Friday, October 27, 2006

United States Naval Academy v. University of Notre Dame

[Because I don't have time to draft a new post on the Naval Academy this week, I'm reposting last year's comments on the history of the game - enjoy.]

This game has always been my favorite game to attend. Notre Dame is all but guaranteed to win, but the game is always hard-fought for 60 minutes and no matter the outcome, game day is imbued with a higher level of respect between opponents than any other games the Irish play.

The service academies always demand a certain level of respect, considering that the men that take that field are first soldiers, then students, and finally athletes.

But Notre Dame - Navy is more. For Notre Dame and Navy, this game has a much deeper historic meaning than other games.

From Navy's game notes for this week:
"Notre Dame and Navy first met on the football field in 1927, while Knute Rockne was the Irish head coach. But to truly understand the Notre Dame-Navy series requires a trip back to the 1940s, when Frank Leahy had the Irish on top of the football world.
"Leahy coached the Irish to a national championship in 1943, his third year as head coach, just before enlisting with the Navy to serve in World War II. Following the war, Leahy and the Irish picked up right where they had left off, going four entire seasons without a loss and claiming national championships in 1946, 1947 and 1949.
"But World War II cost Notre Dame a lot more than its talented head coach and a slew of players (including 1943 Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli). It virtually wiped out the small, all-male school. The University was having terrible financial problems, and as an all-male school with so many young men being drafted and going off to war, there was almost nobody left to attend the University.
"As part of the war effort, the Navy needed more officers than the Naval Academy was able to produce in a short period of time. So a decision was made to utilize a number of institutions across the nation in which young men would attend college and receive training to become officers. Notre Dame became the site for one such program. Not only did Notre Dame now have a much-needed influx of students preparing to become Naval officers, but the Navy also built a number of facilities on campus that served Notre Dame for years. It's safe to say that if it wasn't for the Navy and the Naval Academy, Notre Dame may not exist today."

Legend has it that, pursuant to the Naval Academy's assistance during World War II, Coach Frank Leahy and President John Cavanaugh agreed to play Navy in football any time they wanted, and sealed the deal with a handshake.

Prior to that agreement, Notre Dame had played Navy every year since 1927, and have continued ever since. The agreement is not legally binding, but the integrity of both schools is in many ways a more enduring bond than any contract.

The stark reality on the football field, however, is that Navy cannot compete with Notre Dame in the current college football landscape. The last time Navy beat the Irish was also the last time Navy fielded a Heisman trophy winner in Roger Staubach. The Naval Academy is simply not equipped to compete with the upper level competition in Division I-A, especially with the height/weight limits placed on the service academies. [END of last year's posting]

The ND-Navy game last year also was one of the most moving experiences I've experienced at Notre Dame stadium. After the game, Coach Weis directed the team to walk over and stand behind the Navy team at the end of the game - the entire stadium fell absolutely silent as the Naval band played "Navy Blue and Gold," the alma mater of the Naval Academy. The level of respect that this team has for the service academies is apparent not just during this kind of outward display, but also in the way the players treat each other on the field. Tom Zbikowski confirmed earlier this week that there is no trash-talking on the field when they play Navy. They play to win, but the understanding that these young men will not be playing football or taking cushy jobs, but will instead be laying their lives down for our protection, is displayed in things like a helping hand after the play, or a quick tap on the helmet congratulating the opponent after a good play.

Go Irish
Beat Navy

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Recruiting news

Notre Dame made a push this weekend to lure Ryan Miller, one of the nation's top offensive linemen, away from his home state of Colorado. The official recruiting sites have said for a while now that this recruit was Colorado's to lose. This weekend, Coach Weis let Sam Young, last year's top offensive line recruit in the country and a true freshman starter, host the young recruit. Sam took Miller around campus and showed him all of the perks of attending the University of Notre Dame. Hanging out with a freshman starter who, by the time he graduates, will almost certainly be a first round draft pick can't hurt Notre Dame's chances for Miller. I'm pretty sure the kid was having a good time in the Bend this weekend, and although he is more comfortable with Colorado, where he is their #1 target, I'd be surprised if his visit this weekend doesn't give him pause. He got to hang out with a bunch of potential first (or near first) round draft picks in the junior and senior classes (Quinn, Samardzija, Abiamiri, Harris, Zbikowski, McKnight, Walker, Carlson). And that's just based on the improvement Weis has made in their games over the past two years. He's got to think about the fact that Weis has already shown his ability to develop NFL talent (Exhibit 1: Anthony Fasano).
If he really wants to do what is best for him, he should compare the number of NFL draft picks on the Colorado team to the number of first rounders at Notre Dame. If this kid picks Colorado, he'll be missing a huge opportunity.

Speaking of one-on-one battles, Notre Dame has several recruiting battles with schools that are really suffering right now. Of course there is Miller, who is choosing between ND and Colorado, but there is also Arrelious Benn, who is choosing between ND and Illinois, and Greg Little, who is choosing between ND and North Carolina.

I'm going out on a limb and guessing that Little might come to town during the Notre Dame - North Carolina game. And after Notre Dame stomps all over North Carolina on the field, Little will come to realize that Notre Dame is someplace special, and his best chance to play on Sundays.

Benn has already visited Notre Dame, and still seems to stubbornly be considering Illinois. Zook has always been a great recruiter, and he went after Benn's high school quarterback to improve his chances of landing Benn. However, the longer that Benn thinks about this decision, the more likely I think it is that he will pick ND. He can go play for an Illinois team whose highlight of each year is winning one Big Ten game, or for a Notre Dame team who is disappointed when they don't win ALL of their games, not just the ones against the Big Ten.

