Saturday, November 24, 2007

God Awful Game (Irish Beat Stanford 21-14)

We win. Yippee. Was that just about the ugliest football game ever played? Here's the list of people who had good games today:

1. Robert Hughes.

Here's the list of people who had awful games:

1. Notre Dame
2. Stanford
3. The game officials (Don't get me started!)
4. The ESPN game announcers (Where did they find those stiffs?)
5. The Stanford grounds-keeping crew. (Worst field conditions ever)
6. The Stanford fans (Where the heck were they?)

I feel like I need to take a shower. It can't be healthy to be exposed to something that awful for four hours. I'll have more later tonight or tomorrow.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Stanford. Let's Finish Strong.

I got to see the Irish defeat UCLA in the Rose Bowl earlier this season (little did I realize how rare a treat that was), and I took the family back to South Bend for a somewhat unexpected trip to the USC game, So I couldn't really justify a trip to The Farm to see Notre Dame play Stanford, as much as I would have liked to. It would have been especially interesting, since the family and I were there at Stanford two years ago for the last game at the old Stanford Stadium. We actually got to witness (and be part of) the beginning of the demolition of the stadium at the end of the game. It would be neat to see what the new stadium looks like.

This final game of the 2007 season presents an interesting test for Coach Weis and the Irish. After five straight home games, Notre Dame will finish the year on the road against a 3-7 Stanford team that would normally be considered an easy "W", but which has shown remarkable heart this year. Stanford's three wins includes victories over USC (24-23) and Arizona (21-20). You might remember USC - they whipped the Irish 38-0 in our own house earlier this year. And Arizona just blasted the high-flying Oregon Ducks (34-24), who humiliated the Michigan Wolverines in the Big House in September (39-7), who crushed Notre Dame by 38 points the following week. All of which might mean that Stanford is better than both USC and Michigan. Or, if Notre Dame wins, it might mean that Notre Dame is really better than both USC and Michigan. Or not. It's been a crazy year.

The point is - despite being just one game better than the Irish on paper, Stanford has shown the occasional ability to beat very good football teams. According to the NCAA's official statistics, Stanford is rated #106 in total offense (yards) and #104 in scoring offense. For total defense (yards) they are ranked #106 and they are 84th in scoring defense. That puts the Cardinal slightly ahead of Notre Dame on offense (#119 Total O, #117 Scoring O), and slightly behind Notre Dame's defensive rankings (#44 Total D, #82 Scoring D). For what it's worth, Stanford's statistical rankings puts them in the same ballpark with the Duke Blue Devils.

It should also be noted that Stanford's hard-luck record has come against the 3rd toughest schedule in the country, according to Jeff Sagarin. Notre Dame's schedule is currently ranked #13 in toughness, while Duke checks in with the 11th toughest schedule.

From a statistical perspective, Notre Dame's match-up with Stanford looks a lot like the match-up with Duke did. Pretty darn even. Given how the Duke game turned out, you can't help but be a little encouraged. But Stanford is not Duke. The Irish were able to to turn two Duke turnovers into 14 points late in the first half at home on Senior Day, and Duke folded up its tent. Stanford is unlikely to go away quietly in the face of a little adversity. Their wins in tight games against USC and Arizona prove that. Add to their normal resiliency the facts that Stanford will be playing at home on THEIR "Senior Day" and that Stanford has always played Notre Dame with a chip on their shoulder, and it figures to be a tough game.

Will Notre Dame ride into Palo Alto brimming with the new-found confidence that winning can bring and run rough-shod over the Cardinal? Or will the Irish show up a little flat, experiencing a road let-down after last week's emotional win at home, and get rolled by a fired-up Stanford team looking to prove something in front of the whole nation on ESPN?

I don't know the answer.

But I sure will take it as a positive indicator for the future if Coach Weis and his team show up hungry and nasty and determined to build on last week's success. To me, this week's game is all about attitude and desire. The team that shows up with the most edge, emotion, and determination will win. If the Irish show up ready to play at the opening kick-off, they'll handle Stanford. But if they are still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes when the game starts, Stanford will get an early lead on us and they won't give it back.

That sounds simple enough, but the plain facts are that the Irish have shown a propensity under Coach Weis to be slow starters. We have seen the Irish dig themselves huge first-half holes this year that they just couldn't climb out of despite playing well in the second halves of games.

This year's Notre Dame team has surprised me with its ability to continue playing hard through eleven weeks of turmoil and disappointment. They have shown great character, and they have been slowly getting better. Part of that improvement is due to younger players working themselves onto the field. I expect those youngsters to show up excited for another chance to prove themselves, and excited about the future of Notre Dame football. The Irish defense should be able to contain a conventional Stanford offense that plays to our strength (not a good rushing team, relies more on the pass). The surging Irish O, led by a healthy and confident Jimmy Clausen, will move the ball consistently against a weak Stanford defense on the ground and through the air.

Irish finish strong and win by 10.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving from OC Domer!

On behalf of the entire staff here at OC Domer (that would be ME) I want to wish everyone out there cruising the internets, especially our regular readers, a very Happy Thanksgiving. If your house is like mine, you'll be blessed to sit down to a bountiful Thanksgiving meal soon, and it will be time for someone to step up to the plate (so to speak) and say grace. And if your house is like mine, there will be a dozen or more people at the table staring at YOU expecting you to be appropriately reverent, witty, and brief because you're always the one who gets stuck saying grace at Thanksgiving. Here is the OC Domer Top 10 list of things to be thankful for this year. Feel free to borrow any you like for your own prayer today.

