Friday, October 31, 2008

LeSean is the Real McCoy, But Panthers are the Pitts


How's THAT for a trite, cheesy, yet catchy headline? I was just trying to come up with something better than "Pittsburgh Preview." The only problem is that the headline, while perhaps true, may not very accurately describe this post by the time I'm done with it.

The Pitt Panthers visit Notre Dame Stadium tomorrow, and I am already really pissed off at them. Through their shocking display of ineptitude last week (losing to Rutgers by 20 points at home), Pitt has cost the Irish a chance to finally beat a ranked opponent! Before getting torched by a heretofore ineffective Rutgers offense to the tune of six passing touchdowns, Pitt was actually ranked #20 in the USA Today Top 25 poll. But noooooooooooo! They had to go and lose (badly) to the Scarlet Knights, drop out of the rankings (below the Irish, no less) and rob Notre Dame of the chance to beat a ranked opponent with a very nice 6-2 record. Nice.

But, the Panthers do come to town offering the Irish the chance to get a win against an opponent with a winning record. Here are the won-loss records for Irish opponents to date (with current Sagarin ranking):

  • San Diego State (W) is 1-7 (135th)
  • Michigan (W) is 2-6 (92nd)
  • Michigan State (L) is 7-2 (19th)
  • Purdue (W) is 2-6 (72nd)
  • Stanford (W) is 4-4 (54th)
  • North Carolina (L) is 6-2 (16th)
  • Washington (W) is 0-7 (114th)
Notre Dame has had just two shots at opponents with winning records (MSU and UNC), and lost both games. The five Irish wins have come against four teams with really crappy records (5-26 combined), and Stanford at .500.

The point? Notre Dame is improving, and it's been exciting to see the progress, but we need to check ourselves because we absolutely have not beaten an opponent of any real quality. Yet.

As noted above, the Panthers come to South Bend licking wounds suffered at the hands of the Scarlet Knights, which, besides depriving the Irish of a ranked opponent, probably also has them really fired up. They were embarrassed last week, and they will be eager to redeem themselves on national TV versus Notre Dame.

But I think they'll head back to Pennsylvania an even more dejected 5-3. The odds makers have Notre Dame favored by anywhere from 4 to 5.5 points, and that's not far off. If you look at the Sagarin rankings (and I do), the Irish at home against the Panthers probably ought to be favored by six points. The fact that the line is lower than that says that Vegas still isn't buying into Notre Dame.

Before last night, Pitt had two quality wins to their credit. They had beaten South Florida (26-21), who, coming into this week's games was #23 in the BCS poll. But South Florida got whipped by the Cincinnati Bearcats last night, 24-10. Heading into that game, USF was 6-2 against the 92nd-toughest schedule in Div-I, and had gotten up to #23 based entirely on the human polls, as Sagarin had USF at #52 (using the ELO-Chess ranking that the BCS incorporates). The loss to unranked Cincinnati will cost USF dearly in the rankings, and really takes the shine off Pitt's victory over South Florida.

Pitt's other quality win was a 21-20 home win over the 5-3 Iowa Hawkeyes, who are currently unranked but who are actually getting a fair amount of respect from many of the computer rankings, including Sagarin. On that note, check out this link for a web page that compares the rankings from 98 different computer models. Very cool.

Notre Dame has improved to the point that winning and losing games against mid-tier opponents depends more on how Notre Dame plays than on how the opponent plays. The North Carolina game is the perfect illustration of this point. The Irish were clearly capable of beating UNC, but lost the game because they made mistakes that caused them to perform below their ability. That is a giant stride forward from last season, when Notre Dame wasn't going to beat a good team if the opponent's plane made it safely to South Bend.

Pittsburgh is exactly the type of opponent that Notre Dame should beat if they show up and play well. The match-ups favor the Irish. Notre Dame's real talent on offense is in the passing game, matching up nicely with the Pitt secondary which gave up six passing TDs to Rutgers last week. Pitt's offensive strength is on the ground, riding the legs of LeSean McCoy, who has had 140 or more yards in four straight games. That running game (4.2 yards per carry) matches up pretty well against Notre Dame's weakness against the run, which has been allowing 4.0 ypc this season. But this all benefits Notre Dame, as the Irish can get bigger chunks of yardage and score points faster through the air than the Panthers can on the ground. In my view, the Pitt ground game will not be able to keep up the scoring pace with the Notre Dame offense.

The other HUGE factor in this game is that Pitt's starting quarterback, Bill Stull, was carried off the field last week on a stretcher after suffering a concussion. He is "questionable" for the game tomorrow. If he plays, I would expect Pitt to look after his health by putting the ball in McCoy's hands as much as possible, which will pretty much make the Panther offense one-dimensional and predictable, allowing the Notre Dame defense to stack the box to stuff the run. If Stull is asked to throw the ball, you have to wonder how effective he'll be coming off a concussion, and how susceptible he'll be to leaving the game again if an aggressive blitzing defense gets to him. If Stull does not play, or has to leave the game, then the Irish will face Pat Bostick, who was the starter last year but who, logically, is not as good as Stull and would therefore be less likely to hurt the Irish through the air.

So, will Notre Dame show up tomorrow? They are undefeated at home this season, and it appears as though these young players are getting very comfortable in Notre Dame Stadium, and have begun to really feed off the energy of the home fans. Notre Dame has had two road games and the bye since they defeated Stanford at home, and I fully expect them to build on the confidence gained from last week's dismantling of the Washington Huskies and play high-energy football tomorrow. There is a small chance that the "looking ahead" factor creeps in, as the Pitt loss to Rutgers diminishes them a bit and the team travels to Boston College next week. But I think this young team learned last year that opportunities to win games have to be seized when they present themselves, or they will painfully slip away.

I expect a confident, fired-up Irish squad to bring it tomorrow against a Pitt team with a concussed quarterback and a bruised ego and get that first win against a quality opponent. Notre Dame 31, Pittsburgh 20.

Go Irish! Beat Panthers!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Irish Bloggers Gathering - All Hallows Eve Edition


This Halloween edition of the Irish Bloggers Gathering is hosted by the crew at Charlie's Nasties, A blog for the Weis Guys helping to put the Nasty back in Dynasty. Click on the link to see the post that kicked off this week's IBG, as well as to find links to the posts of all the other Notre Dame bloggers partaking in the Gathering this week. Let the Trick-or-Treating begin!

1. A loss to Washington would have been spooky, but we were able to pull it out. What was your favorite part of the victory?

