Saturday, September 29, 2007

Irish Show Some Fight at Purdue

The Fighting Irish actually had some fight in them at Purdue, and for the first time this season found themselves in a football game that they still had a chance of winning in the fourth quarter. To get there, Notre Dame showed tremendous grit in climbing out of 23-0 half-time hole behind back-up quarterback Evan Sharpley to get within one score (26-19) with 7:58 remaining in the game. For one brief, shining moment the Irish faithful across the land, and the Purdue fans in Ross Ade stadium, could feel that Notre Dame might actually win a football game. But that dream died an ugly death when Purdue scored a touchdown on a 5 play, 59 yard drive the next time they got the ball. A defensive stop on that drive would have given the Irish the ball with plenty of time to score the tying (or winning) TD. Very briefly, here is the Hope and Despair from Saturday's game.

Hope

Quarterbacks. Jimmy Clausen and Evan Sharpley both showed that if they have some time in the pocket, they can distribute the football. Clausen was 18 of 26 (69.23%) for 169 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. Sharpley went 16 of 26 (61.53%) for 208 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT. As a duo, the QBs were 34 of 52 (65.38%) for 377 yards, 3 TDs and 2 INT. Clausen was never sacked, while Sharps got sacked just twice. Each quarterback threw an AWFUL and COSTLY interception, but all in all you have to be encouraged. Quarterback play like this bodes well for the future if we can get some of the other problems fixed. Clausen suffered what appears to be an injury of some sort to his hip which effected his ability to throw the ball, costing the Irish a very likely touchdown when he couldn't hit a wide-open Golden Tate streaking down the sideline. Evan Sharpley played very well in relief of Clausen, and pundits everywhere are declaring a "quarterback controversy" at Notre Dame. If Clausen is healthy and both guys continue to play well, I can live with a quarterback controversy. What I am having trouble dealing with is a tackling controversy, a special teams controversy, and a penalty controversy.

Pass Blocking. The most shocking moment of the day came on Notre Dame's first offensive play. Jimmy Clausen took the snap, dropped back to pass and ....... wait for it ....... actually had plenty of time to fire a ball to George West for 15 yards and a first down. HE HAD TIME TO THROW THE BALL!! The pass protection wasn't perfect, but it was good enough to give the QBs time to complete 52 passes for 377 yards and 3 TDs while only allowing 2 sacks. And the passes weren't all of the lateral/horizontal variety - the Irish averaged 11.1 yards per completion. The pass blocking performance was so far removed from what we saw in the first four games it is hard to believe they are the same guys. (And yes, 4 of the 5 starting O-lineman are the same guys we have seen all year).

Receivers. We have plenty of guys who can catch the ball. I do not envy the coaches trying to figure out who to put on the field. Notre Dame had five different wide receivers with 3 or more receptions. Did you realize that Robby Parris led all receivers with 7 catches for 93 yards? Duval Kamara was a big presence with 6 catches for 68 yards and a TD. George West caught 4 balls for 37 yards, and Golden Tate was spectacular on his 3 leaping catches for 104 yards and 1 TD. David Grimes had 3 receptions for 34 yards and I swear I didn't even realize he played! Junior Jabbie is clearly the best pass receiver among the running backs, as he caught four passes for short gains. And it was great to see TE John Carlson involved in the passing game again, as he made an excellent falling-down grab in traffic for the first Irish TD. As hard as it is to divvy up the playing time, to me it is clear that Kamara and Tate need to be on the field. They are both big targets with great hands, and Tate seems to be our most viable deep threat right now. The best moment of Coach Weis' post-game press conference came when he admitted that the long passes to Tate were essentially "drawn up in the dirt." Apparently Golden hasn't picked up all of the offense yet, so Coach just told him "run a 'Go' pattern and we're going to throw it to you."

Heart. Notre Dame was down 23-zip at half-time after suffering a historic drought of four straight losses to open the season. They could have quit. They could have gone through the motions, thrown in the towel, phoned it in, etc... BUT THEY DIDN'T!! Instead, they fought. They battled and scraped and made a game of it and in the end got their hearts broken. The TV commentators, pundits, and cheap-shot columnists can gloom and doom the state of Notre Dame football all they want, but at the end of the day these young men showed and have shown great character in coming out each week and getting better. These freshman and sophomores are playing against juniors, seniors, and 5th-year seniors and they have been getting beat. There is a physical and experiential gap between 18 and 19 year old kids and 21 and 22 year old men. But that gap is narrowing rapidly, and once these kids finally climb to the top of this steep learning curve, they are going to be very, very good. I believe it will be worth the painful wait. And apparently Coach Weis has convinced this team that it will be worth the wait as well. Coach Weis spoke after last week's game about guys being "all in or all out." We have seen a few guys in the past couple of weeks who have decided they are not all in. Good luck to all of them. But the guys we saw in West Lafayette today are all in, and they will be better for it soon.

Despair

Run Blocking. Whether it was Purdue's defensive scheme or just a matter of time devoted to other aspects of the game plan in practice, Notre Dame's running game took a big step backwards today. Our running backs carried the ball only 17 times Saturday for 51 yards, which is 3 yards per carry. Longest run of the day was 9 yards. Certainly, when you're behind by 23 points it is hard to exercise patience with the running game, but you'd like to see more of a commitment to controlling the ball on the ground to set up bigger plays through the air. We need to establish the mentality of being able to get two or three yards on the ground anytime we need it. Twice in this game Notre Dame had 4th and 1 situations and the running back got stuffed for no gain. We were back to the QB sneak being our most effective short-yardage play.

Special Teams. Notre Dame was awful on special teams. Missed field goals, missed extra points, poor kick returns. There were easily enough mistakes in special teams to account for the margin of the loss. Do you realize that Notre Dame and Purdue scored the same number of touchdowns? Each team had three. Purdue's three TDs netted them 21 points, while Notre Dame only squeezed 19 points out of our three scores. In addition to the two points lost on PATs, Purdue was 4 of 4 on field goal attempts, while the Irish were 0 for 1.

Penalties. Notre Dame was penalized 11 times for 110 yards, and 6 of the Irish penalties gave the Boilers a first down. By way of contrast, Purdue was penalized 9 times for 67 yards, but only one penalty gave the Irish a first down.

Conclusion

The more you look at the numbers, the more disappointing it is that Notre Dame lost this game. We had more passing yards (377 to 252) and more total yards (426 to 371). Purdue had six more first downs than Notre Dame (27 to 21), but six of their first downs came via Irish penalty. Although it seemed at the time as though Kory Sheets was gashing us, he only averaged 5.2 yards per carry (that isn't good, it's just not as bad as it seemed), and Purdue as a team averaged only 2.8 yards per rush. Had the Irish cut down on the penalties, performed better on special teams, and not committed three turnovers we likely win that game. That sounds somewhat stupid because of course we did commit too many penalties, we did turn the ball over, and we did play poorly on special teams. The point is not that we should have won the game - we didn't play well enough to win. The point is how close we are getting to playing winning football. Purdue was a Top 25 team (barely), and we matched them in touchdowns and bested them in total yards. When you compare Saturday's performance to the previous four games you cannot help but be very encouraged by the progress this team is making week to week. We've gone from "can't block, can't tackle, can't score, blown out" to "penalties and turnovers cost Irish surprisingly close game." Of course, at Notre Dame we don't record moral victories in the record books - at some point the progress needs to translate into wins. Unlike all the haters, I believe the wins will start coming soon. In fact, I think they start coming next Saturday in Pasadena. And I can't wait to see it happen right on front of me live at the Rose Bowl against the UCLA Bruins!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Purdue Presents Match-Up Problems for Irish

It's Purdue week. Whenever we play Purdue I think back to my Junior year at Notre Dame (1984) when over 6,000 Notre Dame students piled into 147 charter buses for the trip down to Indianapolis so that the Fighting Irish could "host" Purdue in the first football game played in the Hoosier Dome. At the time it was said that the excursion set a Guinness World Record for "longest bus caravan." I'm sure it must have been galling to Purdue fans and alumni that Notre Dame was the "home" team and had top billing for the dedication of a new football stadium in their own backyard. Despite Purdue's victory that day, Boilermaker nation has long come to accept that Notre Dame is the Big Dog in Indiana, and the most they can hope for is to steal a little kibble from the Irish bowl when the Dog is taking a nap on the porch. The Irish lead the all-time series against Purdue by a 51-25-2 count, and Notre Dame's 51 wins against Purdue are the second-most against any opponent -- 69 against Navy is the highest.

Yet when I look at the meeting with Purdue, I see some real problems. A young team, brutal early season schedule, and difficult match-ups of styles have created a perfect storm of bad news for Notre Dame fans so far this season. We have all been waiting for that softer part of the schedule where match-ups and team styles would work more in favor of the Irish. I don't think this is the week. As you look at Purdue in detail, it becomes obvious that although Notre Dame matches up well in some areas, Purdue has greater all-around depth as well as some potent weapons that the Irish simply have no answer for. I'll break it down by units.


