Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Irish Blogger Gathering: The Rivalry Edition

Subway Domer had an idea that a few of us Notre Dame bloggers might start a regular feature where we each tackle a list of five questions in our own unique styles and throw the results out there to hopefully stimulate some discussion among the Notre Dame fanatics. Plus, it's a great way to generate content for our blogs!

Since it was his idea, Subway got first shot at making up the questions, but that privilege will rotate amongst the group week-to-week. This week's questions are all about rivalries. Here's my take. (Questions cut & pasted verbatim from Subway's blog):

1. This is Notre Dame. Notre Dame is the game circled on just about every opposing teams schedule. They hate us and want to destroy us. So, it is safe to say that if ND plays a team every year, that game will become a big game for ND and an even bigger game for the opponent. So, pick any team that ND does not currently play and make that team a rival and create a rivalry trophy to go along with your rival of choice.

Subway Domer went with Penn State on this one, and it's not a bad choice. When I was a student at Notre Dame, the Penn State games were easily among the best games I saw. But ultimately Penn State doesn't work for me because they screwed up and joined the Big Televen. Notre Dame's schedule is already crammed full of Big Televen teams, so we don't need another team from that conference. I also think if we're going to create a big-time rivalry we need to go outside of the midwest. We play lots of teams from the midwest, we play several teams from the west coast. There are no worthy rivalry opponents in the east that we don't already play. We play Boston College, and that works as an okay rivalry.

But we don't have it going on in the South. We need to establish a big time rivalry with a worthy program from south of the Mason-Dixon line. We need to give our fans in that region a little love, and we need to increase our exposure there to help with recruiting. And we ultimately need to beat some teams from down there to put an end to all the talk about how Notre Dame doesn't have the speed to compete with teams from the South.

I rule out all the Florida schools. I hate 'em all, I don't want to lend any legitimacy to their programs by appearing on their schedules. Academically they are a collective embarrassment. They're all newcomers to Big Time football compared to Notre Dame, and I don't want to go to Florida to see the Irish play. So Florida, Florida State, Miami are all out.

I quickly narowed it down to two schools, each rich in football tradition and each with some history playing Notre Dame: Alabama and Texas.

Alabma has played the Irish six times (the first two times were the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl games following the 1973 and 1974 seasons, both games won by the Irish). The Irish are 5-1 against the Tide, the only loss in 1986 when an unranked Lou Holtz team lost to #2 ranked 'Bama in Birmingham. If you run into a 'Bama fan in a bar and he starts getting all fired up about the Crimson Tide and Bear Bryant being the greatest coach ever, blah, blah, blah, be sure and ask him how the Bear did against Notre Dame in his career. (He was 0-fer). So the Tide have a lot going for them.

But in the end I chose the Texas Longhorns. Texas' football pedigree is beyond question, and they are also a very strong school academically. Notre Dame has played the Longhorns ten times starting all the way back in 1913, winning 8 of them. Three of those games include the Cotton Bowl games following the 1969, 1970, and 1977 seasons (ND lost the first of those three, won the other two). Notre Dame has a lot of alumni in Texas who would love to come see the Irish play, and Texas is a great region for ND to try to pry loose some quality recruits, like Heisman trophy winner Tim Brown who came to Notre Dame from Dallas, I believe. But the icing on the cake of this rivalry is that Austin, Texas is perennially rated one of the top college towns in America. Unlike any city you can name in Alabama, I would actually love to go to Austin for a weekend to see the Irish play UT. The campus is supposed to be fantastic, and downtown Austin is renowned for terrific food and music. Bring on the Longhorns!

What would the rivalry trophy look like? Man, I hated art projects in school. Let's go with a shillelagh like the Leprechaun carries around, with a set of steer horns mounted on the top. The winner each year paints the horns orange or blue & gold. Or you could have this for your trophy:

2. What current rival of ND (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Boston College, Stanford, Southern California- all trophy games) would you take off of the schedule and never play again?

Michigan State. Drop 'em right now. They annoy me. We already play the premiere football team in Michigan, why do we need to play the runner up as well? What, exactly do they bring to the table? If we win, nobody gives a damn because it's just Sparty. If we lose, it's a big aggravated upset headache and we get a green flag planted on our field. There's no upside to playing these guys. Plus, MSU is a lousy road trip to a bad stadium on a mediocre campus. The other possibility was Purdue, but they are less annoying than Sparty, and we really should play the in-state rival, even if it's not very exciting.

Subway wants to drop Stanford. But Stanford is an elite academic institution that takes the concept of the student-athlete seriously. We should encourage schools that share that philosophy, and the best way to encourage them is to put them on our schedule and therefore on TV and get them a big payday. Plus, it pits the Irish against another Pac-10 opponent instead of another Big Televen team, and it get the Irish out to the west coast in odd-numbered years so I can go see them play. Tickets to Stanford games are easy to get, and we can't play Michigan, USC and Texas every week.

3. What entertainment rival (whether it be TV, movies, or celebrity) would you compare to ND and one of its current rivals?

Clearly Notre Dame is Bugs Bunny to Boston College's Daffy Duck. An interesting article about the Bugs/Daffy phenomenon in politics can be found here.

List your top 5 historical college football rivalries. After that, list your top 5 college football rivalries as of 2008.

Man, I gotta make a list? Two lists? Alright. Top 5 Historical college football rivalries:

  1. Army vs. Navy (How come it's never Navy vs. Army?)
  2. Auburn vs. Alabama (If you haven't ever visited Alabama, I can't explain it to you).
  3. Texas vs. Texas A & M (The Bonfire and the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas tradition)(I know it's just a movie)
  4. Notre Dame vs. USC
  5. Caltech vs. MIT (I know they don't play each other in football, but some of the greatest pranks of all time involved these two schools and college football games. Look it up.).
Top 5 college football rivalries as of 2008:
  1. Michigan vs. Ohio State
  2. Oklahoma vs. Texas
  3. Auburn vs. Alabama
  4. Notre Dame vs. USC
  5. Florida vs. Florida State

5. There are a lot of rivalry games out there. What is a great rivalry game that may not be as well known as the ones in your top 5 and explain why it so fantastic.

The game that gets overlooked every year is the "Battle of the Land Grants" between the Michigan State Spartans and the Nittany Lions of Penn State. This game has been played every year in an unbroken string going all the way back in 1993. These two proud land grant universities play for the venerable Land Grant Trophy, which was personally designed by former Michigan State head football coach George Perles. No, really. For a nice article mercilessly mocking this great rivalry and the trophy that goes with it, click here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Pummel Purdue!

Purdue. Harumph. I have to admit, as a die-hard Notre Dame fanatic I have trouble mustering a lot of emotion for the Purdue Boilermakers. Traditionally being Notre Dame's third Big Televen opponent each season, they tend to get short shrift, passion wise. Michigan is first, and the passion, the intensity, the gravitas of those games is palpable. Michigan State is second, and the disdain and disrespect and active dislike is manifest. Purdue is third. Yawn. Despite the historic nature of the series between these two teams, nobody (at least nobody on the Notre Dame side) cares that much about it. As an "in state rivalry" it's pretty tame. The series has been lopsided (Notre Dame is 51-26-2 in the previous 79 games against PU), and the game rarely matches two highly ranked opponents. It's almost always the scrappy underdog Purdue Pete trying to derail the lofty ambitions of the favored Fighting Irish. Coupled with Big Televen fatigue, this game often feels like playing basketball in the driveway against your younger brother. You play to win, and if you're paying attention and focus a little bit you almost always do win. But every once in a while you get lazy and he beats you, which means a lot more to him than it does to you. Good for you little fella - nice game.

