April 30, 2013

Irish Madness Round 1: Angelo Bertelli & Johnny Lujack Sub-Regionals

In case you're just joining us, here's a brief introduction to bring you up to speed, complete with the full bracket, followed up with the #16 seed play-in matchup breakdowns that were voted on last week.*  We now roll into the opening four Round 1 matchups.  Since we made the difficult (but necessary for actual remembrance sake) choice to preclude the pre-60's games, a different ND star of yore title-sponsors each sub-regional.  Last thing we want to do is dismiss the players this proud program was built on.  That said, we've got some matchups to break down.

*Dealing with some technical difficulties regarding the final vote tallies.  My unscientific diagnosis is a website "cookies" issue as I can't find a computer that has the final results - they all show only 5 votes.  At one point in the voting frenzy, I know there were double digits votes entered.  Working on a solution.  For the time being, I'm going with the presumptive winners, though none should matter once they face a #1 seed.

(#1) 1966: #1 ND 10 - @#2 Michigan State 10   vs.   (#16) 2011: @Michigan 35 - ND 31

Play-in round winner of the UM Nightmare Finish showdown, Denard & the Gang's "prize" is a match with one of the most legendary Game of the Centuries in college football history, the 1966 classic at Spartan Stadium.  There's plenty to say about this game, but pretty sure the flowery praise can wait at least another round.  No #1 seed has lost in March Madness, and I don't think a #1 seed will be losing in Irish Madness.  

Enjoy stomping your older brother this go-round Sparty. 

(#8) 2006: #12 ND 40 - @MSU 37   vs.   (#9) 1977: #5 ND 21 - @#15 Clemson 17

A true generational divide showdown.  On one hand you've got a dramatic come-from-behind road victory against an unranked rival in a season whose hopes were dashed the week prior.  On the other hand, you've got a dramatic road victory against a ranked southern power school as the last true test in a still-undefeated campaign.  

There's scant Googleable info recounting ND's first ever trip to Death Valley the Lesser (is there an unspoken understanding in the South that differentiates between LSU's Death Valley and Clemson's Death Valley?  Phil, I assume you know this or can readily find out).  Talent abounded on both rosters as 36 players from this game ended up playing in the NFL.  Joe Montana did Joe Montana things, erasing a 10-point 4th quarter deficit to eek out victory and preserve the team's title aspirations.  

Fast forward to 2006 and Charlie Weis' squad is licking their wounds after an embarrassing home loss to Michigan.  Sparty Stadium is never fun to play in, especially night games with a driving rain storm staring down a 21-37 4th quarter drubbing and long bus ride home.  That's when Leprechaun magic created one of the more riveting comebacks in recent memory.  

Only one of these victories prompted the losing side to invoke Teddy Ruxbin, H.R. Pufnstuf and applesauce as coping mechanisms (there's even a bonus Valenti rant - "The whole country's laughing at us!").  The greatest radio meltdown of all time comes close to trumping the memorable game itself.  

(#5) 1991: #18 ND 39 - #3 Florida 28   vs.   (#12) 1966: #6 @ND 26 - #8 Purdue 14

The last game of the ’91 season steps into the ring against the first game of the championship ’66 season.  First, some words on the throwback game. 

Those of us born in the 80’s and beyond attribute only fleeting success for the Purdue program during Joe Tiller’s heyday.  But back in the 60’s, Purdue was a perennial force to be reckoned with.  Yes, I wrote that sentence with a straight face.  It’s true. 

Short Tangent #1: The Jack Mollenkopf (how does any recruit not answer the phone when JACK MOLLENKOPF is on the line?) Era witnessed the longest tenured coach in the school’s 123-year program, as well as the winningest coach (84 wins is Darren Hazell’s target number for West Lafayette immortality…not the greatest city to never have to pay for a beer).  In the decade of the 60’s alone, Mollenkipf’s teams went 65-28-3 for a sterling .677 winning percentage, including 6 seasons of AP top 20 year-end ranks.  The Boilermakers produced 14 All-Americans during the decade and finished 3rd place or higher six times in the Big Ten standings.  A guy by the name of Bob Griese started wearing the black and gold in 1964.  As a junior the following year, Griese led Purdue to a 7-2-1 mark, the most wins in a season since 1945.  He’d go on to finish 8th in the Heisman voting in 1965.  Purdue went 9-2 in 1966 to cap off Griese’s career, beating USC in the Rose Bowl, the program’s first ever bowl game. Steve Spurrier edged Griese for the Heisman, a “bridesmaid trend” over the next few years as Purdue RB Leroy Keyes finished 3rd (1967) and 2nd (1968 – OJ Simpson winner) and QB Mike Phipps finished 2nd (1969).  Hold up, let me get this straight - - 3 different Purdue players in 4 years finished runner-up as the most outstanding player in the country?!  What was in the West Lafayette water?  Along with these great individual accomplishments, the team went 8-2 in 3 consecutive seasons to close out the decade, earning Big Ten co-champs in 1967.  Quite an impressive run that virtually nobody outside the state of Indiana knows about. 