The bands. In the trenches, Notre Dame has the "Band of the Fighting Irish." Purdue answers with the "All-American Marching Band." Both bands have solid tradition, good size and excellent sound. But upon closer examination - it's really a mis-match. Purdue traces the history of its band back to 1886:

The Purdue Band was first formed as a drum corps for the Purdue Student Army Training Corps, a predecessor of ROTC, which would begin just before World War I. In October of 1886, almost a year after the student newspaper noted the purchase of a bugle, the same paper noted that the band "as thus far organized, consists of Floyd and Lutz, cornets; Hicks, baritone; Remster, alto; Butterworth, tuba." From those five musicians attached to the military training came Purdue University Bands.

The drum corps played sporadically during the early years, depending upon whether anyone qualified to drill the group happened to be on the university staff. There was little or no musical training available.

So Floyd, Lutz, Hicks, Remster and Butterworth got together and played "sporadically" depending upon whether or not there was anyone on staff at Purdue who had a clue. That's the heritage of your All-American Band.

Notre Dame's band, on the other hand, had more auspicious beginnings:

The earliest reference to the band is in 1846 when it played at the first graduation ceremony. The importance of music on campus also caused a Music Hall/Auditorium to be built as the third major building of the new school after the classroom/dormitory building (The Golden Dome) and the Church. The legendary football coach, Knute Rockne, played flute for Notre Dame, and former Athletic Director Edward (Moose) Krause spent some years studying music before putting his clarinet on the shelf and devoting himself to athletics.

The University of Notre Dame Band is the oldest college band (in continuous existence) in the United States and was honored as such by being declared a "Landmark of American Music" by the National Music Council, the Indiana Music Educators Association and Exxon Corporation during the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial.

The Band of the Fighting Irish has a long tradition of providing music and pageantry for the Notre Dame football games. It was on hand for the first game against the University of Michigan in 1887 and has not missed a single home game since. It should be noted that the Notre Dame Band was celebrating its forty-first anniversary when that historic first game was played.
Thus, when Purdue's band was first formed in 1886, Notre Dame's band had already been performing for 40 years.

Purdue's claim to fame is the Block "P". Notre Dame counters with the much more dynamic and recognizable interlocking "ND".

Of course, when it comes to marching bands, at the end of the day it's all about the music. Purdue's band cannot seem to make up it's mind and has three different fight songs (Hail Purdue!, Fighting Varsity, and For the Honor of Old Purdue), none of them memorable. The Band of the Fighting Irish counters with the most famous and stirring of all college fight songs - the Notre Dame Victory March! Advantage: Notre Dame.

Auxiliary Units. Notre Dame's band is accompanied by the world famous Irish Guard. The members of the Guard are big, tough, and nasty (especially on a Saturday morning when they are hung over). Man for man and pound for pound they match up very well against anyone. But there are only ten of them. Purdue 's first auxiliary unit is the twirlers, a group of eleven seasoned veterans led by the flashy, brassy Golden Girl. The Golden girl is joined by the Girl in Black, the Silver Twins, and seven other accomplished twirlers. Certainly the Irish Guard would be a heavy favorite against the twirlers. But this is where Purdue's depth really starts to make a difference. The twirlers are backed up by the 20 members of the Golduster Dance Team AND the 16 members of the Golden Silks Flag Corps. All told, the Purdue auxiliaries go at least 47 members deep! And they are armed with batons and flag poles and many, many sequins. The Irish Guard are badasses, but they are also Notre Dame men, and the twirlers, Goldusters and Golden Silks are, after all, female. Advantage: Draw (with lots of regret in the morning).


Mascots. Purdue Pete is not really the official mascot of Purdue University. But to most college football fans, this wild-eyed, freak-show melonhead is the face of Boilermaker football. He will be lined up against the Notre Dame leprechaun. Pete has the advantage of being higher than a kite (thus the crazy eyes) and wielding a dangerous blunt instrument. But his over-sized head hurts his athleticism, as he can't change directions quickly or bend over without falling down. The leprechaun has a big advantage in quickness and agility, has a long history as a brawler, and is aided by leprechaun magic. Advantage: Leprechaun.

Drum Majors and Cheerleading Squads.
Both Universities are well represented by their drum majors and cheerleaders. One would surmise that as an engineering school Purdue's cheerleaders might be below average, but my research indicates otherwise. There is no real statistical difference to exploit here. Advantage: Pick 'em.

Specialists. So to this point, Notre Dame has the advantage in Marching Band and mascot, and is able to keep things even in the Auxiliary and Cheer categories. You'd think we ought to be feeling pretty good about our chances. But you'd be wrong, because Purdue features of couple of specialists of unique talent and ability, for which I don't think the Irish have any answer. I am speaking, of course, of the Big Bass Drum and the Boilermaker Special.


The Big Brass Drum has at times been claimed as the World's Largest Drum. It's big, eye-catching, and totally preposterous. Yet, Notre Dame has nothing that can match up with the drum. Touchdown Jesus? The Grotto? Maybe, if this were a home game. But TD Jesus and Mary aren't getting on the bus on Friday. The drum will be totally uncovered and it will kill us. The same goes for the Boilermaker Special (which is the actual, official Purdue mascot). The Fighting Irish have nothing that can compete. No car, truck or horse. No cannons. Nothing. The Dome? The "Play Like a Champion Today" sign? Maybe at home, but they don't help us on the road. Advantage: Purdue (Big!).

Bottom Line: It will be a very good match-up on Saturday between Notre Dame and Purdue, but because of Purdue's astounding depth, you have to believe that Purdue will out-perform the Irish during the half-time show.

As for the football game: Who the heck knows? Purdue is a very different team than those we have played until now. All four of our opponents to date have been run first, pass second (if at all) teams. They have had big offensive lines and strong running backs and have just overpowered us at the point of attack. Our secondary has not been really tested yet, but they have given up an astonishingly high ratio of of TD's per pass thrown. I expect the Irish offense to build on last week's success on the ground, pounding away with Aldridge and Hughes to move the chains and keep the ball away from Purdue. If we can soften up the Purdue defense and make them respect the run, then we'll take some shots in the passing game. Purdue's defensive line and pass rush should not be nearly as formidable as those we have faced to date, so I would expect that at times Jimmy Clausen will actually be able to set his feet in the pocket and make some throws. I would expect Notre Dame to improve upon last week's 14-point offensive outburst. On defense, the key question will be: Can our allegedly improved secondary really cover anyone? I was excited to see two effective young pass rushers for Notre Dame last week in Kerry Neal and Brian Smith. Unless Purdue runs more effectively than usual, I hope to see Neal and Smith get a lot of action putting early pressure on Purdue QB Painter and thus protecting our secondary from the big play. If we can cover and pressure, then we will have our best chance yet at a victory. Purdue is waaayyy overrated, having defeated three absolute cream-puffs and one near cream-puff. For the first time this season, Notre Dame will enter the game as the more athletic and more physical team. The question will be whether we can execute. If we execute at a high level, we win. If not, we lose. My pick? Notre Dame manhandles Purdue and gets its first victory of the season, 31-27.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Got 2!


My brother-in-law just called to let me know that UCLA has put tickets for the October 6th Notre Dame vs. UCLA football game on sale through their website (run by Ticketmaster). Tix are $75 each, and limit is two per order. I'm sure if you have more than one e-mail address and more than one credit card you can probably figure out a way to score more than two tickets if you need 'em. I only needed two, and I got 'em! See you at the Rose Bowl.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative


In my dual previews of the Michigan State game my brain offered the following opinion:

Best case scenario Saturday is that we move the ball a little bit with a modest running game and some short passes off a 3-step drop (avoiding big negative plays and penalties), then punt the ball and force MSU to at least start their drives in their own end of the field. If the defense can force a couple of turnovers and make a play or two, maybe we get a couple of quick scores and at least look respectable this week, keeping the final margin somewhere under two touchdowns. That would be a huge step forward for this team right now I'd feel very fortunate if we can at least look respectable in a 34-20 loss to Sparty.
So it seems my logical self had the best read on the Irish going into yesterday's contest. Notre Dame did establish a running game, they did cut down on the penalties, and the defense did make a couple of big plays. The final margin of loss was just over, rather than just under, two touchdowns, but I believe that the team competed well and for the first time this season they did manage to look respectable as a football team. So despite moving into historic realms of ineptitude (first 0-4 start ever), this team actually took some large strides forward on Saturday.

Others have done some really nice write-ups of the game - here, here, and here, but I want to share my observations after having watched the recorded game today (I was out of town yesterday). Positives first, then negatives.


Things the Irish Can Build On

Penalties. In a big improvement from previous weeks, the Irish were only penalized four times for 35 yards. Perhaps the worst penalty was a roughing the passer call on Trevor Laws on a 25-yard pass completion by MSU, but I think it was a lousy call. Laws barely touched Hoyer on the play, and it was nowhere near his head or in any way cheap or dangerous. You never like to see penalties, but a significant improvement in this area is a positive sign.

