Sunday, November 4, 2007

Navy Sinks Irish Dreams of 5-7 Season

I am 43 years old. Roger Staubach led the Midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy to a stirring win over Notre Dame in 1963, just a few months before I was born. Navy had not beaten Notre Dame in a football game in my whole life, until yesterday. Am I sorely disappointed? Of course I am. Not quite as ticked off as this guy - but pretty unhappy. [EDIT: The link to BGS now goes to very toned-down assessment of Coach Weis' play calling. The original rant was an all-time classic, but Jay has decided not to leave it up as a permanent part of the BGS historical record. If you missed it, well, that's a shame. It was probably a little overwrought, but is was darn funny too.]

On the other hand, if I had to write a list of the teams I hate losing to the most, I'd probably run out of ink or get writer's cramp before I put down "Navy." The loss hurts, but in this season alone I'd rank each of our seven other losses well ahead of Navy in terms of personal bitterness.

  1. USC
  2. Michigan State
  3. Boston College
  4. Purdue
  5. Michigan
  6. Penn State
  7. Georgia Tech
I feel bad for the Notre Dame players who, as a group, probably played their best game of the year and still came up short in front of the home fans. I don't feel bad for Irish football fans. As this horrendous year has ground on, I have begun to notice more and more of a whiny, entitled tone creeping into the writing in the Notre Dame blogosphere. "How dare Coach Weis and his players lose to Navy! We're Notre Dame after all. We're entitled to win ten games every year and go to a BCS Bowl."

Calm down, people - it isn't always about you. The Notre Dame football players and coaches want to win more than anyone. And they're working their asses off to make it happen. It isn't yielding much in the way of results right now, but at 1-8 (even when it was only 1-7) you have to write this season off. As I wrote last week, the 2007 season is over. The four games starting with Navy are pre-season games in the 2008 season. These games are about developing our talent and depth so that the Irish can return next season to their rightful place in the football Universe. While still hoping for a win, I was keeping my eye on Chris Stewart getting lots of reps at right tackle. I was watching James Aldridge and Armando Allen learn how to run at the Division I level. I was watching Sam Young, Eric Olsen, and Brian Smith get their work in, mistakes and all, to get better for next year. And because these games are not about the now but really about the future, I fully expect to see Jimmy Clausen worked back into the mix and established as the starting quarterback by season's end. Because Evan Sharpley is serviceable at QB, but he is not the Irish future at QB.

Perhaps I am more patient than many because I attended Notre Dame for four years of the Gerry Faust era, when we lost four straight to Air Force. I am willing to forgive Coach Weis this season, boneheaded game-management decisions and all, because I do believe he is bringing in the quality players Notre Dame needs to get back to the top. I'll give him one Mulligan. But if 2008 looks anything like what we have seen in 2007, Coach Weis can pack his bags.

What did I see in yesterday's game? My first thought was that the offense, while not perfect, played well enough to win the game. I felt that the biggest problem was that the defense could not stop Navy. The "D" couldn't get off the field by forcing a punt or some turnovers. This greatly magnified the importance of each possession by the Irish offense and eliminated any margin for error. When there is no margin for error, the game can turn on any play.

Taking a closer look at the numbers after the game, I realized that it was more complicated than that. While the offense was generally very good (leaps and bounds better than any other game this year), they did fail to produce at several key points in the game, whether through poor play calling or poor execution.

