I worked feverishly last Saturday morning to complete my "2011 Irish Could Be Special" post before kickoff, so that I would have the right to bask in the glow of my own genius once the season was officially underway and had begun to unfold exactly as I had foretold. Because that's why bloggers blog. Well, the Irish performance wasn't exactly "special" in the way I had expected. Saturday Night's "special" was more like this:
After watching the USF debacle I am having a very hard time deciding which was more bizarre: Two stadium evacuations due to lightning? Or the performance of the Irish on the field? What follows here are my thoughts about what went down, as briefly as I can put them down. Which is never brief enough, which is why I should quit doing this and get a life.
1. It wasn't as bad as it looked and felt in the moment. The Irish out-gained the Bulls by a factor of 2-to-1, 508 yards to 254 yards. Although the performance was marred by atrocious lapses, you can't get too despondent over an offense that compiles 500+ yards, including 100+ yards and a 5.0 yards per carry average by the feature back. The running backs had holes to run through, the quarterbacks generally had time to throw the ball. What the QBs did with that time is another story. The defense, in addition to holding USF to 254 yards, also allowed only one extended drive and yielded just one offensive touchdown. That's a formula for success. South Florida's average gain per offensive play was just 3.5 yards, while ND had a 6.5 yard average gain per offensive play.
2. In my "Irish Could be Special" season preview one common theme was that I expected the Irish defense to really be the backbone of this team and the key to its success. The USF game was exactly the scenario I was contemplating. The offense was struggling mightily to put points on the board, but the defense was stout and kept the team in the game. Unfortunately, the offense was simply so inept that no amount of great defense could salvage the situation. The "O" won't be THAT bad in the weeks to come, and this defense is good enough to win games for us.
3. One really good thing I saw in the course of the game was the ability to make adjustments. Early in the game the edge defenders were regularly losing contain and giving up some big plays around the end. That wasn't happening any more in the second half. The adjustments were made, the defensive ends/linebackers kept contain, and the same plays that hurt us in the first half were turned inside and snuffed out for short gains in the second. As we move through a schedule that has Michigan's Denard Robinson and the twin option attacks of Navy and Air Force, the ability to adjust and play proper, disciplined assignment football will be critical.
4. The one thing I didn't see from the defense was the big play - more specifically, getting the key turnover. That was tied to a general lack of heat on USF QB Daniels, who the Irish sacked just twice for -7 yards. While sound assignment defense is good, I really expected our defense to be more aggressive and disruptive. Maybe we were being a little too cute with the game plan and saving some of those defensive wrinkles for Michigan?
5. It really isn't fair to bash the entire offense for what happened on Saturday. The O-line played a very good game, with only a couple of significant breakdowns that I recall. As mentioned above, the running backs had room to move, the QBs had time to get the ball out. The problem was limited to everyone on offense who actually touched the ball.
6. I am guessing that Theo Riddick hasn't slept very well the past three nights. His play on Saturday was awful. Theo is a dynamic and exciting threat with the ball in his hands, which is why Coach Kelly has him returning kicks and punts in addition to being the number two wide receiver in the offense. But if #6 can't figure it out and hold onto the ball, he's going be watching from the sideline. Next man in. I am wondering if Coach Kelly hasn't put too much on Theo's plate, and if we need to find someone else for punt return so Riddick can focus on his wide receiver duties.
7. I feel a little bad for Jonas Gray. His fumble (resulting in a record-long fumble-return TD) was a mistake, but I didn't think that it was completely egregious. He was actually holding the ball pretty well. Only when he was being held up by several USF defenders was one player able to really dig in and pry the ball loose. Did anyone else think the referee was a little slow to blow the whistle on that play? I thought Gray's forward progress was pretty clearly stopped. And how is it that nobody in a gold helmet was in the area of the fumble to make the tackle and prevent any return at all? Too much standing around.