Well, the game itself was not very exciting, having been pretty clearly decided about 30 seconds into the first quarter, so the enjoyment had to come from some of the small things. It was fun, but kind of creepy, to listen to Boob Davie on the broadcast talking about what a great job Charlie Weis is doing at Notre Dame, as well as about how the Washington program has eroded under Coach Willingham. I have been annoyed by Boob Davie for so long, that it was weird to hear him heaping praise on Coach Weis and the Fighting irish like that. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone, or maybe on Candid Camera.

It also got a big kick out of watching Sam Young pulling to his right and perfectly executing the kick-out blocks on Notre Dame's first two touchdowns. We haven't seen that in a while, and I don't think I've seen Big #75 so mobile before. Michael Floyd's opening TD was also the first time this year, that I can recall, where an Irish receiver gained significant yardage on that quit-hit horizontal pass down the line of scrimmage that Coach Weis used so effectively with Brady Quinn and the Shark.

But my favorite moment came late in the game , during Washington's last drive. Notre Dame was emptying the bench and playing third-teamers in the secondary, including acclaimed former-walk-on-gunner-extraordinaire Mike Anello. There was a play on that drive near the sideline where Anello came flying into the play and just destroyed a Washington ball carrier. I can't remember if it was on a running play, or after a pass reception. But Anello absolutely crushed the guy. Not only was it a great hit, but I remember thinking to myself at the time "Damn, our third string walk-on players are beating up on Washington's starters."

2. Charlie's Nasties does a Duds and Studs segment to reflect on every game. Name one player/coach that could have done better against the Huskies and one player/coach that stepped it up.

Dud. The beat-down that the Irish put on the Huskies was a pretty comprehensive effort, so it's hard to really find a lot of fault. The one area that concerned me, and it's because I've seen this issue surface before, was Jimmy Clausen's accuracy. Once it was clear how the game was going to go I didn't expect Charlie to really pile it on so that Clausen would have huge numbers, but it looked to me like JC got sloppy about setting his feet and delivering a firm, accurate throw. He threw one interception, and had another one called back because of a questionable pass-interference call. He also missed badly on some wide open throws, and forced a few balls into coverage when he had other less risky options available. With an extra week to prepare, and playing against a woeful defense, I expected Clausen to look much sharper. Hopefully he will this week against Pitt.


Stud. I was awfully pleased to see James Aldridge assert himself at the running back position. #34 ran for 84 yards on 13 carries (6.5 ypc) with two really nice, powerful touchdown runs. It has been a long road back from the injuries that plagued him early in his Irish career, but he looked a very studly 100% against the Huskies, and may have moved past Robert Hughes on the depth chart to the 1A position behind Armando Allen. I really think all the competition at that position has caused that entire group to elevate its level of play. Honorable mention studs on the day were freshman running back Jonas Gray who had the first carries of his career and looked very promising with 61 yards on 9 attempts (6.8 ypc), and the entire offensive line who opened up all the holes for Aldridge & Gray.

3. Halloween involves people abandoning reality for awhile to dress up and imitate something that they are not. Pick one Halloween costume with traits you would like to see from the Notre Dame football team the rest of the season.

I would like to see the Irish shows us a little more of their "Conan the Barbarian" side. One of my all time favorite movie quotes:

Mongol General asks Conan: "What is best in life?"

Conan replies: "To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women."

Of course, some Irish players already have their "Conan" on. Offensive guard Eric Olsen is well known for playing with intensity and a little bit of nasty, and it is those traits which have given us the greatest image from from the 2008 season so far. I swear in the image below that Eric looks like a conquering Viking marauder, driving his enemies before him and listening to the lamentations of the Wolverine women. I'm guessing that Mr. Olsen likely has some Norwegian blood in him and therefore might really be a viking!





4. When trick-or-treating as a kid, there always seemed to be at least one house that handed out apples. What aspect of the football team this year is the biggest apple in your candy bag (aka biggest disappointment)?

Well, it would be easy to say that I'm disappointed in the Irish power running game, at our inability to "pound it." But numerous other members of the IBG have already chewed that apple, and besides, the running game looked great against UW so I'm going to be charitable and go another direction.

Notre Dame has had 36 kick-offs in their 7 games so far this season. Take a guess how many of them resulted in touchbacks? If you guessed "zero" you win the apple! Notre Dame kick coverage has been very, very good this year, but I am still befuddled that Notre Dame doesn't have a player on the roster who can consistently kick the ball into the end zone for touchbacks. It won't hurt us against the Purdues and Pitts of the world. But against teams like USC or LSU I would sure like the automatic option of having the opposing offense start at the 20 rather than risking a big return that leads to much better field position and possibly a touchdown. If you've ever seen USC play and watched their kicker blast kicks beyond the end line over and over again you understand my frustration. Why can't Notre Dame find some reasonably bright kid with a big leg somewhere in the country to handle this duty?

5. This year, October 31st is coincidentally also the opener for ND's Mens Basketball team (preseason against Briar Cliff). Say a few words about one player that will make have the biggest impact on the success of the team this season (apologies to non-bball fans, but I couldn't resist).

Well, this is a no-brainer. I'm going with the big 2-0, #20, junior guard Jonathan Tremaine Peoples. He will be the spark the Irish need coming off the bench to inject some urgency and some energy when the front line guys are having an off night, or when injuries force Coach Brey to rely on his depth. You just keep an eye on #20.




Monday, October 27, 2008

Ty Willingham Resigns, Effective End of Season

According to this news report out of Seattle, Washington Head Football Coach Ty Willingham will be stepping down at the end of the season. Full text of the report:

SEATTLE, Wash. - University of Washington football coach, Tyrone Willingham, says he will step down at the end of season. The Huskies are winless in seven games this year. They have an 11-32 record under Willingham.

Pressure has been growing on the university to fire Willingham. Athletic Director Scott Woodward had said he didn't foresee making a change in the middle of the season.

Willingham decided to resign after Saturday's 33-7 loss to Notre Dame. This Saturday the Huskies are playing at No. 7 Southern Cal. The Trojans are 6-1.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled goofing off ...



Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wow, Washington is Awful

Well, I'm eager to take the credit when I call one right, and today I have to admit that I pretty much whiffed with my worries about how the game against the Huskies might go. In my (relatively clever) Washington pre-game post was worried that those predicting a blow-out needed to factor the Huskies' #1 toughest schedule in the country into their calculations. I concluded:

All I'm saying is - don't be surprised when the Dawgs don't roll over for us and instead put up a fight. They are playing at home, with their backs against the wall and they are used to playing (albeit losing to) quality teams. But it looks like the Irish will have good weather, a vulnerable opposing secondary, and a very fast artificial surface for Golden Tate and Michael Floyd to play on. I expect the Irish to win fairly comfortably. But they haven't really shown the killer instinct yet when it comes to putting teams away, so I won't be surprised if it's close enough to preserve some of Willingham's dignity.
Well, the Dawgs pretty much did roll over for the Irish, and they didn't put up a fight. They did not play like a team with their backs against the wall. In fact, they played like a team standing against a wall wearing a blindfold and smoking one last cigarette. The Irish did show some hint of a killer instinct, even though Coach Weis was merciful and took his foot off the gas midway through the second half. Despite Irish efforts to respect their opponent, Ty Willingham did not preserve much of his dignity.

More about Willingham and Washington is a moment, but first the Irish. Much like Pete at BGS who was "Happy to be Miserable" after the North Carolina loss, I am happy that I was pretty thoroughly bored by the game last night. The Irish got their first road win of the season and their biggest margin of victory since the Army game in 2006 (ND 41, Army 9), and it just wasn't very exciting. It was clear very early in the game that Notre Dame was a lot better than UW, and that the Irish would have their way with the Dawgs. After a couple of electric plays very early in the game by Michael Floyd and Golden Tate (and big Sam Young), the Irish offense was pretty much on cruise control. Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen did not look particularly good. His accuracy was poor all night, but his talented receivers and/or Washington's awful defense bailed him out of bad throws often enough that his stat line ended up looking okay (14 of 26 for 210 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT). The Irish running game was dominant. I'm going to type that again because it was so much fun the first time. The Irish running game was dominant. Notre Dame ran for 252 net yards and 5.1 yards per carry. James Aldridge had 84 yards on 13 strong carries (6.5 ypc) and scored 2 TDs. Highly touted freshman running back Jonas Gray checked into the backfield and looked very good averaging 6.8 yards per carry on 9 rushes. Thoroughly boring, yet thoroughly enjoyable.

Notre Dame's defense absolutely smothered the Huskies. UW managed only 26 net rushing yards for the game (1.1 ypc), 98 net passing yards, for a total of just 124 yards of offense on just 9 first downs. But 69 yards and 5 first downs came in the final Huskies' drive of the game, which began with 6:13 remaining. On that drive, Notre Dame was playing defense with a mix of second and third string players and it was clear that Coach Weis was more interested in rewarding those guys with some playing time than he was in preserving a shut-out. Prior to the point of emptying the bench, the Irish "D" had allowed a total of 55 yards and 4 first downs, and had not allowed the Washington offense beyond it's own 44 yard line. Total domination. One high point of the evening was the fact that Notre Dame had excellent pressure on Washington's QB the whole game and sacked him 4 times. Overall, the defense seemed to be showing a little more of the Tenuta influence against UW.

I have just a couple of things to say about Coach Willingham, and then hopefully never again. Hopefully.

Last night we saw a Ty Willingham team with a full roster of Ty Willingham players competing against a Charlie Weis team with a full roster of Charlie Weis players. And it was not pretty. The talent of the Notre Dame team was clearly an order of magnitude better that the Huskies. There were numerous times last night when a Notre Dame ball carrier simply ran over UW defenders. Ran over them. We had back-ups and and former walk-ons delivering knock-out blows to Washington starters. If it wasn't obvious to the casual observer before last night, it has to be obvious today. Ty Willingham, despite being a good man and a good coach from Sunday through Friday (I am completely serious), was not getting the job done as the head football coach at Notre Dame because he was failing as a recruiter. He was not bringing in the talent that Notre Dame was used to getting, that ND needed to get, to play at the level they aspire to. It was almost sad to listen to Bob Davie last night when he talked about Ty's first recruiting class at Washington. According to Boob, Ty decided to quickly infuse the roster with talent by focusing on juinior college transfers in his first class, an effort which utterly failed and which left Washington with a yawning chasm of talent in this year's senior class. It all sounded so familiar. If you want to be a Division I-A head football coach you can't whiff on recruiting every second or third year. There are no mulligans in recruiting.

As a result of his fatal flaw, Washington is talent-deficient and is playing more freshman than almost anyone in the country. And getting embarrassed week after week. The fans have given up on TW, and last night it looked to me like his players have given up on him as well. It's likely that Ty will be let go at the end of the season, if not sooner, and that may be the last we see of him on the national stage. I don't know who is going to hire him after he has taken two once-proud football programs to their knees. He's clearly too stoic and cryptic for television, so he can't join Boob Davie in the broadcast booth. He has no experience as an offensive or defensive coordinator. But he has a big pile of money that Notre Dame paid him for NOT coaching the team after leaving South Bend. Keep an eye out for him next time you hit the links.

Next up: Pittsburgh. At our place.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Washington. It's All About The "W"

The Fighting Irish play the University of Washington Huskies tomorrow night in Seattle, at 5:00 Pacific time on ESPN2 (more on that in a minute). Here are my quick hits on the Washington game, and this week it's all about the "W".

  • W is for Washington, who is 0-6.
  • W is for Willingham, coach of 0-6 Washington, who was fired from his job at Notre Dame and who is now dead man Walking at the U of W.
  • W is for Weis, who succeeded Willingham at ND, and who is succeeding where Willingham couldn't.
  • W is for the Whiner, Coach Boob Davie who failed at ND before Willingham and who will be calling the TV broadcast for ESPN2. I'm sure the execs at ESPN think that is just hilarious!
  • W is for Winning, which Notre Dame is doing again this year.
  • W is for Winless, like Washington and Willingham.
  • W is for Wagering. The wagering on this game has moved the line in Washington's favor from +11 to +10.
  • W is for Wise Guys, who like Washington to beat the spread.
  • W is for Weather, which should be clear and cool (low 50's), with only a little Wind (8-9 mph).
  • W is for Walk-on kicker who has gone from interhall ball to back-up for Walker in just a week!
  • W is for "Who have they played?"
It's true that Washington is a hapless 0-6, while the Irish are a majestic 4-2. This has prompted many Notre Dame fans to predict a road blowout win by ND. And maybe we'll see it. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Notre Dame has played two road games this season, both of them a lot closer to home than Seattle, and lost both of them. You have to walk before you can run, and I think the Irish need to win a game on the road before we start calling for blowout wins on the road.

