December 22, 2008

Sheraton Hawaii Bowl - Hawaii (7-6) vs Notre Dame (6-6) (Aloha Stadium Honolulu December 24, 2008 8pm ESPN)

Tie Ins: Pac 10 vs WAC

Dan: Hawaii +1.5

I don’t know why, but I am going to watch this game. I don’t know who will be angrier as a result. My wife because I’m too drunk to go to Midnight mass or me because I just watched our ineptitude for 4 hours yet again as we get drilled at the line of scrimmage by a bunch of Samoans. Either way, there will be plenty of anger to go around.

Hawaii 27 Notre Dame 17

Matt: Hawaii (+1.5)

I can’t remember a game in Notre Dame history where I could care less than this one. It’s already been decreed in the Phillips household that Christmas Eve will not be ruined with the watching of this particular Irish team. I wouldn’t mind seeing how we look one final time, but at this point, it’s water over the bridge. The season has already been a huge disappointment and huge wasted opportunity. Beating freaking Hawaii is not going to change anything. I think WeIs will probably get into what went wrong and what needs to happen from here a little later, so I’ll just leave it at that. You can’t convince me that Charlie has been able to get the guys to focus on this game whatsoever. As far as I’m concerned, this is a vacation for the team, not a business trip and it shows on the field.

Hawaii 31 ND 20

Mike: Hawaii (+1.5)

This game does not mean anything for Notre Dame and it is reasonable to conclude that the team will likely be more focused on a variety of other pursuits than football. Another year, another ignominious bowl performance.

Hawaii 28 Notre Dame 20

Doug: Notre Dame -1.5

Look, I understand that ND is limping into this game and might not even bother to show up, but I can’t pick against ND against Hawaii. Cmon, Hawaii is terrible!! They lost badly at home to Utah State. They also lost at home to San Jose State. I watched Hawaii against Cincinnati, and they are a bad football team that is completely undisciplined.

Some thoughts as we head into this game.

1) Who will the rest benefit??

While everyone assumes that this game is a terrible fit for ND since it is right after finals, I actually think the timing of this game is perfect. This ND team has had three weeks off to rest their bodies and clear their heads from the late season meltdown, and I think that rest will show on the field. Believe me when I say that there would have been a 0.0% chance of ND winning this game if it had been played the week after the USC game. By the end of the year, this team was completely dead and had packed it in. Is that a problem long term for this program that we seem to wear down every year down the stretch?? Yes, no doubt about it, and I will address some thoughts on our team conditioning (which was an underrated HUGE problem for this team) at some point during the offseason. You can’t be a great team if you are not in great shape. And I think this team takes on the personality of the head coach in terms of conditioning.

But as far as this particular game is concerned, I actually think we’ll see a fairly fresh and rejuvenated Irish team. They can go out and play this game and then have the rest of the holiday to relax. We actually looked like a half-decent team in the beginning of the year and peaked around the Purdue/Stanford games. I think we might see the Irish team from that stretch of the season during this game. Hawaii is really not any better than Purdue or Stanford or somebody like that, and we pretty much abused both those teams. We can do the same to Hawaii if we come out and play with fresh legs and a clear head. The ND of the first half of the season would beat Hawaii comfortably. I hope we see that team in this game.

As for Hawaii, they were starting to peak late in the year, so the rest might hurt some of their momentum. I think Hawaii will be fired up for this game, but I actually think the layoff might hurt their rhythm a little bit. Hawaii is a team that lives off emotion and their passing game, and both those things might take awhile to get back when they take the field on Wednesday.

College football is rarely played in a vacuum during the regular season (there are injuries and mood swings and momentum factored in), but that’s sort of the case in these bowl games. Bowl games are a one shot deal several weeks after the season. You can put behind your late season struggles and come out with a whole new look in a bowl game. We just saw South Florida play like gangbusters in their bowl game after playing like garbage down the stretch. It’s sort of like a fresh start, and I hope the Irish view it that way.

2) Will the Irish be motivated??

While I think we will be rested for this game, I am curious to see if we come out and play with a purpose. This team has shown the ability to play well at times (Pitt first half, UNC first half, Michigan, Purdue, Navy third quarter), but it has been inconsistent more often than not. If ND treats this game like a vacation and not an opportunity to win a football game, we are going to lose. Hawaii is going to be fired up, and we will not win this game if we can’t match their intensity.

Here’s the thing about the motivation factor. If you were a Notre Dame player hearing all the chatter about Charlie and how the team played like dogs down the stretch, wouldn’t you be fired up for this game and ready to prove people wrong?? I keep thinking about guys like Jimmy Clausen and Brian Smith and Pat Kuntz and Bruton and other highly-touted guys who are hoping to get to the next level in the NFL, and I can’t see how these guys would just pack it in. It’s Notre Dame football. Show some pride in the uniform and the helmets that you put on. If you can’t get up for this game to end the bowl losing streak and get the sour taste of the 2008 season out of your mouth, then you shouldn’t be on scholarship.

