Chuck Martin, as usual, was correct. Upon arriving in South Bend from Grand Valley State he remarked, and this is a paraphrase, “It’s interesting and a challenge to come to a place where if you go 10-1, they ignore the “10” and talk about the “1!” Okay, Chuck. 12-1. And we know what we’re thinking about. Notre Dame has had some history, even in modernity, of coming back strong from a year that ended in frustration and ignominy. Taking the agony of late season and bowl defeats and turning that PRESSURE into DIAMONDS. Once again, we tour the archives….
It was 1965. Ara had awakened echoes, and shaken thunder, after a quiet decade, in ’64. But in 1965, the second season ended not with a bang but two whimpers. First was a 12-3 loss against the physical brutality of Michigan State, in which the Irish offense had NEGATIVE rushing yardage. The following week, the Irish traveled to Little Havana to meet the Miami Hurricanes. The game ended in a scoreless tie. Whoop-te-do! The vaunted Parseghian/Pagna offense had amassed 3 points in its last two games. .375 points per quarter! Was Michigan State just too powerful, too massive for Notre Dame? Was it Huarte, and not Ara’s and Tom’s offense that keyed ’64?
But Ara furrowed his brow, the players worked, a few players like Hanratty and Seymour would be eligible as Sophs in the Fall of ’66, and the team would mature. 1966 would bring a defense like no other in the last half-century, an all-cylinders offense and a national title, clinched with a 51-0 victory over USC in the Coliseum.
Then came 1972. Ara’s Irish had not beaten SC since 1966 and went to the Coliseum in late November to try again. Anthony Davis scored six touchdowns, and made it look easy as the final was Southern Cal 45-Notre Dame 23. The Irish still had enough wins for an Orange Bowl berth against Nebraska and Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers. The game made the SC tilt seem competitive as the final was Nebraska 40-Notre Dame 6. Neither game was as close as the final score indicated. The average of the losses was 42.5-14.5, yes, right in that nauseating 42-14 neighborhood. Had Notre Dame been lapped by the speed teams like SC and Nebraska? Were we permanently at a lower level?
Ara thought not. His first year starter in 1972, Tom Clements, worked to improve in his second year as a starter. Ara was working on closing the speed gap, and was recruiting players like Browner, Bradley, Hunter and Fry. The players worked, matured, lifted, practiced harder. 1973 produced Ara’s second national championship, a solid victory over USC and the thrilling Sugar Bowl clinching the title.
We now move to 1987, with Ara retired, Devine departed, and Lou Holtz now in charge. After cleaning up the Faust detritus in ’86, he 1987 season showed promise, with big wins over Michigan, USC and Alabama. But the year ended bitterly, with a 20-21 loss at bitter wind-swept Penn State (it’s still pretty bitter in State College, no matter what the weather!) and an unHoltizian shutout loss, 24-0 to Miami in the Orange Bowl. The old University of Miami (Coral Gables) had won the title under Schnellenberger in ’83, but he left to be replaced by Jimmy Johnson, who went to high school with Janis Joplin. And in 1985, the former University of Miami at Coral Gables became Da U, a Hurricane brother from another mother-. The debutante bowl was October 19, 1985. The Hurricanes, under their coach, who had a to settle as he’d never beaten OU while the coach of Oklahoma State. Johnson and his minions were eager to visited Norman. Led by the, well, intense and fearsome Jerome Brown, the Canes came swaggering out of the locker room, calling out and pointing at the OU faithful, then whipping the Sooners 27-14 and (cleanly and legally) breaking Troy Aikman’s leg in the process. College football had never seen anything like “Da U” before. In the 80’s Notre Dame was a pathetic 1-6 against Florida State and Miami. Florida schools seemed too big, too fast, too bad, too much. The ’87 Irish sought redemption in Hesiman Winner Tim Brown’s hometown, Dallas against A&M in the Cotton Bowl. The game was not even close, as the Domers expected. But the direction was wrong, as A&M rolled 35-10. This fostered one of the most annoying Notre Dame trivia questions of All Time: Was it more embarassing to lose to Buck Belue in the Sugar Bowl or Bucky Richardson in the Cotton Bowl?
Lou got busy, Alvarez got busy and Vinnie Cerrato stayed busy. In the ensuing Fall of 1988 Rice, who had some shaky moments in his first year as a starter, stabilized. There was a freshman, from Wilkes-Barre, PA. That’s where you usually went, in the words of La Times’ Jim Murray with a canary and a letter of intent, to the mills and mines to find stud linemen. But this time the Irish found some speed, a wispy kid who seemed as fast as a rocket. And Raghib Ismail arrived in South Bend. The Irish beat the feared Canes, then USC in the Coliseum, then West Virginia in the then Fiesta Bowl, a sweet answer to the bitter taste of late 1987. 1988 National Champions.
