Well, that one hurt. We’re now 1-2, and now have to enter the conference season having realized our realistic worst-case out-of-conference scenario. We’re a recovered onsides kick and a corner endzone non-overthrow from 3-0, but, damn, that doesn’t make it feel any better, does it?
In my gut, I’m not all that upset about Saturday, which I cannot understand. It’s three days later, and I *think* that I should still be having nasty flashbacks of a blown interception on defense, an interception on offense which was nearly incomprehensible given the context, a kick bouncing off the right upright, and nearly a million other things which could have gone right and didn’t – and that’s all notwithstanding an indefensible quarterback rotation, and, equally stupidly, sending a linebacker to cover the country’s best wide receiver.
CPT Hoolie and Dr. Detroit have already outlined many of our problems on defense. At the moment, I’m not on board with the Fire Narduzzi sentiment, though I should say that I tend to have an overwhelmingly visceral reaction to those sorts of things, especially this early in the season. At any rate, it's inarguable that our secondary was torched for the second straight week (and for half the game, our opponent was missing its best receiver), our defensive line failed to generate enough pressure, and our linebackers looked very, very poor at times defending against ND’s wildcat formation.
And yet, I find myself returning to the many positives I saw. (Survival instinct?)
- Until the last two plays of the game, Kirk Cousins was great – much better than Hoyer ever was. He was making good decisions, standing tall in the pocket, displaying tremendous precision on his throws, and generally what needed to be done to win a big game on the road. I said last week that Cousins needed to be the sole quarterback for the good of the team, even though I thought his advantage vis-à-vis Nichol wasn’t enormous. Their performance is no longer remotely similar, and rotating the quarterbacks even a little bit is still bad for the team. If I see Nichol next week and Cousins isn’t on a stretcher, it won’t be difficult to find me; I’ll be the guy in the upper deck whose HEAD ASPLODED.
As if improving the team by establishing certainty wasn’t enough, the team itself is behind Cousins. Listen to the post-game show: when Blair White talks about Kirk, he’s broken up for him, but it doesn’t seem to me that his confidence in our quarterback (yes, singular) has been shaken one bit. Cousins fell a bit short in his first opportunity to do something truly memorable as a Spartan, but what he does on Saturday should tell us a whole lot about what the next two-plus Spartan football seasons will look like. I’m very, very confident that he’s going to have his best game yet on Saturday.
- . . . and that will be due in no small part to our wide receivers. The most encouraging thing from Saturday has to be the play of Mark Dell; it’s like he was never injured and his no-show games never happened. He’s the home run guy that we’ve missed, but he also caught the ball, a minor prerequisite with which he’s certainly struggled in the past. He’s still big enough to put out wide, and fast enough to put in the slot, and presents matchup problems for nearly every team we play henceforth. Similarly, B.J. Cunningham got open and caught the ball (including at least one catch of the spectacular variety), and White was flawless, as usual.
This all sort of begs the question: was Cousins that much better this week, or were good passes simply not dropped this time around? Some combination of both, clearly, but who cares? If those four guys – plus our tight ends – play like that, running game or not, very few teams are going to stop us.
- The offensive line was very good in pass protection all day, especially given how Notre Dame was blitzing two of every three downs. We allowed no sacks, and Cousins and Nichol both had time to stay in the pocket and MAKE PLAYS. (Of course, one of those times which one of our linemen was beaten – and on Cousins’ blind side, unfortunately – was the last play of the game.) Still, in terms of pass blocking, we’re quite a bit ahead of where I thought we were going to be, and that’s crucial if we’re to gain yards through the air against physical Wisconsin and Michigan defenses.
- One of my big concerns from last week, kickoffs, improved markedly. Swenson kicked this week, and did a much better job of getting them deep. If I remember correctly, all but one of the kickoffs was fielded inside the 10, and nearly all were inside the 5. More importantly, after the Irish returned our first kickoff to the 45, the next four times we kicked off ND started their drives at the 24, the 30, the 17, and the 27. That’s progress.
Essentially, with Dell, White and Cunningham playing at a high level, I think we’re a team which can score enough points to keep us in almost any game. And, after listening to post-game interviews and reading post-mortem stories I do get the strong sense that the team is banding together, not splitting apart, so I strongly, strongly doubt that a JLS-esque team meltdown is in the cards.
Last season, Iowa turned their season around with an emphatic win against Wisconsin. Unlike Iowa, we’ll have to do it at Camp Randall – but I have a very strong we’re going to do it nonetheless.