Turnovers. Jimmy Clausen put the ball on the ground and lost the fumble on his worst play of the day. But that was it. No interceptions, and no other fumbles. The defense had two take-aways, one by fumble and one by interception. On the day the Irish were +1 in turnover margin, and that is very positive.

Running Game. This is the obvious area of major improvement. Notre Dame fans got to see what some of our young talent can do as James Aldridge and Robert Hughes looked very good carrying the ball. Both runners have good size and showed the ability to run through tacklers as well as the ability to make a nice cut and run around them. Aldridge carried the ball 18 times for 104 net yards (5.8 yards per carry), including one big 43 yard romp. Hughes had 6 carries for 33 yards (5.5 yard average) and a TD. While both backs looked very good, Robert Hughes looked like a beast. Most of his runs featured tremendous power as he dragged multiple defenders toward the goal line, but he also had a very nifty 18 yard scamper where he showed terrific vision and quick feet to avoid contact and run to daylight. To put the performances of Aldridge and Hughes in perspective, MSU running backs Ringer and Caulcrick averaged 5.5 and 4.2 yards per carry, respectively. Nearly every significant running play went over the left side, either right behind or just around Sam Young and Mike Turkovich. Many of those plays also featured center John Sullivan either pulling around the left side or making excellent blocks down field. The play of the O-line was still riddled with errors, but at least we saw on Saturday what this line is capable of doing when they get it right. Kudos to those guys for all the hard work they put in preparing for this game, and for the progress they made.

Defensive Heart. Once again, our defense found itself playing most of the game on a short field. They were on the field for 73 MSU offensive plays. They were getting pounded physically by MSU's huge offensive line and their big running backs. But they did not quit. They DID NOT QUIT. Despite the tough conditions, the defense made some very good stands. After the Clausen fumble Michigan State had the ball 1st and 10 at the Irish 14. The defense held MSU to a field goal. In the second quarter, with MSU driving, David Bruton ran what seemed like 50 yards from the middle of the field to the front corner of the end zone to intercept a long Hoyer pass. Great hustle and great ability. In the fourth quarter, with Sparty grinding us down with power runs, the defense actually made a very nice goal-line stand to force a field goal attempt (which was missed). Our tackling and position was not always good, but the defense showed real heart.

David Bruton. I mentioned his very impressive interception. How long have Irish fans waited for a safety who could cover ground like that? Bruton was making plays all over the field and was second on the team in total tackles (8 solo, 7 assists). His 8 solo tackles was the most on the team. Right now Bruton is out-playing Tom Zbikowski, who had only 2 solo tackles and 3 assists. Of course, if your safety is leading the team in tackles (especially in the running game), your front seven isn't getting the job done.

Brian Smith and Kerry Neal. These two freshman outside linebackers, while still raw, showed impressive speed off the edge and in pursuit. In limited action they were each very disruptive and effective pass rushers. They are pushing their way to the top of the depth chart and I expect we'll see much more of them sooner rather than later as the Irish prepare to play pass-happy teams like Purdue, UCLA, Boston College and USC.

Clausen on the Roll. FINALLY!!! Coach Weis finally put some roll-out passes into the offense. Although they didn't net much passing yardage, the roll outs are an effective way to disrupt the pass rush and buy the QB some time to find a receiver. The fact that we had very few receivers open is another issue altogether. But the roll-outs helped reduce the number of negative plays by making it easier for the QB to throw the ball away and avoid the big sack. Hopefully we'll see more of this in the future. If nothing else, putting Clausen on the move forces the pass rushers to hesitate just a little bit as they aren't 100% sure where they'll find the QB once they beat their man.

Pass blocking. We still aren't any good at pass blocking - but we were less bad on Saturday than we have been up until now. Our quarterbacks were sacked "only" 4 times for a negative 32 yards. And some of those sacks appeared to be coverage sacks, where the QB actually had a reasonable amount of time to get the ball away, but couldn't find an open receiver. Still a long way to go, but progress has been made.


Things the Irish Have to Do Better

Tackling. I know Ringer and Caulcrick are big backs. But kick returner Devin Thomas isn't a big guy. Big guys or small guys, we have to tackle them better. We were hurt throughout the game by players in position to make a play in the backfield, or to stop a kick return before it got started, missing the tackle and/or getting dragged down the field. We are giving up first downs and extending drives with poor tackling.

Two Yards. We have to find a way to get two yards. Notre Dame has been vexed all year by 3rd-and-long situations, and no team can win games when constantly in that situation. We've been trying to get ourselves into manageable 3rd downs, so that we have a high probability of moving the chains. Unfortunately, when we've had a chance at 3rd-and-2, we haven't consistently gotten the job done. In two key spots Saturday, the Irish failed to convert on short yardage. Mid first quarter with the game tied at 7, ND had the ball 3rd and 1 at our own 36, after a nice 8-yard pass completion to Grimes. Schwapp got the carry and was stopped for no gain, and we punted (poorly). A perfect chance to build some momentum was lost. Has Schwapp EVER carried the ball for a first down? He needs to be blocking for Hughes or Aldridge in that situation. In the third quarter, the Irish down by 10 but driving at mid-field, they were faced with a 3rd and 2. Aldridge managed to get only 1. On 4th and 1, Hughes was stuffed for no gain and we lost the ball on downs at the 50. I think we should have punted on 4th down (more on that below), but our inability to convert 3rd and 2 killed a promising and important drive, and we never pushed the ball out beyond our own 36 yard line for the rest of the game. If we can't convert 3rd and long, and if we can't convert 3rd and 2, then we really aren't doing much of anything.

Passing. I'm not sure Jimmy Clausen's arm is at 100% yet. He has zip on his shorter throws, but it really looks to me as though his longer throws hang in the air for a long time and that this is creating timing problems with his receivers. He is also badly under throwing a lot of balls when he can't set his feet and has to use "all arm". The "zip" contrast was very noticeable when Evan Sharpley came in and obviously had more mustard on his throws. The other half of the passing equation is our receivers, who seemed to have a lot of trouble getting open. Our pass blocking was still a big problem Saturday, but Clausen was frequently able to buy enough time to get the ball off if anyone was open. Especially when he rolled out, Jimmy had ample time to survey the field and deliver the ball before throwing it away or getting caught by a pursuing defender, but he couldn't find an open man.

Win the Field Position Battle on Special Teams. Coach Weis calls them "hidden yards", but they weren't very hidden this week. Michigan State's average starting field position for the game was their own 43 yard line. Notre Dame's average starting field position was it's own 25 yard line. MSU had 14 offensive possessions, and 6 of them started at mid-field or BETTER. The Irish had 14 possessions, and after the early fumble recovery at MSU's 9 yard line, Notre Dame's BEST field position to start a drive was our own 30 yard line with 2:45 left in the third quarter. The Irish kick return game was weak, and we had no punt returns. Our kick and punt coverage units did a poor job generally and tackled poorly in particular. The worse offenders were our punting duo of Geoff Price and Eric Maust. Although we did see a couple of very good punts, those good efforts were vastly outweighed by shank punts of 27 yards (twice!), 11 yards, and 36 yards. If a team is punting from around it's own 30 yard line, a decent punt and decent coverage should give the other team the ball inside it's own 30 yard line, thus exactly flipping field position. Instead, we repeatedly gave the Spartans the ball at or near mid-field. Poor offense combined with poor special teams play presented our defense with a "Mission Impossible," time and time again. Coach Weis played a part in this as well. When we had 4th and 1 at mid-field early in the third quarter, down 24-14, we should have punted. I know Coach Weis is an aggressive play caller, but he needed to help his defense by playing for field position at that point. As I noted above, the Irish have not been good in short yardage. Schwapp had been stuffed on short yardage in an earlier drive, Aldridge had been stuffed on 3rd down. Failure to convert put the defense back against the wall again, instead of turning the tables on MSU. In the first quarter, on Notre Dame's very first possession, we stalled out at mid-field and punted. The punt pinned MSU at their own 2 yard line. Two plays later Hoyer fumbled the ball to the Irish, who quickly scored to take the early lead. Why not try that again? In previous seasons Notre Dame had experienced players who could (frequently) overcome Coach Weis' failed gambits. But this team needs a more conservative approach.

Blocking. Although greatly improved from previous weeks, blocking in all phases still must become more consistent. In the first three games, nearly every offensive play was a negative. This week, there were numerous positive plays from a blocking perspective. The problem is that the ratio of negative plays to positive plays is still way too high. Too many sacks. Too many running backs hit in the backfield. The offensive line, tight ends, and running backs all need to keep working hard to make improvements in the coming week as dramatic as the improvements they have made in the past week.



Conclusion

Sure, I'm depressed. Even though I went to school through four years of Gerry Faust and four consecutive losses to the Air Force, I've never seen an Irish team look this overmatched. But, I can see the future. There were a lot of young players running all over the field on Saturday who are going to be stars. Aldridge, Hughes, Allen, Clausen, Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Ian Williams all look like very promising players. And the team never gave up. They played hard for 60 minutes and they never gave in. What more can I ask of them?

Go Irish! Beat Boilermakers!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fire up the DVR

Well, sometimes it's unavoidable. Somebody plans a family event on a football Saturday.

