The itch starts out subtle enough, just a growing excitement about the game. By Friday morning the itch has turned into a feeling. The feeling tells you that your team may be better than advertised. By Friday night, and the usual libations that come with it, the itch has gone from feeling to mania. Now, despite all better judgment and reasonable thought you begin to not just believe, but demand that the Irish win. It happens every week and sometimes the itch is right, but sometimes it is just a fan's desperate hope clouding the rational mind.
In August I predicted that the team would go 9-3 and that seemed pretty reasonable. It would be an al dente season. Not too great, not too bad, but it would be a wonderful step forward for a team of young and talented players trying to revive a program that was at the brink of total collapse. The problem with predicting a 9-3 season is that it means expecting 3 losses. Most fans deal with this by claiming they will be happy if they see progress from week to week, but this is as ingenuous as an Oscar hopeful espousing that it is an honor just to be nominated. Despite our levelheaded preseason thoughts, the itch makes sure that by game day we are hungry for nothing less than a win.
The losses I expected were Michigan State, Pitt, and USC. There was nothing in Michigan State's season to make me believe that the Irish should win this game, but I never believed that they couldn't. While last week's game against Michigan was a joy to watch, it only meant that the Irish were evolving into a great team and not that they had completed the process. Still, the itch got me on Thursday and by half time on Saturday afternoon I found myself enraged that the piddling Spartans dare to live up to the expectations I had set for them.
They did meet those expectations though. While all Irish fans hoped that Brown and Tenuta would find a way to stop Javon Ringer, few of them thought it would actually happen. Ringer is an excellent running back who has a total of twelve games in which he ran over 100 yards. The only reason he isn't being brought up, even casually, in Heisman talk is that he plays on the wrong team in the Big Ten.
The first loss of the season is always the most difficult, but a loss to a very decent Spartan squad early in the season is no reason to give up on this team. As always there are positives and negatives to take away from this game. As a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Let's start with the positives.
Jimmy Clausen is developing into a very good quarterback. He still makes mistakes, but that is why he is still developing. Otis Wiley's interception in the end zone in the first quarter was due to Clausen failing to check down to an open receiver and his second interception, again by Otis Wiley, was an unbelievably bad throw. Even so he is getting more mobile in the pocket and he has a lot of strength in his arm.
Golden Tate and Michael Floyd continue to make great impressions. Tate's end around for 24 yards was certainly a bright spot. There have been very few players at Notre Dame in the past few years that could break a tackle like he did later on in the fourth quarter and keep his knees up to get the first down.
Remove the place kicking game and the special teams unit had another good day. Armando Allen is still looking good on returns and threatens a big return and a possible 6 points on every catch. Allen is also proving why he is our number 1 back. Yes, this week's running game was not effective at all this week, but his ability to receive out of the backfield and his blocking fit him into the Darius Walker mold that is better fitted for this system.
The defensive line took their lumps from an offensive line that was inexperienced but still outweighed them by an average of over 25 pounds. Still there was a lot of pressure on Hoyer on the few occasions he did try to throw the ball. The problem with being unable to stop the run is that once the other team gets in the lead there is no reason for them to try to pass. The one time Hoyer did threaten with the arm the pass was broken up by Raeshon McNeil who showed a level of tenacity on that play that is becoming the identity of the Irish defense. This defense is coming along, but it seems that they feed off of the offense when it comes to emotion. If Brandon Walker had made his 48 yard field goal in the fourth quarter then it is conceivable that the defense would have been on a different emotional level and could have kept the Irish in the game for another possession.
Which brings us to the medicine. The kicking team is a non entity. The field goals that were missed in this game were by no means chip shots, but they were not out of the realm of possibility either. It's hard to believe that there is such a dearth of kicking talent in the world that Notre Dame can't find someone who can kick a 48-yarder. Also it doesn't help Mike Anello and the rest of the kick-off unit when the ball consistently fails to make it past the 15-yard line.
The game came down to two major problems for the Irish. The first was the kicking game and the second was the run; either doing it or stopping it. We have a stable of more than competent backs, but for some reason it looked like the offense was going through the motions every time a hand off was called. There can be no mistake that the identity of this team is the pass, but without the run as a threat the pass is only a moderately effective weapon. There were three sacks in this game and every one came from the fact that the defensive line knew Clausen would have the ball. The defense's continuing failure to stop the run is going to be the cause of a lot more problems as they negotiate their way through a schedule rife with teams that known how to move the ball on the ground.
Again emotion was the key to this game. Last week was a clinic on how emotion and energy are paramount in college football. There is an inevitable let down after a game like that, but the lackadaisical effort of the first two series this week is an abomination for a team that has proven that emotion is the fuel for their success. That doesn't mean this team didn't have heart. Heart and energy are two different things. The team never gave up and as the game wore on their energy and emotion picked up as well. It was just too late and this team isn't good enough to dog it for the first half.
Michigan State is not a great team, but they are a good team. It would not be surprising to see them fighting it out for the Big Ten Championship at the end of the season. ND is not a bad team, but its grasp on being a good team is tenuous at best. Yes, this is a loss and it hurts, but everyone including the fans needs to get over it. Notre Dame is 2-1 and is playing Purdue next week. Purdue is also 2-1 with a loss to Oregon and a couple of tough wins over Central Michigan and Northern Colorado.
It's an opportunity for this staff to work on their management of the team's emotions. It could be a tough game for a team that wasn't able to get over their loss or it could be a blowout orchestrated by a team looking for redemption. At this point it's anybody's guess, but I got this itch telling me the Irish are going to win.
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