10. The NFL, for bringing us THREE games to watch this year instead of the usual two games.

9. NBC, for bringing us every Notre Dame home game, no matter how bad the Irish are playing (or who they are playing).

8. High Definition television, because football in high definition on my 60" Sony SXRD is amazing.

7. Duke football.

6. The great schools my kids attend, and the amazing teachers they have been blessed with here in Tustin.

5. All of our family and friends.

4. Particularly my wife and kids, who are better by far than I really deserve.

3. Firefighters throughout Southern California who fought heroically to save thousands of homes threatened by the raging wildfires last month (and every year).

2. Paramedics, ambulance drivers, air-ambulance pilots, doctors and nurses who fight every day to keep heart attacks from taking away dads, husbands, and grandpas before their time.

1. The men and women of our armed forces who have taken the battle against extremism to the extremists, so that we at home in America can eat turkey and watch football and take a nap in peace and safety. Be careful over there, and I hope you're all home soon.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Irish Bedevil Duke (Wrap-up)

Okay, I'm a little slow on the Duke post-game review. I've been savoring the warm glow that follows an Irish win and trying to come up with a unique perspective on the victory. It seems trite to write at this point that Clausen and Hughes looked pretty good, and the defense sure played better. But from an X's and O's standpoint, that's what we have.

I've been cogitating on it for the past couple of days, trying to pinpoint my feelings about the win. I was happy, of course, especially for the seniors on Senior Day. But I have to admit my most predominant feeling was a sense of relief and of calm. Coach Weis was asked whether he feels relieved with the win, and he adamantly denies a sense of relief. But that is exactly what I felt. For the first time this season I felt that a Notre Dame football game had gone the way it should have gone, and that the world was once again spinning properly its axis. Gone was the bitter disappointment and angst of most Saturday nights this season. I didn't feel the jubilation that I felt when we upset UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Instead I was at peace.

In my personal college football universe, When a team like Duke shows up on the Notre Dame schedule, I get out my fountain pen (so to speak) and scribble an elaborate, indelible "W" in the margin. There is no debate about whether ND will win. No match-ups are discussed. Whether at home or away, the Fighting Irish are fully expected to physically dominate such an opponent, jump out to a 4 or 5 touchdown margin, and then empty the bench in the 4th quarter. Ho-hum.

For the first time this season, the Irish did what they are supposed to do. After an ugly first half, the Irish took physical control of this game and pushed around an inferior opponent. We dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and our skill players made plays. We out-blocked them, out-threw them, out-ran them, and out-hit them.

It wasn't by any means perfect. We had too many penalties (11 for 103 yards). We dropped too many passes. We blew some coverages that would have been costly against a better team. We still allowed too much pressure on Clausen. The two sacks allowed could have been several more but for Jimmy's improved movement in the pocket. Special teams had a very mixed day, to put it politely.

Several moments in Saturday's win stood out for me.

  • Jimmy Clausen's laser shot 25-yard TD pass to David Grimes that split the two converging safeties before finding a diving Grimes in the end zone. Jimmy wasn't making that throw in September. Or in October. Whatever "procedure" Clausen had done on his elbow over the Summer, it is clear that he is only now feeling close to 100% again. It is also clear that a healthy Jimmy Clausen is going to be a very good college quarterback.
  • Robert Hughes' amazing display of power and grace. Hughes had a big day in the cold and wet conditions. He's a big back (listed at 5' 11", 238 lbs) and showed good power. But I was amazed at his balance. After getting hit he spun, sputtered and stumbled forward for big "yards after contact." It's clear that #33 isn't going to tackle himself, and that it's going to take more than one defender to bring him down once he gets rolling. He also showed great vision, making very savvy cuts at the point of attack to get into the holes created by the line. Folks have drawn comparisons to Jerome Bettis, which is fair. In running style I was reminded of Bo Jackson and Earl Campbell. Bottom line with Robert: Big and fast with great feet, great balance, and great heart.
  • Robert Hughes' teammates rallying around to congratulate him after every big run. It would be easy to expect a 1-9 (now 2-9) Notre Dame team to have lost their fire long before now, to just mail it in at this point. But it is clear that this group of players still believes in Coach Weis and they believe in and care about each other. Earlier in the year (a little over a month ago) the team was at a critical juncture and Coach Weis told his players "you're either all in, or you're all out." Since then, some guys chose to be "all out." The guys remaining in that locker room are "all in." They are a team and they will get better. Much better.
  • The students, standing on their seats on a cold, wet November afternoon chanting "Huuuuugghhhessss" after each big play by Robert Hughes. As tough as it has been, through six straight ugly losses at home, the Notre Dame student body showed up on Saturday and they woke up some echoes cheering for Old Notre Dame. They are ND.
  • Trevor Laws' sheer joy after the game. What a gentle giant. He plays football like a man possessed, and then waxes philosophic when its all over. What a great representative of Our Lady's University. You can't help but be really happy for that guy, and proud to call him a Domer.

As for X's and O's - the stat sheet looks like a stat sheet should look after a Notre Dame / Duke game. The Irish had 414 yards of total offense to Duke's 232. We controlled the ball for over 35 minutes, compared to Duke's 25 minutes, and won the time of possession battle for each of the four quarters. As for balance, we had 24 first downs, earning 14 via the run, 8 via the pass, and 2 by penalty. We converted 10 of 18 third downs, and 1 of 2 fourth downs (Duke was 4 of 16 on third down conversions). The Irish garnered 220 yards on 48 rush attempts and 194 yards on 32 pass attempts. Clausen was 16 of 32 for those 194 yards with 3 TDs and zero INT. Duke had a net 94 rushing yards and just 138 passing yards.

All-in-all a very nice day at the office.