So, it’s in our DNA to do this. But it’s never easy and the task is different each time. Once again, we confront the challenge. We had close wins over our 12 regular season opponents, but none were fluky. Nor was the defeat to Alabama fluky. Our true enemy has revealed itself, and it is the SEC.
2013 will be unusual. Even if we were to run the table (and let’s not get ahead of ourselves-we could have a MUCH better team and still lose to Michigan or Stanford, or both) there would be an 800 pound elephant in the room. It would be a Crimson elephant with a big script “A” on it. Like it or not, the madding crowd will not believe we can beat a good SEC team until we BEAT a good SEC team. For the coaches, this is tricky. They must prepare for and respect each opponent, while simultaneously building a squad that can slay an SEC dragon when called upon. And what works against the Michigans, Oklahomas and Stanfords will not necessarily work against a good SEC team.
How do you do it?
(1) Get Better players, let them percolate up the depth chart. This is in place. All you need do is look at the list of players who signed LOIs in February 2010 in juxtaposition to the list of players who signed LOIs in February 2013. The contrast is striking. And the staff now has this recruiting thing down as well as the hunt for 18 year olds can go. They have set the foundation for a solid recruiting class in 2014. At a minimum, the August 2013 roster will be more talented than the August 2012 roster. And it seems nearly assured, as the 2014 inchoate class will replace the 2010 class, that the August 2014 roster will be more talented than the August 2012 roster. At that point the talent should reach a plateau, given consistent recruiting. It would seem a near-given that Notre Dame will have one of the nation’s ten most talented rosters each year, every year. The differentiation going forward will be the difference makers who arrive on both sides of the ball.
(2) let the team ripen and mature. Early last year we were a magnificent front seven which alternately carried an inexpeerienced secondary and an inexperienced, growing offense. That changed some near the end of the year. But to become a GREAT football team we will have to be able to do something that the 2012 team never did. On a day when the defense (and it hurts to say this) is struggling to keep the opponent out of the end zone, the offense will need to stand up, rise up, light up the scoreboard, and outscore a great defense. Until that occurs we will not yet have arrived.
(3) Get longer (through recruiting to profile), stronger and tougher. Mae West suggested that there “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful” Walken mandated more cowbell. More Longo, more strength, more agililty. We closed the gap with Stanford. Now let’s take it up a notch. One of the wonders of nature is the marginal efficiency of just ONE extra rep (even if a fail) each set. Memories of 1/7/13 should be motivation enough for that. Tougher scrimmages and practices will also help.
(4) Compete against our own potential as well as against the teams we play. Sadly, the Big X is eroding, slowly sinking without trace. Each year, Wisconsin is the darling of the media as a “dark horse” national championship candidate, and each year it loses its bowl team. The Big X now, top to bottom is closer to the MAC than to the SEC. Riddle me this, how many Big X coaches have been promoted from the MAC JV? (Hints: Hoke, Beckman, Kill, Hazell). We must win, but we must excel. Each week, we must beat the scheduled foe, but also close the gap with the SEC. This is tricky, subtle, delicate, but it’s why Kelly’s salary has two commas in it.
(5) We must coach and scheme better Where’s the answer? Sun Tzu:
If the enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.
If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.
If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them.
If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them.
Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
– Sun Tzu, the Art of War
“The art of using troops is this:
……When ten to the enemy’s one, surround him;
……When five times his strength, attack him;
……If double his strength, divide him;
……If equally matched you may engage him;
……If weaker numerically, be capable of withdrawing;
……And if in all respects unequal, be capable of eluding him,
……….for a small force is but booty for one more powerful.”
Sun Tzu, the Art of War
Sun Tzu, for example, would not have let the Tide run the stretch play to the left without a better, faster response. This is where the coaches must advance to the next level, and have schemes and adjustments that will work against an SEC opponent, not just a Big X one. “More” is not necessarily the answer; the answers may be “Different” “Subtle” “Varied.” The schemes which shut down Michigan State and OU will not work against a team that will run away from Tuitt, seal Nix and then use the likes of Kouandjio and Warmack to batter through.
There are miles to go. This is hard work. A lot harder than posting or blogging. And there are no shortcuts. In the growth of a football team there are not “stepwise discontinuous functions” (Q.v.) You must negotiate each rung of the ladder, climb up each yard of the mountain.
But let us not forget the miles traveled. Remember, between 11/22/08 and 11/21/09 the Irish lost at HOME, on the FOOTBALL FIELD, to Syracuse, Navy and Uconn. That’s just more than a thousand days ago. It’s actually a shorter distance to where we need to go than it was from that schematically advantaged nightmare to 12-1.
We’re not where we want to be.
We’re not where we need to be.
We’re not where we are going to be.
BUT WE’RE NOT WHERE WE WERE!