There was nothing short about that tangent, but don’t you feel the slightest more educated about ND’s longtime, soon-to-not-be-scheduled rival?  If whatever the go-to blog for Purdue football doesn't link to this post, they're doing their program a disservice.  You're welcome Boilermaker Nation.

Bringing the discussion back to Irish relevance, Purdue dominated the decade against its in-state northern rival, winning 7 out of 10 games, including 4 times in Ara’s first 6 seasons.  From 1965-1968, ND and PU were both ranked in the top 10 for their annual early season square off.  The ’66 contest found the Irish seeking revenge [Video Highlights] following the 1965 game in which #1 ND traveled to Purdue and lost by 4.  (Short tangent #2: The Boilermakers have beaten the #1 team in the country 7 times!  Only ND and Oklahoma have more top-ranked takedowns).  The 14 points allowed by the ND defense in this opener would be the most given up all season, with the MSU tie being the only other double-digit surrender.

A lot of words for a memorable game that’s likely to get steamrolled in the vote by a bowl game of recent vintage. 

The ’91 Sugar Bowl (yes, technically in 1992, but it was the ’91 season) redeemed a late season tailspin of the Tennessee collapse and a no-show in Happy Valley against a top 10 Penn State team.  Nobody gave the Irish a chance in New Orleans [LA Times game preview], and things didn't exactly start well [Video Highlights] as the Gators jumped to an early 13-0 lead in the 2nd quarter.  Thankfully, Florida repeatedly shot themselves in the foot, settling for field goals and Shane Matthews lobbing inexplicable interceptions in the end zone.  But the Irish offense couldn't get anything going, totaling 34 1st half yards on the ground.  Being the butt of every bowl game joke and doing nothing about it was all the motivation Holtz needed at half time.  That and turning The Bus loose on the worn-down Gators. The final 30 minutes belonged to the away jerseyed Irish, who incorporated green numbers for added motivation.  As the players carried Holtz off the field in triumph, the doubters were silenced.  And yes, for historical perspective, this game marks the last time Notre Dame bested the SEC champs.  

Two tremendous Irish road victories waging battle in this 1st round.  Gerry Faust’s unranked squad delivered a surprising performance on the road against Dan Marino, upsetting the #1 Panthers [Video Highlights].  Marino should have just started making Isotoner commercials in the post-game presser and spared himself the career underachiever label that was to come.  

At the beginning of the 4th, down 13-10, Coach Faust dialed up a daring flea-flicker.  For that specific play package, Faust subbed out frosh phenom Allen Pinkett because Pinkett had problems with the pitch in practice.  So in came senior tri-captain Phil Carter to execute the trick play.  The resulting 54-yard TD strike couldn't have been scripted better.  It was QB Blair Kiel (yes, Gunner's uncle) longest completion of the season.  Pitt added a FG to make it 17-16 Irish.  Then, with just over 8:00 minutes to go, the freshman sensation Pinkett showed why he supplanted his senior counterpart with a 76-yard cutback TD run that cemented the upset bid.  Pinkett added an insurance touchdown four minutes later to complete the "rout."

The Irish probably shouldn't have been out of the polls for this one.  Two weeks prior, they stood at 5-0, with two top-20 wins over Michigan and Miami on their resume.  A home loss as time expired to unranked Arizona, followed by a road tie to unranked Oregon prompted voters to drop the 5-1-1 Irish outside the rankings.  The unexpected takedown of Pitt vaulted ND back to #13, to which they responded by losing their last 3 contests.  The mercurial season rationalizes its lower seed here, but beating #1 is always memorable.

Gerry Faust's shining moment has its hands full with quite possibly the crowned jewel game of this past remarkable season.  The Oklahoma showdown in Norman turned out to be the "pinch me" moment for 2012.  Surviving several close calls to Purdue, Michigan, Stanford and BYU were undoubtedly feel good wins, but for a program with championship aspirations, a lightning rod victory was needed.  Emphatically knocking off the Sooners convinced all Irish fans that they could believe a trip to Miami was very real and possible.  If Manti doesn't play like an unadulterated madman, he likely doesn't get invited to New York as a Heisman finalist.  Best of all, BCS dreams were a reality.

