Sunday, September 17, 2006

24 Hours Later

These are times that test a blogger's soul. Having only been in this blogging business a scant while (one year anniversary is coming up in two weeks), this is really the first time I'd had to hold court in the aftermath of a devastating loss, thanks to last year's spectacular run. Suffice to say, this late-night writing session has been a trying one in my brief career, as the overwhelming urge is to go into seclusion for a few days and forget about the game, a right which I waived with the increase in popularity in this project.

So I made a vow to give myself 24 hours in the wake of this week's game to compose myself, reflect on what happened, and possibly spend a few precious hours placing this devastating loss into perspective and focusing on non-college-football-type things. Much like any junkie in detox will tell you, the first 24 hours are the roughest, and everyone who visited me were wisely advised to wear a poncho. After blowing back into Chicago and unpacking, I safely hid away my keyboard (along with my firearms, prescription medicine, and elastic-waistband underpants) and feel quite vindicated in doing so, as a lot of the overwhelming emotion has subsided and I can give a sober reflection on the game without hyperbole and excessive Chicken Little-ism.

The team made mistakes. Much like I had discussed leading into this week, there is an incredibly large advantage in this series for the team who is the gritty underdog with a chip on their shoulder, and conversely a huge disadvantage to walking into this with a cocky swagger caused by media hype and crushingly unrealistic fan expectations. While the Irish played tight, unfocused, and tentative, the Wolverines came in clear-headed, loose, and determined. A few early Notre Dame mistakes were immediately capitalized upon by the confident and collected Wolverines, and the complexion of the game rapidly changed after Michigan was spotted three touchdowns. Out of grudging necessity (as possessions are scrace and valuable commodities in this post-3-2-5-e age against a running team), the offense went into desperation mode very early, forsaking the running (and thus play-action) game for a risky one-dimensional passing game against a defense that knew exactly what was coming. Against Michigan State last year, the Irish were able to fight their way back into the game after self-immolizing early, but it was clear to see that this Michigan defense bore no resemblance to the luscious soft-zone defense of the Spartans of 05. More pressure to force big plays turned into more turnovers, which slowly, painstakingly, pushed the game further out of reach.

It's difficult to make a truly objective judgment on the end result of the game. Brian at mgoblog was the first person to reach out after I got back onto the internet, and in our discusscion he summarized the game as a 27-21 game at heart, although the scoreboard did not reflect it due to the early hole Notre Dame found themselves in based on several touchdowns that were more or less given away. On one hand, I do feel that the game was more competitive than the score indicated, but, paradoxically, we were also fortunate to even have even an inkling of hope as late as we did in light of how outclassed we were in all phases of the game. Mentally, this team was a wreck, and it was directly reflected in how badly the team was beaten physically in the battle at the line, the bumfuzzlement in reading coverages, and the sloppy execution of previously-simple tasks like throwing a ten yard slant or wrapping up a running back.

That's about all the in-depth analysis I can give at this time, since I'm going on my alcohol-clouded memories from the stadium. If I can work up the willpower to watch the game on TiVo this week, I'll come up with a Good, Bad, and Ugly analysis, but that's a tossup at this point. But let's take a deep breath and look at the broader picture here:

  • Despite what it feels like, it's only one game. Huge rivalries and games with reputaitons on the line seem much more mortally important, but at the end of the day, every single game counts the same.
  • How we respond is key. Believe it or not, there are still 9 games left in the season, and winning out would be an unqualified success, even by our own insanely optimistic standards. Even us Notre Dame bloggers who have spearheaded the "irrational exuberance" campaign of 2006 went on record saying Michigan proved the stiffest challenge to a flawless season, and that a one-loss September would still be a tribute to how far this team has come since the bad old days. The key is to not pull the vanishing act that we saw many teams fall into after particularly-devastating losses (see: Pitt, Purdue, Michigan, Tennessee, and Michigan State '05). There needs to be a mindset of "The Season Starts this Saturday" in East Lansing.
  • We learned a lot about the team. Hopefully we can make constructive use out of this. Remember when we wrung our hands about Notre Dame's unproven rushing defense? About the re-emergence of costly coverage mistakes? About the inabillity to forcefully establish a run game? We weren't just being paranoid, these were legitimate fears based on an earnest evaluation of this team and the talent on the field. Nobody (well, except maybe Marco) thougt this team was flawless, and we all knew that success this year would depend on a series of fortunate breaks and performing above expectations. Well, we didn't get either of them on Saturday, and you saw what happened. Hey, that's football.
  • Hopefully, this loss will bring back that underdog attitude we thrived on last year. Let's face it, this team really hasn't looked the same in the wake of the "media bukkake" and overwhelming hype. It's a new and completely unfamiliar situation for this team (and its fans), especially since they've flourished in the role of fighting on the field for every ounce of respect rather than being constantly lauded with praise without even playing a down. This team has looked like it hasn't been playing like it has something to prove. Now, they have something to prove.
I think that's all I have for now. It's a tough loss, but it's not the end of the world. This was our toughest test of the year leading up to the showdown in Los Angeles, and I feel like the lessons that were forcefully taught to us as we hit the canvas hard will ultimately show rewards in our performance over the rest of the season. Michigan has a hell of a team, and there's no shame in losing to a squad like that one. At the end of the year, if we, God willing, have a 1-1 record against top five teams, I won't feel the least bit bad.

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