And while the Huskies have looked pathetic, one must take into account who they have played. According to Jeff Sagarin, Washington's schedule so far this year is ranked as the #1 toughest schedule in the country. Notre Dame's schedule is ranked 45th. Washington's six opponents have an average Sagarin ranking this week of 29th in the nation. Notre Dame's six games were against teams with an average Sagarin rank this week of 64th. The four teams the Irish have beaten rank, on average around #85. The two teams we lost to have an average rank of 23rd in the country, which is just slightly better than the average ranking of Stanford's whole schedule. That's right, the teams that have beaten Notre Dame rank only slightly better, on average, than the teams that have beaten Washington.

The best team Notre Dame has beaten was Stanford, ranked 51st. We beat them by 7 points. It just so happens that Stanford is the worst team that Washington played this year (by a significant margin), and they lost by just 7 points. Washington's players are not going to be awed by Notre Dame's talent. Notre Dame sits at #44 in the Sagarin rankings this week (one spot ahead of Cincinnati!). Five of Washington's six opponents are currently ranked higher than that (at 4, 18, 32, 33, and 35). Only Stanford was ranked below the Irish. So they are not going to be intimidated by us. I also expect Washington to play with a lot of fire and emotion. They have their backs against the wall, and they know that their coach is under serious fire. As disappointing as Willingham has been at UW, I have no doubt that their locker room is full of players who love their coach and who feel like they have to defend his honor against all the haters.

All I'm saying is - don't be surprised when the Dawgs don't roll over for us and instead put up a fight. They are playing at home, with their backs against the wall and they are used to playing (albeit losing to) quality teams. But it looks like the Irish will have good weather, a vulnerable opposing secondary, and a very fast artificial surface for Golden Tate and Michael Floyd to play on. I expect the Irish to win fairly comfortably. But they haven't really shown the killer instinct yet when it comes to putting teams away, so I won't be surprised if it's close enough to preserve some of Willingham's dignity.

Sarah Palin and the Pope

Okay, this one is for all my readers who get annoyed when I post about anything other than Notre Dame football. From The Corner at National Review Online.


So, Sarah Palin's advisors decide that it is time for her to meet a bunch of serious world leaders. They head to Europe, where, first up, she has an appointment with the Pope. The Pope and some of his Cardinals invite her for a boat ride on the Tiber. As they are sitting in the gondola talking, a wind starts up and blows the Pope's hat into the water. Palin looks around and realizes that no one is going to do anything about it, so she calmy rises, takes off her her high heels, and steps off the side of the boat. Instead of diving into the water, however, she walks across it, to the hat, picks it up and walks back across the water to the boat. She climbs in, hands the Pope his hat and continues discussing whatever it was they had been talking about. The Cardinals are open mouthed in astonishment at what they have just seen. The news media, in nearby boats are busy discussing among themselves how to report it. Headlines the next day at the New York Times, The Washington Post and the networks all blare: "New Revelation: Sarah Palin Can't Swim."

Through 6 (Mid-Season Progress Check)

So where the heck are we? After six games last season the Irish were sitting at a nightmarish 1-5, having slipped into the win column by beating a UCLA Bruin team that was down to their third-string QB in a game where Notre Dame was out-gained 282 yards to 140. But we weren't really worried about style points at that juncture. In 2008 after six games the Fighting Irish sit at a much improved 4-2, but with the bitter aftertaste of a blown opportunity in Chapel Hill sting on their tongues. The Irish faithful are generally ecstatic over the dramatic improvement they have seen from this football team, most particularly in the passing game as the result of a maturing QB, an influx of talented young receivers, and quantum leaps in the pass blocking by the offensive line. But I wanted to try to get a more concrete or objective look at how much this team has improved in the past year, and the midway point of the season seemed like a logical time to do it.

What I have done is compiled some statistics comparing the performance of the 2008 Fighting Irish through six games with the performance of the 2007 Fighting Irish through the first six games of last season. It's a little arbitrary. Why not compare to the full season stats from 2007? Or just the stats from the common opponents from each season? I guess I like the symmetry of looking at the stats from the midpoint of each season, which allows us to look at the progress over the course of a full year, rather than the progress over just a half-season which we would have if we compared end-of-year 2007 stats against mid-year 2008 stats. Of course there are three types of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics. So take the following with a grain of salt, and know that I know they can be interpreted a lot of ways. Nonetheless, I still found it a very useful and somewhat surprising exercise.

Set out below are two charts. The first compares some key stats for the Notre Dame offense through six games in 2007 and through six games in 2008. Blue numbers in the differentials columns represent a positive trend from 2007 to 2008. Red numbers indicate a negative trend.

The second chart does the same thing looking at the performance of the Notre Dame defense. Blue is a good trend for the Irish, red numbers are a negative trend.






Offensive category
2007
2008
Diff.
% Change
First Downs / Gm.
12.3
25.5
13.2
+107%
Rush Yds. / Gm.
33
101.2
68.2
+207%
Rush Yds. / Att.
1
3.2
2.2
+220%
Pass Yd. / Gm.
153
271.8
118.8
+77.6%
Completion %
61.4 %
61.6%
0.2%
n/a
Pass Yds / Att.
5.2
7.4
2.2
+42.3%
Pass Yds / Comp.
8.5
12.1
3.6
+42.4%
Total Yds / Gm.
186
373
187
+100.5%
Off. Plays / Gm.
62
67.6
5.6
+9.03%
Yds / Off. Play
2.97
5.5
2.53
+85.2%
Turnovers
12
14
2
+16.7%
3rd Dn. Conv. %
24.7%
40%
15.3%
n/a
Penalty Yds / Gm.
63
45.3
-17.7
-28%
Points / Gm.
11
25.5
14.5
+132%
Sacks Allowed
32
9
-23
-71.9%









Defensive category
2007
2008
Diff.
% Change
Opp. 1st Downs /Gm.
21.6
20.6
1
-4.6%
Opp. Rush Yds. / Gm.
190
136.3
-53.7
-28.3%
Opp. Rush Yds. / Att.
4.1
4.4
0.3
+6.8%
Opp. Pass Yds. / Gm.
154
231.3
77.3
+50.2%
Opp. Completion %
49%
54.8%
5.8%
n/a
Opp. Pass Yds / Att.
5.7
6.1
0.4
+7.0%
Opp. Pass Yds/ Comp.
11.7
11.1
-0.6
-5.1%
Opp. Total Yds / Gm.
343
367
24
+7.0%
Opp. Off. Plays / Gm.
73
69
-4
-5.5%
Opp. Yds / Off. Play
4.69
5.3
+0.61
+13%
Turnovers Forced
16
14
-2
-12.5%
Opp. 3rd Dn Conv %
43.9%
37%
-6.9%
n/a
Points Allowed
24
20.7
-3.3
-13.8%
Sacks
11
7
-4
-36.4%


Analysis. The offensive numbers pretty well speak for themselves. Clearly the improved offensive line play has had a HUGE impact. Sacks allowed are down almost 72%. Yards per rush is still underwhelming, but it's 220% better than this point in 2007. Any offensive stat you look at is way, way up over last year. Better O-line play, a maturing, healthy QB, talented young receivers, this is what we all hoped we would see and the offense has been fun to watch. Maybe Charlie Weis can coach a little bit, eh?

