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.