Saturday, September 09, 2006

Notre Dame 41 Penn State 3 (+14 in garbage time)

There's nothing like Notre Dame on gameday.

What a day. After last week's shaky performance at the unfriendly confines of Bobby Dodd Stadium, the Irish, despite beating a solid Georgia Tech team, dropped three spots in the polls. They were passed by teams that posted blowouts of Mississippi State (who hasn't won more than 3 games in a season since 2000) and Arkansas (coming off back-to-back losing seasons). Notre Dame, however, played a game against an opponent that has gone to 9 straight bowl games. Way to reward a team for scheduling a real opponent, rather than a stat-padding patsy.

This week, Notre Dame will get no credit for blowing out the Nittany Lions, who you will here this week were overrated and rebuilding. Their impressive win will be explained away by the pundits as not that impressive.

The pundits are wrong. Georgia Tech and Penn State are damn fine football teams, and Notre Dame is one of the most complete teams in the country. Just wait until next week, when we knock Michigan out of the national title hunt for the fourth time in the last five years.

Some reflections on the day:

Brady Quinn had better numbers today, tossing 3 touchdowns. However, Brady's value as a player goes far beyond simple statistics. He engineers drives for this team, doing whatever it takes to be successful. He is far more mobile than people expect - I remember one play today where he simply flat outran one of Penn State's vaunted linebackers.

Samardzija is starting to get the hang of beating the double coverage he can expect to face for much of the year.

John Carlson (TE) is good. Real good.

This defense is pretty good. They struggle sometimes against the run, but they are tough, and they never give up on a play. Chinedum Ndukwe, in particular, deserves a lot of credit for the improvements he has made since last year. At least 3 times that I noticed from the stands, Ndukwe got a great read on the quarterback and got to the ball before the receiver (including his interception, which I called the moment Morelli let go of the ball.

Our special teams may not be as bad as I feared. In fact, they may be the strength of this team by year's end. Geoff Price is arguably the best punter in the country. Gioia is still a sub-par kicker, but is not as incompetent as I feared. Our return teams are scary for opponents, and our coverage teams are superb. Oh, and the upgrade in athleticism to this team is starting to rear its head on special teams, where young players are making big plays.

Charlie Weis has big brass balls that clang when he walks. Exhibit 1: the fake punt.

JoePa is a classless tool. When you are losing 41-10 with less than 2 minutes to go, passing the ball, calling timeouts and kicking onsides against the opponent's second team is unsportsmanlike. Take your ass-whuppin' like a man.

Notre Dame is cool again. Exhibit 1: running into uber-cool rock star Scott Weiland (currently the lead singer of Velvet Revolver, formerly lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots) at Rocco's after the game, decked out in Notre Dame regalia. (pictured at right, with guitarist Slash). I'm a bit starstruck - I've never met anyone famous before.


A big thanks to Justin and Jessica Stolte, who (as usual) put together a great tailgate for this weekend. I love you guys!

Friday, September 08, 2006

St. Joseph's High School Indians 15, Marian High School Knights 3

In an epic battle between my alma mater, South Bend St. Joseph's, and their archrival Marian, my Indians emerged victorious in a low-scoring defensive struggle.

My 3rd ranked Indians are now 4-0 to start the season.

Notable alums of St. Joseph's High School:

The creator of Blue's Clues
A member of Umphrey's McGee
My classmate, and Former Notre Dame walk-on Charles Hedman:

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Snow Bowl

The date was November 14, 1992, and the long-standing rivalry between Notre Dame and Penn State renewed itself on the frozen tundra of Notre Dame Stadium, in the game that has become immortalized throughout history as "The Snow Bowl." Notre Dame and Penn State, in a driving snowstorm, battled through a defensive struggle for most of four quarters, with the Irish trailing much of the game, and putting together an incredible goal-line stand in the fourth quarter to set up what was one of the greatest moments in Notre Dame history. Trailing the Nittany Lions by a score of 16-9, the Irish had driven the ball down into the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, and were facing a make-or-break opportunity to pull out a legendary win. The following is a video I unearthed of the couple of minutes that would go down in Notre Dame lore: (please be patient, the video is 3:26) For a longer highlight video, go here.

Notre Dame would hold off Penn State's last second Hail-Mary attempt, and go on to win the game.

In the stands that day stood my father. I clearly remember him telling me later that night that he got to rush the field after the game, and stood on the exact spot where Jerome Bettis had caught the touchdown pass. He was elated, and his passion for the game was contagious; he had instilled in me by then, as a young and impressionable 12-year old boy, a passion for Notre Dame football that burns as brightly today as it ever has.

Three days later, my father passed away from a heart attack at the tender age of 41.

