If you canvassed a group of Notre Dame fans, not many saw a 0-2 start coming. In fact, if you look at NDNation.com’s annual probability poll, there’s a bunch of statistical stuff that I’m sure I’ll mangle when explaining, but the gist of it is that most people had the Irish beating USF and a majority of people had the Irish beating Michigan. Barely anyone had them losing both games. But as they say, that’s why you play the games, right?
There’s plenty of reasons to still believe the Irish will rally and turn this season into a successful year. But if Notre Dame wants to cling to their slim hopes of a BCS game, then this is a must win football game. After picking themselves off the canvas after two heart-wrenching losses where the Irish did more to beat themselves than either USF of Michigan, the Irish welcome the No. 15 Michigan State Spartans to town, with the co-defending champions of the Big Ten sitting at 2-0 after cupcake games against Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic.
Here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Fighting Irish prepare to take on Michigan State at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
1. If you’re looking for history to tell you it’ll all be okay, well — look for something else.
If you’re looking for stats to support the Irish in their quest to dig themselves out from the 0-2 hole, skip ahead to point two of the six-pack. Only one Irish team since 1900 has managed their way to a winning record after losing their first two games.
The dean of South Bend sports, WNDU’s Jeff Jeffers, tracked down the quarterback that lead that 1978 charge, a guy named Joe Montana.
“It was just one of those interesting years,” Montana told Jeffers. “Unfortunately you’d like to win every game but it doesn’t always pan out that way. Right now the Irish find themselves in a tough situation — they’ve got another tough team that they’re playing this week — but it’s not impossible to turn around. You’ve just got to get back to doing things and not making big mistakes when it counts.”
When Jeffers asked Montana what he’d tell this 0-2 Irish team, he leaned on some impressive advice from Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.
“It’s one of those things that Bill Walsh taught us a long time ago, it’s the fundamentals that carry you,” Montana said. “And when your fundamentals are strong, you’re usually winning. When you find yourself behind, you can look back on it. Those are the things that you’ve usually left behind a little bit.”
That 1978 team lost to Missouri out of the gates 3-0, then to Michigan 28-14, putting a pretty big dent in the hopes of a Notre Dame squad coming off of a national championship. But the Irish snuck by Purdue 10-6, beat Michigan State 29-25, and rattled off eight straight victories before a crushing 27-25 loss to the USC Trojans, a game the Irish almost came back and stole when Montana led Notre Dame on a furious fourth quarter comeback. The Irish finished that season with a win for the ages, beating No. 4 Houston in the famous chicken soup game.
That season wouldn’t have been salvaged if the Irish didn’t get past a tough Purdue team, who only lost two games and tied another before finishing with a win in the Peach Bowl over Georgia Tech.
2. Even former All-American Shane Walton knows how Gary Gray is feeling this week.
Sure, he never had a game like Gary Gray did last Saturday, but if the senior cornerback that’s played a lot of good football is looking for advice, there’s no one better to give it than former All-American cornerback Shane Walton.
Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune caught up with Walton, who relayed a story of redemption on the football field that I remember vividly from the student section:
Walton doesn’t recall ever going through an entire game with the same level of frustration that Gray faced, but he does remember an instance when his resiliency was tested.
Purdue, Sept. 16, 2000. Drew Brees was under center for the Boilermakers. Brees had a couple of early connections with Vinny Sutherland. With about four minutes left in the first quarter, the 5-foot-11, 183-pound Walton picked off a Brees pass and took it 60 yards to the house.
“I had just gotten beat for 20 or 30 yards (by Sutherland) on a fade,” Walton remembered.
He was pretty riled up.
“I thrived on adversity,” said Walton, who is back in his hometown of San Diego now. “That really made the juices start flowing. Struggle on a couple plays, but don’t let it bother you on the next play.”
The Irish beat Purdue that day, 23-21.
If Gray has gotten himself into trouble in one-on-one coverage, it hasn’t been because he’s been beat. His pass interference penalty against USF, and the trouble he had against Michigan was more a product of getting lost and not getting his head around in coverage, something a lot easier to correct than getting toasted by four steps.
Walton said it best when talking to Lesar:
“Any corner who has a game like that can’t wait for the next game,” Walton said. “It’s not like he’s the only one out there making mistakes. He’s just the one everybody notices. That’s the nature of the position. If a lineman goes the wrong way and doesn’t get to the quarterback, do many people notice?”
3. Brian Kelly giving his players an earful of advice isn’t anything new.
First, let me get this back on the record: I don’t care that Brian Kelly screams at his players. It’s also not anything new.
George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press caught up with some of Kelly’s old players at Grand Valley State to see how the coach handled an 0-3 start back in 2000.
“I can remember frustration,” quarterback Curt Anes told Sipple. “We were a very talented Grand Valley team at that point, that had high expectations. We were not meeting our expectations, and it was due to a lack of focus, not doing the right things in crunch time and trying to find our way through.”
