Is it time to put the supporters of Notre Dame football among the most tortured fan bases in North American sports?
The worst of the tortured fan bases are the ones that continually get their hopes up, yet are always kicked in the stomach with crushing losses in the worst of moments.
On Saturday, the Fighting Irish were once again responsible for another unbelievable loss in overtime to Michigan State.
After the Irish notched a field goal in the first extra frame, the Notre Dame defense actually came up with a big play on third and five after Darius Fleming sacked Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins for a loss of nine yards.
The defense stepped up!
Here was a possible game-defining sack, forcing a long field goal attempt to tie the game that could have failed. The defense could finally have won a game for the Irish.
Yet what followed for Notre Dame fans was a mixture of comical ridiculousness and utter despair.
No, it wasn’t a fake field goal that merely passed the first-down marker and extended the drive, but rather a much-too-easy, game-winning touchdown pass delivered by a freshman kicker that left an entire fanbase stunned.
Now that the Irish faithful have put up with two straight losses in gut-wrenching fashion, the doubts and uncertainty are reaching increasingly loud volumes.
There will be plenty of second-guessing, lamentation, and crying that this season and the future are done for Notre Dame, but all is not lost.
Let me pick up the remains of our battered and bruised egos and put forth some reasons to stay optimistic for 2010 and the future.
It’s certainly not easy at this point, but someone has to do it.
Brian Kelly’s History
The past coaching history of Brian Kelly is not paying off in September of his first season in South Bend, but I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt that he’s a good long-term fix at this point.
I’m as disappointed by a 1-2 start as anyone out there, and moral victories can be quite useless. But even with the losing record thus far, there has been some improvements from last year.
Let’s take a step back and realize we’re only through three games, and that plenty of successful coaches struggled in their first season at a big-time program.
Sure, these losses in back-to-back weeks hurt a lot right now, and the luster of a new coach who went undefeated last year has worn off a bit. However, there has to be some faith placed in Brian Kelly that improvements will continue to be made this year and next.
Rest assured, two close losses to currently undefeated Michigan and Michigan State teams will not define the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame.
It’s Still Too Early
Three games, ya’ll.
Three games and some are acting like Notre Dame is a lock to not win more than four games this year.
Maybe it’s unlikely that the Irish finish 8-4 or better, and maybe it’s highly unlikely that they’ll defeat No. 16 Stanford next week. But it is way too early to write anything off about this team and coach.
Everyone has doubts, and not many people will believe that Notre Dame can defeat such a high-octane offense in Stanford right now. But what if the Irish win next week?
Suddenly, the Irish are 2-2 with two more rivalry games coming up that don’t look nearly as intimidating as they did before the year started.
I’m not saying Notre Dame will beat Stanford; in fact. I’d probably bet against it. It’s just too early, however, to give up hope after the team has failed an early-season quiz with multiple tests coming up later in the year.
Crist is Maturing
Irish quarterback Dayne Crist is still young and is going to make mistakes, but he is maturing rather quickly and is the main reason why Notre Dame has such a successful offense this season.
After throwing an interception in the red zone and getting into a funk in the middle of the game against Michigan State, Crist took a big step in his career and came out firing on all cylinders while bringing the Irish back in the second half.
Having someone as talented and smart as Dayne Crist at quarterback is a positive in and of itself, but knowing that he is only going to get better is a very encouraging sign for the future.
Offensive Line is Holding it Down
What was once a big question mark heading into the season has now become somewhat of a strength this year for Notre Dame.
Last year, the offensive line played well at times, but also suffered from bouts of incredible inconsistency and gave up far too many sacks while being a below-average run-blocking unit.
This season, with three new starters, the pass blocking has been very good and the run blocking has also improved. This definitely matters, and is a huge reason to be optimistic.
It’s also a positive to see that the line hasn’t been bothered too much by three quality teams in Purdue, Michigan, and Michigan State. Each of those teams have various combinations of excellent pass rushers and run stoppers along the defensive line and linebacker positions.
Theo Riddick has Broken Out
Just days after I questioned the future and current Notre Dame receiving corps with a heavy emphasis on this sophomore, Theo Riddick broke out and had a career day with 10 receptions, 128 yards, and one touchdown.
After looking uncomfortable and less than dynamic in the first two games at his new position, Riddick flipped the switch and looked incredibly athletic and reliable against Michigan State.
With Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph catching passes, the Notre Dame offense will be very good. Having Riddick making teams pay in the slot will be a major advantage in the future.
If he is able to consistently play even half as good as he did against Michigan State, then Notre Dame will stay a top ten passing team in 2010. It will also open up more running lanes for Allen, Wood and Co.
Middle Linebackers are Talented
You could point out a lot of mistakes by the defense and the middle linebackers so far this season, but I am convinced that the trio of Te’o, Calabrese, and McDonald are as talented and tough as any middle linebackers Notre Dame has had in years.
By no means are the athletes in the middle dominant, but they are still very young and quite wise beyond their years. Once some of the missing pieces are put in place for the defense, these players could turn into absolute monsters.
