Sunday, December 31, 2006

Praise the Lord, and Pass the Cheerios | by Jay

I see a lot of parallels between this year and the 1991 Notre Dame season. Both Irish teams were highly ranked to start the year; both stumbled in an early game against Michigan; both defenses were mediocre, with the defensive coordinator continually assailed (at the end of the year, defensive coordinator Gary Darnell left to take a job at Texas, and Holtz took over the defense himself for the bowl game). Both teams, despite disappointing seasons, were matched up in the Sugar Bowl against a much more highly-ranked opponent from the SEC, and a lot of people (a lot of the same people, probably) grumbled that the Irish didn't deserve an invitation. And in both cases, nobody -- I mean nobody -- gave the Irish a chance in hell of winning the game.

Here's an amusing piece of nostalgia that was posted over on IE: an article from the Miami Herald dated January 1, 1992.

Bob Rubin, Herald Sports Columnist

The multitude of orange and blue-clad Florida revelers and rowdies roaming Bourbon Street the past two nights, contrasted with the relative scarcity of its Notre Dame counterparts, suggests Florida will have a big edge in crowd support in the USF&G Sugar Bowl tonight at the Superdome. Make that another big edge. No, make that every big edge.

By any and all measures, psychologically and physically, Florida appears to enjoy superiority over Notre Dame. That should be exhilarating -- and just a tad worrisome -- to the Gators. You worry when it looks too easy.

Nevertheless, short of a major crap-out by Florida, it's hard to construct a scenario that ends with an Irish victory.

Notre Dame has a fine offense, but Florida's is finer, better balanced and more explosive, even with star tailback Errict Rhett not starting because of unexcused classroom absences. Willie McClendon, who will start in Rhett's place, is a heck of a runner, and Rhett will be available when and if he is needed.

He might not be needed against an Irish defense that has yielded a horrendous 112 points in its past three games. Notre Ame (no D) suffers from the two deadly I's, injuries and inexperience, and one of the two most glaring weaknesses is the defensive line. Teams have spread the Irish defense, then run up the gut. And run and run and run.

Notre Ame allowed an average of 204.8 yards rushing this season to rank 84th among 106 Division I-A teams. The Irish yielded 234 yards on the ground to Navy, 354 to Air Force and 326 to Hawaii in the last regular-season game.

Juggernauts those three ain't.

And while Florida's spectacular air game gets most of the public's attention, the Gators run nearly as often (49.5 percent) as they pass, and they usually run effectively.

The other glaring Irish defensive weakness is the lack of a pass rush. They recorded only 12 sacks. A strong veteran Florida offensive line yielded only 16 sacks in 390 pass attempts. Directing one of the nation's most innovative and sophisticated passing attacks, heady Gator quarterback Shane Matthews will strip a defense to bone if he has time. Notre Dame does have a fine secondary, but even the best will get toasted if there's no rush up front.

Notre Dame's defensive collapse led to the departure of coordinator Gary Darnell (ex-Gator assistant and interim head coach) for Texas -- voluntary, Notre Dame insists -- and the assumption of his duties by Coach Lou Holtz.

Holtz defends Darnell as "an excellent coach and beautiful person," but concedes, "things just didn't come together" with him in charge. Holtz, who normally deals only with the offense, has cracked the whip in a semi-desperate attempt to staunch the bleeding, but he doesn't know how much it will help -- if at all.

"You usually go through three stages in a situation like this," he said. "First, the players are intimidated. Then they're frustrated -- I can wear thin on people in a hurry, especially defensive linemen and backs, but I think we handled the mutiny well. Finally, they're motivated."

But are they? Asked if anyone has stepped forward on defense to assume a leadership role, Holtz replied, "The problem is when I take one step forward, they take two back. . . . But we must, we must show up on defense. If not, I think you'll enjoy the halftime scrimmage we've planned."

The classic way to overcome defensive woes is to play ball control and keep the defense off the field. Notre Dame runs well, averaging 269.1 yards per game. But Florida has defended against the run well, yielding an average of 100.3 yards but only 78.8 over its past eight games, and just 37 on 26 rushes against Florida State in the regular-season finale.

Gator Coach Steve Spurrier calls tackles Brad Culpepper and Tony McCoy the best tandem in the country, and Notre Dame doesn't dispute it. It's awfully tough to run inside against them. Look for Notre Dame to expand its limited use of the option because the Gators couldn't stop it against Syracuse, the only team to beat them. But the Irish aren't a true option team, as was Syracuse, and you can't become one in the limited time you have to prepare for a bowl.

Moving from the X's and O's to the intangibles, there's a joke making the rounds: What's the difference between Notre Dame and Cheerios? Answer: Cheerios belong in a bowl.

The Irish, 8-3 with losses in two of their past three games and a scare against Hawaii, earned a Sugar Bowl bid not on their record or performance, but on their name and ability to attract a large TV audience. They come into the game without much confidence or motivation. They have nothing at stake except a chance to end a disappointing season on an up note and regain a measure of lost pride -- basically, to prove they're not as bad as they've looked the past three games.

In contrast, the Gators come in on a terrific high from their first Southeastern Conference championship and that stirring victory over Florida State. A victory over Notre Dame would complete the greatest season in Florida football history and, pending the outcome of the Rose and Orange bowls, preserve their admittedly long-shot chance to emerge national champion.

Offense, defense, intangibles, fan support. Every way you look at it, the advantage goes to Florida. In the past, you'd say this is precisely the time the Gators find a way to screw it up, but these Gators are different. They don't gag when the opportunity for greatness arises.

They won't tonight. Make it Florida 31, Notre Dame 17.
Let's hope the parallels continue to hold true.