In my dual previews of the Michigan State game my brain offered the following opinion:
Best case scenario Saturday is that we move the ball a little bit with a modest running game and some short passes off a 3-step drop (avoiding big negative plays and penalties), then punt the ball and force MSU to at least start their drives in their own end of the field. If the defense can force a couple of turnovers and make a play or two, maybe we get a couple of quick scores and at least look respectable this week, keeping the final margin somewhere under two touchdowns. That would be a huge step forward for this team right now I'd feel very fortunate if we can at least look respectable in a 34-20 loss to Sparty.So it seems my logical self had the best read on the Irish going into yesterday's contest. Notre Dame did establish a running game, they did cut down on the penalties, and the defense did make a couple of big plays. The final margin of loss was just over, rather than just under, two touchdowns, but I believe that the team competed well and for the first time this season they did manage to look respectable as a football team. So despite moving into historic realms of ineptitude (first 0-4 start ever), this team actually took some large strides forward on Saturday.
Others have done some really nice write-ups of the game - here, here, and here, but I want to share my observations after having watched the recorded game today (I was out of town yesterday). Positives first, then negatives.
Things the Irish Can Build On
Penalties. In a big improvement from previous weeks, the Irish were only penalized four times for 35 yards. Perhaps the worst penalty was a roughing the passer call on Trevor Laws on a 25-yard pass completion by MSU, but I think it was a lousy call. Laws barely touched Hoyer on the play, and it was nowhere near his head or in any way cheap or dangerous. You never like to see penalties, but a significant improvement in this area is a positive sign.
Turnovers. Jimmy Clausen put the ball on the ground and lost the fumble on his worst play of the day. But that was it. No interceptions, and no other fumbles. The defense had two take-aways, one by fumble and one by interception. On the day the Irish were +1 in turnover margin, and that is very positive.
Running Game. This is the obvious area of major improvement. Notre Dame fans got to see what some of our young talent can do as James Aldridge and Robert Hughes looked very good carrying the ball. Both runners have good size and showed the ability to run through tacklers as well as the ability to make a nice cut and run around them. Aldridge carried the ball 18 times for 104 net yards (5.8 yards per carry), including one big 43 yard romp. Hughes had 6 carries for 33 yards (5.5 yard average) and a TD. While both backs looked very good, Robert Hughes looked like a beast. Most of his runs featured tremendous power as he dragged multiple defenders toward the goal line, but he also had a very nifty 18 yard scamper where he showed terrific vision and quick feet to avoid contact and run to daylight. To put the performances of Aldridge and Hughes in perspective, MSU running backs Ringer and Caulcrick averaged 5.5 and 4.2 yards per carry, respectively. Nearly every significant running play went over the left side, either right behind or just around Sam Young and Mike Turkovich. Many of those plays also featured center John Sullivan either pulling around the left side or making excellent blocks down field. The play of the O-line was still riddled with errors, but at least we saw on Saturday what this line is capable of doing when they get it right. Kudos to those guys for all the hard work they put in preparing for this game, and for the progress they made.
Defensive Heart. Once again, our defense found itself playing most of the game on a short field. They were on the field for 73 MSU offensive plays. They were getting pounded physically by MSU's huge offensive line and their big running backs. But they did not quit. They DID NOT QUIT. Despite the tough conditions, the defense made some very good stands. After the Clausen fumble Michigan State had the ball 1st and 10 at the Irish 14. The defense held MSU to a field goal. In the second quarter, with MSU driving, David Bruton ran what seemed like 50 yards from the middle of the field to the front corner of the end zone to intercept a long Hoyer pass. Great hustle and great ability. In the fourth quarter, with Sparty grinding us down with power runs, the defense actually made a very nice goal-line stand to force a field goal attempt (which was missed). Our tackling and position was not always good, but the defense showed real heart.
David Bruton. I mentioned his very impressive interception. How long have Irish fans waited for a safety who could cover ground like that? Bruton was making plays all over the field and was second on the team in total tackles (8 solo, 7 assists). His 8 solo tackles was the most on the team. Right now Bruton is out-playing Tom Zbikowski, who had only 2 solo tackles and 3 assists. Of course, if your safety is leading the team in tackles (especially in the running game), your front seven isn't getting the job done.
Brian Smith and Kerry Neal. These two freshman outside linebackers, while still raw, showed impressive speed off the edge and in pursuit. In limited action they were each very disruptive and effective pass rushers. They are pushing their way to the top of the depth chart and I expect we'll see much more of them sooner rather than later as the Irish prepare to play pass-happy teams like Purdue, UCLA, Boston College and USC.
Clausen on the Roll. FINALLY!!! Coach Weis finally put some roll-out passes into the offense. Although they didn't net much passing yardage, the roll outs are an effective way to disrupt the pass rush and buy the QB some time to find a receiver. The fact that we had very few receivers open is another issue altogether. But the roll-outs helped reduce the number of negative plays by making it easier for the QB to throw the ball away and avoid the big sack. Hopefully we'll see more of this in the future. If nothing else, putting Clausen on the move forces the pass rushers to hesitate just a little bit as they aren't 100% sure where they'll find the QB once they beat their man.
Pass blocking. We still aren't any good at pass blocking - but we were less bad on Saturday than we have been up until now. Our quarterbacks were sacked "only" 4 times for a negative 32 yards. And some of those sacks appeared to be coverage sacks, where the QB actually had a reasonable amount of time to get the ball away, but couldn't find an open receiver. Still a long way to go, but progress has been made.