Nearly 15 years later, Notre Dame is once again preparing to welcome the Nittany Lions into Notre Dame Stadium, in a battle between two teams who have recently returned to their glorious past after a long decade of struggles.

In the immortal words of former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz, Notre Dame "means family. Where people care about you. Not just because you win or because things go well, but they genuinely care."

Holtz went on to say that "in 1986, people were saying that Notre Dame would never win again." Today, like in 1988, the Notre Dame faithful have weathered the storms, always believing that someday soon the Irish would return to glory, ignoring naysayers, believing in the commitment to excellence that has defined Notre Dame football over the past century.

My father's memory has been a driving force in my life, and his belief in me and in what I could achieve has led me to where I am today, attending the University of Notre Dame. Lou made the point to his players that they represent Notre Dame, everyone that has come before them, and everyone that has come after. And that means not only the players and the coaches, but also the students and alumni, the staff, and even the fans like my father. He didn't attend Notre Dame, he didn't play football for the Fightin' Irish, or work at the university. He was simply a man who understood and believed in the Notre Dame spirit. And as these players take the field, they will be representing everything that is Notre Dame, and will put everything they have into fighting for these ideals.

And all we have to do is believe. Believe like the men traveling the country with Rockne after being shunned by the Michigans of the world. Believe like the men who won National Championships for Leahy when they weren't too busy saving the world from the oppression of the Nazis. Believe like the men who won under Ara and Lou after the world had relegated the Irish to the dustbin of history. Believe like my father in 1992, and like I believe today in the leadership of Coach Weis.

You gotta believe.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

This picture is a microcosm of this game. Reggie Ball had delivered a dart to Calvin Johnson, who appeared to catch it in stride. At the exact right moment, Chinedum Ndukwe drilled Johnson, separating him from the ball. It was (incorrectly, in my opinion) ruled an incomplete pass.

This game, after a restful night and about an hour on the blogosphere, was just plain ugly. Notre Dame did just enough to pull out the win, but should never have been in that position to begin with. The officiating was sloppy, and our placekicking was atrocious.

If I read another post on NDNation that says that they were "close misses" I'm going to break something. They were misses. Misses on kicks that any decent kicker should hit convincingly about 75% of the time, and when they miss it should be an obvious error. This isn't putting, where getting it close is OK.
Gioia is more consistent because he always kicks the ball in the vicinity of the goalposts. Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don't. But whether or not they go through the uprights has nothing to do with Gioia's mechanics. He just kicks the ball up into the air in front of him, lofting it high enough so that if he gets lucky, the ball will go through the middle.
Burkhart kicks the ball all over the place. When he hits the ball correctly, it goes through the uprights every time. When he goofs, the ball goes veering wildly off course. He needs to develop his mechanics and consistency, but at least the result of his kicks is a function of whether he kicks the ball correctly. With Gioia, it is completely random, and no amount of fiddling with his mechanics will fix it.

Bench Gioia, and bring on the freshman.

Gameday wrapup

Notre Dame 14
Georgia Tech 10

Man, was I wrong. I expected the Irish to come out of the gates firing on all cylinders, tearing up the field with the same explosive offense we saw all last year. However, contrary to many of the pundits' expectations, this was a defensive battle.

The start of the game went according to plan. George West, the true freshman, had a huge return of the opening kickoff, giving Brady and Co. great field position to start the game. A quick first down, and then an explosive play by Jeff Samardzija made it look like the offense was going to pick up where it left off. However, on that explosive play, the refs called Rhema McKnight with a phantom holding play. I've watched it in slow motion several times, and there was nothing illegal about the block. Rhema hit the defender squarely, just above the belt, and drove him into the ground. He didn't hold or grab anything. But, the refs called a holding penalty, and the momentum shifted, deflating the Irish offense. It seemed to shake the team's confidence, and killed a promising first drive. I'm condfident that, had that play stood, the game would have been much closer to the score I predicted. But, as Brady said in his post-game interview, "Calls are calls, and you just have to deal with them."

The Irish offense looked absoultely anemic for much of the first half, and it took them awhile to regain their composure and get their rhythm back. A slew of procedure penalties plagued the rest of that drive, and the next several drives as well. Brady seemed rattled by Tech's blitz-happy defense, and even had an uncharacteristic intentional grounding called against him, when he tried to throw the ball at the ground at Walker's feet, but missed badly.

I don't like complaining about referees, but I was disappointed in today's refs. Not because I felt Notre Dame got jobbed on penalties (although the Irish were more heavily penalized), but more because I felt that the refs had no control of the game, and didn't have any consistency in their calls. There were mystery incompletions and unneccesary roughness non-calls for both teams throughout the game. I hope that these refs were just suffering from first-game jitters, but they just didn't seem to be very good.

