Friday, September 25, 2009

IBG: Life After Michael Floyd

Wow. It's been way too long since my last post, I'm embarrassed to say. Part of the problem was a business trip to Pittsburgh last week that threw me off my normal rhythm. But part of the problem has been a certain degree of befuddlement about the Irish that left me unsure of where I stand on this team. I wrote a quick post right after the loss to Michigan which pretty well captured my thoughts at that moment, and despite winning last week in a game that had very much the same feel as the Michigan game, my feelings haven't really changed much.

I feel like I owe you all a decent analysis of both the Michigan and Michigan State games, but I don't have the time to do so in a lot of detail. Here's the nutshell:

  • The offense is playing well enough to win a lot of games. Passing game is strong, run game is acceptable.
  • The defense is not playing well enough to win a lot of games. The vaunted Jon Tenuta "pressure" is rarely getting home, and the result has been unacceptably large yardage and scoring totals for two teams led by inexperienced quarterbacks. Michigan gained 430 yards (6.1 yards per play) and scored 38 points. Sparty gained 459 yards (7.1 yards per play) and scored 30 points.
  • In each of the last two games four of the top five tacklers for the Irish were defensive backs. What's up with that?
  • It's still the little things that kill you. Notre Dame had nine penalties for 75 yards against Michigan, and had ELEVEN penalties for 99 yards against Sparty.
  • Special Teams play hasn't been special, although they were significantly better against Sparty than they were against Michigan. Against UM the Irish lost the field position battle by 8 yards (Irish ASFP of their own 29, Michigan at their own 37). Against MSU the Irish barely won the battle of ASFP (own 29 versus own 26). Funny how often winning the field position battle correlates to winning the game.
Bottom Line: If the Fighting Irish expect to meet any of their goals this season, the defense has to get a whole lot more stingy than it's been to date.

With Michigan and Michigan State finally out of the way, we can now turn our attention to the Purdue Boilermakers. This week's Irish Blogger Gathering is hosted by Frank V. at the UHND Blog. After you finish up here, head over there to read all the IBG posts for this week. This week's questions:

1. The obvious question for the week, how does Notre Dame deal with the loss of Michael Floyd? What wide receiver steps up? How, if at all, does the offense change?

Frank's right, as he usually is. This/these is/are the obvious question/questions. The answer has to be that the Irish handle the loss of Floyd in 2009 much better than they did in 2008. When Michael got hurt last season the Irish offense curled up into the fetal position and sucked it's thumb until he returned for the Hawaii Bowl. In his absence the Irish offense averaged 1.9 yards per play against USC, not even gaining a first down until the last play of the 3rd quarter. With Floyd watching from the sideline Notre Dame suffered a humiliating loss to Syracuse.

The primary problem the Irish have without Michael Floyd is that the offense goes from having two very dangerous deep threats to just one, Golden Tate. While ND has several quality receivers who can step into the mix, none of them have so far shown the ability to stretch the field vertically like Floyd and Tate can. It's an easy call for opposing defenses to double-cover Golden Tate and dare the other Irish receivers to beat them.

I expect to see more of Robby Parris and Duval Kamara, along with a heavy dose of tight end Kyle Rudolph. But the only other wide-out we have seen so far who has the ability to threaten the defense deep is freshman Shaquelle Evans. Physically he has the size and speed that reminds one of Floyd, although he hasn't yet shown the same play-making ability.

I hope that Coach Weis keeps the offense fundamentally the same as the first few weeks, stretching the field vertically with Tate and (probably) Evans. The difference will be that, in the absence of Floyd, Jimmy Clausen won't be able to just throw the ball up in the air and expect #3 to come down with it. He'll have to actually wait for a receiver to get open, and thus more throws will come over the middle of the field to Rudolph, Kamara, and Parris once Tate and Evans have lured the coverage deeper.

It would be a mistake to decide that this is Purdue, we should be able to handle them, so let's just work on our run game. That could well work for one game, but Coach Weis needs to let Clausen and the receivers run the entire offense so that they are ready to execute the full passing attack against Washington and USC without Floyd to lean on. This week will be a really good test of Jimmy Clausen's development. Can he work through his reads and deliver the ball to the open receiver without committing costly turnovers?