Behind the stats, the biggest step forward I saw was Jimmy Clausen's progress in eliminating the big negative play. Certainly he has largely eliminated the fumbles and interceptions that plagued him early in the season. Yesterday I noticed that he has also eliminated the big, drive-killing sack. Early in the year, when pressured, Jimmy was prone to using a spin move to elude a tackler and then looping deep behind the line of scrimmage to buy time and/or escape the rush. Only he didn't escape anyone and instead we were routinely seeing sacks for losses of 10, 12, 14 and more yards. It seems that Clausen now understands that EVERYONE on the opposing defense is fast enough to chase him down from behind and that he has to move forward or laterally in the pocket before running toward the first down line or throwing the ball away. Here were Notre Dame's negative offensive plays yesterday while Clausen was still at QB (excluding penalties):
  1. Clausen sacked for 2 yard loss.
  2. Aldridge rush for 1 yard loss.
  3. Hughes rush for 1 yard loss.
  4. Clausen sacked for 11 yard loss.
  5. Allen rush for 1 yard loss.
  6. Hughes rush for 4 yard loss.
That's it. Only six negative plays TOTAL on the day, with four of those resulting in losses of 2 yards or less. Clausen only suffered one serious sack for an eleven yard loss. While some of the credit must go to improved O-line play, the fact is that Clausen was under pressure off-and-on throughout the day. He's credited on the stat sheet with seven carries on the day (25 yards gross, minus 13 yards in sacks, for 12 net rushing yards). Few, if any, of those seven carries were designed QB running plays. Rather than taking big sacks, or throwing interceptions, Clausen was using his feet to buy time to throw or gain some positive yards. The result was manageable down-and-distance situations rather than impossible 3rd-and-forever situations. That's a big step forward in quarterback development.

Yes, it's Duke. They're a bad football team. But it's a win, and it beats the heck out of a loss to Louisiana-Monroe or Appalachian State. There are a lot of positives, and hopefully some momentum, that can be taken from this game and built upon as the team heads out to California to take on another bad team, the Stanford Cardinal.

Go Irish! Beat Stanford!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Duke Blue Devils Non-preview, and Senior Day.

I was out of town on business all week, just getting back last night and unable to muster the energy for a reasonably timely Duke preview. But I wanted to get just a few thoughts out there before the game.

As with the Air Force game, I refuse to actually do a traditional preview of the Duke game, breaking down the match-ups to muster an argument for why the Fighting Irish should beat the Blue Devils. That would just be pathetic. We are ND! They are Duke. Ergo, we should win. Match-ups be damned.

That said, the two teams are pretty evenly matched statistically. Both offenses languish far too close to the bottom of the list of 119 Division I schools for effectiveness. Notre Dame's defense, while nothing to write home about, is significantly better than Duke's defense, with the margin coming from the pass defense. Thus, if you had to predict how the game might go, you would figure that we will see mediocrity from both teams running the ball, since neither team has shown any consistent ability to rush the ball or defend against the rush. The old "resistable force meets movable object" conundrum. In the passing game, the Irish figure to keep Duke under wraps, while Notre Dame should be able to throw against the Blue Devils. From this, you'd figure that this could really be a coming out party for Jimmy Clausen, a chance for him to put up some really healthy numbers in a win in front of the home fans.

We'll see.

While I didn't really want to do any sort of a "break down" of today's game, I did have two points I wanted to make before kick-off.

First, I like Duke. As has been noted before here at OC Domer, Duke is one of the few top-tier universities in the nation that fields a Division I football team AND does a great job graduating its student athletes. Also on that list are Stanford, Boston College, Air Force, and Navy - teams which appear on Notre Dame's football schedule. One of the things that makes me most proud of Notre Dame is that it takes seriously the notion of the student-athlete. Student first, athlete second. No cream-puff majors, no athletic dorms, no shameful drop-out rates. We bring these kids in, we make sure they get a world-class education and a Notre Dame degree, and we let them play a little ball while they're here. I believe strongly that we should salute and support other universities that share that vision. One of the ways to do that is to have those teams on our schedule. Thus, I like the fact that we play Stanford, Navy and Duke. When we look at Duke we see an outstanding private university competing at the highest levels of college football. And getting beat up every week. My fear is that when we look at Duke we are seeing our future. I don't think so, but I admit I worry.

Second, It's Senior Day. OC Domer wants to congratulate and thank all those seniors who have stayed the course, through good times and bad, to get to this point. They've seen controversial coaching changes and stuck with it. They've battled through winning seasons and losing seasons, BCS Bowl berths and BCS blow-outs. They have gone to class and study hall in the snow, wind and cold despite all the bumps, bruises and fatigue. They have earned or will shortly receive their degrees. They have come back from injuries. And they have gone out to practice and the games all season long this year and done their best to represent the University of Notre Dame and to try to win football games. The results haven't satisfied anyone but Mark May and Jason Whitlock. But they have stuck with it, and they deserve our respect and our gratitude for that. So OC Domer salutes the seniors as they play their last game in Notre Dame stadium, and I hope for the sake of those young men that the team plays its best game of the year and trounces the Duke Blue Devils.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Congrats to the Zoomies!

First of all, I want to congratulate the cadets of the United States Air Force Academy. They played a great game, executing their game plan almost flawlessly, and clearly deserved to win yesterday's game. Yesterday's debacle brought flashbacks to my time at Notre Dame, when the Gerry Faust led Irish lost to USAFA four years in a row, and when after each game I got a phone call in my dorm room from my Dad, USAFA Class of '63. "How about those cadets!"

Hi Dad! Congratulations on a great win. And thanks for recognizing that in my fragile emotional state I couldn't handle a phone call yesterday. I hope your heart was able to handle the excitement yesterday. Mine almost wasn't.