Shocking, I know.

Today is one of those days in the OC Domer family, so I'm not going to be able to watch the game live. Instead I'll be in the car all afternoon listening to what I assume will be the Michigan State radio broadcast on XM Radio channel 198. XM has the satellite radio rights to most of the major college football conferences (such as the Big Televen), while Notre Dame is on Sirius satellite radio (The Catholic Channel, Sirius 159). So I guess I'm lucky that the Irish play a Big Televen opponent today.

Before we hit the road, I'll program the DVR to record the game so that I can watch it when I get back home tomorrow afternoon. Why do you care? I doubt that you REALLY care, but the point is that I won't be able to post my usual, immediate post-game reactions tonight after the game. Rather, my post-game post will have to wait until Sunday afternoon at the earliest. I have activated the e-mail post feature of OC Domer though, so I will be able to file some shorter posts from the road via my cell phone as the mood strikes me. I may have to rely on the OC Son to type them for me.

Recording a game for watching later is always interesting. Of course, you can watch it much faster by speeding through commercials, etc... But it's a strange feeling to watch a game when you already know how it ends. Watching a game when you know you've won is good, since you can really savor every moment, confident of victory no matter the adversity. But watching when you know you've lost is hard. Usually I can't do it. But I'll watch it either way tomorrow just so that I can monitor the team's progress, and so that I can record my thoughts here.

As we pack the car to hit the road, I leave you with these thoughts:

1. Go Irish! Beat Sparty!

2. "What tho' the odds be great or small, Old Notre Dame will win over all!"

3. "And our hearts forever, love thee, Notre Dame!"

Friday, September 21, 2007

Sparty Previews (plural)

I haven't posted anything since Sunday, because I just don't know what to say about the current Fighting Irish football team. There are so many contradictory thoughts swirling about in the OC dome that I have found it impossible to write with a coherent voice. But the Spartans visit Notre Dame Stadium tomorrow, and that deserves comment. It finally hit me last night that I really need to write two Michigan State previews. My logical, reasonable, analytical, somewhat shell-shocked brain has a lot of thoughts about this game. But my big, golden, Domer heart pumping blue and gold blood also has a lot of feelings on this game - and the head and the heart do not agree on this game. Not at all. So head and heart will each have their say and we'll see tomorrow whether logic or faith prevails. First up is the brain. He always insists on being first.

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Do you realize how lucky we were to beat the Spartans last season? Even with Brady Quinn & Co. the Irish should have lost that game by two touchdowns. Sure, the Irish showed some guts and determination, and we made some great plays in a hurricane to come from behind. But there is no way that game ever gets close without the horrible play calling by Coach John L. Smith and his staff. To state it simply, Michigan State was KILLING us in the running game, and quarterback Drew Stanton stunk up the field. Then, with the game under control, the Spartans took the ball out of the hands of their two talented running backs and gave it to Stanton. To this day, nobody knows why. MSU running back Jehuu Caulcrick had runs on the day of 29, 4, 12, 18, 30, 6, 3, and 9 yards. The 30 yard run went for a TD, and he finished with 111 yards on 8 carries (13.9 yards per carry). He was running like a boulder rolling down hill and Notre Dame's defense had no answer for him. His teammate Javon Ringer ran the ball 14 times for 76 yards (5.4 yards per carry) and had a 26-yard TD reception from wide receiver Matt Trannon. Drew Stanton, the goat in MSU's gut-wrenching loss last year is gone, as is Coach Smith. But Ringer and Caulcrick are both back, running behind an offensive line that averages 314 lbs per man. The Irish defense hasn't exactly had the answer when faced with a power running game, and the front seven will be sorely tested again this week. This will of course force Notre Dame to bring extra defenders to the line of scrimmage, leaving the secondary vulnerable to an opportunistic passing attack. Last week against Michigan, freshman quarterback Ryan Mallet (making his first ever college start) only threw the ball 15 times, but 3 of his 7 completions went for touchdowns over defenders who were in no position to make plays on the ball. The inability to tackle strong runners or to cover receivers (our defensive backs average 6' tall, MSU's WRs/TE average 6' 3") means the Irish defense will likely be giving up yards in chunks, hoping only to force an occasional turnover and prevent the big game-changing play.

Of course, the defense has been the strength of this Notre Dame team through the first three games. The real problem has been on offense. The Notre Dame offense has yet to score a touchdown through three games. We have given up more quarterback sacks than any other Division I-A team (23 sacks allowed for a loss of 167 yards), and are last or very close to last in just about every conceivable offensive category. We are averaging 2 yards per offensive play and 115 yards of total offense per game. We have fumbled the ball 12 times (losing 5) and have thrown 3 interceptions. We have been flagged for 24 penalties, costing us an average of 57.7 yards per game.

Match-ups? How about an O-line that can't pass block against an MSU defense that leads the nation in sacks? Or an offense that averages negative 4.7 rushing yards per game against a Spartan defense giving up only 2.8 yards per rush. Pick your poison. In either case, the Notre Dame offense we have seen for three last three weeks stands very little chance of moving the ball against MSU even if we stop turning the ball over and eliminate the penalties - because our offensive line has been unable to block anybody in the running game or the passing game.

Our opening day quarterback ran off with another program when he should have been on a bus to Ann Arbor last week. Demetrius Jones is by all accounts a charismatic person and was very popular with his teammates. Although he is saying the right things now, when he first left he accused Coach Weis of misleading him about his status as the starting quarterback, and you can't help but wonder whether there is any division on the team? Do any of the players feel like Coach Weis treated Jones unfairly? Is there any dissension or division on the team? Jones should not be made a scapegoat, but this whole episode can't help but be a distraction and the way his departure was handled tells me that communications between the players and coaches is not what it should be.

The new starting quarterback is true freshman Jimmy Clausen. He is a talented player and all expectations are that he will will be a star in this program. But he is in uncharted territory. He's not used to being chased around and beaten up by opposing defenses. Although his attitude and competitiveness have been good, you have to wonder how long he can stand up to this punishment. Last week he showed signs of being a little gun-shy, locking onto receivers instead of surveying the field. If Coaches Weis and Latina can't devise a scheme to protect Clausen there is a risk that his confidence gets shaken to the point that it will take him a long time to recover.

As Weis mentor Bill Parcells is fond of saying, "You are what you are" and right now Notre Dame is a 0-3 football team that cannot block or tackle. To expect them to turn it around in one week and defeat a 3-0 Spartan team is completely unrealistic. Best case scenario Saturday is that we move the ball a little bit with a modest running game and some short passes off a 3-step drop (avoiding big negative plays and penalties), then punt the ball and force MSU to at least start their drives in their own end of the field. If the defense can force a couple of turnovers and make a play or two, maybe we get a couple of quick scores and at least look respectable this week, keeping the final margin somewhere under two touchdowns. That would be a huge step forward for this team right now I'd feel very fortunate if we can at least look respectable in a 34-20 loss to Sparty.

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This is the week. I can feel it. As ugly as the results of the first three weeks have been, we are not that far from gelling into a solid football team. The Irish are playing youngsters all over the field. Young, inexperienced players playing in front of hostile crowds of 100,000+ on national television might be a little nervous, don't you think? So we've seen some mistakes. Fumbles, penalties, missed assignments. Those mistakes kill drives and ultimately put your team in a big hole. Before you know it the game has gotten away from you. But those mistakes can be addressed. They can be fixed. Stop turning the ball over in your own end, stop making drive-ending penalties, and you can control the ball a little bit and at least turn it into a game of field position. We have a good punter who can turn the field around if he isn't punting from inside his own 20 yard line.

This offensive line is young, and they have played poorly. Coach Weis has recognized that they have to be coached differently. A veteran line that is already schooled in the fundamentals can spend lots of practice time on variations in scheme, on "X's and O's." But a young line needs to spend much more time on technique, on fundamentals, on adapting to game speed at the college level. So Charlie took his team back to boot camp this week. He simplified. Forget complex schemes, the team returned to a base offense and worked on fundamental execution at full speed all week. Ones on ones. Trying to increase the tempo at which the team is playing. Learning to finish blocks and finish plays. Our offensive line doesn't need to dominate anyone, they just have to play reasonably well. Because if they play reasonably well Notre Dame has the talent at the skill positions to make plays.

When he has had time, Jimmy Clausen has looked very good. He surveys the field with patience and throws a very nice ball. With targets like Robby Parris, Duval Kamara, George West, D.J. Hord, and John Carlson we will be able to move the ball through the air if the offensive line can hit somebody in the mouth and give Jimmy a little time. To do that, we first have to establish some sort of a running game. If the O-line can figure out who to block and engage their assigned man for just a couple of seconds, we will be able to run the ball. James Aldridge and Robert Hughes are big backs who only need a small seam to get five, six, seven yards. If the line can actually create some holes to run through, then Armando Allen (or Aldridge or Hughes) can take it "to the house" as Coach Weis likes to say. We have the guys who can score quickly if they are given a chance. If we can eliminate the negative plays that come from busted assignments, turnovers and penalties then any of these guys can score from anywhere on the field. By simplifying the scheme and improving the physicality of line play at practice this week, Coach Weis and the team will put a better product on the field this week and they will compete.

