Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Notre Dame Will Come to Ann Arbor Desperate for a Win

This Saturday, the Michigan Wolverines will play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Michigan Stadium's first ever night game. ESPN College Gameday will also be featuring the event. It promises to be one of the most exciting games early in the season.

However, there's a little turmoil in South Bend, as the Irish are reeling from a 23-20 shocking defeat at the hands of the USF Bulls. Notre Dame fans stood or sat stunned as their team played horribly, giving away as many as five turnovers. (The Bulls' turnover margin was zero.) The Irish eventually outgained South Florida in total yardage, but the second half rally was not enough to make up for their abysmal performance in the first half. Even in the third and fourth quarters, there were costly mistakes, penalties, and interceptions. They staged a minor comeback and came to within a field goal in the final minute of the game, but they failed to recover the ball in an onside kick. With no timeouts left for the Irish, USF simply ran out the clock.

Throughout the game, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was furious. Some NBC cameras caught glimpses of Kelly being visibly irate with his players, as his face turned purple and he screamed curse words at them. 

It was one mistake after another for the Irish, who even when they seemed to catch a break just gave the ball back to the Bulls. Notre Dame started out well on their first drive, but the momentum completely shifted when USF safety Jerrell Young stripped the ball from Notre Dame's Jonas Gray (the backup running back for Cierre Wood), and the ball was picked up by Kayvon Webster for the Bulls. With no one in front of him, Webster returned the fumble 96 yards for a defensive touchdown. 

"You talk about a deflator," NBC commentator Dan Hicks said during the return.

The Irish never recovered. In their second trip the redzone, quarterback Dayne Crist's pass to Theo Riddick in the endzone was picked off by DeDe Lattimore. Notre Dame's defense held strong, allowing USF to only make field goals on their offensive drives. When both teams left the field for half-time, Notre dame trailed 16-0, having produced no points, and there were a lot of boos from South Bend's home crowd.

Brian Kelly's suffering would be drawn out more as the severe weather that later made its way to Ann Arbor had delayed the game for two hours in South Bend. Kelly pulled Crist as quarterback and put in sophomore Tommy Rees, who in 2010 led the Irish to a four-game winning streak at the end of the season. Rees was more productive than Crist, but the Irish experienced constant setbacks because of penalties. Back-to-back facemask penalties from safety Harrison Smith gave the Bulls tons of free yards and new first downs. The Irish were also called numerous times for holding and pass interference.

But it was turnovers that doomed Notre Dame. Rees threw a pass at receiver T.J. Jones's shoulder blade that bounced off and resulted in an interception. Kelly went berserk on Jones for not looking for the ball, cursing madly and following him around on the sidelines berating him. (Some commentators felt that it was more Rees's fault for throwing the ball before Jones was ready to catch it.) Notre Dame came into the contest as 21-point favorites and ranked No. 16 in the country. USF, who became a division one program in 2001, walked away with a 23-20 victory. Their coach was Skip Holtz, who had played at Notre Dame and is the son of Lou Holtz, the last coach to win the Irish a National Championship. That happened in 1988.

Before the 2011, Notre Dame fans had high hopes and higher expectations. It was Brian Kelly's second year, and the Irish were placed as a Top Ten team in numerous preseason polls. They were even considered a dark horse contender for the National Championship. Unfortunately, the loss to USF destroyed any hopes Irish fans had of going undefeated and contending for the BCS National Title. It's kind of weird to call yourself No. 1 when you lose your season opener. (True to form, though, Notre Dame's fans do it anyway.)

The schedule for the Irish looked somewhat tough before the season, but now it looks even tougher. With the future suddenly uncertain and their hopes vanquished, they'll have difficult contests against Michigan, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, USC, Navy, BC, and they finish the season against Stanford. If Notre Dame loses to Michigan this Saturday, Brian Kelly will be in the hot seat. It will be the third straight time that Notre Dame has lost to Michigan, a team they have said they are determined to beat this year.

Admittedly, when I was making predictions for the 2011 season, I was a little worried about Notre Dame. The pressure is more on them to win than it is for us. A loss for Brady Hoke will not doom him, especially since it's his first year. But a loss could doom Kelly, because he has already lost the opener, putting the whole season in jeopardy. Now, I'm not sure what to think. I had expected both teams to come into the contest 1-0, but Notre Dame would be a bit hungrier because of the losses to Michigan in 2009 and 2010. (Both years had worse seasons for the Wolverines.) This time, because of how their season started, the Irish will be desperate. They need to win, not just to gain some foothold in the rivalry, but because the rest of their season depends on it. Brian Kelly's career certainly does.