So how did the Irish manage to lose to USAFA? By showing the same maddening inconsistency (players and coaches) that we have seen all year. On the negative side of the ledger:

  • Only 112 gross rushing yards, just 54 yards net after sacks, etc... This from an O-line that Coach Weis expected to dominate the game.
  • 1.5 yards per rush.
  • 2 lost fumbles leading to 10 AF points.
  • Horrible kick-offs and kick-coverage. Notre Dame had five kick-offs. After the ND kicks and USAFA returns, the Falcons had the ball at their own 31, 34, 33, 33, and 38 yard lines. That averages out to an average AF field position on the 34 yard line after an Irish kick-off.
  • The Irish were just 4 of 15 (26.67%) converting on 3rd down. It's easy to look at that number and conclude that the Irish aren't doing a good job on 3rd down. But looking at the eleven 3rd downs the Irish failed to convert, you find that they needed an average of 8.8 yards to get a first down. That means, in those eleven cases, the Irish were averaging just 1.2 yards on 1st and 2nd down COMBINED. The problem is not 3rd down, it is wasted plays on 1st and 2nd down. The four times Notre Dame succeeded in converting a 3rd down, they needed an average of just 5.25 yards for a first down (or a TD). Still not great, but certainly more manageable than 3rd and nearly 9 to go.
  • The team was just 2 of 5 converting on 4th down. The worst example of this came with about five minutes remaining in the game. The Irish were down by 10 points and were rallying. After David Grimes ran a 7-yard out pattern on 3rd and 8 (Aargghhh!), the Irish had a 4th and 1 on their own 25. Instead of calling a timeout, or huddling and getting into a good play in this key situation, the team ran to the line setting up in a no-backs set and ran a QB sneak that never had a chance. Air Force had clearly seen the film from the UCLA game and was stacked up and waiting for that sneak. I hope someone asks Coach Weis what was going on there. The sneak fails, and it's game over. That would have been a good time for Charlie to throw a headset and yell at someone, but he had the same calm demeanor he had when his All-American tight end coughed up the ball after a long gain on the opening play of the game. Or when his fullback coughed up the ball for an Air Force TD later in the first quarter.
  • The Irish allowed six QB sacks. The first sack occurred when Travis Thomas, ostensibly our best running back for blitz pick-up, was inserted into the game. Rather than block the free-running cornerback coming from Clausen's blindside, TT stared down the middle of the field looking for someone to block.
  • The Falcons rushed for a net 285 yards.
  • The Irish defense had a hard time getting off Air Force blockers on the edges, and missed a ton of tackles. MOST importantly, they missed a lot of chances at tackles for loss. If they make those plays in the backfield they would have put USAFA in very tough down-and-distance situations and likely forced punts. Instead, they missed those chances and kept Falcon drives alive.
Taken together, the above failures were more than enough to enable the Irish to lose a game they really should have won.

On the positive side of the ledger we did see a few things that give us some sliver of hope to cling to for the future.
  • Jimmy Clausen, back in the starting role at QB, was 22 of 40 passing (55%) for 246 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs.
  • That works out to 6.2 yards per attempt and 11.2 yards per completion. Nice to see the Irish offense working the ball down the field in the passing game instead of side-to-side.
  • The 55% completion percentage would have been much higher had the Irish receivers held onto numerous well-thrown balls that were dropped.
  • The Irish offense accumulated 304 total yards. Not great, but certainly better than we have seen in most games.
  • Notre Dame was penalized only 2 times for 30 yards.
  • Eric Maust did a very nice job punting in place of Geoff Price, netting 43 yards per punt, downing 2 inside the 20, with zero touchbacks.
  • Placekicking was perfect on the day. 3/3 PATs and 1/1 FG attempts.
  • The Irish offense was 4 of 4 scoring in the Red Zone.
  • James Aldridge carried the ball 14 times for 62 yards (4.4 yards per rush).
So the team wasn't uniformly bad all day. The problem, as Coach Weis pointed out in his post-game press conference, was lack of consistency. Two players perfectly embodied this inconsistency yesterday: John Carlson and David Grimes.

On Notre Dame's opening play of the game Jimmy Clausen dropped back to pass and had all day to throw the ball, delivering a strike to John Carlson 28 yards down the field. A great opening play call, perfectly executed, and the Irish are moving! Except that Carlson can't keep the ball under control and fumbles it away to Air Force. USAFA puts together a 14 play, 56 yard drive eating up 6:11 on the clock and ending with a field goal. Air Force 3, ND 0. That was a huge swing in momentum and really, really hurt the team. John Carlson is a senior leader and he isn't supposed to be the one making those costly errors. Later, of course, John makes a very nice over the shoulder catch in the end zone for the first Irish TD. Good play, bad play. Inconsistent.

I lost track of how many balls David Grimes dropped during the game. It was enough that I went hoarse screaming at my TV: "Where is Duval Kamara! Why aren't we throwing it to #18?" Even when he caught the ball, David wasn't making good plays, running the aforementioned 7-yard route on a critical 3rd and 8 play. But David also had a marvelous 21-yard catch for Notre Dame's second TD. Bad plays, good plays. Inconsistent. By the way, it turns out that Kamara had some academic issues that kept him from practicing much during the week, and hence from playing Saturday. Hit the books #18, we need you!

So the Irish earn nine losses for the first time in history dating, as was noted on the TV broadcast Saturday, all the way back to the 19th century. But it looks like Jimmy Clausen does have the tools to be a very good quarterback if he has some time to throw the ball, and if we can surround him with some players. If the youngsters who are already in house and who will come aboard next Fall can step up quickly, we can get this thing turned around. Hopefully it will be another 120 years before we see a season like this again.

Go Irish! Beat Blue Devils!

For a good time, call Eva Bright ...