One of my favorite posts from last season was the Purdue preview post. It was a fun and lightly informative look at the match ups between the Purdue Band (and its auxiliaries) and the band, cheerleaders and mascots of the Fighting Irish. I won't repeat it here, but I encourage you to check it out if you're looking for a little diversion. (Interesting side note on last year's Purdue preview post. It is one of the most frequent OC Domer posts to get direct hits from the google search engine. The search term that brings 'em in is "twirlers" or some variants thereon, and the hits come from Muslim countries all around the world. I often chuckle because I doubt that they get what they're looking for when they get a look at the Golden Girl, the Girl in Black, and the Silver Twins.)

The Purdue game was a significant turning point in the 2007 season. As I wrote after the game:

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.
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."
And of course the progress continued the following week as the Irish flew out to the Rose Bowl and got their first win of the season against the UCLA Bruins.

This year's game in Notre Dame Stadium features two very closely matched teams. Each team is 2-1. The betting line has the Irish favored by a mere one point (usually the home field advantage is worth about three points on the betting line, which means that if this game were being played in West Lafayette or on a neutral field Purdue would likely be favored). The Jeff Sagarin rankings (which are beginning to produce some mildly interesting data three or four games into the season) has Purdue ranked #57 and Notre Dame ranked #58, although Sagarin has Notre Dame's schedule ranked #42 in toughness compared to Purdue's #122.

The Purdue offense has been modestly more successful than the Irish "O", particularly in the running game where the Boilers have been "mediocre" compared to ND's "pathetic". While Purdue is averaging a few more passing yards per game, the yards-per-attempt and yards-per-completion for these two teams are almost identical.

The defenses have had similar statistics year-to-date, with the edge to Purdue, but I believe that edge is more than offset by the fact that Notre Dame has played two games against BCS-conference opponents, while PU has played two games against non-BCS teams (Northern Colorado and Central Michigan).

Given the apparent parity between these two teams coming into the game, it will be decided by the factors that normally decide close games: Field position, turnovers, and special teams. Notre Dame has generally been performing much better in all those categories this season, and if that trend continues the Irish should win this game. While I would love to see Notre Dame pound Purdue with the running game, I am not holding my breath for it. The Irish couldn't run the ball against the Boilers last year, and they couldn't run it last week against MSU. What the Irish do seem to be able to do is throw the ball, and that's what I expect to see on Saturday.

In addition to the normal OC Domer obsession with winning the field position battle I want to add a couple points of emphasis for this week: First, no turnovers in the Red Zone. Second, convert at least 66% of our field goal attempts, including all attempts inside 40 yards.

I'm trying to find a way to articulate how important this game is for the Irish. But really, they're all critically important. A win tomorrow equals the win total for all of 2007, puts the Irish at 3-1 and constitutes another big stride back towards respectability. A loss, even a close loss, puts the Irish at 2-2 and leaves them mired in mediocrity for at least another week. The importance of this game is to show significant improvement since last year and to begin to re-establish the habit of winning at Notre Dame. Before we can return to the national stage and play in truly big games, we have to develop the habit of winning. We have to routinely win the games we're supposed to win. The Irish failed that test last week. They get another crack at it against Purdue.

Go Irish! Pummel Purdue!

Let's put Sparty and his weird hat to bed

Did anyone else notice that Sparty was wearing some sort of flamenco dancer outfit last Saturday? Am I the only one who was disturbed by this? I'd put a picture up if I had one, but fortunately for all of you, I haven't been able to find one on the web.

My performance on last week's predictions was a mixed bag. My analysis of the match-up between the MSU offense and the Irish defense was pretty accurate, but my expectation that Notre Dame would be able to control the game with its rushing attack was woefully off the mark. I was right however about my key to the game:

[T]he key to the game will be taking care of the football, and winning the field position game. Crucial to that battle will be the ability of the Notre Dame offense to consistently move the chains and keep possession of the ball. I don't expect Sparty to turn the ball over six times. For the Irish to score, we'll need to sustain drives and finish them when we get the chance. If we have a bunch of 3-and-outs tomorrow, or if we're kicking field goals in the red zone instead of PATs, we're in trouble.
So how did the Irish do with respect to the above goals? We lost the turnover battle, throwing two interceptions and losing one fumble, versus MSU's single lost fumble. And we were awful at sustaining and finishing drives. While Sparty was a very impressive 4 for 4 in the Red Zone (two touchdowns and two field goals), the Irish were 0 for 2.

Notre Dame had 12 offensive possessions. Here were the results of Notre Dame's best four drives (in diminishing order of success):
  • 75 yards on 8 plays: Touchdown. (Whoo-hoo!)
  • 57 yards on 10 plays: Missed FG attempt.
  • 56 yards on 6 plays: INT.
  • 51 yards on 7 plays: Fumble.
The other Irish drives when we weren't having the above "success" went as follows:
  • 3 plays for minus-8 yards (punt)
  • 3 plays for 3 yards (punt)
  • 6 plays for 10 yards (punt)
  • 6 plays for 34 yards (missed FG attempt)
  • 2 plays for 0 yards (INT)
  • 7 plays for 19 yards (punt)
  • 3 plays for minus-13 yards (punt)
  • 4 plays for 7 yards (turned over on downs)
You can parse those numbers all you want, but the bottom line is the Irish offense was mostly unable to control the ball and move the chains, which meant the Irish defense spent too much time on the field trying to stop MSU's very effective running game, and eventually was worn down by Javon Ringer & Co. Just like I knew they would if the Irish "O" couldn't keep the MSU "O" off the field. Mix in some turnovers, missed field goal attempts, and Red Zone futility, and you have the perfect recipe for a very unsatisfying defeat.

I am a big Charlie Weis defender. I really believe that as a Notre Dame alumnus he "gets" Notre Dame like few others, and I think that is important. I think he's a good NFL coach who is learning the college coaching ropes and has been hampered by a Ty Willingham talent deficiency that he has been working very effectively to address. I think he's the right man for the job.

But I don't get, I don't get, I don't get, I don't get, I don't get, I don't get, I don't get WHY THE FIGHTING IRISH OF THE UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME STILL CAN'T RUN THE FOOTBALL!!!!!?????? I just don't understand it. I'm not going to analyze match-ups and videotape and break down the X's and O's of why. That shouldn't be necessary because I hold it as an article of faith that NOTRE DAME SHOULD BE ABLE TO RUN THE FOOTBALL!! We should be able to recruit talented, large, smart football players and teach them to consistently push around the smaller, less talented, less smart players from other schools. That our offensive linemen can't consistently win the battle at the point of attack is a FAILURE.

And this is not new for 2007 and 2008. Even when the Irish were having great offensive success and winning a lot of games in 2005 and 2006, they could not consistently run the ball. I've been saying since the Brady Quinn era that if your best short yardage play is the quarterback sneak you have a real problem. Even when Darius Walker was putting up decent numbers, he wasn't doing it via the power run game. It was mostly draw plays, and it was mostly on his own after dodging defenders in the backfield.

I don't know if it's Coach Weis' system, or offensive line coach John Latina's ineffectiveness, or the players we've brought into the program - but Notre Dame football will not be a credible Top-10 team until we can line up and reliably run the ball for 3 or 4 yards even when the opposition and everyone in the stadium knows it's coming.

But I digress. The loss to Michigan State was very disappointing. In 2007 MSU beat Notre Dame by 17 points. Last Saturday they beat us by 16 points. That's not quite the progress I was looking for. The defense actually did a fine job of mostly containing Javon Ringer until he broke off a long run late in the game against a tired defense. Jimmy Clausen and the passing game is getting better and better - but Jimmy has to quit with the interceptions. NOW. They are drive killers and momentum changers no matter where on the field they occur. The MSU game was typical in that Notre Dame had just 12 possessions. You have to make the most of your chances and throwing the ball to the other team does not maximize return on investment.

For what it's worth, Notre Dame lost the field position battle against MSU. Average starting field position for the Irish was the 29 yard line. ASFP for Sparty was the 32. Coincidence? I think not.

OSU stuns the Trojans. No, not that OSU.

Well, once again a Pete Carroll Trojan team billed as the "Best Ever in the History of Football (Pro or College!)" loses to an unranked Pac-10 foe, probably because they started to believe the hype written about them in the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Trojan.

