Sunday, October 28, 2007

Bye-week Recap: How Bad is it Really?

One and seven. 1-7. Eight games played, one victory. One W, seven Ls. Winning percentage: .125. Six games below .500.

No matter how you slice it, the first eight games of the 2007 campaign have been an utter disaster for the Fighting Irish. There's no way to dress it up, to somehow salvage a silver lining or a handful of moral victories. Sure, you can trot out some excuses, but you'd only be deluding yourself. By any measure Coach Charlie Weis, his staff, and this team have failed to put a competitive football team on the field. Sure, we've been the underdog in every game played. Yes, we're relatively young and inexperienced. Yes, the talent level of our upperclassmen is not where we expect it to be at Notre Dame. But I've made the point before, and it needs to be made again: There are plenty of other teams playing football with less talent than the Irish who aren't getting embarrassed every week. After eight games, Notre Dame is a team that cannot pick up a yard on 3rd-and-1. We still have no bread-and-butter plays. Every toss sweep, off-tackle dive play, and 5-yard out pattern is an adventure. While the defense is, I think, good enough to win games, it isn't good enough to win games by itself, and the offense has, for the most part, been incapable of providing any assistance. The Irish offense simply cannot move the chains.

But how bad is it really? According to Jeff Sagarin, Notre Dame has played the toughest schedule in the country so far this season. We're #1! Also according to Sagarin, Notre Dame is ranked #99 in the country (I generally use Sagarin's "predictor" ratings rather than the more politically correct ratings that throw out margin of victory as a factor). According to Sagarin, The Irish rank just behind Wofford, Elon, Buffalo, McNeese State, UNLV and South Dakota State. Thank goodness we don't have to play any of them.

Clearly, Notre Dame isn't as good as the schedule it has played (Thanks Dr. White!). But I don't think there are 98 teams in the country better than the Irish. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. So I want to just do a quick breakdown of the Irish schedule to date to see how depressed we should really be, or perhaps even to look for some kernel or nugget of hope that we can cling to for the future.

Week 1: Georgia Tech, @ Home.
OC Domer pre-season expectation: "Irish win by a touchdown. Call it 24-17."
OC Domer pre-game expectation: Same.
Las Vegas line on the game: Georgia Tech by 1 pt.
Actual Result: Irish lose by 30 (33-3), with 122 total offensive yards, including a net minus-8 yards rushing.
Georgia Tech today: #39 in Sagarin, 5-3 record (2-3 in the ACC). Barely a Top 40 team today, a 30-point loss to this team really stings. When you consider that Coach Weis had the entire off-season to get ready for this game and bungled it so badly, it's hard to find anything good coming out of this contest.

Week 2: Penn State, @ Happy Valley.
OC Domer pre-season expectation: "I expect a workman-like win by Notre Dame, 21-13."
OC Domer pre-game expectation: "We compete, and we return to respectability, but we lose by a touchdown."
Las Vegas line on the game: Penn State by 17.5 pts.
Actual Result: Irish lose by 21 (31-10), with zero net rushing yards.
Penn State today: #30 in Sagarin, 6-3 record (3-3 in Big 10). Penn State was a nice story for a while, but the losses to Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio State clearly indicate that they aren't anywhere near the elite team that many PSU fans were hoping for this year. A 21-point loss to a #30 team is nothing to feel good about. But it's better than a 30-point loss to the #39 team, I guess.

Week 3: Michigan, @ the Big House.
OC Domer pre-season expectation: "It's another epic game in the series, but the Irish fall by less than a touchdown, 30-24."
OC Domer pre-game expectation: "Notre Dame wins by a touchdown, 24-17."
Las Vegas line on the game: Michigan by 9.5 pts.
Actual Result: Irish lose by 38 (38-0), with 79 total offensive yards.
Michigan today: #26 in Sagarin, 7-2 record (5-0 in Big 10). After losses to Appalachian State and a very good Oregon team to open the season, Michigan has won seven straight games and is clearly a very solid football team. Losing to the Wolverines is no disgrace, but losing by 38 points is another matter.

Week 4: Michigan State, @ Home.
OC Domer pre-season expectation: "The Irish are excited to be back home and explode on Sparty, winning 35-17."
OC Domer pre-game expectation: Undecided. "I'd feel very fortunate if we can at least look respectable in a 34-20 loss to Sparty." 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."
Las Vegas line on the game: Michigan State by 10 pts.
Actual Result: Notre Dame loses by 17 (31-14), but actually shows some sign of life, with 117 net rushing yards and two offensive touchdowns.
Michigan State today: #48 in Sagarin. 5-4 record (1-4 in Big Ten). Mired near the bottom of the Big Ten rankings, Michigan State is a pretty medicore football team. Not horrible, just not very good either. The good news is we actually played some credible football against Sparty. The bad news is we still lost to a pretty weak team by 17 points.

Week 5: Purdue, @ West Lafayette.
OC Domer pre-season expectation: "Irish win 31-20, while trying not to look ahead to Pasadena."
OC Domer pre-game expectation: "Notre Dame manhandles Purdue and gets its first victory of the season, 31-27."
Las Vegas line on the game: Purdue by 21.5 pts.
Actual Result: Irish lose by 14 (33-19), but actually out-gain the Boilermakers 426 yards to 371. For the first time, Notre Dame plays above expectations.
Purdue today: #29 in Sagarin. 7-2 record (3-2 in Big Ten). Purdue is a decent football team, but they didn't put up much of a fight against Michigan (48-21 loss) or Ohio State (23-7 loss).

Week 6: UCLA, @ The Rose Bowl.
OC Domer pre-season expectation: "Irish lose a close one, 24-21."
OC Domer pre-game expectation: Notre Dame wins, close.
Las Vegas line on the game: UCLA by 21 pts.
Actual Result: Irish WIN by 14 points! (20-6).
UCLA today: #19 in Sagarin. 5-3 record (4-1 in Pac 10). You want to feel really good about the win over the Bruins. And we do. But you can't get too excited. UCLA is perhaps the most inconsistent team in the country, and the Bruins played most of the game against us without their top 2 quarterbacks. With their #3 QB in the line-up, this obviously isn't a Top 20 team. Washington State (Sagarin #75) beat the Bruins by 20 yesterday (27-7). The Irish were 3 of 17 on 3rd down conversions and had just 140 total yards. The defense won this game, not the offense.

Week 7: Boston College, @ Home.
OC Domer pre-season expectation: "Footballs will be in the air and we'll see some scoring. Notre Dame 31, Boston College 17."
OC Domer pre-game expectation: "I expect a great game, and although it will be closer than I expected in my pre-season analysis, I do think the Irish get a VERY, VERY important second win tomorrow."
Las Vegas line on the game: Eagles by 13.5 pts.
Actual Result: Notre Dame loses by 13 (17-14), with 27 net rushing yards and 222 total yards. Notre Dame played a strong second half and actually made a game of it until late. Except for the UCLA win, the best game of the year for Notre Dame.
Boston College today: The polls love B.C., they are #2 in the BCS (before Thursday's win over VaTech). Sagarin has them at #16. Either way, at 8-0, the Eagles are a very good football team. I don't think they're elite, but they are Top 10 in my opinion. The fact that the Irish actually played ball with the Eagles and made a game of it is a very good sign.

Week 8: USC, @ Home.
OC Domer pre-season expectation: "Trojans talent and depth eventually wear us down and we lose by just under two touchdowns, 30-17."
OC Domer pre-game expectation: "If we can rattle them, anything can happen."
Las Vegas line on the game: Trojans by 16.5 pts.
Actual Result: Irish lose by 38 (38-0), mustering 165 total yards and turning the ball over three times.
USC today: Sagarin #15. 6-2 record (3-2 in Pac 10). With losses to Stanford and Oregon, the Trojans no longer dominate the Pac 10 conference, although they are still a very strong football team. Losing to USC is not a disaster. Getting shut out and losing by 38 at home is a disaster.

