The Fighting Irish moved to 7-0 by defeating two opponents. The first was a game Cougars team, going all out for a signature win. The second, more daunting opponent was the physical and mental hangover from the OT win against Stanford.
While Ev Golson, smiling on the sideline, did not participate, Tommy Rees handled business to guide the Irish to victory. He simultaneously demonstrated why, despite his remarkable competence as a reliever, he doesn’t measure up as the ND starting quarterback. Rees passed early to Eifert, forcing the Cougars to cover Tyler more closely, which provided a fulcrum for the Irish rushing attack, which gashed BYU’s defense for quadruple their customary rushing yardage yield.
At the 6:31 mark of the third quarter the Cougars missed a field goal, giving the ball to the Irish who trailed 14-7. In their next three possessions, the Irish generated 65 yards in 7, 72 yards in 8 plays, and a suffocating, clock-chewing 48 yards in 9 plays. And the Irish were then ahead, for good, 17-14.
The Notre Dame defense, having gone 17 quarters without yielding a touchdown, gave up two passing TDS in the middle of the second quarter. That was it. They began a new two quarter no TD streak in the second half, and have now played 7 games, 28 quarters, 420 minutes without allowing a rushing TD.
This 2012 Notre Dame team channels Rooster Cogburn. They have shown true grit in four 4th quarters, protecting leads against Purdue and Michigan, and coming from behind against Stanford and the Cougars. Make no mistake, this toughness is a habit, a trait, not mere luck.
Player of the Game: Theo Riddick. Many internet cognoscenti were certain that Wood was the better rusher. Theo said no. He had two archival runs. The first was in the second quarter, a Reggie Brooks/Ray Zellars/Irv Smith-evoking, tackle breaking burst through the left side for 27 yards. The other gem was the “I ain’t down” show of focus for 55 yards late in the 3rd quarter.
With the final margin at 17-14, the Irish left the field 7-0 and bowl eligible. I think we have another game next Saturday.
HOW GOOD ARE THE IRISH?
We add one feature to this week’s unit rankings. We identify a “pivot player” whose performance,if improved, can elevate the performance of his unit. Admittedly, this is more conjectural than evidentiary, but let’s try it.. We’ll use “Keep an Eye on” but that will identify the “pivot player.”
Front seven-consistent excellence. Excellence from the starters, quality depth, play with good, clean violence without stupid roughness penalties and have no apparent weakness. Keep an Eye on:
Ishaq Williams-has playmaking ability but Shembo is playing so well it’s tough to get snaps. Nevertheless Diaco and Ishaq must collaborate to get him on the field. He’s ready to be a difference maker right now.
TES-they catch passes. Eifert is America’s best receiving TE. They block like madmen (especially #85 other than his mulligan against Stanford-he’s a great run blocker, just learning as a pass blocker) and can get downfield when needed.
Keep an Eye on: Koyack-if he can elevate his play just a little bit, then Kelly can feel safer in using the three TE formation.
RBS-yes, they have EARNED the promotion to BCS level. This is a competent, mature group, and they now block better than they have in the past. And yes, we are counting Theo Riddick in both the WR and RB group.
Keep an Eye on: George Atkinson III, has progressed steadily, but if he can become even a minor pass catching threat, the offense opens up. Can you just envision him in space with a linebacker in front of him? He also could use ten more pounds of muscle on his upper body.
New Year’s Day Bowl Level
OL-Purdue is now officially a mulligan. As Golson and the passing game progress, the run opportunities open up. Keep in mind, that in October we have, in three games, rushed for 796 yards, or 265 per game. That pace would rank 8th in America in rushing offense. The left side is great, the right side OK. Biggest remaining tests are OU and SC.
Keep an Eye on: Chris Lombard, if he can solidify his play, the right side can close the gap with the left side.
QBS-Golson has exceeded expectations. He continues to excel in the short to intermediate passing game, and is improving as a runner. His command of the offense, the huddle and the field are getting better. Psst!! Everett: ball security, Ball Security, BALL SECURITY!! A “good” outing against OU, whatever that means, could earn a bump in grade.
Keep an Eye on: Tommy Rees – doesn’t it feel as if he has one more relief stint in him? Oh, and have you noticed a tall blond kid on the sideline, that kid from Columbus, Indiana. Well, he won’t play this year, but nothing he’s seen on the field scares him.
WRS – steadily improving, but not daunting. The youngsters are progressing, but they need to take another step up. They really don’t drop balls. T.J. Jones has now arrived as a playmaker. He’s not a gamebreaker, but he comes up big in the clutch.
Keep an eye on: Chris Brown-if he can catch just one bomb, it will change him and the disrupt the peace of mind of opposing coordinators.
DBS-have played better than expected for three first year (and two surprise) starters. They are athletic and play physically enough. The three biggest tests (OU, SC and bowl opponent) are yet to come. They are a pleasantly surprising 8th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Keep an Eye on:Matthias Farley and Elijah Shumate. Farley survived and advanced against Stanford, but he has more tests to pass. Shumate is getting more comfortable, and if the coaches can get comfortable lining him up against WRS of OU and SC, that’s a great leap forward. This unit is still the Achilles heel.
AN INTANGIBLE, BUT REAL AND POWERFUL FEATURE OF THIS TEAM.
This is an unusually unified football team, even by Notre Dame standards. They trust each other, they lift each other up, they are fond of each other, they are accountable to each other in addition to the uniform, the fans and the coaches. Great parts, for sure, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The most unified team, top to bottom, since 1993.