All the team needs to turn the corner is a little bit of confidence, which will come from a little bit of success. I believe that the offensive line will be better this week. Not all better. They won't magically be able to stave off Michigan State's very good pass rush off the edges. But I believe we're going to see a nascent running game, led at the start by James Aldridge. A marginally credible running game will force some respect from the pass rush and the secondary, and we will have some opportunities to throw the ball down the field. If we can move the chains a little bit and help the team at least compete in the field position battle, the confidence will start to grow. If we can actually break a big run or two, or complete a couple of big passes, then the confidence will burst through and we will put ourselves in a position to win this game.

Our defense will be fine. They have been very solid for all three games this year, despite playing with their backs against the goal line for the whole season. The big point totals of our opponents have been the fault not of our defense but of our offense's inability to move the ball. We have given up very few passing yards (114 yards per game), and the big running yards against us have largely come late in games when our defense was tired and dispirited by the fact that the offense was doing nothing to help the team. If we can give the defense decent field position, and if the offense can show some signs of life, I believe we can count on Corwin Brown's defense to play their hearts out in front of the home crowd and to make some big plays.

And let's not get too excited about Michigan State. Their three wins have come against UAB, Bowling Green and Pittsburgh. They whipped UAB, but they only won by 11 points against Bowling green and by 4 points against Pittsburgh. All at home. None of those three opponents are anywhere near the caliber of the teams Notre Dame has faced so far. The Spartans had only 50 more yards in offense than Bowling Green and only 35 yards more than Pitt. While the Fighting Irish have been struggling in front of huge, hostile crowds at Penn State and Michigan, Sparty has been getting fat on home cooking. The tables turn this week. Notre Dame gets to draw on the energy of their home crowd, while the Spartans get to hear the boos rain down on them. Yes, Sparty has done inexplicably well at Notre Dame in recent years. But that was more about Bob Davie and Ty Willingham than it was about Michigan State.

This is the week. The offense eliminates the horrible errors and begins to establish itself, starting with a power running game. James Aldridge pounds the ball inside. Armando Allen catches a couple of screen passes for big gains. Clausen hits a couple of deep balls to Duval Kamara or D.J. Hord. We get a big return from either Golden Tate or Zibby. The defense plays with very high energy and the confidence starts to grow. When Sparty turns the ball over and we get a cheap touchdown to put the Irish up by 10 early in the 3rd quarter, the floodgates open 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.

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So that's how I see the game playing out tomorrow, with my head and with my heart. And I honestly don't know which game I expect to see. Take the OC Domer poll (right hand column) and tell me what you think will happen.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Niche

I already posted my initial, gut reactions to yesterday's horror show in Ann Arbor. Here are my thoughts after a night of fitful sleep.

In his press conference after the game Coach Weis said he is taking the team back to Day 1 of training camp. They are going to begin re-installing the offense from scratch, one small package of plays at a time. They will not move onto a second package of plays until they are executing the first package correctly. Coach Weis he is trying to find or create a small niche that can be a staple or foundation for the team to grow from. Good idea, Coach. I think the rest of the world calls that "establishing an identity."

When Charlie Weis first rolled into South Bend he made quite a splash when he announced his intention to build a team that would would be hard working, intelligent, and nasty. That was his goal three years ago, that was a team identity he hoped to create. So far, it hasn't happened. Why not?

Part of the problem is a talent deficiency. When you've got freshmen and sophomores starting all over the field ahead of your juniors and seniors, that probably says more about your juniors and seniors than it does about your youngsters.

But part of the problem is this issue of developing an identity, especially on offense. Coach Weis is a smart guy. He can "X" and "O" with the best of them. But I think perhaps he spends too much time trying to outwit the opponent by calling clever plays and creating mismatches to try and exploit the opponent's weakness. The result, this year at least, has been a different offense with a different game plan every week. Rather than focusing his attention on who we are as a team, he's been respecting the opposition too much, installing plays and game plans as a reaction to what the other team is going to do on defense. This can't help but be confusing to a young team. Brady Quinn and his more experienced teammates could handle it, but a team of freshman and sophomores can't help but be overwhelmed by being asked to re-invent themselves every week.

It seems Coach Weis may have recognized this problem with his decision to go back to "training camp." Rather than focusing on the other guy, we're going to focus on running a more limited set of plays, and running them well. The goal should be to get to a point where we have a handful of plays that we know inside and out, and that we are confident we can execute properly, regardless of what the defense is doing. The attitude should be "This is who we are, this is what we do, just try to stop us." That sounds ridiculous coming from a team without an offensive touchdown through three games, but that has to be the goal.

But it's an approach that works. Under head Coach John McKay the USC Trojans had a basic running offense that consisted essentially of two plays. The had a inside run they called the "blast" and an outside run they called the "pitch," known in football lore as "student body right." The Green Bay Packers under Coach Vince Lombardi were famous for the "Packer Sweep."

No matter what else they might run, or what the defense might do, those teams had an identity. They had a base offense, a core group of plays that they knew they could run and that they knew they could run well. From that knowledge comes confidence. And from that confidence comes the "nasty" that Coach Weis has yet to deliver.

What is Notre Dame's offensive identity? Right now the identity seems to be the drop back sack. We need to get offensive on offense. We need to get aggressive at the point of attack. Even if we have to put more linemen into the game, we have to establish an ability to gain yards on the ground so that the rest of the offense can work as a complement. Don't try to be cute. Don't try to out-think. Just line up and execute. Then line up and execute again. And be nasty about it.

Help Wanted

If you haven't already seen it, you'll want to head over to Rakes of Mallow and read the help wanted ads he's put together on behalf of a "Formerly prestigious college football team accepting applicants at many positions!" Very clever.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Big Flop in the Big House


Same sh*t, different day. You had to know that today was going to be special when you woke up to the news that Notre Dame's back-up quarterback, Demetrius Jones, decided to transfer to Northern Illinois University and the coaches didn't know anything about it until Jones failed to show up for the bus trip to Ann Arbor. Normally this is where I wish the departing player good luck in the future. I'm not sure I can do that in this case. Coach Weis and the rest of the team spent valuable practice time this week putting in a package of plays especially for Demetrius to run against Michigan. Do you think the team could have made better use of that valuable practice times if Demetrius had bothered to clue the coach in to the fact that he had one foot out the door? His departure was a slap in the face to his coaches and his teammates and I expected more from him.

As for the 38-0 whipping the Wolverines put on the Irish today, I only have a few initial thoughts.

I feel like an idiot for failing to factor into my pre-game analysis the fact that 5th year senior and co-captain John Sullivan would begin the game by snapping the ball over the heads of Armando Allen and Jimmy Clausen on the opening series. If I had foreseen that bit of suckitude I certainly would not have expected an Irish victory.

Same old story with the offensive line. Total freakin' ineptitude. I'm sure everyone was sick of listening to the broadcasting crew harp on the horrible blocking - but what else could they do? Talk about the marching bands? Once again we had multiple blockers on single defenders, leaving free runners to chase the quarterback. We had cut blocks that the defenders simply jumped over to chase down the football. We had the O-line getting shoved into the backfield on short yardage plays. They did improve in having fewer penalties than last week, but there is no way they were going to have MORE than last week. Most interesting development was that Mike Turkovich finally got yanked and replaced by Eric Olsen, while the offensive tackles were flipped in the second half, with Sam Young moving to left tackle and Paul Duncan going to right tackle. It seemed to me that after these personnel moves the O-line played perceptibly better. Not great, or even good, but maybe just a little better. This certainly bears watching.

Jimmy Clausen is tough to grade. He was 11 of 17 for 74 yards and 1 INT. He was sacked 8 times. Because he was harassed so much in the pocket and had very little time to get the ball away I still don't think we have been able to evaluate what he can do. One thing he has to do if he's being chased around so much is take care of the football. Fumbling the ball away deep in your own end does nothing to help the team. I will say that he kept his poise and continued to battle under very adverse conditions. When he had a chance, he threw a few very nice balls. With the departure of D. Jones, we now have all our eggs in the Clausen basket. Evan Sharpley came in late and threw a bad interception. He isn't going to be the solution.

I heard Travis Thomas' name called twice. The first time was when he was called for clipping, which brought back a decent Zbikowski punt return. That's two costly personal foul calls against our team captain in two weeks. The second time his name was called was when he made a nice 13-yard run on the gutsy fake-punt call on a 4th and 11. Good run, but as far as I'm concerned he's still a net negative on the field this year.

The defense took a step backwards today. Mike Hart got his yards (as we knew he would, 35 carries, 187 yards, 2 TDs). He averaged 5.3 yards per carry, just above his season average of 5.1 yards per carry. But he would have been held down much more if the Irish defenders could tackle. On numerous plays we had Hart trapped and hit behind the line of scrimmage and failed to bring him down. Even when he wasn't hit in the backfield, Hart was gaining huge chunks of yards by running through the arms of Notre Dame "tacklers." The secondary was really tested for the first time today, and they weren't up to it for the most part. Freshman quarterback Ryan Mallet only threw the ball 15 times, but 3 of his 7 completions went for touchdowns over defenders who were in no position to make plays on the ball. I still think the defense will be okay once the pressure of playing every down in our own end of the field gets lifted off them.

