Tuesday, September 15, 2009

IBG: Sparty Week

Sarah over at Bad Trade has posted her questions for this week's edition of Irish Blogger Gathering. Like much of Notre Dame Nation, I still haven't gotten the bitter taste of defeat out of my mouth, but I'll do my best to move on and try to focus on this week's opponent - the classless clowns of Michigan State.

1. Still trying to get the taste of last weekend's game out of my mouth, so let's start with something fun. With Sparty on its way into South Bend, give me your favorite memory of the ND-MSU series. I don't care what it is: John L. Smith losing it, the image of MSU guarding against nothing, an actual game memory, whatever.

Favorite memory implies something I actually liked, so I'm going to go with the comeback in the monsoon at Spartan Stadium. I was watching that game at my buddy Justin's house, and I remember we were just completely disgusted with the team and had all but thrown in the towel by the end of the third quarter. I remember vividly seeing the wind reverse direction and the torrential rain begin during the break betweeen quarters, and I wondered if even God himself had given up on Notre Dame football.

And then the magic began.

Samardzija touchdown on 4th and 5. The sick strip by Ndukwe. An amazing catch by Rhema McKnight on the fade route. Weis screaming at the team on the sidelines. By the time Terrail Lambert grabbed that pick and took it to the house, everyone in the house was going completely bonkers.

And then the house quieted with the nervousness of the end game, remembering all the times we've blown it. We were on the edge of our seats as MSU appeared to gain some momentum for a game-winning drive.

Then, the complete indcredulity of the sick interception that looked to everyone (except the ref right on top of the play) like an incomplete pass. Everyone had these stupid silly grins on their faces, made ever sweeter by the screen shots of stunned MSU fans.


2. Since 1997, Michigan State has won 9 of 12 games against the Irish. I view this as a classic case of Sparty having ND's number. What worries you most about Michigan State this weekend?

Michigan State, much like Boston College, seems to exist for the sole purpose of being a thorn in Notre Dame's side. This game is always their best game of the season - then they go back to being Michigan State.

As far as specifics on the field, I worry about their ability to run the ball. We haven't showed the consistency we need up front to stuff the run, and until we do that we'll be at risk of letting teams hang around.

3. Between my lingering bad feelings from last weekend and the history of this series in the last decade plus, give me a good reason or two or three to feel optimistic about a change in fortune for the Irish, because right now, I could use some optimism.

Because I care deeply about Sarah's mental health, I'll give her a full 5 reasons for optimism:

1. Notre Dame's intensity should be even higher this week, and their wounded pride will assure that there will be no let down this week. These players had their high expectations dashed last week, and in such strange and frustrating fashion that I expect to see some pissed of Domers take the field on Saturday.

2. We won't see this guy on the field on Saturday. Or this guy. Or this one. Or this one.

3. Michigan State lost to Central Michigan last week.

4. If this and this aren't motivation enough, I don't know what is.

5. WE are N D

4. As it is my week, I get to address my current ND obsession. Have the last two games changed your opinion/reinforced your opinion re: Charlie in the box versus Charlie on the field?

I still think Charlie should be in the box. I understand why he's not. Every coach he's talked to has told him he needs to be on the field. But, Coach Weis can see the field better up there, and Corwin Brown and Tenuta can rally the troops on the field. The only advantage of having Coach Weis on the sidelines would be his ability to lobby the refs, but clearly, that doesn't help.

5. If nothing else, I can count on one thing to look forward to on Saturday - tailgating. Anyone have a good recipe for me to try? I make no limitations on what it can be - a drink recipe, dessert, appetizer. So long as it can be made on a grill, camp stove, or ahead of time, I am happy to listen. The better the suggestion, the more likely you are to get invited to my own tailgate.

I actually have garnered the nickname "Spinach Dip" Neil from many of my friends, because of my world-famous spinach dip that I always bring to parties. Now, this recipe isn't exact, as I don't believe in measuring stuff. But, the beauty of this dip is that it gets better over time. Trust me.

A couple bags of fresh baby spinach, hand chopped
3 cans of quartered Artichoke hearts, drained and finely chopped
Two large tubs of cream cheese
A quart of heavy whipping cream
A few spoonfuls of crushed garlic
3 bags of Italian Five-Cheese Blend

Throw the tubs of cream cheese in a large (5 qt.) crock pot while you prepare the other ingredients, and set to HIGH.
Chop everything up.
Once the cream cheese starts to melt, throw in two bags of cheese and heavy whipping cream and stir.
Once that's well stirred, immediately put in the artichoke hearts and most of the spinach (it actually takes about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 bags of spinach).
Stir occasionally as the entire mixture starts to melt.
Once you have a decent consistency, add the garlic to taste, and additional cheese as needed to adjust the consistency.
Once the entire mixture is heated through and an even consistency (should be somewhere approaching paste but not quite), reduce heat to low and serve with your choice of bread or crackers. I prefer french bread.

