Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What's In a (Blue-Gold) Game? (2008 Edition)

The 79th Annual Blue-Gold Game will be played this Saturday afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium. Of course, the scrimmage is now part of the "2008 Blue-Gold Spring Football Festival, presented by Home Run Inn Pizza." Coach Weis has named six big-time heroes from Notre Dame's storied past to be the Honorary Coaches for this year's contest. He has also modified the format of the game a bit (offense versus defense with funky scoring), probably due to depth issues (such as at QB and TE).

However it's played, the Blue-Gold Game is always a highlight of the Spring for Irish football fans, as we've been in serious withdrawal from our steady diet of football since at least the Super Bowl, or perhaps even since the Stanford game for those who just can't get a good buzz from the NFL (the "Methadone" of the hardcore college football fan). It's also the way those serious fans finally get release from the tension that has been building up for several weeks. We know that football is going on. We've been teased and scintillated by video clips of guys running over bags, and receivers catching balls in drills, and coaches cussing at the linebackers - but we haven't been allowed even a glimpse of "our guys" playing real football, full speed, on real grass, and under the bright sunshine of a Notre Dame afternoon. The anticipation is part of the fun, but after a while it's almost too much to bear. This Saturday we'll all be able to satisfy our hunger, relax, and breathe easier. At least for a while.

If that last paragraph feels a little creepy, I think it's because I've been distracted by the whole Marilyn Monroe sex tape thing. Do you think it was really JFK?

But I digress. Every Spring, there are two categories of questions swirling around the Blue-Gold Game. The first category of questions are the "what will we see?" type question. Last year those questions dwelt on the four-horse quarterback derby (including Jimmy Clausen's arm) and on Corwin Brown's new defensive scheme. This year, we aren't expecting a lot of surprises from a depth chart perspective, many of the young players played a lot of football last year and we (or at least "I") don't expect to see a lot of "new" faces in the lineups. But that doesn't mean we don't have questions.

  • How does Jimmy's arm look? Is it finally 100%?
  • Have the young receivers (Kamara, Tate) matured enough in the offense to take the passing game to the next level?
  • Who's going to be "the guy" at RB? Can Armando Allen run through some contact and rip off some big yards?
  • How different will the defense look with the addition of Coach Tenuta to the defensive staff?
  • Do we have enough big bodies to fill out the D-line? Will the D-line be able to stop the run at all?
  • Can anybody in St. Joseph's County kick a f*&%ing field goal? A touchback?
  • And, the number one question of the Spring: Can the offensive line get the job done?
So we'll watch the game and get some tentative answers to the "what will we see?" questions. But it's the second category of question that is the most compelling: "What does it all mean?" It's tempting to say that "it's just a practice" and that you can't really put much stock in what comes out of this somewhat artificially staged scrimmage. Last year I did some digging to try to see if there was any correlation between what happens in the Blue-Gold game and what we see in the Fall. I was able to find some data back to the 1998 B-G contest, which I've included here, updated to reflect the results from 2007.
  • 2007. Gold defeated Blue, 10-6. Offensive Player of the Game, Junior Jabbie (13 rushes for 87 net yards, 0 TDs). Defensive Player of the Game, David Bruton (4 total tackles and 35-yard INT return for a TD).
  • 2006. Blue defeats Gold, 10-7 on a Carl Goia field goal. Offensive MVP was Travis Thomas (8 rushes for 104 and a TD). Defensive MVP was Trevor Laws (6 tackles, including 2 sacks).
  • 2005. Blue defeats Gold, 28-6. Offensive MVP Brady Quinn (8 of 12 passing for 102 yards, 2 TDs). Defensive MVP Trevor Laws (1 sack and 3 total tackles for loss).
  • 2004. Blue defeats Gold 35-7. Offensive MVP Brady Quinn (17 of 22, 263 yards, 1 TD). Defensive MVP Tom Zbikowski (1 INT).
  • 2003. Blue defeats Gold 17-14. Offensive MVP quarterback Chris Olsen (11 of 25, 146 yards). Defensive MVP Justin Tuck (3 sacks).
  • 2002. Gold defeats Blue 3-0 on Nick Setta field goal. Offensive MVP Ryan Grant (7 carries for 45 yards). Defensive MVP Gerome Sapp (5 tackles, 1 INT).
  • 2001. "Defense" defeats "Offense" 74-40. Is nothing sacred? Offensive MVP David Givens (2 TD catches). Defensive MVP Shane Walton (INT return for TD).
  • 2000. "Defense" defeats "Offense" 39-31. Offensive MVP Jabari Holloway (4 receptions). Defensive MVP Anthony Denman (39 yd INT return for TD).
  • 1999. Blue defeats Gold, 49-10. Offensive MVP Jarious Jackson (5 of 6 for 73 yards and a TD). Defensive MVP Anthony Denman (6 tackles, 1 INT).
  • 1998. Blue defeats Gold, 38-7. Offensive MVP Autry Denson (11 carries for 109 yards). Defensive MVP Kory Minor (5 tackles including 1 sack).
Based upon my review last year, I concluded:
Well, to me it looks like what you see is what you get. If a player has a big Blue-Gold game, he's a pretty decent player and he's likely to have a pretty good Fall season. If the offense is prodigious in the Spring, you'll probably be able to move the ball in the Fall. If the defense dominates the Blue-Gold, the defense will likely be the better unit come September. So, while you're tempted to say that the Blue-Gold is fairly meaningless, I would have to disagree. Looking back a few years tells me that teams don't change drastically over the summer. Warning signs in April are serious weaknesses in October. Strengths now will likely be the team identity in five months.
Well, that's what I said before the 2007 Glue-Gold. Did it hold up? Here was my recap of the action in last year's contest:
So, after last Saturday, a day on which the weather did cooperate, what do we have? We have a quarterback derby that is still very much in the air. Before the game, Zach Frazer was pretty vocal about being #1 in the race, at least in his own mind. Then he went 0 for 4 with a pick. Demetrius Jones was only 3 of 6 with an INT, but also threw the only TD pass of the day, and had a very nice 31 yard run in a key spot. Evan Sharpley was 5 for 7 for only 31 yards, and got "sacked" 4 times. Wonderkid Jimmy Clausen was 3 of 7 for 23 yards. As a group, the four quarterbacks were 11 of 24 attempts for a whopping 77 yards, 1 TD and 2 INTs. You'd have to say nobody set Rock's House on fire from the quarterback spot.

