Hawaii Bowl Game Day Super-Post

No, I haven’t been avoiding ND football news. Everything went as I had hoped. Lots of ND news to be wrapped up in a nice Christmas Eve Game Day Package. I’ll run down the latest headlines and give my pre-game thoughts and predictions for tonight’s (today if you are sunbathing on the islands) Hawaii Bowl.

Weis Will Be Your Play Caller

Not that this was a shock, but Weis will be at the helm of the offense again. Now I’m sure the media was reading into all kinds of things with this. I’m sure whispers of Haywood getting canned were running rampant even though Weis stated quite matter of fact that the two were on the same page with the move.

And let’s be honest, Weis has a control freak aspect to him. His play calling and offensive prowess have come very much under fire and I’m sure he is looking to prove a lot of folks wrong.

Then again maybe he knew something everyone else didn’t know….

Haywood is Named Head Coach for Miami (OH)

This was probably the best news to come out of the Irish camp all year. Haywood will be the next man to step foot into the Cradle of Coaches in 2009. This is obviously a huge opportunity for Haywood and saved him from any possibility of needing to take a bullet for Weis and the offense this year.

I’ve always had a boatload of respect and admiration for Haywood. He is great with players (and was even great with the managers when I worked with the team), is an amazing recruiter, and I believe he has learned a lot being OC for ND. I was really worried that pressure for things to change in the coaching staff would possibly lead to his firing. I was definitely hoping he would land a HC job, so I couldn’t be happier with the news.

This hiring also justifies exactly what we as ND fans have been saying every time Ty tries to drag us under the bus. New head coaching talent comes from the DC and OC positions and we were the only FBS school in the nation that had two black coordinators. Now look what happens, it landed Haywood a job while Ty sits in the unemployment line (which looks a lot like a golf course to him).

Haywood is a definite class act and I wish for nothing but the best for him. In fact, he may be able to save other Irish coaches that could be under fire like Latina and Oliver and give them possible coordinator positions isntead of Weis uncerimoniously firing them. It would be a definite win-win for everyone involved and it almost makes me wonder if Weis was hoping this would be the situation all along.

And if the hiring news wasn’t good enough as is, Haywood came out and publically defended Weis:

“People have a misunderstanding of Coach Weis,” said Haywood, who will be announced as the next RedHawks head coach on Tuesday, Dec. 30. “I don’t think he’s been given the respect that he deserves as an offensive coordinator, as a head coach, and as a man.

“He’s one of the finest men in college football. He’s one of the true family men in college football, and he does a tremendous job of balancing football with his family.

“Notre Dame is on the rise, and I think Notre Dame will have a great season next year under the tutelage and direction of Coach Weis. I couldn’t ask for a better guy as a mentor. He has been an unbelievable mentor for me over the last four years and has been instrumental in me getting this job today.”

Haywood, who lost play-calling duties prior to the third-to-last regular season game, said there was no rift between him and Weis. Haywood said after his second cousin died, prompting his return home to Houston during Navy week, his first cousin died three weeks later.

While dealing with the family tragedies, Haywood was interviewing for the Washington, Syracuse and Miami jobs—in that order.

“Some may have thought there (was) some animosity between Coach Weis and I, and everybody was totally wrong,” Haywood said. “(Our relationship) couldn’t have been any better.”

And I tell you what, I feel a lot better with Haywood saying such things about our program than Weis. It seems the bigger picture involved with the playcalling shuffle was to not only help Haywood out with his family tragedy, but to allow him the time to focus on the HC opprotunities as much as he could. Weis has always been one to hold things close to the vest, he doesn’t like anyone outside the Gug walls to know what is going on in his organization; in fact, I vividly remember my first experience with him in Fall Camp was a meeting in which he wanted to make sure football buisness wasn’t leaked out unless he wanted it to be. This whole situation has that kind of feel to it.

Anyways, Mike, best of luck to you at Miami (OH).

Gary Gray Stays Home

Speaking of Weis keeping things close to the vest, it seems Gary Gray didn’t make the trip with the Irish. In no surprise, Weis said very little on the matter:

One player who has not enjoyed Hawai’i is sophomore cornerback Gary Gray, who Weis said did not make the trip because of personal reasons.

“Personal reasons. Things like that really sometimes they’re made to be bigger than they are,” said Weis. “It’s personal, he had to go home and I’m going to leave it at that.”

