Saturday, September 1, 2007

Offensive Line Offensive in Loss to Georgia Tech

A week ago I posted my general expectations for Notre Dame's 2007 football season. With regard to the offensive line I wrote, in part:

We don't have Brady Quinn at quarterback any more. We don't have Darius Walker, who could see disaster coming through the line and side-step it like a matador. We have three inexperienced quarterbacks who will need time to throw the ball. If they aren't given time, we will see interceptions, fumbles, and sacks. We have largely inexperienced running backs who will need actual holes to run through. If those holes aren't there, we'll see negative-yardage runs and fumbles in the backfield.

In short, Notre Dame's fortunes this year are riding on the offensive line. We have to be able to reliably run the ball for 4 yards or more on first and second downs. We can't be in third-and-long situations. Third and long means an all-out pass rush, with young running backs trying to pick up the blitzers, and a young QB throwing the ball down field to young receivers trying to find a soft spot in the nickel or dime zone defense. That is not a high percentage situation. We have to be able to mix pass and run as we choose to, not have it dictated to us by the down-and-distance situation. On short yardage, we don't want our young QBs running the sneak. We want to give the ball to TT, or Schwapp, or Aldridge, or Hughes and know that we can get two yards. Obviously, in the passing game, the QB will need more time to throw than Brady Quinn had last year. If the offensive line can control the line of scrimmage, if the Irish can run the ball with authority rather than finesse, then I think we can have a very good year.

But John Latina had better make sure his resume is current. Because if the O-line fails to produce this year, he will be next year's Rick Minter.
In looking at our chances in this game against Georgia Tech, I wrote:
On offense, the Irish will have to be able to run the ball early and often. GT defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is an evil genius of the blitz and will feast on our young quarterbacks if we get ourselves into "must pass" situations. If we can mix pass/run on our own terms, and not on Tenuta's terms I think we win it. As I wrote yesterday, it all comes down to how our offensive line plays. If we can control the line of scrimmage and neutralize Tech's blitzing schemes with an effective power running game, we'll be successful.
Well, I was right and I was wrong. I was absolutely 100% correct about how important the play of our offensive line was going to be in this game. I was 100% wrong in my expectation that the young offensive line would get the job done. They did not. Georgia Tech's defensive scheme had our offensive linemen thoroughly confused most of the time, and when our guys did have their assignments correct, they were generally beaten one-on-one. There were a couple of drives when the offense showed glimpses of being able win at the point of attack, but for the most part the Yellow Jacket defense played the entire game in the Irish backfield, making it very difficult for the quarterbacks and running backs to make plays. We're lucky to get out of the game without any of the QBs being carried off on a stretcher.

The defense was largely bend-but-don't-break, giving up yards (especially in the power running game) but not giving up the big play, and showing heart in the red zone. The offense just let them down today.

During the game I jotted some notes on my impressions of Notre Dame's play. I'll set them out here, without the benefit of reviewing the tape or checking the stat sheet. As Coach Weis likes to say "I can only go by what I see." By tomorrow I will no doubt have more perspective, but these are my thoughts right now.

First Half

Anthony Vernaglia made the start at outside linebacker. I wrote in the Spring about Anthony's somewhat disappointing career so far. I also wrote that if Corwin Brown could turn Vernaglia into a productive football player it would be a very good early sign that he is going to be heck of a coach for Notre Dame. After one game, AV looks to be a good fit in the 3-4. He was flying around and made some good plays. I didn't notice any egregious errors. Congratulations to him on making the starting lineup and having a good game.

As I mentioned above, the defense in the 1st half was very much bend but don't break. They were giving up chunks of rushing yards, but the pass defense was pretty solid. The defense was, as expected, more aggressive and featured more varied blitzes.

Offensive line did not play well. Pass blocking (including blitz pick-up) was deplorable. Run blocking was non-existent early, showed moments of success later in the half.

Travis Thomas is the starting running back, but he is NOT the man. Aldridge and Allen are the guys.

The kick return game is exciting. Armando Allen was a step away from breaking a big one a couple of times.

Demetrius Jones has good wheels, but it is clear to me that Coach Weis has very little confidence in him as a passer. It was fun to watch the West Virginia wrinkles that Weis put in for Jones (with some success) but you have to stretch the field and threaten the defense with the pass once in a while or they load up the line of scrimmage and you have no chance. Jones only attempted three passes (one complete for 4 yards). I wrote on Wednesday that starting Jones at QB was the Riverboat Gambler play, that it would be "outhouse or castle" as Coach Weis likes to put it. Well, the Riverboat Gambler lost today, and it was definitely "outhouse" instead of "castle." I understand starting Jones behind an over matched offensive line so that he can avoid some of the pressure. But why not roll him out and throw the ball down the field? Why start him if you don't have confidence that he can be multi-dimensional?

Sharpley can play QB for this team. He made good decisions, was very cool under pressure, threw the ball well, and is very tough. Loved it when he picked up the fumble (without putting a knee down) and completed the pass near the goal line. Very savvy. But the O-line needs to protect him. Watching him get pounded explained why Jones got the start. It wasn't about the quarterbacks, it was about Georgia Tech's aggressive defense and our porous offensive line.

Geoff Price did not punt today as well as he is capable of, and it hurt us. He needs to settle down (which he did later).

The defense showed me some real heart by holding GT to field goal attempts throughout the first half. Good sign for the future.

Justin Brown's personal foul and ejection showed very poor judgment on his part. You don't like to see that from a senior, and the timing was really poor. If we get the ball there we're still very much in the game.

