First of all, my apologies for getting this to you Monday. I’m aiming for Sunday night recaps, but last night a little bit of good old fashioned college football hatewatching got in the way.
That’s the unique appeal of Labor Day weekend though, for us in the little box of college football fandom. After eight months away from the best sport on Planet Earth, we get three-to-four days of pure, uninterrupted, football-infused joy. This year we got lucky and had big games as early as Thursday. It’s a college football feast unmatched by any time except bowl season, but even then the college game has to share airtime with the NFL. This weekend, it’s all mascots and marching bands.
Each evening gave us a different flavor, satisfying every part of our long-starved football appetites. Thursday saw the long-awaited return of the “Backyard Brawl” between West Virginia and Pitt, a cherished regional rivalry blown apart a decade ago by the omnipresent college football boogeyman, conference realignment. The game was thrilling, but the atmosphere was truly special. The crowd at the stadium formerly known as Heinz Field was electric, to put it mildly, and just so happened to be the largest in Pitt sports history. After going eight months without feeling the energy of a college football crowd, hearing it through the TV was like taking a warm bath. You just don’t get crowds with this unique mix of passion, animosity, and existential dread outside of college football.
The award for “most college football” game of the weekend, though, has to go to Virginia Tech at Old Dominion on Friday night. First off, in what would become a pattern, a major team decided to take a road trip to an in-state opponent from a less-prestigious league, which given how eager those teams are to prove themselves against the big boys, is basically begging for bad things to happen to you. And happen they did. The Hokies were struggling when things got weird — the second half was delayed fifteen minutes due to, I kid you not, their coaching staff getting stuck in an elevator. (The amazing thing about college football is things like this are features, not bugs.) Virginia Tech basically was playing Old Dominion *and* a hex from the college football gods, which usually is not a winning combination. The game also featured a dog in crocs, one of those idiosyncratic college traditions that only make sense in the context of this absurd sport. It all got capped off with the first field storming of the year, a sight that never gets old no matter how many times it happens. No single game gave us as much combined on- and off-field chaotic energy all weekend.
And we hadn’t even gotten to Saturday.
Saturday saw two games end within minutes of each other with exactly opposite energies — a 7-3 game without a touchdown (played, of course, in the state of Iowa), and a 63-61 shootout in Boone, North Carolina with over sixty combined points in the fourth quarter. That later one is particularly interesting given a) North Carolina’s early struggles with a drastically shorthanded Florida A&M team last week and b) Mack Brown’s seeming inability to play defense, like, at all. East Carolina, meanwhile, missed a game-winning field goal, letting NC State barely get away with a win in their most hyped season… ever? All in all, that’s three Power 5 teams that went on road trips to in-state Group of 5 schools and either survived by the skin of their teeth or lost. Great for parity, not so great for the possibility of future such trips.
The rest of Saturday was not quite so appealing, even though there was great football throughout. Georgia and Alabama look like Georgia and Alabama, while early returns on new hires in Norman, Oklahoma, Los Angeles, and Miami look good for the continued prominence/re-emergence of major powers. Florida beat Utah in a barnburner in the Swamp, while Cincinnati got a wake-up call for life post-Desmond Ridder in Arkansas. We’ll get into Buckeyes-Irish below, but I think the game lived up to its top-five, primetime billing, even if it hurt. All-in-all, fantastic welcome back weekend for the dumbest, best sport in the world.
I would be greatly remiss if I didn’t address maybe the single greatest experience of schadenfreude I’ve had in years — watching Brian Kelly lose in the most hilarious, heartbreaking fashion possible in his debut on the Bayou. The game featured all the old Kelly cliches, remixed and reimagined for a new, unsuspecting fanbase. You had sloppy tackling, bad special teams, a missed snap, stalled red zone possessions, and purple-faced anger. (You could almost excuse the last part, though, since now the color of Kelly’s enraged visage is a school color.) And somehow despite playing exceedingly poorly for three quarters the Tigers were in a position to send the game to overtime at the end, which says more about Florida State than LSU. The last two minutes featured this wild sequence — LSU held Florida State to a three-and-out, giving their offense a chance to tie the game, only to muff the punt for the second time in the game and give Florida State the ball inside their own twenty. After some choice Kelly clock mismanagement, Florida State promptly fumbled the ball back to the Tigers, setting up a backs-against-the-wall, odds-are-against-us 99 yard drive to win the game. Which they amazingly completed, scoring the potentially tying touchdown as time expired, only to have the extra point blocked, Florida State’s second block of the game. If Virginia Tech-Old Dominion was the most college football game of the weekend, Florida State-LSU was the most college football ending. For Notre Dame fans, it was like watching your ex get beer splashed in their face after hitting on a married stranger — delicious. Decent chance Kelly either finds himself stuck in an elevator or speeds away from another campus in an SUV this week.