6. Finally, any predictions for the game? I encourage your predictions to involve something other than a final score, but otherwise, I make no suggestions.

I think that the Irish come out pissed off and play really hard at the beginning of the game, leading to some sloppy play and probably more than a little chippiness. Perhaps as a result, MSU gets a small early lead.

Then, the Irish settle down, play their game, and run off 5 straight TDs on 5 straight possessions, putting the game well out of reach.

Final score:
Notre Dame 41
Michigan State 17

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why we couldn't beat Michigan

1. Coaching

I've been a pretty staunch Weis supporter, right up until the Syracuse debacle of last year. And I still think with his work ethic, we could eventually win a championship if he continues to make the changes needed as he recognizes them. But Saturday's loss can be laid at the feet of the coaching staff first and foremost.

Weis is a gambler, and frequently makes decisions that don't make sense if you step back and look at the big picture. Especially for a coach that comes from the NFL, he sure didn't learn much about winning games.

I have not heard a single rational defense of why we were throwing a pass with the ball and the lead with 2 minutes left in the game. It's just inexcusable. Good teams are able to run the ball on first and second downs, then keep the defense guessing on 3rd and short as we try to move the chains and end the game. The fact that we threw a pass on 2nd down in that crucial situation is flat out the wrong call.

And that wasn't his only mistake. Numerous times we had difficulties getting the play off. As the self-named offensive coordinator, it is Coach Weis' job to make sure that the play gets in to the QB with plenty of time before the snap. The unnecessary timeouts and delay of game penalties came back to haunt us in a game that came down to the wire.

2. The Officiating

I really hate to complain about the refs. Other than the Bush Push, which mostly upset me because of the magnitude of the game, my general position is that you play the game with the calls that are made, and that if you play well enough to win, the officiating won't change that.

Not so on Saturday.

I watch a lot of football, pro and college, and this is the first time I've ever seen a game in which the officials appeared to be actually biased.

There were, by my count, 5 unequivocal pass interference penalties against Michigan that were not called. And they were often in critical situations that changed the game. Especially on the ill-advised 2nd down pass. Call that interference penalty, and the Irish win. Talk all you want about "letting the players play" but these penalties exist for a reason, and you CANNOT allow a team to consistently hold one of the receiver's arms back while the pass is in the air.

I've also rewatched the play where Sam Young was called for holding on Kyle Rudolph's 79-yard catch, and there was no hold. It was a spectacular block that drove the defender into the ground.

There was also the missed call on the Armando Allen TD. I watched that play in HD on a big screen, and the sideline view of that play clearly shows that Allen did not step out. There certainly was nothing resembling indisputable evidence to overturn the call on the field.

And don't even get me started on the 2 seconds run off the clock on the kickoff. And don't give me the BS about how rare it is for a last second Hail Mary to work - I saw the Broncos pull off a stunning win on Sunday, and Green Bay also had a last minute pass play that made the difference in the game. And with a wideout like Golden Tate - we may not have won, but we should have had the chance.

But what really pissed me off - and the reason that I think that the refs were biased - was how the refs blew Coach Weis off at the end of the game and sprinted for the tunnel, not even considering taking a second look at the clock.

Any one or two, or even three, of those problems, and I could deal with it. But what I saw out there was clearly home cooking. Notre Dame was repeatedly and systematically robbed of its advantages in this game by the refs, and it cost the Irish the game.

If this game were reffed by a truly neutral officiating crew (say, from the Big 12?) the Irish win this game handily - by as many as 20 points.

3. Fundamentals

I almost appended this to the coaching segment above, but I saw a clear lack of fundamental breakdowns by Irish players in this game. Poor tackling especially killed us, and it allowed an inferior team to hang around in a game they had no business hanging around in.

Tate Forcier, if he bulks up, will eventually be a very good quarterback for Michigan. But he's not a superstar in the making, and certainly not a phenom. We made him look good by taking poor angles and arm tackling. Forcier slipping from the grasp of ND defenders was not because he's a beast who reads the defense well, it's because the ND players who were put in the right position by the play call didn't have the fundamental skills to make the play.

And that, again, falls on the coaching staff. For all of the talent and experience we trotted out on the field, these players should not be making those kind of bone-headed mistakes.

A classic example was on Forcier's TD run, where the safeties did not shuffle down the line with the ball, and Kapron Lewis-Moore overpursued, did not break down and failed to keep his hips squared to be able to make the tackle, or force Tate back inside to the defense.

4. Michigan

I wanted to put this section in to give Michigan credit. While they got plenty of help from the refs and Notre Dame repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot (much like Michigan did for us last year), ultimately they did what they had to to win the game. With two minutes left in the game, they drove down the field and scored the go ahead touchdown with little time left on the clock. They had a good gameplan, and with a couple of breaks, put themselves in a position to win the game.

And they did.

Final Analysis

No excuses. We were 24 points better than Michigan, but we lost the game because we apparently still don't know how to win.