The Irish defense gave up a handful of first downs on Tech's first few drives of the game, but looked fairly solid throughout the game. Tech had one very good drive where our defense looked as bad as the so-called experts predicted. Johnson was an All-American in the first half, and catching a long 29-yard pass down the sidelines to the Notre Dame 3-yard line before being knocked out by Zbikowski. The very next play, Johnson showed what makes him great, shielding Mike Richardson with his body and catching a short touchdown to put Tech ahead 7-0.

Brady and the offense did move the ball in the first half, but kicker Carl Gioia, who will be the bane of my existence for much of this season, missed his first of two field goals at the beginning of the 2nd quarter. It was a fairly straightforward 35-yard kick. And he missed it badly. If Gioia were a better kicker, he would have made both relatively easy kicks he attempted in the game, which would have put the Irish comfortably ahead at the end of the game, saving me a near-heart attack at the end of regulation.

The next drive was second worst of the game. I was mystified by some of the formations that Coach Minter called, as he appeared to have Darrin Walls, the true freshman corner and our nickel (5th) defensive back, matched up in single coverage with All-American Calvin Johnson for much of the first half. Walls gave up one big play to Johnson on that drive, but his quickness and fundamentals saved what could have been a game-changing touchdown with about 7:00 remaining in the 2nd quarter. The defense stiffened after the big gain, and Tech had to settle for a field goal on that drive, putting them ahead 10-0.

I have to admit, that at this point in the game, I was having flashbacks, as our team looked absolutely Willingham-esque. The Irish player of the game at this point was Geoff Price, our punter, who looked like a stud out there, booting an impressive 61-yarder to keep Notre Dame in this game.

The very next possession, the Irish took the ball at the 20-yard line after a touchback, with about four and a half minutes to go in the game. Finally, our offense settled down and looked like I expect them to for the rest of the season. A methodical, measured drive that chewed the clock down to 11 seconds before Brady Quinn executed the quarterback draw to perfection, scoring to bring the Irish within 3 going into halftime.

Which brings me to another point I'd like to make. Brady, often hailed as the prototypical drop-back quarterback, has some wheels. If he wasn't such a great passer, willing to stand in the pocket and take a hit, he would be a better runner than Drew Stanton, a so-called mobile quarterback. I can't remember the last time Brady tucked the ball and didn't get a first down or touchdown when he needed to. The difference between Brady and Stanton is that when Brady gets free, he is looking to get a first down and then get down without getting smacked, trusting in his offense to get the touchdown eventually. Stanton is looking to run for a touchdown every time he gets a chance.

The Irish came out of the blocks in the second half, giving up only one first down before forcing the Yellow Jackets to punt. The Irish started off a little rusty on offense, with a false start on Bob Morton before their first snap. Rhema McKnight started to impose himself on Tech's defense, which seemed to be focusing only on neutralizing Samardzija. The biggest difference on this drive was that the Irish offensive line started blocking, opening lanes for Darius and giving Quinn enough time to find an open receiver. Darius gave us a scare with what appeared to be a stinger on a dirty blow by K. Hall of Tech, who speared Darius in the head after he was already down. But McKnight continued to impress, and Darius came right back into the game after his stinger to continue chewing up ground behind the improved O-line. Samardzija did have one highlight catch on this drive, catching a quick screen and using a stiff-arm to grab a first down.

The Tech fans lost their damn minds after Phillip Wheeler got called for a helmet-to-helmet blow on a scrambling Quinn. The Irish were called with two penalties, one holding penalty on the very next play, and a block in the back that negated a Walker touchdown (a good call by the refs). But Darius quickly responded with a trademark 13-yard sweep for a touchdown to give the Irish their first lead of the game, and their second straight touchdown.

The defense continued their bend-don't-break defense, allowing first downs but stiffening up before Tech could mount any serious scoring threats. Most impressive for this defense, who was called out for poor secondary play, was that they shut down Johnson in the second half. They switched their coverage to place a starting corner on Johnson, with a safety who had over the top responsibility, forcing Reggie Ball to use his other weapons to win the game.

The next offensive drive for the Irish looked like it would be more of the same for the Irish, with Rhema McKnight catching a spectacular 45-yard pass to get the Irish down to the 21-yard line just before the 3rd quarter ended. Weis got more conservative inside the 20-yard, line, running Walker ineffectively on 1st and 2nd down. On 3rd down, Rhema McKnight had his biggest mistake of the game, dropping a bullet that hit him right in the chest, which would have given the Irish a first down. Gioia then came on and missed his 2nd kick, leaving the margin at 4, when the Irish really should have been up by at least 10 at that point.

