Friday, November 14, 2008

The Debacle at Chestnut Hill

Last week I called the loss to Pitt the worst loss of the Weis era, so I had a few comments on the blog after the Boston College loss wondering how I would categorize that disaster.

Fair question. Was the loss to BC "worse" than the loss to Pitt?

It certainly felt every bit as bad, but ultimately I say "no." The Pitt loss was worse because the Irish gave away a game they had sewn up by half-time. The team came to play, had a good game-plan, played well enough to get a comfortable lead, and then folded up their tents and turned a "W" into an "L" in their home stadium.

At Chestnut Hill, the team didn't really show up. They fought and they scrapped, but the offense never got anything going. It was a road game in poor weather. The defense actually played a very good game. It was perhaps the ugliest game of the Weis era, and watching it gave me a stomach ache. But it wasn't as bad as losing a big lead at home to a team we should have beaten that was led by a back-up QB. But it was almost as bad.

I absolutely could not stomach watching the game for a second time, so I haven't gone back and done any in-depth analysis of the game. But I do have just a few thoughts/impressions that I wanted to throw out here.

1. Kyle Rudolph is not open. Jimmy, did you hear me? I said "Kyle Rudolph is not open." Jimmy Clausen is still growing as a quarterback, and one of the flaws in his game is that he will occasionally lock onto a receiver and force a ball into places it has no business going. Clausen threw four interceptions last week. Mostly they were caused by JC forcing the ball to receivers who were covered by multiple defenders. If Kyle Rudolph is surrounded by three defenders, then Michael Floyd, or Golden Tate, or Duval Kamara must be open somewhere.

2. Can I get quick slant, a hook, or a crossing pattern please? Clearly the Irish offensive game plan was to throw the ball deep and often. But equally as clearly the Boston College defensive game plan was "There is no way you are going to beat us with the deep ball." Coach Haywood, and QB Clausen need to make faster adjustments to the game plan in those situations and start dinking and dunking. Take what the defense is giving. Hit some shorter and intermediate throws and force the defensive backs to creep up. Get the ball into Tate's and Floyd's hands on a short route and let them make a play. More on this point in a moment.

3. Third down needs to get a little more respect. It seemed to me that the play calling on third down was careless. On third down your only goal should be a first down and moving the chains. It seemed to me that the Irish wasted a lot of third down plays with calls that were low-percentage to move the chains. The long fade route down the sideline on 3rd-and-medium is a low percentage call. I need to have the OC Domer interns do some real research on the 3rd down plays, as I'm really going off my impressions here. But the team was just 5 of 15 in 3rd down conversions (and 0 for 2 on 4th down).

4. Do we have any roll-out passes in this offense? Although he was only sacked once, Jimmy was getting a lot of pass rush in his face and I think it was contributing to his poor decisions on where to throw the ball. The Eagles had an M-1 tank playing in the middle of their D-line, and he was dominating the middle of our O-line, including one play where he rather unceremoniously tossed one of our guards into our backfield like Godzilla tossing city buses around Tokyo. I think we should have just conceded the middle and focused on getting some yards on the edges. On the few occasions where Jimmy left the pocket and scrambled left or right, he bought time to find a receiver or he gained a few yards running. I kept asking my wife (rhetorically, of course), "Why aren't they rolling Jimmy out?" Clausen is not a great runner, but but he does do a good job on the move of buying time and throwing the ball. Plus, a QB on the move puts some pressure on the defense to come up and stop him (usually opening up a receiver) or give up a five-yard run. Roll him out!

5. It's really all about taking care of the ball. Once you get over the shock of getting shut out by BC (which takes several days) and look at the stats, you see that it's not quite as bleak as it seemed on Saturday. ND had more first downs than BC (16-13), and outgained them on offense (292-246). The Irish averaged 4.4 yards per play to BC's 3.9. Notre Dame was penalized 6 times for 58 yards, but BC had 9 penalties for 90 yards. But what killed the Irish on Saturday was failure to take care of the football, and failure to win the field position battle. Of course, those two points are very closely linked. Notre Dame lost the Average Starting Field Position metric by 12 yards (ND: 23, BC:35). Most of that differential was due to losing the turnover battle 5-0. Golden Tate fumbled a punt that cost the Irish the chance to begin their first drive of the second half near mid-field when the score was just 10-0. Instead BC got the ball back at the Irish 48 and went 48 yards in 7 plays to make the score 17-0. And of course Jimmy Clausen had four INTs. Not there is ever a really good time to throw an interception (maybe late in the game with a big lead on 3rd and long and you throw an INT way down the field that is better than a punt), but Clausen's timing was especially lousy on Saturday.