Conclusions: It is very tempting to grab onto Notre Dame's #1 ranking in strength of schedule and conclude that the Irish have simply run into a buzz saw schedule-wise, and that if we had played a more balanced slate of games we would not look nearly as bad. But I'm not so sure. Yes, the Irish looked decent for stretches against a very good Boston College team. But take a step back. The win over UCLA came against a walk-on QB. We "competed" against a Spartan squad that is barely a Top 50 team, and still lost to them by 17. Purdue is barely a Top 30 team and they beat us by two touchdowns. Against a single win we have losses by margins of 30, 21, 38, 17, 14, 13 and 38 points. In our eight games we have scored 3, 10, 0, 14, 19, 20, 14, and 0 points. Are we the 99th best team in the country? No. But I don't think we're any better than about #50, either.

The future: The Irish faithful have been clinging to the notion that after our ridiculous eight-game gauntlet to start the season we would win the last four games. Navy, Air Force, Duke, Stanford are all "easy Wins." But are they?

  • Navy: #80 in Sagarin (19 spots above Notre Dame) with a 4-4 record. Navy put up 52 points against Delaware yesterday. The Irish have scored 53 points TOTAL in our last four games.
  • Air Force: #58 in Sagarin (41 spots above Notre Dame) with a 6-3 record. USAFA has defeated TCU, Utah, Colorado State and Wyoming.
  • Duke: Sagarin #85 with a 1-7 record against the 4th toughest schedule in the country. Duke beat Northwestern and lost to Wake Forest by 5 and Miami by 10.
  • Stanford. Sagarin #61 (38 spots above the Irish) with a 3-5 record including a win over USC. You remember - the USC that beat us by 38 points last week.
How many of these opponents would the Irish be favored against today? By how much? I believe the Irish will win these four games, but I'm not taking anything for granted. Not until I see us finally run over somebody.

How bad is it really? It's so bad that I'm writing a blog post publicly wondering whether the Fighting Irish of the University of Notre Dame can beat Duke. At home.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

I Flew 2000 Miles for That? (USC Review)

As I mentioned in my hastily-written USC preview post, I took my family back to South Bend for the USC game. We don't get back there very often to see Irish home games, but we were offered tickets, and the timing worked out pretty well since we wanted the OC Daughter to see the campus again before she starts filling out college applications a year from now. So we took a red-eye out of LAX to Chicago (via Atlanta), grabbed a rental car, and made it to Notre Dame by mid-afternoon on on a cool, gray Friday. First stop was the bookstore, then the rest of campus. We watched the Band rehearse their step-off, and sat in on the Glee Club's Friday afternoon practice, which was really neat. Then we visited the grotto and walked around St. Mary's Lake to my old dorm, Carroll Hall. By then it was getting late, we were really tired, it was getting cool out and we were starving. So we called it a night and went to dinner. As we were walking back to our car, a gentleman approached me somewhat tentatively. I was pretty sure he wanted to ask me a question, but he seemed a bit reluctant. Finally he asked "Are you OC Domer?" I wasn't sure how to react. "Yes I am. How did you know that?" He told me that he reads the blog regularly and that he recognized my kids from the pictures I have posted here! What an amazing memory he has. He was very nice and complimented the blog, and I thanked him for reading. How weird was that! If you're still reading after Saturday, friend, it was great to meet you!

The next day dawned gloriously. Bright blue skies and a perfect autumn day. I, of course, had been promoting my theory that the key to an Irish victory was heavy snow. Thus, my theory was not going to be put to the test. Instead Notre Dame and USC fans alike were to be treated to the most perfect day you could imagine for a college football game. We headed back to campus around 1:00. We wandered for a bit enjoying the sights and taking some pictures, eventually making it over the the Knights of Columbus Hall where we bought our steak sandwiches for lunch. Then we listened to the Band concert on the steps of the Architecture building and finally followed the band as they stepped off for the stadium. I took over 500 pictures in two days, and have selected the best of the bunch for a slide show which is embedded below. Click on any of the pictures to open a new window that will let you see the entire album in full size.

As you can see from the photos, it was a fantastic weekend to be at Notre Dame for a football game (or for anything else).

Unfortunately, the football game did not live up to its setting. I felt, going into the game, that the Irish actually had a chance against a banged up Trojan squad playing behind a second-string quarterback. That theory pretty much fell by the wayside when it turned out that many of the key USC players who had been nursing injuries felt just fine on Saturday. In particular, the Irish were really hurt by the fact that Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing seemed to be at full strength. As you know, I was at the game, and haven't seen any recordings of it, so I don't have any benefit of instant replays or announcers' analyses. All I can relay to you are some of my impressions from being present in the stadium.

A couple of things are clear at the outset. First, USC should never have lost to Stanford. They are much too talented for that. Second, this Notre Dame football team is getting emotionally fragile. They play hard as long as they still feel they are in the game, but once a few breaks go against them you can sense (from the crowd as well as the team) the "here we go again" fears creeping in. In my estimation, Notre Dame (especially the defense) was mentally and emotionally in this game until late in the second quarter. Down 14-0 and starting a "drive" with 1:57 left in the half, the Irish were faced with a 3rd-and-1 situation at our own 23 yard line. A poorly thrown ball to Kamara fell incomplete and the air went out of the balloon. We punted and USC went on a 70 yard drive in 1:30, capped by a field goal with 11 second left in the half. At 17-0 it was "Game Over."

Evan Sharpley was definitely NOT Evan Spark-ley. He looked exactly like Jimmy Clausen, holding onto the ball too long, unable to make the decisions on where to throw it. Looking at my photos today, I don't think we can lay it all on the O-line. While Sharpley certainly didn't have the time and space that Mark Sanchez had, and while he was frequently under pressure, he also had numerous plays where the protection was sufficient to complete a pass. The problem in many cases seemed to be that (1) nobody was open, or (2) receivers were open, sometimes wide open, but Sharpley never saw them. There were also accuracy and hands issues. All-in-all, anything that CAN go wrong with the passing game DID go wrong.

Although the defense clearly broke down in the second half, it was once again the futility of the offense that was the major culprit. Our defense is not good enough to win games all by itself, but it is good enough to win games if the offense can help just a little bit. But the offense has been utterly unable to provide that help.

I'm not going to break down the numbers in this post, but rest assured that they tell largely the same story we have seen all season - Notre Dame's offense cannot do anything. They can't sustain drives by converting third downs and moving the chains, and they can't score with the big play. Against USC the Irish only moved the ball late in each half. At the end of the first half USC was playing a very soft prevent defense, and Sharpley completed a few balls underneath. At the end of the game, USC had it's reserves in the game and we moved the ball down to the USC 25 before the drive sputtered out. How absolutely miserable it was to stand in Notre Dame Stadium and hope that Notre Dame could score a touchdown in the final seconds of the game so that they could avoid a shut-out and only lose 38-7 instead of 38-0. Humiliating.

I don't have any answers. I only have questions. How is it that we can't move the ball at all? We can't reliably execute an off-tackle run, or a toss sweep. We can't throw and catch a quick slant, a ten-yard out pattern or a seven-yard crossing route. We still can't get a single yard when faced with a crucial 3rd-and-1. How can it have gotten this bad?

Right now I am only clinging to one hope: We can't be as bad as we have looked. We've played an extraordinarily tough schedule against Top-25 teams. We aren't a Top-25 team right now, so we're 1-7. But we aren't the 90th best team in the country either, and we'll do fine over the last month of the schedule. Wins over Navy, Air Force, Stanford, and Duke will bring the Irish faithful back in off the window ledges and we'll start looking forward to next year, when all the pain of this season will bear fruit. I hope.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Final kneel-down. Pathetic Irish whipped 38-0. Very hard to watch.

Evan at QB

The Band Plays

Spectacularly beautiful day on campus.

Spectacularly beautiful day on campus. So much for my snow game strategy. Steak sandwiches at K of C. Band about to play.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Notre Dame Our Mother

Cheer, cheer...