This team has had a few weeks to practice and study Hawaii. If we go out there to drink mai tais and hang out on the beach, we are losing the game. If we go out there with a plan to win the game, it should be a win. We better be ready to go.

3) Does Hawaii have anyone who can stop Michael Floyd??

The answer to that question would be a resounding no, and that’s not the only matchup advantage ND has in this game. There are potential mismatches all over the place in this game. Tate and Floyd on the Hawaii dbs is the biggest one out there, and I actually think ND has a shot to run the ball on Hawaii. I watched the Cincy-Hawaii game from start to finish, and the Bearcats ran the ball all over Hawaii in that game. UC was not a good running team this year, but they were churning out yards. Hawaii is very small up front, so we have a major weight advantage. Similar to the one we had against Navy.

Great to have Michael Floyd back. There’s no excuse to lose to Syracuse even with him not in there, but he makes a big difference with this team. With him, we are average. Without him, we are anemic.

As for Hawaii, they rely heavily on the pass, but their o-line is turrrrrrrrrrrrible. Even worse than ND’s o-line. They might be the worst pass protection team I’ve ever seen. UC was getting in their backfield all night. ND has a weak d-line, but guys like Kuntz and Justin Brown and even some LBs should be able to get to the quarterback at times in this game.

Hawaii can’t run the ball at all and does most of their damage through the air. That’s not a bad thing for this particular ND team. Our worst case scenario would have been playing a power running team that is physical. We are such a soft team that we always seem to fold up against those types of teams. We are lousy against the run, but the only team that has really made us look sad through the air was USC (and USC could have moved the ball in any way they wanted). I think our defense will hold up fine against Hawaii.

Hawaii is not a good team. I can’t emphasize that strongly enough. They haven’t been good at any point all year. ND has had bouts of inconsistency as well throughout the year, but we also do have some obvious strengths that may be more effective against a team like Hawaii.

4) Turnovers

Since this game is essentially on the road, you always have to watch out for turnovers, especially when “The Gunslinger” is firing balls into double coverage. ND cannot afford to cough up the ball through INTs or fumbles.

What Jimmy Clausen is going to show up in this game?? The Clausen of the first half of the year who was comfortable in the pocket and making good reads and good decisions?? Or the shellshocked Clausen who completely lost his confidence and started missing routine throws and running scared in the pocket at the first sign of a rush?? I really don’t know at this point. I hope the rest has let him clear his head.

I have many thoughts on Clausen and will probably wait until after the season to address his status, but I will say one thing. If he plays like garbage in this game, I think Charlie needs to quietly sit down Dayne Crist and tell him that there will be an open competition for the job in the fall of 2009. Clausen has a lot of strengths, but he also might be the most unathletic quarterback ND has had since Ron Powlus. The guy is a freaking statue, and you can’t have someone like that in college football. You need a qb who can at least pick up a first down occasionally with his feet. I can live with Clausen being really slow if he makes incredible decisions on where to throw the football and has great instincts in the pocket, but we haven’t seen that yet out of him. Clausen’s first instinct upon getting a rush is to sprint to the right near the sideline and then try to throw it away. He gives up on the play. Brady Quinn NEVER gave up on the play. He stayed in the pocket and tried to find a receiver, or he tried to make a play with his legs. Clausen can make throws when he just has to go back and throw, but you can’t expect that to happen every time in college football. You have to be able to rely on your instincts to make plays at times.

Don’t get me wrong, the problems in the second half of the season are clearly not on Clausen alone. Charlie Weis hung Clausen out to dry in that BC game (I still think that game was the worst game of the year). We couldn’t run the ball, and the only option Clausen had was to chuck the ball down the field into bad coverage. He didn’t have any help that night. The o-line was brutal for most of the year, the running game was nonexistent except against powderpuffs like Navy and Purdue, and the lack of a quality return unit in the special teams game didn’t put Clausen in a lot of fortuitous spots. We lost to Syracuse because of poor conditioning on defense, bad o-line play, and bad coaching.

I don’t want to blame Clausen for the season or give up on him by any means. He’s only a sophomore, and he may end up making the leap next year. If ND put together a great running game and defense and special teams around him, he probably would have looked a lot better this year. But I also don’t think we should just hand this guy the job if he isn’t playing good football. And he certainly was not playing good football down the stretch.

5) Special teams

The “will the Irish take a kickoff past the 50?” contest has reached the 13th and final game. I’m not holding my breath for someone to break one. Perhaps we will have to wait and see if Cierre Wood breaks the streak against Nevada next year.

Some other special teams thoughts:

Is Mike Anello coming back next year?? Technically, he’s a senior, but he also has eligibility left. Is he going to come back for a 5th year or try to get out there in the working world (I believe he has like a 3.9 GPA)? It would be nice to have him back next year for the gunner units. He’s probably one of the 2-3 MVPs of this team and has the biggest heart on the roster.