That Lakers team that started 0-3 and then 1-4, but ended the year 7-4, so for those wondering if Kelly’s verbal stylings were phased out by his players, the answer is a resounding no. The 2001 team went 13-1 and was the D-II runner-up and the 2002 team went 14-0, led by Ames, who won the D-II version of the Heisman Trophy. It seems tough love on his quarterback worked pretty well.
“He’s a fiery guy,” Anes said of Kelly. “He’s got a lot of passion. Sometimes he lets some of that get to him, (and) he’s in the fish bowl at Notre Dame.
“Unfortunately, I think his emotions did get to him more than usual, but there’s a lot of pressure on this guy. I do know this: He’s looking for those guys that are able to withstand those verbal encounters that he gives. The guys that he really respects are the guys that can take it. He’s looking for guys to step up.”
Kelly’s histrionics only worry me if they get in the way of a player improving on the fly, and while I’d say the USF game was close, TJ Jones, the guy who received the brunt of the yelling, had a good fourth quarter and obviously stepped up and made a play in a similar circumstance the next week against Michigan.
It may be good fodder for opponents, Desmond Howard and ESPN, but fear not people, the Irish players can take it.
4. The Notre Dame secondary better be ready for B.J. Cunningham.
The key to the game tomorrow will be the battle between the Irish defensive line and the Spartans’ rebuilt offensive line. But if you’re looking for one guy the Irish need to stop, it’s Spartans wide receiver B.J. Cunningham.
The guys over at TheOnlyColors.com did a nice breakdown looking at Cunningham’s numbers versus Floyd’s this year.
|Michael Floyd in 2011|
|Catches||Targets||Catch %||Target %||Yards||Yards Per Catch||Yards Per Target||TDs|
|B.J. Cunningham in 2011|
|Catches||Targets||Catch %||Target %||Yards||Yards Per Catch||Yards Per Target||TDs|
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Floyd put up his numbers against a talented USF secondary and Michigan, while Cunningham did it against a I-AA team and Florida Atlantic. Still, Cunningham hit the Irish for 7 catches, 101 yards and a touchdown last year, and he and Cousins will only be better this year.
5. Kirk Cousins comes back to the stadium that helped shape his career.
We talked about it yesterday, but Kirk Cousins returns to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since throwing an interception that cost Michigan State a shot at winning against the Irish in 2009, one of the toughest lessons of his young football career.
It’s a lesson he heeded last year, when Cousins wanted to make a play in overtime, but instead took a sack.
Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News explains:
“I’m someone who wants to go back there and get a better result,” he said. “But the focus has to be that I can’t do it alone. Part of playing there is that it is about the team and about 11 guys on the field working together as one unit. I can’t try to do too much by myself and have to rely on my teammates.”
A year ago, Cousins was back leading the Spartans against the Irish, only this time it was in East Lansing.
The game did, however, show how much Cousins had learned, not only from that play the year before, but from an entire season as a starting quarterback.
In overtime, with Notre Dame leading and one play before the now-famous call of “Little Giants,” Cousins proved how far he had come — by taking a sack.
It was third-and-5, and instead of forcing the ball, Cousins ate the ball at the 29-yard line.
“The protection broke down and I didn’t have a whole lot to do, so my best decision there was to take a sack,” Cousins said. “I was really frustrated coming off the field saying, ‘Man, you want to be the guy that makes the play in overtime and we end up taking a sack.'”
The next play was the fake field goal, and what Cousins described as “bedlam” followed.
Another ill-advised throw could have prevented the final play from every happening, but to Cousins and the Spartans, it was an example of just how far their quarterback had come.
Making Cousins uncomfortable in the pocket will be one of the keys to the Irish’s gameplan. If he’s given time, the Spartans quarterback is one of the best in the country, especially working off a solid running game in play-action. They Irish will need to be disruptive in the Spartans backfield.
6. It’s as simple as turnovers and takeaways. Both in 2011 and 2010.
For everyone that’s wondered whether or not the Irish have worked harder at practice on preventing turnovers, don’t worry. Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are well aware of the issue.
“For us, we’re 120th in the country in turnover-takeaways. That number is pretty stark. The numbers are clear. We’ve got to take care of the football,” Kelly said again this week.
The story of the 2011 season is pretty obvious. Turnovers = 0-2. But FunkDoctorSpock, he of the Irish web-o-sphere, looked back at the 2010 season, where the results were just as stark.
2010 NOTRE DAME SEASON
Games One thru Four
Turnovers Lost: 9
Turnovers Gained: 6
Turnover Margin: -3
Games Five thru Seven
Turnovers Lost: 4
Turnovers Gained: 8
Turnover Margin: +4
Games Eight thru Nine
Turnovers Lost: 6
Turnovers Gained: 2
Turnover Margin: -4
Games Ten thru Thirteen
Turnovers Lost: 5
Turnovers Gained: 9
Turnover Margin: +4
In the EIGHT wins: 10 Turnovers Lost, 19 Turnovers Gained (+9)
In the FIVE losses: 14 Turovers Lost, 6 Turnovers Gained (-8)
The message is what it always is. Hold on to the football and take it away.
Now it’s up to the players to do it.