Good to see her again.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Road Trip for a Home Game (USC)

I'd like to write a comprehensive preview of this Saturday's Notre Dame - USC tilt, but time is short. An old and dear friend of my wife's family called about a month ago and said he had some USC tickets with our name on them. (He's a fairly prominent Alum who lives in South Bend). Some quick work with revealed that if we were willing to fly at strange hours we could actually make the trip happen within the OC Domer family budget. So we take off tonight from LAX at around midnight and get to Chicago tomorrow morning, then we fly home from Chicago at about 6:00 a.m. Sunday. Factoring in the drives between Chicago and South Bend and spending as much time as possible on campus Friday and Saturday, it looks like we might be able to get a little sleep Friday night, but that's about all.

I'm taking my camera, so I'll take about a thousand pictures and put the best of them up here in a slide show like I did after the UCLA game. I won't be able to post normally until Sunday night at the earliest, but I hope to make some remote posts (including live pictures!) using my cell phone throughout the weekend, so check back in with OC Domer to see how the weekend is going.

The Domer Law Blog has a nice USC preview up, and I pretty much agree with his analysis, including this:

This is the granddaddy of them all, the greatest rivalry in college football.

It's become cliche, but it is often true that when these two teams meet, you can throw out the records.


Despite the fact that the matchups appear to favor the Trojans, I simply refuse to allow myself to believe that we will lose this game. It means too much to the players and coaches for them not to come out and play the game of their lives on Saturday morning.

I'm hoping that a couple years from now, when we are celebrating our 12th national championship, I'll be able to say that I was in Notre Dame Stadium for the turning point in this program, when the Irish started something special that woke up the echoes, not just for a fleeting week or two, but for good.

This week could serve as the foundation for the building of a dynasty. It's that important.
I can't add much to that.

As a resident of Southern California, the USC game is always huge. Neighbors, co-workers, friends are all USC grads and/or fans. My wife's family is littered with USC alumni from her Dad, to her aunt, to her brother. Radio and television is saturated with Trojan coverage year-round. For a Domer in the OC there is no bigger date on the calendar than the date of the USC game - it means an entire year of bragging rights or humility depending on the outcome.

Notre Dame heads into Saturday a total mystery. Instead of numbers on the awful green jerseys they will be wearing they ought to be wearing question marks. Youth and inexperince all over the field. At quarterback we're trotting out the third guy this season to make his first-ever collegiate start. The defense is steadily improving, and shows flashes of brilliance, but they are still giving up big yards.

The offense has been woeful, despite glimmers of potential. Everyone is hoping that Evan Sharpley can be Evan Spark-ley and get the Irish on the board early so we aren't playing catch-up in the second half, again.

USC comes in proud but banged up. They had their pride tempered significantly by the loss to Stanford, but the fact is that their fans are really looking past this game. They see Oregon and Cal on the horizon, and don't think the Irish present any sort of an obstacle. USC will feature at QB an experienced John David Booty playing with a broken middle finger on his throwing hand, or an inexperienced Mark Sanchez making his second career start. Radio reports here are saying that Sanchez is the likely starter, but there is no way of knowing if Pete Carroll is blowing smoke. The Trojan offensive line is really banged up and may present some real opportunities for our D-line to make some plays, as USC has been prone to both turnovers and penalties this year. USC has other guys injured all over the field, which has led to erratic and un-inspiring play for much of this season (including the big loss to Stanford).

Bottom line: Both of these teams are a snake-bit this year. They are not playing at levels that they are accustomed to historically. They are making mistakes and feature youth and inexperience on both sides of the ball, albeit talented youth and inexperience. The way I see it, the home field advantage for Notre Dame is huge this week, especially if Sanchez is at QB for USC. If Notre Dame stadium can present a truly hostile environment for the Trojans, I think this year's team can be rattled. And if we can rattle them, anything can happen.

I can't even remember what year it was, but a few years ago my wife and I went back for the USC game with her brother, his wife, and another USC couple. It was a cold, drizzly, miserable day in Notre Dame stadium. It was clear early on that neither the Trojans nor their fans had any interest in playing a football game in those conditions. USC was flat and uninspired and the Irish won in workmanlike fashion in front of a bunch of happy home fans and miserable Southern Californians. The weather forecast right now is calling for cool weather and some showers on Saturday. I don't want to rain on anyone's parade, but as far as I am concerned, the colder and wetter the better. Think snow!

Go Irish! Beat the Trojans!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Blue-Gray Sky has posted a nice summary and discussion of the transfers out of the Notre Dame football program under Coach Charlie Weis. I posted a comment over there, but I wanted to throw it up here (with a little development) since it ended up being fairly long and it is something I have been thinking about for a while.


I think as the talent rises and you get more guys in the program who think they have NFL talent, you're going to see transfers when those guys who think they can play in the NFL get buried on the depth chart. Years ago, very few guys playing college football really thought they had NFL ability, and even those with next-level ability didn't fixate on it because playing in the NFL wasn't the equivalent of hitting the lottery like it is today. Too many kids today think they can play in "the league" and think that millions of dollars await them if only they can get on the field in college and showcase their skills. It doesn't occur to them that if they aren't good enough to rise to the top of the depth chart and dominate in college at a major program, they probably aren't going to be playing on Sundays. Far be it from me to tell a kid he can't chase his dream. But I find it very interesting to see the schools the guys are transferring to. Not exactly perennial BCS powers.

From a pure football standpoint, while it will impact short-term depth, the transfer of a guy who isn't going to play much actually helps the team. You get a scholarship back from a kid who isn't going to have an impact on the field, and get a "Mulligan" to give that scholarship to another kid who may become a star. This will actually help the overall talent level of the team rise even faster.

The mid-season transfers really puzzle me though. I can totally understand the Spring or Summer transfer. But transferring in mid-season is really selfish and it hurts your team and your teammates. It is quitting. That's harsh, but I don't know what else to call it. I can't help but wonder what these guys are thinking. While they are starting they expect the guys behind them on the depth chart to keep plugging away. They expect the scout team guys to work hard to make the starters better. But as soon as they fall to #2 behind a teammate who has been at their side in the weight room, who has been there for the puking wind sprints in the early morning, who has sweated and bled with them on the practice field in the heat and the cold, they quit. If I'm not the starter, I'm outta here! This seems very selfish and primadonna to me. That does not show good character. It also shows that perhaps team chemistry is not where it should be.

It could be that each of these kids has a complex set of other reasons for leaving. They might be struggling in class. They have a lousy roommate. Their Mom is sick. They miss their girlfriend back home who has taken up with a basketball player. And losing with the whole country watching magnifies everything. For many of these kids this 1-6 start is probably the worst adversity any of them have ever faced. They have been star athletes on winning teams since they were 4 years old. To be on the bench and losing is a totally new experience, and some of them aren't coping very well.

I don't think the transfer issue will ever completely disappear, but I think it will dwindle significantly once the winning resumes. And when the winning resumes, the team will be better off without selfish players, without players who cannot fight through adversity, without guys who quit on their teammates in the middle of a tough season.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Evan Help Us

Coach Charlie Weis announced today that Evan Sharpley will get the nod at QB Saturday against the USC Trojans in place of Jimmy Clausen. Thank goodness. Sharpley will probably make some mistakes, as he has been prone to do, but so far this year the team has appeared to have more energy with Evan in the game. He also gets the ball out of his hands quicker and has shown more ability, or at least more willingness, to stretch opposing defenses vertically. Over the past few games our defense has actually played well enough to overcome a few offensive mistakes. As long as the "O" is moving the ball and occasionally putting points on the board, a small number of mistakes won't kill us. It will certainly be better than a mistake-free offense that can't get a first down.

Here are the stat lines for Sharps and Clausen so far this season:

Clausen: 81 of 141 (57.4%), 618 yards, 1 TD, 5 INT, 89.51 QB Rating.

Sharpley: 43 of 80 (53.8%), 479 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 111.42 QB Rating.

It's interesting to see that despite a lower completion percentage, Sharpley has a much higher QB efficiency rating. That's because he's getting more out of his passes. With roughly half the completions of Clausen, Sharpley has only 22% fewer yards and 2 more touchdowns. Clausen has gotten 7.6 yards per completion, while Evan is getting 11.1 per completion. Although Evan has played in situations that have required him to be aggressive down the field (i.e., we have been trailing), it's also true that he's been throwing the ball into a defense that KNEW we were going to be airing it out.