*Revised Tuesday, 10:46 pm.  Thanks to Boiled Sports blog for the correction on Coach Mollenkopf's correct spelling.  Happy to see Boiler Nation is reading. http://www.fanbase.com/article/november-6%2c-1982%2c-notre-dame-%285-1-1%29/35538

April 24, 2013

Irish Madness: #16 Seed Play-In Matchups

We're off and running out of the blocks with 4 matchups pitting #16 seeds against each other for the distinction of meeting a #1 seed in the official Round 1.  We here at WeIsND use common sense in referring to the numerical rounds of competition, unlike some other "Madness" tournaments.  But that's neither here nor there - let's get to some matchup breakdowns!

Leading off with some throw back games that share a common thread - both happened to be the last on the sideline for their respective coaches.  Joe Kuharich's tenure came to a merciful end at the hands of the Orangemen (nice to see programs crossed the p.c. line back in the 60's).  Renowned as the only Notre Dame coach with a losing record, Kuharich stumbled to a 17-23 mark over 4 seasons from 1959-1963.  His overall winning percentage could have been worse seeing as the week before the Syracuse game, ND's game against Iowa was cancelled in the wake of the JFK assassination.  

If you didn't click on the link above with the score of the game - do so now for some terrific old reel footage of the game.  Your ears will perk at 0:20 when Syracuse's fullback's name is given.  I imagine Kuharich's players could have guessed he wouldn't be returning for the '64 season, but at least they gave the throngs of fans that packed Yankee Stadium a nice diversion from the national tragedy, as the announcer remarks, "The South Benders are playing inspired football."  

On the other side of the overmatched coach playoff stands Gerry Faust, who amassed a 30-26-1 mark in 5 seasons, but gets credit for leaving some bowls and silverware in the cupboard for Coach Lou.  And for recruiting Tim Brown.  As for the blowout in South Beach, I'll let Jeremy describe its memorableness:

"’85 Miami was a terribly miserable game for any ND fan.  But the reason why it probably takes this matchup is that it helped to stoke the flames and led to what became perhaps the most heated football college football rivalry of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.  The teams only played a handful of times during that stretch, but every game felt like the fate of the world rested upon the outcome.  Good vs. Evil.  Catholics vs. Convicts.  And Lou could always point back to the 1985 game any time he wanted to stir up the Lads and inflame their emotions."

So do you like your exiting coaches to go out with the semblance of a fight or a complete thud?  A loss that rings in the Era of Era or a loss that gives birth to a truly riveting, albeit short-lived rivalry.  You decide.  

2010: Michigan 28 - @ND 24   vs.   2011: @Michigan 35 - ND 31

Two classic "memorable for all the wrong reasons" games.   Choose your weapon of Denard destruction as back-to-back heart-wrenchers welcomed Brian Kelly's first two meetings in this rivalry.  Both crushing comebacks occurred inside of 30 seconds, ripping victory away in the same manner UM's weasel mascot steals breakfast from the gentle marmot.  The 2010 game lacked the spectacular back and forth see-sawing of leads that the 2011 game delivered.  But what '10 lacked in theatrics, it made up for in pure, unadulterated brain farts.  Exhibit A: Denard 87-yard run untouched. Exhibit B: Kyle Rudolph slips past secondary for 95-yard go-ahead TD.  Exhibit C: BK's QB roulette was in full bloom with 3 untested signal callers getting the opportunity to underwhelm. Particularly love the last plays of each half with Nate Montana and Dayne Crist throwing the final jump ball attempt a combined 27 yards deep of the end zone.  Wowzers.   

As for the 2011 game...you know what, I've written too much about these nightmares.  The less I write and you think about either of these games, the better.  One must advance, but the cruel fate of getting pummeled by their in-state brethren awaits. 

1994: #6 Michigan 26 - @#3 ND 24   vs.   1996: #4 Ohio St 29 @#5 ND 16

When top 10 heavyweight programs square off in the House That Rock Built, magic is often in the air.  Unfortunately, these two Saturdays mixed the wrong potion and ended up with black magic spoiling the day.  

I vividly recall watching the '94 Michigan game (the last time both schools squared off both ranked in the top 10, btw) in the parking lot of a Ft. Wayne high school parking lot in between matches of a high school tennis invitational.  What I don't remember is how much punishment I handed out to my next opponent in my inconsolable state after Todd Collins bested Ron Powlus in The Shootout in South Bend.  Derrick Mayes's corkscrew turning TD grab is one of the greatest clutch catches I've ever seen.  Listen to the announcer positively gushing about Powlus.  It's as if Beano Cook is in the production van singing Powlus sweet nothings in his earpiece.  For such euphoria to be swept away as time expires by the leg of Remy Freaking Hamilton still galls me.  

