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.
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.
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.
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.