I don't even know what to make of this story. It appears that famous Notre Dame altar boy George Gipp did NOT father a child out of wedlock in the months prior to his tragic death, disproving the slanderous gossip of generations of Notre Dame haters who have claimed that the Gipper led a dissolute lifestyle. It appears instead that Eva Bright, the Gipper's former girlfriend, two-timed on our intrepid hero and then spread the scandalous allegation that Gipp was the father of her child. Will Eva Bright's REAL baby-daddy please step forward?

Let this be a lesson to Notre Dame men everywhere: Stick with the St. Mary's girls!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Air Force Non-preview

I just refuse to do it. Despite the pathetic 1-8 record of the Notre Dame football team, I refuse to sit here and type an analysis that attempts to find a rational basis to believe that the Irish can somehow beat the favored Falcons of the United States Air Force Academy in Notre Dame Stadium. It's freaking Air Force! I refuse to stoop so low as to try to come up with reasons why I should HOPE that we can beat AIR FORCE!

Game notes:

  • As I expected, Jimmy Clausen will be back at QB for the Irish. According to Coach Weis, he looks pretty good throwing the ball right now. Let's hope so.
  • Air Force is a slightly better team than Navy. The Falcon offense is slightly less prolific than Navy in piling up yards, mostly on the ground, and a bit less efficient in turning those yards into points. But the USAFA defense is considerably better than Navy's, ranked #19 in scoring defense and #41 in total defense (Navy is #114 and #105).
  • Air Force is #54 is the Sagarin Rankings this week, while Navy is #84.
  • Despite the aforementioned statistics, Navy beat USAFA 31-20 in week 5.
If you want to read articles by bloggers less principled than I, who actually stooped so low as to analyze the match-ups in this game, you can try these:
I've done analysis and given my expectations every week, and I have been proven spectacularly wrong in almost every attempt to forecast the performance of this team. All I can say this week is: We Are ND! They Are Air Force. The winning has to begin some time, why not now?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Navy Sinks Irish Dreams of 5-7 Season

I am 43 years old. Roger Staubach led the Midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy to a stirring win over Notre Dame in 1963, just a few months before I was born. Navy had not beaten Notre Dame in a football game in my whole life, until yesterday. Am I sorely disappointed? Of course I am. Not quite as ticked off as this guy - but pretty unhappy. [EDIT: The link to BGS now goes to very toned-down assessment of Coach Weis' play calling. The original rant was an all-time classic, but Jay has decided not to leave it up as a permanent part of the BGS historical record. If you missed it, well, that's a shame. It was probably a little overwrought, but is was darn funny too.]

On the other hand, if I had to write a list of the teams I hate losing to the most, I'd probably run out of ink or get writer's cramp before I put down "Navy." The loss hurts, but in this season alone I'd rank each of our seven other losses well ahead of Navy in terms of personal bitterness.

  1. USC
  2. Michigan State
  3. Boston College
  4. Purdue
  5. Michigan
  6. Penn State
  7. Georgia Tech
I feel bad for the Notre Dame players who, as a group, probably played their best game of the year and still came up short in front of the home fans. I don't feel bad for Irish football fans. As this horrendous year has ground on, I have begun to notice more and more of a whiny, entitled tone creeping into the writing in the Notre Dame blogosphere. "How dare Coach Weis and his players lose to Navy! We're Notre Dame after all. We're entitled to win ten games every year and go to a BCS Bowl."

Calm down, people - it isn't always about you. The Notre Dame football players and coaches want to win more than anyone. And they're working their asses off to make it happen. It isn't yielding much in the way of results right now, but at 1-8 (even when it was only 1-7) you have to write this season off. As I wrote last week, the 2007 season is over. The four games starting with Navy are pre-season games in the 2008 season. These games are about developing our talent and depth so that the Irish can return next season to their rightful place in the football Universe. While still hoping for a win, I was keeping my eye on Chris Stewart getting lots of reps at right tackle. I was watching James Aldridge and Armando Allen learn how to run at the Division I level. I was watching Sam Young, Eric Olsen, and Brian Smith get their work in, mistakes and all, to get better for next year. And because these games are not about the now but really about the future, I fully expect to see Jimmy Clausen worked back into the mix and established as the starting quarterback by season's end. Because Evan Sharpley is serviceable at QB, but he is not the Irish future at QB.

Perhaps I am more patient than many because I attended Notre Dame for four years of the Gerry Faust era, when we lost four straight to Air Force. I am willing to forgive Coach Weis this season, boneheaded game-management decisions and all, because I do believe he is bringing in the quality players Notre Dame needs to get back to the top. I'll give him one Mulligan. But if 2008 looks anything like what we have seen in 2007, Coach Weis can pack his bags.

What did I see in yesterday's game? My first thought was that the offense, while not perfect, played well enough to win the game. I felt that the biggest problem was that the defense could not stop Navy. The "D" couldn't get off the field by forcing a punt or some turnovers. This greatly magnified the importance of each possession by the Irish offense and eliminated any margin for error. When there is no margin for error, the game can turn on any play.

Taking a closer look at the numbers after the game, I realized that it was more complicated than that. While the offense was generally very good (leaps and bounds better than any other game this year), they did fail to produce at several key points in the game, whether through poor play calling or poor execution.