  • The first INT came on a 3rd-and-6 play at the BC 49 yard line, when Clausen threw the ball 25 yards down the field and it was intercepted at the BC 24 and returned for a BC touchdown. This play illustrates two of the points I made above: Being careless with 3rd down calls that cost us the chance to sustain drives, and forcing balls down the field rather than taking what the defense is giving. The INT ended an 8-play, 31 yard drive.
  • The second INT came on a 1st-and-20 play at the BC 35 yard line after a holding penalty. On 1st-and-20 Clausen threw the ball 24 yards down the field where it was intercepted at the BC 11 yard line. That play ended an 8-play, 37 yard drive.
  • The third INT was on a 1st-and-10 play at the BC 27 yard-line, when Clausen threw into the BC end zone for an INT, killing another scoring opportunity. That interception ended a 6-play, 63 yard drive.
  • The final INT came on a 1st-and-10 play at the BC 26 yard-line when Clausen was picked off at the BC 9. That INT came ended an 8-play, 47 yard drive on Notre Dame's last possession.
As I mentioned above, BC's defensive game plan was to take away the deep ball from the Irish offense. Rather than make adjustments and take completions underneath the defense, Notre Dame kept forcing the ball down the field and getting punished for it. None of the 4 interceptions came on desperate down-and-distance situations. Three were on first down plays, and the fourth was a very manageable 3rd-and-6. Yet the four interceptions occurred 25, 24, 27, and 17 yards down the field. I don't know if it was Coach Haywood's play calling or Jimmy Clausen's audibles or decision-making that is the primary culprit, but four of Notre Dame's five best drives, and best scoring chances, ended in an interception. The best drive was a 9-play drive that ended on a failed 4th-down conversion at the BC 22. The next four best drives (8 plays, 8 plays, 8 plays, and 6 plays) were ended by the untimely interceptions. All remaining Irish possessions were 4 plays or less in duration.

After looking at the above analysis, I realize that the loss to Boston College brought home the same lessons that this team (and this quarterback) should have learned in Chapel Hill. After the loss to North Carolina I wrote:
The lesson to be taken away is that the team has evolved to the point where there is a whole lot riding on the shoulders of sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The defense and the players around Clausen on offense are good enough that the Irish stand a very good chance of winning most weeks if Jimmy plays well. By the same token, if Clausen has a bad game, or makes crucial mistakes, the team is probably going to lose. That's a big burden to carry. That's life as the quarterback at Notre Dame. In Chapel Hill Jimmy Clausen let his teammates down by not taking care of the football, and it cost his team the game despite all the other great plays he made on the day. And the turnovers were not a fluke. Jimmy has been prone to the occasional really bad throw this season, while UNC has had a knack for forcing turnovers. The situation called for being extra careful with the ball, and instead we self-destructed.
Against BC, the defense and the rest of the team played well enough (not great, but well enough) to win the game if their quarterback had taken better care of the ball. There is no reason to force the ball into a double-covered receiver on 1st-and-10. Take the check-down or throw it away. Run for a few yards and get out of bounds. Preserve the chance for a field goal or a punt. Supposedly Jimmy's ankle hurts and he had the flu last Saturday. Good to him for gutting it out. But there is no excusing the poor decisions he is making with the ball right now, and the team can't win games unless he gets that fixed ASAP.

Go Irish! Beat Navy!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Listening to the talking heads last weekend apparently the reason throws the out routes is you only have to read defense coming from one direction. Plays across the center require defensive reads from both sides, and are therefore more difficult. BC realized this took the out route away, and it resulted in a number of mental mistakes by Jimmy. Another example of play by a soph QB still learning the ropes.