There are generally two modes of thought coming out of Notre Dame's performance in the USF game. The first is that the Irish are a really good team who just had a really bad day. They came in maybe a little overconfident because they were at home and it was the first game and they were ranked so high. Then they just couldn't recover from the fumble USF returned for a touchdown. The game got away from them, and they fell deeper into a hole. By the time they got out, it was too late. This mode of thought is probably what most Irish fans are thinking because it means that the team will quickly bounce back, beat Michigan, and go on to an 11-1 season. Then again, those fans tend to rarely exercise objectivity anyway. They expect Notre Dame to win the National Championship every year.

The second mode of thought is that the Irish lost because they are horribly undisciplined. This certainly explains why the team played so badly, why they racked up so many penalties, and why they gave away so many turnovers. USF might not have been the more talented team, but they were definitely more disciplined. They played smart football and gave away no turnovers. Thus, they deserved to win the game. However, this is bad news for Notre Dame fans. If the problem is that the team suffers from an absolute lack of discipline, the Irish are going to experience more of the same as what they saw against USF, and the result will largely be the same as last year. This is even worse news for Brian Kelly, who I thought was a smarter coach and taught his team discipline. If he hasn't, then the Irish are going to barely make it through the season, and Kelly will be out.

The game against Michigan will be a really good indicator for a lot of things. It will indicate how Michigan can handle an aggressive and talented defense, it will indicate how Michigan's pass defense fares against two good Irish quarterbacks, and it will indicate if what Brian Kelly experienced against USF was a fluke. Make no mistake: the Irish will be coming for blood. However, if they're over-aggressive and cost themselves penalties and give Michigan free first downs, then the Wolverines have nothing to worry about and should handle this one calmly. That will only happen if the Irish lack discipline.

Notre Dame is one of the few college football programs that I respect, one of the few (and possibly only) programs that has the tradition and the pageantry and the fight song to truly rival Michigan. However, I lost a lot of respect for them last Saturday. They played like thugs. It's become a well-established joke that if Penn State is "Linebacker U," USC is "Tailback U," and Michigan is "Quarterback U," then Notre Dame is "Thug U." Because of my respect for Notre Dame, I didn't give much attention to those jokes. 

Then, in 2010, when Kyle Rudolph caught that long pass behind Cam Gordon and ran into the endzone, I kind of thought Rudolph's open-mouthed expression was a bit thuggish, and when the whole "Thug U" thing came up, I thought it had to be a coincidence. However, this year, when I saw Notre Dame play USF and the way they acted on the field, I saw a bunch of thugs. Instead of channeling aggression into big hits and sure tackles, they were over-aggressive and earned costly penalties. What's the point of being that aggressive if you're just going to give the other team a free first down? That's why discipline is so important.

Brian Kelly might need a lesson in discipline too. His swearing was captured on national television for fans of all ages to see, and the National Catholic Register even wonders if such an outburst on the sideline warrants his termination. If Notre Dame cares at all about their reputation, they will make sure Kelly realizes that his behavior was unacceptable. But they might not, as they have more pressing issues since the loss to USF just totaled their chances of being relevant in the National Title discussion. Kelly and the Irish came into the USF contest as confident heroes. Now they are suddenly desperate for wins.

One of the things that bothers me about Notre Dame's fans is that they think everyone is out to get them. If anything, it's the opposite: everyone has a soft spot for Notre Dame. NBC constantly gets commentators that always speak favorably about the Irish (even if they're losing badly), and Tom Hammond's bias for Notre Dame is an open secret. Radio personality Skip Bayless ruthlessly and pointlessly defended Notre Dame when Stephen Smith made a reasonable argument basically asking why do we all still care about Notre Dame when they aren't even a true contender and haven't been one for decades.

In terms of their relevancy, Brian Kelly was supposed to change all that. He was the guy that was finally supposed to make Notre Dame truly relevant again. A small part of me even thought that Kelly would lead the Irish to the National Championship within five years. But maybe he's not the coach everyone thinks he is. Maybe going to Notre Dame was too big of a step too quickly for him. Maybe he wasn't ready for it.

He's a much different coach from Brady Hoke. Kelly is a yeller, like Rodriguez was. Hoke prefers to explain to his players rather than turn red and scream at them. Even Kirk Herbstreit said that the coach should build players up rather than tear them down. Fortunately, Kelly has promised to better control his emotions. It will be difficult, especially considering what is at stake when he plays Michigan. Emotions are certain to run high.

The Wolverines should be ready for Notre Dame. The Irish want this one bad. The question is, will they be disciplined enough not to shoot themselves in the foot?

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