Sunday, September 27, 2009

Irish Learning How to Win

So how excited can you really be about a last minute win over the Purdue Boilermakers? Normally, I'd be writing a post full of disappointment about how the team under-performed and played down to the level of the competition.

But today I am actually very impressed with the guts and determination of the Fighting Irish. Lacking #1 wideout Michael Floyd, #1 running back Armando Allen, and working around a very limited and gimpy Jimmy Clausen, this team took a collective step up and, as a group, made the plays they needed to make to win an important road game in the face of serious adversity.

The final winning drive led by Clausen and finished in the end zone by TE Kyle Rudolph was very dramatic and should be remembered for a long time. But Notre Dame wouldn't have been in a position to win the game without key contributions from a bunch of guys who, until Saturday night, were not household names:

  • Jonas Gray had 60 total yards rushing and receiving.
  • Robert Hughes ran like a raging bull, flattening would-be tacklers on his way to 68 rushing yards and a touchdown.
  • Golden Tate was Superman, rushing, receiving, wild-catting, punt-returning his way to 128 total yards, including a 14-yard touchdown run. (Okay, Golden's is a household name, but I couldn't leave him off this list!)
  • Freshman Theo Riddick had just one offensive carry, but it went for 24 yards. He also had 96 kick-return yards (averaging 24 yards per return) for 120 total yards on the night.
  • Freshman Nick Tausch was 1-for-1 on field goals, perfect on PATs, and had his best game yet on kick-offs booming the ball down near the goal line (and beyond).
  • Quarterback Dayne Crist, while not allowed to open up the whole playbook, was very effective leading the offense when Clausen needed a break. Crist was 5-for-10 passing for 45 yards, and had four rushes for a net 16 yards, including a very nice 16-yard gain on his first play of the game that seemed to knock Purdue back on their heels a bit.
  • Robby Parris had a huge 16-yard catch for a key first down on the final scoring drive.
  • Robert Blanton had eight total tackles on the night.
  • Darius Fleming went OFF for four solo tackles, including three tackles-for-loss and one QB sack.
  • Kapron Lewis-Moore had for solo tackles, including one TFL.
  • Manti Te'o had a big QB sack to put the game on ice on Purdue's last possession.
And that's not to forget the usual outstanding play of guys like Rudolph, McCarthy, Smith, Smith, Smith, Smith, and Brown; or the terrific play of the offensive line.

In 2008 this same team found a way to lose three games that it had well in hand and should have won. In 2009 this team let the Michigan game get away from them on the road, but held on to beat MSU last week. On Saturday the Fighting Irish finally had the feel of a team that collectively refused to lose. Despite losing most of its marquee offensive talent, the team scraped and clawed its way to a 10-point halftime lead. Despite losing that lead when the offense stalled and the defense stumbled, they regrouped and rallied around their injured quarterback and gave it everything they had until they got the ball across the goal line to take the lead for good. How freaking inspiring was Robert Hughes' 2-yard run on 2nd-and-goal at the Purdue four yard line with less than a minute to go? On the stat sheet it doesn't look like much, but seeing the determination as he dragged Purdue tacklers toward the goal line and refused to go down made me feel like he was carrying the hopes of his whole team on his shoulders and there was no way he was going to let his teammates down.

In 2005 and 2006 one often felt like the team was waiting for Brady Quinn to win the game for them. In 2008 it seemed like the team went as Clausen went. If he was hot the team did well, if Jimmy was off, the team had no chance. In this game against Purdue I felt that the whole team from Jimmy to Bobby Burger to Kerry Neal to Mike Anello took personal ownership of the fate of the team and as a group they said "You can take Floyd, you can take Armando, you can take Clausen, and we're still not going to let you beat us."

It was Purdue, but a night game on the road in the Big Ten with a lot of adversity to overcome was as good a time as any to begin to learn how to win games. That personal yet collective ownership of the fate of the team and the will to win no matter what will pay dividends down the road.