Notre Dame fans are, of course, devastated by the USC loss. Faced with a schedule that is much weaker than that of previous seasons, the Irish were counting on the significant boost in "strength of schedule" rating that a November win over an undefeated USC would have provided. Crunching the numbers, the staff here at OC Domer have concluded that the USC loss to Oregon State probably puts Notre Dame's chances of playing in the National Championship game mathematically out of reach.

As for the Trojans, they fell pray to the same malady that besets many great, or near great, teams. Coming out of the gate 2-0, winning a huge game on the national stage in week 2, teams are vulnerable to both complacency (over-confidence) and the natural let-down that follows an emotional high. Being the best coach in the history of college football (ever!), you would have expected USC Coach Pete Carroll to see this coming, especially after watching the same phenomenon topple the Irish against Michigan State last Saturday. But it seems that Pete and the Trojans are as human as Charlie Weis and the Irish, so both teams after three games sit at 2-1.

A couple of additional thoughts:

1. Mark Sanchez for Heisman! Not. Sanchez plays well within the USC system, just like Matt Leinart and J.D. Booty did. But that system only requires the QB to take the snap, drop back in the pocket, eat a brown-bag lunch, read the sports section of the L.A. Times, and then heave the ball down the field to receivers running wide-freaking-open in the secondary. But the system breaks down when the quarterback actually comes under a little pressure, or when an opponent actually covers the USC receivers as they run their routes. We saw with Leinart, Booty, and now Sanchez that they are still good QBs, but they are very human when they have to deal with tight coverage and pressure like other quarterbacks who have mere mortals as teammates.

2. After USC annihilated that other OSU, Buckeye fans were left muttering about how the game would have been different if Beanie Wells had played. They were generally shouted down by experts (i.e., the idiots on ESPN) who assured us that Beanie is good, but that the game wouldn't have been much different with him in it. Watching freshman Beaver running back Jacquizz Rodgers gash and befuddle the USC defense to the tune of 186 yards and two touchdowns, I now wonder if Beanie might have made a bigger difference in the most recent Game of the Century.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dear Fr. Jenkins: Jesus Changed Water to Wine

I'll write about Notre Dame's disappointing day in East Lansing soon enough. But something else needs our attention. It seems that nearly every law enforcement agency in the state of Indiana has decided that alcohol consumption by college students is the top enforcement priority in the state. It seems that the SUDS task force (Oh, that cop humor!) swooped down upon an off-campus party late last night and arrested 37 Notre Dame students for underage drinking, including two football players. Whew! I feel much safer now! Because we know the streets of South Bend are free of violent crime. Rape, muggings, burglary, murder - none of that in St. Joseph County!

Now, don't get me wrong, if a student party off-campus is too loud and is disturbing the local citizenry, it's fair to call the cops and break the party up. If anyone gets obnoxious with the cops rather than running for the hills, then arrest them. But to have a multi-agency task force swooping in and arresting dozens of students is ridiculous. College students drink. College students have been drinking in and around Notre Dame and South Bend since approximately 1842. Living out here in California, I don't understand what has transpired to make this such a perceived threat to public safety. Has the President of the local MADD chapter been elected Mayor of South Bend?

I was a student in the mid 1980's when the University drastically changed the alcohol policy. Up until then, dorm parties featuring plenty of adult beverages was the norm. Heck, they were rites of passage. Under the old rules, there was no need to EVER go off campus looking for a party. All you had to do was step out into the hallway outside your dorm room. The new rules generally prohibited drinking by students under 21, although if you were drinking alone in your room behind closed doors they would generally ignore it. (Brilliant policy!). So of course all underage drinking by ND students came to a halt. NOT!

The parties moved off campus, a long way from the safety of the dorms, with predictable results. The neighbors have to deal with more loud parties. No RAs or dorm rectors to keep a lid on things. Students now have to worry about the Inidana State Police taking them off to jail. And if the cops don't show up, inebriated students have to find a way back to their dorm rooms. They can stumble along dark, dangerous South Bend streets or they can catch a ride with one of their slightly less hammered buddies. Brilliant!

I have a daughter who hopes to attend Notre Dame someday soon. Ask me if I would rather she go to a party and have a couple of beers in the common room of her dorm or in an apartment in a lousy neighborhood off campus? It is no contest that I'd rather she attend the party in her dorm. Isn't this obvious to Father Jenkins and the rest of the University leadership?

I guess what bothers me the most is how the University (both UND and other universities) is a moral coward on this issue, while being the champion of moral virtues on other issues. Stand up against Catholic teaching and the Church by hosting the Vagina Monologues and encouraging a week of tolerance for the LGBTQ community at Notre Dame? Absolutely! Many schools thumb their noses at the Federal government by banning ROTC from campus. Protests for and against anything (abortion, war, drugs, hunger, radical environmentalism, communism) are de riguer on campus. But when it comes to beer, the University curls up into the fetal position and mumbles something about "liability" and the law. The University is willing to "stick it to the man" in the name of political correctness. But not in the name of its students. It wasn't always that way.

As for the football players. I am disappointed that members of the football team weren't a little more upset by the loss to Michigan State. If the team had won the game, then they should be out partying. Or preferably on campus partying. But after a tough loss I would think the team would keep a lower profile and get some sleep. As for Wil Yeatman, if it turns out that he really was caught drinking again, he's an idiot. I'm sure his reinstatement to the football and lacrosse teams (not to mention his deal with the Indiana judicial system) included a very clear understanding that he would not drink underage anymore. By putting himself in a situation where he will likely never play varsity sports at Notre Dame again he really let down all his teammates.

Friday, September 19, 2008

17 Points

Oh man, I just had the strangest dream! I dreamed the Irish played Michigan, and used six UM turnovers to score 35 points and run the Wolverines out of Notre Dame stadium. Best. Dream. Ever!

What?! That really happened? Six days ago? And the Irish play Michigan State tomorrow? Boy, I sure hope the team has been more focused on the Spartans this week than I have, because I've just been wandering around with a stupid grin on my face since Saturday.

Riding a four game winning streak, Notre Dame heads to butt-ugly Spartan Stadium to take on the 2-1 Spartans. Sparty dispatched Eastern Michigan and Florida Atlantic without much difficulty, and looked pretty good in their loss to the Cal Bears. As most pre-season prognosticators anticipated, MSU figures to be the sternest early test for Notre Dame. Unlike the Wolverines, Michigan State is a veteran team with an excellent coach, a very good handle on their system, and a chip on their shoulder. (That chip must get heavy after carrying it around for about 42 years.) The Spartans cannot be relied upon to give this game to the Irish. In order to come back to South Bend with a "W", Notre Dame is going to have to play hard and play well for 60 minutes and take the game away from MSU.

Can they do it? Yes they can.

Last year's game against Sparty, despite being yet another painful loss, was actually the first game of 2007 where the Irish took the field and actually looked like a football team. Here were the key paragraphs of my post-game look at that game:

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.


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?
Tomorrow's game against MSU is basically a re-match of the 2007 contest, with most of the key players for each team returning. In 2007, the Irish lost by 17 points. We only turned the ball over once, we had very few penalties, but we did allow the quarterbacks to be sacked four times for a -32 yards. How did we lose by 17? Field position. Notre Dame got creamed last year in the field position game. The special teams certainly contributed to the problem, but the offense had such a hard time gaining ANY yards, and had so many 3-and-out series (including 3-play "drives" of 9, -5, 9, 5, 6, and 0 yards and one 4-play drive of -7 yards), that we couldn't pin MSU back in their own end, and the defense spent too much time on the field getting hammered by Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick. As I wrote after last year's game:
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.
What lost the game last year was an offense that was unable to move the ball turning the ball over to another offense that could move the ball well enough to score on a short field if you gave them enough chances. We really weren't badly outplayed from a physical standpoint. MSU's leading rusher, Javon Ringer, had a good game and averaged 5.5 yards per carry (he's averaging 4.8 so far this season). James Aldridge averaged 5.8 yards-per-carry for ND, and Robert Hughes also averaged 5.5 YPC for the game. MSU quarterback Brian Hoyer was only 11 of 24 for 135 yards and 1 INT. That's well under 50% completion rate, although 4 of the completions did go for touchdowns. Irish quarterbacks that day were 11 for 20 (55%) for just 86 yards.