Is Brandon Walker going to continue to progress??

Who is going to return punts?

6) Does Charlie still have this team on his side?

Perhaps the biggest question of them all heading into this game. How is this team going to respond to Charlie Weis?? Do they still want to play for him?? Are they upset that so many people are questioning Weis?? Do they think he should have been fired?? Are they happy he’s coming back??

I don’t think we’ll know this answer even after the Hawaii game, but we’ll get some glimpses during the game. Charlie lost control of this team in November, but now he has had a few weeks to regroup and hopefully slowly get people back on board.

We know changes are coming in the offseason. Swarbrick all but guaranteed it with his postseason comments. There will probably be some new assistants and maybe some new ideas flowing into the program. It will be interesting to see if it works. I’m not ruling it out by any means, but Charlie probably doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt until we see it. Charlie is in his fourth year, and this team is no better than they were under Willingham or Davie. We are basically the same average and underachieving program, so there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Charlie isn’t the answer. However, one thing I will say about Weis is that he is not afraid to make changes, so maybe these upcoming changes will finally be the ones that work for him. He is going to have a very experienced roster to work with next year and a weak schedule, so there will be opportunities to win a lot of games next year.

Weis needs to find a way to bring discipline to this program in the offseason. We are incredibly undisciplined, and that’s a big reason why we wear out in the second half of games and the second half of the season. Bad fundamentals, bad conditioning, bad penalties, etc. That has been a trademark of Charlie Weis teams. His #1 priority in the offseason needs to be to make this team tougher and more disciplined. To be honest, I think he could set a great example by losing about 50-75 pounds in the offseason. If you want your team to be disciplined, start with yourself. Put down the film for an hour every day to walk a few miles on the treadmill.

Final Thoughts –

While I have posted some pretty extensive thoughts on this game, I think this game is a relatively meaningless game at the end of the day. Hawaii is a mediocre football team that we should be able to beat, and a win in this game really does not erase what happened down the stretch in 2008. If we come out and play well and beat Hawaii, there are still going to be a lot of skeptical fans heading into 2009 (rightfully so) who will be worried about Nevada.

I actually think this game has put a lot of ND fans in a tough spot. A lot of ND fans have already cast their lot that Weis should have been fired after this season (me included), but now we’re sort of in the strange position of wanting ND to win but also wanting to voice our displeasure about how the season has gone. I do think that a win will bring some disillusioned Irish fans back into the fold heading into 2009 (I’m certainly not ruling out the possibility that I will fit into this category), and a high-level performance may give Irish fans a reason to be optimistic for next year. Not sure how I will feel, but I do know that I’d like to see ND win and end the bowl streak. I think this game is a good matchup for ND, and I like that the game is on national tv. A win over Hawaii on their turf may start to turn the tide and get the national media off our backs for a bit.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that Weis is coming back next year, and I actually do agree that there are good reasons to bring him back. If you pull the plug on Weis after this year, you could end up with an Auburn situation where you hire a huge reach and kill your recruiting momentum. With ND’s depth as fragile as it is, it probably would not have been worth the risk to make a change like that and further set this program back. And since Weis has shown just enough flashes of success, maybe he needs another year or two to start producing some consistent results. As we have seen through the years, some coaches don’t really hit their stride until their 5th-6th year at a particular school. I’m not ruling out the possibility that Weis will make strides next year, and I guess Swarbrick isn’t either.

The guys on this team are no longer “young” or “inexperienced.” A lot of our starters have been starting for almost two years now. The excuses need to end starting now. I heard Kirk Herbstreit discussing this game on the ESPN bowl preview show, and he mentioned that guys like Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate are now JUNIORS. They may technically be sophomores, but they need to start treating these games like the clock is ticking. They are now the leaders of this team, and there are only two seasons left for these talented sophomores. If I was Charlie Weis, I would name Clausen and some other young guys as the captains for this game. Set the tone right here that the 2009 season starts now.

I read an article in the Columbus Dispatch about the Texas team and their bowl preparations from last year that I thought was really interesting. Mack Brown basically turned bowl prep into two-a-day practices with early report times and heavy hitting drills. He said every position on the team was open for competition. And Texas played out of their minds against Arizona State. The players to this day seem to credit Mack Brown for igniting a fire under them that has carried forward into 2009. What a great story. I hope Weis is doing something similar. We need to approach this Hawaii Bowl like it’s a BCS title game.

Do I think ND can lose here?? Absolutely. I’ve watched this team all year, and I know we are capable of laying down against anyone. But if you look at the favorable matchups for the Irish and the opportunity that they have to set the tone for 2009, I actually think this game will be a surprisingly easy victory for ND.

ND 27 Hawaii 13

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