My Dad sent me an e-mail after the game criticizing Charlie Weis' play calling on their last possession of the 3rd quarter. With Notre Dame driving and with a first down at the Purdue 34, Notre Dame had a Hughes run for no gain, an incomplete pass attempt, another Hughes run for no gain, and a 4th-down sack of Crist for a 7-yard loss. Dad thought a pooch punt to bury Purdue in their own end was the smart play, feeling that there was no reason to give Purdue the emotional lift of a big 4th-down stop along with good field position. I replied that I thought the 3rd-down play was the worst of the series, in that it showed no confidence in Crist to run the offense. Plus, if you're going to let him throw it on 4th down anyway, let Dayne have a shot at making a play on 3rd down rather than just plowing into the line on 3rd-and-10.

But I also told my Dad that I thought he was being too negative on Charlie. I feel like he coached his ass off on Saturday night. He was without his #1 receiver, #1 running back, and his starting QB for much of the night, playing on the road against a jacked-up opponent. He went deep into the playbook and found a package of plays that managed to generate enough offense to win the game with the players he had on the field, including a game-winning TD drive at the end of the game led by a one-footed QB.

Coach Weis gets a lot of deserved criticism when he mismanages a game situation and/or gets too cute with his play calls. We should all be willing, however, to give him credit when it is due, and I think he deserves a lot of credit for writing a game plan (actually two or three game plans) that gave his team chance to win a tough game, and for managing the dynamics of the game as it unfolded in such a way as to bring home a "W".

Little Things: Notre Dame won the turnover battle (2-1), had fewer penalties and penalty yards (6 for 41) than Purdue (13 for 103), and won the field position battle (ASFP for Notre Dame its own 34; ASFP for Purdue its own 28).

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!

P.S., If you are looking to buy or sell any Notre Dame football tickets, please visit our site sponsor, They'll hook you up!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Keeping Up With Tom Thornton (And Lending Him a Hand)

In May of 2007 I wrote about a Notre Dame student-athlete who had popped up in the news and who was a perfect example of why, even after a frustrating loss to Michigan on the football field, I am so proud to be a Domer. To briefly re-cap:

Who the heck is Tom Thornton? Tom Thornton is (was) a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame. Student. Athlete. Not an athlete masquerading as a student in order to barely maintain his eligibility. But a true student, working hard in the classroom (and outside the classroom), to get a world-class education as well as a degree. And a pretty good athlete on the side, elected as a co-captain of the baseball team by his teammates in his senior year and compiling a 7-3 record in 15 pitching starts his final season last Spring. Tom was drafted by the Detroit Tigers last June in the 21st round, and right now is working hard in the Can-Am league trying to make it to the Big Leagues.

So what has Tom Thornton been up to lately? Working on his slider, perhaps? Well, no. Tom just returned from Nairobi where he has been working on a research grant trying to learn more about the earliest use of fire by man, over a million years ago. Putting his anthropology degree to work.

Last week I received an e-mail from Tom, who had learned of my blog post from a friend of his some time ago. He is still pursuing his two passions, baseball and anthropology, and he is asking for a little help. Here's what he is up to, in his own words:

Let me first give you a brief summary of where I am and what I've been working on.

After continuing my senior thesis at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi in the fall of 2006 I have continued to play baseball professionally every spring and summer since. I grew up south of Boston, MA and have spent much of the winter training and working in Chicago. I also had such a phenomenal learning and cultural experience in East Africa that I wanted to find a way to continue doing research each fall to learn more in the field and prepare for an eventual Ph.D. program after baseball.

In the fall of 2007 I worked on a project looking at Neanderthal tool technology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. This past fall my interests shifted and I worked with a medical anthropologist in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh looking at the correlation between Buddhist philosophy and sports psychology in regard to the way the athlete creates meaning in the competitive environment.

After working for the past eight months I finally found a professor at Stellenbosch University, near Cape Town, South Africa only about three weeks ago to do a semester long project in the anthropology of religion. First and foremost, I'm thrilled to get the opportunity in the area that I will be pursuing for my Ph.D. however, because it took so long to find the professor, it has put me in a serious time crunch to fund the necessary 8000 dollars to do a nearly three month project project. I'm looking to lock down significant funds within a week so that I can get arrangements set up in South Africa and commit to the offer.

I've been able to get a thousand dollars from a foundation in Evansville, IN which is a fantastic start. Here is the other side and just as important. I would LOVE the opportunity to give something back. To work with an alumni club, give a talk, seminar, work with students or student-athletes would be a great opportunity. I've done a lot of work with my own public school system in Middleboro, MA about everything from goal-setting to a talk on Biblical history in relation to the Israel/Palestine conflict after spending over two months in the Middle East.