This year the Irish are going to see a heavy dose of Ringer again. Through 3 games he has 104 carries for 498 yards and 9 TDs. If we slow Ringer down, or if we let our guard down in the secondary, Hoyer is good enough to burn us over the top. He's 33 of 75 on the year (just 44%), but is averaging 16.9 yards per completion, and has an overall passer efficiency rating of 105.5. MSU's top two receivers, Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham are averaging 17.4 and 24.6 yards per catch, respectively. The MSU offense presents a nice challenge to the Irish defense. If ND stacks the box to stop ringer, Dell and Cunningham are dangerous players to cover one-on-one down the field. But, MSU likes to throw the ball on deeper routes, which take longer to develop and therefore a blitzing Irish "D" might be able to get home for more sacks this week. I expect Notre Dame to play relatively conservative on defense, forcing MSU to drive the ball down the field in 4 and 5 yard chunks rather than allowing Ringer to break big runs by getting past the first level of defenders on a run blitz. We saw last week how much real estate a decent back can eat up if he finds a seam or breaks one tackle at the line of scrimmage. We need our linebackers at the second level to flow with the play and keep Ringer in check. We can't rely on the safeties this week to be the leading tacklers. They will get too beat up tackling Ringer, and they need to stay deeper to keep Sparty's passing game in check so that Hoyer doesn't have another 4-TD game.

On offense, the Irish proved last year that Sparty can be run on. This season Cal ran for 203 yards (5.6 YPC), and even Eastern Michigan averaged 4.5 YPC against MSU. I expect Hughes and Aldridge to have very good days grinding down MSU's defense, which nobody is touting as the equal of Michigan's front seven. If the Irish O-line can keep the MSU pass rush in check, Jimmy should have a nice day playing catch with his buddies Duval, Golden, and Michael.

I know I'm repeating myself, but the key to the game will be taking care of the football, and winning the field position game. Crucial to that battle will be the ability of the Notre Dame offense to consistently move the chains and keep possession of the ball. I don't expect Sparty to turn the ball over six times. For the Irish to score, we'll need to sustain drives and finish them when we get the chance. If we have a bunch of 3-and-outs tomorrow, or if we're kicking field goals in the red zone instead of PATs, we're in trouble. We need to move the ball, move the chains, and pin MSU back in the shadow of their own goal posts if we have to punt.

Fortunately for Irish fans, this team has performed MUCH better than last year in the field position. If they can keep that going, they will put themselves in a position to win. The Las Vegas line favoring Sparty by 9 points is ridiculous.

The weather is supposed to be good. I like our chances with Golden Tate and Michael Floyd running on a fast track. I like our chances of closing the 17 point gap of last season. In a hard fought game of closely matched teams, I pick the Irish to upset the Spartans 24-21.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Irish Whip Wolverines, 35-17!

I'm out of town and don't have a lot of time to blog tonight, but I did just want to stop in and share my euphoria over today's total domination of the Michigan Wolverines.


I'm pretty pumped that my pre-game thoughts on the critical importance of field position and turnovers was right on the money, although I didn't expect as much scoring and I REALLY DIDN'T EXPECT the Irish offensive line to hold Michigan sackless and establish such credibility in the running game against the UM front seven. Great job by everyone - offensive line, defense, Jimmy Clausen, running backs and receivers. Golden Tate is a star, and Duval Kamara really bounced back today. Congratulations to the whole team!

Of course, the win is great for Coach Weis and the credibility of his program; and it's great for the players and their confidence as they move through the rest of this season. Nothing like a win over Michigan to establish a little momentum.

Ironic as heck that Coach Weis blew his knee out with the same injury as Tom Brady. He was clearly in pain as he stood on the sideline soaking wet gutting it out with his team. Get well soon Coach!

I'll have more thoughtful stuff later in the week after I get home, but I just wanted to share the joy with the Notre Dame faithful tonight.

Friday, September 12, 2008

It's all about the field position

In looking at the box score from last Saturday's game against San Diego State, three stats jumped out at me. The first, of course, was four Notre Dame turnovers, two of which led to Aztec touchdowns. Amazing, really, to think that the Irish committed four turnovers (not including turning it over on downs), and still won the game. That doesn't happen very often. The second was the big "0" in the sacks allowed column.

The third stat that caught my eye was average starting field position (ASFP). Against SDSU Notre Dame's average starting field position was its own 43 yard line, while San Diego's average starting field position was its own 23 yard line. On average, the Irish began its offensive possessions a full twenty yards farther up the field than the Aztecs (I'll note that as "+20" for the game). When I saw those numbers they struck me as very unusual for this Irish squad, so I did a little digging into last season's stats and I wanted to share what I found.

In 2007, Notre Dame had better ASFP than its opponent in four games. Go ahead and guess which games. I'll wait.

Notre Dame won the field position battle in its three wins and in the triple-overtime loss to Navy. Against UCLA Notre Dame was +14 in ASFP. Against Navy they were +16; they were +9 against Duke and +2 against Stanford.

The +20 in ASFP against SDSU is better than the Irish did in that category in any game last year, even with four turnovers. This is amazing when you consider how important turnovers are to the field position battle. But last Saturday the Notre Dame turnovers occurred at the ND 42, ND 44, SDSU 20 and SDSU 3. What we were able to avoid were the turnovers deep in our own end that lead to easy points for the opponent and which plagued the Irish last year.

Let's look at some examples from last season.

Against Georgia Tech in 2007 (a 33-3 loss) the Irish were -19 in ASFP. Notre Dame's ASFP was the ND 23, while Tech's ASFP was their own 42. That game featured Notre Dame fumbles at their own 44, 33, and 17 yard lines which led to two Georgia Tech touchdowns and on field goal.

Against Michigan (a 38-0 whipping) the Irish were -10 in ASFP. Irish ASFP was the ND 29, UM ASFP was its own 39 yard line. That game featured Notre Dame turnovers at its own 48, 45, 38, and 21 yard lines leading to three Michigan touchdowns.

Against Southern Cal (another 38-0 whipping) the Irish were -8 in ASFP. (Yes I know that it really bugs them to be called Southern Cal. That's why I do it.) Notre Dame's ASFP was it's own 28, the Trojans' ASFP was their 36. That game featured Notre Dame turnovers at their own 13 and 10 yard lines, leading to two easy USC touchdowns.

A lot of factors determine field position. The effectiveness of the offense and defense of course are important. But the offense doesn't have to be very dynamic to keep the team in the field position game. If a drive starts at the 20 and only manages one first down, a forty yard punt that is covered well will give the opponent the ball at its own 30 yard line. If the offense can push the ball out to the forty before punting, that same forty yard punt covered well leaves the opponent operating at or inside their own 20 yard line.

What really defines the field position game are special teams and turnovers. As noted above, Notre Dame was guilty last season of turning the ball over at its own end of the field, which forfeits field position and sets the opponent up with easy scoring opportunities. It's well known that Notre Dame also underperformed in the kicking game last year, losing "hidden yards" in the exchanges of punts and kickoffs. Against SDSU the Irish were remarkably improved on special teams (despite the poor play of the field goal unit). In the punting game, Notre Dame averaged 39.8 yards per punt, allowed an average punt return of just 1.7 yards, for a net per punt of 38.8 yards. SDSU had an average punt of just 30.2 yards, allowed an average Irish punt return of 13.7 yards, for a net yards per punt of just 23.4. That's 14.4 yards of field position gained on the average exchange of punts!

