Sunday, October 28, 2012

Irish Rout Over Sooners Should Quiet the Critics

The Irish certainly have reason to celebrate
Navy. Purdue. Michigan State. Michigan. Miami. Stanford. BYU. And now, Oklahoma. With a rousing victory over the Sooners in Oklahoma last night, the Fighting Irish appear to have finally quieted all of those critics. Where are you now, Mark May, with your prognostications that Notre Dame is overrated? Where are you now, Rick Reilly, with your ridiculous notion that Notre Dame is irrelevant? And where are the rest of the rank and file college football pundits with their belief that Oklahoma, favored by double digits even though ND was ranked higher, would put Notre Dame in their "rightful place" by relegating them to the back of the pack with a foregone conclusion that the Irish would be thrashed by the Sooners?

That sound you hear this morning, that louder than life munching sound, is the college football media universe feasting on a hearty crow breakfast. The Irish, with their stifling defense and emerging offense, are not pretenders. Rather, it is finally time to recognize that the Irish are contenders, and not just for a BCS bowl, but for the National Championship.

We all knew coming in that the Irish defense was one of the best in the country. They hadn't surrendered a rushing touchdown the entire season (the only team not to do so) and had only trailed for the first time all season in the previous week against BYU. The vaunted Irish front 7 represented a fearsome force against any opponent, and could swing games on their own with their control of the line of scrimmage. The questions were, of course, how Notre Dame's young, thin, and inexperienced secondary would handle the lethal Oklahoma passing attack.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco planned ahead of time to position the defensive backs deep and force Oklahoma to chew up clock by throwing underneath. Diaco knew that his defense could then keep everything in front of them and force Oklahoma to be patient. In that regard, Diaco could fall back on his defensive line to force pressure and his linebackers to make plays in space.

In the beginning of the game, Oklahoma QB Landry Jones was having his way with the Irish, throwing 10-15 yard underneath passes to chew up yardage. The Oklahoma goal was to get the ball out quickly and neutralize the Irish pass rush. It worked at first as Oklahoma marched down the field. But eventually, Diaco started to adjust and realized that on certain downs, he could march his secondary up to the line, play it tight, and prevent Oklahoma from getting the ball off quickly. Diaco knew that this could expose the back end of the Irish secondary to some potentially big plays, but he gambled that his defensive line, along with some key blitzes from his linebackers, could get to Jones and force him to make mistakes. And it worked.

Te'o, one of the best to ever play at Notre Dame
Sure, Landry Jones threw for over 350 yards, but he didn't throw for one touchdown. Diaco's schemes on defense held the nation's #5 scoring offense, averaging 45 points per game, to a season low 13 points. The Irish control of the line of scrimmage held the Sooners to a mere 0.6 yards per carry rushing, with only 15 total yards rushing. This number is way down from the 200 yards they averaged rushing per game coming in. But the numbers don't tell the story. There is no reasonable person who could watch this game and not come out of it thinking that the Irish defense controlled the game. Diaco and his players had Jones guessing all night, culminating in a couple sacks (including the epic sack by Manti Te'o) and a beautiful tipped ball interception by Te'o that is a microcosm of the team defense Notre Dame plays.

It's hard not to love Te'o. He does everything the right way, he's an exemplary student athlete, and he is the true definition of a leader. If ever they were going to give the Heisman to a linebacker, Te'o would be the man. And there he was again last night, racking up tackles, leading his defense, sacking the quarterback, and grabbing an interception when it mattered most. Te'o has been the heart and soul of this team, and it shows. His fellow defensive players follow his every lead, and there isn't one situation where the defense isn't prepared to play or isn't fired up for a game. Players like him come along once in a generation at Notre Dame, and sometimes never at other programs. We've been absolutely lucky to have him these past four years, and the legacy he leaves at Notre Dame will echo forever, up there with names like Layden, Crowley, Miller, Stuhldreher, Hornung, Montana, Ismail, Brown, and Rice.

But the defense has been there all year, even if the haters don't want to recognize it. For me, the biggest part of last night's game was the dual-maturation of Everett Golson and the Notre Dame offense. Golson showed all the physical gifts that made him Brian Kelly's favorite last night, and looked comfortable the entire game. He was able to hit his receivers, not make any mistakes, and lead his team down the field. In particular, I was impressed with Golson on a drive midway through the fourth quarter. There, the drive came after the Sooners had tied the game on a Blake Bell rushing touchdown and had supposedly seized all the momentum. This is the type of follow-up drive where you expect a redshirt freshman QB to fold under the pressure of 86,000 screaming fans. Instead, Everett comes out, calmly completes a pass, and follows that up with a complete bomb to freshman burner Chris Brown. 

This was a clutch drive of the game, and Kelly has the kind of confidence in his QB to call a play this gutsy? If the pass is incomplete, it becomes 3rd and 2 with the pressure on the Irish to convert. Instead, you have Golson complete a beautiful throw to Brown to set the Irish up for a touchdown dive by Golson later in the drive. 

Golson grew up last night
It's hard to find how well Golson played in the box score. You just had to watch the way he was calm, collected, composed, and effective the entire game. Last night against Oklahoma, the offense found its stride. Golson is clearly the player to lead this team in the future, and the sky is the limit with his potential. Last night he settled down in the pocket, made his reads, scrambled when he had to, and made accurate throws. How well did he take over the offense last night? Well, it arguably performed, as a complete unit, better than it has all season. Sure, there was the rushing explosion against Miami, the great effort against Navy, and others, but last night the offense came together as a unit. ND scored more points (30) than anyone all season against Oklahoma, twice Oklahoma's average allowed of 15 points per game. The Irish rushed for more yards against Oklahoma than anyone all season with over 200 yards. And finally, ND put up more total offense against Oklahoma than anyone all season as well, with over 400 yards. 

For now, the haters should be silenced. But where does the season go from here? The Irish find out where they are slotted in the BCS rankings tonight, then face off against Pitt, Boston College, and Wake Forest before a showdown in Los Angeles against USC. A focused Irish team, as they have been this year so far, should be able to handle Pitt, BS, and Wake Forest, meaning they would head into LA on November 24th 11-0. With a win against USC, then, ND would be undefeated. I don't think there's any way we can imagine an undefeated Notre Dame team not playing for the National Championship, but I think we're getting ahead of ourselves. As fans, we should follow Brian Kelly's lead and have this team focused only on the present; the upcoming game is all that matters. In that regard, it's time for us to sit back and enjoy the ride. The Irish are back, and for us Irish fans who have been starving for success, it's been a long time coming. Let's enjoy it.