My brief observations:
  • Each team missed one field goal attempt.
  • Each team lost one fumble. Navy turned the Irish turnover into seven points. Notre Dame failed to score after Navy lost a fumble at their own 30 yard line, turning the ball back over to Navy on downs after a ridiculous fake field goal attempt.
  • Navy did not punt until 2:23 remaining in the fourth quarter.
  • Notre Dame had more first downs than Navy (27-23), more total yards than Navy (375-228), and held the ball longer than Navy (30:41 to 29:19), essentially beating Navy at their own game.
  • Notre Dame was 9 of 19 in 3rd down conversions (47.37%) while Navy was 9 of 16 (56.25%).
  • Notre Dame was 6 of 8 in 4th down conversions. Each failure was huge: (1) the fake field goal attempt that ended the Irish drive on a short field following the Navy fumble, (2) the fourth down at the end of the game where Coach Weis decided that he preferred the odds of converting a 4th and 8 over the chances hitting a 41-yard field goal. The fact that the Irish offense attempted to convert 8 times on fourth downs tells me a couple of things: (1) Although the Irish "O" had a good game overall, they weren't consistently overpowering Navy on downs 1 through 3, and (2) Coach Weis had very little confidence that the Irish "D" could slow down Navy's offense.
  • Without ever punting the ball, Notre Dame played the field-position game very well. Notre Dame's average starting field position was it's own 43 yard line. Navy's average starting field position was it's own 27.
  • Navy had five sacks on the season before yesterday, but got four against the Irish.

I also have some non-statistical thoughts. When Navy was FINALLY forced to punt the ball to the Irish at 2:23 of the fourth quarter, and Zibby had a very nice return of the punt to the Navy 38 yard line, I knew the Irish were going to win. We had just scored on a 14-play, 76 yard drive that featured James Aldridge and Armando Allen running the ball very effectively, plus an amazing throw and catch from Sharpley to John Carlson. The "O" was hitting on all cylinders. Putting the field goal decision aside for a moment, all I could think at the time was "Why is he throwing the ball to David Grimes?" Duval Kamara had been amazing all game long, John Carlson was looking like himself again, even Robby Parris had been effective. What has Grimes done this year that convinced Coach Weis to put the ball in his hands on the potential game-winning drive? (Answer: Nothing.)

My other thought relates to Travis Thomas. I didn't watch the game live yesterday, as I had to help the OC Daughter with a school function. When I got home, the only highlight of the game I caught before watching the game myself was the failed two-point conversion in the 3rd OT. And I screamed at my TV "Why are you giving the ball to Travis Thomas in that situation?" It's clear that Coach Weis likes TT at the goal line. It's also clear that he is very loyal to his senior captains. But at some point you have to think that James Aldridge and Armando Allen are going to get tired of TT cherry-picking the touchdowns after they have pounded the ball down the field. In the second quarter the Irish had a 12-play, 46 yard TD drive. Aldridge was the feature back on the drive with carries of 13, 4, -4, 3 and 4 yards. That's tough sledding. With the ball down to the 1 yard line after a 4-yard run by Aldridge on 2nd-and-goal, Thomas comes in a gets a 1-yard TD run. Same thing in the fourth quarter. On a 14-play, 76 yard TD drive, Aldridge had carries of 4, 5, 3, and 0 yards, while Allen had carries for 15, 13, 6, 6, 5 and 4 that put the ball at Navy's 3. Thomas then came in and ran for a 3-yard TD. Coach Weis may have very good reasons, based upon what he sees at practice, to use TT in goal line situations. As for myself, I'd like to see what Aldridge or Robert Hughes can do.

Grading the game, I'd give the offense a solid "B." They generally moved the ball very well, and had their best production of the year. The Sharpley fumble and some pass protection issues keeps the grade from being any higher.

I give the defense a "D" for this game. It's not that they didn't play hard. They just couldn't stop the Middies. They forced only one turnover, and didn't force a punt until very late in the game. They surrendered an average of 4.5 yards per play.

Special Teams get a "C". Kick and punt returns were very solid, but our kick-offs and kick coverage was poor. Notre Dame's first kick-off pinned Navy at the 10. Subsequent Irish kick-offs gave Navy starting field position at the 37, 32, 34, and 35 yard lines. Add a missed field goal attempt and failed fake field goal play, and a "C" is probably generous.

Coaching gets an "F". You have to beat Navy. Your defense has to stop that damned option play and get the ball back. You don't run a fake field goal on 4th and 15 in easy field goal range. You don't forego even a long filed goal attempt to win the game on 4th and 8.

Finally: I was glad to see Robert Hughes score the first Irish touchdown and get to keep the ball. That ball is small consolation for the loss of his brother this week, but hopefully he will always have it as a reminder that he is part of the Notre Dame family and that our prayers go out to him and his family at this very difficult time, no matter what happens on the football field.