Weis was non-committal on Gray’s future with the Irish.

“He’s home right now, so we have to wait and see what happens,” he said. “Right now I’m just trying to get through this game. I can’t be worrying about Gary, who is not here right now. I’ve got to worry about the guys that are here right now.”

So much of the same song and dance as usual. This could be anything from a death in the family to him wanting to transfer. Since Weis actually said that this could be “made to be bigger than they are”, leads me to believe it is more of the former than the latter. Either way, I hope everything is well with Gary and the Gray household this holiday season.

Laying it Thick on Manti Te’o

While Weis can’t directly talk about recruiting Te’o at this time, there is no doubt the Irish are hoping to woe the stud linebacker to South Bend during this trip — especially considering his Syracuse visit was less than optimal. The Notre Dame captains did their part in their press conferences to sell Notre Dame to, I don’t know…say any particular recruit that might pick up a Hawaii paper to read some news about a school he might be interested in:

“I think the biggest thing is the tradition that Notre Dame has,” said linebacker Maurice Crum. “And it goes back forever. I’ve been here for five years and I’m still in awe of some of the guys who come around the program. It’s a life experience that you can’t get anywhere else.”

“Once you get involved with Notre Dame, you’ll be involved for life,” said wide receiver David Grimes. “One thing Notre Dame is good for is taking care of its own.”

“These are great guys, high character,” safety David Bruton said. “They have their heads on straight. They have a goal. A lot of people at a young age don’t really have a goal or don’t really know what they want to do. Everyone who comes here wants to be great, has ambitions to do something great in the world; just do something that affects the world in a positive way.”

Total class from Crum, Grimes, and Bruton there. I love that the comments they specifically made are those that any ND alum would make trying to separate ND from the rest of the crowd. And of course, hopefully this will help sell the school to Te’o.

We are laying it on thick buddy. Trust me there is a Hawaii Club at ND and everything. Students even tried to get everyone lei’d in your honor too. Sign up man, I want to see you crushing USC players in the future.

There’s That Whole 15 Year Losing Streak…Thing…

No Irish bowl game can go without mention of this. The 15-year bowl losing streak monkey on our backs has become a damned gorilla beating the crap out of ND at this point. However, I am hoping this can fuel some fire in the team. This isn’t just a practice game, this is a chance to end 15 years of pain and for these seniors, it is their chance to leave some form of positive mark on the program after these past two disappointing years.

When asked what I wanted for Christmas, I half-jokingly said “a Hawaii Bowl victory”. Seriously, not lying at all. The mention of the streak wears on me more and more every year. I’m sick of hearing it and I know other Irish fans are sick of hearing it. Ending it won’t heal all the wounds of this season, but it sure will be a hell of a lot better than saying “Well, that makes 16 years.”

Healthy and Full Speed

One of the best things that could have happened to us is many of our injured players returning to the field. While I’m not to particularly high on Lambert being healthy and starting, we are definitely getting some key players back in the form of Brain Smith and most Michael Floyd.

I really don’t think it can be stated enough just how much Floyd means to this offense. With him out, Tate was having to work double-time just to sniff getting open. It is much easier to defend one playmaker on the field than two. This was a fact not lost on the Irish:

This was Tate’s second touch. All game. The best answer Notre Dame had for a feral USC defense felt like he was running routes in a crowded bazaar, squeezed and smothered at every turn.

When Tate saw fellow receiver Michael Floyd on the bench against Navy, the freshman’s leg swaddled in medical wrap, Tate shrugged. He thought he might see more of the ball. Only in the California gloaming did he understand.

“I didn’t really realize it until the ‘SC game, how much we really needed him,” Tate said. “It was almost like I could do nothing. Whatever I did, they were there. It was all out of my hands.”

“He makes plays on the ball instead of waiting for the ball to come down to him, or letting the defensive back make the play,” Irish cornerback Robert Blanton said.

“He was kind of fearless when he went in,” Irish linebacker Brian Smith said. “We talked before camp, and he said he never really has seen athletes on the opposing side. But he went in there, and you never could tell he talked like that.”

Actually, it’s completely believable. Floyd, publicly, is as effusive as a cardboard box.

Asked if the injury revealed just how crucial he is to the offense, Floyd squirmed. He looked like he wanted to melt into his auditorium chair.