This will be Evan Sharpley's first start at quarterback. Prior to the opener I wrote about first-time starters, and noted (Stats slightly corrected due to reader feedback):

Overall, of the 34 different quarterbacks making their first starts in the "OC Domer Era", there were 26 wins against 7 losses and 1 tie. [...]

First time starters are just 14-7-1 when the start doesn't come in a season opener. Not bad, but not great either. But it makes sense. These guys are starting after (1) they failed to win the job at the start of the season, and (2) the #1 QB either got hurt or struggled

Injuries can force a change at any time, but quarterback changes are much more likely in the first half of a season than in the second half. New quarterbacks got their first starts in games 2 through 5 of the season fifteen times. Games 6 through 11 had first-time starters only eight times. Weeks 4 and 5 are the most popular times for a mid-season QB change. It seems that by the time the mid-point of the season is reached, you're dancing with who brung ya.
By making a QB change in week 8 of the season, the Irish are in a bit of an unusual situation. If you want to call 1-6 unusual.

Good luck Evan!

Beat the Trojans!

Monday, October 15, 2007

More Fun with Statistics: The Running Game

The folks at Rakes of Mallow clipped an excerpt from yesterday's Boston College Wrap-up, and it led to a lot of comments over there. One of the comments, from Bob Gilleran, stated that I "lacked vision" and blamed all the current woes on recruiting problems dating back to Bob Davie. He thought the current coaches are doing a great job and that we should all be grateful to have them. I think Robert read a lot more into my criticism of offensive line play than was there, and I actually agree with much of what he posted. But he also threw out a challenge:

If there are, as you claim, many other college football programs out there that play the game with integrity and real student athletes and have done better than this 2007 team and their coaches this year, taking into account their killer opening schedule and the nearly complete absence of talent in their 2004 and 2005 recruiting classes, mention a few names and you will see that there are none.
I did some quick looking about for the easiest way to answer Robert's challenge, and set forth below is what I posted in my reply over at Rakes (with minor editing for use here).


Most of what you wrote is true ...

... but not all of it, Robert.

True, the talent level in our upper classes is down. We aren't loaded with 4- and 5-star offensive linemen in the upper classes. But the guys we do have are quality Div-I athletes. Sully, Turk, Duncan were not total stiffs coming out of high school. Sam Young was VERY highly recruited (great get by CW!) and now has around 20 starts under his belt. Yet these guys are playing terribly as a unit. I am not saying they should be leading the nation in rushing yards. I am saying that we have enough talent and experience to at least be COMPETENT run blockers. Armando Allen, James Aldridge, Robert Hughes don't need big holes to get yards - they just need a crease. Instead, they are getting hit behind the line of scrimmage as soon as they get the ball.

As for other schools that "play the game with integrity and real student athletes and have done better than this 2007 team and their coaches this year" here are a few stats for you (I know how you hate facts). The following teams (in no particular order, and including Notre Dame) comprise the Top 10 programs for football graduation rates, as recently announced by the NCAA. (For comparison purposes, Notre Dame has a total of 225 rushing yards this season).

  • Navy is 4-2 overall, and has rushed for 1,742 yards this season.
  • Army is 3-4 and has 554 rushing yards.
  • Stanford is 2-4 and has 772 rushing yards.
  • Northwestern is 4-3 with 843 rush yards.
  • Duke is 1-6 with 468 rush yards.
  • Boston College is 7-0 and has 1,012 rushing yards.
  • Wake Forest is 4-2 with 875 rush yards.
  • Vanderbilt is 3-3 with 887 rush yards.
  • Air Force is 5-2 with 1,823 rush yards.

So, of the Top 10 graduation rate football programs, Notre Dame has, BY FAR, the lowest rushing totals for the season. The closest teams to us (Duke and Army) still have more than DOUBLE our rushing yards.

Do I think that Notre Dame, even with a lower level of talent than usual, has less talented players in the offensive line than the teams listed above? Worse talent than all three service academies, Duke, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and Stanford? No, I think that Notre Dame's offensive lineman have more talent than those teams. Yet, even if you factor in our very tough schedule to date, those teams are getting more out of their O-line talent than the Irish are.

Robert, as I wrote in my blog, I still think Coach Weis is the right man for this job. He has done an amazing job recruiting. But just as he had to make a tough call for the good of the team last year by bringing Corwin Brown in, he needs a new offensive line coach.

I think you are reading more into my post than is there. I am not criticizing anyone's character or their hard work or their heart. I am criticizing the results. The results on the field indicate that notwithstanding everything else, we need to try something else in coaching the O-line.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Boston College Recap: All I'm Asking for is "Mediocre"

[EDIT: Welcome UHND readers. I hope you'll bookmark OC Domer and come back regularly!]

Under a blue-gray October sky the Fighting Irish offense, under the tutelage of offensive genius Charlie Weis, once again stunk up the field. The Notre Dame defense played well enough that we didn't even need a "good" or "great" performance on offense. All we needed was for the "O" to raise its level of play from "deplorable" to "mediocre." Alas, "mediocre" was not in the cards for Saturday. Instead, the offensive line was unable to block effectively in the run game or the passing game, the quarterbacks made poor decisions and threw the ball inaccurately, and the receivers dropped numerous catchable, though not perfectly thrown, passes.

How bad was it? Here, briefly, is what the Irish were able to accomplish with each of their possessions:

  1. 6 Plays, 3 yards, punt.
  2. 5 plays, 16 yards, punt.
  3. 3 plays, 9 yards, punt.
  4. 3 plays, 9 yards, punt.
  5. 10 plays, 22 yards, ball turned over on downs when punter's knee touches ground while fielding low snap. Drive "aided" by a false start penalty on Eric Olsen, starting in place of the MIA Matt Carufel.
  6. 5 plays, 9 yards, Clausen pass intercepted. Drive featured ND holding penalty.
  7. 1 play, 0 yards, Clausen pass intercepted.
  8. 7 plays, 79 yards, TD pass from Sharpley to Parris.
  9. Brian Smith intercepts pass and returns it 25 yds for Irish TD. (Not an Irish "drive", but I count it as a possession).
  10. 3 plays, 7 yards, punt.
  11. 6 plays, 16 yards, punt.
  12. 6 plays, 15 yards, Missed 41 yd FG attempt. Drive featured Turkovich holding penalty.
  13. 11 plays, 53 yards, Ball turned over on downs. TD pass nullified by Turkovich holding penalty.
  14. 4 plays, 0 yards. Ball turned over on downs.
  15. 1 play -1 yard. Game over.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Notre Dame offense in game #7 of the third season under Coach Weis. I still believe Charlie Weis is the right man for this job, but some things have to change. More on that in a minute.

It is tempting to blame Irish penalties or even the referees for the poor offensive performance. Certainly a couple of the penalties came at really bad times and hurt us, and some of the penalty calls were borderline. But the reality is that Notre Dame got the better of it BY FAR with regard to penalty calls. The Irish were flagged seven times for a total of 64 yards. Boston College was called for fifteen penalties for 131 yards. The Eagles got one first down by penalty, while Notre Dame got four first downs via penalty. That's more first downs than we picked up via the running game (3). Boston College had two drives in the first quarter that stalled out at least in part due to penalties, and two drives in the third quarter that stalled due to penalties, including the drive that ended with Brian Smith's interception.

If you exclude the offensive drives marred by penalties (#s 1, 5, 6, 12, and 13 above) and the interception return for a TD, you're left with one long touchdown drive (#8) and seven other drives that ended by punt, interception or downs (#s 2, 3, 4, 7, 10, 11, and 14) the longest of which gained 16 yards (#2 and #11). That's right, even in drives where we did not hurt ourselves via penalty, we mustered one drive for a TD and seven other drives that averaged just a tad over 8 yards each. The referees did not cost us this game - our offense did.

