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2011 vs. 2006: Avoiding the pitfalls of great expectations

Jun 22, 2011, 11:10 AM EST

notre-dame-si-cover

It’s human nature to want to paint with a wide brush. You cover more ground, get your point across quicker, and it’s far more enjoyable to slap a roller across a wall than deal with the tiny corner of trim that you need to cover with blue tape and wrench your back to get just right.

But when it comes to Notre Dame football, it seems most outside the influence of the Golden Dome are happy to roll away, convinced that a wide swath of color will be enough to get people nodding in agreement.

The always excellent Spencer Hall wrote about the true horror of “Notre Dame and Possible Competence.” It’s an excellent read, and as usual will make you chuckle mightily in between the flashbacks that make you grab a pillow and burrow your head.

Here’s a quick snippet to help you get Spencer/Orson’s flavor, while also getting a pretty firm grasp on the angle Hall is taking:

We realize an entire generation of football fans have grown up to maturity (or at least as close as you’ll ever get to maturity) without Notre Dame being “good.” They have seen spikes, sure. Tyrone Willingham, a degenerative nerve disease and coach, took Notre Dame to ten wins in 2002.  Charlie Weis, who later went on to work as offensive coordinator for an obscure team in Central America, led the Irish to a 10-2 record in 2006. That season ended with an exhibition against Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl. Remember the time Charlie Weis tried to out-Les Miles Les Miles? Oh, Charlie.

To squirt the lemon directly in Irish fans’ eyes, he links to ten minutes of LSU running the Irish off the field, a game that made Jamarcus Russell about $40 million more than he deserved.

But that’s not the point of this column. Rather, it’s two-fold: To acknowledge the very weird fascination with people’s willingness to call the Post-Holtz era not just the Dark Ages of Irish football, but to categorize it as abject failure from the day of Bob Davie’s hiring. If you didn’t know any better, the lights have been off since Boston College beat the Irish in late November of 1993.

Of course, it hasn’t been all bad. And it was just five short years ago that Notre Dame was in a position to make a title run, finding a place on the cover of Sports Illustrated and having one of its lead columnists attempt to dispel some myths as he defended the Irish’s No. 1 preseason ranking.

With the Irish sitting at 10-1 after rebounding from a difficult loss to Michigan, those prognositcators didn’t look all that bad. But ugly losses to USC and LSU gave Irish fans a long offseason to think about two brow-beatings, and revisionist history probably makes that Irish team look even worse than in actually was.

As we look at the lofty expectations that are being heaped on the Irish, it makes sense to look back at that 2006 team, and the pitfalls that tripped them up, and see if there could be similar obstacles in the way of this Notre Dame squad.

First off: Take a gander at the SI cover and you’ll have your first clue. No — not the fact that Justin Bieber completely ripped off Brady Quinn’s look, but the fact that Travis Thomas is on the cover. When you’re depending on a converted running back to start at outside linebacker, especially one that’s about 210 pounds, you know that your defense is awfully thin.

While it’s easy to see now, the Irish couldn’t compete in the front seven. Sure, the Irish had BCS level guys like Victor Abiamiri (who might have thrived with a redshirt freshman season) and Trevor Laws (who did), but they also relied on a 270-pound defensive tackle like Derek Landri and defensive ends like Chris Frome and Ronald Talley. At linebacker, Maurice Crum led the team in tackles with Joe Brockington, mostly only a special teams presence, starting nine games for the Irish. Two of the Irish’s top three tacklers were safeties, with Tommy Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe filling up the stat sheet, not necessarily good things.

The Irish got the production it wanted out of its running game, with Darius Walker gaining 1267 yards on five-yards a carry. But Brady Quinn missed the presence of Maurice Stovall and Anthony Fasano, and his yards per attempt went down a steep 1.5 yards per throw as his average yardage went from 326 to 263 per Saturday, with defenses taking away the deep strike that put Jeff Samardzija on the map. It’s an under-discussed topic, but the Irish offense that was so shockingly dangerous through the air in 2005 was largely kept in check when defenses adapted to Weis and his tendencies.

As we turn the focus to 2011, the Irish might actually be most worried about their offense keeping up with the defense, a shocking proposition and something most pundits didn’t think possible at Notre Dame. It’s also interesting to consider that the Irish just went through the growing pains of losing their co-leading receiver like the 2006 team did, when the Irish struggled to adapt to life without Golden Tate last year with Michael Floyd constantly seeing coverages rolled his way.

If you’re looking for a place that the Irish need to pick up the slack offensively, it’s in running the football. There’s no proven depth behind Cierre Wood, but there’s every reason to believe Jonas Gray can be an effective BCS caliber running back, and the offensive line should continue to gel this season.

We’re still over 70 days away from the opening of the 2011 season, far too many to get whipped into a froth just yet. But if Brian Kelly’s offense can make strides in Year Two, and the defense continues to play dominant football, and –

I’ll pump the brakes before this thing gets out of control. We all know how that one goes…

  1. bradwins - Jun 22, 2011 at 11:57 AM

    “We’re still over 70 days away from the opening of the 2011 season, far too many to get whipped into a froth just yet.”

