. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 85%.

Sept. 11: Michigan. We lost a game that should have been an important win for Charlie Weis in the Big House last season. But we get the Wolverines at our place this time, and UM's off-season has been filled with tumult and distractions. Plus, they can't cheat by breaking NCAA practice rules this year. The new Irish coaches are very familiar with Dick Rod's spread offense, so we should defend it much better this year. The desire to atone for the 2009 debacle in Atrocity in Ann Arbor will get the Irish off to a 2-0 start. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 75%.

Sept 18: @Michigan State. Night game in East Lansing. First road start for Dayne Crist, very hostile environment. Possible let-down off the win over Michigan. I am not convinced yet that our guys can go toe-to-toe with a very physical Sparty squad, which will have played two cupcakes as warm-ups prior to the ND game. Prediction: Loss. Confidence: 45%. (i.e., 45% chance of Irish win).

Sept. 25: Stanford. Andrew Luck is a really nice quarterback. And Jim Harbaugh is an excellent young coach. But Toby Gerhart, who rushed for 205 yards in last year's game, is now a Minnesota Viking. Harbaugh isn't going to out-coach Kelly. Irish back in the friendly confines, smarting from a tough trip to East Lansing, get back on track against the Cardinal. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 65%.

Oct. 2: @Boston College. Back on the road. A tough game, but B.C. comes off a brutal contest against Virginia Tech. We beat 'em in '09, and this year we're better coached. So we beat 'em in 2010. But it's close. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 60%.

Oct. 9: Pittsburgh. Irish lost a tough one in Pittsburgh in '09. Panthers picked by many to win the Big East in '10. Coach Kelly and his Bearcats beat Pitt @ Pitt in a close one last year. Can he pull the same feat at home with better talent? Yes, he can. Barely. Maybe. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 55%.

Oct. 16: Western Michigan. I guess I appreciate them making the trip, but I have no idea how the Broncos got on the schedule. What a lousy home game for all the alumni who travel across the country to catch one game per season. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 95%.

Oct. 23: Navy (@ Meadowlands). I don't like the Irish in the Meadowlands. But here is where the coaching experience, the up-tempo practices, the emphasis on speed of play and fundamentals pays off. No more nail-biters against the middies. It won't be a blow-out, but it'll be over by early in the 4th quarter. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 70%.

Oct. 30: Tulsa. Another really unusual opponent, the Golden Hurricane come into Notre Dame Stadium off a bye week. 5-7 in 2009 against a weak schedule, Tulsa nonetheless can be a dangerous team. As long as we come to play we'll be fine. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 80%.

Nov. 6: -BYE-

Nov. 13: Utah. An excellent home game! And the OC Domer clan will be in the house. Utah is a highly regarded squad that will be looking to make a name for itself on national T.V. The Utes run a spread offense, which won't confuse many Irish defenders who see it every day in practice. Notre Dame has an extra week to prepare for this one, while the Utes are on the road after playing a tough game against TCU. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 70%.

Nov. 20: Army (@ Yankee Stadium). Really cool game to see if you can make it. Lot's of historical overtones for the old school football fan. A typically hard-nosed, scrappy military academy team, but Army lacks the talent to hang with the Irish. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 85%.

Nov. 27: @ USC. Thanksgiving weekend, our daughter is bringing a bunch of her Notre Dame friends home for this game. USC is getting a lot of love in 2010, despite the bitch-slap they got from the NCAA. Notre Dame only lost to USC by 7 in 2009. We're going to be better in 2010 than we were in 2009. Is USC really going to be better than last season? I'm not convinced. This is a statement game for Coach Kelly. His legacy will begin on the floor of the Coliseum. Much like Charlie Weis' first game against the unstoppable Trojans in 2005, this will be an instant classic. Only this time the good guys win. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 60%.

Conclusion: An 11-1 first season for Coach Kelly? Possible, but not likely. Remember Assumption #4, above. There will be growing pains. Using my confidence factors for the twelve games we compute a more reasonable expected win total:

.85 + .75 + .45 + .65 + .60 + .55 + .95 + .70 + .80 + .70 + .85 + .60 = 8.45 wins

So, if we use my estimation of the Irish chances of winning each of their twelve games, we get an expected win total between 8 and 9. I'd really love to see 10 wins. But if we win 8 or 9 and see real progress and growth in year one of the Kelly era, I could live with that. Especially if we beat USC and avoid any really awful Syracuse and Navy type losses.

What are your predictions for the 2010 Irish?