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Football Commentary: Finishing strong

Joe Meixell | Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I spent a good portion of my childhood growing up outside Detroit, where I got the chance to watch the Red Wings play every night. It was tough, because I was a Rangers fan, but at least it was good hockey. I was at Game Four of the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals and saw them win a cup, and while my New York fanhood wouldn’t let me root for them, it was a special experience.

What I noticed about them, however, was their tendency to shut down when they had a lead. Once they got ahead by two or three goals, their pressure offense would take its foot off the pedal. Sergei Federov would put on the brakes and dump the puck into a corner. It came back to bite them at times; if they got too complacent, the opposing team would storm back.

That’s what Notre Dame’s second half reminded me of Saturday. After scoring 21 points in the first half, the Irish scored seven in the second half and none at all in the fourth quarter. The offense had just 152 yards of offense in the second half, or 21.7 yards per drive.

Of the seven drives in the second half, one resulted in points. The others: four punts, a missed field goal and a turnover on downs, which we’ll return to later.

But for now, let’s start with the lack of offense. It’s not that it can’t move the ball. It proved quite the contrary in the first half, when it rolled up 278 yards of offense and three touchdowns. It’s that the offense got overly complacent with its lead.

The Irish had a chance to bury Stanford. Their defense turned the ball over and got in Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard’s face, and it was up to the offense to put the game out of reach.

How much of a confidence boost would that be? Off to a hot start, proving Chris Marinelli wrong, intercepting three passes and passing the ball well? Charlie Weis said he’d never seen his team as jacked up before a game as before Stanford. That excitement needed to transfer, not just into the first half but also throughout the whole game.

But it didn’t. Two Irish drives netted negative yards in the second half, and two others gained less than 10. The most telling play, however, happened near the end of the fourth quarter. With fourth down and two chain links to go, the line couldn’t dig in enough to get James Aldridge past the sticks. That first down ices the game; a field goal, as we saw previously, was out of the question, so Notre Dame needed to convert.

Never mind that the play pinned Stanford deep in its own zone with eight seconds to play; there will be a time when Notre Dame needs a fourth-and-short conversion, and if it couldn’t get it then, against Stanford, when it came into the game pumped up, that doesn’t bode well for the rush game.

Defensively, Notre Dame relented in the second half as well. It intercepted three passes in the first half but none in the second. Two of Stanford’s three drives in the fourth quarter, not counting the one-play drive to end the game, resulted in touchdowns. Again, no biggie in this game, but that’s not the point.

Someday, perhaps if the offense has an off day, the Irish defense will stand in between an opponent and a victory, and they’ll need to play at the level they’re capable of for the entire game.

I have full confidence in the abilities of the team on both sides of the ball. The Irish moved the ball well on offense and kept Stanford under control on defense, and most importantly, they won the game. But they had the potential to clobber Stanford, to prove to any remaining doubters that they’ve returned, to say to Marinelli with actions what they said with words after the game. They can’t let those opportunities pass in the future, especially on the road, where they play four of their next five games.

Notre Dame must seize the opportunities to control games when they come, and in so doing prove they can do something else I remember the Wings doing – buckling down when needed.