What can be done about it? Well, unlike Coach Weis, I am not an offensive guru. But I can see pretty clearly that our offensive line can't block. Run blocking or pass blocking we are playing very, very poorly. Often our guys are just getting beat. But it seems that just as often our guys are missing assignments and letting defenders go completely unblocked. True, there are some young guys on the line getting their feet wet. But Sullivan, Duncan, and Turkovich are veterans of the system and Sam Young now has roughly twenty starts under his belt. If those guys can't figure out who to block by now and at least put a helmet on them, then they are not being coached very well. And this is not a new problem. Under Coaches Weis and Latina the Irish have NEVER been able to run the ball with authority. Our best short-yardage play for two years has been the QB sneak. Even when our running game has worked, it has usually been Darius Walker running draw plays. In 2005 Notre Dame averaged 147.1 rushing yards per game. In 2006 we averaged 125.7 yards per game. This year it's 32.1 rushing yards per game (so far). In the passing game, even before this year's disaster (34 sacks allowed so far) our pass protection has been lousy. We allowed 21 sacks in 2005, and 31 sacks in 2006. That is not progress. Coach Weis certainly bears his share of the blame, but so does offensive line coach John Latina. Notre Dame may not have the best talent along the offensive line, especially in the upper classes, but there are MANY, MANY teams across the country who are getting far better play from lesser talent than Notre Dame has. The difference is coaching. If for no other reason than to show he takes the problem seriously, Coach Weis has got to give John Latina his walking papers. A new offensive line coach is certainly not going to make matters worse.

The other change that has to be made is at quarterback. Jimmy Clausen may be the quarterback of the future for Notre Dame, but the quarterback of right now is Evan Sharpley. Coach Weis has said repeatedly that this is not a rebuilding year (Hah!) and that he will play the guys that give the team the best chance to win. Facing USC this Saturday, that guy is Sharpley. Clausen may have all the talent in the world, but right now the team is playing better with Evan under center. Back in May, in the heat of the quarterback race, I wrote:
Reading the tea leaves, I think Evan Sharpley gets first shot in the Fall, based upon his experience at running the offense. But he's on a short leash. If he doesn't "make plays" then Jones and Clausen will battle it out to see who can move the team the best - Clausen primarily with his arm, or Jones as a dual pass-run threat. At the end of the day, Coach Weis will go by what he sees on the field. Whichever QB moves the team best and makes the most plays will be the starter, regardless of "potential." At the end of the day, it might be the team that decides. Sometimes a team just responds better, plays better, for a particular quarterback. Which quarterback will most quickly earn the loyalty, respect, and confidence of his teammates?
Clausen and Sharpley are close in playing level right now. Neither is anywhere close to perfect. But right now, the team is responding to Sharpley. He has been decisive and gets the ball out of his hand quicker. He throws the ball with more authority, and he has clearly been the better quarterback at stretching defenses vertically and getting the ball down the field. His faster decisions are not always the correct ones, and his accuracy can be improved. Clausen may read defenses better, and he may be more accurate, but he is not making plays. Throwing the ball sideline to sideline doesn't frighten anyone. Sharpley may throw an INT or two, he may miss an open receiver, but right now he is the only play maker we have at QB, and he has to start. It doesn't show up in the stat sheet, but the defense is playing better as well when Sharps is in the game. I think this is because he moves the team and the defense gets fired up when they believe that the offense might actually score points. I do not think it is a coincidence that ND's interception return for a TD came immediately after Sharpley led the team on 79-yard TD drive. I read today where Weis said Sharpley needs to practice better if he wants to be "the guy." That's all well and good, but Coach Weis is also fond of saying that "I can only go by what I see." Well, we can all see that the team is playing better with Sharpley in the game. There was once another Irish quarterback who was buried on the depth chart because he wasn't a great practice player. His name was Joe Montana, and he did alright on game day.

Other Observations:
  • Other than the play where Geoff Price put his knee down fielding a low snap (which hurt us), he had a very good day punting, netting 42.2 yards per punt compared to a net 34.6 for BC.
  • Although Zibby never broke the big one, we finally saw some production on punt return, with 3 returns for 34 yards.
  • As might be expected from the offensive stats discussed above, ND got killed in time of possession, approx 21 minutes to 39 minutes.
  • Despite what it seemed like watching the game, ND and BC had similar days converting on 3rd downs. BC was 7 of 17, while ND was 6 of 18. BC was 0 for 3 on 4th down conversions (the first time they failed on 4th down all year), while ND was 1 of 4.
  • Notre Dame Dame failed to sack Matt Ryan (according to the stat sheet, although I thought we got him at least once), but we only allowed two sacks of Irish QBs (which is a good day for us).
  • Although the defense played pretty well against a top team, it would have been much better if we could tackle. Too often BC ball carriers dragged ND defenders for extra yards. Several times we had Matt Ryan dead to rights in the back-field and missed the chance to put the big hit on him. Zibby needs to get his head in front and drive his legs. He tackles like he's trying to jump on the back of a rodeo calf, and defenders just shrug him off.
  • David Bruton is having an amazing year. He shows tremendous speed, a big heart, and he CAN tackle. Keep up the great work David!
Conclusion: While this loss really hurt because of the multiple times we shot ourselves in the feet, at the end of the day the Irish competed pretty well against a team that may be #2 in the country as I type this. Although I think BC is overrated, they are still a very good football team and you have to take some encouragement from the fact that Notre Dame was within one score of taking the lead midway through the 3rd quarter. If Evan Sharpley gets the start next week against a USC team that is looking very human right now, I like my chances of seeing a BIG Notre Dame win next Saturday. The Irish are undefeated this year (1-0) when I am in the house, and I'm taking the whole family back to South Bend for the game this week.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Next Victim: Boston College

So the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are two-touchdown underdogs in their own house tomorrow? I'd say we have the Boston College Eagles right where we want them. Here was my pre-season analysis of the B.C. game:

Boston College (Oct. 13 @ Home). The game against BC is the second of the two swing games in the middle of the season that worry me. The Eagles are ranked #28 in the AP poll and #26 in the USA Today poll. They had a nice 10-3 campaign last season in what was really a down year for the ACC. They bring back a decent quarterback in Matt Ryan who played much of last year with a broken foot. They were 50th in the nation in total offense and 34th in total defense. They have a new head coach after Tom O'Brien bolted for N.C. State. I expect Notre Dame's new defensive scheme to be in full bloom by this point in the season and handle the Eagles' quality but not dynamic offense without much difficulty. On offense, we're going to have to change things up and win this one through the air, as there will be little room to run. Boston College expects to start two defensive tackles that weigh in at 343 and 337 pounds, and the linebackers are a veteran group that is stout against the run.

Since I anticipate a likely loss at UCLA, I think the Irish bounce back with a solid win and a very balanced performance against BC. Footballs will be in the air and we'll see some scoring. Notre Dame 31, Boston College 17.

[NOTE: If the Irish pull out the win at UCLA, then the BC game is a potential trap game. A letdown after a UCLA win, plus looking ahead to the Trojans a week away would likely mean a Notre Dame loss.]
Well, it turns out the Eagles are a bit more dynamic on offense than everyone expected, especially through the air. BC QB Matt Ryan is having a great year and his Heisman Trophy campaign is in full swing. At 6-0 and ranked #4 in the USA Today Top-25 Poll (actually in just about every poll), Boston College is a very "nice" story. But they have yet to be really tested. You can't really criticize any team that gets to mid-October with six wins and no defeats, but the fact remains that their most significant win to date has been a road win over a Georgia Tech squad that has since dropped out of the polls and is slotted at #35 in Jeff Sagarin's rankings. Their other five games have all been at home, where they have scored wins against Wake Forest (Sagarin #46), N.C. State (Sagarin #95), Army (Sagarin #111), Massachusetts (Sagarin #83), and Bowling Green (Sagarin #73). Overall, Sagarin's computers rank Boston College's schedule as the 78th toughest in the land. By the way, despite the Eagles' #4 ranking in most polls, Sagarin has them slotted at just #14 overall. Dig a little deeper and you'll find that Sagarin's computers REALLY think Boston College is the 24th best team in the country, but political correctness imposed by the BCS drives them up to #14. Here is an excerpt from the Sagarin web page discussing his different ranking methods:

"In ELO-CHESS, only winning and losing matters; the score margin is of no consequence, which makes it very "politically correct". However it is less accurate in its predictions forupcoming games than is the PURE POINTS, in which the score margin is the only thing that matters. PURE POINTS is also known as PREDICTOR, BALLANTINE, RHEINGOLD, WHITE OWL and is the best single PREDICTOR of future games. The ELO-CHESS will be utilized by the Bowl Championship Series(BCS)."
Thus, according to Sagarin the real, non-PC rankings are the "Pure Points" or "Predictor" ratings. Sagarin's "Predictor" ratings have the Eagles at #24 - a far cry from 4th best football team in the country. Of course, Notre Dame's two most recent opponents were ranked right near that #25 hole when we played them. We played Purdue on the road and had a real chance to win the game. Purdue is currently #22 in the Sagarin rankings (#26 in "Predictor). We also went on the road to play UCLA in the Rose Bowl, where we earned our first victory of the year. UCLA is Sagarin's #18 (#13 in "Predictor). Overall, Sagarin ranks Notre Dame's schedule as the 3rd toughest in the country. The Irish have been sorely tested and they are battle-hardened.

For a great break-down showing that Boston College's statistics have come against weak competition and that the Eagle's are thus likely not as daunting as their statistics would suggest, go read the latest post at The Irish Roundup.

So, as I said up top, I think we have the Eagles right where we want them. They are undefeated and feeling pretty good about themselves. But they are untested, and they have been enjoying home cooking all season. When they saunter into Notre Dame Stadium they are going to get punched right in the mouth, and it will be "game on." They are on par with our previous two opponents, but this game is being played in front of an Irish crowd, and our team has been getting better every week. Last week's game against UCLA was the coming-out party for Corwin Brown's defense. Given the match-ups, this week has to be the coming out party for Jimmy Clausen and the Notre Dame passing game. If the O-line can give J.C. some time, it appears likely that he'll be able to pick apart the Boston College secondary. I expect a great game, and although it will be closer than I expected in my pre-season analysis, I do think the Irish get a VERY, VERY important second win tomorrow. And it isn't just an important win because we would rather be 2-5 than 1-6. It's important because:

1. It keeps alive our Bowl chances. A win over BC gives us a chance at a 6-6 season even if we can't beat USC next week. A loss would make USC a must-win game to preserve a shot at a Bowl game.

2. It would ruin the Eagles' chances at a National Championship.

3. It would likely derail Matt Ryan's Heisman Campaign.

4. It would set the world to spinning properly on it's axis again, having restored the proper balance to the college football universe.

Two touchdown underdogs in our own house? I don't think so.

Al Gore Makes Me Sick

We interrupt our normally scheduled Irish football blogging to get sick to our stomachs.

Sorry about that. It seems that Al Gore has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It is not exactly clear which region of conflict and strife in the world he has brought peace to. Or even a glimmer of a hope for peace. He should have been awarded the Nobel Scare-Mongering Bad Science Propagandizing Self-Important Hypocrite Award. But then, I didn't get a vote.

Monday, October 8, 2007

UCLA Wrap-up (With Pictures!)

I'm late with this, but life intrudes. As mentioned previously I have a few thoughts I want to share about our day at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, but I was just too exhausted to get them all in when we got back home Saturday night.

My son and I got to the Rose Bowl around 1:30, so we had very little traffic to contend with, which was something of a first for me and the Rose Bowl. Our first stop was the "IrishFest" hosted by the Notre Dame Club of Los Angeles. There was a terrific band, the American Wake, playing Irish music for the crowd. Lots of good food and beer (the chicken was terrific!). Notre Dame All-American and Super Bowl Champion Aaron Taylor was there promoting the website. I got to chat with him for a bit about the site and got a picture of him with my son that I posted to the blog via my cell phone. First time I had tried that, and it worked pretty well. There was a short performance by a bagpipe group and then the pep rally. Aaron Taylor emceed the rally with his good friend Derrick Mayes. The cheerleaders also stopped by for the rally and were very gracious with their time afterwards, posing for lots of pictures even though they had other appearances to make before the game. Embedded below (hopefully) is a slide show of some of the pictures I took throughout the day, including at the pep rally and at the game. (If you click on any of the pictures it will take you to the Picasa Web Album page where you can view all the pictures full size. I'd be very interested if you have any feedback about the slide show, since it is the first time I've tried it here).

Once the pep rally was over, the IrishFest was done and everyone headed for the stadium, which was very close by. On the walk over to the stadium I was very impressed by how cordial all the Bruin fans were. It seemed that half the tailgate parties were mixed affairs with Notre Dame and UCLA supporters reveling side-by-side. This was a marked contrast to the behavior of the UCLA students we encountered in the stadium.

Before heading inside, we found my daughter, who came to the game with a close friend and her family. They were tailgating on the South side of the stadium very near the big "Rose Bowl" sign on the side of the stadium. After a beer, a snickerdoodle, and a few pictures my son and I headed for our seats in the North end zone, about 10 feet from the UCLA student section. Can I say, as a taxpaying resident of California, that I am very disappointed in the quality of education that my tax dollars are providing to the youth of this state? Their ability to cheer seems to be limited to two-word chants, and one of the words must be an F-bomb. F_ _ _ Notre Dame! F_ _ _ USC! F_ _ _ Jimmy Clausen! Not very original, and it got old in a hurry. They did break out with the "0 and 5! 0 and 5!" which was really hysterical - NOT! The funny thing was that the UCLA student body seemed to care much more about the score of the USC-Stanford game being played across town than about the beat-down their own team was suffering in front of their eyes. There was one silver lining to the obnoxious behavior of the UCLA students -- the very special satisfaction I felt when they all shut their mouths in the third quarter! Sweetest silence I ever heard.

Sitting right behind us was a couple of UCLA fans who whined the whole game "sit dooowwwwnnnn! We can't seeeeeee!" People, this is Division I football! This is Notre Dame! You don't want to stand up? Go watch intra-murals, brother!

It was great to see and be a part of a massive turnout of Notre Dame fans for an 0-5 football team playing 2,000 miles from home as a three touchdown underdog. Both end zones, corner to corner, were filled predominantly with Irish fans. And they brought their A-game. Whenever the action moved down near either end zone, those fans were fired up to help the Irish, and I believe it helped the team stay energized for sixty minutes. I also really appreciated that the team ran all the way down to the North end of the stadium to celebrate with their fans at the end of the game, many of the players tossing wrist bands and other items into the crowd as souvenirs. Then they ran back to the South end to celebrate with the fans there before heading into the locker room. It was fun to look around the Rose Bowl at that point to see both end zones still filled with Notre Dame fans, while the UCLA band was on the field playing to empty seats, all the Bruin fans having long since departed.

What about the game? I still haven't watched the recording, and I viewed the game from down low in the end zone, so I can't say much about X's and O's. But I do have some thoughts about what I saw and felt.

On offense, despite poor overall production, my sense was that the team was poised and very much in control of the game plan. They seemed to understand that the game plan was to be conservative, avoid costly errors, and be competitive in the field position battle. They took what the defense was giving (which wasn't much) and then they got off a good punt and let the defense go to work. When the defense created an opportunity for a quick score, the offense did a fair job of capitalizing. Run blocking was average, which is a big step up from most previous games, and although they didn't create big holes they largely avoided the tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Pass blocking was very good when you consider UCLA's reputation for an aggressive pass rush. Clausen generally had ample time to throw, but unfortunately did not generally have a target open down the field. Clausen had an excellent completion percentage, but almost all of them were very short completions out in the flats for little or no gain. From the stands the lateral passing game was very frustrating to watch, especially given the time that Jimmy had to throw. I was also disappointed when Notre Dame got the ball at the UCLA 1-yard line after a turnover and tried three passing plays resulting in a field goal attempt. First and goal at the 1 is time fr some character building up front. We still cannot get one or two yards from the run game when we need them. I think a good start would be NOT giving the ball to Travis Thomas. Give it to Aldridge or Hughes. Three times. Put Chris Stewart in at tight end next to Sam Young and run behind him. Figure something out. But, at the end of the day the offense did not turn the ball over and the team won the field position battle.

