Heck, we're just starting week #2 of the season, and I am already falling behind in my posts. It's all Charlie Weis' fault of course. Normally my Saturday and Sunday posting during the football season is fueled by pent-up frustration at the sub-par play of the Fighting Irish. This most recent weekend, the Irish went out and played a near-perfect 2009 season opener, leaving me as satisfied as a sailor stumbling back across the border from Tijuana at the end of his three-day shore leave. I've had a smile on my face since Saturday and all I really want is a nap.
Starting the 2009 campaign against a talented Nevada Wolf Pack team that has been bowling each of the past four seasons and is led by one of five players to have passed for 2,000 yards and rushed for 1,000 yards in the same season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish put on a show that made the Wolves look as bad as the 2008 Michigan Wolverines. The Irish defense pitched its first shutout of the Weis era (in fact the first shutout since 2002), and the offense scored touchdowns on five of its first six possessions. The scoring drives were:
- 12 plays 67 yards
- 9 plays 78 yards
- 2 plays 79 yards
- 8 plays 80 yards, and
- 4 plays 99 yards.
Notre Dame racked up 510 yards of total offense, averaging 8.4 yards per play. Starting quarterback Jimmy Clausen had three incomplete passes to go with his four touchdown passes (15 of 18 for 315 yards).
The Irish defense had 2 sacks and 2 interceptions and held Nevada to just 2 of 11 in third-down conversions.
What's not to like?
What I should do here is just say "Great job men. Now go out there and beat the Wolverines."
But I have a few quick hitters on the Nevada game that I want to throw out here.
1. Obviously, the passing game looks dynamic. This group looks to me to be the most explosive group of play makers that Notre Dame has ever put on the field. I am dead serious. We may have fielded individual players as talented as Clausen, Floyd, Tate, and Rudolph, but I do not think we have ever fielded a group of skill players that will be as hard to defend as this group, assuming they all stay healthy. It is scary enough what Floyd, Tate and Rudolph will do to a defense when they are open. But Saturday showed very clearly that they don't even have to be open to beat you. The touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph was actually well defended. Jimmy just threw the ball anyway, knowing that Rudolph would make the play even though he was covered. Ditto the Golden Tate catch on the sideline for 36 yards (which needed instant replay review to fully appreciate) and the 88-yard TD catch-and-run by Michael Floyd.
2. These guys are finally playing with confidence and with joy. This thought popped into my head in the 4th quarter when freshman running back Theo Riddick was in the game and hurdled over a Nevada player on one of his carries. I'm not sure that's exactly what the coaches want Theo to do, but I have to give the coaches credit for getting these guys ready to play physically, mentally, and emotionally. New running backs coach Tony Alford has to get a lot of credit following Saturday's game. Armando Allen looks as confident and decisive with the ball as we have ever seen him. Jonas Gray's progress since last December is amazing. He is a stud. Gray had 50 yards on nine rushes for 5.6 yards per carry, which exceeded Allen's 4.8 yards per carry average. Allen had 72 rushing yards and 25 receiving yards on the day. Jonas Gray is going to be hard to keep off the field. Gray is stouter than Allen and much harder to bring down, plus his long carry of the day was 19 yards compared to Armando's long carry of 14 yards. If Armando doesn't break of a really long run now and again, it's going to be hard to justify playing him ahead of Gray.
3. The defensive schemes employed by Coach Jon Tenuta are clearly a risk/reward proposition. On Saturday it was almost all reward and no risk. But it won't always be that way. They were gashed on several runs that appeared to be caused by over-penetrating up the field to the point of being out of position and opening up big running lanes. Although Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick didn't hurt us, running back Vai Taua had 18 carries for 114 yards (6.3 yards per carry). Coach Weis hinted at his Sunday press conference that his defense will be working on that issue this week. The other culprit was poor tackling. The commentators on the NBC television broadcast noted how many times Coach Tenuta's blitzing schemes produced an unblocked defender wreaking havoc in the Nevada backfield. Unfortunately, poor angles and worse tackling meant that Kaepernick and Taua frequently eluded the Irish blitzers and gained positive yards instead of being tackled for losses. Coach Weis did more than hint that the defense would be emphasizing tackling this week. (Don't they emphasize tackling every week?)
4. It was really close, but Notre Dame lost the field position battle. If you read the OC Domer blog last season, you know this was a statistic I harped on quite a bit. Although Saturday's game bucked the trend, there is very high correlation between Average Starting Field Position (ASFP) and wins. ASFP is closely tied to two other critical aspects of the game - the turnover battle and the hidden yards in the special teams game. Notre Dame won turnover margin decisively, 3-0. All three Wolf Pack turnovers ended drives in the Irish end of the field (The Irish 35, 44, and 7 yard lines). Notre Dame's ASFP was it's own 25 yard line, including drives that started at it's own 1, 7, and 13 yard lines. Until an interception midway through the third quarter gave Notre the ball at the Nevada 46, its best starting field position had been on the -33 yard line following the opening kick-off. But 80-yard scoring drives tend to hide those sorts of problems. Nevada's ASFP was its own 26 yard line, and their worst field position of the day was the -10 yard line following a Maust punt. All this is no big deal in a blowout win. But in tight games these are the stats that can matter most.
5. The Irish offensive line looked good Saturday. Not great, but good. They gave Clausen ample time to throw, and were effective, though not by any means dominant, in the running game. Given the complexity of the schemes, it was very encouraging to me that the O-line made the transition to a new coach (Frank Verducci) without any apparent disruption.
6. Taking Care of Business. The Nevada Wolf Pack is certainly not the USC Trojans. Nevertheless, this was a very important game for the Irish. About three weeks ago I wrote:
The Irish open up the season against the University of Nevada, which feels a lot like last year's opener against SDSU. What will the 2009 squad show us? Will it be a replay of the close call against the Aztecs, foreshadowing more immaturity and inconsistency to follow? Or will it be more like the opening blow-out win of 2005 which set the tone for an entire year of play at a consistently high level?The Fighting Irish took care of business against Nevada on Saturday, and I believe they answered a lot of the key questions Notre Dame fans have been asking since last Christmas. Great job men. Now go out there and beat the Wolverines!
With Michigan waiting in the wings, the game against the Wolfpack might not look very important. But from where I sit it is huge. If this Notre Dame team can establish in week 1 the ability to be focused and intense no matter who they are playing; If they can block out the looming Wolverines, and NOT play down to the level of their opponent; If they can take care of business and dismantle the 'Pack without conscience - then it will bode very well for 2009. If not, then we can all buckle up for another unwanted roller-coaster ride.
Much has been said and written about the 2009 Notre Dame schedule. The fact is, most Irish opponents this season are either weak teams or are expected to have down or rebuilding years. If the Fighting Irish can be focused and mature this year, they have the experience and the talent to take care of business and win a lot of games. The question is: Will they? We'll know a lot more about that on September 5th.