The surprises come on the defensive side of the ball. Very much a mixed bag. Many of the trends can probably be explained by the fact that all six games this year have been competitive, with the Irish playing ahead much of the time. This has forced opponents to pass much more in 2008 than in 2007 when teams were way up on ND early and running the ball to grind out the clock much of the time. Other stats are not so easily explained. With the tremendous improvements in the Irish offense, and the resultant improvements in average field position, you would hope to see more improvement in points allowed. Allowing just a field goal less per game is pretty modest improvement, especially since the caliber of opponent in 2008 is way down from the first half of 2007. A fairly dramatic drop-off in sack production (36%) is really surprising since teams are passing more often this year, and since Notre Dame hired blitz guru Jon Tenuta in the off-season to help the Irish bring more pressure. The opponent's average yards per play stat is also trending the wrong way, perhaps again because of the higher % of passes. But 5.3 yards per play means a first down every two plays. That's not going to get the defense off the field.

Conclusion. The offense in 2008 is MUCH better than in 2007 (Duh!), but the defense is not significantly better, and if you factor in the quality of competition in 2008 versus 2007, I would argue that the defense is not as good this season as it was last year (so far). What does it all mean? It means our offense is going to have to win games. Our defense is not good enough to win a grind-it-out ball control game. We are going to allow points to be scored, so our offense will have to be wide open and aggressive trying to get lots of points on the board. That will be fun to watch, but it also means we're likely to see more turnovers due to the more aggressive offensive game plan.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

We Are Purdue? (UNC Post-Mortem)

I've got a real numbers-crunch of a post coming up to recap the first six games of the 2008 football season, but for the sake of having a complete blog record for the 2008 season I wanted to put down just a few quick hitters on the very disappointing 29-24 loss to North Carolina.

What team does this sound like? They amass nearly 500 yards of total offense, out-gain their opponent by 150 yards, but rush for less than 100 yards, turn the ball over 5 times and lose a close game they clearly should have won. If you said "Purdue" you are either on the same wavelength as me or you read the title of this post. It hit me earlier tonight that in the loss to the Tar Heels the Irish managed to end up looking like a Joe Tiller Boilermakers squad. Basketball on grass, throwing the ball all over the yard, but when it came to crunch time unable to control the ball and the clock and prone to making stupid mistakes that cost them the game. I'm not sure exactly what the point of this analogy is, but I think it means that if you want to rise above the Purdues of the football world you better figure out how to run the ball when you need to, and you better quit coughing up the football while you're nursing an 8-point lead.

Bottom line on the North Carolina game: The offense looked great passing the ball, and mediocre running the ball. The defense looked okay, but not great, allowing 5.0 yards per play, forcing zero turnovers and bagging just one sack. Certainly the defense was good enough to win if the offense doesn't turn the ball over 5 times (2 INT, 3 lost fumbles). Frankly, no team deserves to win after coughing it up 5 times.

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. The Carolina game was truly one that got away. A road win against a ranked opponent would have been a very big step forward for this team. Hopefully they take the lessons of that game to heart and bring home the big in next time.

It should be noted that Notre Dame's Average Starting Field Position (ASFP) was the 22 yard line, North Carolina's ASFP was the 33. Once again, the team that won the field position battle won the game.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Irish Blogger Gathering: Tailgate Edition

Sarah at Bad Trade is hosting this week's Irish Blogger Gathering, and she has chosen that most venerable of American sporting traditions - the tailgate party - as this week's topic. So grab a brat and a beer and enjoy this week's B.S. session. My answers follow below, Sarah's original post and the responses of the other members of the IBG can be read over at her place.

1. You're having some beers and brats outside Notre Dame Stadium, just chilling with friends. If you could have one Notre Dame player or coach drop by to share a drink, a brat and some stories with you, who would it be?

George O'Leary, without a doubt. I'm sorry, that wasn't nice.

My first thought was Father Ted Hesburgh. He's not a player or coach, although I could perhaps bend the rules to make him an honorary coach or something here at OC Domer. Fr. Ted is a bit of a name dropper (it's actually pretty funny how many names he can drop into any given conversation, the guy knows EVERYBODY), but he really is a fascinating guy to chat with and he really did transform Notre Dame into the University we know today.





But I want to be true to the original question, so I would have to go with former Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Moore. Joe Moore was on Lou Holtz's staff from 1988 (National Championship year) to 1996 and was certainly among the best assistant coaches ever associated with Notre Dame. Coach Moore's tenure at ND ended when new head coach Boob Davie let him go and somehow managed to get the University sued and held liable for discriminating against Moore based on his age. That was probably the first sign that Davie wasn't cut out to be head coach at ND. At any rate, Coach Moore was seriously "old school" and it would be awesome to give the guy a cold beer and let him tell the uncensored history of Lou Holtz's tenure at Notre Dame. I would also love to hear Coach Moore's expletive-laden analysis of why the current Irish offensive line can't run block worth a damn. Maybe we could figure out a way to get Coach Weis and Coach Latina to join us? Coach Moore died of lung cancer in July of 2003. A couple of nice articles about his legacy and career can be found here and here.


2. What was your best experience ever with a tailgate party?

I don't get to a lot of games, so I don't do a lot of tailgating, but the one that sticks in my mind is 2005 at Stanford. That game was on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. We rented a big Chevy Tahoe and drove to Northern California. As a belated birthday present we picked up my mom and took her with us into San Francisco and spent a great day in the city on Friday (Pier 39, Alcatraz, cable cars, Lombard Street, etc...) capped off by the Notre Dame pep rally held in our hotel.

On Saturday we headed down to Stanford for the game. Because Stanford's fans are totally weak, tickets to the game were readily available (I still get mail from the Stanford athletic department today trying to sell me Stanford tickets), so my two brothers were able to get tickets too. Although our plan to meet before the game for some tailgating was woefully thin on details, we miraculously managed to park within just a few feet of each other in a grove of trees not too far from Stanford Stadium. I had purchased a tiny gas grill before we left Orange County, and we all chipped in with bringing food and drinks.

