Boy, losing gets old in a hurry. What can we take from Notre Dame's 31-10 loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions in Happy Valley? Here are my thoughts following the game, in no particular order.
Jimmy Clausen is the real deal. He is amazingly poised for a young quarterback. He had command of the offense, can make all the throws, and generally makes very good decisions. His future at Notre Dame (and beyond) looks very bright, provided he lives to see it. But he still has a learning curve to climb. Some of the six sacks he suffered (for minus 50 yards) were his fault because he held onto the ball too long. A sack is better than an INT, but he has to be quicker to throw the ball away. We had a couple of delay of game penalties that the QB has to avoid. His numbers for the game were 17 of 32 for 144 yards and 1 INT. He missed on some throws, but he also was robbed of a TD pass when Irish receivers dropped two passes in a row in the end zone late in the game. It will be fun to see what he can do when Coach Weis opens the playbook for him. The play calling today was ultra conservative, relying on quick, horizontal throws toward the sidelines. Unfortunately, nobody was breaking any tackles or making guys miss, so all those plays were for very short yardage or even negative yardage. In short, we'll be fine at QB if we can get our other problems fixed.
The offensive line had another poor game, although I thought they played a slightly better game physically than last week. When they were blocking the right guys, they weren't getting physically beat as badly as last week. Mentally I thought it was another dreadful performance overall, despite more plays than last week where they gave an appearance of actually having a clue about what they were doing. Penn State brought a lot of pressure, but not as much as did Georgia Tech. Yet, there were far too any instances of PSU defenders running free into the backfield. Added to last week's woes this week were way too many penalties committed by the offensive line. False starts and holding penalties killed off drives when we were moving the ball, or killed them off before they even started. Against Georgia Tech I felt the guards were the biggest problem. Today it was clearly our tackles. Sam Young had numerous egregious mental errors, and left tackle Paul Duncan was just plain getting beat by the outside rushers. The running game never got going. Running backs were greeted by defenders well before getting back to the line of scrimmage. Much of my pre-season expectations revolved around our young but talented offensive line being able to at least drive block to establish a power running game. So far the power running game is completely AWOL. Call me old fashioned, but I really think you ought to be able to run over your opponent when the occasion calls for it. I never really though I'd miss Darius Walker, but I do.
Travis Thomas was a liability today. He ran the ball six times for 12 yards, and got flagged for a 15-yard personal foul when he was beating up a helmetless PSU player laying on the ground after a punt play. What the hell was up with that TT? That display by TT looked much worse than the personal foul Justin Brown was ejected for last week, and I can only assume the referee didn't see the whole thing or Thomas would have been tossed. Thomas lost his starting RB role to Armando Allen this week. Thomas has not looked good carrying the ball, and he just lacks the speed to reach the corner. He looks like a linebacker playing RB.
Where's Waldo? Better yet, where's Aldridge? We desperately needed to establish a power running game today, yet I only saw James Aldridge line up at RB on one play (when he fumbled). Did Coach Weis bench him because of the fumble? Or was something else going on?
Golden Tate is going to be a star. He flashed his speed when he got juked running down on kick coverage, then turned and ran down PSU's speedy A.J. Wallace 68 yards later at the 27 yard line, saving a touchdown. He showed great hands and tremendous play making ability when he out-maneuvered a PSU defender to catch Clausen's longest pass of the day, even though the completion was negated by a penalty.
Duval Kamara is going to be great, but he is still raw. Kamara had some chances today to make plays, but couldn't hold onto the ball. One chance was a perfectly thrown jump ball in the back of the end zone that clanked off his hands and cost ND a late TD.
David Grimes is a solid receiver, but I'm not yet convinced he's a solid #1 receiver. I expect Parris (or Kamara or Tate) to establish themselves as the true #1 guy soon.
Zibby looks good on the punt returns, when he actually returns them. He is fair catching much more often this year, and I wonder why? Is Coach Weis trying to avoid injuring him? Is he trying to avoid a costly turnover deep in our own end of the field?
