Frankie O blog: A place in my heart

782004.png

Frankie O blog: A place in my heart

Life has a way of cruising along. We get to places and wonder how we got there. You know, like being behind a bar for the last 18 years. It was never part of the plan.

Then when reality hits you in the face, especially when you reach a certain age, you get reflective on the influences that have shaped the circumstance in which you exist. Among my many issues is the sports affliction that has guided me on this path that Im just along for the ride on.

From an early age sports were the driving force behind everything I did. Be it playing, watching or reading about them. Thats just how life was. A large part of that I attribute to my Philadelphia upbringing. Very few places are as psychotic towards their sports as Philly, so I guess I never really had a chance. This point has really been driven home to me from the conversations I have on a daily basis with people from around the country. For some reason my Philly influences really stand out and they always seem to get a reaction. Go figure.

Among the many questions that Im frequently asked is how I would rank my interests in the four pro teams from my hometown.

The easiest answer would be: Whos playing now? Since that team would likely get most of my attention. But like most people in this country, if I really had to put them in an official order, football and baseball would be at the top, followed by hockey and basketball. This is not to discount hockey and basketball, and remember for me, all Im really talking about is level of psychosis anyway.

But If I was asked which one provided my favorite memories, or which one started all this for me, it would have to be hockey and my beloved Philadelphia Flyers.

For someone my age, where I grew up, the Flyers where the first team that loved me back. They did this by winning. Twice! That was a team that forged a love affair with a community that was dying to be in love. That they were a team that did it with incredible flair and a us-versus-the-world mentality only made it better. That was Philly.

My entire family caught Flyers fever. We went to a lot of games and Flyer conversation was a constant. As was the No. 6 Moose DuPont jersey that I always wore. The first jersey I ever owned. But my fondest memory was Saturday night, the best night of the week.

At that time home games werent on TV, just the road ones. The Flyer schedule seemed to be dominated by Saturday road games followed by a Sunday home one.

Saturday night was a time for my family to get together, a lot of the time it was at our house or, mostly we went on my favorite road trip, an hour away to my Aunt Pegs. No school. No homework. It was just family fun and a Flyers game. Oh, and dont forget the snacks! I know I never did.

Like any young kid, it was fun watching the adults in the family interact. My family was full of personalities that were larger-than-life and very influential on someone in their formative years. The things I remember the most were the teasing and the laughter. Those who know me at all Im sure are not surprised to hear that. Im a product of my upbringing -- still!

This is also where my love of cards -- or should I say, playing poker for money -- started. Invariably the whole family would eventually gather around the kitchen table, talking about the game, snacking and telling stories, sometimes about each other. The smiles and laughs were always in abundance. Even as a young teen, the most awkward of ages, I never felt uncomfortable. It was always about having fun. If you cant goof on the people you love, or better yet, if the people that love you most cant goof on you, who can? It was really a cool time for me, that time right before all you wanted to do was hang out with your friends. At that time, all I wanted to do was hang out with my family. And laugh.

Then around 11:00 p.m. or so, the cards would come out: Penny ante, dealers choice. Me, my folks, aunts and uncles, my grandmother and my great-grandmother would be around the table. The exact group would change once in a while, not everyone was always there, but the spirit always was. The games were always very competitive, but the banter is what you always remember. I remember being ultra-competitive, and being brought down to earth on more than one occasion.

Speaking of my competitive issue, two other things that come to mind, and both happened at picnics at Aunt Pegs: Once, while playing in a volleyball game in which I was probably the youngest one on my side, I took out one of my Aunts while trying to return a ball that was definitely her play. Oops. My bad! Afterwards I felt awful. I guess it really is just a game.

Then, and I cant remember if it was the same year, wouldnt surprise me though if it was, the softball incident occurred. My aunts house was in the country and down the street was a camp that had a baseball field that we would use. So were having a friendly game. On the other team was my younger sister. Shes playing near shortstop and not paying attention to the game. Shes talking to everyone within earshot without a care in the world. I dont know why, but I found this extremely annoying. When I stepped up to the plate, I politely reminded her that it was not safe to stand in the field that close to the plate and not pay attention. Just because my decibel level increased to ten times normal doesnt mean it wasnt polite. Just a big brother looking out for his little sister. Of course what happened next was as predictable as the Eagles blowing a fourth-quarter lead. Thats right. I promptly lined one off the side of her head. Blood. Tears. Drama. And worse yet, the end of the game! Honestly? Pay attention! And in case youre wondering, it was accidental. I mean nobody can hit a softball where they want, can they?

The other fun of the poker games was when they ended. It was so cool staying up late when you were a kid, especially if you had a bunch of hard earned change in your pocket. And more than one time I can remember going to 6:00 a.m. mass after the ride home. Look at that nice family, getting up so early for church! You got that right, Sister.