My brief observations:
  • Each team missed one field goal attempt.
  • Each team lost one fumble. Navy turned the Irish turnover into seven points. Notre Dame failed to score after Navy lost a fumble at their own 30 yard line, turning the ball back over to Navy on downs after a ridiculous fake field goal attempt.
  • Navy did not punt until 2:23 remaining in the fourth quarter.
  • Notre Dame had more first downs than Navy (27-23), more total yards than Navy (375-228), and held the ball longer than Navy (30:41 to 29:19), essentially beating Navy at their own game.
  • Notre Dame was 9 of 19 in 3rd down conversions (47.37%) while Navy was 9 of 16 (56.25%).
  • Notre Dame was 6 of 8 in 4th down conversions. Each failure was huge: (1) the fake field goal attempt that ended the Irish drive on a short field following the Navy fumble, (2) the fourth down at the end of the game where Coach Weis decided that he preferred the odds of converting a 4th and 8 over the chances hitting a 41-yard field goal. The fact that the Irish offense attempted to convert 8 times on fourth downs tells me a couple of things: (1) Although the Irish "O" had a good game overall, they weren't consistently overpowering Navy on downs 1 through 3, and (2) Coach Weis had very little confidence that the Irish "D" could slow down Navy's offense.
  • Without ever punting the ball, Notre Dame played the field-position game very well. Notre Dame's average starting field position was it's own 43 yard line. Navy's average starting field position was it's own 27.
  • Navy had five sacks on the season before yesterday, but got four against the Irish.

I also have some non-statistical thoughts. When Navy was FINALLY forced to punt the ball to the Irish at 2:23 of the fourth quarter, and Zibby had a very nice return of the punt to the Navy 38 yard line, I knew the Irish were going to win. We had just scored on a 14-play, 76 yard drive that featured James Aldridge and Armando Allen running the ball very effectively, plus an amazing throw and catch from Sharpley to John Carlson. The "O" was hitting on all cylinders. Putting the field goal decision aside for a moment, all I could think at the time was "Why is he throwing the ball to David Grimes?" Duval Kamara had been amazing all game long, John Carlson was looking like himself again, even Robby Parris had been effective. What has Grimes done this year that convinced Coach Weis to put the ball in his hands on the potential game-winning drive? (Answer: Nothing.)

My other thought relates to Travis Thomas. I didn't watch the game live yesterday, as I had to help the OC Daughter with a school function. When I got home, the only highlight of the game I caught before watching the game myself was the failed two-point conversion in the 3rd OT. And I screamed at my TV "Why are you giving the ball to Travis Thomas in that situation?" It's clear that Coach Weis likes TT at the goal line. It's also clear that he is very loyal to his senior captains. But at some point you have to think that James Aldridge and Armando Allen are going to get tired of TT cherry-picking the touchdowns after they have pounded the ball down the field. In the second quarter the Irish had a 12-play, 46 yard TD drive. Aldridge was the feature back on the drive with carries of 13, 4, -4, 3 and 4 yards. That's tough sledding. With the ball down to the 1 yard line after a 4-yard run by Aldridge on 2nd-and-goal, Thomas comes in a gets a 1-yard TD run. Same thing in the fourth quarter. On a 14-play, 76 yard TD drive, Aldridge had carries of 4, 5, 3, and 0 yards, while Allen had carries for 15, 13, 6, 6, 5 and 4 that put the ball at Navy's 3. Thomas then came in and ran for a 3-yard TD. Coach Weis may have very good reasons, based upon what he sees at practice, to use TT in goal line situations. As for myself, I'd like to see what Aldridge or Robert Hughes can do.

Grading the game, I'd give the offense a solid "B." They generally moved the ball very well, and had their best production of the year. The Sharpley fumble and some pass protection issues keeps the grade from being any higher.

I give the defense a "D" for this game. It's not that they didn't play hard. They just couldn't stop the Middies. They forced only one turnover, and didn't force a punt until very late in the game. They surrendered an average of 4.5 yards per play.

Special Teams get a "C". Kick and punt returns were very solid, but our kick-offs and kick coverage was poor. Notre Dame's first kick-off pinned Navy at the 10. Subsequent Irish kick-offs gave Navy starting field position at the 37, 32, 34, and 35 yard lines. Add a missed field goal attempt and failed fake field goal play, and a "C" is probably generous.

Coaching gets an "F". You have to beat Navy. Your defense has to stop that damned option play and get the ball back. You don't run a fake field goal on 4th and 15 in easy field goal range. You don't forego even a long filed goal attempt to win the game on 4th and 8.

Finally: I was glad to see Robert Hughes score the first Irish touchdown and get to keep the ball. That ball is small consolation for the loss of his brother this week, but hopefully he will always have it as a reminder that he is part of the Notre Dame family and that our prayers go out to him and his family at this very difficult time, no matter what happens on the football field.

Go Irish! Beat Falcons!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Navy is no "Gimme"

Much has been written about the historical significance of the Notre Dame v. Navy game. Count me among those who are proud that Our Lady's University honors the Navy's contributions to the University by continuing to schedule the Middies in football.

Before the season began, I think I was in agreement with everyone else in the Universe that, however the Irish might fare over the first eight games, at least we had "four easy wins" lined up for November. Here is the entirety of my pre-season analysis of the Navy game:

I think it's good that we continue to honor Navy because of all they did for Notre Dame during the war years. But Coach Weis doesn't fool around with these lesser foes. The Irish beat the Middies soundly but respectfully, 35-10.
What's amazing to me is how this unshakable faith in the "four easy wins" has persisted despite Notre Dame's 1-7 record and our historically poor offensive production. How, exactly, are we going to beat these next four teams "easily"? WE CAN'T MOVE THE FOOTBALL! WE CAN'T SCORE ANY POINTS! WE HAVEN'T BEEN ABLE TO GET A FIRST DOWN!

Navy, on the other hand, has been among the most prolific teams in the country at moving the football and scoring points. Normally you'd have to like the chances of a football team that is really good at scoring playing against a team that is really inept at scoring, wouldn't you? If you put both teams in white helmets and gray pants, played the game in Dogpatch State University's Stadium, and didn't tell anyone that one team had beaten another for 43 straight years, you'd have to favor Navy by two touchdowns based upon the numbers, wouldn't you?

