I really should have titled this post "My trip to the 2012 Rose Bowl and all of the reasons that it got me thinking about Notre Dame" but that was just too long.
As most of you that hang around here know, in addition to being a slightly-over-the-top Notre Dame Football fan I am also a huge fan of college football in general. I never miss watching the Irish but I also try to watch as many other games as possible. I have also had the good fortune of being able to attend a lot of college football games, to include bowl games, in many different places. So when I was presented with an opportunity to attend the Rose Bowl this year I jumped at the chance.
I will start by saying that it was one of the best college football experiences that I have ever had outside of South Bend. As a fan of college football I really enjoyed everything about it. In addition to the general experience I had the added bonus of getting to watch Oregon run their offense in person. The overall experience left me with a lot of general observations about the 2012 Rose Bowl itself, but it also really got my wheels turning on several topics that relate to our beloved Fighting Irish. I am going to attempt to capture all of that in this post. We have much to discuss.
The meat is after the jump.
I will start with the general fan experience. My buddy and I were northbound on I-15 out of San Diego by 6:30am armed with coffee and a cooler filled with all the supplies that we needed for the day. The Stadium is located in the Pasadena Foothills to the immediate south of the 36-hole Brookside Golf Course and we were on the scene by 8:30am, a full six hours prior to kickoff. The setting is exceptionally scenic. I knew going in that public parking for the Rose Bowl is literally on the golf course but I couldn't quite wrap my brain around that until I saw it. I suppose at $40 per vehicle they can afford to have several thousand cars driving around on the course. While highly unusual the end result makes for a pretty unique tailgating atmosphere.
After several hours of roaming the entire tailgate and visiting with fans from both schools we headed into the stadium about an hour prior to kickoff. Once inside the gate you realize just how old the stadium is. It really looks its age. The concourse is nothing more than the open space between the fence and the stadium itself. The archaic tunnels leading into the stadium itself are also pretty narrow. It is one of those venues where showing up a little dehydrated is advisable. Once you are in your seats getting in and out to run to the concession stand or the bathroom is a project.
That said once inside the stadium it is as picturesque as any stadium that I have ever seen. The surrounding mountains and 80-degree sunny weather didn't hurt the scene either. The Rose Bowl also does an excellent job of literally dividing the two fan bases into different sections of the stadium. They were very close to nailing it with one side of the stadium almost exclusively red and the other almost exclusively green and yellow. That is challenging to do in the ticket-broker era. I haven't ever seen it that well-executed at any bowl game and I must have attended at least 20-30 bowl games by now.
Our tickets were in the Oregon section so we were surrounded by Ducks. The fans around us were knowledgeable and friendly. Throughout the game I was also impressed that both fan bases were on their feet for the entire 4 quarters. I absolutely love that. Not one "sit down" from anybody! They were all just there to watch the game and they were way into it. Both fan bases were very loud throughout the game. Granted the game gave them plenty to be excited about it was a refreshing scene regardless. One shining example must be relayed here. One older lady in front of us fainted in the first quarter and was taken out by paramedics to get an IV. In the 3rd quarter she showed back up! I couldn't believe it. Everyone around us started cheering like maniacs for her and she ate it up. For the whole 2nd half she was as loud as anybody. That's dedication.
One interesting consensus that I was informed of by several of the Duck faithful around me was that "Chip needs to shake his bowl jinx." Being a Notre Dame fan I thought that was pretty amusing. It just goes to show that in college football you can never win enough games to please everybody. They were loving Chip when time expired though!
If you are reading this then I am sure you watched the game so I won't rehash it, but it was a highly entertaining game to watch in person. The Wisconsin offense was really impressive, especially Russell Wilson and Montee Ball. Both of those guys are for real. But I was most fascinated by watching Oregon's offense. They stole the show for me.
When Brian Kelly was hired I instantly got significantly more interested in the spread offense. As a result Oregon is one of a few spread teams that I have watched a lot more closely in the last couple of years. In my observation their offense is actually relatively simple but they execute the hell out of it. But seeing it live is always different than watching on TV as you just get a better feel for the whole operation. A few things that I observed on Monday really hit home with me.
Darron Thomas doesn't run a lot but the fact that he's a legitimate threat to run really makes their offense work. They run a lot of zone read and because Thomas is a threat to run it instantly neutralizes the entire backside of the defense. On the rare occasion the defense bites Thomas keeps and gets yards. When they don't bite he generally reads it correctly and hands off to the back who now has a numbers advantage with blockers to the play side. This is especially true on their outside zone read as both the center and guard pull. The back reads his blocks, finds his seam and boom, positive yards in big chunks. It seems like most of their passes also start off by faking the zone read. The secondary freezes just long enough to create a little space for a couple of the Oregon receivers to get open as Thomas pulls up to throw. The simplicity is a thing of beauty.
But the thing about the Oregon offense that impressed me most was their tempo. They get lined up and run the next play faster than anybody that I have ever seen. Being able to see the whole field between plays really hammered this home for me. This efficient tempo was especially true after long gains. They would hit a 40 yard gain, then the entire offense would literally sprint up the field and get lined back up before the chains were even set. The play was either signaled in or run onto the field by package subs. As soon as the refs and chains are set they were snapping the ball again. Their entire play-calling operation has to be on hyper speed to facilitate that.
In addition when Thomas checked out of a play it took him all of about 5 seconds to bounce up and down the line, tell everyone the new play, then get back into the shotgun and call for the snap. It is unreal, and especially obvious to an ND guy that spent the entire season wondering why we couldn't get the next damn play called! It seemed like all season we snapped the ball with less than 10 seconds on the play clock. Watching Oregon on Monday I don't think they ever snapped with less than 20 seconds on the play clock and most of the time there were 25 seconds or more remaining. The only exception was on the final drive when they were trying to run out the clock. Very impressive.