I think about those times a lot as a father. Just like a lot of things in life, they dont make as much sense or mean as much, until you look back on them. Right now Im having a great time in my own home because my kids, for the first time, are getting into watching the baseball playoffs. It doesnt matter that a team that they, or I, root for is playing. They are getting a kick out of how fun watching playoff baseball can be and I just get a kick out of watching them. In the end its about sharing an experience, a way to connect.

Of course watching your team win really adds to the connection. Like I wrote here a couple of years ago, the thing that really stung about watching the Flyers loss in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final to the Blackhawks was that I didnt get to share the experience of winning and I had to watch it all around me. The fact that the Hawks hadnt won in forever created a bond among those who had suffered with them, and they got to share it and tell the youngsters how cool what they were experiencing was.

So when people ask which team is my favorite, they kinda all are. But that first time I went through the winning part of being a fan was with the Flyers so that always has a special place in my heart. And I cant remember those teams without thinking about my family and how much following the team during those magical years brought us all together.

Sitting around that kitchen table was like yesterday and I can still see it and hear it.

Goodbye Aunt Peg, your laugh is going to be missed.

DeShone Kizer not perfect, but clearly meets the standard for Notre Dame

kizer-1001.jpg

DeShone Kizer not perfect, but clearly meets the standard for Notre Dame

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — DeShone Kizer wasn’t perfect, but exact perfection probably doesn’t matter much when you take a flamethrower to something.

That something was Syracuse’s secondary in Notre Dame’s 50-33 win over the Orange Saturday at MetLife Stadium. Kizer threw for 471 yards, 55 short of Joe Thiesmann’s program record and the most an Irish quarterback has ever thrown for in a win. He threw touchdowns of 79, 67 (both to Equanimeous St. Brown) and 54 yards (to Kevin Stepherson) and averaged 13.5 yards per attempt.

Still, what Kizer and coach Brian Kelly were more pleased with was how he played in the second half. Back-to-back quick-strike scoring drives — Kizer connected for that 54-yard touchdown to Stepherson, which Dexter Williams followed with a video game-like 59-yard touchdown run — put the game out of reach awfully quickly after a rocky end to the first half.

“The first half, yeah, you get a bunch of highlights throwing the ball down the field and having one play, two-play drives,” Kizer said. “What we need right now is a way of being sustainable on defense and offense. The second half is a good example of that.”

Kizer didn’t play mistake-free football, though. He missed an easy touchdown when he overthrew a wide-open Stepherson in the first half, and the sack he took late in the second quarter knocked Notre Dame out of field goal range — after which Brisly Estime returned Tyler Newsome’s punt 74 yards to set up an Orange touchdown. And things threatened to get worse when Kizer threw an interception with under 30 seconds left, setting up a Syracuse 40-yard field goal that Cole Murphy missed.

[MORE NOTRE DAME: Defense leaves New Jersey with good vibrations]

Kelly said Kizer tried to do too much late in the first half, but stopped pressing and trying to put the team on his back after those two mishaps.

“That was the conversation I had with him was DeShone, we need to get three points there, you’re trying to do too much,” Kelly said. “And he has a tendency to want to do too much, put too much pressure on himself. And he’s gotta stop doing that. I told him, you do enough. What I liked about him in the second half was that he dropped the ball down, took the easy completions, made the smart decisions and I think he needs to continue to do that. I thought the second half showed the kind of things I was looking for him to do.”

The things Kizer did right emphatically overcame those mistakes. He threw a number of fantastically-placed passes over the middle and consistently looked for easy check down throws. He got both tight ends — Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar — involved in the offense. He rushed for a touchdown, too, his sixth of the year. 

So in front of a bunch of NFL scouts at an NFL stadium — where Kizer could, of course, be playing on Sundays next year — the Notre Dame quarterback turned in yet another strong performance. This time, though, it was good enough to get his team a win.

And it wasn’t perfect, as Kizer was quick to note after the game, but he’ll head back to South Bend pleased with what he did and where he can go from here. 

“This is the sloppiest 50 points I’ve ever been a part of, the sloppiest 400-plus pass game I’ve ever been a part of,” Kizer said. “And I think that’s the best part of about. We’re having fun, we’re having a good time, and there’s still so much room to improve. To come out and play the way we played and have the amount of fun that we had and still know there’s a lot of work to be done, I couldn’t be happier.” 