“I don’t say I’m really important to the team,” Floyd said. “I just try to help in any way I can. I just try to do my job—that’s catching the ball and running with it and scoring touchdowns as much as I can.”

Yet Notre Dame dearly missed that and cannot afford to be without it in 2009, not if it wants even to feint toward a Bowl Championship Series berth.

Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen knows this, after staring into thickets of defenders that Floyd would have thinned out.

Clausen, in fact, had just discussed Floyd’s playmaking abilities when the freshman wideout sneaked into a chair behind the sophomore quarterback and laughed. Hearing this, Clausen looked over his shoulder.

“Oh, there he is,” Clausen said, only too happy to find Michael Floyd once again.

It will be interesting to see if the Irish can have an offensive resurgence with everyone healthy and ready to go and should be something to keep an eye on all game long.

Keys to the Game

Oh yeah, there is a game in the middle of all of this isn’t there? I’m not going to dig in-depth and act like I know everything about Hawaii and how the Irish need to counter act exactly. From what I’ve read though and seen about Hawaii (and of course our Irish), here will be the keys to Irish victory:

  1. Protect Clausen – Hawaii is ranked 11th in the nation in sacks and have some solid D-Linemen to cause havoc in the backfield. When Clausen has been under heavy pressure, things have not boded well for the Irish and we can’t throw big bombs to Floyd/Tate if Clausen has little time to let the play develop.
  2. Win the Turnover Battle – Hawaii likes to cough up the ball with 35 turnovers and only two teams in all of college football are worse. ND isn’t that much better with 28 of their own, but even more alarming is that 22 have come on the road. All you have to do is remember the UNC game as to how turnovers can completely change the game. If the Irish lose the turnover battle, expect it to be a long day for the Irish.
  3. Blitzes Must Hit Home – The Hawaii O-Line is the worst in the nation in sacks allowed, so our blitz-happy defense need to plant the Hawaii QB, Greg Alexander, on the turf early and often. Our secondary play has been suspect at times (*cough*Lambert*cough*), but it is hard to beat the secondary as an offense if your QB is getting hit at every angle and can’t get a clean pass off. If we allow Alexander enough time, the pass-happy Warriors can and will eventually pick us apart.
  4. Pray to St. Michael – The return of Floyd is the single biggest jolt that this offense could’ve gotten. There is no secret, he is the man on this offense. We need to get the ball in his hands as early as possible and have Hawaii attempt to focus on him as much as possible. Not only can Floyd likely break through the extra attention, but that opens up Tate to single coverage and huge seams for Rudolph (and other slot receivers like Grimes, Paris, and Karma) over the middle. Keeping Hawaii worried about the deep ball will help keep additional heat off Clausen and open up our running game. Again, it can’t be said enough: GIVE FLOYD THE DAMN BALL!
  5. Win the Hidden Yardage Battle – Special teams will be crucial. There is no quicker way to blow a game than to screw up kickoff/punt coverage. Hawaii is pass-heavy and leaving that kind of an offense a short field is asking for a quick score to happen. As far as FG, Walker has improved tremendously since the beginning of the season and that must continue. Leaving points on the board today is not a viable option.

Prediction

WhatIfSports.com ran their simulation of the Hawaii Bowl 1000 times and the Irish came out the winner 61% of the time with a score average of 26-20 (here is one such result). Running my own simulation of the game this morning, setting Hawaii as the home team (even though they are technically away and this is technically a neutral field…) and having both teams favor the pass, the Irish come out on top 45-18.

As far as my human mind, I do believe the 15 year losing streak ends tonight. The return of Floyd and the black cloud of the Weis being fired and Weis/Haywood supposedly fueding being lifted will spark an offensive resurgence. The defense plays very well for the most part, but will have lapses that allow two inexcusable TDs that will make this game closer than it should’ve been; however, they shut Hawaii down completely in the second half. The offense will also finally run on all cylinders in the second half and we will have a “where the hell was this all year” moment.

Irish defeats the Warriors 38-24.

Quarter Breakdown (ND Score-Hawaii Score, with total score in parenthesis)
1st: 7-7 (Tie)
2nd: 7-10 (14-17 Warriors Lead)
3rd: 14-7 (28-24 Irish Lead)
4th: 10-0 (38-24 Irish Lead)

Go Irish. Beat Warriors. End the Streak. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

I’ll leave you with a fantastic feel-good Christmas story courtesy of “Life of Riley” from ESPN the Magazine.