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Outside the Irish Huddle: Yup, They Threw the Ball

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Saturday was my annual trip to South Bend and given the result of the game I still had a wonderful time back on campus.

After the game my girlfriend and I were exiting the stadium, walking slowly back to the northern parking fields, not a word between us.

Once we broke away from the crowd and headed past the library my girlfriend turned to me and said, "Yup, they threw the ball."

That statement, plus my girlfriend screaming, "Why are they throwing the ball!!" the second she realized the Irish weren’t running the ball on that fateful last play, are all you really need to know about the play call in that position.

We’ll have plenty more commentary on that play later in this article.

Campus & Stadium Atmosphere

Like I said, I had a very enjoyable experience to campus. I didn’t notice a whole lot of low-key festivities because of the tragic death of Declan Sullivan on Saturday, but there definitely seemed to be a bit of contemplative atmosphere on Friday.

I had the chance to pray at the Grotto at dusk on Friday (very special), watch the players walk from the basilica to the stadium (very cool) and eat my first Knights of Columbus steak sandwich (it was okay).

I snuck into one of the dorms (Dillon Hall I believe) and had some flashbacks to prep school and headed back out to the swarm of people outside and made sure I had enough time to watch warm-ups at the stadium.

Because of Sullivan’s death, Saturday’s game against Tulsa may not have been an accurate enough sample of what the stadium atmosphere is typically like, but it was similar to my other games inside Rock’s House.

To put it plainly, it’s just terribly quiet, so much so that it is painfully depressing. Out of the hundred or so people in and around my seats I would say that only a handful appeared into the game and the rest just kind of sat there without being vocal in the least bit.

At one point during a timeout I swear that not a soul was even talking. Just complete silence among the thousands around me, with only the distant notes of the band echoing in the distance.

The people in the entire row in front of me never made a sound except to whisper something into another person’s ear, didn’t clap or even stand up for big plays. The people behind me sat in silence except to talk about something unrelated to the game, while only one of their group cheered and made comments about what was happening on the field, but usually just bitching about the loud Tulsa fans behind us.

Also sitting behind me a kid of about 20 was attending his first Notre Dame, but spent the entire three hours talking about gangster rap with his older friend while they shared the headphones to an iPod.

Worst of all, the small number of Tulsa fans a few rows above me, and the many more Tulsa fans a few sections over, were the most vocal of all the fans around me. Essentially, a thousand Tulsa fans drowned out and cheered more loudly than the Notre Dame fans ten times that size in my area.

Did Tulsa Not Show Class?

Immediately after the conclusion of the game the Irish players walked over to the sing the alma mater while the Tulsa players ran into the opposite end zone and played their fight song and celebrated wildly.

Many were up in arms over this and the fans started booing (they were alive after all!!), but I could have cared less.

Maybe Tulsa showed a lack of class, maybe they weren’t even aware of this time honored Notre Dame tradition, but we’re talking about a group of football players celebrating a big victory in dramatic fashion.

As I stood there unable to hear the alma mater and listening to the Tulsa fight song, I found it fitting and kind of glad that the Tulsa team was rubbing in my face. I’ll never lose a second of sleep being upset that I didn’t get to hear the alma mater because the visiting team is celebrating their victory and somehow having the "audacity" to not observe a Notre Dame tradition.

If you want to have the stadium join you in celebrating the alma mater after the game, don’t give the other team the opportunity to celebrate a victory.

It’s just that simple and I don’t blame Tulsa one bit for what they did.

Defensive Play

I wasn’t too upset with the way the defense played and thought they played a decent overall game. The long third down conversion for Tulsa late in the fourth quarter was terrible, but the defense only gave up 13 points to the Hurricane offense and only 399 yards to a team that was averaging over almost 500 yards a game.

Everyone knows that the Irish need to play better on defense, but they limited Tulsa to virtually nothing on offense for a very long stretch of a time. Had the Irish special teams not had made some big mistakes and if the Irish had their full offense, this would have been an easy 20 point victory where we’d be saying the defense needs to play better but definitely doesn’t suck.

This defense can always play better but I thought they played about as well as I thought they would. Maybe my expectations are lowered for this unit, but you can’t be exactly pulling your hair out because you think that the guys back there are terrible.

Tommy Rees and the Offense

Everyone has been saying that Rees looked really good in this game, especially for a true freshman, and I would agree with that sentiment. I expected the offense to be a crap-shoot the second I saw Rees trot out onto the field, but it was nice to see that they were reasonably effective for most of the afternoon.

With that said, I don’t think we should get too excited about Rees or claim that he is better than Crist or that the offense is better with the freshman in the game.

I’ll give Rees credit for making some tough throws and stepping up in a tough situation, but he was playing against one of the most abysmal pass defenses in college football, had great protection all day, and was essentially dinking and dunking down the field.

I’m not writing the kid off as an 18 year old and believing that he’ll never be any good at Notre Dame, but to me he has "serviceable backup" written all over him.

The biggest problem with Rees is that he doesn’t appear to have the type of arm to stretch the field vertically and he is even less of a threat to run the ball than Crist was. I’ll give him credit for his performance on Saturday, but you’re only going to play weak defenses like Tulsa so often, be able to keep all of your passes under 15 yards so often, and be limited as a runner so often, before good teams start eating your offense alive.

