I haven't posted anything since Sunday, because I just don't know what to say about the current Fighting Irish football team. There are so many contradictory thoughts swirling about in the OC dome that I have found it impossible to write with a coherent voice. But the Spartans visit Notre Dame Stadium tomorrow, and that deserves comment. It finally hit me last night that I really need to write two Michigan State previews. My logical, reasonable, analytical, somewhat shell-shocked brain has a lot of thoughts about this game. But my big, golden, Domer heart pumping blue and gold blood also has a lot of feelings on this game - and the head and the heart do not agree on this game. Not at all. So head and heart will each have their say and we'll see tomorrow whether logic or faith prevails. First up is the brain. He always insists on being first.
Do you realize how lucky we were to beat the Spartans last season? Even with Brady Quinn & Co. the Irish should have lost that game by two touchdowns. Sure, the Irish showed some guts and determination, and we made some great plays in a hurricane to come from behind. But there is no way that game ever gets close without the horrible play calling by Coach John L. Smith and his staff. To state it simply, Michigan State was KILLING us in the running game, and quarterback Drew Stanton stunk up the field. Then, with the game under control, the Spartans took the ball out of the hands of their two talented running backs and gave it to Stanton. To this day, nobody knows why. MSU running back Jehuu Caulcrick had runs on the day of 29, 4, 12, 18, 30, 6, 3, and 9 yards. The 30 yard run went for a TD, and he finished with 111 yards on 8 carries (13.9 yards per carry). He was running like a boulder rolling down hill and Notre Dame's defense had no answer for him. His teammate Javon Ringer ran the ball 14 times for 76 yards (5.4 yards per carry) and had a 26-yard TD reception from wide receiver Matt Trannon. Drew Stanton, the goat in MSU's gut-wrenching loss last year is gone, as is Coach Smith. But Ringer and Caulcrick are both back, running behind an offensive line that averages 314 lbs per man. The Irish defense hasn't exactly had the answer when faced with a power running game, and the front seven will be sorely tested again this week. This will of course force Notre Dame to bring extra defenders to the line of scrimmage, leaving the secondary vulnerable to an opportunistic passing attack. Last week against Michigan, freshman quarterback Ryan Mallet (making his first ever college start) only threw the ball 15 times, but 3 of his 7 completions went for touchdowns over defenders who were in no position to make plays on the ball. The inability to tackle strong runners or to cover receivers (our defensive backs average 6' tall, MSU's WRs/TE average 6' 3") means the Irish defense will likely be giving up yards in chunks, hoping only to force an occasional turnover and prevent the big game-changing play.
Of course, the defense has been the strength of this Notre Dame team through the first three games. The real problem has been on offense. The Notre Dame offense has yet to score a touchdown through three games. We have given up more quarterback sacks than any other Division I-A team (23 sacks allowed for a loss of 167 yards), and are last or very close to last in just about every conceivable offensive category. We are averaging 2 yards per offensive play and 115 yards of total offense per game. We have fumbled the ball 12 times (losing 5) and have thrown 3 interceptions. We have been flagged for 24 penalties, costing us an average of 57.7 yards per game.
Match-ups? How about an O-line that can't pass block against an MSU defense that leads the nation in sacks? Or an offense that averages negative 4.7 rushing yards per game against a Spartan defense giving up only 2.8 yards per rush. Pick your poison. In either case, the Notre Dame offense we have seen for three last three weeks stands very little chance of moving the ball against MSU even if we stop turning the ball over and eliminate the penalties - because our offensive line has been unable to block anybody in the running game or the passing game.
Our opening day quarterback ran off with another program when he should have been on a bus to Ann Arbor last week. Demetrius Jones is by all accounts a charismatic person and was very popular with his teammates. Although he is saying the right things now, when he first left he accused Coach Weis of misleading him about his status as the starting quarterback, and you can't help but wonder whether there is any division on the team? Do any of the players feel like Coach Weis treated Jones unfairly? Is there any dissension or division on the team? Jones should not be made a scapegoat, but this whole episode can't help but be a distraction and the way his departure was handled tells me that communications between the players and coaches is not what it should be.
The new starting quarterback is true freshman Jimmy Clausen. He is a talented player and all expectations are that he will will be a star in this program. But he is in uncharted territory. He's not used to being chased around and beaten up by opposing defenses. Although his attitude and competitiveness have been good, you have to wonder how long he can stand up to this punishment. Last week he showed signs of being a little gun-shy, locking onto receivers instead of surveying the field. If Coaches Weis and Latina can't devise a scheme to protect Clausen there is a risk that his confidence gets shaken to the point that it will take him a long time to recover.
As Weis mentor Bill Parcells is fond of saying, "You are what you are" and right now Notre Dame is a 0-3 football team that cannot block or tackle. To expect them to turn it around in one week and defeat a 3-0 Spartan team is completely unrealistic. 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.