One does wonder if Notre Dame’s offensive coaching staff also got stuck on an elevator after halftime.
I’ve gone back and forth on whether to blame a total lack of offensive production, especially in the second half, on the present coaching staff, or on Notre Dame’s persistent inability to recruit wide receivers, or on years of shoddy o-line development, or on a lack of imaginative playcalling. Whatever the reason for the offensive struggles, it clearly cost Notre Dame a top five win on the road. Keeping Ohio State to 21 points should have boded well for the Irish in a vacuum, signaling the kind of game Notre Dame could win, but a lack of offensive burst buried them in the fourth quarter.
Look, time will tell how good Ohio State’s defense turns out to be — they certainly have the talent to be an elite unit, and it’s possible Knowles defenses are just particularly tough for Rees & co. to attack. But three total receptions by your receiving corps and two yards per carry are not ideal metrics. You cannot score ten points against a top-five team and expect to win. Notre Dame simply needed something from its offense in the second half to get over the finish line. Instead, the Irish got crushed in time of possession and left the defense to contend with one of college football’s most explosive offenses by itself for twenty minutes. It was only a matter of time before the dam broke.
At the end of the day, though, Notre Dame came into Columbus with a new starting quarterback, their third defensive coordinator in as many seasons, and a banged up offense, not to mention a new head coach, and dictated the terms of the game. For the second top-five matchup in a row, dating back to a Playoff semifinal against Alabama, Notre Dame has dictated how the game will be played — ball control, power football, keeping an explosive, allegedly unstoppable offense in check (or as in-check as possible). That just hasn’t been enough. What’s separated the Irish from the elite teams recently is the elites have been able to shift their style of play on the fly to play Notre Dame’s game and win. That’s exactly what Ohio State did Saturday. Notre Dame needed to play a physical, short, low-scoring game to win; the Buckeyes played one better than the Irish.
It also shouldn’t be lost that, purely margin-wise, Saturday night was Notre Dame’s best outing against Ohio State since the Great Depression. That’s a painful, awful reality, but it remains true that Marcus Freeman played Ohio State closer than Charlie Weis, Brian Kelly, and Lou Holtz. Anybody remember the two Fiesta Bowls? At least this was a game in doubt for 55 minutes. In a game where no one gave the Irish a shot at winning, it was a one-score game with five minutes to play. That’s an absolutely fine outing in Marcus Freeman’s first regular season game. As a Catholic school, we’re all about the moral victories.
Of course, the hope with Freeman is that the moral victories will soon enough start to become *actual* victories. The man himself said as much after the game. Even though college football is built on finding small victories where you can, it can get frustrating when you have to keep looking for them. We need some big, smack-you-in-the-face victories. Freeman’s foundation is strong, as Saturday’s valiant-yet-insufficient outing confirmed, but his tenure will be defined by what he builds on that; (when) will he reach big victories? In the meantime, we’ll all have to lick our wounds after letting yet another winnable big game pass by. It’s up to you if you want to read Saturday optimistically for a rookie head coach, or as another brick in the ever-growing wall of Irish futility over the last few decades. For myself, I’ll stick with optimism — at least for another week.
Notre Dame will get another crack at Marcus Freeman’s alma mater next year in South Bend. First, though, is the Irish skipper’s first home game against Marshall. He’ll likely pick up his first win as a head coach — maybe he’s just waiting to do it in front of a home crowd.
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