1996 turned out to be Holtz's swan song.  If this game had turned out differently, maybe the team marches on to contend for the title...maybe Lou doesn't leave...maybe a better succession plan than DC Bob Davie gets worked out... who knows.  The Irish had just gone to Austin and stolen a victory from #6 Texas, with another top 5 foe waiting for them the following week.  Except the Buckeyes were the better team, immediately, running back the opening kickoff inside the 15-yard line.  It seemed all downhill from there as the drama on the field never matched the fanfare of hosting Ohio State for the first time since the 1935 Game of the Century. 

1991: #13 Tennessee 35 - @#5 ND 34   vs.   2007: Navy 46 - @ND 44

Two down to the wire finishes that stand at opposite ends of the memorable spectrum.  If underdogs and sportsmanship and swaying and frozen ropes of snot and streak-stoppers and hitting rock bottom as a program appeals to you, the '07 loss to the Midshipmen amidst the Losingest Season Ever checks all the boxes.  

On the other hand, the "The Miracle in South Bend," as Rocky Toppers affectionately refer to this '91 game, was exceptionally high caliber.  The Irish happened to be on the wrong end of a comeback for the ages.  When Rick Mirer takes a long sack off of a broken play, it sets up a longer than it should have been field goal for Craig Hentrich.  Big deal, we thought in the stands, sitting comfortably on a 31-7 near the end of the 1st half.  The field goal was blocked, Hentrich was injured (he couldn't kick the game winning FG with :04 left) and momentum decided to wear orange from there on out.   

                                                              * * * * *

Those are your play-in game matchups.  Which resonate more with you?  Cast your vote on the right side of the page, leave your comments here or send Tweets to @WeIsNotreDame, spread the word about #IrishMadness and check back in the coming days for more matchup breakdowns and the next batch of memorable games to vote on. 

Irish Madness - The Quest for the Most Memorable ND Football Game

It's been more than 4 months since ND played for the National Championship.  The Blue-Gold game is now in our rearview mirror.  To keep ND football in the forefront and piggyback on the glow of the magical 2012 season, we've created an entertaining experiment: a 4-region bracket tournament that decides once, and until the next time someone does this, The Most Memorable Game in Notre Dame Football History*

Of course we'll hang an asterisk on this endeavor from the get-go.  Since very few, if anyone who may actually read this, have first-hand memories of the Rockne and Leahy dynasties, we limited the pool of entrants to the last 5 decades of ND football.  So 1960 is the first year our selection committee considered.  To equitably fill the bracket, each decade received 13 games each, with 3 wildcard selections rounding out a full 68-game bracket.

Fittingly, the four #1 seed games represent the last four championship seasons of 1966, 1973, 1977 and 1988.  Since "Memorable" doesn't discriminate between victory and defeat (though certainly we remember more fondly the wins), 19 Irish losses litter the bracket, some even "favorites" in early rounds, according to seed.  Did some memorable games not make the cut?  Of course.  Not surprisingly, the "snubs" were mainly games of recent vintage, many of which were stinging losses of varying pain thresholds.  But we feel confident the selection committee chose the most appropriate games for the bracket.  For giggles, we'll even post a "snub" list of the top 25 snubbed games for them to stew about in their media guides.

As you can see on the right side of the page, there are multiple polls of matchups, the first of which are the four play-in matchups pitting all #16 seeds striving for sacrificial lamb status in the main draw.  As the bracket progresses, we'll keep updating the voting windows with new matchups and welcome you back often to continue casting your deciding vote on the games you think are the most memorable.  What makes memorable you ask?  All in the eye of the beholder.

There's "memorable" for all the right reasons, like the '92 Snow Bowl with its unforgettable images, and there's "memorable" for all the wrong reasons, like Navy ending their ignominious losing streak in 2007.  This bracket brings you games of all kinds: heavyweight bowl game showdowns, top 10 rivalry grudge matches, riveting comebacks, equally riveting comebacks that fall just short, plays that take your breath away, drama that unfolds in waves, challenges for the #1 throne, with more than a couple #1 vs. #2 armageddon-type stakes.

These are the games that spin generational yarns, eliciting a touch of embellishment with each re-telling.  These are the games that crystallize those "I remember when..." moments, lending a personal gravitas to the memories of a game that you'd never trade.  These are the games that you witnessed in person with your dad, or watched with your uncles in the den, or a group of buddies at the pub, and still talk about that day in reverential tones.  These are the games that define Notre Dame coaches and players' legacies.

These games are the reason you meet Shawn Wooden backstage at an Umphrey's McGee show and instead of saying "A pleasure to meet you, I enjoyed watching you play" you shout "Bat it down! Batted down!"  And he relishes every second of the encounter that detours down memory lane...at least I think he did.

So enjoy this experiment and the blasts from the past, both near and far.  Please carry on any and all arguments/cheers of support in the comments section of each matchup breakdown and on Twitter: @WeIsNotreDame #IrishMadness