It was a perfect day for football, cool and crisp. We fired up the grill, broke out some cold drinks, and had a great time. My daughter was wearing her "Play Like a Champion Today" yellow T-shirt, my son was in his #10 Brady Quinn jersey, and we were all tossing the football around. We don't get together as a family very often, so having my mom, both my brothers and their wives, and Mrs. Domer & the OC Kids there and enjoying a great afternoon made it a really memorable day. To top it all off, the Irish beat Stanford that night (in a game that was closer than it should have been), and we were all there for the post-game ceremony when they officially began ripping up the turf and tearing down the old Stanford Stadium so they they could build a newer, smaller one for their fans to stay away from in droves. We still have some of that turf tucked away somewhere.


3. There are lots of great tailgate experiences around the country - what school's tailgate tradition do you most want to experience?

They say that game days at the big SEC schools are absolutely amazing, but the place that sticks in my head for no obvious reason is Penn State. I've heard that Happy Valley is just an amazing place to visit for a game. We have some friends who went to Penn State, and my experiences hanging out with them at parties and backyard barbecues leads me to believe that those Nittany Lions know how to tailgate. To me, Midwestern tailgating bundled up in a sweatshirt against a little November chill seems more authentic than tailgating in the South in 90-degree heat, and I think eating a brat and chugging a beer in Happy Valley would just be a lot of fun.

Of course, there is something to be said for tailgating in Southern California. Hard to describe though.


4. Indiana decides that their drinking laws are far too un-draconian (I'm from Wisconsin. I don't understand these things like "kids aren't allowed in bars," "your parents can't give you liquor if they are supervising" and "no alcohol purchases on Sunday"), and drinking is now forbidden on Saturdays. The Excise Police stop by your tailgate, and proceed to dump out the liquor you were attempting to hide from them. What do they pour out?

Well, if we're in our usual low-budget tailgate mode, we're looking at some Corona beer (with slices of lime), and some excellent California wines for the ladies (possibly a nice Zinfandel and some Pinot Grigio from Napa and Sonoma counties). If we're tailgating upscale, there will be some nice vodka for mixing Cape Cods, and things are gonna get ugly if they find that bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label because that stuff is way too expensive to be pouring out on the ground.

5. OK, I couldn't leave it alone completely. How do you feel about the impending end of the Coach Willingham era at Washington?

Look, it's a crappy thing to say but I have to admit I feel a little vindication as an Irish fan and alum. But that's only because the University was unfairly accused of racism when they fired him. The bottom line is that Coach Willingham was not getting the job done in recruiting or on the field. If he had brought in better talent and won more games he'd still be the head coach and they'd be sizing him up for a statue outside the stadium next to Ara's. But since he and his supporters brought race into it, it has become necessary for TW to be publicly exposed as a poor football coach so that Notre Dame put those charges of racism to rest. When politically correct U of W fires Willingham after he has destroyed their football program, that should be the end of the matter for both ND admirers and detractors.

In a way it's unfair for the current players and Coach Weis to be dragged into this. It's not their fault that Willingham was fired - but it somehow falls to them to defend the University's honor by beating Coach Willingham and the Huskies. It's kind of weird, really. But I would bet that Charlie and the team aren't thinking about Ty Willingham at all. I am sure they are just worrying about playing with energy and speed and executing their assignments so that they can get to 5-2 on the year.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Don't Blame Governor Palin

I love Peggy Noonan. She is a brilliant writer and has been one of the most important voices of the conservative movement as far back as her days as a speech writer for President Ronald Reagan. But yesterday she published a column at the Wall Street Journal's website entitled Palin's Failin' that is just wrong. Essentially Ms. Noonan blames Sarah Palin for the failings of the McCain presidential campaign. I felt strongly enough about it to write a (longer than intended) comment at wsj.com, which I include below.


Peggy - I think you're holding Governor Palin to an unfairly high standard. She's the vice-presidential nominee of the party, not the top of the ticket. It's not for her to set the tone and strategy of the campaign, that's up to Senator McCain. It is Senator McCain who is failing the GOP and the conservatives around the country, although we conservatives never really expected much from him. Of the two candidates on the Republican ticket, it is Palin, not McCain, who excites the party faithful. It is Palin, not McCain who draws the crowds and opens the wallets of the conservative base. Yet you feel she has failed?

As for her relations with the media - what more can she really do? She sat down with Gibson and Couric and they chose to make a mockery of her and of their avowed profession. Rather than perform journalism they performed show trials that would have made the Soviets blush. Whenever she speaks, all the media can report on is what she wore and how she did her hair. If you look through the photos the press pool takes at any of her public events, you'll see numerous pictures of Sarah Palin's feet - more specifically her calves, feet, and shoes. I see very few photos of Joe Biden's feet. The mainstream media in this campaign has completely jettisoned its longstanding support of equality for women and has instead embraced the sexist canard that the Governor of Alaska is just a cute, empty-headed housewife who isn't entitled to be taken seriously. And this is Sarah Palin's fault?

Peggy, you expect so much from Sarah Palin. In fact, you expect more from her than you seem to expect from the Democratic nominee for President. Senator Obama hasn't exactly made a habit of sitting down with critical or even skeptical members of the press corps and providing honest answers to tough questions. Instead he provides platitudes and evasions and relies upon his supporters in the media to spin and shape the reporting in the best possible light. If the American people actually elect this guy they are going to be in for some really big surprises come January, because he has never really been pinned down on what he intends to do. "Change" is a nice campaign promise, because every listener can hear what they want from it. But not all change is good.

It is unfair to blame Governor Palin for not saving John McCain's candidacy. John McCain was always a poor choice to carry the GOP banner. He is a great man and an American hero. But he's not much of a conservative, he's too old, and he's a captive of the Washington establishment. It's to Governor Palin's credit that she was able to create some excitement about his candidacy when there was none before she was selected. John McCain might have been able to find a more "qualified" running mate, but I don't think he could have found a VP nominee that would have actually helped him garner more support from the voters.

Peggy, I share the frustration you must feel that Governor Palin was not able to come into the game from off the bench and save the day for John McCain. But I think it's unfair to label her a failure. John McCain and his campaign managers may have failed (we'll find out soon enough). The "journalists" covering the campaign have certainly failed the American people. They are going to need a long hot shower to wash off the guilt and shame of their partisan behavior when this is over. But Governor Palin did not fail.