On the ground, contrasted with just 24 passing plays (by the QBs), the Blue & Gold squads ran the ball 44 times for a net 211 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per rush (excluding QB runs and sacks). The combined squads had 12 first downs via the ground, only 2 converted through the air. The offensive surprise of the day was Junior Jabbie, who had more than twice as many yards as any other rusher (net 87 yards on 13 carries). Travis Thomas, James Aldridge, Asaph Schwapp, and Armando Allen were all within spitting distance of 30 yards gained and 4.0 per carry.

All offense taken together averaged just 3.2 yards per play. (3.0 for the Gold, 3.5 for the Blue).

The defenses, aside from holding the offense to just 3.2 yards per play, had 2 interceptions (one returned for a TD), 9 two-handed "sacks", and 8 other tackles for loss. Longest pass completion was just 15 yards.

The offensive MVP was an unknown running back (Jabbie), not a QB or receiver. The defensive MVP was a defensive back (Bruton), which is a good sign.
Last year we saw quarterbacks go a combined 11 of 24 for 77 yards, 1 TD (reportedly on a shaky throw by Demetrius Jones), and 2 INTs. We also saw the QBs get "sacked" a total of 9 times with 8 other plays going for a loss. I think it is fair to say that we should not have been surprised when our passing game was anemic to start the Fall campaign and when our O-line couldn't pass protect at all. The clues were there. In retrospect, it also wasn't a great sign when our #1, #2, and #3 running backs (Thomas, Aldridge, and Allen) were all significantly outgained by the guy who would end last season 5th on the depth chart. It probably was also a clue that Coach Weis dialed up a total of 44 running plays to just 24 passes, and that the teams combined for just two first downs through the air (versus 12 on he ground). At the time there was much conjecture that Coach Weis was playing his cards close to his vest, calling a very vanilla game plan so as to give nothing away to opposing scouts. The truth was that our passing game (including Clausen's elbow) was not ready for prime time and what we saw in the Spring was what we got in the Fall.

Of course, Defensive MVP David Bruton did go on to have a great season, capped off by being named the OC Domer Player of the Year.

Spring practice wraps up on Saturday. Kick-off against San Diego State follows 140 days later. There will be a lot of weight lifting and conditioning over those 140 days, but precious few real practices. Some new talent will be infused, but likely won't be a big factor in September. The team we see for the 2008 Blue-Gold Spring Football Festival, presented by Home Run Inn Pizza, is the team we'll see on September 6th. Let's hope they look sharp.

In particular, I'll be looking for much improved blocking (especially pass protection) from the O-line, and I really hope to see Brady Quinn-like numbers from Clausen (65% to 75% completion percentage for 200+ yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs). If Clausen doesn't have time to throw, and if he can't push the ball down the field, I'll be very, very concerned.

So, just try to have fun out there guys!


hulk said...

That is about as good a preview of a spring game as I could ever expect to see.

OC Domer said...

Thanks Hulk! You're clearly both a gentleman and a scholar!

Pops said...

nice post OC - lets hope we can score some cooperative weather again this year

Sir John from DD said...

Gopod posty OC. Nice to have your opinion again.