So my question is, would you be willing to work with me in arranging some way to give back in return for partial funding? I read on your blog that you are trying to raise a family with young kids so I don't know what options you might have. However, either way would you know of any individual or organization that I might ask or might be willing to work with me on this project? Right now, because of the time crunch, I'm trying to see the whole board (as we say in chess) and ask, ask, ask for ideas and support.

I believe in this project and I know I can offer something very worthy in return. I am extremely passionate about education and raising the level of dialogue in the community. I would really enjoy the opportunity to work with you or someone you know and find a creative solution. I'm going to attach my research and funding proposal if you would like a more specific idea of what exactly I am trying to do. I had tailored it toward several alumni clubs that I am trying to work through as well as many fronts at ND but it will give you a clearer picture of what my project is about.

I really appreciate any ideas or support you might be able to lend. Feel free to call my cell anytime. [cell phone number deleted] I'm in Fargo, ND right now competing for a Northern League championship while playing for the Gary, IN Southshore Railcats. So if I don't pick up I'm probably at the stadium but I'll call you right back asap. Regardless, and in all seriousness, call me sometime anyway, as I pass through CA a fair amount and I might be [there] after the new year before the baseball season begins. If I get south it would be nice to briefly meet up with a fellow alumni.

Thanks a lot for your help and have a terrific day,

Best wishes and regards,


I wrote Tom back with some ideas, and I offered to share his story here at OC Domer in the hopes that someone out there might be willing and able to help him out. If you can offer Tom some help toward reaching his goals, or if you have some ideas on where else he might turn for assistance and support, please e-mail him directly at

Go Irish!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

It's the little things that kill you

An awful, awful loss today for the Fighting Irish. Despite an offense that was very productive, and a defense that was largely in control, Notre Dame used a combination of penalties, turnovers, poor special teams play, poor tackling, and poor coaching to snatch defeat from jaws of victory.

Keys to the game:

1. Referees were awful. Overturn of the Armando Allen touchdown was horrendous. Ticky-tack call on Armando un-sportsmanlike conduct. Non-calls on Michigan un-sportsmanlike plays. Non-calls on clear pass interference plays.

2. Jonas Gray fumble was costly.

3. Tough day for Nick Tausch. Missed an easy field goal, and his kick-offs were too short all day.

4. Kick-off coverage was lousy. Special teams touchdown allowed was the difference in the game, both on the scoreboard and in momentum.

5. Did the Irish defense EVER put a clean shot on Tate Forcier? I blogged before the game about the importance of keeping contain on Forcier and NOT letting him get to the outside where he could hurt us. When we kept contain, he was held in check. Unfortunately, our defenders were juked out their jocks by Forcier on several plays that made the defense look bad.

6. Charlie Weis' clock management on the last offensive possession was awful. Too much high-risk play calling. Run the ball, throw short high-percentage passes, and work the damn clock!!!!

The only good news coming out of this game is that Michigan is vastly improved from a year ago and will win a lot of games, so a loss this week won't necessarily kill the Irish in the long run -- IF Notre Dame goes on and still wins ten games. NO more margin for error now.


Friday, September 11, 2009

It's Michigan

As a Domer from California, I have always considered USC to be the true arch nemesis of the Fighting Irish. I always get really jacked up for the games against Michigan, and I think it's a great rivalry that produces excellent football games, but for me USC has always been "the enemy."

For Notre Dame folks from the Midwest, however, it is Michigan. Irish fans from Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois seem to feel about U of M the way I have always felt about the Trojans. Legions of Notre Dame supporters from that area of the country can't even utter the word "Michigan" without the word "sucks" right behind it. And they absolutely mean it every time they say it.

Whether you just love a great rivalry and a great game among two of the perennial powers of college football, or whether you're a hater, tomorrow's game in the Big House is big. You've heard the story line: Two programs teetering on the brink of redemption. One of the programs will use a victory on Saturday as proof that they're "back" as a player on the national stage. The other will suffer a bitter defeat and face the reality that there is still a long road ahead of them on the way back to legitimacy. It sounds a bit contrived, and there's some truth in it. But really, this game is big for each program, although for different reasons.