Let's look at those numbers:

The Navy Offense. The Middies average 342 rushing yards per game, which ranks them #1 in the country. They generate 450 yards per game in total offense, good for a #16 ranking. Opposing that offense this weekend is the Notre Dame defense which ranks #93 in the country against the run, and #57 in total defense. In compiling their #1 ranking in rushing, Navy has only played one opponent (Ball State) which ranks worse than Notre Dame in rush defense. Rutgers has the 58th best rushing defense, and they surrendered 254 net rushing yards to Navy. Wake Forest has the 34th best run defense, and they gave up 328 net rushing yards to Navy. The point is, Navy has played run defenses ranked much better than #93 in compiling their gaudy rushing totals.

The Irish Defense. How has the Irish defense managed to sink to #93 against the run? The short answer appears to be: They have played some pretty good teams. The first eight games of the schedule had Notre Dame playing teams with the following rankings in rushing offense (as of today): 13, 32, 22, 18, 72, 43, 85, and 27. When you factor into the schedule the facts that (1) Notre Dame's offense has been unable to control the ball, thus leaving the defense out on the field for too long, and (2) Many Irish opponents ran the ball heavily late in games to run out the clock and preserve big leads, it isn't surprising that our rush "D" numbers don't look good. It's pure conjecture, but you have to figure that our rushing "D" numbers would be much better (though not great) if the defense was getting any help from the offense.

Navy "O" versus Irish "D". There's no getting around the fact that Navy runs the ball exceedingly well, using their option package. Their rushing numbers are not a fluke, they weren't compiled against patsies. Notre Dame's defense has been vulnerable to the run all year. What gives me some reason for optimism is that Notre Dame's problems defending the run this year have been more about physical match-ups than assignments and scheme. Certainly there have been some busted assignments. But the bigger problem has been bigger opponents. Although Trevor Laws and Pat Kuntz & Co. have played their hearts out this year, they have frequently just been overmatched physically when facing power running teams. Against Navy, our defensive front seven, perhaps for the first time this season, figures to be more physical and athletic than the offensive line they are facing. Therefore, we should have fewer problems with getting blown off the ball or shoved out of the hole than we have to date. This means that if our guys make their reads we should be able to slow Navy down a little. We'll still have problems when our inside linebackers need to get to the edge - because at times they have proven themselves too slow to contain the outside run when the defensive call requires it. We'll blow some reads and miss some tackles. But as the game wears on Law and Kuntz and friends will wear down the Navy O-line and start disrupting plays in the backfield. That's when we'll see some turnovers that will help the Irish win the game, if we're still in it.

The Navy Defense. Navy's defense ranks 105th in the country, surrendering 459 yards per game. The current offensive rankings of Navy's eight opponents are: 102, 13, 22, 114, 72, 97, 90, and 3. That's an average ranking of #64. Clearly, Navy has been pushed around by some pretty pedestrian competition, even teams with horrible offensive rankings (Duke at 114, Pitt at 97, Wake Forest at 90) amassed over 400 yards against Navy.

The Irish Offense. It's been well documented that Notre dame's offense is dead last (#119) in the country. We haven't run, we haven't passed. But, our schedule really has been brutal. The current total defense rankings for our eight opponents are: 7, 12, 21, 36, 56, 42, 20, and 4. That averages out to a ranking of 24.75. Thus, on average, Notre Dame's offense has played every game against a Top 25 defense. It's not surprising that our young offense has struggled against such quality competition. The "worst" defense we faced was Purdue (#56), and the Irish actually outgained the Boilermakers. The next worst defense was UCLA (#42), who we beat.

Irish "O" versus Navy "D". Unlike the Irish defense, which has struggled this year because of poor physical match-ups, Notre Dame's offensive woes have not been "match-up" problems. The problems on offense have been assignments and scheme, and unforced errors. The offensive line has been confused about who to block. Defensive linemen and linebackers have been running loose in the Irish backfield untouched. The pulling guard has been running right past the defender who, naturally, makes a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. The quarterbacks haven't spotted John Carlson wide open at the sideline. Or the ball has been poorly thrown, or dropped. If you're letting a linebacker get a free run at your quarterback, it matters little that the linebacker is 5' 10" and 175 lbs instead of 6' 2" and 210 lbs. Thus, while one would expect the larger, more athletic Notre Dame players to simply run over Navy's defense, it isn't that simple. IF the O-line can pick up the right guys, they should be able to block them. IF the fullback can spot the blitzing linebacker, he should be able to handle him. IF the QB can read the coverage correctly, he should be able to find a wide open receiver for a touchdown, IF he can throw a decent ball. Even with a decided physical advantage, there a lot of mental IFs. If the Irish offense has a good MENTAL game, they should easily put up their best performance of the year. I expect to see "simple" from the Irish offense. Simple blocking schemes in the running game should allow Aldridge, Allen and Hughes to pick up big chunks of yards. I expect that this is the week we see what Armando Allen can really do - all he needs is a step and the Navy defenders won't b able to catch him. In the passing game, we'll see max protection and let Duval Kamara, Golden Tate, and John Carlson make plays against Navy's overmatched DBs. It's a key fact that Navy is ranked 118th in QB sacks - with 5 total for the year. Thus Evan Sharpley will actually have time to survey the field and throw those deep balls he is so fond of.

Bottom line. Navy is going to move the ball on Notre Dame. The option scheme will cause the Irish defenders some problems early and Navy will get a couple of early scores. But by about half-time the defense will have figured it out, and we'll start disrupting the option and forcing turnovers later in the game. The Irish offense will start slow, with a conservative running game used to establish some rhythm and some confidence. We'll answer the Navy scores with long drives of our own in the first half. By the middle of the second quarter, with our confidence growing, the gloves come off and Evan will start slinging the ball around the yard. We'll lead by a touchdown at half time, and by three touchdowns at the end of the third quarter. Coach Weis will take his foot off the gas at that point and empty the bench. Each team scores again and the Irish win 42-17.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

1st Annual OC Domer Player of the Year Awards

The ballots are in. The results have been tabulated. It's time to announce the first ever recipient of the "OC Domer Player of the Year Award." Before I do so however, I want to answer the question that is surely on your mind as you read this: How can OC Domer name a "Player of the Year" when there are still four games left to play? That's a fair question.

