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IBG: Life at the half-way point

Oct 14, 2010, 8:30 AM EDT

With Western Michigan not exactly the sexiest of opponents and the season exactly half-way finished, the guys at We Never Graduate hosted the Irish Blogger Gathering with a fairly meaty selection of questions.

I’ll do my best to answer the bonus question without getting Jack Donaghy calling downstairs for my head.

The Irish have posted back-to-back victories over teams that have
given us fits the past decade to pull back to .500, but when you head to
the message boards on ND Nation, Rivals, etc. all you see is
unrelenting negativity. Some cry Kelly’s in over his head and doomed to
fail, others bitch and moan about the run-to-pass ratio, and many more
say that even though we’ve won the last two there’s no improvement over
last year’s team. What’s your take on the negativity that’s swirling
around the program on the internet? What message would you like to
convey to ND Nation?

Cynicism and negative are hardly anything new for Notre Dame football, and definitely aren’t relegated to the websites mentioned above. (Just take a look at some of the comments around here.) I’m not old enough to remember the early days of Lou or much of anything before, but I’m guessing since Knute Rockne, the Irish fanbase has been filled with a small — but incredibly vocal — group of blowhard windbags.

Here’s a few comments that I feel work for just about every one of “those guys.”

1) College football coaches know more about football than you do… I promise.
2) The techniques you learned back when you played are most likely wrong… I promise.
3) This isn’t the Rockne or Leahy era. It’s a lot harder to win football games now.
4) Installing a new offensive system with an unproven quarterback, three new offensive linemen and without your All-American wide receiver brings some growing pains.
5) For those worried about the run/pass ratio: If you look at the stats — the Irish run more on non-scoring drives than on scoring drives.

All that being said, I don’t blame Irish fans for taking a wait and see approach. We’ve been burned badly by the last two coaches, and there are far too many intelligent people to fall head-over-heels in love again.

When Western Michigan and Tulsa were announced as 2010 opponents last
fall there was a full-throttle meltdown among ND fans that was surpassed
only by The F-Word Incident
in April in terms of sheer outrage. Well, if the opinions expressed
then are the same now the apocalypse has finally arrived and a MAC squad
is about to forever sully our field by stepping foot on it. Have your
thoughts on the Western Michigan/Tulsa games changed since they were
announced? Would you rather ND Stadium sell out and continue the streak
that extends back almost 40 years or see the streak broken so that the
powers-that-be know just how disrespected you feel by the audacity they
showed in scheduling such inferior opponents?

Jack Swarbrick needed to fill a schedule that was left for him, and Tulsa and Western Michigan did the Irish a favor by signing on the dotted line. That said, if you want to get angry, get angry about how front-loaded the schedule is. Six straight games against tough competition is a recipe for disaster, especially when you’re starting a season without an experienced quarterback.

I’d much rather see a game with Tulsa or Western Michigan in the opening two weeks of the season, when teams start to find their identity and players get readjusted to the game. If Notre Dame’s schedule allows them to get back to BCS Bowls consistently, I don’t think Swarbrick and the ND brass will be apologizing for a non-traditional opponent anytime soon.

Most people painted AD Jack Swarbrick as the villain when the Western
Michigan/Tulsa games were made public. Since then he’s made drastic
moves in locking down opponents on future schedules, went through the
process of firing Weis and hiring Kelly, and navigated ND through the
murky waters of conference realignment. Has your personal opinion on
Swarbrick been altered over the past year?

Maybe I’m the only one, but hiring Jack Swarbrick is the best decision Notre Dame athletics has made since they hired Lou Holtz. I wrote a column a few months ago calling Swarbrick the knight in shining armor that saved college football, and after spending a few weekends back on campus and talking to people that are well-connected at the university, they all seem to agree with my theory.

It’s hard for my personal opinion to change much on Swarbrick, just because I’ve had so much respect for the job he’s done since day one.

We’re at the halfway point so it’s a perfect time to step back real
quick and evaluate what’s happened thus far. What have been your two
biggest surprises at this juncture of the season? Choose one positive
and one negative.

My one positive surprise? Call it a tie between David Ruffer and Ian Williams. When a group of us selected the Top 25 players on the Irish roster, nobody put Ruffer on their list. Right now, he’s probably running second place for offensive MVP behind Armando Allen. Add Ian Williams to the list because he’s been an absolutely force at nose guard. Williams made himself a lot of money with the work he’s done this year, and he’s a perfect example of the maturation process of a defensive lineman — and a good reminder why it pays to redshirt big bodies if you can. (Imagine if Williams was coming back for a fifth year?)

My one negative? It’s got to be the two last-second losses. The Irish still have struggled to become closers, something that I’m expecting to see change in the second half of the season. If you’re a Notre Dame fan, there’s nothing that could feel worse than taking a loss in the last minute to both the Wolverines and the Spartans. 

Which player that hasn’t contributed much to this point in the season do you see emerging as a contributor down the stretch?

I expect to see more out of Darius Fleming, who hasn’t been the player that I expected. The CAT linebacker is a position that should thrive in Bob Diaco’s system and while Fleming played a nice game last Saturday, he still disappears too often and struggled mightily against the roll-out boot pass in coverage as well. (Dishonorable mention should probably go to the entire outside linebacker position, who I’m expecting a gigantic second half from.)

Scholarships are running thin and some tough decisions are going to have
to be made this spring when it comes to offering 5th years to current
seniors. If you’re Coach Kelly who do you offer and who is left out in
the cold to make room for the incoming freshman class?  Here’s a link to the 2011 scholarship chart for a list of potential 5th years.

