Sunday, November 4, 2012

Irish Continue to Fight as they Stay Undefeated

Some call it a team of destiny. Others call it a distorted version of that ole Irish luck. Still others, those of a more pragmatic nature, claim that it's a result of discipline, hard work, and adherence to fundamentals. The ESPN talking heads, the rest of the pundits around college football, and all of the college football fans who chomp at the bit to claim that this 9-0 team isn't worthy of any praise, of any lofty rankings, or even a place in the National Championship conversation, can bark all they want. After all that is over, after the Irish toyed with their own fans emotions on a dreary Saturday in South Bend, the end result is the same. Because as Julius Campbell so eloquently put it, the team has won every single game they have played until now. This team is still perfect.

It certainly didn't seem like the Irish were going to stay perfect. Throughout the game, until the fourth quarter, the Irish played the worst game of the season. They made nearly every error you could make in a football game. It felt like we were watching the 2011 Fighting Irish all over again. They would march down the field only to miss a field goal, or turn the ball over, or fail to punch the ball into the endzone. The defense had their worst game of the season, getting gouged over and over again by Pitt running back Ray Graham (who really shouldn't have been playing anyways) to the tune of 172 rushing yards. The vaunted Irish defense, second in the nation in points allowed with 11 ppg, surrendered 26 to a team that was 4-4 coming into the game, including a loss to lowly Youngstown State.

No denying the leadership of Golson
Everett Golson was even pulled halfway through the game for Tommy Rees because, as Brian Kelly said, he was missing easy progressions and needed to refocus. Now, I didn't support what Kelly did at the time because it didn't appear that Golson was playing that bad of a game, but whatever he did worked. We saw a reinvigorated Everett Golson will his team back from a 20-6 deficit heading into the fourth quarter to tie the game and force overtime. Notwithstanding his terrible interception in the endzone near the end of the fourth quarter, Golson was much deserving of the game ball afterwards and seems to grow more and more every game. Golson led his team back in the 4th quarter with poise, guile, and play after play that came more from his natural ability than a well-structured game plan. The drive to tie the game at the end of the fourth quarter wasn't executed how it was drawn up, but it was done to perfection by Golson in his own way. On that drive, which got a touchdown and two point conversion in only three plays, Golson scrambled to make something happen on each play, bouncing the play outside, preventing a sack, and delivering three strikes in consecutive plays to bring the game even. Golson grew up on the final drive.

The thing I admire most about Golson is he never seems to have that deer in headlights look that young, inexperienced quarterbacks often do. Sure, he makes his fair share of mistakes, but those seem to come more from his learning-on-the job reads and less from panic. Everett, in this way, is a natural leader. If he's already able to stay calm and lead his team down the field, with national championship implications on the line, as a freshman, where is this kid's game going to be a year from now? Or two years? Golson even met with Justin Brent, a Class of 2014 wide receiver commitment, after the game and remembered him from the summer. He left Brent with a request to swap phone numbers, already developing chemistry with a wide receiver who won't be on campus till the season after next. Considering that the biggest weakness of Notre Dame's program the past few years has been quarterback, if Golson continues to rise and hit his ceiling, the program will be right there with him. This is Golson's show now.

Te'o celebrating the win
Speaking of the entire team as a whole now, the resolve, grit, tenacity, and physical/mental toughness exhibited by this team is what impresses me the most. If this is last year, or even a Charlie Weis-coached ND team, this game is a loss, no question. But what Brian Kelly has done with this program, in conjunction with some amazing leaders from top to bottom, senior to freshman, is nothing short of a miracle. The team could have given in to the haters calling them overrated, saddled this game up to a loss, and believed all the naysayers who said they didn't deserve to be undefeated. They could have lost a game, got back up, and settled on having at least 1 loss this season. But not this group. They dug in, dug down deep, and rose to the occasion. This is a team that believes, no matter what, that they're going to win. Brian Kelly has taken a program that was walked over in situations where physical and mental toughness mattered and made it a strength. Not only has he instilled it in players that preceded his arrival, but he recruits players who believe the same. All those who spoke negatively of Kelly after two difficult first seasons have a lot of crow to eat now.

Think about this team for a second. They have an offense of talented players who the rest of the college football universe considers underwhelming at best. Yet there they were, chewing up field and stretching for that extra yard when it was needed most. There was Cierre Wood, who seems to make something happen whenever he touches the ball, fumbling the ball in the endzone in overtime that almost cost his team a victory. But there he was after the game, being a leader, and speaking to the togetherness of this team. Then there's Theo Riddick, a player most forgot about in lieu of the flashier Wood and George Atkinson III coming into the season. His entire career, he's bounced back and forth from running back to wide receiver, and has this year become a leader and reliable force from the backfield. If the Irish ever need those 3-5 yards on a third down, you know which running back is going to get the ball. On top of those two, you also have key contributors on offense like Davaris Daniels, Tyler Eifert, TJ Jones,  and Robby Toma, guys who are all unheralded nationally but are key cogs in an Irish offense that is starting to come into form.

And on defense, the college football world is starting to learn the names Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, on top of the amazing Manti Te'o. But what about key contributors Dan Fox, Danny Spond, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Prince Shembo, and Ishaq Williams? Or true freshmen KeiVarae Russell, Elijah Shumate, Sheldon Day, and Nicky Baratti, all of whom played and played well yesterday? This team, so well coached, may not receive accolades individually outside of Te'o (even though they probably should) or even Tuitt, but as a unit, they're so strong. I would put this defense up against any offense in the country, and I honestly feel that from what we've seen from this team this year, I wouldn't put any destination this season, national championship or otherwise, past them.

It's been a hard 20 years for Notre Dame fans. It's a program we all follow for various reasons, but one that we can all agree on is that ND is special in the way it espouses tradition, values the "student" part of student-athlete, and generally does things the right way. The rest of the college football landscape loves to portray this part of our love for Notre Dame as arrogance, but there is a difference between the Irish family thinking they're better than everyone, and simply making it a priority to do things the right way within the pursuit for excellence on the football field. The key word there is "within." Unlike the Alabama's of the world, excellence isn't defined solely by win or loss record. It's defined by people, hard work, and results, both on and off the field. When success on the field is lacking, success off the field is always there. We've waited so long for that success on the field to return, and now that it seems to be back, don't listen to the haters. Let it soak in, and enjoy it. The Irish are back.