Things the Irish Have to Do Better
Tackling. I know Ringer and Caulcrick are big backs. But kick returner Devin Thomas isn't a big guy. Big guys or small guys, we have to tackle them better. We were hurt throughout the game by players in position to make a play in the backfield, or to stop a kick return before it got started, missing the tackle and/or getting dragged down the field. We are giving up first downs and extending drives with poor tackling.
Two Yards. We have to find a way to get two yards. Notre Dame has been vexed all year by 3rd-and-long situations, and no team can win games when constantly in that situation. We've been trying to get ourselves into manageable 3rd downs, so that we have a high probability of moving the chains. Unfortunately, when we've had a chance at 3rd-and-2, we haven't consistently gotten the job done. In two key spots Saturday, the Irish failed to convert on short yardage. Mid first quarter with the game tied at 7, ND had the ball 3rd and 1 at our own 36, after a nice 8-yard pass completion to Grimes. Schwapp got the carry and was stopped for no gain, and we punted (poorly). A perfect chance to build some momentum was lost. Has Schwapp EVER carried the ball for a first down? He needs to be blocking for Hughes or Aldridge in that situation. In the third quarter, the Irish down by 10 but driving at mid-field, they were faced with a 3rd and 2. Aldridge managed to get only 1. On 4th and 1, Hughes was stuffed for no gain and we lost the ball on downs at the 50. I think we should have punted on 4th down (more on that below), but our inability to convert 3rd and 2 killed a promising and important drive, and we never pushed the ball out beyond our own 36 yard line for the rest of the game. If we can't convert 3rd and long, and if we can't convert 3rd and 2, then we really aren't doing much of anything.
Passing. I'm not sure Jimmy Clausen's arm is at 100% yet. He has zip on his shorter throws, but it really looks to me as though his longer throws hang in the air for a long time and that this is creating timing problems with his receivers. He is also badly under throwing a lot of balls when he can't set his feet and has to use "all arm". The "zip" contrast was very noticeable when Evan Sharpley came in and obviously had more mustard on his throws. The other half of the passing equation is our receivers, who seemed to have a lot of trouble getting open. Our pass blocking was still a big problem Saturday, but Clausen was frequently able to buy enough time to get the ball off if anyone was open. Especially when he rolled out, Jimmy had ample time to survey the field and deliver the ball before throwing it away or getting caught by a pursuing defender, but he couldn't find an open man.
Win the Field Position Battle on Special Teams. Coach Weis calls them "hidden yards", but they weren't very hidden this week. Michigan State's average starting field position for the game was their own 43 yard line. Notre Dame's average starting field position was it's own 25 yard line. MSU had 14 offensive possessions, and 6 of them started at mid-field or BETTER. The Irish had 14 possessions, and after the early fumble recovery at MSU's 9 yard line, Notre Dame's BEST field position to start a drive was our own 30 yard line with 2:45 left in the third quarter. The Irish kick return game was weak, and we had no punt returns. Our kick and punt coverage units did a poor job generally and tackled poorly in particular. The worse offenders were our punting duo of Geoff Price and Eric Maust. Although we did see a couple of very good punts, those good efforts were vastly outweighed by shank punts of 27 yards (twice!), 11 yards, and 36 yards. If a team is punting from around it's own 30 yard line, a decent punt and decent coverage should give the other team the ball inside it's own 30 yard line, thus exactly flipping field position. Instead, we repeatedly gave the Spartans the ball at or near mid-field. Poor offense combined with poor special teams play presented our defense with a "Mission Impossible," time and time again. Coach Weis played a part in this as well. When we had 4th and 1 at mid-field early in the third quarter, down 24-14, we should have punted. I know Coach Weis is an aggressive play caller, but he needed to help his defense by playing for field position at that point. As I noted above, the Irish have not been good in short yardage. Schwapp had been stuffed on short yardage in an earlier drive, Aldridge had been stuffed on 3rd down. Failure to convert put the defense back against the wall again, instead of turning the tables on MSU. In the first quarter, on Notre Dame's very first possession, we stalled out at mid-field and punted. The punt pinned MSU at their own 2 yard line. Two plays later Hoyer fumbled the ball to the Irish, who quickly scored to take the early lead. Why not try that again? In previous seasons Notre Dame had experienced players who could (frequently) overcome Coach Weis' failed gambits. But this team needs a more conservative approach.
Blocking. Although greatly improved from previous weeks, blocking in all phases still must become more consistent. In the first three games, nearly every offensive play was a negative. This week, there were numerous positive plays from a blocking perspective. The problem is that the ratio of negative plays to positive plays is still way too high. Too many sacks. Too many running backs hit in the backfield. The offensive line, tight ends, and running backs all need to keep working hard to make improvements in the coming week as dramatic as the improvements they have made in the past week.
Sure, I'm depressed. Even though I went to school through four years of Gerry Faust and four consecutive losses to the Air Force, I've never seen an Irish team look this overmatched. But, I can see the future. There were a lot of young players running all over the field on Saturday who are going to be stars. Aldridge, Hughes, Allen, Clausen, Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Ian Williams all look like very promising players. And the team never gave up. They played hard for 60 minutes and they never gave in. What more can I ask of them?
Go Irish! Beat Boilermakers!