2. After seeing three games from Notre Dame in 2009 have your expectations increased, decreased, or remained the same?

At the conclusion of my season preview post I included the following thoughts on season expectations:
Depending upon where you look, I've seen over/under win totals for Notre Dame set between 8.5 and at 9.0 wins, which is right in line with my own estimations [...]. For me, 9 wins is what the Irish "should" achieve in 2009, all things being equal. If they earn less than nine wins, they have under achieved and only a very, very nice Bowl win would bring Coach Weis back in 2010. If they manage to win ten games, they will have beaten the odds in my view, and the extra win would have to be credited to Coach Weis who will have earned the chance to stay on as coach. If they win eleven or twelve, that would be a superior job of coaching and you'll need dynamite (or another year like 2007) to dislodge Charlie from the Gug.
I think my feelings remain about the same. Notre Dame "should" win at least nine games. Ten or more wins would be a very good season. Less than nine wins would be very, very disappointing. I guess what has changed for me is my level of optimism that they will actually exceed nine wins. I still think they will, but the poor overall play of the defense and the loss of MF has reduced the margin of error for this team to almost nil.

3. The last two years against Purdue, a Notre Dame player has had their breakout game. In 2007 it was Golden Tate and in 2008 it was Armando Allen. Who do you think could have their breakout game against the Boilermakers this year?

I really, really hope that Shaquelle Evans or another wideout has the breakout game. For the longer term prospects of the team, we need to find another deep threat ASAP. But I'm not counting on it. I think the more likely breakout player is Jonas Gray. Armando Allen is nicked up and may not play, and almost certainly will not play as much this week. In his place Jonas Gray will get consistent carries, he will get into a rhythm, and he will grind down the Boilermakers. A slightly more conservative game plan will also alter the pass/run mix and mean more carries for Gray. I see him having a 100-yard game.

Another two possibles: Tight end Mike Ragone and linebacker Manti Te'o. Coach Weis has always liked two-TE sets, and the loss of MF is the perfect time to get really creative with his formations and personnel. Purdue knows that Kyle Rudolph can be trouble and will give him a lot of attention, opening things up for Ragone. Catch the ball when it comes your way Mike!

Besides Brian Smith, the Notre Dame linebackers have under-performed so far this season. If the starters aren't going to make any tackles or get to the opposing QB, why not put #5 in there and turn him loose? Let's see what the young phenom can do.

4. How would you grade the three new coaches on this year’s staff based on the first three games?

Offensive Line coach Frank Verducci gets an "A-". Jimmy has stayed upright and very productive. The running game is more consistently productive than any other time in Weis' tenure. The "minus" is for too many stupid penalties.

New Running Backs coach Tony Alford gets a "B+". The Irish running backs seem to be running with an entirely new level of confidence and decisiveness this season. Armando Allen is no longer falling over on first contact, and Jonas Gray doesn't even look like the same guy.

Defensive Line coach Randy Hart gets a "C-". His guys have been largely invisible so far this season. It has been so bad that when Ian Williams actually made a tackle last week I was genuinely surprised to hear his name called.

5. Your thoughts on Golden Tate’s stage dive into the Michigan State band? Was he trying to avoid running into the band? Was the whole thing intentional? Little of column A, little of column B?

It was totally hilarious. When I saw it, all I could think was "Lambeau Leap." Love the exuberance. Glad nobody got hurt. I always worry about guys getting a sheet music stand in the eye when they go into the band.

6. How has your opinion of the Notre Dame schedule changed from how you felt about it in the pre-season?

It doesn't look such a cakewalk now, does it?
  • Michigan is MUCH better than expected.
  • Washington BEAT the Trojans.
  • Navy almost beat Ohio State.
  • U-Conn, Stanford, Pitt all look to be legit.
The only team that looks less formidable than expected is USC who, despite losing to UW, has gone into the horseshoe and beaten Ohio State.

7. Should Jimmy Clausen be getting more hype for the Heisman?

Not yet. Jimmy has played well so far. But, seriously, throwing the ball up in the air knowing that Floyd and Tate are going to come down with it for a touchdown looks too easy. This week can be the start of Clausen's Heisman campaign if, without Michael Floyd to lean on, he can carve up Purdue for 300+ yards and three or four TDs. If Jimmy can make Robby Parris and Duval Kamara look like All-Americans, then any Heisman talk will be deserved.

Go Irish! Beat the Boilermakers!

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