While there are four games remaining to be played on the 2007 football schedule, this season is OVER. We just finished playing eight straight games against top-caliber competition and went 1-7, mathematically eliminating ourselves from Bowl eligibility after playing just 2/3 of our schedule. There are four games left to play, but those games are not about this season. They are about next season. The next four games, in my view, are pre-season games for 2008. These next four games are against a much softer class of competition and will serve as an excellent opportunity for Coach Weis and his staff to develop the young players who will be the heart and soul of the 2008 squad. It's a rare chance to put young players in live-fire situations and see who has the talent and the heart to play football at Notre Dame. The next four games will allow Charlie Weis & his staff the chance to do what they failed to do in 2005 and 2006: Give meaningful reps to the players who will carry the program in the future.

I have decided not to wait until late November to decide Player of the Year honors because for purposes of evaluating the 2007 season I don't care who plays well over the next month. If Clausen or Sharpley have huge games against Navy or Stanford, it won't negate the fact that our quarterback play was horrible WHEN IT COUNTED. If the offensive line overpowers the Air Force and Duke defensive fronts, it won't negate the fact that the Irish barely managed 1 yard per rush WHEN IT COUNTED. If the Notre Dame defense bottles up the Air Force and Navy rushing attacks, it won't negate the fact that we were the 93rd best team in the country against the run WHEN IT COUNTED.

Don't get me wrong. I'll be watching the games with my usual intensity. I'll be sitting on the edge of my seat, and I'll jump into the air screaming and scaring my kids and my dog when the Irish score a touchdown. But what I'll be looking for are the players who give me reason to hope that next year will be better.

The OC Domer Player of the Year Award is intended to recognize the Notre Dame football player or players who played the best when it mattered the most. I want to recognize the guys who showed up and gave quality efforts against the best teams we faced, not the rest of the teams we faced. The award is based on a horrendously complex and intricate scoring system that would take too long to explain and that you wouldn't understand anyway. Suffice it to say that the primary criterion was a consistently high level of play, with significant bonus points awarded for exceeding expectations.

The OC Domer Player of the Year for the 2007 football season goes to: David Bruton.

David is a junior free safety from Miamisburg, Ohio. On the season David has 35 solo tackles, which is second only to linebacker Joe Brockington (36), and 53 total tackles (third behind Brockington and Trevor Laws). From the free safety position he has 3 tackles for loss and one sack. He is tied for the team lead with two interceptions and also has forced one fumble. But the numbers tell only part of the story. Bruton has also made what are probably the three most athletic plays seen from the Irish this season. Against Michigan State, in the waning moments of the first half, David broke from his "deep center field" position on a long MSU pass and made an amazing interception at the sideline to end a Spartan threat. His reaction to the ball, the speed he showed, and the amount of ground he had to cover to haul in that pass were truly impressive. Afterwards Defensive Coordinator Corwin Brown said that he expects to use film of that interception to teach proper safety play for years to come. Against Boston College, on their first possession of the game, L.V. Whitworth raced around left end and appeared headed for an easy sixty yard touchdown. I was watching the game with my Dad, and I said to him: "He's not going to score. Bruton is going to catch him." And he did. Despite having no angle and being way behind at the start, Bruton ran Whitworth down and tackled him at the seven yard line. It was another impressive display of raw athletic ability and heart. The third play came against USC when Bruton not only blocked a Trojan punt, but picked the ball cleanly right off the punter's foot.

Those displays of athleticism, within his overall outstanding performance on the year make David Bruton the OC Domer Player of the Year. Over the 2005 and 2006 seasons (and even before) the Notre Dame secondary has been the weakest link on the team, and the deep pass completions to opposing receivers splitting the seams in the secondary have been a recurring nightmare. While Irish strong safety Tom Zbikowski has been at the line of scrimmage blitzing and trying to shore up the run defense much of the time, David Bruton is a big part of the reason that Irish fans haven't been traumatized by the deep balls down the middle this season. He's also a big part of the reason the Irish overall pass defense is ranked 13th in the nation, by far the best statistical ranking for the Irish in any category this year. David has also been outstanding on special teams. In addition to the blocked punt, he has been a sure tackler on punts and kick-offs. What put David over the top for this award was the fact that he has greatly exceeded expectations. Other contenders for the award who have had very good seasons were by and large established starters who were expected to be very good this year. Although David had some playing time in 2005 and 2006, and garnered defensive MVP honors at the Blue & Gold game this year, nobody was sure how good he would be. Would he be as good as Ndukwe? Or would we see a drop-off? Well, Bruton has shown far more range and athleticism than Ndukwe and the overall play at the safety position has been improved, despite Zbikowski's puzzling inability to return to the level of play we saw from him in 2005.

Congratulations, David. And thanks for giving it your all every week.

OC Domer Player of the Year Runners-up were: Trevor Laws and Pat Kuntz. Both of these players have given it everything they have all season long, and have played at a very high level. They end up runners-up because they were generally expected to be very good this year, so they did not garner as many bonus points for exceeding expectations. They were also hurt by the fact that, despite their tremendous effort, Notre Dame's runs defense has not been very good overall.

OC Domer Player of Year Honorable Mentions go to: Robby Parris and Duval Kamara.

Who are your Notre Dame Players of the Year? I'd love to hear from you.