The story was the same on kickoffs. Notre Dame had an average kickoff return of 24.7 yards compared to the Aztecs' average of 12.5 yards per return. Notre Dame averaged a net 48 yards per kickoff, compared to SDSU's net 39.3 yards per kickoff. That's almost a 9 yard advantage in field position on each exchange of kickoffs.

One of the key off-season changes made by Coach Weis was to make himself the assistant special teams coach. The struggles of the field goal unit largely overshadowed the dramatic improvements in the punting and kicking units over last year. If the Irish can carry that improvement into the rest of the schedule it will have a big impact on the field position battle and will bode well for Irish fortunes.

After looking over the stats from the San Diego State game I felt a little better about it. Of course the turnovers in the Red Zone that cost Notre Dame prime scoring opportunities were awful and have to be corrected. But the overall perormance of the team in the field position battle was very, very encouraging. That win was the result of an offense not committing the killer turnover deep in its own end of the field, a defense that largely contained the Aztecs and didn't give up the big play, and very strong special teams play. All of those stand in contrast to the 2007 edition of the Irish, which coughed up the ball deep in its own end all too frequently, and which was generally outplayed on special teams.

I believe that if we win the field position battle against the Wolverines tomorrow we will win the game. I also believe we can win that battle. On offense Job #1 has to be to take care of the football. If we can hold onto the ball and punt, rather than putting it on the ground in the shadow of our own goal posts, we can ride our defense to a victory. Our offense is improved from last year and should be able to have some modest success moving the ball, generally through the air judging from Michigan's games against Utah and Miami (Ohio). But the match-up that really favors us is the Irish "D" versus the Wolverine "O". Notre Dame's defense was actually very solid last year, and should be even better this year with more experience and the addition of Coach Jon Tenuta's pressure scheme's. They face a Michigan offense featuring new faces at every key position and trying to learn a new spread offense under first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez. The performance of this new offense has been uneven, at best. The Irish defense should have the opportunity to be very disruptive, force some turnovers, and put the offense in excellent scoring position.

I see a low scoring game, decided by turnovers and special teams play. Notre Dame 20, Michigan 13.

This week's motto: "Punt and play defense."

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Not Exactly Golden

Baby steps.

I said before the game that I expected Notre Dame to score more than 40 points on the San Diego State University Aztecs, and that they shouldn't allow more than 7 points defense. The defense played pretty much played up to my expectations, but the offense still has some work to do if this team hopes to beat the Michigan Wolverines next week. Here are my quick thoughts on the game.

1. Surprise player of the game? Easily Sergio Brown was the biggest surprise to me. Playing as the fifth defensive back, #31 made plays all over the field. Great in coverage, good tackler, awesome special teams player. No doubt we'll see a lot of Sergio as the season unfolds. His play all the more important after losing Darrin Walls for the year. Game ball on D goes to S. Brown.

2. We almost lost #5 and #33 this game. Thank goodness they returned to the field. On the goal-line fumble play by Robert Hughes, it looked to me like his ankle really got mangled, and I didn't expect him to be back. Armando Allen got rocked on his fumble, and I wasn't sure he would get up at all. Two close calls. Whew!

3. Where was James Aldridge? After Sergio Brown, Aldridge's absence from the box score was the biggest surprise.

4. Duval Kamara needs to get his head right. One of Jimmy Clausen's two interceptions was all on #18, as the ball bounced right off his chest and into the air for the INT. The second interception was clearly a mix-up between Clausen and Kamara, but #18 looked awful on the play, never turning around to look for the ball. Given the play of the youth behind him (Golden Tate and Michael Floyd), Kamara is in serious jeopardy of moving way down the depth chart. Did Robby Parris play?

5. Golden Tate has obviously been working hard in the off-season. Not only is he fast, but he surprised with great hands, making clutch catches in tight spots. Excellent footwork along the sideline as well. Great to see this speedster emerging as a real weapon on offense. Game ball on offense goes to G. Tate.

6. Maurice Crum is obviously an important player for the Irish on defense as he is the wily veteran helping "quarterback" the defense. But he's probably the least talented linebacker on the field for the Irish. He had back-to-back penalties at one point today. One was a Travis-Thomas-brain-dead late hit on the SDSU QB, the other was a defensive holding (or was it pass interference?) committed because he was out of position and getting beaten by a receiver crossing the middle.

7. I liked the defense. If they had gotten just a little help from the offense, we'd be writing about how dominant they were. Although they didn't get many sacks, they were very disruptive in the pass rush, tipping balls and hurrying the San Diego State quarterback. The linebackers were very active in stopping the run, rushing the passer and dropping into pass coverage. We've got to work on defending that shovel pass. Overall, tackling was much improved from last year. We'll be fine on defense if the "O" can control the ball a little bit and keep the field position reasonable.

8. The running game certainly featured the left side of the line. Are we saving Chris Stewart and Sam Young as a "surprise" for Michigan? It seemed that Stewart and Young were dominating their guys when we went to that side, but we kept running left. I especially didn't care for the "stretch" play to the left side, which got blown up more than it worked.

9. Jimmy Clausen looked good at QB. Not "great", but solid. He was helped enormously by an O-line that for the most part gave him a reasonable chance to throw the football. He had a few "plus" throws, and a few "minus" ones. One big "minus" was when he missed a wide open Golden Tate in the back corner of the end zone after both made nice adjustments on the play. The announcers on the game said Weis told Tate that he ran a bad route on the play, but to me JC had him wide open and threw a bad ball.

10. Special teams was a mixed bag. The kick-off and punt coverage teams looked good. Kick returns were very good. Place-kicking was awful. Again.

11. One of the biggest things I was looking for this year was whether Armando Allen could run through first contact and keep going. He was huge in that department today, most spectacularly on his big kick return.

12. Part of me wants to be bitter about the margin of victory. But we lost a fumble at the goal line when Robert Hughes' knee was probably down. We threw an INT into the end-zone on a clear mix-up play. We botched what should have been two made field goals. That's twenty points we left on the field. Obviously you can't turn the ball over and give up those scoring chances. But today's somewhat disappointing offensive production is a far cry from the way we lost games last year, with our quarterbacks being tossed around the backfield like rag dolls.

Baby steps. I'm sure I'll have more tonight or tomorrow once I digest the game stats.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

OC Domer 2008 Notre Dame Football Pre-Season Spectacular

The time for annual “pre-season” blog posts has just about run out, so I present the “OC Domer 2008 Notre Dame Football Pre-Season Spectacular.” Of course, “spectacular” is a very subjective term. Very, very subjective. The plan is to bring you three pre-season posts in one because I’ve just run out of time to do each of them separately. The three posts are:

1. A quick review of my earlier post on the Top 10 Irish Lessons Learned from the 2007 football season to see if there is any evidence that Coach Weis and the 2008 Fighting Irish squad have taken those lessons to heart heading into this season.

2. A quick rundown of my general overall expectations for the Irish in 2008.

3. A quick look at each Notre Dame opponent and how I think the Irish will fare against them this season.

Lessons Learned

So let’s jump in. The intent of my Top 10 Irish Lessons Learned post after last season was to lay out a blueprint for how the Irish could be a significantly improved team in 2008. My thinking was that if the Irish were truly able to take those lessons to heart heading into this season, they could reasonably expect to be a much improved team. So counting down from 10 to 1, here is my very quick analysis of whether Charlie Weis and the team have actually learned the lessons taught by the historically bad 2007 season. Of course, this analysis is based on the scant evidence available to the average fan from press conferences, interviews, Spring practice, the Blue-Gold game, and Fall camp. For many of the lessons, we won’t know for sure if they’ve been learned until kick-off.

10. “Special Teams are too important to be left to a committee.” All signs point to a much improved coaching approach to special teams this year. Special Teams are now the sole responsibility of Coach Brian Polian, and his assistant special teams coordinator is Charlie Weis. No more committee. Add to this development an off-season visit to special teams guru Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech, and one has to expect improved special teams play in 2008, which will hopefully help Notre Dame close the gap in “hidden yardage” that they were giving away last year on exchanges of kicks and punts.