Maybe it’s a little harsh but if Rees is the quarterback in this spread offense, it will not be anything better than above average. If Crist is somehow unable to play in 2011 and this is Tommy Rees’ team for the next year and a half, I think the program is in trouble.

I didn’t agree with the redshirting of Andrew Hendrix to begin the year and it looks as if Brian Kelly may be giving him (and Massa) some looks to step up and possibly see some action this year, if only in a backup role the rest of this season.

There’s certainly going to be some intrigue at the quarterback position if not the rest of the year, at least into next spring and the fall of 2011.

Why Throw the Ball?

The last play from scrimmage for Notre Dame was completely indefensible. Yes, Rees made a poor throw and should have rolled out and thrown the ball away, but there is no reason to even throw the ball in that situation.

That mistake is 100 percent on Brian Kelly.

He claimed after the game that they had Floyd in one on-one-coverage and that it was a big advantage, but so what?

Tulsa was giving Rees plenty of opportunities to throw deep to Floyd and other receivers throughout the game, why all of a sudden put that much pressure on your freshman quarterback, on a short field no less?

The worst part is that this brazen and idiotic decision likely means the Irish won’t be going to a bowl game (something Kelly really seemed intent on achieving in recent days) and the program will be subjected to an under .500 season.

BIG RANT FINISH TIME!!

Honestly, the loss really isn’t that surprising to me. I mean there’s no Rudolph, no Crist, no Riddick, no Williams…is Notre Dame really good enough to overcome those injuries?

If Notre Dame goes into this game without Crist, are the Irish even favored?

I know it seems like I’m always making excuses or being the ever-optimist, but I didn’t go into this game ready to give up all hope if Notre Dame lost. And after Crist went down with an injury I sure as heck thought to myself that Notre Dame had a good chance of losing.

The way in which the team lost was agonizing and it is a big dent in Brian Kelly’s armor, but I’m just not that angry about it.

Of course some will use that as an example of how far Notre Dame has fallen, and I say EXACTLY!

There are major problems at Notre Dame, the school has never been this bad at football and it may get worse before it ever gets better. There’s no sense in getting so angry about it when this cancer has been manifesting for well over a decade.

It’s not like Notre Dame was a national powerhouse only a few short years ago and all of a sudden these bad losses to Navy and Tulsa are hitting the program. Not many people want to admit it, but this has become the norm in South Bend.

Kicking a game winning field goal against Tulsa really wasn’t going to change the overall picture would it?

I’m not going to give up on Brian Kelly right now and I don’t know what the future holds or if the program is ever going to turn around. There is a ton of doubt out there but as a longtime supporter of this program I can’t just give up and curse the heavens.

It’s going to be a long road ahead, and maybe that’s exactly what this program needs.

Maybe we really need to sink to unprecedented lows and build things back up again. Maybe it will take Brian Kelly four or five years before the Irish start winning again. Maybe the fan base needs to dwindle, interest in the team needs to shrink and the tradition and history needs not to matter any longer. Maybe the Notre Dame we all know need to disappear and a brand new version needs to be born that resembled nothing of the past.

I really don’t know or have any answers.

I do know sitting inside that stadium that it feels like a large part of the program is dead. We’re a program living off of tradition and have grown fat because of that tradition. We have the largest fan base in the world that continues to support the team, but they don’t cheer at the games and we have the least intimidating atmosphere in all of college football.

It’s so frustrating!

Since Notre Dame is a Catholic school it definitely feels like God is challenging every aspect of this program right now. These are tough times in South Bend, but how will everyone react when the going gets tough?

My motto over the past two years has been, "you have to go through hell in order to get to heaven," and we might not have seen the bottom of hell yet. We are likely staring at a 5-7 season, maybe even this team loses to Army too.

I take some solace in the fact that there will be a recovery at some point and that Brian Kelly is an experienced winner who has the tools to make a LEGIT turnaround for the program.

In a way, I’ve found myself embracing this losing season, this terrible season, the deaths of James and Sullivan, the injuries, the castigating of Kelly and everything. I keep hoping that out of all this tragedy, both real (in the deaths of Notre Dame men) and on the field, that there will be a great rising and resurrection.

Maybe Notre Dame needs to be beaten down to a point that people will never think the program will recover and then and only then will the team find success. It’s becoming clearer and clearer every day that this recovery is not going to be easy at all.

It won’t be an easy road ahead, but who is going to stand beside the Irish now?

I want a lot of things to change around the program, inside the stadium and elsewhere, but I won’t ever give up on this team.

I don’t buy for one minute that Brian Kelly is in over his head, but I do think that he is fully realizing that there are major problems to fix and that it’s not going to be easy.

Fans are ripping their hair out at his "get used to it" comments, but I think I love it. It’s hard to accept that this won’t be a five minute plan, that the Irish can’t just beat up on inferior opponents when key players are injured, and that maybe next year the team will struggle to win 7 games.

There won’t be many believers anymore, already so many are ready to throw Brian Kelly to the wolves and give up on the Notre Dame football team.

Have you given up yet?

Are you ready to stop watching the games?

Are you ready to define Brian Kelly by a bad play call and claim that he’s not the answer?

I know I’m not.