Sunday, October 7, 2012

Irish Run All Over the Hurricanes

Maybe, just maybe, we'll look back at this game and realize this is the moment Notre Dame football was "back." Sure, we've heard it several times before, from a fast start under Ty Willingham to a couple great seasons under Charlie Weis, but this time it's different, right? This Irish team, with an emphasis on team, just feels different. The way they go out and dominate on defense like elite teams do, the way the coaching staff has recruited, schemed, and grouped these players together, and the way these players come out and play hard, tough, physical football for 60 minutes every game - it all just feels like the old Notre Dame teams that were perennial contenders. I know there's a long way to go, and trust me, I feel like I'm jinxing it right now, but something about this team makes me feel like ND is back.

No, Miami isn't Alabama, Florida, or even Florida State. But they're a good offensive team and a program that is definitely on the rise under coach Al Golden (at least until the sanctions hit, anyways). This was a game that a few years ago, hell, even last year, Notre Dame would have had a chance to win but would have either lost it or won it close. Instead, the Irish came out last night and ran all over the Hurricanes in an absolute thrashing. This wasn't just a season defining win. This was a program, tenure-defining win for Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish. Watch this clip - this is a different Irish team than any I can remember in recent memory. It has Kelly's stamp all over it, and it should make Irish fans everywhere excited.

Was this Golson's breakout game?
It all started with the benching of Everett Golson, who didn't start the game because of a violation of team rules. Yet, when he did come in for the second series, and subsequently the rest of the game, he looked like a young QB who had grown leaps and bounds since he was benched a couple weeks ago against Michigan. He looked comfortable in the pocket, made a ton of throws that we haven't seen him make all season, and looked like he was finally able to make the progressions and reads that are necessary in Kelly's multiple attack spread offense. Even more than that, Golson showed on several occasions what makes him such a dangerous QB with his ability to feel the pressure, escape the initial rush, and then use his athletic ability to turn negative plays into positive ones. I think that Brian Kelly handled the issue of his violation of team rules perfectly by benching him for the opening series, but then still going to him for the rest of the game. It shows Golson the balance that no, you're not above anyone else on the team, but yes, you are the man and we're going to stick with you. I think this game is the launching point for the rest of Everett Golson's career.

Boy, that offense. Besides Golson, who really only had to be effective in the first half, the offensive line carried the day. They absolutely mauled the Miami defensive line to allow for 51 carries and 376 rushing yards. Read that again - the Notre Dame offensive line was so dominating, the ND offense barely had to throw the ball in the second half, and allowed for FIFTY-ONE carries for 376 yards. Oh and not to mention that the unit didn't surrender a sack, and that the offense as a whole has only 4 giveaways all year. That is absolutely incredible, especially given that ND has shifted to a zone blocking scheme this year and is just starting to come together as a unit in that regard.

Atkinson is going to be a superstar
It helps to have NFL talent in the backfield as well. I felt that Cierre Wood made a statement tonight that he is back to his old self. Wood had a couple huge runs and finished with over 100 yards. I think it's safe to say that he's back, and I expect him to start the rest of the season. The real star of the show, though, was George Atkinson III. He's a game breaking, unbelievably fast running back that we're used to seeing playing for programs like USC, Alabama, Florida, and the like. Instead, he's part of the Notre Dame platoon backfield that gouged Miami last night. Atkinson used his speed to rush for 123 yards on only 10 carries, including an epic 55 yard run where he simply blew past all of the defenders. The fact that he is only part of a slew of talented backs for Notre Dame shows how different this program has become.

And the defense? Go back a week, when Miami held off a pesky NC State team that just so happened to beat Florida State last night. In that game, Miami put up 651 total yards of offense, including 566 passing from Stephen Morris. Last night, Notre Dame held this offense to only 285 total yards, and only 201 from Morris. Miami's running game? It had a total of 85 yards, whereas Notre Dame had 51 carries. This defense, with no hyperbole whatsoever, is one of the best in the country. Again, Brian Kelly has recruited, and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has coached, athletes that would start in the SEC. Instead, they took a leap of faith, committed to Notre Dame, bought into Diaco's system, and are reaping the rewards right now.

Manti Te'o leads one of the best defenses in the country
Manti Te'o leads a defense that hasn't surrendered a touchdown in three games. The Irish as a whole are the only team in college football that has not trailed at all this season. The credit for this team's accomplishments, especially considering that the offense seemed to just find its stride last night, goes to this suffocating defense. The defense plays so well as a unit, even with all the inexperience in the secondary, that they don't even let a prolific offense like Miami get to them. Sure, we saw a couple plays early where a Miami receiver got over the top of the Notre Dame defense and ND got lucky with some dropped balls. But you know what we saw, for once? Adjustments. Diaco dropped his safeties into a cover 2 shell and bet on his defensive line to make a difference. In a way, that style of defense reminded me of the Chicago Bears.

It helps that there are playmakers everywhere on defense. Reflective of an emphasis in recruiting, there are studs on the defensive line (Kapron Lewis-Moore, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Sheldon Day), at linebacker (Te'o, Danny Spond, Dan Fox, Ishaq Williams, Prince Shembo), and in the secondary (Bennett Jackson, KeiVarae Russell, Zeke Motta, Matthias Farley, Elijah Shumate), even if they are inexperienced. As a result, and it's crazy to think about, but this defense is only scratching the surface of where they are going to be both later this season, and in seasons to come.

This type of depth, this emphasis in recruiting on getting elite athletes to compete with the rest of the top programs in college football, all the while maintaining Notre Dame's high standards, is why Brian Kelly deserves high praise for what he's done thus far. This is his third season with the Irish, and he already has this program playing better than it's played in years. He came to Notre Dame and asked one question - why not us? Why can't a program maintain high standards and still recruit, coach, and utilize elite athletes? Well, he's answering this question right now, as Notre Dame is flying high, undefeated at 5-0, with College Gameday on it's way to South Bend this coming Saturday. No one is expecting the Irish to go undefeated, or even finish the season with only a couple losses. But Brian Kelly, and his program, are showing that these types of conversations, those where the Irish are serious contenders for big bowl games every year, are back in play. Above all, whether I'm jinxing them or not, the Irish are back. It's about time.