Friday, October 10, 2008

Irish at Tar Heels: The "Most Improved" Bowl

Well, it's Friday and I'm way behind schedule here at OC Domer, with no sign of improvement in the next couple of days. It was my week to host the "Irish Bloggers Gathering," which was a lot of fun to do, but it pretty much ate up the time I would have used to write a Stanford recap. Today, I took off work because it's Homecoming at the OC Kids' high school, and the OC Daughter is on the Homecoming Court. Which means I have the honor of escorting her in the halftime show when she'll find out if she is Homecoming Queen (or not). Big night at OC Domer headquarters! I didn't want to deal with Friday afternoon traffic trying to get to the game by the appointed 5:00 hour, so I got an early start to the weekend today. I was hoping to use some of the time today to clear up the OC Domer back-blog, but in a sequence of events that is still a bit hazy to me the OC Domer Chief Operating Officer (aka, Mrs. Domer) was able to fill what I thought would be quality blog time with a whole list of stuff that had to be done today before the football game. Apparently we're helping put on a tailgater for approximately 500 of our kids' closest friends, and we're in charge of the food!

So, time is short, but I wanted to throw out a couple of thoughts on the Stanford and North Carolina games.

Stanford Recap. In my preview of the game against the Cardinal I summed it up as follows:

The Irish have become a team that can defeat credible, mid-level BCS conference opponents if they show up prepared, if they play with energy, and if they keep the mistakes to a minimum. I think this young team likes the taste of victory in their mouths, and I expect them to show up excited to play in front of the Irish faithful again this week. But if they don't take care of the ball and finish drives, Stanford is more than capable of handing Notre Dame a devastating home loss as they prepare to play three of their next four games on the road.

I expect to be feeling as good Saturday night as I did last Saturday night. Stanford's offense, while steady, is not particularly explosive. I expect our defense to largely contain the Cardinal and force a couple of turnovers leading to quick Irish scores. On the other side of the ball, Stanford's secondary has shown some vulnerability and I see real potential for another big game for Air Clausen.
The Irish did show up prepared, at least on offense. The defense got gashed early, particularly by the Stanford rushing attack. But they were fortunate that Jim Harbaugh made some coaching mistakes (i.e., going away from a running game that was working quite well) and Tavita Pritchard made some quarterbacking mistakes that led to very timely turnovers that bailed the Irish defense out of some early jams. After those shaky early drives, the defense made the necessary adjustments and the defense did largely contain the Stanford "O" when it counted.

The whole team played with a lot of energy and emotion, which led to a high tempo for the team on both sides of the ball. But it wasn't all roses for Notre Dame on Saturday. The Irish had 8 penalties for 75 yards. The team missed both very makeable field goal attempts, and was just 2 of 4 in the Red Zone. Despite forcing 4 Stanford turnovers (3 interceptions and a late fumble that iced the game), the Irish only managed to convert one of them into points (on a very nifty 9 play 80 yard TD drive after the first interception by OC Domer 2007 Player of the Year David Bruton). The team managed only 83 net rushing yards, with 23 of those yards coming a really sweet fake punt run by Harrison Smith, who normally plays safety for the Irish. At some point, Notre Dame is going to have to be able to run the football, and our inability to do so is going to bite us.

It didn't take a genius to predict that the Cardinal's vulnerability in the secondary could lead to a big day for Clausen. Clearly the the Irish passing game is presenting serious match up problems to opposing defenses. Michael Floyd and Golden Tate on the outside can really stretch the field both vertically and horizontally, leaving Senior Captain David Grimes and Freshman tight end Kyle Rudolph to work the resulting voids underneath and in the middle of the field. An opponent might be able to cover one or even two of those threats, but very few teams are going to be able to cover all of them if Jimmy Clausen has time to throw the ball. I'll admit I've been giddy watching the new big play ability of this team - a quick strike threat that Notre Dame didn't have even with Brady Quinn at the helm.

Notre Dame did not play a perfect game on Saturday. But they won the turnover battle 4-0, won the field position battle (Average Starting Field Position: ND 35, STAN 29), and put on an explosive aerial display that was able to outscore a mistake-prone Cardinal team despite the fact that we could not control the game on the ground. So I'll take the positive view and say that the team took a step forward against Stanford by winning a game against a very credible opponent despite NOT playing as well as they did the previous week against Purdue. The fact that the team could pull out the win despite a few glaring miscues (i.e, the missed field goals) and the near total lack of a running game is encouraging. Not to mention 347 passing yards and 3 passing TDs.

North Carolina Preview. The win at home against Stanford was really nice. The team played with fire and really enjoyed the victory in front of the Irish faithful in Notre Dame Stadium. But this week they take their show on the road, heading south to Tobacco Road to take on the Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina. Notre Dame's only previous road game this season was at Michigan State, where they lost 23-7 on a day where the offense was largely ineffective and the defense could not get Sparty off the field. Notre Dame turned the ball over three times (two INTs and 1 fumble), was 0-2 in the Red Zone, and lost the field position battle.

Michigan State is ranked 24th by Jeff Sagarin (Using the "predictor" ranking), 30 spots higher than Stanford (#54). The Tar Heels are rated by Sagarin at #16, eight spots higher than Sparty, and checked in this week at #22 in the Associated Press poll.

The bottom line is that a very young Notre Dame team who has gained some real confidence playing in front of the home crowd has to go into hostile territory tomorrow and play by far the best team they have seen this season.

In my 2008 Notre Dame Football Pre-Season Spectacular I didn't give UNC much credit. When I wrote that, the Tar Heels had just used a second half comeback to hold off Div. 1-AA McNeese State, at home, 35-27. But since then Carolina has largely taken care of business, including nice wins against Rutgers, Miami, and U-Conn. More recently I am on the record as saying I don't expect Notre Dame to win this game. Not that they can't win, or won't win. But I will be happily surprised if they pull it out, and disappointed but not surprised if they fall in Chapel Hill. The one nugget of information that causes me to doubt my own uncharacteristic pessimism is that UNC has lost their starting QB to a broken ankle. The backup, Cam Sexton, is a bit of a drop-off for the Tar Heels, but he was the starting QB for five games in 2006 and is 2-0 as the starter so far in 2008 with a big game against Miami (11 of 19, 242 yds, 2 TD) and a so-so go against U-Conn (9 of 16, 117 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT). So he's been around the program for a while and has some experience. But I think the drop-off from the starting QB to the back-up might be the break the Irish need to get it done on Saturday.

Tidbit of the day: Tomorrow's game pits the #1-ranked Fighting Irish against the #2-ranked Tar Heels from Phil Steele's pre-season list of "Most Improved Teams" for 2008. Pretty good call by Mr. Steele on both counts.

Go Irish! Beat Tar Heels!


Anonymous said...

Go Irish! I like the irish in this contest. I feel a running day coming on.

Anonymous said...

Hey OC Domer.
Any idea how we can see the game here in Cali on TV?
It looks like we cant get it unless we have ESPN Gameplan..

Anonymous said...

ESPN Gameplan?
I'm going to be Irish deprived!!