Monday, September 10, 2007

Notre Dame just needs to be better at football. | by Pete

Schizophrenic -- a struggle to rectify two competing realities -- is the word to describe my experience for this weekend’s match-up against the Nittany Lions.

One would think that, having grown up in western Pennsylvania, I would have at some point made the trip to State College for a football game. But no, I had to move south to Washington, DC, before I managed to hit the highway en route to Happy Valley.

Regardless of the direction the compass pointed, all roads led to central Pennsylvania this weekend. State College is nestled smack dab in middle of the Keystone State, a state whose residents will often tell you is closer to two separate and hardly equal entities than a united commonwealth. On the left, we have Western PA, home to Pittsburgh, pierogies, and Primanti Brothers. On the right, you have Eastern PA, home to Philadelphia, Pat’s Cheesesteaks, and the Fresh Prince.

Of course, that’s what the residents of each respective hemisphere will tell you about their superior half. If you ask the Philly Phaithful, they’ll tell you that Western PA is essentially the Midwest, more at home with Cleveland than anything in Pennsylvania. On the other hand, the ‘Burghers will tell you that Philadelphia is essentially a suburb of New Jersey, the only fate in the universe worse than actually being New Jersey. As a Pennsylvanian, you associate yourself with one city or the other, you obsessively root for their professional football team, you eat their grease-saturated food of choice. If you live right in the middle, you associate yourself with the Amish.

State College itself falls into the stable archetype of a college town, on a very large scale. Pizza joints and Chinese restaurants dot lines of strip malls, punctuated by a sports bar or Best Buy. Large houses littered with Solo cups and enormous cardboard boxes serve as reminders of the recent return of the student body.

As we staccato-drifted down Park Avenue towards Beaver Stadium along with thousands of others, you could see that festivities had been in full swing well before our noon arrival. Despite having a reserved spot in a specific lot, we ended up in the last open lot clear on the other end of the stadium. “You can either park here or in South Bend,” I was notified by the grinning parking attendant.

We intended to meet up with my parents and a group of their friends, who were Penn State season ticket holders. We beat them to the stadium, so they told us to “soak up the blue and white ambiance.” This weekend, it was much more white than blue. By a margin as wide as the Grand Canyon.

And most of those white came on t-shirts, which varied widely from expressing eternal devotion to Penn State to eternal indignation towards Notre Dame.

There was one for sale in a satellite bookstore that said, “I Don’t Give a Notre Damn.” Of course, if you’re willing to see this shirt, hold it up to your torso for a size approximation, wait in line, and then trade in hard-earned cash for this product, it’s pretty apparent you sure do give a Notre Damn.

But the one that stuck out most to me was the one that read, “You May Have Jesus, But We Have JoePa.” This should give you some sense of scale when it comes to discussing a Penn State fan’s love of their Ensure-fueled head coach. Not only was the shirt claiming that Joe Paterno was equal to Jesus Christ, but also that the fan thinks he got the better end of the deal.

Once we made it to the tailgate (which was impressively put together, I may add), it was the stuff all great college football experiences are made of: standing around in parking lots and drinking dedicated amounts of alcohol. I learned that Penn State’s original colors were black and pink. The State fan who imparted that information on me also told me that they changed to navy and white because the original colors faded in the sun. Pink became white, and the black lightened to navy, so apparently Penn State decided to cut out the middle man. This may be true, but I think the fact that they were black and pink certainly helped.

Either way, we had a great time with our group of Penn State fans, and you could not have asked for greater hospitality. I had heard stories that suggested a flak jacket wouldn’t be a terrible idea, and I’m sure others can chime in with less delightful stories, but my experience at least proved that not all Penn State fans have retractable claws and at night steal bad little Pitt fans that refuse to eat their vegetables.

Before entering Beaver Stadium, a fall Saturday at Penn State felt like a fall Saturday at most colleges, including Notre Dame. Good music, good food, games to play, drinks to drink, it was all you could want from a great college football weekend. Just what you’d expect from a school steeped in football tradition like Penn State.

However, upon entering the stadium and taking my seat, I was confronted with dozens of reminders that this was, in fact, not Notre Dame. I’m sure many State fans would be quite happy with this realization, but “THANK YOU TO OUR CORPORATE SPONSORS” repeatedly broadcast on a Jumbotron to a backdrop of college students mugging for a camera instead of watching the field, accompanied by a soundtrack prominently featuring Fergie, doesn't equate to true blue college football. I’m telling you right now, if Notre Dame ever gets a Jumbotron, I’m mailing back my degree.

