Monday, November 19, 2007

Irish Bedevil Duke (Wrap-up)

Okay, I'm a little slow on the Duke post-game review. I've been savoring the warm glow that follows an Irish win and trying to come up with a unique perspective on the victory. It seems trite to write at this point that Clausen and Hughes looked pretty good, and the defense sure played better. But from an X's and O's standpoint, that's what we have.

I've been cogitating on it for the past couple of days, trying to pinpoint my feelings about the win. I was happy, of course, especially for the seniors on Senior Day. But I have to admit my most predominant feeling was a sense of relief and of calm. Coach Weis was asked whether he feels relieved with the win, and he adamantly denies a sense of relief. But that is exactly what I felt. For the first time this season I felt that a Notre Dame football game had gone the way it should have gone, and that the world was once again spinning properly its axis. Gone was the bitter disappointment and angst of most Saturday nights this season. I didn't feel the jubilation that I felt when we upset UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Instead I was at peace.

In my personal college football universe, When a team like Duke shows up on the Notre Dame schedule, I get out my fountain pen (so to speak) and scribble an elaborate, indelible "W" in the margin. There is no debate about whether ND will win. No match-ups are discussed. Whether at home or away, the Fighting Irish are fully expected to physically dominate such an opponent, jump out to a 4 or 5 touchdown margin, and then empty the bench in the 4th quarter. Ho-hum.

For the first time this season, the Irish did what they are supposed to do. After an ugly first half, the Irish took physical control of this game and pushed around an inferior opponent. We dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and our skill players made plays. We out-blocked them, out-threw them, out-ran them, and out-hit them.

It wasn't by any means perfect. We had too many penalties (11 for 103 yards). We dropped too many passes. We blew some coverages that would have been costly against a better team. We still allowed too much pressure on Clausen. The two sacks allowed could have been several more but for Jimmy's improved movement in the pocket. Special teams had a very mixed day, to put it politely.

Several moments in Saturday's win stood out for me.

  • Jimmy Clausen's laser shot 25-yard TD pass to David Grimes that split the two converging safeties before finding a diving Grimes in the end zone. Jimmy wasn't making that throw in September. Or in October. Whatever "procedure" Clausen had done on his elbow over the Summer, it is clear that he is only now feeling close to 100% again. It is also clear that a healthy Jimmy Clausen is going to be a very good college quarterback.
  • Robert Hughes' amazing display of power and grace. Hughes had a big day in the cold and wet conditions. He's a big back (listed at 5' 11", 238 lbs) and showed good power. But I was amazed at his balance. After getting hit he spun, sputtered and stumbled forward for big "yards after contact." It's clear that #33 isn't going to tackle himself, and that it's going to take more than one defender to bring him down once he gets rolling. He also showed great vision, making very savvy cuts at the point of attack to get into the holes created by the line. Folks have drawn comparisons to Jerome Bettis, which is fair. In running style I was reminded of Bo Jackson and Earl Campbell. Bottom line with Robert: Big and fast with great feet, great balance, and great heart.
  • Robert Hughes' teammates rallying around to congratulate him after every big run. It would be easy to expect a 1-9 (now 2-9) Notre Dame team to have lost their fire long before now, to just mail it in at this point. But it is clear that this group of players still believes in Coach Weis and they believe in and care about each other. Earlier in the year (a little over a month ago) the team was at a critical juncture and Coach Weis told his players "you're either all in, or you're all out." Since then, some guys chose to be "all out." The guys remaining in that locker room are "all in." They are a team and they will get better. Much better.
  • The students, standing on their seats on a cold, wet November afternoon chanting "Huuuuugghhhessss" after each big play by Robert Hughes. As tough as it has been, through six straight ugly losses at home, the Notre Dame student body showed up on Saturday and they woke up some echoes cheering for Old Notre Dame. They are ND.
  • Trevor Laws' sheer joy after the game. What a gentle giant. He plays football like a man possessed, and then waxes philosophic when its all over. What a great representative of Our Lady's University. You can't help but be really happy for that guy, and proud to call him a Domer.

As for X's and O's - the stat sheet looks like a stat sheet should look after a Notre Dame / Duke game. The Irish had 414 yards of total offense to Duke's 232. We controlled the ball for over 35 minutes, compared to Duke's 25 minutes, and won the time of possession battle for each of the four quarters. As for balance, we had 24 first downs, earning 14 via the run, 8 via the pass, and 2 by penalty. We converted 10 of 18 third downs, and 1 of 2 fourth downs (Duke was 4 of 16 on third down conversions). The Irish garnered 220 yards on 48 rush attempts and 194 yards on 32 pass attempts. Clausen was 16 of 32 for those 194 yards with 3 TDs and zero INT. Duke had a net 94 rushing yards and just 138 passing yards.

All-in-all a very nice day at the office.

Behind the stats, the biggest step forward I saw was Jimmy Clausen's progress in eliminating the big negative play. Certainly he has largely eliminated the fumbles and interceptions that plagued him early in the season. Yesterday I noticed that he has also eliminated the big, drive-killing sack. Early in the year, when pressured, Jimmy was prone to using a spin move to elude a tackler and then looping deep behind the line of scrimmage to buy time and/or escape the rush. Only he didn't escape anyone and instead we were routinely seeing sacks for losses of 10, 12, 14 and more yards. It seems that Clausen now understands that EVERYONE on the opposing defense is fast enough to chase him down from behind and that he has to move forward or laterally in the pocket before running toward the first down line or throwing the ball away. Here were Notre Dame's negative offensive plays yesterday while Clausen was still at QB (excluding penalties):
  1. Clausen sacked for 2 yard loss.
  2. Aldridge rush for 1 yard loss.
  3. Hughes rush for 1 yard loss.
  4. Clausen sacked for 11 yard loss.
  5. Allen rush for 1 yard loss.
  6. Hughes rush for 4 yard loss.
That's it. Only six negative plays TOTAL on the day, with four of those resulting in losses of 2 yards or less. Clausen only suffered one serious sack for an eleven yard loss. While some of the credit must go to improved O-line play, the fact is that Clausen was under pressure off-and-on throughout the day. He's credited on the stat sheet with seven carries on the day (25 yards gross, minus 13 yards in sacks, for 12 net rushing yards). Few, if any, of those seven carries were designed QB running plays. Rather than taking big sacks, or throwing interceptions, Clausen was using his feet to buy time to throw or gain some positive yards. The result was manageable down-and-distance situations rather than impossible 3rd-and-forever situations. That's a big step forward in quarterback development.

Yes, it's Duke. They're a bad football team. But it's a win, and it beats the heck out of a loss to Louisiana-Monroe or Appalachian State. There are a lot of positives, and hopefully some momentum, that can be taken from this game and built upon as the team heads out to California to take on another bad team, the Stanford Cardinal.

Go Irish! Beat Stanford!

1 comment:

JB said...

Another great post, OC Domer. This win, regardless of it who it was, was a nice step forward for ND's future. Hughes was awesome, Clausen is showing promise, and Bruton is the man!
Will certainly miss Trevor Laws and wish him the best playing on Sundays (being from PA, would love to see him on the Steeler's defense next year!)
Here's hoping for a great game against the Cardinal and another "W" ... GO IRISH, Beat Stanford!!!