The youngsters continued to make their presence felt. James Aldridge came in late and carried the ball 10 times for 51 yards. Golden Tate looked very good on kick return, with 5 returns totaling a gutty 133 yards. Freshman Brian Smith is making a move to overtake Anthony Vernaglia as starting outside linebacker. Vernaglia assisted on only one tackle today. Smith had one solo tackle, one assist, and caused a fumble.

I wish I had something clever to say. All I can think about is that Coach Weis and John Latina have been coaching Duncan and Turkovich and Sullivan for three years. They've had Young and Dan Wenger for two years. And none of them can block. Who do we blame for that?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Two Teams at the Crossroads


On Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor two of the most storied college football programs in history face off with a lot on the line. In years past this early season match up between the Michigan Wolverines and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish has almost always had National Championship implications. The winner would leave the game with a bump in the polls and their Championship dreams intact. The loser was left to pick up the pieces and revise their definition of "successful" for that season, still hoping to scrape together 10 wins and qualify for a BCS Bowl bid. This year is different. Neither of these teams is going to get a shot at a championship. Neither team is ranked in the polls. Neither of these teams has even won a football game, this being the first year EVER that both the Irish and Wolverines have started their seasons at 0-2.

Yet, this contest between two winless and heretofore hapless football teams is being played for very high stakes. Yes, the winner of the game will avoid going 0-3. They will garner some modest measure of pride and bragging rights for defeating their regional rival. But there is much more in play here for each team. These two teams are at a crossroads, and to be decided Saturday is which direction each team goes from here.

Michigan is in full crisis mode. Amid pre-season speculation that Coach Lloyd Carr might retire at the end of the season, the Wolverines were ranked in the Top 5 and expected to be in the hunt for a shot at the National Championship. With a veteran quarterback leading a potent offense, this was going to be their year. Then they stepped on the field and suffered one of the most embarrassing defeats in college football history at the hands of Division I-AA Appalachian State, followed by a whipping at the hands of the unranked Oregon Ducks, all in front of their home fans. There have been calls for Michigan to fire Coach Carr immediately, and many felt that the Michigan players quit playing hard midway through the game against Oregon. The question facing Michigan fans is: Has Coach Carr lost this team? If Michigan plays poorly and loses to winless Notre Dame, if the Boos rain down on the home team in the Big House, the calls for a coaching change in Ann Arbor may become too loud to ignore. The only question would be whether or not to change horses in mid-stream? In any event, a loss on Saturday probably sets the stage for a tumultuous coaching change at Michigan and would signal the transition to a new era of Wolverine football. How long would it take a new head coach to return the U of M football program to glory? Maybe Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis can answer that question. On the other hand, a Michigan win probably stops the bleeding for now. Wins over Notre Dame tend to make Michigan fans feel all warm and fuzzy inside for a while. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, they won't be able to celebrate for long, because Penn State visits Ann Arbor next week. If Michigan doesn't wake up and play the Irish with their traditional fire, their season and the future of the program could spin wildly out of control in a hurry.

Notre Dame is not at a crisis stage. Irish fans know the team is young and the early schedule is brutal. But Notre Dame nation is uneasy. While it was expected that the Irish would struggle to beat Georgia Tech or Penn State, it was also expected that we would at least compete against them. Our passing game figured to flounder a bit with a new quarterback, but we certainly would be able to run the ball well enough to keep us in games. Nope. The Notre Dame offense has been a no-show. The running game has been absolutely AWOL, and the passing game ineffectual. Fans wonder: What exactly have the offensive linemen been doing for the past eight months? Building houses with Habitat for Humanity? Volunteering as crossing guards at the local elementary school? Because so far we have seen no evidence that they have been busting their asses in the weight room, or studying film, or working on footwork and technique. It would be one thing if we could point to one phase of the game or the other and say "well, the run blocking is solid, but they need work on pass protection." But we can't. They have been deplorable in all phases of the game. Coach Weis' credentials as something of an offensive savant are being questioned. Haters in the media gleefully point out that the Washington Huskies are 2-0 and that Coach Willingham's record at Notre Dame was almost identical to Coach Weis' career record through the same number of games. The Fighting Irish need a shot of confidence, the type of confidence that can only come from victory on the field. It's been written that Coach Weis still lacks a "signature" win. Who would have guessed that the most important win of his tenure could come over a pathetic 0-2 Michigan team? But a win for the Irish tomorrow would be absolutely huge. It would be a signature win, because I believe it would signal that this team has turned the corner. It would signal a changing of the guard from the Willingham/Quinn era to the Weis/Clausen era. It would signal that the young guys Coach Weis has brought into the program really can play. Confidence is critical to a young team. Earned confidence can take potential and turn it into performance. A win tomorrow on the road against a team, 0-2 or not, that whipped the Irish last season at home would give Notre Dame a shot of confidence that would greatly accelerate the development of this team. There is no question that Coach Weis still has the confidence of his team, but a loss tomorrow would increase the criticism of Coach Weis in the press. It would increase the pressure on the players and the coaches. Doubt might start to creep in and the development of the team will continue to occur in baby steps rather than in great strides.

Two teams at the crossroads. So which path do they take?

It's crazy, but after getting our asses handed to us two weeks in a row, I am actually more optimistic about the Irish chances against the Wolverines than I was two weeks ago. Two weeks ago I thought Notre Dame was rebuilding and that Michigan was a great team. Today, the Irish are rebuilding and struggling mightily, but Michigan is an absolute mess. Here's how I see the match up:

At first glance, the game looks like one of strength-on-strength and weak-on-weak. It looks like the weak Irish offense versus the weak Michigan defense, and the credible Irish defense versus the decent Michigan offense. But when you break it down further it isn't that simple.

Notre Dame Offense versus Michigan Defense. Both these units have had horrible seasons to date, but they haven't been uniformly bad. UM has been slightly credible against the run, allowing 3.9 yards per rushing attempt against Appalachian State and 6.5 yards per rush against Oregon. Not great by any stretch. But their pass defense in both games was even worse. App. St. threw the ball for 227 yards (3 TD, 2 INT) against UM, but had an average of 9.9 yards per pass attempt and a whopping 13.4 yards per completion. Oregon had 292 passing yards (3 TD, 0 INT) with 11.3 yards per pass attempt and 17.2 yards per pass completion. Notre Dame has had "zero" net rushing yards through two games , but we have garnered 137 passing yards per game, with 5.1 yards per attempt and 8.6 yards per completion. The result is that our offensive weakness (running game) is matched up against UM's defensive strength (rushing defense), while our offensive strength (passing) is matched against UM's defensive soft spot (pass defense). The good news is that no matter how you slice it, Michigan's defense is nowhere near as effective or disruptive as those of Georgia Tech or Penn State. I expect to see Notre Dame move the ball better on offense this week, with more success in the passing game than the running game. Coach Weis will likely spread the field since that has been so effective against the Wolverines, and we could very well see Demetrius Jones at quarterback in spot duty running our West Virginia spread package, possibly in the red zone. Advantage: Irish.

Notre Dame Defense versus Michigan Offense. Playing on a short field most of the first two games with no support from the offense, the Notre Dame defense has actually played well. We have given up yardage in the running game, but have been pretty solid in pass defense. Our pass rush is improved over previous years, putting some pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Michigan's offense features running back Mike Hart running behind a big offensive line. Against Oregon Hart carried the ball 25 times for 127 net yards (5.1 yards per rush). The Irish should expect more of the same, and will probably yield similar numbers, hopefully limiting the big play. Michigan will trot out in his first start true freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett. Mallett entered the game last week when Chad Henne went down with an unspecified leg injury. The game had long been decided by then, but Mallett went 6 of 17 for 49 yards and 1 INT. Thus, the match up between these units figures to be ND's defensive weakness (rush defense) versus UM's offensive strength (rushing), and ND's defensive strength (pass defense) against UM's offensive weakness (passing with a freshman QB). If Henne were still at QB, I would favor the Wolverines in this match up, but I think Corwin Brown will make life very interesting for Ryan Mallett and thus neutralize Michigan's big receiving threats, Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Expect more bending but not breaking from the Notre Dame defense in the running game, and some big plays (sacks, interceptions) for the Irish in the passing game. Advantage: Irish.

Special Teams. Michigan is very proud of their punter, and he has been better (40 yards net average) than Notre Dame's Geoff Price (35.2 yards net average) this season. On average, Michigan has been better both covering and returning punts and kicks. We have one long punt return (Zibby for 47 yards) and Michigan has no big returns, while we have allowed two long returns (one punt, one kick). Michigan is 2 of 5 on field goal attempts, while Notre Dame is 2 of 3 (with the lone miss being a very long attempt). Because the Irish have shown some sloppiness on kick/punt coverage, Advantage: Michigan.