The only reason I can see why these kids would choose their in-state school over the Irish is that they think they would be the big man on campus. If they come to Notre Dame, they will be one in a long list of highly touted recruits at Notre Dame. However, the way Notre Dame is recruiting and winning, it isn't unreasonable to think that, after four years under Weis, almost every player that earns a starting position at the skill positions or offensive line will be drafted.

However, as a starting receiver for Illinois or North Carolina, or lineman at Colorado, the chances of getting drafted aren't as high. Illinois hasn't had a reciever drafted high since 1990. North Carolina hasn't since 1994. For Notre Dame you have to go all the way back to last year, when Maurice Stovall was taken in the 2nd round. Colorado is a little better than Illinois and North Carolina, with a first-round O-line pick back in 1997. Until you consider that Notre Dame had first rounders in 1999 and 2003.

But the past isn't the only barometer. The Irish have a projected first-round O-lineman THIS year in Ryan Harris. And a first round receiver THIS year in Jeff Samardzija. Even our second receiver will probably be picked in the first couple of rounds. In fact, Notre Dame has 4 players in Mel Kiper's first round projections. Illinois, Colorado, and North Carolina combine for an impressive zero players projected in the first round this year.

And while playing in the NFL isn't the only reason to choose a school, none of those schools compare favorably to Notre Dame in academics. Or facilities. Or championship aspirations. Or alumni support for after graduation.

For a non-elite player, I can understand wanting to go to one of these schools. Or, if there is another couple of elite players you get to play with, maybe you can make a run at one of these schools. But if you are truly an elite player, there are perhaps a half-dozen schools you should really consider if you want to reach the fullness of your potential. And Colorado, Illinois, and North Carolina aren't them. (except maybe in basketball...)

Monday, October 23, 2006

How to win the Heisman

The days of the Heisman trophy going to the greatest player in college football are long gone. It has now become a trifling trophy that goes to the star of the #1 team in the country as it stands in November. It has nothing to do with statistics, impressive feats, and heroics (unless said heroics occur against Notre Dame - see Carson Palmer). It is about being the least mistake-prone offensive star on the #1 team long before the championship is being decided.

In 2005, did Reggie Bush deserve the trophy? Absolutely. He happened to be the greatest player, and also be on the #1 team. He also had a huge day against Notre Dame. As a result of this confluence of events, he received the highest percentage of the vote in history.

However, can you really say that Matt Leinart, Jason White, Carson Palmer, and Eric Crouch were the best players (at any position) in the country?

In 2004, Adrian Peterson was the best player in the country, followed by Alex Smith. However, underclassmen and players from non-BCS conferences are not going to win the Heisman. Then, Jason White was probably the third best player, and although he didn't deserve the trophy the year before, he earned it this year with the best statistical performance of any quarterback. He split the vote with Peterson, and Leinart beat up on a Willingham-coached Notre Dame team on national TV and was the QB for the #1 team, and so he got the Heisman.

In 2003, Jason White took the trophy home, despite a miserable showing in the final game of the season. You see, Heisman voters had already handed in their ballots, and the best player in the country, Larry Fitzgerald, won convincingly if you only count the ballots that came in after the Kansas-Oklahoma game. But, because Heisman voters vote so early, the best player lost out.

In 2002, the QB bias was at its most glaring, as Carson Palmer catapulted himself into the lead by beating the Irish. However, that almost wasn't enough to pass Brad Banks of Iowa, the best QB in the nation that year. However, the best player at any position that year was clearly Larry Johnson, but because he didn't play defense for the underperforming Nittany Lions, he wasn't given any shot at the Heisman trophy.

In 2001, only quarterbacks were in the running for the award, but again the best player did not win. Rex Grossman stood head and shoulders above the other quarterbacks. Again, a quarterback won despite an embarasssing performance at the end of the season, with Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch winning over the sophomore Grossman.

So why am I giving this little history lesson on the Heisman? Because the fraud that has become the Heisman trophy will again choose someone other than the best player this year.

Now, Brady Quinn has a long way to go to prove that he is the best player in the nation. However, his performance against Michigan State in the driving rain, willing his team to the win, and the last minute win-at-all-costs drive against one of the best defenses in the country this week would have made him the prohibitive favorite to win the award in the pre-ESPN era. Instead, Troy Smith, who has done absolutely nothing note-worthy this year, besides being on the #1 team in the country, has been prematurely crowned the Heisman winner.

Against common opponents, the numbers are clearly in favor of Quinn for both games:
Quinn: 25/36 (69.4% comp.) 287 yds, 3 TDs, 0 INTs
Smith: 12/22 (54.5% comp.) 115 yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs
Quinn: 20/36 (55.6% comp.) 319 yds, 5 TD, 1 INT
Smith: 15/22 (68.2% comp.) 234 yds, 2 TD, 0 INTs

What is really telling is that while many people will say that comparing numbers isn't fair because of Smith's athleticism and ability to run. However, Quinn has 1 rushing TD this year, Smith has none. As a matter of fact, I'm looking forward to the NFL combine this year, as I expect Quinn to impress NFL scouts with his mobility - I've watched him easily outrun some of the best linebackers in the country the past two years. Quinn doesn't get recognized for his mobility because he is so confident in his arm, and I would argue that he is on equal footing in terms of pure athleticism with Troy Smith.

Am I biased? Absolutely. I bleed Blue and Gold. But I never waxed poetic about Ron Powlus or Jarious Jackson. However I believe that, as a total package (accuracy, strength, toughness, agility, intangibles) Brady Quinn is the best prototypical NFL quarterback to come out of college since Peyton Manning. And he might even be better.

And even with all of that, he'll not win the Heisman. And that is horse$#(%.