Sunday, September 23, 2007

Oh, (and) "Four" the Long One: Spartans Dismiss Irish 31-14

In its 119-year history, Notre Dame has never started a season 0-4. Never, that is, until Saturday when the Fighting Irish fell to Michigan State by a score of 31-14.

At least the day started promising as Notre Dame (going into the game, the only team in major college football to not score a touchdown on offense) scored not one, but two first half offensive touchdowns. Sure, the first one was only a three-play 9-yard drive (with senior Travis Thomas scoring on a 1-yard run), but at least they converted for their first lead of the season! Then in the second quarter, Notre Dame scored on a bona fide 80-yard drive, mostly on running plays, including a 45-yard jaunt by James Aldridge (who finished with 104 yds. on 18 carries) and a tough 3-yard touchdown run by Robert Hughes. True, the Spartans scored 17 points in between, but Notre Dame trailing by only 3 at the half at least gave the Irish faithful hope, unlike last week's 31-0 Michigan intermission deficit.

But alas, the second half was more like the first half of the Irish season. After returning the opening second half kickoff into Irish territory, the Spartans converted on 3rd and 9 AND 3rd and 17 plays to extend the lead to 10 points. Then after the Irish "O" failed on 4th and 1, State took over and converted on a 4th and 1 AND 4th and 2 on the same drive to put the game out of reach.

One hates to blame the Irish defense (led by safety David Bruton's 15 tackles and nifty interception) because due to offensive ineptness, poor kickoff coverage and puny punting, the Spartans started seven drives inside Irish territory. But if you can't hold the opposition on key plays and continue to allow huge chunks of yardage on the ground (this week State gained 288 rushing yards) your defense won't win games either.

Still, despite progress in the running game, the offense, once Weis' greatest asset, remains his biggest concern. The change is summarized by the fact that last year when Notre Dame trailed by 16 to Michigan State with only half a quarter to play, play-makers Quinn, McKnight, and Samardzija led a classic Irish comeback, but in 2007, trailing by almost an identical score but lacking a line that can protect or receivers who can get separation in the vertical passing game, Weis took starting quarterback Jimmy Clausen (who finished 7 for 13, but for only 53 yds.) out and all but conceded the rout. "They have to believe there's a payoff," said Weis who practiced his players harder than ever last week. "At this point there's been no payoff but you keep on working. At least we looked like a football team out there ..."

"You've got to keep fighting," echoed Irish guard Sam Young. "If you quit, where's that going to get you?"

Presumedly, a spot on the Notre Dame sidelines, where now, officially departed from the team, quarterback Demetrius Jones sat Saturday, wearing an Irish baseball cap, soaking in the sun and watching his former mates suffer. But with "Fighting Irish" in my title, and Our Lady in my heart, you'll not see this writer quitting Notre Dame any time soon, or any time EVER.

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My orthodox Catholic friends have often discussed the end times, about how we believe that all the cafeteria and cultural Catholics, those who keep the Catholic title but are Episcopalians, Unitarians, or mere barbarians in practice, will all be dispensed, leaving only the die-hard Catholics to wage the final war. Perhaps Notre Dame's 2007 season is a symbolic precursor of those dreaded days, and after this year, only those fans who love Our Lady will remain.

Both Ara Parseghian and Holtz, two Notre Dame Hall-of-Fame coaches, endured winless seasons (although not at Notre Dame!) and became even better coaches for it. "There's going to be a payoff," stated Charlies Weis, but it will be interesting to see what players and fans have the fortitude to remain when the payoff comes.

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