9. “Talent Needs to Play.” Looking at the latest two-deep and seeing all the underclassman who have moved ahead of their elders, it’s clear that talent is going to play this season. In looking at the depth chart I don’t see anyplace where a veteran is playing ahead of a youngster just because they’ve been around longer (a la Travis Thomas).

8 & 7. “The football field is not giant craps table” & “Coach the Team You Have, Not the Team You Wish You Had.” These two lessons are closely intertwined, so we’ll take them together. In the UCLA game last year, Coach Weis finally relented to the percentages and consistently punted the ball away to play the field position game rather than forcing the action with risky gambles on 4th down. Coincidentally, that was the first Irish win of 2007. In the USC game, CW finally went against his normal preference and decided to kick the ball off to USC and play defense rather than go on offense first. These were significant signals that Coach Weis now understands that there is a significant gap between theory and reality; that one must account for the gap between design and execution. Running the ball on 4th and 2 at midfield may be the right percentage play sometimes, but it isn’t the right percentage play when your team can’t get two yards and their confidence is fragile. Electing to receive the ball to start the game sends a great message if your offense can back it up with a good drive. But if you are more likely to go 3-and-out you are setting your squad up for failure. The screen pass is a nice call if your linemen can get outside and actually make a block. If they can’t, a screen pass equals 2nd and 12 after a two yard loss. The crux of these two lessons is making decisions and play calls that put your team in a position to succeed, rather than at high risk of failure. For 2008 Coach Weis has assigned play-calling responsibilities to Coach Mike Haywood. I believe in 2008 we’ll see a more conventional coaching approach that features repetition of plays that are working (if it works, keep doing it until the opposition stops it), and that emphasizes field position and relies more on an opportunistic defense than a gambling offense to set up scoring opportunities.

6. “Quarterback Derby = Bad Idea.” No more quarterback carousel this year. Jimmy C. is the QB, Evan Sharpley is #2, and that might as well be carved in granite.

5. “Men versus Boys.” Coach Weis seems to have taken to heart the differences between coaching paid professionals and coaching college underclassmen. Part of the rationale for giving up his duties as play caller was to make himself more approachable and more visible to the whole team, and to allow him to focus more on his players as people rather than as X’s and O’s in his playbook. I thought it was a great example of this new approach when he announced this week that he had changed the players’ weekly schedule for game weeks to let them sleep in on Sundays and get some rest.

4 & 1. "Scheme is overrated” & “Niche.” Coach Weis has expressed his pride in being able to out “X and O” the opposition, and he delights in the complexity of his playbook. But after last season’s disastrous start he acknowledged that the team needed to find a “niche,” or a core of plays that it could execute well and then start to build on. Turning play calling over to Coach Haywood was a first step in the transition from out-scheming opponents to out-executing opponents. Rather than winning by “design” we’re going to move to winning because our players can outplay your players. As the (very young) talent is moving into the program and onto the field, Notre Dame is getting more comfortable with the idea that we can just line up our guys and let them play. Coach Weis spoke during Fall camp about doing fewer things and doing them well, rather than overloading the team with more plays than they can handle.

3. “Let's Get Physical.” Due both to his NFL background and Notre Dame’s serious depth issues in previous years, CW has not been one to do a lot of practicing at game speed. Last year he realized that this was a problem and famously took the entire team “back to training camp” after the debacle in Ann Arbor. Part of the idea of returning to training camp was to find the team’s “niche.” But part of it was also to get more physical in practice. This Fall we have already seen many players forced to sit out for a few days because concussions seemed to be spreading through the team like a virus (or like jock itch at USC). I don’t remember talk of concussions in previous camps, so it seems clear that this camp has been very physical compared to years past.

2. “Tempo.” Tempo is closely related to physical play. I’ve been writing about tempo since August of 2007, and CW talked about tempo being an issue in the loss to Georgia Tech in last year’s opener. Last Spring and during Fall practice this year Coach Weis has remarked several times about how the team is working on tempo, on playing fast. So it seems that he understands the problem and is trying to fix it. I just hope it shows up on the field.

Based upon my keen observations from 2,000 miles away, I am encouraged that Coach Weis appears to have learned many of the lessons to be gleaned from a very painful 2007, and has taken positive, concrete steps to incorporate those learned lessons into the program for 2008. Which segues nicely into my general expectations for this 2008 edition of Notre Dame football.

Overall Expectations

Others have done a fine job of previewing the 2008 Irish squad with position-by-position analyses of the depth chart. (Here, here and here, for examples). For purposes of my analysis (I use the term “analysis” very loosely), Notre Dame returns in 2008 with most of the same guys from last year, with a few new faces sprinkled in. We didn’t lose many key players to graduation and the NFL draft, and a few freshmen are already listed on the two-deep (or even the one-deep). But for the most part the Irish are going to the dance with the same group of players that we saw slogging around on the crappy, muddy turf in Stanford’s new stadium in the 2007 finale. It’s really tempting for me to start 2008 with a clean slate and pretend all the bad things that were 2007 never happened. So I went back and read my review of the Stanford game as my starting point for looking at the new year. The key bits from that review focused on how the Irish did on each of their sixteen offensive possessions against the 97th ranked defense in the country:

Sixteen possessions. Throw out possessions 10 and 16, which were kneel downs. Of the remaining 14 possessions, three of them ended on lost fumbles, one ended on a Clausen INT, one ended on a failed 4th-and-1, and one ended on a missed (but very makable) FG attempt. That's 43% of the time that our offensive possessions ended in mistakes that either cost us crucial field position or a scoring opportunity (or both). We scored on three of the fourteen possessions (21% of the time), and punted 5 times (36%). All-in-all that is not very efficient offense.

The Irish converted just 4 of 13 third down opportunities (31%) and were 0 for 1 converting 4th downs. Clausen was sacked five times, and Stanford beat us in time of possession 34:15 to 25:45 (and actually held the time of possession margin for each of the four quarters).

So that’s our jumping off point. 5 sacks, 3 lost fumbles, 1 INT, one turnover on downs, and one missed FG attempt. To me, Irish fortunes in 2008 do not hinge on Jimmy Clausen or Duval Kamara or Robert Hughes (or Michael Floyd or Jonas Gary) becoming superstars. Those fortunes don’t even hinge on the ND offensive line becoming a dominating unit. To me, Notre Dame’s season depends most upon the Irish offense taking care of the football, becoming more efficient, and avoiding the big mistake. If we can avoid the sacks, the fumbles, and the INTs, move the ball with just modest bit of efficiency, and then punt when we have to from somewhere near midfield, we will see a vast improvement in 2008.

Blue-Gray Sky has done some great work on the concept of measuring offensive efficiency by tracking the percentage of MOE (Major Offensive Errors), which looks at the items listed above (sacks, fumbles, interceptions) and adds dropped passes and offensive penalties. The essential concept is that if a team can commit fewer of these unforced, drive-killing errors than their opponent they are very likely to win the game. Last year Notre Dame had a better MOE rating than the opponent in just four games – the three wins and the Purdue game. (Notre Dame was within 7 points of Purdue with just under eight minutes to play).

Of course, significant improvement in offensive efficiency will depend on the O-line getting significantly better. They don’t necessarily need to physically dominate (though it would be nice), but they do need to work better together. They have to communicate with each other and understand their assignments and prevent the free-runners that disrupt the backfield and cause the sacks, fumbles, and tackles-for-loss. They have cut way down on holding and other penalties. If the offensive line can play more efficiently as a unit, it will give the skill guys on offense a chance to make some plays and will at least permit the team to effectively play the field position game. It would be gravy on top (and a big surprise) if the O-line is able to not only eliminate the blown assignments, but to actually use their beefed-up physiques to blow opponents off the ball and create some room for Hughes, Allen & Co. to get past the line of scrimmage and into the second level of the defense. If the O-line can assert itself physically, then we could see not just an improved year for the Irish, but a very good year.