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez needs to beat Notre Dame to prove that last year's debacle was an anomaly, that he really can coach football, and that the team is heading in the right direction. Beating Notre Dame would quiet the many of the doubters who have looked at last season's record and the current scandals surrounding the team and have begun to seriously wonder if Dick Rod is he right man for the job. In other words, beating Notre Dame would be an important positive step that would buy Rodriguez a little more good will and a little more time to put his system in place. Losing tomorrow would embolden the critics, and crank up the heat on the hot seat a little, but it wouldn't put Rodriguez in a drastically different spot than he was a week ago. In other words, for Michigan a win would be a big boost for the program while a loss would essentially leave them at status quo.

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis needs to beat Michigan to show that the dramatic improvement in the way his team has played in Hawaii and against Nevada is not a fluke but rather is an accurate indication of how good this football team is. The Fighting Irish have big goals this year, and a win over Michigan is fully expected to be one more step on the path to playing in a BCS Bowl game this season. A nice win tomorrow would be some validation that this program is, in fact, heading in the right direction. Losing tomorrow, on the other hand, would be a big blow. It would likely let the air out of the BCS balloon. Losing to this Michigan team would be a clear sign that either (1) Weis isn't bringing athletes into the program that can compete against elite teams, or (2) he can't coach them up to an elite level. Making WAC teams look bad is all well and good, but it's meaningless if you can't run with the big dogs. If coach Weis in his 5th season, with this roster, can't beat Dick Rod in his 2nd season, with a depleted roster, playing a true freshman at QB, then folks are going to decide that he's not the right guy for the job. If not now, when? So Notre Dame is in the inverse of the position Michigan is in. For the Irish, a win is good, but really keeps the program at status quo. But a loss tomorrow would be a huge setback.

So is this game "bigger" for Notre Dame or for Michigan? Hard to say. Michigan has more to win, but Notre Dame clearly has more to lose. Unfortunately, this means Michigan is in the position of the underdog with nothing to lose and no pressure, while Notre Dame is the favorite with all the expectations on them and more at stake in the outcome. I expect the Michigan players to feel good about playing at home, and to be "loose" heading into the game. I am a little concerned that the Irish players could feel some of the pressure of a big game on the road as the favorites, and might be a little tight. There haven't been any signs of "tight" play the last two times out, but Coach Weis' teams have exhibited some "tight" play in the past. Hopefully the last two wins have instilled real confidence in the team, and not just fragile bravado. If the confidence is real, then they'll be fine.

Last year the Irish used six Wolverine turnovers and general disarray in the Michigan program to whip U of M 35-17. You have to expect a closer game this season. While Notre Dame is returning essentially the same cast of characters as last year, Michigan is a different team. Judging from last week's game against Western Michigan, it's clear that Coach Rodriguez has finally installed his offense in Ann Arbor. And although Tate Forcier is just a freshman, the highlights from last week demonstrate that he has at least a basic grasp of the offense and the right skill set to run it. On the other side of the ball, Michigan's new defensive coordinator is Greg Robinson, who was last seen coaching Syracuse to a 24-23 win over Notre Dame last season in what I consider to be the worst loss suffered in the Weis era. In that game the Orange held the Fighting Irish to just 41 net rushing yards and an average of 1.5 yards per carry. Notre Dame converted just 4 of 16 third down opportunities in that game.

Clearly, Michigan will be better on both sides of the ball than the team we saw last September. The Irish are going to have to show up expecting a tough game. Given the focus we saw from the team in the opener last week, I expect them to be ready to go.

While I do anticipate the Michigan defense to be improved from last season, I think the Irish offense is also better and will do fine as long as Clausen doesn't turn the ball over.

The key to the game will be how the defense handles Michigan's shiny new spread offense. I watched the key bits of the Wolverines' game against the Broncos, and it's clear that Tate Forcier is more mature and polished than the typical freshman. He doesn't have a rocket arm, but he is very accurate, both from the pocket and while on the move, and he seems to make very good decisions about where to go with the ball. The Notre Dame defense will have to be very disciplined to be successful.