Just having Te’o anchoring the middle for the next three years is a tremendous sign of hope and optimism.
Gary Gray is Making a Name for Himself
I’ve always liked Gary Gray, and he has now established himself as the team’s best corner while bringing a physicality to his position that has been severely lacking in the program for quite some time.
With another year of eligibility after this season, Gray has the opportunity to become one of the best corners in the country, and will be a key piece to the 2010 and 2011 defenses.
This is the ultimate silver lining.
Not only has Brian Kelly recruited well so far this season, but he has big commitments from recruits on the defensive side of the ball and, more importantly, at positions of need.
Notre Dame needs speed rushers off the edge, big and fast linebackers, and athletic players in the secondary…all areas which have been the focus of this recruiting cycle. Right now, the Irish could be looking at the best collection of freshman coming in on the defensive side of the ball in 15 years.
This fact, combined with the offense already playing at a fairly high level in the early stages of a new system, makes the future seem a lot brighter.
And now let’s go to this week’s awards.
The Award for College Football’s Smallest Facemask: Greg Jones
Greg Jones is one heck of a linebacker, but what is going on with his facemask? Does anyone else notice that he is wearing a running back’s style of facemask that looks to be about two sizes too small for his helmet?
I can’t imagine it feels too good to hit people with the bars of your facemask a mere millimeter away from your face. I think we need an explanation.
The Jamarcus Russell Award for Constantly Throwing Off the Back Foot: Kirk Cousins
I noticed this last year, and it was epitomized in Cousins’ game-deciding interception in last year’s contest, but he sure does throw off his back foot a ton.
Cousins settled down on Saturday, but was routinely throwing off his back foot early in the game. That’s a bad habit that the Spartan coaching staff will probably want to eradicate if they can.
The Award for Having a Big First Game But Disappearing Since: Cierre Wood
What happened to Cierre Wood?
I know this is his first year of action, but he has done nothing over the past two games, and I’m starting to wonder if he is banged up a little bit.
On his kickoff returns, he doesn’t look as explosive, and he’s been as tentative as can be when hitting holes as a running back. Wood is going to have to step up his game or risk losing more carries to Jonas Gray.
The I’m Glad You Finally Made an Impact Award: Darius Fleming
Statistically not an overwhelming performance by Darius Fleming against the Spartans, but he’s finally becoming an edge rusher who is consistently a force to be dealt with. He’s being asked to do a lot (play linebacker while also play with his hand on the ground) and his two sacks, including the would-be game clincher, were big for the defense.
Offense Quarterly Review
Through three games, there have been a lot of positives for this offense, especially with five new faces playing in their first games in blue and gold. But there have been some serious negatives that also need to be discussed.
I’m fairly positive that Notre Dame will be able to pass the ball and move the chains with relative ease against 90 percent of their opponents. Although there have been some kinks and times where the offense sputters, the passing game has looked generally sharp for most of the season.
The big thing for me is that the offensive line has done a great job in pass protection. Last year, just about every team was getting sacks and forcing pressure from every direction on Clausen. It didn’t matter if it was USC or Navy; the offensive line was getting both pushed around and burned on the edge.
This year, the offensive line has put on a clinic on how to form a pocket for the quarterback to throw from, and there have been plenty of instances where Crist has had all day to throw the ball.
Another good sign is that Riddick finally made an impact and gives opponents three really good receivers, plus Rudolph, to worry about in the passing game. Not too many teams have that luxury.
The running game has been somewhat neglected over the past two games, but Armando Allen is running hard and is playing the best football of his career. The ground game still isn’t explosive, but it hasn’t been completely shut down like it was on occasion last year.
First of all, just way too many turnovers from this unit.
The Irish turned the ball over twice in the red zone against Michigan State and added another fumble by Crist with another opportunity to step on the Spartans’ throat.
These turnovers are starting to look a lot like a lack of killer instinct, and it’s something that needs to stop immediately.
To follow up on those turnovers, the red-zone production has been pretty awful, particularly because this was one of Brian Kelly’s major advantages while at Cincinnati. I don’t even know what the stats are, but I’ll bet they are very similar to last year when poor red-zone play killed the Irish in a handful of close losses.
It’s the same story so far this year.
Also, what’s going on with the playcalling and offensive system?
Saturday’s game against Michigan State and large portions of the Michigan game devolved into very Weis-like offensive play-calling series' with consistent four and five-wide passing formations. Little attention, meanwhile, was being paid to running the ball.
I understand that passing the ball is Notre Dame’s strength, that it’s what Kelly likes to do and it is the biggest way to take advantage of our opponents (all three so far who have had quite weak secondaries). But the offense can’t become this one-dimensional.
So far, Brian Kelly has giving his critics plenty of opportunity to complain about the spread offense, in large part because Notre Dame really isn’t running the spread the way it should be run.
It’s still early, but the offense needs to start opening up and becoming more effective in different areas.
There were more bubble and slip screens called against Michigan State, and this has to continue. Yet, what’s more frustrating is the lack of creativity from the running game.