8. I mentioned in my season preview that I don't know who our third running back is, and also that I didn't know who was going to replace Robert Hughes. The Gray fumble highlighted both issues. Cierre Wood (who played a great game) is an exciting back. He runs incredibly hard. But that is a good news / bad news situation. His hard running produces yards and points for the offense. But it also wears him out. He seems to need a lot of "breathers", and I am worried that he could get hurt. He is not a bruiser. He's tall and angular and reminds me of DeShaun Foster, who fought injuries throughout his short NFL career. When he needs a break, Jonas Gray seems to be the only option right now. Gray is not as dynamic as Wood, nor is he the power back that Hughes was. The Gray fumble came in the type of goal-line situation that we saw Hughes in last year. But I don't think Gray is going be a success in that role. The point is, I think we need to see what our options are at running back after Wood and Gray, and develop that depth in a hurry.
9. Speaking of the Gray fumble. It occurred on 3rd down and goal to go from the 1-yard line. Notre Dame had six Red Zone opportunities on Saturday and netted just two touchdowns, both of which came in the 4th quarter. I haven't had the time to do a thorough analysis yet, but at some point I am going to take a hard look at Red Zone performance to get a feel for whether the Red Zone is an Achilles' heel for Coach Kelly's offense. Has anyone seen a good analysis of that question? To me, when you're trying to throw the fade route to Floyd on 3rd and goal you've run out of good ideas. That damn fade route is such a low-percentage play, yet we run it all the time. And we run it when everyone in the stadium knows we are going to run it. It's a lousy call. Roll the quarterback out, drag three receivers across the end zone, hit the open guy or run it in yourself.
10. I feel bad for Dayne Crist. He has worked his butt off to come back from two knee surgeries and has given Notre Dame football his heart and soul. Everyone says he is a great guy and an awesome teammate. But I don't think he's going to make another start at quarterback for the Irish. Although Dayne has the physique and the big, strong arm of the prototypical NFL quarterback, it doesn't appear that he has the calmness under pressure that makes some players "gamers." It is said of the great ones (Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Joe Montana, Wayne Gretzky) that they experience the game in slow motion. They are able to scan the field of play and clearly see what everyone is doing, and understand what his teammates and the opponents are going to do next, and then make the right play calmly and (seemingly) effortlessly. One does not get that sense when watching Dayne play QB. He just seems tight out there. Trying way too hard not to f*$% it up. Getting even tighter after he makes a mistake. Although Dayne throws a beautiful ball, he takes too long to make the decision of where it needs to go and/or he misfires and throws an inaccurate pass resulting in an incompletion.
11. Tommy Rees, who will make the start against Michigan, seems to be a "gamer." He isn't perfect. He has shown the ability to make mistakes and throws too many interceptions. He isn't as tall as you'd like and he doesn't have the running ability or the rifle arm you'd like. But he sure seems to have a better grasp of the offense than Crist, and he is definitely much quicker and more decisive about getting the ball out of his hand. He seems to have no fear, and total faith in the offense. If the pre-snap read calls for a pass to the tight end going down the seam with three defenders converging, then by God that's where the ball is going and he trusts his own ability to get the ball where it needs to be, and he trusts the receiver will make the play. He seems to have the memory span of a goldfish. (Goldfish were long thought to have such short memory spans that every lap around their tiny tank was filled with exciting "new" discoveries. Scientists have since proven this to be untrue and unfair to the noble goldfish, but I have always loved this scientific tidbit and I cling to it for the purposes of this post). Tommy is able to shrug off a bad play and approach the next snap as though the previous play never happened. He is also very accurate with the ball. The announcers on the broadcast were too distracted by Coach Kelly's teaching moment with TJ Jones to pick up on it, but did anyone else notice that on the Jones deflection and interception Rees literally stuck the pass in TJ's earhole? Given that TJ wasn't looking for the ball and therefore did not adjust to the throw, that was very impressive.
12. The team was 5 of 14 on 3rd-down conversions. Not counting the 3rd-down rushing attempts, Dayne was 0 for 5 converting 3rd down via the pass. He had one 4-yard completion on a 3rd-and-9, three incomplete passes, and one interception in the end zone. That's four punts and one INT on five attempts to move the chains on critical 3rd-down. Rees was 3 of 4 converting 3rd-downs via the pass. He had one incompletion that set up the missed field goal attempt. The other three times he completed passes to move the chains. What is really remarkable when Tommy is in the game is how seldom he puts the team in a 3rd-down situations. He led a 12-play, 76-yard drive that had only two 3rd-down plays: a 3rd-and-4 (converted via the pass) and a 3rd-and-goal from the 1 (converted by a Wood TD run). He also led a 10-play, 99-yard drive that had only one 3rd-down play (3rd-and-9, converted by 12-yard pass to Eifert).