Coaching/Intangibles.
On the surface both teams look alike - two disappointing losses each. But Notre Dame's defeats have come at the hands of two ranked opponents, and the Irish played hard for 60 minutes and kept both games competitive into the second half, despite their offensive woes. Michigan, on the other hand, suffered inexplicable, shocking losses to what were considered to be inferior opponents, and there are questions about whether the team has quit on Coach Carr. These two teams are moving in different directions. Notre Dame's players believe they are about to turn the corner to a very bright future. The Wolverines are wondering if they have hit bottom yet. Add in the revenge factor from last year's defeat at the hands of the Wolverines, and you have Advantage: Irish.

Bottom Line.
I can't believe I'm typing this, but my own analysis compels me to conclude that Notre Dame wins this game. It will probably be an ugly game marred by turnovers and mediocre offenses. Games between these two teams are usually close, as 16 of 23 games played since the series resumed in 1978 have been decided by fewer than 10 points. Notre Dame wins by a touchdown, 24-17.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Stealing Signals is Cheating. Who Knew?


There has been an abundance of outrage over the airwaves and in print about the latest scandal to rock the National Football League. Are you ready for this? Are you sitting down?

It turns out that the New England Patriots may have been video-taping opposing coaches' hand signals to their defenses in an effort to "steal" those signals.

Shocking, I know.

Apparently there is an NFL rule which prohibits teams from video-taping an opponent's sideline, whether from their own sideline or from the coaches boxes atop the stadium. Fair enough - if the Patriots broke a league rule, they should be punished.

But I have a more basic question. When did "stealing" hand signals become cheating? I feel like I'm missing something important.

When I played football in high school we always had a scouting report on the other team. Some reports were better than others. Sometimes it was just basic offensive and defensive sets, their favorite plays, trick plays to watch for, and so forth. Sometimes the scouting report was more detailed, and would include strong tendencies in certain down-and-distance situations. Sometimes we knew that if the opponent lined up in a certain formation they were going to run either of two plays (they were that predictable). We might know that if they put number 89 in at TE, they were going to throw to him for sure. Once, we knew that our opponent's "hot color" for audibles was always "red," and that if they audibled using the hot color, what play they liked to audible to.

When we had really good scouting reports, we certainly played better. Were we cheating? Is knowing an opponent's tendencies or habits cheating?

It used to be that players on the field called the plays. The quarterback called the offensive plays in the huddle. The offense always huddled five yards off the ball so the defense couldn't hear. What if the defense did hear? Was that cheating? Or was that being careless calling your plays? Eventually coaches decided they wanted to call plays instead of the QB, so they would send a player to the huddle with the play from the sideline. But that takes time, and restricts your flexibility with personnel. So they turned to signals.

I'm going to pose a series of hypothetical scenarios, and you tell me when the cheating occurs:

  1. The coach yells from his sideline to his defense on the field "Two deep zone, blitz the strong side!" The offensive players hear the shouting and change their play.
  2. The coach yells the same thing from the sideline to his defense on the field, but does so in Spanish instead of English. The wide receiver on that side of the offensive formation understands Spanish and tells the QB what's going on, so he calls an audible.
  3. The coach has a white board and he writes on it in big letters "Two Deep Zone, blitz the strong side" and holds it over his head so his players on the field can read it. The opposing coach standing on his own sideline reads the white board and calls his play accordingly.
  4. Same scenario as 3, but the coach writes on the board "2D, BS." The opposing coach cracks the code and figures out that "2D" is two deep and "BS" is blitz strong, and makes his play call accordingly.
  5. Same scenario as 4, except the coach writes on the board "Bronco, Kangaroo." The opposing coach doesn't crack the code during the game, but other coaches scouting the game from the stands are taking notes of the white board messages and the corresponding defenses being run. The following week that coach prepares his team to play based upon what he has learned about his opponent's code system.
  6. Same scenario as 5, except that instead of a white board and code words, the coach signals his team with a series of odd hand signals. Scouts in the stands take note of the signals and later, while watching game film, are able to figure out that when the opposing coach uses a slashing "Z" signal, the team runs an all-out blitz.
  7. Same scenario as 6, except instead of the scouts just taking notes, they actually have a mini-cam with them and record the signals for use later when studying the game film.
Apparently, the NFL has decided that scenario 7 is illegal under league rules. In my mind though, scenario 7 is not substantively different than the other scenarios. It's more sophisticated, but not substantively different. If a team is using a means of communicating play calls to its players that can be readily seen or heard by the opponent on the field or on the opposing sideline, then the opponent is entitled to try to break the code. It's up to the team using codes or signals to find a system that is secure. Like letting the linebacker call the play in the huddle. Or shuttling in the plays. Or using a wrist band with numbers that change every week (or even every half).

Now, it's different if a team has installed a wiretap on the headsets used by opposing coaches. Or if they're using sophisticated eavesdropping equipment to overhear conversations on an opponent's bench. Or if they have a stolen copy of the other team's playbook, including that week's hand signals appendix. That's cheating.

The use of hand signals is an attempt to gain a competitive edge. It allows the defensive play to be called from the sideline by a coach, rather than by a less knowledgeable player, after seeing what personnel group the offense is deploying and without the need to substitute personnel. But if a team is sending hand signals that everyone in the stadium can see, the opponent is entitled to try to figure out the hand signal code in an effort to offset that competitive edge.

At least that's how I see it. To me, it just seems obvious. Which explains my confusion about the current "scandal" and the accompanying outrage. Of course, most media "outrage" is faked, but am I missing something here?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Let's Get Physical

I think we can all agree on a few things.

1. The Irish offense has been woefully unproductive.
2. The offensive line is the primary source of that woe.
3. Our inability to establish any kind of running game is certainly among our root problems.

There's a lot to fix on offense, but you have to start somewhere. I would start by establishing a 4-yards and a cloud of dust running game. At his point, why not put our biggest bodies out there and see if we can't create a push that can can consistently get us four yards?

We're not using John Carlson as a receiver right now, so put him on the bench. I propose that the Irish install an unbalanced line package that replaces the tight end with an extra guard. I nominate Chris Stewart to be that 6th man in the trenches.

On first down we break the huddle and line up like this:

T-G-C-G-G-T

The left side stays the same, but we squeeze Stewart in between Dan Wenger and Sam Young, bumping Young out to the position formerly occupied by the TE. Put Asaph Schwapp at FB and either James Aldridge or Robert Hughes at TB.

Then we run right at the defense, with good "tempo", behind Sully, Wenger, Stewart, and Young. We go no huddle and do it again on second down. If we get a first down, we keep doing it until the defense starts respecting the run game, possibly mixing in a deep shot to Golden Tate or Duval Kamara or D.J. Hord.

If we end up in a manageable third-down situation we can bring in our "normal" personnel groups and run our "normal" offense.

This seems extreme, and heaven forbid I give Coach Weis advice on game plans. But the point is that we need to establish SOMETHING positive on first down and force the defense to react to us. The offense's inability to get going is largely due to the fact that we're getting almost nothing on first down, ultimately leaving a young, inexperienced offense in numerous 3rd-and-long situations, against very good, aggressive defenses. In my view, there is nothing better to establish on first down than the ability to run the ball down an opponent's throat whenever we choose to. If we have to get a little gimmicky by bringing in the big man, so be it.


There is no "panic" at Notre Dame

Dear Ralph,

I just read your piece entitled "Panic Sets in at Michigan and Notre Dame" at SI.com. While the column certainly has a catchy headline, your premise is just plain wrong.

Is there panic at Michigan? Yes. They were a Top 5 pre-season pick (even the Associated Press thought so!) and suffered an historically humiliating defeat to a Div-IAA opponent. They followed that with a whipping at the hands of an unranked team from the "soft" Pac-10. Their QB got hurt and their star running back is limping as well. Fans are calling for Lloyd Carr's head. There is indeed panic in Ann Arbor.

Is there "panic" in South Bend? No. For all the reasons you cite in your article, Irish fans knew that this would be a "rebuilding" year even if Coach Weis won't speak that word. We expected an improved defense under new defensive coordinator Corwin Brown. But we knew that we had to build a new offense from scratch, and that talent and experience in the offensive line was a real question. Certainly we were all hoping it wouldn't be this bad, but nothing that has happened is inducing panic. Puzzlement, concern, disappointment of course. But not panic.

The difference is that Notre Dame fans can see a light at the end of the tunnel. We know that this year may be rocky, but we have the coach we need, we have the young talent coming into the program. We know we are heading in the right direction.

Michigan fans know no such thing. The team they expected to challenge for a Big-10 Championship (if not more) is falling apart in front of their eyes and nobody saw it coming. Nobody warned them that the girders holding up their vaunted program were rusty and corroding. Nobody told them that Coach Carr has been getting his ass handed to him on the recruiting trail for the past few years. Nobody told them that Henne & Hart were no more than decent Big-10 players, and that the "talent" on the defensive side of the ball is no longer even that good. All this unexpected and disastrous bad news has set off a panic at UM. Coach Carr will lose his job and a new man will be brought in to pick up the pieces. Unfortunately for Wolverine fans, it's going to take a while to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, as Notre Dame fans know all too well.