    Too early? I’m sorry, Keith. Have we met??

  2. papadec - Jun 22, 2011 at 12:43 PM

    It’s never too early! GO IRISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. ccad05 - Jun 22, 2011 at 1:06 PM

    Is it September yet? Let’s go let’s go let’s go!!!!

    • papadec - Jun 24, 2011 at 12:34 AM

      No. Although it is now officially Summer and the rain, here in the Seattle area, is warmer. I think it’s the only way we ever tell the changing of the seasons, here.

  4. jerseyshorendfan1 - Jun 22, 2011 at 1:09 PM

    If we keep drinking the kool-aid and keep saying that this is our year, we are bound to be right sooner or later. In the immortal words of Admiral Farragut, “Damn [Arnold's] torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

  5. 808raiderinparadise - Jun 22, 2011 at 5:09 PM

    Just beat up on South Florida to open the season at home. Prove to me our D can stop BJ Daniels athleticism.

  6. 1notredamefan - Jun 22, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    YES-YES-YES Thank-You Keith for this article! I agree and love the dreaming but hope for reality too!

    Time To Vote Again!!! UGA is ahead rite now and that would most definitely be a travesty to lose to a cute? dog!!!

    http://espn.go.com/sportsnation/post/_/id/6681916/1-notre-dame-vs-8-georgia

    • papadec - Jun 23, 2011 at 10:42 PM

      It’s running 50-50% with 34,000+ votes cast.

      • 1notredamefan - Jun 24, 2011 at 6:35 AM

        Nice!! I’ve heard we have until the 28th to pull this one off….

      • papadec - Jun 28, 2011 at 8:23 PM

        UPDATE – running 52-48% for the IRISH with 63,745 votes cast. I don’t know when the polls close – I thought today.

      • 1notredamefan - Jun 28, 2011 at 9:20 PM

        ya they should have at noon…

    • 1notredamefan - Jun 28, 2011 at 10:37 PM

      If anyone was using this as a bookmark…..(I was) We won and now have some catching to do with FSU….http://espn.go.com/sportsnation/post/_/id/6711746/1-notre-dame-vs-4-fsu

  7. yaketyyacc - Jun 23, 2011 at 1:26 AM

    always hear about our droughts in natonal championships. this is year 50 since I graduated from ND, and in the fifty years, it goes like this in NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS: OHIO STATE 1, STANFORD 0,MICHIGAN 1,TEXAS 3,PITT 1,PENN STATE 2 LSU 1,OKLAHOMA 2, FLORIDA STATE 2, FLORIDA 2,TENNESSEE1. NOTRE DAME 4 AND TIED WITH US MIAMI AND USC 4. ONLY ONE AHEAD, ALABAMA 5.
    and being the proverbial cockeyed optimist, 2011 looks more than promising. let’s hustle and work hard, and we may add another.

  8. krups06 - Jun 23, 2011 at 8:42 AM

    As much as I tried not to, like a moth to a flame I decided to watch the “highlight video” (although I don’t really know how you can call it that when they only show LSU’s best plays and no ND touchdowns). It’s no secret that the reason Charlie’s teams never reached the pinnacle was atrocious depth and utter lack of skill all over the defense. After watching some of that video though, I saw and was reminded of how poorly disciplined and motivated his team’s looked. Now you have to expect LSU to be pumped up as they were playing a glorified home game, but you think maybe, just maybe the ND players would show a little enthusiam. In a classroom room Les Miles mops the floors while Charlie aces exams, but on a football field even the most pedestrian coach could figure Weis out. LSU was 50 miles ahead of that ND team not only in talent, but in preparation and execution as well.

    • nudeman - Jun 25, 2011 at 5:29 PM

      It’s hard to imagine that ND has failed so badly in the area of coaching and recruiting the last 20+ years; and I say that as an avowed believer in Brian Kelly. I think he snaps the streak of terribleness.

      Aside from Lou,everyone has been lousy since the Devine years; and though Devine won a National Championship, he had the charisma of a Chevy Impala. I always thought they sort of won in spite of him. Since then, it’s hard to determine who was the worst. In terms of overall terribleness, I guess I’d rate it this way:

      1. Gerry Faust: They once had a penalty for 16 men on the field. Seriously.
      2. Weis: Losing to Connecticut, Navy and Syracuse – at home – says it all. They were routinely outcoached, out of shape, and out recruited. And outschemed.
      3. Ty Willingham: I’m convinced the man wore his underwear 4 sizes too small.
      4. Bob Davie: Would rate him higher/more terrible, but I kind of like the guy on TV. But had the offensive imagination of a Pop Warner coach. Once, at halftime the Irish were losing (at home, naturally) something like 10-3 with about 33 yards of offense. He was interviewed on the sideline and said “If we have to run the ball 40 times in the 2nd half, WE WILL!!”. Wow. They did. They lost.

      But, that era is over. Go Irish.

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