Georgia Tech then tried to give us a scare. They had a moment of life in the next drive, when the refs ruled that Calvin Johnson had caught a big third down pass, breathing life into the Yellow Jackets. The officials reviewed the play, however, and made the correct call, negating the catch. The Yellow Jackets had to punt with 12:56 remaining. The Irish burned 3 minutes before punting back to Tech. Then, it looked like Reggie Ball was going to try and recreate Vince Young's Rose Bowl heroics, scrambling a couple of times for 20+ yards. But, as soon as the Yellow Jackets entered Notre Dame territory, the Notre Dame team showed how much their offseason conditioning work would pay off. They started getting significant pressure into the backfield, forcing an incomplete pass with their pressure on 1st down, and on 2nd down the athletic and speedy Travis Thomas sacked Reggie Ball. On third down, Maurice Crum took his turn at sacking Ball. This was the third sack of Reggie Ball, an impressive feat against an experienced offensive line that gave up only 10 sacks all of last year. Tech punted, hoping to get one more shot at the Irish on offense.

But again, the Irish offseason conditioning paid off. Despite being backed up inside the 5 yard line with 5:13 left, the Irish started imposing their will on the Tech defense. Walker rushed for 19 yards on the first play, giving the Irish breathing room. Walker then ran for 4 yards on first down. He ran for 25 yards on second down, but the play was called back for a hold that occurred after Darius had already broken through into the secondary. The Irish wouldn't be denied, however. Darius left the game, and Travis Thomas stepped in, rushing for 3 yards. On the only pass of the drive, Brady had all day to find Rhema McKnight for a 19-yard gain and a crucial first down. The Yellow Jackets stiffened up a little, holding the Irish to runs of 6, 1, and 2 yards, leaving the Irish at 4th and a long 1 with 1:10 on the clock, and Georgia Tech out of timeouts. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Coach Weis chose the road less traveled, and went for the win, calling on the Heisman candidate to salt away the game. Quinn took the ball and dove forward two yards, giving the Irish the first down, and a couple of kneeldowns later, the Irish had survived a brutal test in Atlanta.

What I learned:

Carl Gioia sucks, and has no excuses for sucking - he is a senior. I say we should put freshman Ryan Burkhart in. If we are going to miss kicks, we should at least be giving experience to a player with a good leg that can learn to deal with adversity and handle pressure situations for next year and into the future. Gioia is useless.

Geoff Price must have payed real close attention to Hunter Smith in the offseason. He is really booming punts out there, and almost single handedly kept us in the game during the first half.

The offseason simplification of the kick return scheme really paid off. Oh, and that West guy has some moves.

Brady Quinn is human, and needs to adjust to the Heisman hype and stop trying to win the Heisman on every pass. He sailed a lot of balls high and long in situations where we could have made big plays or scored touchdowns if he had placed the ball on target. I'm confident he'll come down to earth next week and stop pressing so hard.

This defense isn't as bad as its cracked up to be. It will need to improve drastically in run defense before Michigan comes a-calling, but the pass defense will be ok.

Darius is Darius and Brady is Brady when the offensive line remembers to block.

Strength & Conditioning Coach Ruben Mendoza is the MVP of the team right now, as the team simply dominated the Yellow Jackets physically late in the game.

Notre Dame deserves its ranking, and will be in the National Title hunt if it can get past Michigan's Mike Hart.

In other news...

#14 Michigan W, 27-7 over Vanderbilt
Michigan's Mike Hart looks REALLY good. Not quite as good as Adrian Peterson, but darn close. We will be tested defensively against Michigan in two weeks. Michigan's defense will be tested by us in two weeks as well. This is shaping up to be the game of the year for the Irish.

Purdue W, 60-35 over Indiana State
Purdue's offense can really score points in bunches. Against bottom feeders.

#6 Southern California W, 50-14 over Arkansas
USC's offense can really score points in bunches. Against pretty much anybody.

Stanford L, 48-10 to #21 Oregon
Not so good. Oregon likes to pass the ball. Brady Quinn likes to pass the ball. Not good news for Stanford. Walt Harris has a long road ahead. Good news for Stanford: they have a pretty new stadium.

UCLA W, 31-10 over Utah.
Not so bad. The Utes may be slipping back down to reality following the departure of Urban Meyer, but they still have some impressive talent. Way better than Idaho.

Michigan State W, 27-17 over Idaho
Overrated. Come on, they barely beat Idaho. I forgot Idaho even had a football team.

#19 Penn State W, 34-16 over Akron
Overrated. But not by much - Penn State will fall back into the middle of the pack in the Big 10 this year.

Everybody else on Notre Dame's schedule
Why don't we save ourselves some jet fuel, time, and injuries and pencil in the W now?