I expect to see improved O-line play and a step up in efficiency in 2008, but I must be honest and admit that I don’t expect to see a dominant offensive line unit. Coach John Latina hasn’t put a dominant line on the field in the whole time he has been at Notre Dame, and I don’t expect to see a miraculous transformation now. The system seems to put an emphasis on pass protection, at the expense of a power running attack. Even in 2005 and 2006 when Brady Quinn was putting up great passing numbers, the running game was predicated on Darius Walker dodging a tackler as he took the hand-off in the backfield and squirting through a gap or weaving around end for a 4-yard gain. Darius never had a big hole between the tackles to run through. In 2005 and 2006 (and in 2007) our best short-yardage play was the QB sneak.

At the skill positions we have a group of talented, if young, running backs who will make the most of any hole or crease the line can create. My favorite back is Robert Hughes, who I think is the best overall blend of size and speed and does the best job of winding his way through the line of scrimmage. Armando Allen is the speed guy, but in his freshman campaign he had difficulty running through contact and we rarely got see him display his speed from scrimmage (although he showed real flashes returning kicks). A year in the weight room should make Armando a stronger runner and a more reliable blocker, so he could surprise us. James Aldridge is similar in style to Hughes, and will share some of the “big back” carries, but I expect him to be #2 in that role. Jonas Gray is this year’s top freshman running back, and many think he may push for carries. But we’ve learned not to get too dazzled by the “whoosh” factor of incoming freshman. The bottom line is, our running back corps is a strength of the team and I have great confidence in them.

At QB is of course a healthy, bigger and more experienced Jimmy Clausen. He has a lot of upside and will play as well as the pass protection and his receivers permit. If he has time and a man open, he’s going to put the ball on him. I’m not too concerned with JC. In the Blue-Gold game this year he was making all the required throws and seemed to be in command of the playbook. His arm looked very strong and he only made a couple of bad decisions. His accuracy wasn’t amazing (he threw a few balls high or behind receivers), but it was good enough to get the job done. JC is backed up my Evan Sharpley who is more than capable of getting it done if the O-line gives him a chance.

The “other” question mark on offense is the receiving corps. Led by veterans David Grimes, Robby Parris, George West and Will Yeatman (TE) the unit should at least be “solid.” Whether the passing game can move to the next level will depend on the young guys – Duval Kamara, Golden Tate, and freshmen Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph (TE). If Kamara can be more consistent, if Tate can climb the learning curve, if Floyd really is “all that”, then the Irish passing game has the chance to move from “solid” to “dynamic.” (Assuming the O-line can keep Jimmy on his feet).

I expect the Irish offense to be very improved, but I don’t expect it to be very exciting. I expect Coach Haywood to force opposing defenses to respect our running game and only take to the air when the defense has committed to stopping the run or when the situation forces his hand. I expect it to be balanced, but definitely run first, focused on controlling the ball and moving the chains. I expect a dramatic reduction in riverboat-gambler play calling. Punts will be up, going for it on 4th down will be down. The number one priority will be taking care of the ball and eliminating drive-ending turnovers and penalties.

The reason for the plain-vanilla offense will be our dynamic, dare I say dominant, defense. Lost in the anguish of last year’s 3-9 was the fact that our defense under first year defensive coordinator Corwin Brown was good enough to win a lot of football games if they had just a little help from the offense. After finishing 64th in total defense (average yards allowed per game) in 2006, Notre Dame was ranked 39th in total defense in 2007, and 2nd in passing defense (allowing just 161 yards per game through the air). When you think about how much time the defense spent on the field last season, and how rare it was for the defensive players to watch from the sidelines while the offense controlled the game, the improvement from 64th to 39th in yards allowed against a very tough schedule is pretty remarkable. Add one year of physical development and mental maturity to that mix of young guys, and add one psychotic new defensive coach (Assistant Head Coach and Linebackers Coach Jon Tenuta) to the mix, and I expect the Irish defense to set the tone for this season. Under Coach Brown the Irish defense last year became noticeably more aggressive and dynamic. Adding Coach Tenuta to the staff is like adding gasoline to a bonfire. It should be really cool to watch.

The strength of the Irish defense will be a veteran secondary, led by the 2007 OC Domer Player of the Year, safety David Bruton. The secondary is veteran enough and talented enough to hold the fort downfield while Coaches Brown and Tenuta use the other seven players on defense to terrorize opposing quarterbacks and offensive linemen. The young crop of Irish linebackers have the speed and athletic ability to be dominant pass rushers off the edge, as well as to cover and chase down opposing ball carriers in space. Given their youth, they will make some mistakes, but more often than not they are going spell trouble for the opposition. The D-line is seen as the question mark of the defense. Depth and experience issues are cause for concern, but the little bit of practice video we have seen shows that as a group the front seven have been more than holding their own against the first O-line group.

I am expecting the 2008 Irish to be led by the defense, much as the 2002 squad was. You’ll recall that in 2002 Notre Dame started the year with 8 straight wins led by an aggressive, opportunistic defense which featured several stars in the secondary (Gerome Sapp, Vontez Duff, Shane Walton, Glenn Earl). For much of that eight-game winning streak the Notre Dame offense was utterly impotent and was actually being outscored by the Irish defense.

I don’t expect the Irish offense to hearken back to the days of Carlyle Holiday and Pat Dillingham. I expect the offense to be much more productive than that. But the point is that even a very modest offense can win a lot of games if they take care of the ball, get off a good punt, and let a very aggressive defense create turnovers and scoring opportunities.

Between a very good defense and what I expect to be improved special teams, the Irish offense doesn’t need to be spectacular. If they can be efficient and relatively error-free, the defense should give them enough opportunities in the red zone to score all the points we’ll need to have a very good year.


With my general expectations for the 2008 Notre Dame team now on the record, here are just a few thoughts from me on each of the opponents the Irish will face this year.

San Diego State University Aztecs, Sept. 6th, Home. The Aztecs return just eleven starters from a squad that went 4-8 last year as members of the Mountain West conference. Phil Steele drops this nugget on us: SDSU is 2 wins against 24 losses in road openers, including losing the last 15 straight. They are also 2 wins vs. 10 losses out of conference over the last three seasons. Steele picks them for 8th place in the MWC. Athlon Sports has SDSU at #104 (pre-season) in the country and 9th in the MWC. And all that was before the Aztecs lost Saturday (at home) to Div. 1-AA Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 29-27. I will be very disappointed (and very worried) if Notre Dame wins by less than 40 points and if we allows SDSU to score a touchdown.

University of Michigan Wolverines, Sept. 13th, Home. It’s tempting to look at this match-up against a team that beat the Irish 38-0 last year and feel that the tables have turned 180 degrees. But that would be only half right. The tables have turned for UM. They have lost their top two QBs, top RB, top two WRs, the top 4 tacklers, and head coach from a team that was expected to compete for a National Championship last season but who was an embarrassed 0-2 when Notre Dame rolled into Ann Arbor. Yes, the Wolverines are a much younger, inexperienced team, getting to know a new coach and a new system, so in some respects they look like ND did last year. But Notre Dame hasn’t changed all that much from the team that got whipped by UM last year. We do have more stability and continuity, and our players are a little more experienced. But we’re still very young and unproven. The question for this game is whether the Irish players have matured enough, improved enough, to take advantage of UM’s transition period as new coach Rich Rodriguez tries to implement a whole new system with a lot of new faces. I expect Notre Dame to win this game, and they’ll do it because of defense. In watching UM lose to Utah on Saturday (25-23, a damn shame really), you could see that they really struggled to run Dick Rod’s newfangled spread offense. Against the Utes the vaunted Wolverines mustered a net 36 yards rushing and just 167 yards passing for a total of 203 yards of offense. They’re going to get better, but they are not going to get better against the Irish. Coaches Brown and Tenuta are going to dial up a lot of havoc that is going to make the Michigan offense remember fondly their productive day against the Utes. The Irish “D” will shut down Michigan’s spread offense, and create turnovers to give the Irish “O” easy scoring chances. While running the ball on UM will be difficult, they did give up 305 passing yards to Utah. It won’t be easy, because Michigan still has a lot of talent and athleticism on the roster, but in an unusual twist, Notre Dame will actually exploit its edge in experience to win this game.