So, Ralph, you're wrong to project Michigan's panic onto the Notre Dame Nation. We'll be fine. We'll take our lumps, but we have confidence that we'll emerge from our current trials a better program. Will we beat the Wolverines next week? Right now, I put our chances at 50-50, which is more optimistic than I was two weeks ago. Will we beat the Wolverines next year? And the year after that? And the year after that? I like our chances.

Sincerely,

OC Domer

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Jimmy Clausen Has a Bright Future (If he lives to see it)


Boy, losing gets old in a hurry. What can we take from Notre Dame's 31-10 loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions in Happy Valley? Here are my thoughts following the game, in no particular order.

Jimmy Clausen is the real deal. He is amazingly poised for a young quarterback. He had command of the offense, can make all the throws, and generally makes very good decisions. His future at Notre Dame (and beyond) looks very bright, provided he lives to see it. But he still has a learning curve to climb. Some of the six sacks he suffered (for minus 50 yards) were his fault because he held onto the ball too long. A sack is better than an INT, but he has to be quicker to throw the ball away. We had a couple of delay of game penalties that the QB has to avoid. His numbers for the game were 17 of 32 for 144 yards and 1 INT. He missed on some throws, but he also was robbed of a TD pass when Irish receivers dropped two passes in a row in the end zone late in the game. It will be fun to see what he can do when Coach Weis opens the playbook for him. The play calling today was ultra conservative, relying on quick, horizontal throws toward the sidelines. Unfortunately, nobody was breaking any tackles or making guys miss, so all those plays were for very short yardage or even negative yardage. In short, we'll be fine at QB if we can get our other problems fixed.

The offensive line had another poor game, although I thought they played a slightly better game physically than last week. When they were blocking the right guys, they weren't getting physically beat as badly as last week. Mentally I thought it was another dreadful performance overall, despite more plays than last week where they gave an appearance of actually having a clue about what they were doing. Penn State brought a lot of pressure, but not as much as did Georgia Tech. Yet, there were far too any instances of PSU defenders running free into the backfield. Added to last week's woes this week were way too many penalties committed by the offensive line. False starts and holding penalties killed off drives when we were moving the ball, or killed them off before they even started. Against Georgia Tech I felt the guards were the biggest problem. Today it was clearly our tackles. Sam Young had numerous egregious mental errors, and left tackle Paul Duncan was just plain getting beat by the outside rushers. The running game never got going. Running backs were greeted by defenders well before getting back to the line of scrimmage. Much of my pre-season expectations revolved around our young but talented offensive line being able to at least drive block to establish a power running game. So far the power running game is completely AWOL. Call me old fashioned, but I really think you ought to be able to run over your opponent when the occasion calls for it. I never really though I'd miss Darius Walker, but I do.

Travis Thomas was a liability today. He ran the ball six times for 12 yards, and got flagged for a 15-yard personal foul when he was beating up a helmetless PSU player laying on the ground after a punt play. What the hell was up with that TT? That display by TT looked much worse than the personal foul Justin Brown was ejected for last week, and I can only assume the referee didn't see the whole thing or Thomas would have been tossed. Thomas lost his starting RB role to Armando Allen this week. Thomas has not looked good carrying the ball, and he just lacks the speed to reach the corner. He looks like a linebacker playing RB.

Where's Waldo? Better yet, where's Aldridge? We desperately needed to establish a power running game today, yet I only saw James Aldridge line up at RB on one play (when he fumbled). Did Coach Weis bench him because of the fumble? Or was something else going on?

Golden Tate is going to be a star. He flashed his speed when he got juked running down on kick coverage, then turned and ran down PSU's speedy A.J. Wallace 68 yards later at the 27 yard line, saving a touchdown. He showed great hands and tremendous play making ability when he out-maneuvered a PSU defender to catch Clausen's longest pass of the day, even though the completion was negated by a penalty.

Duval Kamara is going to be great, but he is still raw. Kamara had some chances today to make plays, but couldn't hold onto the ball. One chance was a perfectly thrown jump ball in the back of the end zone that clanked off his hands and cost ND a late TD.

David Grimes is a solid receiver, but I'm not yet convinced he's a solid #1 receiver. I expect Parris (or Kamara or Tate) to establish themselves as the true #1 guy soon.

Zibby looks good on the punt returns, when he actually returns them. He is fair catching much more often this year, and I wonder why? Is Coach Weis trying to avoid injuring him? Is he trying to avoid a costly turnover deep in our own end of the field?

Junior Jabbie got a little more time at RB today. He seems to the designated QB protector on obvious passing downs, but also looked good on his one carry for 5 yards.

Our defense is good enough to win games, if the offense carries it's fair share of the load. Unlike the O-line, the defense does not have a "tempo" problem. They came out playing with very high energy, and put Notre Dame ahead early with a fantastic interception return for a touchdown. I was impressed with how quickly and how well all the defenders turned into blockers after Walls pulled down the interception. That was a good indicator of solid coaching by Corwin Brown and his assistants. Here are the numbers on Penn State's offensive drives:

First Half

  • 4 plays, 11 yards (Walls INT)
  • 2 plays, 13 yards (fumble recovered by Brockington)
  • 6 plays, 0 yards (punt)
  • 9 plays, 22 yards (punt)
  • 6 plays, 51 yards (PSU TD)
  • 6 plays, 5 yards (punt)
  • 1 play, 7 yards (fumble recovered by Laws)
Second Half
  • 4 plays, 7 yards (PSU Field Goal)
  • 3 plays, minus 9 yards (punt with Zibby's 47 yard return)
  • 7 plays, 65 yards (PSU TD. Drive included 51 yard pass completion)
  • 4 plays, 11 yards (punt)
  • 10 plays, 62 yards (PSU TD)
  • 3 plays, 4 yards (punt)
  • 4 plays, 38 yards (end of game)
Despite playing on a very short field, the defense gave up only one sustained drive in the first half. The remaining PSU possessions ended in three punts, two lost fumbles, and an INT. That is very good defensive play by any measure. The defense started the second half playing well, before giving up the one big play they allowed, a 51 yard pass down the seam that was misplayed by Bruton. Eventually the defense just got tired, and PSU iced the game by running the ball down our throats on a 10-play, 62 yard TD drive. We could still use some depth in the D-line, but I consider the defensive woes of recent years to be largely solved. Right now it's the offense that is killing us.

Were those Big Televen officials? I didn't hear during the broadcast where the officiating crew was from, but they were not helping matters, especially in the first half. Certainly Notre Dame earned the penalties we were flagged for. But did PSU really not commit ANY penalties the whole first half? In particular, I saw several blatant holds that should have been called against the Lions in the first half, but weren't. Late in the first half, with the Irish trailing by a touchdown, Penn State snapped the ball with 22 seconds remaining. Morelli ran for 7 yards then fumbled. Trevor Laws recovered and the Irish had the ball with just 9 seconds remaining. The officials reviewed the play to confirm that Morelli fumbled, but they didn't correct the clock to reflect the time remaining when Laws fell on the ball. The clock should have been stopped as soon as Trevor covered the fumble and the ball changed possession. But it ran for several seconds before the officials realized that Penn State had turned the ball over. It's not a huge deal, but a few more seconds might have given us another play or two to try for a TD or get into position for field goal attempt. I did feel that the game was called more evenly in the second half.

John Carlson has not been enough of a factor in the Irish offense. I suspect it's because he's been held in to help with pass protection since our running backs have not proved able to pick up the blitzers.

Kicking game has been fairly solid. Kick-offs have been acceptable, though not stellar. Place-kicking has been good from short range. Punts have been good. Price didn't have any shanks, and uncorked a couple of long ones. Coverage in the kick & punt game gets an "F" today. Punt team gave up a TD return. Kicking team gave up a 68 yard return.

Anthony Morelli is going to break the hearts of Penn State fans this year. He was only 12 of 22 for 131 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. For those keeping score at home, that's fewer completions, for fewer yards, for a lower completion percentage than some kid named Clausen had today. Morelli looks good when he has all day to throw and wide open receivers. But he was awful under the modest pressure the Irish were able to put on him, and he's going to cost PSU some games with his poor decision making.

Final thoughts. Although the game got away from the Irish in the second half as Penn State's running game wore down our tired defense, I am very optimistic about our new defense under Corwin Brown. They are giving up some yards in the power running game, but they pursue well, get decent pressure on the passer, and have been good in coverage. Like everyone else who has seen them play I am somewhat astonished by our offense, and not in a good way. I think the line made some progress on their "tempo" problem this week, but still have a lot of work to do. When and if the O-line starts to gel, I think we have a quarterback and enough play makers to enable the offense to hold up it's end of the bargain and help the Irish win some games. I only hope that the "gel" thing happens before we're 0-8. The good news is that the Michigan Wolverines are at least as befuddled as we are right now at 0-2 and we actually have chance to go into the Big House and win a game, which I didn't expect was possible two weeks ago.