First, the defensive backs are going to have to stay disciplined in covering receivers down field, and not coming off them too soon to defend what looks like a run by the QB. A high percentage of Michigan's offense starts from the play action, followed by the QB rolling out with a run-pass option. If the Irish DBs bite on the play action, or come up to stop Forcier running, he will throw the ball over their heads to wide open receivers running free down field. The defensive backfield has to understand that it is not a running play until Forcier actually crosses the line of scrimmage. A corollary of this is that the Irish front seven have to be able to handle the running game and pressure Forcier without secondary help. The safeties are going to be busy in coverage, so the defensive line and the linebackers are on their own in the run game.

Second, the front seven have to pressure Forcier, but they have to do so without letting him break contain. Forcier is okay from the pocket, but he really makes the big plays on the rollout after he has escaped the pocket. If the defense allows him to get outside, he will do a lot of damage with his arm or with his feet, especially since the defensive backs will be downfield in coverage rather than supporting run defense. Coach Tenuta's defense has to pressure the young quarterback and get in his face, but it is equally important to cut off his avenues of escape. If they can keep up both pressure and contain, they will have success. If they can't, it will be a long day.

Third, the defense has to make the first tackle count. Irish tackling was poor last week, and while it cost a few yards, it didn't cost us on the scoreboard. Against Michigan missed tackles will hurt. Forcier will escape and complete a long pass. Michigan's other quarterback, Denard Robinson, will turn a missed tackle into a long speedy touchdown. Although he's not real big, he is scary fast. I am hoping that he will spend some quality time with Manti Te'o tomorrow. I think Manti can slow him down a bit.

Robinson seems to be the designated "wilcat" QB for Michigan, and so far hasn't shown himself to be a real threat in the passing game. If the defense keeps contain on him and doesn't miss any tackles, he shouldn't pose as many problems as Forcier over the course of the full game.

Are they up to it? You bet they are. I believe Coach Tenuta's blitzing schemes, and the depth to keep the defense fresh, will have Tate Forcier's head spinning. I believe they'll play with the necessary discipline and they will slow the Wolverine attack more than enough to enable Notre Dame to win the game comfortably.

Notre Dame 31, Michigan 20.

Go Irish! Beat Wolverines!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Notre Dame Opponent Poll after Week 1

Frank V. over at is going to be publishing a weekly poll this season ranking from 1 through 12 Notre Dame's 2009 football opponents, and he has honored me by asking me to participate as one of the voters in the poll. The results of the poll after week 1 can be found at this link. In the name of transparency, my ballot for this week's poll appears below, with limited comments.

  1. USC. (Any questions?)
  2. Navy. Threatening to push Ohio State into overtime at the 'shoe was by far the most impressive performance by any Irish opponent this week. Navy may move down my list next week, but this week they get some respect at OC Domer.
  3. Pittsburgh. Tough call, but beating Youngstown State 38-3 is slightly more impressive than beating Montana State 44-3. I think. So Pitt slides past Michigan State this week.
  4. Michigan State. I hope nobody pulled a hammy versus Montana State. Sheesh.
  5. Stanford. Put a whooping on a Pac-10 team, even if it was Washington State.
  6. Michigan. Nice win over Western Michigan, I guess. Certainly the Wolverines looked a lot better than I expected.
  7. Boston College. Who knew Northeastern has a football team?
  8. Washington. Very nice game against the visiting LSU Tigers. They could be rated higher, but they still have to prove that last season is behind them, and SEC teams often look like crap when they leave the friendly confines of the Confederacy.
  9. Purdue. I have to put them somewhere.
  10. Connecticut. It may have been Ohio U., but they won. Former Irish QB Zach Frazer threw 3 INTs.
  11. Nevada. They may be a better team than they showed Saturday. But based on Saturday they have to go here.
  12. Washington State. Manhandled by Stanford. Not an awful game, but I can't justify putting them ahead of anyone.
After week 1, the Irish schedule doesn't look so weak anymore. Navy looks tough, Washington appears to be hugely improved. Not counting Notre Dame's victory over Nevada, the remaining eleven Irish opponents were 8-3 on the weekend, with one W and one L coming from Washington State and Stanford playing each other. Throw that game out and the remaining opponents were 7-2, albeit against suspect competition. I'll post my ballot in the opponent poll each week, if I get around to it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Nevada Nit-Picks (Not!)

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.
The TDs came on plays of 19 yards, 24 yards, 70 yards, 1 yard, and 88 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?