Michigan State University Spartans, Sept. 20th, Away. Sparty returns most of the key pieces from a team that beat the Irish 31-14 last year in Notre Dame Stadium, and despite their loss to Cal on Saturday (31-38), they actually looked pretty good and were only outgained by 65 total yards on offense (467-402). So how can Notre Dame possibly defeat MSU? By playing a conservative, efficient offensive game that avoids the big mistake and wins the field position battle. Our defense will cause Sparty some problems, and we’ll be able to move the ball at least modestly on offense. James Aldridge ran for a net 104 yards last year against MSU and a 5.8 average per carry. Robert Hughes averaged 5.5 yards per rush, and Armando Allen had 4.3 yards per carry, although the passing game struggled as Irish QBs were sacked 4 times. This year we have to win the special teams battle. In 2007 MSU punted 5 times, but ND had zero punt return yards. ND punted 9 times and gave up 28 yards in punt returns. MSU averaged 32.7 yards for their 3 kickoff returns, ND averaged just 20 yards for its 5 kickoff returns. MSU had 1 touchback to ND’s zero. That’s a lot of “hidden” yardage and it has a big impact. Notre Dame started a single possession in MSU territory, and scored a TD on that drive. MSU started at the 50-yard line or better and scored 2 TDs and 1 FG. That’s 17 points and your margin of victory. This is the toughest game in the first half of the Notre Dame schedule, but the home team in this game has lost the last seven games. That streak continues as the Irish beat MSU in a mild upset, due to MSU turnovers and big special teams play from ND.

Purdue Boilermakers, Sept. 27th, Home. Notre Dame fell to PU 33-19 in West Lafayette last year, but as noted above actually pulled to within 7 points of the Boilers with just under 8 minutes to play in the game. Purdue returns most of its key players from last year (although they do lose 4 of their top 5 receivers), but I pick the Irish to win this game comfortably. We lost last year despite out-passing (377 to 252) and out-gaining (426 to 371) Purdue. It’s a recurring theme, but penalties, turnovers, and special teams play cost us the game in 2007. In the 2008 re-match ND cleans up those problems and takes care of business.

Stanford Cardinal, Oct. 4th, Home. Second year coach Jim Harbaugh is doing some good things on the farm, and his teams are going to cause trouble in the Pac-10, as evidenced by Stanford’s nice victory over THE Oregon State University (36-28) on Thursday night. They return 16 starters from the team that gave Notre Dame all it wanted last November in Palo Alto, a slopfest the Irish won 21-14. Stanford’s going to be better this year, but so are the Irish, and this one’s at our place. Stanford will be playing its fourth road game in a five week stretch when comes to South Bend. As excerpted in the “Overall Expectations” section above, Notre Dame’s offense was horribly inefficient against the Cardinal in ’07. Clausen & Co. will clean that up, and the defense will be disruptive enough that Stanford will falter in front of 80,795 Fighting Irish faithful.

University of North Carolina Tar Heels, Oct. 11th, Away. Wow. There’s a lot of pre-season love for the Tar Heels. Phil Steele ranks UNC #38 in the pre-season and #2 in his list of “Most Improved Teams” for 2008. Athlon has them at #37 pre-season. But while Athlon predicts a “W” for the Tar Heels over Athlon’s 60th ranked Notre Dame, Steele has the Irish ranked #1 “Most Improved Team” and ranked #19 in the pre-season. I’ll admit all the hype had me a little worried about this game. And then they started playing the actual games and Carolina had to mount a second half comeback to hold off Div. 1-AA McNeese State, at home, 35-27. Whew! I do expect UNC to be better as Butch Davis builds his program, but I don't think they're anything special this year. Notre Dame travels to the basketball school and takes care of business in a close game.

University of Washington Huskies, Oct. 25th, Away. The "Bye" week comes at a good time so that the Irish can rest up and re-focus before flying all the way to Seattle to take on Ty Willingham's pack of vicious animals. Jake Locker, blah, blah, blah. The media will have a field day with the Weis vs. Willingham angle, but the steam has gone out of that a bit since UW has been so mediocre under TW, and since Willingham has been so visibly awful at recruiting for the Huskies. Folks are talking about an "improved" Washington team, but Phil Steele interprets "improved" to mean 8th in the Pac-10, while Athlon predicts a 7th place finish in conference. Washington opened the season at Oregon, and got worked 44-10, with most of the damage done by the Ducks' backup QB, as UW's heralded Locker was 12 of 28 passing for 103 yards and 57 yards rushing. Somehow I think the Irish defense will hold its own against a QB that's completing passes at a 43% clip. The UW defense also gave up 496 yards to Oregon, an average gain of 6.9 yards per play. Notre Dame beats the Huskies, handily. In an ironic twist, Notre Dame will play a role in getting TW fired for a second time.

University of Pittsburgh Panthers, Nov. 1st, Home. Yet another team that had a lousy 2007 but is getting a lot of love from the media in the pre-season. Athlon has Pitt #27 overall and 4th in the Big East. Phil Steele has the #25 overall and 3rd in the Big East. Which is all good until Bowling Green rolled into town on Saturday. After Pitt opened up a 14-0 lead, BG rallied with 27 unanswered points and won going away 27-17. Pitt's highly touted LeSean McCoy was held to 71 yards on 23 carries. The last meeting between Pitt and ND was in 2005. It was a highly anticipated showdown between Charlie Weis and Dave Wannstedt, each in their first games coaching their new teams. Brady Quinn led the Irish to a beatdown of the Panthers, 42-21. I have seen nothing from Pitt since then that leads me to believe Wannstedt will out-coach Charlie Weis this time around. This is a bit of a trap game for Pitt, being a road game sandwiched between home games against Rutgers and Louisville. I like the Irish at home.

Boston College Eagles, November 8th, Away. The Eagles are expected to take a step back this season, as they lost their star QB Matt Ryan to the NFL, and also lost their top three RBs. They opened this season with a rather modest 21-0 win over Kent State. As of right now they're favored to beat ND for a sixth straight time (!!!!). But by this 9th game of the season I expect Notre Dame to be rolling. With eight games playing together, the offensive line has gelled and is playing well. The young receivers have matured and gained confidence, so Jimmy Clausen is turning heads with some gaudy highlight-reel throws. The defense has become dominant and the Irish finally snap BC's annoying streak.

United States Naval Academy Midshipmen, Nov. 15th, Home. Congratulations to Navy for ending their 43-year losing streak against the Irish last season. This year marks the beginning of a new streak.

Syracuse University Orange, Nov. 22nd, Home. Their mascot is a color. The color orange. Or is it the fruit? They won two games in 2007, Athlon predicts they'll win two in 2008. They opened this season with a 30-10 loss to Northwestern. I'll take the Irish at home.

University of Southern California Trojans, Nov. 29th, Away. I watched the Trojans' opener against Virginia, which they won 52-7. I looked closely for vulnerabilities, for signs that Mark Sanchez isn't up to the job. I saw none. USC, 2008 edition, looks every bit like the USC of the last several seasons. I'm as delusional as the next Domer, but while I won't rule anything out as being within the realm of possibility, I just hope that the Irish are more respectable against the Trojans than we've been the past two seasons.

Final Thoughts. Do I really think Notre Dame will finish the 2008 season 11-1? No. While I sincerely believe the Irish could, or even should, win each of their first 11 games, I also expect that a team as young as the Irish will have some untimely penalties and turnovers, or just come out flat, and let a couple of games get away from them. Counting the likely loss to USC, I expect nine wins, give or take one. Of course, a lot has to go right for nine wins to happen. But after last year I figure the Irish are due a little luck.