A HISTORICAL INTERLUDE
Did you hear the one about the two bookends that Notre Dame built in Norman?
In 1953, Bud Wilkinson, a product of Bernie Bierman’s wondrous machine at Minnesota, was in his seventh year as OU head coach. He had coached Billy Vessels to the Heisman in 1952.
The incomparable Frank Leahy brought his Notre Dame team to open the ’53 season in Norman. Leahy was thoughtful enough to bring Ralph Guglielmi, Neil Worden, Joe Heap and Fenwick’s own Johnny Lattner with him. It was September 26, 1953 and Notre Dame beat Oklahoma 28-21. Wilkinson responded and the Sooners finished Ike’s first term without another loss.
In 1957, Notre Dame was struggling under Terry Brennan. Buzzards were circling Cartier. The Irish were scheduled to visit Norman. The swift Sooners had won 47 in a row, the longest streak ever in the history of man’s inhumanity to man (and still the longest ever). Revenge, sweet revenge was on the minds of Sooner Nation. In they came, Eastward from Lone Wolf and Guymon, Southwest from Okmulgee and Claremore, up from the rich oil fields of Duncan and the rich bass population of Lake Eufala. It was November 16, 1957.
Jumping up off the sacrificial altar like Isaac did when Abraham halted the downstroke at Mount Moriah, the Irish refused to be the 48th sacrificial lamb and ended the revengefest with a sweet, short waltz by Dick Lynch around right end for a 7-0 final margin. 47 it was and remained. Not one win more. The bookends were built, and yet remain. (Yeah, we built two around UCLA’s 88 game hoop streak, but that was in South Bend.
Oh, the Sooners tried for revenge a decade later in 1966. They had a wondrous middle guard named Granville Liggins, speed and ferocity at linebacker with Eugene Ross and Hary Hettmannsperger, and they planned to ambush the big slow Yankees from Notre Dame with Sooner Speed. Uh-Uh. The big slow Yankees include Page, Duranko, Lynch, Hardy, Gmitter, Conjar, Seymour, Goeddeke and others. Notre Dame 38-OU 0, and it really wasn’t that close.
Interestingly. Brian Kelly brought his Cincy Bearcats to Owen Field in 2008. They lost 52-28, to the Sooner team that Florida beat for the BCS title, but they scored points and did not back down.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN NORMAN
(1) Survive the opening onslaught. Stoops played and coached for Hayden Fry, but Stoops credits Spurrier, for whom he served as defensive coordinator in the mid-90′s, for teaching Bob how to prepare for and win “big games.” Unlike Midwesterners like Hayes, Holtz and Schembechler, who always kept some powder dry for the second half of big games, Spurrier preferred to launch his most devastating ordnance early. Stoops will have OU pull out all the stops, and attack aggressively early. Notre Dame must merely survive the opening salvo in the first ten minutes, before the game settles in.
(2) The moment of truth for our secondary. Landry Jones is a four year starter. He has a keen, mature eye for weakness and vulnerability.
(3) Jones will throw to tall, talented receivers, even though four of them, Metoyer (JC transfer) Saunders (the Fresno transfer), Brown (the PSU transfer) and freshman Durron Neal are relatively new to the Sooner system. They have speed and can catch the ball. If you were to count the passes Metoyer caught as a JC, that Brown caught in State College, and Saunders caught at Fresno, it would be a large number. We will get a mega dose of four receiver sets. These are, by a margin, the best receivers the secondary will have seen, including, and in particular, on our own practice field.
(4) Diaco must both protect his secondary, and still find ways to generate pressure against Landry, who is not too nimble. Of course, teams have been trying to sack Jones for four years, with limited success. This is NOT a vintage OU offensive line.
(5) OU is not a strong running team, but is opportunistic with talented Damien Williams leading the running backs.
(6) The Belldozer stops here. Blake Bell has been a short yardage and goal line player. Not against the Irish. Cf Taylor, Stepfan.
(7) The Notre Dame offense must step up. Kansas State got 213 yards rushing and controlled the ball for 34 minutes. Klein had 79 of those yards. But Notre Dame must run effectively, both to set up the pass and to keep Jones & Co. off the field. A litmus test is that Notre Dame must significantly, materially outrush Oklahoma. It SEEMS like a prerequisite to a Notre Dame victory. Long drives could help.
(8) This is not the sack crew of old at OU. There is no Gerald McCoy or Tommie Harris. A combination of good protection and moving Golson around should give him time to throw.
(9) Don’t underestimate Mike Stoops as a defensive coordinator. He is a big improvement over the departed and overrated Brent Venables, now at Clemson, who took too many chances and gave up a lot of big plays. Mike Stoops doesn’t do that. Remember, he shut out Florida State in the 2000 BCS championship. No easy yards, no easy points.
(10) Our toughest opponent, by a margin. So FAR!
REMEMBER THE AWAY GAME ADVANTAGE
This is only the second true road game for the Irish, the first having been in East Lansing. The Irish have enjoyed home cooking and the insidious influence of backslapping and wide-eyed praise from their fellow students since September 15th. Once they get on that plane, they get to look each other, and only each other, in the eye once again, furloughing the student impulse and remembering that they are a team on a mission.
It is a mission that they all dreamed about and hoped for, an implied proviso in the Notre Dame bargain. Still, it is surprising that they board the plane with a 7-0 record. Well, it’s been said before at Notre Dame, with a different predicate, but the punch line is still apropos, Fighting Irish: This is that game. You are that team.