Sunday, October 14, 2007

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

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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.


sir john said...

Nice analasis OC. I can't complain. It is time for JC to sit awhile and surely latina to go come December.

aaronb said...

I agree with all of this. In regards to John Latina and the Offensive line. It seems like it this may be the right time to looking into a zone blocking scheme. The thing I notice is less "bad technique" and more missing assignments from the linemen. That tells me there is confusion as to who picks up who. The best way to fix confusion is to simplify the gameplan. Weis and Latina may be "gurus". That doesnt mean the 20 year old lineman are.

Anonymous said...

TBone1966 said:
There plenty of film to review and if the O Line canot be coached on who to pick up it is timen for Latino to go.
I mentioned this to a Domer friend the middle of September on the beach as we dicussed another ND loss.
Against BC several times during the game on running plays there were line men standing a watching the backs get hit. This is very frustrating.

Craig said...

If there's less bad technique and more missing assignments, I'd count that as a qualified positive, as it suggests that the line is starting to come around on the fundamentals.