And it's not over yet. The Obama campaign is planning their victory party, but they know that they are still vulnerable. They're nervous enough that they are ripping Joe the Plumber to shreds just for having the gall to ask the exalted one a pointed question about taxes. One or two more revealing remarks about "spreading the wealth around" could turn the race around. They're nervous enough that they are still trying to register as many felon and dead people to vote as they can get away with before the FBI knocks on the door. The polls are all in Obama's favor. But the polls are run by the same media organizations that are campaigning openly for Obama. The polls query samples of 800 Democrats and 600 Republicans and shout that Obama has an unassailable 4-point lead. But those are not representative samples of the American electorate.

It's certainly fair to be disappointed that John McCain's campaign has not performed better, that they haven't effectively communicated their message and that they haven't effectively exposed the true agenda of the Obama campaign. But should the blame for that be put at the feet of the old Washington hand and his old Washington handlers? Or should we blame instead the rookie from Alaska?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Irish Bloggers Gathering - Bye Week Edition


Frankie V. at the UHND Blog is hosting the Irish Bloggers Gathering this "bye" week. Follow the link to see Frankie's original post and to check out all the other bloggers' contributions in the comments there. Without further ado, here are my answers (or evasions, as the case may be) to this week's questions.

1. With our beloved Irish on the bye this weekend, how much college football will you be watching Saturday and what games are you most looking forward to watching?

Are you kidding me? This is OCTOBER!! It is written into my pre-nup that I am permitted to bask in the glow of my 60" Hi-Def Sony television all day long on every Saturday in October, despite the health hazards posed by overexposure to the radiation given off by the TV. Not that I've given it any thought, mind you, but there are a few games that might be of passing interest to the casual fan this Saturday:

  • At 9:30 a.m. Pacific time #23 Vanderbilt plays between the hedges against the #9 Georgia Bulldogs who, you will recall, got their asses handed to them at home on national TV by Alabama a couple of weeks ago. Interesting to see if Vandy is for real, and if UGA's bite is anywhere near as potent as its bark. Great way to start the day!
  • At 12:30 Pacific time, the #15 (and over-ranked) Kansas Jayhawks play the #6 Oklahoma Sooners in Norman, OK. I would expect OU to massacre KU, to work out some of the angst coming off a tough loss to Texas last week, but you never know. We'll certainly know if KU is contender or pretender after this game.
  • At 1:30 Pacific time, the UNRANKED and PATHETIC Michigan Wolverines visit #3 Penn State. The entertainment value in watching Michigan get pummeled week after week is starting to wear thin (there's no suspense anymore!), but there's always a chance the Wolverines man up and totally ruin Penn State's run at a National Championship. I'll be flipping back and forth between this game and the OU/KU game depending on which is more interesting at the time.
  • At 5:00 p.m. Pacific time #12 Mizzou visits Austin Texas and the #1 team in the nation, the Texas Longhorns. Missouri QB Chase Daniel looked pretty human in the Missouri loss to Oklahoma State last week, so I expect Texas to win big. But, there is the possibility of an emotional letdown by the Longhorns after the big win over Oklahoma last week. If Texas takes care of business, they're in the driver's seat for a shot at the Mythical National Championship (MNC).
  • Depending on how the other games are going, I'll also be keeping tabs on the 1:00 game (Pacific time) between Stanford and UCLA. It's a game with some local interest here in the OC, pitting two PAC-10 teams with new coaches trying to rebuild their programs.
  • The 4:00 match up (Pacific time) between Oregon State and the UW Huskies is also worth some attention, featuring the death throes of Ty Willingham's career at Washington. UW won't be helped by the "looking ahead" factor as the Huskies welcome the Fighting Irish to town next week.
  • The other "must watch" game on Saturday is the United States Air Force Academy Falcons against the Rebels of UNLV at 7:00 p.m. Pacific. There's a friendly wager (is it a friendly wager if cash is on the line?) between OC Domer and his Dad on whether Air Force or the Fighting Irish will have a better record over the 12-game regular season. Right now, both teams sit at 4-2.
So, to answer the question directly, I'll be watching football from the time I roll out of bed at about 9:00 a.m. until I'm ready to call it a night at 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. It may be a bye week for Notre Dame, but we ardent football fans never take a week off!

2. Not to look too far ahead… but in looking at the 2009 schedule, do you think the Irish will be set up for a title run if they continue to improve each week as they are doing now?

Yes. The Notre Dame schedule next year is quite similar to this year's. The most significant change is that Michigan will be better and they won't be looking past us when we roll into Ann Arbor. The potential stumbling blocks will be the Wolverines (you can NEVER discount U of M), Michigan State (if we continue to improve they will not be a problem), USC (who will once again be USC), and Stanford (those guys will always be a pain in the neck). But Nevada, Purdue (new coach), Washington, Boston College, Washington State (in San Antonio), Navy, Pitt, and U-Conn should all go into the "W" column. For Notre Dame to make a run next year, the following things need to occur, and they are all within Notre Dame's control:
  • Finish the regular season strong in 2008 season. That means winning all remaining games except USC in a workman-like manner. No close calls, no flukes. Solid, though not necessarily spectacular, wins over UW, Pitt, Navy, Syracuse.
  • Play well against USC. We don't have to beat them. But we have to erase the perception that there is a huge yawning chasm of a talent gap between USC and Notre Dame. If we play well and lose by less than 17 points, we will have done what is needed for next year.
  • Win a Bowl game. At 9 and 3 we won't get into a BCS bowl game. But we should go to something like the Gator Bowl against a team that we can beat. We have to play well and win the Bowl game to get that monkey off the back of the program. A bowl win gives the Irish nice momentum heading into 2009, as a nice win would probably put us in or near the Top 10 in the final 2008 polls.
  • Entering 2009 with EVERYBODY but David Bruton coming back, Notre Dame will be ranked in the Top 10 in the pre-season polls. Any team that starts the season in the Top 10 and runs the table 12-0 is very likely to be in the top 2 at the end of the season. The Irish will need to go 12-0 to get a title shot, because nobody is going to give a 1-loss Notre Dame team the benefit of the doubt over a 1-loss USC or Ohio State or Texas or Oklahoma or Florida or Alabama. The 2009 schedule will be too weak for that. The USC game is the key tilt, of course, but it may come too early in the schedule. The Trojans are game 6 on the year, following a bye week (which is nice). Even if we look very good in a win, there' a chance pollsters will discount the Irish if we don't dominate the weaker opposition at the end of the schedule. Notre Dame finishes 2009 against Navy, Pitt, U-Conn, and Stanford. To get into the National Championship game they cannot afford for any of those games to be close.
It's there for them. They are maturing quickly, and the schedule actually sets up nicely for a title run. But in order for it to happen they have to set the table in 2008. There's a lot of work to do still this season, and there's little margin for error. No more missed opportunities like the UNC game.