The Irish ran one misdirection play all game against the Spartans, and it went for big yards. Yet, it was never called again.
Further, the offense can’t sustain itself if it is running the same zone read and always giving the ball to the running back.
Good defenses will shut that down most of the time, and it decreases the effectiveness of running the ball from the spread.
Overall, the offense has the potential to be incredibly dangerous, but has shot itself in the foot on numerous occasions this year. Like last year, the problem isn’t moving the ball, but rather putting points up on the board and taking big leads early when the opportunity presents itself.
There has to be more of an effort to run the ball and impose their will physically on other teams. There’s nothing wrong with throwing the ball a lot, but there’s no excuse for lining up in shotgun with four-wide and passing on fourth and two like the Irish did on Saturday.
At least line up under center and act like you might run the ball and bootleg with Crist. Instead, Crist couldn’t find anyone open downfield, and ultimately fumbled while trying to scamper for the first down.
It’s just so frustrating to watch plays like that.
Defense Quarterly Review
The defense is being attacked as playing poorly yet again this year, but I don’t think they are as bad as most people believe.
There have been decent improvements in tackling, coverage and pass-rushing, all three areas which Notre Dame struggled mightily with last year.
There are still missed tackles, but it is not epidemic like it was last year. Teams are still throwing the ball with some success this year, but there aren’t numerous big passing plays given up and instances where the defense is leaving receivers wide open for big gains.
I’ve actually been pretty impressed with the pass rush so far this year, too. The Irish have a very powerful front three that lacks speed and athleticism, but they have been pretty disruptive and played much more consistent this year.
For example, Notre Dame ended up with eight tackles for loss and four sacks against Michigan State, versus only two tackles for loss and one sack given up.
That is a good sign.
Moreover, the middle linebackers are playing very well and making it very difficult for teams to run the ball up the middle. As I mentioned before, I like the talent that’s in place here and what those players bring to the table.
As far as the corners are concerned, they have improved significantly on fundamentals and have forced opponents to beat them instead of beating themselves.
No one is happy with two losses right now, and the defense is still giving up a lot of yards, but at least there are improvements and positive indicators, whereas last year there was literally nothing to be pleased with.
I’ve been hesitant to accept it, but I think Notre Dame does lack a lot of speed on defense.
Like I said, the defensive line and the edge rushers are big and strong, but there isn’t enough speed, spin moves, and things of that nature where the guys up front are attacking the quarterback consistently.
Instead, we have a front that almost always bull rushes and does it well, but isn’t flying off the edge like all of the great defenses do. This is where Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt are needed most next year.
There is one crazy athletic outside linebacker in Steve Filer, but he’s not seeing the field that much. Otherwise, Brian Smith and Kerry Neal are pretty much non-factors when it comes to making plays.
Either they’re making the wrong read, or if they do stay in position, they are beat out by a faster opponent.
Also, Notre Dame continues to have below-average talent at safety.
Second-year player Zeke Motta has some moments where he plays well, but he’s not really bringing anything to the table for the defense while filling in for the injured Jamoris Slaughter.
Harrison Smith continues to struggle and display poor instincts, while making more mistakes than not. Most safeties would have come up on the Michigan State runner and stopped him for a 10-yard gain, but Smith moved up, stopped moving his feet, and got nowhere near the man as he scored on a long touchdown run.
I’m afraid as long as Harrison is back there, he is a liability, and the defense will have a hard time improving without talented and playmaking safeties.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Is a 1-5 start to the season the likely scenario now?
I still find it hard to believe.
In all probability, the Irish will lose to Stanford this weekend, and then the boo-birds will really be out in full force shouting the death of the Notre Dame program.
But even at 1-3, the season is still not over. Notre Dame can pick up a big road victory against Boston College and take care of business against Pitt at home. Neither of those teams have the overall talent or the offensive balance and explosiveness that Michigan State does.
It’s such a long season, and there’s plenty of time for things to change.
And what if Notre Dame upsets Stanford this weekend? All of a sudden, the season has quite a different look and feel to it.
Even if the Irish struggle in the first half and end up losing a lot of games, what if they beat Navy and Utah and put themselves in position to go to a bowl game with a victory over USC?
What if the losing streak to the Trojans ends in year one of Brian Kelly’s tenure, and Notre Dame picks up a bowl victory, too?
There’s just so much that can happen over the next few months, and I believe we will continue to see improvement from this team.
It’s not like Notre Dame lost James Madison, is getting blown out, and isn’t competing.
So we lost two close games to two Big Ten teams with very good offenses and are currently in the top 25 and a lot better than anyone would have guessed.
No one ever said this was going to be easy, or that it would be a one-month fix on the way back to dominance. Before the season, I thought a successful nine-win season was within reach, and maybe some think that it’s all but impossible for that to happen now.
Maybe it is, but the last time I checked, there’s only a No. 2 in that loss column.
Like the late Richard Pryor said, “I aint dead yet, #*%$#@!!”
Article originally published on the FanTake Network blog One Foot Down.
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