Junior Jabbie got a little more time at RB today. He seems to the designated QB protector on obvious passing downs, but also looked good on his one carry for 5 yards.
Our defense is good enough to win games, if the offense carries it's fair share of the load. Unlike the O-line, the defense does not have a "tempo" problem. They came out playing with very high energy, and put Notre Dame ahead early with a fantastic interception return for a touchdown. I was impressed with how quickly and how well all the defenders turned into blockers after Walls pulled down the interception. That was a good indicator of solid coaching by Corwin Brown and his assistants. Here are the numbers on Penn State's offensive drives:
- 4 plays, 11 yards (Walls INT)
- 2 plays, 13 yards (fumble recovered by Brockington)
- 6 plays, 0 yards (punt)
- 9 plays, 22 yards (punt)
- 6 plays, 51 yards (PSU TD)
- 6 plays, 5 yards (punt)
- 1 play, 7 yards (fumble recovered by Laws)
- 4 plays, 7 yards (PSU Field Goal)
- 3 plays, minus 9 yards (punt with Zibby's 47 yard return)
- 7 plays, 65 yards (PSU TD. Drive included 51 yard pass completion)
- 4 plays, 11 yards (punt)
- 10 plays, 62 yards (PSU TD)
- 3 plays, 4 yards (punt)
- 4 plays, 38 yards (end of game)
Were those Big Televen officials? I didn't hear during the broadcast where the officiating crew was from, but they were not helping matters, especially in the first half. Certainly Notre Dame earned the penalties we were flagged for. But did PSU really not commit ANY penalties the whole first half? In particular, I saw several blatant holds that should have been called against the Lions in the first half, but weren't. Late in the first half, with the Irish trailing by a touchdown, Penn State snapped the ball with 22 seconds remaining. Morelli ran for 7 yards then fumbled. Trevor Laws recovered and the Irish had the ball with just 9 seconds remaining. The officials reviewed the play to confirm that Morelli fumbled, but they didn't correct the clock to reflect the time remaining when Laws fell on the ball. The clock should have been stopped as soon as Trevor covered the fumble and the ball changed possession. But it ran for several seconds before the officials realized that Penn State had turned the ball over. It's not a huge deal, but a few more seconds might have given us another play or two to try for a TD or get into position for field goal attempt. I did feel that the game was called more evenly in the second half.
John Carlson has not been enough of a factor in the Irish offense. I suspect it's because he's been held in to help with pass protection since our running backs have not proved able to pick up the blitzers.
Kicking game has been fairly solid. Kick-offs have been acceptable, though not stellar. Place-kicking has been good from short range. Punts have been good. Price didn't have any shanks, and uncorked a couple of long ones. Coverage in the kick & punt game gets an "F" today. Punt team gave up a TD return. Kicking team gave up a 68 yard return.
Anthony Morelli is going to break the hearts of Penn State fans this year. He was only 12 of 22 for 131 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. For those keeping score at home, that's fewer completions, for fewer yards, for a lower completion percentage than some kid named Clausen had today. Morelli looks good when he has all day to throw and wide open receivers. But he was awful under the modest pressure the Irish were able to put on him, and he's going to cost PSU some games with his poor decision making.
Final thoughts. Although the game got away from the Irish in the second half as Penn State's running game wore down our tired defense, I am very optimistic about our new defense under Corwin Brown. They are giving up some yards in the power running game, but they pursue well, get decent pressure on the passer, and have been good in coverage. Like everyone else who has seen them play I am somewhat astonished by our offense, and not in a good way. I think the line made some progress on their "tempo" problem this week, but still have a lot of work to do. When and if the O-line starts to gel, I think we have a quarterback and enough play makers to enable the offense to hold up it's end of the bargain and help the Irish win some games. I only hope that the "gel" thing happens before we're 0-8. The good news is that the Michigan Wolverines are at least as befuddled as we are right now at 0-2 and we actually have chance to go into the Big House and win a game, which I didn't expect was possible two weeks ago.