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.
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!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Irish Blogger Gathering: Here Come the 2009 Fighting Irish!

We're going to try to keep Subway Domer's love child alive for a second season. Yes, the Irish Blogger Gathering is back for 2009. The idea is for our intrepid group of Notre Dame football bloggers to respond each week during the season to a set of questions posed to the group. The blogger asking the questions rotates, and the host for Nevada week is the Domer Law Blog. You can head over there to read Domer Law's IBG post, and in the comments you will find the responses written by all the bloggers participating in the Gathering this week. And so, without further ado:

1. What song or video do you feel typifies this year's Notre Dame team heading into the season? Embed a youtube or other similar video if possible.

The very first thought that popped into my head was "We're Not Gonna Take It" by Twisted Sister. This has to be the attitude of the Notre Dame coaches and players as they hit the field this year. They have to stand up and show the whole world that they aren't going to take being pushed around and beaten down any more. We need to see some attitude and some defiance from the '09 Irish.

2. Post a picture that to you portrays the attitude of this year's team and discuss.

As I've been writing all pre-season, we won't know anything about this team until Saturday. Talk and speculation is useless - this team needs to show up on game day and take care of business. The team that runs out into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon needs to have the attitude of the incredible Hulk. They needs to be big, fast, strong, nasty, and not worried about breaking things or hurting anyone's feelings. They need to be merciless and supremely confident. They need to crush the Nevada Wolf Pack like a bug. Coach Weis needs to set the example by not taking his foot off the gas. Notre Dame lost three games last year because they had comfortable leads that they thought were safe and they tried to nurse those leads to the end of the 4th quarter. There can be no comfortable leads at half-time. Maybe if you're up by 28 with 5:00 to go you can nurse the clock. But this team needs to bring a little Hulk to Notre Dame Stadium. Is it a coincidence that the Hulk wears green? I think not.

3. What do you perceive as the team's biggest weakness heading into the season?

Toughness. Coach Weis has brought into the program some very talented athletes, and he has largely fixed Notre Dame's perennial problem - Team Speed. Now we need to see some toughness; some of the nasty that Charlie promised when he showed up in South Bend. The O-line needs to be tough. Armando Allen needs to run tough, not fall over on contact. The D-line needs to be tough against the run. The linebackers need to take on blockers and win the battles at the point of attack and stuff the run at the line of scrimmage without safety help.

4. With the exception of the 1990s, Notre Dame has won a National Championship in every decade since the 1920s. What are the chances (a) that Notre Dame wins a championship this year, and (b) if not this year, when do you predict the next championship for the Irish?

The odds makers have Notre Dame's odds of winning a National Championship at 25-1. In order to win the championship, the Irish have three major hurdles to clear. First, they have to beat USC. I put the chances of that at 40%. Second, they have to win the other eleven games on their regular season schedule. I put the chances of that at most at 30%. Then they would have to win the BCS Championship Game against Florida or some other very worthy opponent. If this team has played well enough to be 12-0 and beat USC and get voted into the Title game, I'll go ahead and give them a 50% chance of winning that game. A little math (4/10 x 3/10 x 1/2) gets you a 6% chance of Notre Dame winning a National Championship, which is only slightly better than the Vegas odds. That may sound very pessimistic, but to put it in perspective the chances of winning just five games in a row if the chances of winning each individual game is 50% is 3.125%. The chances of winning twelve games in a row if each game is a 50-50 proposition is 0.024%. (That's a 1 in 4096 chance).

Bottom line: The team has to play consistently at the top of its game for a whole season, and get some breaks along the way. But really, 6% is a decent chance in the big scheme of things.

If they don't win it all this season, I think they'll have an even better chance next year, as nearly every player of import will return in 2010.

5. Nevada runs the Pistol offense, Navy the Triple Option, and Michigan the Spread Option. Which offensive scheme do you think is the most difficult to prepare for, and why?

Okay, I suppose I could PRETEND that I understand the nuances of each of these offenses and the unique challenges they pose to a defensive coordinator. But that would be silly. The toughest offense to prepare for is the one featuring the most talented athletes with the most experience in the offense. Given Michigan's woes and Navy's rebuilding this year, you'd have to say that Nevada, with a very experienced starting QB in a system he knows well will be the most difficult to prepare for.