3. If you could take 1 recruit we missed on from each of the last 4 years (1 from each year), who would they be and how differently would this team look like right now if we had gotten that 1 player each year? (Note, the players should be players the Irish either led for at one time or were at least a finalist for).

Um, yeah. Can I pass on the recruiting questions? I follow recruiting at only the most casual and superficial of levels, unlike my friend Cathy in Riverside. I cheer when the Irish land a shiny new 4-star or 5-star player. I boo when I read that the object of our collective desires has chosen Florida or Ohio State or USC over Notre Dame. But I have no way of evaluating which high school football players are good fits for our program, which are "must haves" or "good gets." Heck, when I actually go and watch a high school football game I can't even tell who the great players are unless the QB uncorks a long bomb or two that look like artillery shells in the air, or a running back breaks six tackles in the course of a 70-yard TD run.

One of the lines I draw to delude myself that I don't actually need professional help for my problem is that I don't subscribe to any recruiting service or any other college football news service. I buy a few pre-season preview magazines, and the Notre Dame media guide if I don't forget, and that's it. Everything else I read or consume about Notre Dame football I get for free (unless I have to pay the cable company to view an actual game). The main result of this is that I know very little about the high school kids Charlie Weis is wooing now or those he has wooed in the past. A secondary result is that I tend to judge recruiting by what I see on the field. Judging by what I've seen so far in 2008, I would have to say that Coach Weis has done a very good job recruiting over the past two years.

4. If Notre Dame could only land 1 more recruit on each side the ball in this recruiting class, who would you like it to be? (Again, it should be someone we have a reasonable chance with).

Pass. (See answer to previous question). I can't name names, but we better figure out a way to shore up the middle of our defense. We need some stout bodies in the D-line and at middle linebacker. Notre Dame's two safeties lead the team in tackles, and that is a problem. On offense, I am always looking for dominating linemen. It wouldn't hurt to recruit a coach who can teach run blocking as well.

5. If you could take one of Notre Dame’s bowl losses since the 1994 Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M and turn it into a win, which one would it be? Why? And What if any impact do you think that win would have had on the Irish.

Others have mentioned the 2006 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, and I was very tempted to go with that. I took my son to that game (a big treat for him) and it was a big disappointment that we lost.

But I'm going instead with another game in that same venue, the 2001 Fiesta Bowl loss to Oregon State by a final score of 41-9. Notre Dame trailed at half-time of that game 12-3, but allowed the Beavers to absolutely run them out of the stadium with a burst of 29 unanswered points in the 3rd quarter. The Beavers outgained Notre Dame 446 yards to 155. OSU averaged 7.0 yards per offensive play, compared to 2.2 yards for ND.

I chose this game because the Irish were whipped in a BCS Bowl game by a team that is not a traditional power in college football. It's one thing to lose a game to Ohio State. It is another thing entirely to get blown out by OREGON STATE. The Beavers were coached by Dennis Erickson, who I loathed even before the game due to his prior stint at the University of Miami.

For me, this was the game that showed the whole world that the emperor had no clothes. This was the game that the wheels came off the wagon. The decision to hire Boob Davie came painfully home to roost. This was the game that started the saying that "Notre Dame lacks the team speed to play with ____________ ." It may not have been the beginning of our slide into true mediocrity, but it was certainly the game that opened everyone's eyes to the fact that the slide was underway. Prior to this bowl game Notre Dame had at least been mostly respectable in the bowl losses. After that game none of them have really been close.

Impact? Who knows. If the Irish win that BCS bowl game, Bob Davie certainly keeps his job longer, and can hopefully use the win to recruit better talent than we saw between 2001 and 2007. We probably avoid the Willingham debacle and the disater of 2007. But Boob Davie is still a mediocre coach at best, and who knows how long we'd be stuck hanging around the bottom of the Top 25 rankings? The 2001 Fiesta Bowl led to Willingham and then Charlie Weis, who I think will be better for the program in the long run. But that loss to the Beavers hurt. It hurt that night, and it hurt the program for years afterward.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Irish v. Tar Heels OR Boilers v. Buckeyes? WTF?

One of the great weekly rituals for Notre Dame fans around the country whenever the Irish are on the road playing a game that is owned by ABC is the search for the "coverage map" that shows which games will be aired in which regions on ABC and ESPN. Lucky Irish fans will find that their region is getting the game for free on one of those two channels. Unlucky fans get the bad news that the game will not be aired in their region. Here's the bad news for Irish fans in Orange County this week.

But all is not lost! Those unlucky fans have a couple of choices. They can shell out $21.95 to get the game of their choice, PLUS a bunch of other games that they likely have zero interest in, by subscribing to ESPN Game Plan for the week through their cable company. Woo Hoo! Or they can go to a Notre Dame "game watch" event hosted by their local Notre Dame club, much like the events sponsored the Notre Dame Club of Orange County.

I'm going to bite the bullet and go with the ESPN Game Plan, but first I wanted to check the program guide on my TV to make sure the coverage maps and my cable company (Cox) are on the same page. 12:30 p.m., ESPN HD channel 715, and there it is! "Notre Dame vs. North Carolina OR Ohio State vs. Purdue." WTF?

So which is it? Am I getting the Irish for free on ESPN HD, or am I getting OSU blowing up Purdue? A quick call to Cox will surely clear this up. Nope. My friendly Cox customer service representative tells me that even THEY don't know which game they're getting from ABC until game time. So I can order the game plan (non refundable!) now and maybe find out I've wasted $21.95 at 12:30, or I can wait until Ohio State v. Purdue is getting pumped into my house and jump on the phone, wait on hold, order the game, and wait for it to load and probably start watching the Irish halfway through the first quarter. Great.

Yeah, I ordered the game. So if ABC/ESPN pumps the Irish into the OC despite what the "coverage map" says I'm totally screwed. By the way, if I get the game for free on ESPN HD I get to watch it in Hi-Def. But if I have to watch the pay-per-view game on Game Plan, it won't be a Hi-Def signal! Pay more for a crappier product! What a bargain.

There has to be a better way to do this.

I blame Mark May.

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!