Go Irish! Beat Falcons!


Anonymous said...

OC Domer -- good post. I couldn't agree with you more. The season isn't about the fans; of COURSE, the team wants to win every game. And yes, this season is over, but the "future's" players (Allen, Kumara, Hughes, Aldridge, Neal, Stewart, etc.) give one hope that things can and should be better, hopefully, next year.
Your comments on Robert Hughes at the end of your post are admirable. Also, I agree with you on the TT note. Aldridge and Allen run their tails off getting yardage, and TT gets the ball near goal line to score the TDs. I'll be glad when TT is gone, sorry to say, as I had hoped (as a fellow Pennsylvanian like TT) that this year would've been better with him staying around. It's been extremely disappointing with the 5th year guys, except for Laws who has worked his butt off and will be great playing on Sundays.
Nevertheless, go Irish; beat the Falcons!

Anonymous said...

Excellent points..Thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

The original BGS post is stil available on google's servers in their cache.

West Coast Navy Guy said...

Excellent blog and observations.

I've been following Navy-ND games closely for many years now, albeit as an increasingly frustrated and angry Navy alum. Regarding the option, something didn't happen this year that always has in the past. Annually, Navy starts the game running circles around the Irish D but the fun usually lasts only into the second quarter. After 20-25 minutes of vicious cut blocks along the line and razzle dazzle in the backfield, ND starts to wise up. (Why it lasts even that long is beyond me - it's not as though the upperclassmen have never seen Navy's offense before.) The momentum always shifts toward halftime and adjustments are made in the locker room such that the Navy running game becomes a shell of itself in the second half, and after an Irish score or two it's lights-out for the Mids who now have to start passing to play catch-up.

There was no halftime adjustment this year (poor coaching?), and if there was it accomplished nothing except to open up the middle for big gains by the fullbacks and easy QB scampers on third-and-short. Combine that failure with a Navy defense that finally pulled it together with penetration at the line, a nominal degree of pass defense, and sure tackles (I lost count of the missed tackles in that Wednesday night Pitt game - it was embarrassing!) and you get an over-matched team that could finally play toe-to-toe for the full 60 minutes (and then some) this year. One additional trick on defense that Paul Johnson tried this week, after nothing else had worked all year, was to move his coordinator from the sideline up to the coach's box.

ND had two weeks to prepare for Navy and it wasn't enough. Chalk up Saturday's game as additional prep and that makes three weeks to get ready for Air Force. Good luck, and I mean that sincerely (did I just admit to pulling for the Irish?) - if the rest of us can't have a perfect season (that is, ND 0-12), then defeating a Notre Dame team that finishes 4-8 will mean more when reflected upon in the coming years than one that winds up 1-11 or 2-12.

One additional thought. The alleged interference on Parris in the end zone - it clearly never happened. What you actually saw (and I'll admit my bias here) was a desperate attempt on the part of the officials to keep the streak alive after learning too late in the game that the fix was in. It looked like 1999 all over again.

See you all in Baltimore next year!

Sir John said...

OC, Well I lived in the Staubach ers. He was GOOD. I followed him to Dallis, quite a leader. Heck OC I was at the first ever Super Bowl. What is that now 39??? I lost my latin long ago. I eased up on ND and let the haters take over and have their day scavaging us like vultures

Anonymous said...

Armando Allen is our most exciting RB at this point.
I WAS kind of irked when Weis gave TT the score... not very motivational for the guys that put the team there in the first place! (Duh!)
I'm not so sure Weis is such a great coach - especially with some of the latest "decisions", such as blowing off a 40yd FG in the final seconds to beat Navy... another "Duh!"
That's pretty much a ROUTINE kick for my HIGH SCHOOL team! (#1 HS team in the OC right now)


Jay said...

I respect your opinion. Unfortunately the fact is we had two weeks to prepare for our weakest opponent(until Duke) and we failed miserably. I supported Willingham's, Davie's and Faust firings as a relief to the institution. Anything less than eight wins next year is on Charlie's shoulders and I would hope for objective criticism in our coach who obviously is in a delusional state as far as the shameful year he is in charge of right now.