First of all, I want to congratulate the cadets of the United States Air Force Academy. They played a great game, executing their game plan almost flawlessly, and clearly deserved to win yesterday's game. Yesterday's debacle brought flashbacks to my time at Notre Dame, when the Gerry Faust led Irish lost to USAFA four years in a row, and when after each game I got a phone call in my dorm room from my Dad, USAFA Class of '63. "How about those cadets!"
Hi Dad! Congratulations on a great win. And thanks for recognizing that in my fragile emotional state I couldn't handle a phone call yesterday. I hope your heart was able to handle the excitement yesterday. Mine almost wasn't.
So how did the Irish manage to lose to USAFA? By showing the same maddening inconsistency (players and coaches) that we have seen all year. On the negative side of the ledger:
- Only 112 gross rushing yards, just 54 yards net after sacks, etc... This from an O-line that Coach Weis expected to dominate the game.
- 1.5 yards per rush.
- 2 lost fumbles leading to 10 AF points.
- Horrible kick-offs and kick-coverage. Notre Dame had five kick-offs. After the ND kicks and USAFA returns, the Falcons had the ball at their own 31, 34, 33, 33, and 38 yard lines. That averages out to an average AF field position on the 34 yard line after an Irish kick-off.
- The Irish were just 4 of 15 (26.67%) converting on 3rd down. It's easy to look at that number and conclude that the Irish aren't doing a good job on 3rd down. But looking at the eleven 3rd downs the Irish failed to convert, you find that they needed an average of 8.8 yards to get a first down. That means, in those eleven cases, the Irish were averaging just 1.2 yards on 1st and 2nd down COMBINED. The problem is not 3rd down, it is wasted plays on 1st and 2nd down. The four times Notre Dame succeeded in converting a 3rd down, they needed an average of just 5.25 yards for a first down (or a TD). Still not great, but certainly more manageable than 3rd and nearly 9 to go.
- The team was just 2 of 5 converting on 4th down. The worst example of this came with about five minutes remaining in the game. The Irish were down by 10 points and were rallying. After David Grimes ran a 7-yard out pattern on 3rd and 8 (Aargghhh!), the Irish had a 4th and 1 on their own 25. Instead of calling a timeout, or huddling and getting into a good play in this key situation, the team ran to the line setting up in a no-backs set and ran a QB sneak that never had a chance. Air Force had clearly seen the film from the UCLA game and was stacked up and waiting for that sneak. I hope someone asks Coach Weis what was going on there. The sneak fails, and it's game over. That would have been a good time for Charlie to throw a headset and yell at someone, but he had the same calm demeanor he had when his All-American tight end coughed up the ball after a long gain on the opening play of the game. Or when his fullback coughed up the ball for an Air Force TD later in the first quarter.
- The Irish allowed six QB sacks. The first sack occurred when Travis Thomas, ostensibly our best running back for blitz pick-up, was inserted into the game. Rather than block the free-running cornerback coming from Clausen's blindside, TT stared down the middle of the field looking for someone to block.
- The Falcons rushed for a net 285 yards.
- The Irish defense had a hard time getting off Air Force blockers on the edges, and missed a ton of tackles. MOST importantly, they missed a lot of chances at tackles for loss. If they make those plays in the backfield they would have put USAFA in very tough down-and-distance situations and likely forced punts. Instead, they missed those chances and kept Falcon drives alive.
On the positive side of the ledger we did see a few things that give us some sliver of hope to cling to for the future.
- Jimmy Clausen, back in the starting role at QB, was 22 of 40 passing (55%) for 246 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs.
- That works out to 6.2 yards per attempt and 11.2 yards per completion. Nice to see the Irish offense working the ball down the field in the passing game instead of side-to-side.
- The 55% completion percentage would have been much higher had the Irish receivers held onto numerous well-thrown balls that were dropped.
- The Irish offense accumulated 304 total yards. Not great, but certainly better than we have seen in most games.
- Notre Dame was penalized only 2 times for 30 yards.
- Eric Maust did a very nice job punting in place of Geoff Price, netting 43 yards per punt, downing 2 inside the 20, with zero touchbacks.
- Placekicking was perfect on the day. 3/3 PATs and 1/1 FG attempts.
- The Irish offense was 4 of 4 scoring in the Red Zone.
- James Aldridge carried the ball 14 times for 62 yards (4.4 yards per rush).
On Notre Dame's opening play of the game Jimmy Clausen dropped back to pass and had all day to throw the ball, delivering a strike to John Carlson 28 yards down the field. A great opening play call, perfectly executed, and the Irish are moving! Except that Carlson can't keep the ball under control and fumbles it away to Air Force. USAFA puts together a 14 play, 56 yard drive eating up 6:11 on the clock and ending with a field goal. Air Force 3, ND 0. That was a huge swing in momentum and really, really hurt the team. John Carlson is a senior leader and he isn't supposed to be the one making those costly errors. Later, of course, John makes a very nice over the shoulder catch in the end zone for the first Irish TD. Good play, bad play. Inconsistent.
I lost track of how many balls David Grimes dropped during the game. It was enough that I went hoarse screaming at my TV: "Where is Duval Kamara! Why aren't we throwing it to #18?" Even when he caught the ball, David wasn't making good plays, running the aforementioned 7-yard route on a critical 3rd and 8 play. But David also had a marvelous 21-yard catch for Notre Dame's second TD. Bad plays, good plays. Inconsistent. By the way, it turns out that Kamara had some academic issues that kept him from practicing much during the week, and hence from playing Saturday. Hit the books #18, we need you!
So the Irish earn nine losses for the first time in history dating, as was noted on the TV broadcast Saturday, all the way back to the 19th century. But it looks like Jimmy Clausen does have the tools to be a very good quarterback if he has some time to throw the ball, and if we can surround him with some players. If the youngsters who are already in house and who will come aboard next Fall can step up quickly, we can get this thing turned around. Hopefully it will be another 120 years before we see a season like this again.
Go Irish! Beat Blue Devils!