In the run-up to the 2009 Blue & Gold game last week I posed the questions that I hoped to see answered by the scrimmage on Saturday. Below are the questions I had along with my highly qualified answers.
I don't mean that I am highly qualified to give any answers, I mean that the answers I am giving come with a lot of qualifiers. Such as: It was just a scrimmage, a lot of guys were held out, both the offense and defense showed very vanilla packages, it's very hard to judge a team playing against itself. But the biggest qualifier is that I had just one very quick pass at the full game video. The UND website posted two videos of the scrimmage on Saturday. One was a highlight package that is mildly entertaining but largely useless. It featured multiple slow-mo looks at just a handful of plays, along with a game of Duck, Duck, Goose. That video is still available on the website.
The other was a compilation of what appeared to be most (if not all) of the plays from the game. That video is very useful as you can watch the bad plays as well as the good on both sides of the ball. I watched that video all way through one time on Saturday. I also tried every trick I know to save that video to my hard drive because they posted a similar video after the 2008 B&G game and then took it down soon thereafter. I wasn't successful capturing the feed, and sure enough it's not on the UND site anymore. So I got one decent look at the whole scrimmage.
Disclaimers and qualifiers aside, here's what I saw:
Specifically, here are the questions I'm hoping to have answered (at least tentatively) on Saturday:
How does Clausen look? Is his arm strong? Accuracy good? Is he consistently making the proper reads and throwing to the correct receivers? In short, does JC look like the QB we saw in Hawaii or the QB we saw against Boston College? I'm betting that we'll see Aloha Jimmy, but I would really like some affirmation in that belief.
- Clausen was a so-so 8 of 17 for 70 yards with no touchdowns and one pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown by B&G Defensive MVP Robert Blanton. Based upon the small sample of pass plays, I didn't think he looked quite like "Aloha Jimmy". But he looked confident and in control, and his arm strength and accuracy looked pretty good. Many of the incompletions were due to excellent coverage by the secondary, which is very encouraging. Compared to last year's B&G game, Clausen has clearly improved as last year his accuracy left a lot to be desired.
- Crist was 4 of 10 for 40 yards with no TDs and no INTs. As with Clausen, many of the incompletions were due to excellent secondary play, which figures to be a strength of this team. I don't recall any "wow" plays with respect to Crist's arm strength, but I was favorably impressed with his poise and apparent command of the (presumably simplified) offense. A couple of bobbled snaps aside, I liked his decision-making, his sense of timing, and the touch on his throws, often to backs in the backfield). The "wow" came from a couple of Nate Montana's throws. He hit on the longest completion of the day. He showed very good accuracy in his couple of chances, and seems to have his Dad's knack for delivering a very catchable ball right on stride. Altogether, I feel about as comfortable with our depth and our future at the quarterback position as I have felt for a very long time.
- Coach Weis is well known for saying "I can only go by what I see." Judging by that standard you'd have to say that the offensive line's blocking in the power running game is already significantly better than at any previous time in the Weis era. You may recall that Darius Walker put up some nice rushing yards under Charlie, but you must also recall that he usually did it on his own after eluding at least one defender in the backfield as he took the hand-off. Armando Allen had 70 yards on 12 carries for a gaudy 5.8 yards per rush. Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray each averaged about 4.4 yards per carry. There was clearly an emphasis on the straight-ahead power game versus the outside runs, and I am very hopeful our running game this year will force defenses to play us honest on first and second downs, and that 3rd-and-short will become automatic first downs with Robert Hughes running behind this unit. Keep up the great work Coach Verducci.
- I think they'll be able to pressure the passer, and I don't think anyone is going to beat our guys to the edge on outside running plays. But the guys up front got pushed around a bit in the power run game. If there is any area of concern on defense, this is it. Part of what we saw on Saturday is no doubt a case of an experiences O-line getting better. But part of it is a group of young defensive linemen who have to develop in a hurry. One has to hope that we jump out to some early leads in 2009 to force teams out of time-consuming drives on the ground. If we can force teams into playing catch-up this defense will feast. But if we're down late and the opponent is trying to run out the clock we may be hard pressed to force a punt.
- Can't really judge the functioning of the staff other than by what we saw on the field. The team seemed excited to be out there, and they seemed to be playing hard and at a high level. From all that, I'd tentatively say that the new coaching hires and the reorganization of responsibilities seems to be working.
- He's certainly walking much, much better. He did say at the beginning of the post-game press conference that he was pretty tired and sore from being on his new knee that long on Saturday. And maybe it's just me but I think Coach is losing a little weight.
Assuming Notre Dame is at least moderately improved in 2009, based upon returning experience and normal maturity growth, a second loss on the schedule is hard to pin down. Michigan? They're still a mess. I think we win again, although not as easily as in 2008. Probably the most likely candidates for loss #2 would be Michigan State or Boston College just based on recent results against those teams, but we get them both at our place. Pitt and Stanford lurk out there as November road games. But if we're playing at the level I expect, those games will become very important for a team looking to make their case as a BCS Bowl invitee. Motivation at that point shouldn't be a problem.
Let the summer speculation season begin!