Notre Dame’s defense leaves New Jersey with good vibrations

10-1_notre_dame.jpg

Notre Dame’s defense leaves New Jersey with good vibrations

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — This was far from a virtuoso performance, but Notre Dame’s defense needed to drudge up some positivity after a brutal September. And they left MetLife Stadium feeling some good vibrations after a 50-33 win over Syracuse Saturday

The final score isn’t incredibly impressive as a standalone for the first game of the post-Brian VanGorder era/Greg Hudson’s first game as defensive coordinator. The 33 points Syracuse scored are tied for a season high set when the Orange whomped FCS side Colgate to open the season. Louisville, South Florida and UConn held Dino Babers’ ludicrous-speed offense to fewer points than Notre Dame did on Saturday. 

But here’s where the positivity is at least grounded in something: Notre Dame’s defense allowed only 4.3 yards per play over Syracuse’s final 77 plays of the game. That’s a number on which Greg Hudson’s group can build going forward. 

“You look at us as a defense in September, and we were terrible,” safety Drue Tranquill said. “I’ll say that as one of our leaders. I wasn’t great, there were a lot of aspects of our defense that weren’t great. I think that could’ve created a really negative vibe, especially heading into this week. 

“So for us to come in here and get a win on the road with a new DC, with all the things going on, I think it speaks to the character of our team, the resiliency of our team and we’ll take this.”

Notre Dame rotated a ton of players on Saturday, getting guys like safety Nicco Fertitta, defensive tackle Elijah Taylor and linebacker Asmar Bilal their first meaningful snaps of their college careers (all are sophomores). Jay Hayes went from playing no snaps against Duke to making an impact on the defensive line, while freshmen defensive backs Donte Vaughn, Julian Love and Jalen Elliott played extensively (fellow freshman safety Devin Studstill, a lineup regular this year, was ejected in the first quarter for targeting). 

Or, consider this: 21 Notre Dame defensive players recorded a tackle against Syracuse’s first-team offense on Saturday, nearly two full units worth of players. 

“It’s like, ‘Who’s out here with me?’” Tranquill said. “They’re bringing them in left and right.” 

The warp-speed substitutions of the Irish defense allowed a quality-over-quantity result in terms of reps, as coach Brian Kelly felt his team’s tackling was better off for it.

“We’re not a finished product,” Kelly said. “But we’ve got some kids who care about it and we’ll work on it to get better.”

Twenty-seven of Syracuse’s 33 points came in the first half, with 13 of them coming on the Orange’s first two drives. Eric Dungey led an easy eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive after DeShone Kizer fired a 79-yard touchdown strike to Equanimeous St. Brown on the first play of the game, then followed that with a 72-yard strike to Amba Etta-Tawo, who easily bested Love in single coverage for a touchdown. 

Notre Dame’s defense still gave up three scores after those first 11 plays, but gradually began to dig in against a Syracuse offense that became more about operating fast than operating successfully as the game went on. Syracuse averaged 3.58 yards per play in the second half and didn’t get in the end zone until with just under seven minutes remaining — which was far too late and didn’t get the Orange within two scores thanks to a botched PAT. 

“When you’re playing a team like that that spreads it, you have to get acclimated to positioning on the field, where the ball is at all times and when it happens so quickly — you can’t duplicate that in practice,” Kelly said. “Once they got that sense of receiver spreads, sets, calls and checks, they were able to duplicate that play in and play out.”

In addition to cycling through a load of inexperienced and/or young players, Notre Dame’s defensive veterans stepped up when they needed to. Nyles Morgan and Isaac Rochell almost single-handedly forced punts on back-to-back possessions, and James Onwualu’s sack-strip of Dungey accounted for Notre Dame’s first forced fumble of the season. Jarron Jones blocked another PAT — which Cole Luke dashed back for a two-point score — the sixth blocked kick of his career. 

“We had to come around, find what was important and use those things to get better,” Rochell said. “We had to figure out our identity again. And I think we did a great job, everybody responded really well and that was a really good week of practice.”

[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]

This by no means is a sign that everything about Notre Dame’s broken defense is fixed or even securely glued together. Kelly mentioned that plenty of veterans, who were coached in VanGorder’s scheme for the last two and a half years, needed to eliminate some muscle memory that no longer applied to the Hudson-led defense (it’s why Luke, Kelly said, saw plenty of time in the slot — it’s a new position for him). And while the Irish settled in after a frenetic first quarter, this still was a slow start for a defense that allowed five touchdowns. 

Whether or not Notre Dame’s defense will be consistently good enough to beat N.C. State next weekend and put the Irish back on track to reach a bowl game remains to be seen. But it had to start somewhere, and Kelly and these players believe that somewhere was MetLife Stadium. 

“I want to play better overall as a football team and I think we can,” Kelly said. “We’ve got some young guys who are gonna make some mistakes and we’ve gotta make sure that those aren’t catastrophic mistakes. And unfortunately the positions in which they play (the secondary) tend to be big mistakes, but they’re going to be really good players and we’re sticking with them.”