I liked the Notre Dame commercials at half-time. "What would you fight for? We're the Fighting Irish." Glad to see the administration embracing our Fighting Irish heritage rather than distancing the University from it.

Second Half

We kicked the ball into the end zone! From the 30! Yippee! Hope we see a lot more of that.

Georgia Tech running back Tashard Choice was faster than Maurice Crum to the edge. I'm not sure what the scheme is that has inside linebacker Crum responsible for outside contain, but he wasn't fast enough for that assignment today. Choice ran right by him to the outside for big gains several times, including a 44-yard run.

Travis Thomas is NOT the guy. (STAT Check: He carried 7 times for -8 (that's negative 8) yards.)

Our offensive linemen are laying on the ground while the QB is getting sacked. They're going low and the defenders are simply jumping over them.

Junior Jabbie made an appearance at running back, apparently because he knows how to pass protect (blitz pick up) better than the other backs. He had no carries.

The Irish defense was able to get GT into 3rd-and-long pretty regularly, and generally held. (GT was 4 of 13 converting on third down).

The Irish run defense was pretty good on "pursuit" plays, but they had a lot of trouble stopping the power runs off tackle.

Our offensive guards had a very tough time picking up the right defender to block. Again and again they were double-or-triple teaming a blocked defender (usually to their inside) as an unblocked rusher went right past them to the outside.

At 8:46 left in the 4th Qtr, here comes Jimmy Clausen. I guess that answers those who predicted a redshirt year for JC. He throws a long ball incomplete past DJ Hord, and his arm did not fall off his body.

At 7:49 of the 4th Qtr, we wave the white flag and punt on 4th and 2. We start emptying the benches and playing our depth.

The defensive backs played a solid game. Coverage generally very good, no big pass plays. I really thought David Bruton looked good. But, GT quarterback Bennett missed several opportunities to gash us.

Clausen's arm may not be 100%, but his passes looked as lively as Sharpley's throws. The long out-pattern to Wil Yeatman (10 yards) looked especially zippy.

Clausen looked calm and composed out there, except for the one play when he forgot to put his mouthpiece in. The play when he rolled out to his right buying time before stepping out of bounds showed real maturity.

Final score: Georgia Tech 33, Notre Dame 3.

Final Thoughts

The defense looks like it will be good enough to win games if the offense can hold up it's end of the bargain. Clearly Sharpley outplayed Jones at QB. But Clausen looked good as well. If Sharpley and Clausen are essentially even, why not put Jimmy in there and get the quarterback of the future the reps he'll need to lead the Irish to championships? He looked very calm and generally in command, and I think he has a stronger arm. We're fine at RB with Aldridge and Allen, and the receiving corps looked pretty good, with the youngsters (Parris and Kamara) coming on strong.

Next week I think we'll see a more "normal" Irish offense, with a different starter at QB. We won't waste a full half with just a handful of pass attempts. Although Penn State doesn't figure to blitz and stunt on defense as much as the Yellow Jackets, you have to expect them to do it more than normal until our O-line shows we can counter it. And if Coach Weis and Coach Latina can't get those guys working better as a unit in a hurry it's going to be a long eight weeks until the bye week.


Sir john said...

Great job OC. Essentially what my feeling, observations and postings are. Latina has some work cut out to keep his job but i know they are all stumbling pups, but at ND you can't stumble.

I too think JC for a kid first time showed the most remarkable pise. I caught that he left his mouth piece in his face mask myself. I went jimmy you might need a dentest soon. Ahahah.

JMinSC said...

Great Commentary OC. You said, almost verbatim, what I would have said about this game and the team's performance today. Granted, GT is a very solid team and they played almost error-free today. But.... gosh, Charlie, is that truly the best effort we can muster? I'm an '87 grad and suffered through three years of Faust. Kinda had that same depressing feeling watching the team today. Weis's coaching sucked and the O-line was a sieve.

Two other quick comments. First, I agree 100%: Clausen looked VERY poised out there. Get him in as the starter NOW to build for the future.

Second, as I watched the Cal-Tenn game later, I kept asking myself: "Gosh, why can't WE get players like these???" How is it that Cal gets a Forsett and Tenn gets a Foster, while ND is stuck with a Travis Thomas and 'Slow Mo' Crum???

Charlie, you got VERY lucky several times last year. And this was NOT Notre Dame football today.

Anonymous said...

Embarrasing isn't strong enough a word to describe the offensive line because we played a Tenuta defense last year. We KNEW going into this game the hell that his defense can bring (with players rated below ours on the various recruiting scales). Run and Pass blocking was atrocious.

The fault isn't with the players - it's with Latina, then Weis. They didn't prepare the players for a known defensive scheme.

Anonymous said...

ND did play terrible, but I believe the future is bright....very bright. Young guys playing against a tough schedule, this should be expected. When our young talent is seasoned, the CFB nation better watch out!

And FYI, Justin Forsett was a 2 star recruit out of high school. Yvenson Bernard, star tail back out of Oregon State, was also a two star recruit. Goes to show how much the "recruiting experts" know.

Craig said...

jminsc asked, "Why can't we get players like Forsett?"

My response would be, we can, see Armando Allen.

hulk said...

Well, OC, you certainly nailed the keys to the game being the O-line and the running game. Now that Jimmy is starting, I think the key to the PSU game will be our defense stopping their offense. Hopefully we can force Morelli into some bad decisions.