This is the week. I can feel it. As ugly as the results of the first three weeks have been, we are not that far from gelling into a solid football team. The Irish are playing youngsters all over the field. Young, inexperienced players playing in front of hostile crowds of 100,000+ on national television might be a little nervous, don't you think? So we've seen some mistakes. Fumbles, penalties, missed assignments. Those mistakes kill drives and ultimately put your team in a big hole. Before you know it the game has gotten away from you. But those mistakes can be addressed. They can be fixed. Stop turning the ball over in your own end, stop making drive-ending penalties, and you can control the ball a little bit and at least turn it into a game of field position. We have a good punter who can turn the field around if he isn't punting from inside his own 20 yard line.
This offensive line is young, and they have played poorly. Coach Weis has recognized that they have to be coached differently. A veteran line that is already schooled in the fundamentals can spend lots of practice time on variations in scheme, on "X's and O's." But a young line needs to spend much more time on technique, on fundamentals, on adapting to game speed at the college level. So Charlie took his team back to boot camp this week. He simplified. Forget complex schemes, the team returned to a base offense and worked on fundamental execution at full speed all week. Ones on ones. Trying to increase the tempo at which the team is playing. Learning to finish blocks and finish plays. Our offensive line doesn't need to dominate anyone, they just have to play reasonably well. Because if they play reasonably well Notre Dame has the talent at the skill positions to make plays.
When he has had time, Jimmy Clausen has looked very good. He surveys the field with patience and throws a very nice ball. With targets like Robby Parris, Duval Kamara, George West, D.J. Hord, and John Carlson we will be able to move the ball through the air if the offensive line can hit somebody in the mouth and give Jimmy a little time. To do that, we first have to establish some sort of a running game. If the O-line can figure out who to block and engage their assigned man for just a couple of seconds, we will be able to run the ball. James Aldridge and Robert Hughes are big backs who only need a small seam to get five, six, seven yards. If the line can actually create some holes to run through, then Armando Allen (or Aldridge or Hughes) can take it "to the house" as Coach Weis likes to say. We have the guys who can score quickly if they are given a chance. If we can eliminate the negative plays that come from busted assignments, turnovers and penalties then any of these guys can score from anywhere on the field. By simplifying the scheme and improving the physicality of line play at practice this week, Coach Weis and the team will put a better product on the field this week and they will compete.
All the team needs to turn the corner is a little bit of confidence, which will come from a little bit of success. I believe that the offensive line will be better this week. Not all better. They won't magically be able to stave off Michigan State's very good pass rush off the edges. But I believe we're going to see a nascent running game, led at the start by James Aldridge. A marginally credible running game will force some respect from the pass rush and the secondary, and we will have some opportunities to throw the ball down the field. If we can move the chains a little bit and help the team at least compete in the field position battle, the confidence will start to grow. If we can actually break a big run or two, or complete a couple of big passes, then the confidence will burst through and we will put ourselves in a position to win this game.
Our defense will be fine. They have been very solid for all three games this year, despite playing with their backs against the goal line for the whole season. The big point totals of our opponents have been the fault not of our defense but of our offense's inability to move the ball. We have given up very few passing yards (114 yards per game), and the big running yards against us have largely come late in games when our defense was tired and dispirited by the fact that the offense was doing nothing to help the team. If we can give the defense decent field position, and if the offense can show some signs of life, I believe we can count on Corwin Brown's defense to play their hearts out in front of the home crowd and to make some big plays.
And let's not get too excited about Michigan State. Their three wins have come against UAB, Bowling Green and Pittsburgh. They whipped UAB, but they only won by 11 points against Bowling green and by 4 points against Pittsburgh. All at home. None of those three opponents are anywhere near the caliber of the teams Notre Dame has faced so far. The Spartans had only 50 more yards in offense than Bowling Green and only 35 yards more than Pitt. While the Fighting Irish have been struggling in front of huge, hostile crowds at Penn State and Michigan, Sparty has been getting fat on home cooking. The tables turn this week. Notre Dame gets to draw on the energy of their home crowd, while the Spartans get to hear the boos rain down on them. Yes, Sparty has done inexplicably well at Notre Dame in recent years. But that was more about Bob Davie and Ty Willingham than it was about Michigan State.
This is the week. The offense eliminates the horrible errors and begins to establish itself, starting with a power running game. James Aldridge pounds the ball inside. Armando Allen catches a couple of screen passes for big gains. Clausen hits a couple of deep balls to Duval Kamara or D.J. Hord. We get a big return from either Golden Tate or Zibby. The defense plays with very high energy and the confidence starts to grow. When Sparty turns the ball over and we get a cheap touchdown to put the Irish up by 10 early in the 3rd quarter, the floodgates open and Notre Dame explodes all over Sparty, crushing his little green heart, 31-17. Years from now we will all look back on this game as the day the new era of Irish football began.
So that's how I see the game playing out tomorrow, with my head and with my heart. And I honestly don't know which game I expect to see. Take the OC Domer poll (right hand column) and tell me what you think will happen.