6. Is Colin Capaernick the best quarterback we'll see this year? If not, who is?

He probably is the best quarterback as of today. But USC's true freshman Matt Barkley will have much more talent around him, and will have five games under his belt (including on the road at Ohio State and Cal) when he arrives in South Bend. Thus, Barkley will likely pose a bigger challenge to defend than Capaernick.

7. Prediction time. We have to get on the record before the season kicks off. Give me:

(1) Overall prediction for wins/losses.

I'm calling for a 10-2 regular season. The probably lose to USC in a game that is much more competitive than the last three years, and they will lose one game that they should win, rather than losing three games they should have won in 2008. More details on my season forecast can be found at this link.

(2) Projected bowl game and result.

I expect Notre Dame to play in and win a BCS Bowl Game, albeit not the BCS Championship game.

(3) Predicted final ranking.

The bowl win will lead to a #5 ranking in the final polls, behind the two teams in the BCS Championship game and the winners of the other two BCS bowl games.

(4) Best player on the team.

I hope there will be a lot of competition for this honor, but in order for the team to reach it's goals the best player needs to be Jimmy Clausen.

(5) Heisman trophy winner.

If it isn't Clausen, I'm pulling for Colt McCoy.

(6) National Champion.

If not the Irish, I like Texas.

(7) Prediction for Nevada game, including score.

Notre Dame 38, Nevada 20

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Michigan's Cheating Scandal Is Serious

The big news in college football the past couple of days has been the report that Coach Rich Rodriguez and the University of Michigan football program have been systematically cheating by mandating that players participate in football activities for hours well in excess of the daily and weekly limits set by NCAA rules. It has been surprising to me that much of the early spin from the talking heads at places like ESPN has largely been of the "If you're not cheating, you're not trying" variety. Commentators are basically accusing the former and current Michigan football players of whining about the hard work required to play Division I football, even at a lesser program like Michigan's. (Cheap shot. Sorry. Not.)

Here, very quickly, is why I think the current scandal at UM ought to be taken very seriously.

1. It's an integrity issue. As an NCAA institution, Michigan has agreed to abide by a certain set of rules. If they knowingly and consistently break those rules they are cheaters, and it is fair to call their integrity into question. If I were a UM official, employee, alumnus or student, I would probably not want my University's integrity ridiculed. This doesn't appear to be an isolated incident either, as Dick Rod's integrity has been questioned since the day he left West Virginia for Michigan (and tried to renege on his contract buyout clause at WVU).

2. Competitive balance. There's a group of football players at Western Michigan University who are getting ready to play the Wolverines this Saturday. The Broncos already have to contend with playing against a team full of superior athletes. Now they have to contend with playing a team full of superior athletes that is breaking the rules to gain an unfair competitive advantage. That sucks for WMU, and it isn't fair to any team on Michigan's schedule (including Notre Dame). Do you remember how OUTRAGEOUS steroid use was in baseball, because it created an unfair competitive advantage? How OUTRAGEOUS the New England Patriots' filming from the sidelines was because it created an unfair competitive advantage? Consistently getting more hours of supervised workouts or mandatory training or coaching sessions in each week is an unfair advantage every bit as serious as either of those situations.

3. These are STUDENT athletes. At least they are supposed to be. Michigan has already been identified as one of the football factories that steers its players (mostly its black players) into worthless academic majors, and then fails to graduate them. They are already under criticism for sacrificing the education of their student athletes on the altar of football, so you would think that UM administrators would be paying a little more attention to the academic progress of their student athletes. Even at a school like Michigan, only a handful of players will ever play football professionally. The vast majority of student athletes will need to find another way to make a living, and they SHOULD be able to fall back on a Michigan education. I have no doubt that Dick Rod and his assistant coaches go into the homes of their targeted high school recruits and sell the academic excellence of the University of Michigan. No doubt they promise these kids' moms & dads that their son will get a world class education at U of M. But if the football coaches are placing unreasonable and illegal demands on the students' time, it is clear that the coach and the University do not consider actual education to be a high priority. Which is a moral problem as well as an integrity problem.

If these allegations about Coach Rodriguez and U of M prove to be true, I hope Dick Rod is humiliated and unceremoniously fired. Cheating should not be tolerated. Cheating that deprives student athletes of the opportunity to actually get the world class education they have been promised should be punished.