I thought Coach Weis took a step forward on Saturday. In the past he has been a riverboat gambler, seemingly feeling that it was always up to the offense to win the game. Old habits are hard to break and earlier this season that attitude caused Coach Weis to make some very aggressive/risky play calls that turned the ball over to the opponent in very good field position, with predictably bad results. Saturday was the first time that I can recall where he seemed to be putting the game in the hands of the defense. He was (mostly) satisfied to take care of the football and punt the ball deep, rather than call risky plays in an effort to keep drives alive. I also thought Coach Weis was uncharacteristically committed to running the football, even when it wasn't yielding much in the way of yardage. But running the ball is largely about attitude and asserting yourself physically. Even though we weren't getting big yards, we were running with effect and wearing down the UCLA defense. We were also forcing the defense to respect the run, which slowed down the pass rush and gave Clausen more time to throw. Certainly the offense will need to be more explosive next week if we are to keep up with a surprising Boston College team, but we saw some very good things we can build on in the UCLA game.

But the star of the game Saturday was the new Irish defense. I feel like this game was the real coming out party for Defensive Coordinator Corwin Brown. The D was stout against the run, and played like sharks at a shipwreck against the pass. They knocked out the starting QB and then forced the back-up into numerous costly errors. The key word there is "forced." UCLA fans and Notre Dame haters would have you believe that McLeod Bethel-Thompson (what were his parents thinking?) came into the game and just started throwing random, inexplicable interceptions. But those interceptions were the result of serious pass-rush pressure, tipped balls, and physically man-handling MBT for the whole game. It was the result of the same type of pressure that caused starters Ben Olson and Kahlil Bell to fumble the ball away. Bottom line - the defense was aggressive, relentless, and hungry for the ball at all times. They absolutely won this game, with both veterans and youngsters playing key roles. They will be severely tested the next two weeks, but I sure like the direction they are heading.

Special teams - I knew things were going our way when Brandon Walked connected on a 48-yard field goal in the third quarter. Except for UCLA's second possession (which started at the UCLA 47 and led to a field goal), the special teams did a remarkably consistent job of pinning the Bruins back in their own end of the field. Here were the starting positions for all of UCLA's possessions (all in their own half of the field): 7, 47, 20, 27, 22, 15, 28, 36, 29, 1, 30, 34, 32, 43, 31. That's a great job by the special teams, and a great job by the offense of holding onto the all and letting the special teams do their job. Hopefully this game can be the start of a pattern.

My son is thirteen years old. Several weeks ago, when we began planning a trip to see the Irish play USC, my son asked me: "Dad, have I ever been to a Notre Dame game when they won?" Well, he has. He was young, of course, but he's been to games when Notre Dame beat USC. He saw the Irish beat Stanford a couple of years ago. But what sticks in his mind are the losses to USC in recent years, and the loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. After Saturday, I know he'll always remember this underdog Irish squad playing in the Rose Bowl and upsetting a heavily favored and arrogant UCLA Bruin team. And that, my friends, is priceless.

Cheap parting shot: The University of Washington Huskies are now 2-3, riding a three game losing streak. That's one more win that the Fighting Irish have accrued to date. The Huskies played the UCLA Bruins on the same field the Irish did and got beat 44-31. I'm just sayin' ...

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Right Now, A Win is a Win

Well, it wasn't elegant, but the Fighting Irish dug down deep tonight and found a way to beat the UCLA Bruins, 20-6. I was at the game with my son in the North end zone (not far from Jimmy Clausen's mom), my daughter was sitting four rows behind the Notre Dame bench with her good friend, and we all saw an important victory for the Notre Dame football program. Despite offensive "production" that bordered on pathetic for much of the game, the team avoided the huge offensive mistakes that have plagued them all year and played an effective field position game which ultimately allowed the Irish defense to take control and win the game. I know we were playing against a redshirt freshman walk-on quarterback, but I don't care. I am not too proud to capitalize on those breaks when we get them. The story of this game was an opportunistic defense that played the run reasonably well, pressured he quarterback very well, and made the most of the mistakes they forced UCLA to make.

I plan to write a longer post tomorrow describing our full day at the Rose Bowl, from the Notre Dame Club of Los Angeles' "Irishfest" and pep rally, to meeting Aaron Taylor of, to the foul-mouthed UCLA student section which ran out of vulgar chants as the Irish pulled away in the second half, to the amazing crowd of Notre Dame fans that filled the stadium, to the victorious Irish football team coming over to celebrate with the Notre Dame fans at the end of the game, to the UCLA Band performing in front of an empty stadium after the game, to the buzz that built in the stadium as the crowd began to get word via cell their cell phones that USC was going to lose to Stanford! I took a lot of pictures and that full post is going to take a while to compose, and it will have to wait until I get back from the playoff game between the Angels and the Red Sox. Look for it tomorrow night.

But I do want to post a few quick thoughts gleaned from my seats in Section 10, Row 7, before I crash for the evening.

I don't know if you read my pre-game UCLA post, but I'm feeling pretty good right now about how I analyzed this game. To re-cap, I predicted the Irish would win based on the following factors:

1. I said it was practically a home game for the Irish. There was a huge Notre Dame presence in that stadium. Irish fans filled the stands in both end zones, corner to corner. And they were loud! Several times when UCLA had the ball at one end of the field or the other, the Notre Dame crowd got loud enough (I believe) to rattle the UCLA offense and it's inexperienced quarterback. I refuse to accept more than my share of credit for winning the game, but I do believe the fans helped the team tonight.

2. I noted that UCLA seemed to be prone to turnovers, and that if Notre Dame could force the action a little bit there would be some opportunities for game-changing plays. Well, UCLA had five fumbles on the night, and Notre Dame recovered three of them, including one that Maurice Crum returned for a touchdown. Their back-up quarterback added four interceptions. It's safe to say that turnovers played a key role in the win. It should be noted that Notre Dame did not turn the ball over tonight. That's a huge deal.

3. I mentioned that UCLA has not been a team that "starts fast", allowing teams to keep games close until the fourth quarter. I felt that if UCLA allowed Notre Dame to keep it close into the fourth the Irish would find a way to win. That's exactly how it played out. Despite the fact that UCLA moved the ball well and dominated time of possession in the first half (17:13 to 12:47), they only managed two field goals and took a three-point lead into half-time. They allowed the Irish to hang around long enough to figure out how to exploit UCLA's quarterback situation, and the Irish made them pay.

4. I explained that 4-1 UCLA was a good team, but not great, as they were not dominating anyone. At 4-2, UCLA fans on the post-game radio shows are now wondering if UCLA is even "good" at this point.

5. Finally I mentioned that UCLA is a run-first team, somewhat banged up. I felt that if we could get them out of their run-first comfort zone and force the QB to make plays, it would work to our benefit. It didn't go the way I figured it would, but UCLA was forced to go away from the run when they got behind, and it worked in our favor because they were playing a back-up QB by then who made a lot of mistakes (while being pressured).

So, the OC Domer had a pretty good bead on this game. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes.

I will have to watch the game later to see how the offense looked from a better angle, but I can't believe we weren't able to work the ball down the field. Clausen had all day to throw at times and could find nobody to throw to. We kept throwing the horizontal passes for no-gain or 1 yard, which was driving me nuts because UCLA was basically doubling our outside receivers much of the night and inviting us to run the ball. Although it didn't net much yardage, I was glad that Coach Weis showed more of a commitment to running the ball tonight. James Aldridge had 22 carries. He only averaged 2.4 yards per carry, but he was actually more effective than those numbers show. By getting positive yards with the run, instead of going backwards via the sack, we were able to punt the ball away and remain competitive in the field position battle. In the fourth quarter, we were actually pounding on the UCLA defense, controlling the ball, the tempo, and the clock. Again, even though the yards weren't big, it was an effective use of the run.