I hope like hell that we can get that efficient on offense ASAP. Our process for getting lined up and running the next play this year was broken and it often killed our tempo. At times I felt like we were waiting for the opposing defense to get set. Just run the play! Oregon has mastered this and I think it has a LOT to do with their offensive success. Wisconsin's D was visibly behind the power curve trying to get lined back up and set for the next play.
Can we please use GAIII or someone else like Oregon uses De'Anthony Thomas? Please! Good grief they get the most out of their playmakers. Most of the time "Black Mamba" was lined up in the slot but on a few plays they also lined up as a running back in a 2 back set with him on one side of the QB and James/Barner on the other. Twice he took it to the house on handoffs out of that formation on runs of 91 and 64 yards respectively. The first time it was a triple option play where he was the "dive" option. The second time was a basic sweep from a read option handoff with the other back acting as a lead blocker. And when that guy gets a crease it is over. He is ludicrous fast and is also tiny! He is listed at 5'9" 173 and looks like he might be smaller than that. Further proof that there is a place in the world for "undersized" playmakers. We need all of the playmakers that we can get in South Bend.
Overall watching Oregon do what they do on offense actually made me more optimistic about the immediate future of the Notre Dame offense. Isn't the whole point of the spread to get the ball to your playmakers in space? I personally believe that a QB that is a legitimate threat to run makes that even easier. I think that with Chuck Martin at the helm and Goldrix under center this is much more likely to happen. I also hope to see improvement in our play-calling process which will lead to an increased ability to get more efficient and operate at a much quicker pace. The end result should be a significantly more effective offensive unit. There will be some growing pains as we break in a couple of new starters on the OL, replace Floyd, replace Gray and break in a new starter under center. But the end result could be a unit that rapidly gets more efficient as the 2012 season progresses.
A few other random side notes.
The concessions were top notch, especially those outside the stadium. There were little carts set up all over the golf course where servers were grilling hot dogs that were literally wrapped in bacon. Right next to those delicious pork heart attacks they were grilling onions and jalapenos. Due to the seating arrangement I played it safe and held off until after the game and grabbed one as we were walking back to the car. Fantastic! I did grab the little wannabee substitute pictured below halfway through the 3rd quarter when I bolted down to the concourse for a quick head call. It wasn't bad but it didn't hold a candle to the big dog with the full bacon wrap smothered in grilled onions and penos that I grabbed on the way back to the car. So yeah for those of you counting at home I crushed two bacon dogs in Pasadena. My buddy and I also stopped at In N' Out for a late night Double Double on the way home. I had to finish up the Holiday feasting on a high note. I also had to run long the next day to get right again. Small price to pay.
A++ for use of the video board at the Rose Bowl. If Notre Dame goes the video board route and uses it that well I'm okay with it. At the Rose Bowl it was only used it for replays during the game, which is much appreciated on plays that were under review, and during TV timeouts they showed well-produced highlight films on previous Rose Bowls. They nailed it.
I have poked fun at Oregon's crazy uniforms in the past but I thought the helmets they wore at the Rose Bowl were great. They also definitely took the uniform swag war to another level. I would love to know how they got that finish on the facemasks. It definitely wasn't your standard rubber coating. Both the video board and Oregon's helmets got me thinking about some ND related hot topics again.
As a disclaimer I'm not in any way suggesting that ND needs to try and be like Oregon. But I think Oregon represents a lot of what modern college football is today and ND is obviously competing with them and everyone else for recruits. Facilities, uniforms and all things "swag" are a much bigger factor than they ever have been. It all resembles an arms race with the "haves" constantly trying to one up each other. Case in point Oregon and Okie Light winning BCS games this year. I think Swarbrick and Kelly obviously recognize this and little things like the "new" gold helmets, the Shamrock Series uniforms, and rumors about video boards and field turf prove it. I think that they believe that they can modernize ND Football in a tasteful way that keeps pace with the rest of the country without doing an ounce of damage to our storied traditions. It is a fine line to negotiate but I tend to agree with them.
As much as those 5 losses hurt like hell this season I still think that better days are ahead for Notre Dame and they aren't all that far off. Things like the Gug, the training table, and a little uniform changeup here and there all lend themselves to getting the appropriate level of talent in place to compete on a high level. If the video board and field turf ever materialize they could also provide added assistance in that same arena. As controversial as those things might be I won't be surprised to see either of those things in the next couple of years. Like it or not it looks like we are trending in that direction. It is what it is.
Now what we really need is a Head Coach that can win enough games to buy himself a little time to get fully established, get the right staff in place, and get into a positive trending groove. I still think that BK is capable of this and that it will happen if he gets the support that he needs and a little time to do it. Frankly, despite going 8-5 for the second consecutive year I still see many positive trends and improvements. The defense was pretty damn good this year and outside of the QB position our offense wasn't too far behind. When all of the pieces are in place (staff/ QB) I expect that BK's offense could be just as potent and well-executed as the one that Oregon was running on Monday. We probably won't see it early next season but we might see it by late next fall or early in 2013.
Apologies for the long post, but my little jaunt up to Pasadena on Monday left me with a lot of things that I wanted to talk about here. I will be looking forward to the discussion in the comments.
Final thought. I f you ever get a chance to go to the Rose Bowl by all means do it. It is well worth the price of admission. I would love to see the Irish land there if the appropriate BCS scenario presented itself at some point down the road.