Nonetheless, the white-out was quite impressive, as the PA announcer declared the game to be the first ever “White House.” And the Penn State crowd proved to be fairly football savvy, remaining quiet when their team had the ball, and being extremely and consistently loud when we had the ball. A freshman quarterback that all non-Notre Dame fans hate with the heat of a thousand suns making his first start probably didn’t hurt the atmosphere either.

The football culture of Penn State is schizophrenic. On the one hand, you’re surrounded by all the tawdry, nouveau-riche touches you would expect from a minor league hockey franchise. It’s best encapsulated by Penn State adopting Zombie Nation, a techno song, as their unofficial fight song. It really is treated like such, being played after touchdowns and turnovers. But it’s not played by brass instruments and bass drums, instead it was recorded by a European with waxed eyebrows and a mesh tanktop.

And then on the other hand, you have a program that has found recurring success for decades, a team that’s won national titles and Heisman trophies, a team steeped in tradition. That Penn State is realized in their undying devotion to Joe Paterno, the man who built the program from the ground up, and the man who can do no wrong in their eyes, despite living to an age where, for all intents and purposes, he could go at any minute. A Penn State that still wears Coke-bottle glasses, flood pants, and white socks with black shoes. I don’t know which Zombie Nation, the one that sings the song or the one that worships the zombie, is the real Penn State, and I don’t think they do either since making the Big Ten eleven. They have no real rival, no real history in their current setting. It’s almost like watching the Clampetts move to Beverly Hills; it may be an overall upgrade, but you get the feeling that they’re not comfortable in their own skin anymore.

Oh, that’s right, a football game took place there as well. Once again, schizophrenia was the term du jour. One side of the field saw a Notre Dame team that should be much, much better than it actually is, but has failed to reach half of its potential yet. On the other side was a Penn State squad that has fans thinking national title, but is not even close to competing with the big boys. Anthony Morelli was the better quarterback in the game, but I think both sides would agree who the better quarterback is.

Jimmy Clausen was a dichotomy himself. He played better than anyone expected a freshman to play in front of that rabid crowd, avoiding mistakes and leading a team desperately in need of a leader. However, it seemed like he played thinking he was better than he actually was. One play sticks out in my mind, one of the many third and longs. Jimmy drops back, looks around, and then tucks the ball and runs through a hole in the middle. He tries to stiff arm, yes, stiff arm one of Penn State’s linebackers, and is immediately tackled well short of the first down. He knew it was third down, he knew had to reach the marker. And he thought he could slash through Penn State’s defense to do it. That’s not to say he can’t be one of the best, but to think as a freshman that he could slink through Penn State’s defense for a big gainer pushes confidence to the brink.

You'd think that a team that's played this poorly would have several disasters to address in practice. But that's not exactly the case with this team.

You can put a lot of heat on the offensive line (and rightfully so), but a team doesn't yield such impotent results two games in a row because of the poor play of five individuals. Instead, it's underwhelming performances at nearly every position. The team just isn't doing a good enough job yet. The running backs need to attack the hole better, the quarterback needs to find the right receivers faster, the receivers need to catch the balls that are catchable. The defense, while certainly earning their keep, needs to improve in every area of their play as well. In other words, this football team just needs to get better. But at least there is youth, and budding talent, on our side.

Make no mistake about it, the Notre Dame team we had out there could have beaten that Penn State team. Unfortunately, it’s becoming rapidly apparent that our greatest opponent is ourselves. But fortunately, when you are your own worst enemy, you get plenty of time to work on beating that opponent. Schizophrenia, once again.

Just as Penn State is a football program that is unsure of its place since joining a conference, Notre Dame is a football team without a foundation. New defense, new offensive line, new receivers, new running backs, new quarterback. I think Charlie canonized Jimmy as the starter so soon just so this team has some sort of stability to build itself around. As it stands, this team has no leaders, and a unit without leaders is a unit that doesn’t know what it’s playing for. Until now, Weis offenses always had the players that defined them. Brady, Jeff, and Darius. Think back to Willingham’s first year, when our defense was our best offense. Shane Walton and Vontez Duff. Find your leader, and you find your way to win.

Unfortunately, Notre Dame doesn’t have the luxury of warm-up games to figure itself out. I’m sure we looked at the schedule and saw next week’s game against Michigan as a tough one, but not in this Bizarro way. A battle between college football’s two winningest programs fighting to just find a win. If that’s not schizophrenic, I don’t know what is.