All in all, a perfect day. USC lost in humiliating fashion, and I got to be there to see the Irish get their first win of the year.

Overheard on the walk back to the car after the game -

UCLA fan taunting Notre Dame fan: "1 and 5! 1 and 5! 1 and 5!"

Notre Dame fan: "You know what's worse than being 1 and 5? Getting beat by Notre Dame!"

Live From the Rose Bowl!

Live from the Rose Bowl!

The Pipes are Calling ...

The pipes are calling ...

Tailgating with Aaron Taylor

Tailgating with Aaron Taylor

Friday, October 5, 2007

Beat The Bruins!

And we're back. Wednesday morning I had just left the house to hit the O.C. & L.A. freeways, when I received a text message from my boss. "Don't go to the office today - you might be going to Florida." So I turned around and went home to wait for the final word. At around 9:00 a.m. it came - "pack your bags." I was booked on a noon flight out of John Wayne and into Orlando via Dallas. By the time I got to my hotel in Cape Canaveral it was already11:30 p.m. After calling home and helping my son out with some math homework, I could call it a day. Except that when you fly from the west coast to the east, you aren't ready to sleep until about 2:00 a.m. When the wake-up call comes at 7:00 it feels like 4:00. Jet Lag is a Drag. So, a very full day of lawyer-stuff yesterday, finally sending off my final e-mail just after 9:30 p.m. Up early and flew home today. Not exactly how I thought my week was going to go! But, my flight got back to John Wayne in mid-afternoon, which means I'm home on a Friday much earlier than usual.

Why am I typing all this?

1. I haven't written a UCLA preview post this week. Now you know why.

2. Florida sucks. It's the first week of October and it's still 90 degrees and 80% humidity. At one point I was walking through a parking lot with the sun shining overhead, while somehow getting soaked by a rain shower. They say the South is football crazy, but the only sports talk radio I could find was all NASCAR and wrestling. Or ultimate fighting. One of the two. As always happens on my business trips, when I got off the plane in Orange County I couldn't believe how great the weather was. Wherever I go, whenever I go, the weather is always better in Orange County when I get home than it was wherever I went. And that includes Hawaii.

3. It's great to be home. When I went on my trip, I wasn't sure I'd make it back by the weekend, which was worrisome because I have tickets to the UCLA game and I really didn't want to miss it. Whew!

So what about the Irish chances against the 4-1 Bruins? Let's review. Before the season began I wrote that I expected Notre Dame to go 9-3, including a close loss to UCLA, and my ability to foresee the future hasn't gotten much better as the season has unfolded. Of course, with the Irish now sitting at 0-5, and the Bruins at 4-1, it would be totally logical to stand by my pre-season expectation that UCLA would avenge their narrow loss at Notre Dame. After all, they return almost everyone from a team that should have won last year's game, while most of this year's Notre Dame starters were in high school last season (or so it seems). Instead I say this: The Irish have the Bruins right where we want them! As I wrote in an e-mail earlier this week, the whole season until now has been an elaborate ruse to lull UCLA into complacency.

Here is why Notre Dame wins this game:

First, it is practically a home game for the Irish. For such a large school, UCLA is somewhat notorious for their inability to attract a crowd to their football games. Notre Dame has a huge fan base in Southern California that will turn out in force for their team. And Notre Dame is undefeated in games played in the Rose Bowl. I jest (a little), but the Rose Bowl holds a special place in Notre Dame history, and a win tomorrow in Pasadena would be historically important for this program. If you haven't read the terrific write-ups about that 1925 Rose Bowl game against Stanford, you really should. Start Here. And here. Seriously - I'll wait here until you're done.

Second, while not an ideal match-up for Notre Dame, there are some chinks in the UCLA armor that open the door to an Irish upset. The first is turnovers. UCLA quarterbacks have already thrown six interceptions this season, five by starter Ben Olson. As a team they have fumbled the ball nine times, losing five of them. That's an average of a fumble lost and 1.5 interceptions thrown per game. It tells me that there are game-changing opportunities available to our defense if it can force the action a little bit. If we can get a couple of turnovers to thwart UCLA drives and give the Irish a short field, that can be a big swing in points.

UCLA has not been a team that "starts fast." Notre Dame has had a lot of trouble this year by getting deep into a hole early in games and then not being able to climb back out. For the most part, the second halves of games have been irrelevant. Coach Weis has expressed a feeling that if the team could get on top early, the ensuing confidence and energy would build on itself and carry us to victory. We saw a glimpse of that energy last week when ND battled to within a touchdown of Purdue in the second half. But our opponents have not cooperated, outscoring Notre Dame by a margin of 101-21 in the first half. The Bruins, on the other hand, have largely been a second-half team. They have just outscored opponents in the first half overall (56-48), and have outscored opponents through three quarters by a margin of just 90-78. They were tied 10-10 with Washington at half-time and trailed Oregon State 14-6 at the half. UCLA's pattern has instead been to win the 4th quarter decisively, outscoring opponents in the final stanza 72-45. 72 points is more than twice as many points as the Bruins have scored in any other period (3rd qtr = 34 pts). They scored 28 fourth-quarter points last week to win a game they trailed after three quarters, 14-12. If UCLA allows Notre Dame to keep the game close well into the second half, I like our chances. If this young Irish team smells a win, and if our confidence and energy starts to grow, I believe Coach Weis and his staff will out-coach Karl Dorrell and his staff down the stretch.

UCLA is good, but no more than that. Although 4 and 1, they are hovering right around the #25 spot in most of the polls. That is right where Purdue was last week, and Notre Dame was one defensive stop from having a chance to win that game. The Bruins are to be credited with finding a way to win four games, but this is a team that was dismantled by Utah, 44-6 three weeks ago. As noted above, they trailed Oregon State after three quarters, and were tied against UW at the half. They are not dominating anyone. Although Notre Dame is winless through five games, we have been tested by five straight games against high-caliber competition, and it has slowly been making us better. That trial by fire had made the Irish ready to take on the inconsistent and emotionally fragile Bruins.

UCLA is a running team, and are hobbled. UCLA has rushed the ball 219 times this year, versus only 155 pass attempts. They have averaged 4.6 yards per rush and 7.26 yards per pass attempt. They have 997 rushing yards (including a minus 95 yards for QB Olson), and just over 1,126 passing yards. The Bruins run-first mentality makes sense since they have two very good running backs in Kahlil Bell and Chris Markey. But Markey is injured and may not play at all against the Irish. The Bruins still have Bell to rely on, but you have to believe the loss of Markey will place a little more of the offensive burden on QB Ben Olson who has a completion percentage of just 51.6% and 5 INTs. Olson is also recovering from a concussion he suffered in the loss to Utah. If injuries force UCLA to alter their run-first mentality even a little bit, that works in Notre Dame's favor.

Bottom line: As has been the case since the horror of the first game against Georgia Tech, the key question going into the game is whether the Notre Dame offensive line can block. We now know that the quarterbacks can throw the ball when given a chance, that the receivers can catch it, and that our running backs can gain yards if they get a crease to run in. We know what to expect from the defense. They are bend but don't break. They'll give up some yards on the ground, but will generally avoid the huge play. They've seen and played well against better offenses than UCLA's. But UCLA's defense presents quite the conundrum for the Irish offense. They have been very stout against the run, allowing just 2.8 yards per carry. Yet, they also have recorded 16 quarterback sacks. Pick your poison. Notre Dame has to be much better at run blocking, or pass blocking, or both, than they have been all year. If the O-line doesn't perform way above average in at least one of those phases, Notre Dame's offense won't go anywhere. Looking at the numbers, and knowing Coach Weis' inclination to throw the ball all over the yard, I expect Notre Dame's game plan to look a lot more like the Purdue game than the Michigan State game. Despite their pass-rushing prowess, UCLA is clearly more vulnerable to a passing attack than they are to the running game. The trick will be to give Clausen time to throw the ball. Expect to see more of Duval Kamara on the quick slants. And expect Golden Tate to score the winning touchdown in the North end zone right in front of me and my son!

Go Irish! Beat the Bruins!

See you at the Rose Bowl.