September Struggles: Red Sox & Notre Dame

The Boston Red Sox are coming down the stretch. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are just beginning. What both have in common is that September has not been kind. The Notebook delves into the current problems of each team and looks ahead…

In retrospect maybe there were two clear signs that September wouldn’t be a fun time in Fenway Park. The first came on September 1, when the Sox lost the rubber match of a three-game set to the Yankees with A.J. Burnett pitching for the hated pinstripes. The second came with an article I published on the site Boston Sports Then & Now. In my side role as a partisan Boston fan I do some historical contributions to the BST&N site and I noted how the 1974 Red Sox suddenly collapsed and turned a seven-game lead in the AL East into a seven-game deficit in what seemed to be a matter of days. To my brethren in Red Sox Nation, I accept full responsibility for inviting disaster. Because disaster is what’s staring the $160 Million Crew in the face.

Boston has won only two games this month and their lead in the wild-card race, at nine games just a couple weeks ago, is now 3.5 over the Rays, and as this goes online, Tampa Bay leads Baltimore 4-2 in the seventh and threatens to shave another half-game off the margin, while Boston takes a night off.

What’s most alarming about the sudden fall from grace is that it’s not caused by a hitting slump. If that were the case, you could assume it was just a particularly rough patch that the cycles of baseball were delivering. But the Red Sox have four hitters whose September numbers show both on-base percentage of .400-plus and slugging percentages in excess of .600. So while Dustin Pedroia is ice-cold and Kevin Youkilis is battling a hip problem, Marco Scutaro and Josh Reddick are tearing it up, while reliables Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez continue to chew up pitching staffs. The problem is that the Sox own pitching staff is getting carved up

After what seemed to be a brief steadying of his ship earlier in the summer, John Lackey’s September ERA is up over 12. Andrew Miller, who once seemed a promising back-end pitcher is even higher. Daniel Bard, just weeks ago the heir apparent to Jonathan Papelbon who would make the closer expendable in the offseason, coughed up two wins on his own and ran his September ERA over 10.

All is not lost—Josh Beckett had to miss a start with a sprained ankle, but should be back. It’s possible Clay Bucholz will return in time to rescue a flailing pitching staff. Above all, the friendly confines of Fenway await. Boston has nine games at home starting on Tuesday night. The biggest four will be a series with Tampa that begins on Thursday. Now’s the time for the Red Sox to beat back the tide, because once this homestand ends it’s a six-game road trip that starts in the Bronx. No one in Boston wants the playoffs to be up in the air when that battle starts.  

The Fighting Irish had closed last season on a strong note, beating USC to end the regular season and then hammering Miami in the Sun Bowl. With head coach Brian Kelly having had a year to get his high-octane offense in place, expectations were high in South Bend, and hopes of a return to a major bowl game in place. Two quick losses, one at home to South Florida, the other an inexplicable fourth-quarter meltdown in Michigan, have pushed that goal to the brink of extinction before the leaves change colors. What’s gone wrong and what are the prospects for fixing it?

Conventional Wisdom says that turnovers are the problem at Notre Dame and if they just eliminate those, all will be well. Since the offense has turned it over 10 times in two games, I’m hard pressed to say the CW is wrong but it think it does oversimplifying things. Kelly’s system is a fast-paced attack that aims to place constant pressure on a defense. Watch an ND game on TV and see Kelly constantly making the “hurry-up” motion with his hands. Those of us who remember college basketball from the mid-1990s recall Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson calling his press and attack system “40 Minutes of Hell.” Kelly is trying to do the same thing in football, only for 60 minutes. And his success at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and now the over 1,000 yards of offense he’s piled up in two games in 2011 suggests it works.

But it has consequences. If an offense like this places inordinate pressure on defense, it does the same thing to an offense. Turnovers and penalties—of which the Irish have committed 18 so far this year—are often the result of a loss of concentration. To play quality football at the pace Kelly demands takes enormous mental toughness, and a lapse in that is going to create mistakes. Take one of Notre Dame’s biggest errors Saturday night against Michigan. Having taken the ball down to the 10-yard line and ready for a score that would have locked the game up, sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees dropped back, pump faked and flat out lost control of the ball. Michigan recovered. I don’t know if this play in particular was a loss of concentration or maybe just Rees’ hands sweating extra hard in the Midwestern humidity. What I do feel confident saying is that this is the type of error more likely to occur when you’re in constant motion, with young players’ heads spinning trying to keep up with it all.

None of this to suggest Kelly’s system needs to go. ND is moving the ball at a feverish pace, and if it takes greater mental discipline to make it work at a national championship level, let the hard-nosed coach keep drilling it into this team. I am suggesting though, that we not simply assume the Irish turnover problems are going to disappear overnight.

It’s an interesting part of the schedule for Notre Dame coming up. They’ve got a home game against Michigan State, which if they can survive, sets them up for winnable road games at Pitt and Purdue, both of whom have played poorly in early games, particularly the Boilermakers. The next stretch of games is more difficult, with Air Force, USC and Navy, but all three are at home. After that it’s the ACC Trifecta with Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College. Not until Thanksgiving Saturday at Stanford does ND face a game in which they look to be a clear underdog. But save for Purdue, none of those opponents are pushovers (Wake Forest knocked off N.C. State and looks to be back to respectability). A wild ride is ahead for Irish backers.

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September Struggles: Red Sox & Notre Dame

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September Struggles: Red Sox & Notre Dame

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September Struggles: Red Sox & Notre Dame


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September Struggles: Red Sox & Notre Dame

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