This is a tough question, and I’m going to hold off going too far into detail, only because I don’t want to offend any of the guys that might not be asked back. Here’s a few names that absolutely need to come back without question:

Harrison Smith
Gary Gray
Michael Floyd
Kyle Rudolph

If the Irish can get both these four back on campus for their senior seasons, they’ll probably feel better making the tough decision on guys like Matt Romine, Emeka Nwankwo, and Steve Paskorz. Depth at places like the secondary and defensive end will likely play a role, as will the depth chart along the offensive line.

BONUS: You’ve been challenged to a Tailgate Olympiad by some chaunce from
Southern Cal and you need to assemble a dream team of your fellow Irish
fans to compete in the following events: Flip Cup (four-man
team), Beer Pong, Hamburger Eating Contest (two-man team),
Cornhole/Bags/Whatever You Call It, Individual Race (Editor’s note: It’s bad for you), and
Thunderdome (Editor’s note: It’s bad for you, too). Your captaincy role on this team is Ryder Cup style so you’ll be
monitoring the proceedings rather than actually partaking. Throw some
internet love out to your fellow tailgate All-Stars that have delivered
through the years and let us know who you’d put in each slot to make
sure Troy fell in the parking lot as well as on the field…and while
you’re at it, tell us what three songs you’d be blasting as you rolled
to victory.

I’ve long retired from competitive tailgating, but have plenty of great memories of some Hall of Fame performances back in the college days. I was never a flip cup guy… didn’t see the point. As for throwing ping-pong balls, I’d call on he thunderous right arm of former Irish great Drew Duff. I’ll steer clear of anything called the Thunderdome that didn’t include the 1987 Minnesota Twins, as well as an individual race — that never ends well. But if it comes to a two-man hamburger eating contest, you could do no better than the dynamic duo of former Irish hockey players Connor Dunlop and Brett Henning. These two would steal candy from a baby, as long as it had enough carbs and saturated fats.

As for the three songs — I’ll defer those choices to good friend and former hockey great John Wroblewski, who would pull the plug on my music and put on his iPod anyway…   

  1. a68domer - Oct 14, 2010 at 10:22 AM

    Excellent questions – and answers! I am a huge BK fan and believe he will lead the IRISH back – in time. We like to say that Patience is a Virtue, but it is also a trait severely lacking across ND Nation. OK, it has been 20+ years, but we finally have a leader/coach with a Lou-type demeanor – and Plan! 2010, so far, kinda reminds me of Lou’s first year. I can’t wait for BK’s third year – oops, there’s that patience thing again.
    GO IRISH!!

  2. borromini - Oct 14, 2010 at 10:31 AM

    I thought one of the questions was about which Seniors would you ask back for a 5th year…why is Floyd and Rudolph included in your answer…aren’t they Juniors?

  3. Keith Arnold - Oct 14, 2010 at 12:30 PM

    It is — but I tweaked the question to include people that will or won’t be returning, because that’s when scholarships become available.

  4. TJM - Oct 14, 2010 at 5:02 PM

    I have been a big ND fan all of my life but didn’t go there (my son did). I love the alumni but they are too critical. I go back to the Dan Devine era when two shirt-tail relatives of mine (both grads of ND) hated Devine because he was boring at Alumni receptions. When I reminded them of his national championship, they dismissed it saying he had Parsegian’s recruits. The Alum and Sub Alums need to ease off the pedal.

  5. Sean Conners - Oct 14, 2010 at 5:25 PM

    Thank you for positive vibes!
    We have the most unrealistic fan base, and look ridulous vs. supportive! If this was year 3, then sure start the whining, but year 1 at 3-3 with a brand new everything is not all that bad!
    Just like some more stadium noise, lets rally behind the troops!
    Good article!

  6. MouthOfTheSouth - Oct 14, 2010 at 11:03 PM

    Nice, Keith. But you NBC guys need to get approval from Donaghy, Geist, NBC’s parent corporation GE, or NBC’ parent-parent corporation the Sheinhart Wig Company to change your web layout. It is too wide, which makes it really tough to read on an iPhone.

  7. Ted - Oct 15, 2010 at 2:26 AM

    Enjoyed the post, and yes Irish fans are impatient, to an absurd degree. What else is new?
    As to the note about guys coming back, I definitely see Smith and Gray coming back. Conventional wisdom at the beginning of the season was that Floyd and Rudolph were likely gone after this year. But with Rudolph out for the season with the hamstring, one has to think that increases the likelihood of him coming back. Clearly the guy’s a big-time talent but missing half the season seems likely to hurt his draft stock. Coming back next season, with a more experienced QB and team overall would likely allow him to showcase his talent and boost his position.
    Floyd is an interesting case. It looks to me as though the first half of the season has exposed him as raw — a big time talent but one that hasn’t matured yet. My bet is that if he does jump to the NFL this year, he’ll drop like a stone on draft day (like Jimmy did). Again, smarter to stay another year and mature, and become a potential top ten selection overall.
    Will he stay? Hard to know but unless he has a real breakout in the second half of the season I don’t think the hype about “first round pick” will be there, which may increase the odds he does.

  8. ugetwutuask4 - Oct 15, 2010 at 7:25 PM

    I couldn’t agree with you and Keith anymore. Swarbrick is brilliant. Schedule is tough but managable now and in coming years. Flemming needs to take his game to another level his time is now. Give Coach Kelly time and he will take us to the “big one”, be it by the air or the ground game. Take a chill pill “blogger nut-heads”, we will get there. Winning one is a whole different story unless Floyd and Rudolph come back and we sign a top two or three recruiting class come February.
    Go Irish!!
    Kick Western Michigan’s asses.

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