On being in denial

For me, it all started with the Michigan State game in 2006. The Irish had started off the season with a pair of relatively lackluster wins - a 14-10 squeaker at Georgia Tech, a 41-17 win against Penn State in South Bend that was frankly much closer than the scoreboard made it out to be (the Nittany Lions kept pace with the Irish in terms of overall yardage, but turned the ball over three times) - and then suffered an absolutely inexplicable 47-21 spanking at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines, the first genuine blowout loss in Charlie Weis’s young career as a head coach.

Now it was late September, the fourth week of the season. My wife and I were watching the game in the lounge area of a Northern California restaurant, since we don’t have cable at home and ABC was showing the stupid USC game. We were eager to see our Irish rebound from the last week’s tough loss. Let’s just say they came out a bit flat. As the Spartan lead grew from 7-0, to 14-0, to 17-0 at the end of the first quarter, then stayed in the high teens as MSU matched the Irish score-for-score through the end of the third, a chorus of voices resounded in my head: first quietly, then louder and louder as the situation grew more desperate.

What if this is the beginning of the end? What if last season was a fluke? What if Weis really just isn’t a good gameday coach?

Each time I’d find myself asking one of those questions, I’d abruptly shut it down with a well-placed excuse: it was Rick Minter’s defense that couldn’t stop the Spartan attack; MSU had a 3-0 record coming in; it wasn’t Weis’s fault if his players couldn’t motivate themselves. As the voices persisted, the excuses matched them blow-for-blow.

Then, of course, it was time for the BIG excuse: a stirring, inspiring, exhilarating, insert­­-­­­­your-word-here-just-know-it-was-awesome fourth­-quarter comeback led by the unparalleled Brady Quinn and a suddenly revitalized defense. The Irish rattled off 19 straight points in the rain in East Lansing, moved their record to 4-1, and kept the whatifs at bay for the time being.

Three weeks later, though, they were back: after another pair of sloppy performances against inferior opponents (easily blameable, of course, on Minter’s defensive schemes), the Irish found themselves trailing again, this time late in the fourth quarter against UCLA. The voices were screaming, my heart was pounding, the rage inside was building up … and then … AN UNBELIEVABLE PLAY BY QUINN AND SAMARDZIJA! THE IRISH WIN! TAKE THAT, VOICES!

Never mind the fact that the only reason the offense got the chance to pull that rabbit out was that Bruin frontman Karl Dorrell failed to run out the clock on the preceding drive; never mind that finding yourself in a position where you need to go 80 yards in 34 seconds against a 4-2 team is hardly evidence of great coaching; and never mind that this sort of hole-digging - anybody remember Stanford in 2005? - had been one of the trademarks of the Weis era. We WON. The voices were WRONG. Charlie Weis was the BEST.

Fast-forward to November 2007. The excuses have had their day. Sure, the team is young - but we’re three months into the season now, and there’s little doubt in my mind that the squad we saw yesterday would STILL lose 33-3 to Georgia Tech, 31-10 to Penn State, 38-0 to Michigan and USC, and so on. Sure, the defense has given up some serious points in the last couple of weeks - but it’s hard to blame them for getting discouraged when their offense can’t even move the ball against AIR FORCE. And yes, I’m well aware that this program is dealing with overcoming a stretch of really bad recruiting, that there’s very little talent (or leadership) among the upper classes, that injuries have been a problem, that there’s a learning curve - for coaches and players alike - in adjusting to the college game, and so on and so on.

But there are NO EXCUSES for what we saw in yesterday’s game:

  • Drive 1: 1 play, 28 yards, fumble.
  • Drive 2: 5 plays, 10 yards, punt.
  • Drive 3: 4 plays, -9 yards, turnover on downs.
  • Drive 4: 2 plays, -1 yard, fumble.
  • Drive 5: 3 plays, 3 yards, punt.
  • Drive 6: 13 plays, 52 yards, field goal.
  • Drive 7: 7 plays, 50 yards, touchdown. (Extended by personal foul penalty after failed conversion on third-and-long.)
  • Drive 8: 3 plays, -4 yards, punt.
  • Drive 9: 1 play, 0 yards, halftime.
  • Drive 10: 5 plays, 11 yards, punt.
  • Drive 11: 5 plays, 17 yards, punt.
  • Drive 12: 10 plays, 57 yards, touchdown.
  • Drive 13: 8 plays 71 yards, touchdown.
  • Drive 14: 4 plays, 9 yards, turnover on downs.
  • Drive 15: 8 plays, 40 yards, turnover on downs.

That’s FOURTEEN real drives, TEN of which failed to result in points, and another that should also have gone for zero if not for an idiotic hit out of bounds. It’s SIX sacks given up. It’s 58 rushing yards on the day, an average of ONE-POINT-FIVE per carry (factor out the sacks and you get 30 carries for 105 yards … still not sufficient). It’s … well hell, IT’S A SEVENTEEN POINT LOSS TO AIR FORCE, and it’s INEXCUSABLE.

Let me make one thing clear: I am NOT saying that Charlie Weis should be fired. Weis deserves the same treatment that Ty Willingham got: a chance to follow up a dreadful season (and the 5-7 campaign in 2004 was clearly that) with a good one. If the appeal to equity isn’t enough to convince you of this, then 19 wins in two years and a trio of top-ranked recruiting classes - not to mention the mass chaos that would ensue on his departure - ought to do the trick.

But come on, folks. It’s time to face facts. For two years now, the only thing consistent about this team has been its inconsistency. There have been - and still are - some great players, and they’ve made for some great moments. And maybe - MAYBE - getting to the light at the end of the tunnel (where we WILL get, mind you) won’t require changing things at the top. In the meantime, though, we need to be honest with ourselves about what’s been going on.

Through two years of sloppiness and inconsistent play, I stood firm. I accentuated the positives until the negatives faded from view. I drank the Kool-Aid like water, and shouted down the haters with the best of them. And whenever my wife would ask me, in her wide-eyed way, whether Charlie Weis was after all not that good of a coach, I’d squirm, shift my eyes, and stammer out another excuse.

I thought I was keeping the faith. It turns out I was only in denial.

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One Response to “On being in denial”

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