13. So Tommy Rees is the Irish quarterback for now. Did I mention that Rees was the OC Domer Player of the Year for 2010? Just a little tidbit for you. The question I have now is: Who is number two? If Tommy struggles, or gets hurt, is it Crist again? Is the gap really that big between Crist and Hendrix or Golson? If Tommy is the guy, the fact is that Dayne is a senior and is not likely to be your starter again. When does Coach Kelly start getting Hendrix more practice reps, and game reps, to see if he gives the Irish a better chance to win that Crist?
14. Much has been made of Coach Kelly's somewhat animated coaching style on Saturday. Okay, I admit that I thought the guy was going to blow an aneurism and drop dead on national television.
I love Kelly coaching his team hard. And I really, really love reading his lips when he is sharing a heartfelt moment with his team. But even I thought he was over the line on Saturday. Potential recruits don't want to see that. Kelly lost his poise, and I thought he was unprofessional. My guess is that Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick has addressed this issue. Can I just say one thing though? There are critics out there who have opined that Notre Dame should fire Kelly for treating his players this way, asserting that such behavior is unacceptable and should not be tolerated by a Catholic university. When I first read this line of argument, all I could think is that the Catholic Church defended and protected pedophile priests for decades, if not longer. Yet an angry football coach is beyond the pale. Really?
15. I didn't get the chance to put some of the final touches on my "Could Be Special" post Saturday, as I ran out of time. I received some comments about being a "homer" and calling for a 12-0 season. Those who have been with me a while know that I always put confidence level rankings next to my pre-season predictions. My confidence level indicates how likely I feel it is that the Irish will win each of the games. For example, my confidence level against USF was 70%. Obviously, the result on Saturday fell within the 30% likelihood that we would lose. I actually felt pretty good about my confidence level even after the game, because what were the odds, going into that game, that Notre Dame would commit the string of errors necessary for a South Florida win? What were the odds of a 96-yard fumble return touchdown? It has never even happened before. The odds that David Ruffer misses a short field goal? The odds that Harrison Smith gets personal foul penalties on back-to-back plays? The odds that all those things happen in the same game? And yet, despite all the disaster, Notre Dame lost by 3 points. But to finish the thought, my confidence levels for the twelve games on the Irish schedule (posted here) are (in percentages): 70, 85, 70, 80, 90, 75, 70, 80, 90, 85, 85, 65. If you add all those percentages up (using decimals, so 70% becomes .70), the result is a likely total of 9.45 wins. So while I did think that Notre Dame had a shot at winning each of its twelve games, the math makes clear that a much more likely result is 9 or 10 wins. With just a little luck we can still hit that target. If it's ten wins instead of nine, this team can still hit my prediction of playing in a BCS bowl game. It is much better to lose early than late, and I believe that South Florida will make some noise in the Big East and this loss, as painful as it was, won't hurt that much in the final polls. But make no mistake, the loss to USF reduces the margin for error.
16. Michigan is up next. One thing we know for sure: The Irish have more finish in them than the Wolverines. The Big House experienced the same weather that caused the evacuations of Notre Dame Stadium, and it had to be emptied as well. But unlike the Fighting Irish, the Wolverines decided to cancel the rest of their game against Western Michigan with 1:27 remaining in the 3rd quarter. How embarrassing.
17. The Wolverines had a fairly easy go of it against the Broncos, besides not having to actually play four quarters. Denard Robinson was pretty balanced run versus pass, and didn't break any huge runs. The key to the game on Saturday will be whether Coach Diaco has figured out what went so horribly wrong in trying to stop Robinson last season, and whether the Irish defense can make amends. I expect the Irish to bounce back and play well under the lights in Ann Arbor.
Go Irish! Beat Wolverines!