The Subway Domer is hosting this week's Irish Blogger Gathering. Head over there to read all the IBG contributors' responses once you're done here.
Subway is being cute this week (I can't stand cute) and, since the Irish have been very much in the headlines since last Saturday's scuttling at the hands of Navy, he's asking us to come up with a headline for each of our IBG answers. I feel like I used to in school when the English teacher asked us to make a movie poster showing the most symbolic part of the lame book we just read. Groan. Here we go. No, it'll be good. Really!
1. After weeks and weeks of living on the edge, Notre Dame finally fell off of that edge into a pile of shit. Please describe your mental state since the Navy game. Are you hopeless or hopeful? Why?
I listen to Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio each morning on my drive to work. Colin has been having fun the past few days making fun of Notre Dame fans for unrealistically thinking that Notre Dame should be considered as on the same level as Florida, 'Bama, Texas, or USC. But Colin is knocking down a straw man. Most of us don't think Notre Dame should be a Top 5 team year in and year out. We do, however, think the Irish should be a Top 20 team year in and year out. We don't expect to beat 'Bama and Texas and USC consistently. We do expect to beat Navy and other unranked teams nearly all the time, and to beat other Top 20 teams our fair share of the time. Under Charlie we are beating unranked teams only about 70% of the time, and we haven't beat a ranked team in the last 9 tries.
Hopeless or Hopeful? Hopeful the next coach can win more games and still do it the Notre Dame way.
2. Given the sorry state of the Fighting Irish defense, are they capable of slowing down Pitt's offense, or will Stull, Baldwin, and Lewis have career days?
I am actually a little optimistic about the ability of the defense to slow Pitt down. Pittsburgh is a good team, but their record has been compiled against the 70th-toughest schedule in the Division I. (Notre Dame's schedule is ranked #26 by Sagarin). They run a pretty conventional offense, nothing exotic. Two of Notre Dame's losses have come against un-conventional offenses. Michigan's dramatic improvement running the spread offense surprised us, and we didn't handle the triple option well. There is no excuse in either case, but the fact is that the unusual offenses have really hurt us. We have done better against more traditional offensive schemes, and have done okay (not great, but okay) against Pittsburgh's scheme in the past. No career days for Stull & Co. But they'll still get theirs, and the Irish will just need to out-gun them.
The Red Zone issues were glaringly obvious last week, and they cost the Irish the game. On one level, you can say that Notre Dame ran into some bad luck with Clausen's fumble and the ricochet interception off Michael Floyd's back. (As an aside, was I the only one impressed with Clausen's accuracy on that play? He fired the ball out there and hit Floyd square in the middle of his "3"). On the other hand, there is a premium on execution in the Red Zone. You have to convert those chances into points to win games, and Notre Dame has not been consistent converting scoring chances.
I think the problem is that Coach Weis tends to radically change his approach once the offense nears the end zone. The offense will be humming along, moving the ball with alacrity down the field using one version of the game plan, then when they get down to scoring position they throw out the game plan that just chewed up 70 yards in eight plays and try something completely different. Just when the offense is in a rhythm and has the defense back on its heels, Charlie says "Hey, let's try the Wildcat!" Or maybe, "Let's get Robert Hughes some reps on slow-developing dive plays, because Theo's been eating them up on the quick-hitters to the outside."
In the open field the passing game is quick, crisp, and aggressive. Jimmy is throwing the ball with real zip to precise spots and the defense has no answer. Then, at the 5-yard line we shift gears to low-percentage, slow developing, delicate-touch fade patterns to the deep corner of the end zone. Does Charlie not realize that every cornerback in the country is expecting the jump-ball fade to Floyd or Rudolph once we get close?
The answer in the Red Zone is to dance with who brung ya. Stay spread, keep Theo Riddick in the game, and run the same plays that have baffled the defense all day. Run Theo off the edge on the stretch play. Or fake the handoff to Theo and hit the tight end on a slant, hook, or crossing pattern. Hit Michael Floyd or Golden Tate on quick outs or maybe (open your mind here) a fade-stop.
Back to my headline, keep Theo Riddick in the game in the Red Zone, and use him as the primary runner and tight end Mike Ragone (Kyle Rudolph is injured) as the primary receiver in the middle of the end zone, with Jimmy firing the ball to him on a rope, rather than floating balls to the corner.
4. Charlie Weis and Dave Wannstache started coaching their alma maters at the same time. They have both coached on crutches. They both seem to recruit fairly well. They are both considered disappointing in their respective 5 year campaigns. After reviewing their total body of work, who would you rather have coaching ND in 2010? Explain.
Look, I like Charlie. I want him to flip the switch and start winning key games and eventually get his own statue outside the stadium. He's a Notre Dame guy. Can someone remind me how many Super Bowl rings Wanny has? Give me Charlie over the 'stache any day.
5. Prediction time. How does this game play out. Please include a score, an offensive MVP, a defensive MVP, and a sleeper.
It's the intangibles that make college football great. These two teams are very evenly matched on paper. Notre Dame travels to Pittsburgh after a humbling and dispiriting loss at home, with their head coach under intense fire from all sides. This team could arrive in Pittsburgh resigned to the fact that they aren't going to a BCS Bowl game, that their coach is going to get fired, that Jimmy is going to the NFL, and that they are still a long way from the promised land. That team could get crushed by Pitt. Or the team could show up in Pittsburgh truly pissed off, determined to redeem themselves and their coaches, and play the game of their lives. Say what you like about the team this year, but there has been no quit in them. I expect them to roll into the 'Burgh with a serious chip on their shoulders and looking for someone to hurt.
The Panthers, in the mean time, have been feasting on baby seals and have moved up to #8 in the AP Poll and #12 in the BCS Standings. They beat Navy 27-14 back in September, and are coming off an easy win over Syracuse. On one level I have no doubt that the Panthers see the Notre Dame game as very important and understand they should be really fired up to play the Irish. But I wonder if, unconsciously, the Panthers might make the mistake of taking this game too lightly. They beat us at our place a year ago. They are highly ranked, while ND is unranked after losing to Navy. Ahead of Pittsburgh on the schedule are West Virginia and Cincinnati. Two tough games standing between them and an 11-1 season. The Panthers could come in a little too full of themselves.
It's a shoot-out. Bet the "over". Notre Dame beats a ranked opponent for the first time since 2006, 45-30. Jimmy Clausen is the offensive MVP, with another 400-yard game that puts him right back into the thick of the Heisman race. Kyle McCarthy is defensive MVP, although in reality there probably shouldn't be a defensive MVP. Mike Ragone is the sleeper with a big game in relief of Kyle Rudolph.