Saturday, October 31, 2009

IBG: "You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas"

I must say as to what I have seen of Texas, it is the garden spot of the world. The best land & best prospects for health I ever saw is here, and I do believe it is a fortune to any man to come here. There is a world of country to settle.
(David Crockett, in a letter to his children, 9 January 1836)

This week's Irish Blogger Gathering is being hosted by the estimable Whiskey over at One Foot Down. Whiskey has always been a gracious supporter of the OC Domer blog, and he does great work over there. Once you're done here, head over to OFD to read all of this week's IBG responses, and add his blog to your regular Irish football reading.

1. The 7-4-1 scheduling model has been the subject of much heated debate amongst Irish fans since it was first announced back in 2006. This week the Fighting Irish will play the first neutral site “barnstorming game” in said model so now is as good of a time as any to weigh in on the controversial subject. What do you think about a) 7-4-1 as a whole, b) the neutral site/ barnstorming game in general and c) specifically playing Washington State in San Antonio?

As a whole, I support the 7-4-1 as a concept, IF it is implemented with games that are compelling. The Fighting Irish have a "barnstorming" tradition that goes back to the Rockne era, but that barnstorming was more in the nature of "we'll play any team, any time, anywhere" mantra in an effort to find good opponents and build the reputation of the program, much as Bobby Bowden did with Florida State in his early years, or the way Fresno State seeks top-caliber opponents today. Notre Dame played games at Soldier Field and Yankee Stadium out of necessity: as the Fighting Irish gained notoriety, such venues were the only places big enough to hold the crowds expected for big games against, for example, Army. Today, Notre Dame Stadium holds 80,000 fans so there is no longer a need to find a bigger stadium for big games. However building a credible schedule as an independent program when most quality BCS schools are looking only for cupcakes to round out their out-of-conference schedules can be a challenge. The "neutral site" game can be a useful tool for enticing a team to play Notre Dame when the potential opponent doesn't want to travel too far from home or play a true "away" game in Notre Dame Stadium, or if a home-and-home arrangement is impractical because the prospective opponent's home stadium isn't big enough to accommodate the crowds that follow the Irish even on the road. But I don't like the idea of becoming wedded to the 7-4-1 framework at all costs.

Personally, I think this particular game is poorly conceived. Playing a neutral site game in Texas against a regional opponent (Texas A&M? Texas Tech? Baylor? Houston? LSU?) makes some sense. If the parties want to play each other, but don't want to go the home-and-home route, a neutral site game works. The problem is that Notre Dame wants the "neutral" site game to be a "home" game for tickets, revenue, and television purposes. Few self-respecting "quality" opponents are going to sign up for a "neutral" site game that is so lopsided financially. And so we get Washington State. In San Antonio. Huh? If the opponent is going to be Washington State, play it somewhere near the Northwest. Put it in Seattle, or Portland, or, even better, put it in Vancouver, British Columbia. But there is absolutely nothing compelling or even logical about Note Dame versus the Cougars in San Antonio, Texas. There is no hook. The Alamo Dome is a marginal facility for a big-time college football game, and the Riverwalk is waaaayyy overrated. The only redeeming qualities of the game from my perspective are (1) to grow the Notre Dame brand into Texas and hopefully improve our ability to recruit the region, and (2) to give Notre Dame alumni and fans a chance to see the Fighting Irish play in their area.

The second game of the new 7-4-1 model will be Notre Dame versus Army in the new Yankee Stadium. That is a very enticing match-up. The opponent is no powerhouse these days, but the game is in Army's back yard and makes sense geographically, and of course it has historical context hearkening back to the real barnstorming days of Notre Dame versus Army in the old Yankee Stadium. And of course added to those reasons are the bonus of a recruiting bump in New York/New Jersey and a great game for Irish fans in New York to see.

2. I have personally had this game circled on the schedule for quite some time as the one “sure thing.” After the last few games I have really been looking forward to a drama free victory. As luck would have it I started looking at the Cougars more closely this morning and it appears that freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel went 28 of 42 for 354 yards and 2 TD’s in a losing effort against Cal over the weekend. With the Irish secondary still struggling to get it together what are the chances that yet another freshman signal caller makes this one way more interesting than it should be on Saturday night in San Antonio?

The sports books have the Irish favored to beat the Cougars by between 27 and 30 points. But USC only beat the Cougars by 21 points in the Los Angeles Coliseum (27-6). USC was beating WSU 20-0 after the 1st quarter of that game, but WSU outscored the Trojans 7-6 over the final three periods. Cougar QB Jeff Tuel got his first extended action against USC, and he played admirably. The point is, Washington State did not quit when they had every chance to on the road against USC. They won't quit against the Irish, and Notre Dame better not mail it in or the Cougars could bite us in the backside. Think of the Cougars as a less-talented version of Navy. I think the Irish will win the game comfortably, but I wouldn't bet on a final margin of victory anywhere of 30 points. So yes, it will probably be more "interesting" than it should be, but I don't think the game will be in any sort of doubt late.

3. Assuming that the Fighting Irish are able to take care of business and put this one away early what non-starters would you most like to see get some reps this week? Why?
  • QB Dayne Crist. We need to continue his development, and I want to see if he really is good enough to be "the guy" after Jimmy.
  • RB Jonas Gray. We need to figure out who the #1 RB is going to be after #5 is gone.
  • Safety Ray Herring. An emotional favorite of Notre Dame fans since his commitment out of Melbourne, Florida, I'd just like to see him get some PT. Plus, our safeties haven't been setting the world on fire in pass coverage, and maybe Ray can be part of the solution.
  • RB Theo Riddick. We need to find a RB who can be a legit big play threat. Let's see if Theo can be that guy.
  • WR Deion Walker. Always looking for the next big thing. Let's see if the 6' 2" sophomore can help fill the void caused by #3's absence.
  • RB Cierre Wood. It looks like there's a red shirt on Cierre, but he came to ND very highly touted, and I want to see if he can score from long distance.
  • Any senior player in the program who has worked his ass off for four years and who hasn't seen the field. I should actually put these guys at the top of this list.
4. With the game being played on Halloween Night chances are that if you are not traveling to San Antonio you most likely have a scheduling conflict. Whether you are supposed to be at a party dressed as Fat Elvis, taking your kids trick-or-treating or just dealing with your doorbell ringing nonstop how do you plan to watch the game? If you are going what are you most looking forward to?

I'll be monitoring the action from right here at OC Domer HQ. I will be delegating candy distribution duties to my lovely and talented bride, and my handsome and witty son. Thanks guys! Love you!

5. Trick or Treat? Predictions please.

As mentioned above, the Irish are favored by 30 points. The over/under for the game is at about 60 points. A score of Notre Dame 45, Washington State 15 would make the bookmakers look pretty smart. Let's put it a Irish 44 (5 TDs and 3 FGs) and Wazoo 20 (2 TDs and 2 FGs). That feels about right to me.

Friday, October 23, 2009

IBG: Nasty, Brutish and Short Edition

The Irish Blogger Gathering is hosted by the Brawling Hibernian. Once you're done here you can head over there to read all the other IBG entries for BC week. Last week's loss to USC left me pretty wiped out, and so I'm way late with my IBG post for the week. Because I am so late with it, the post will be nasty, brutish and short. Really the primary purpose of writing it is to check it off my blogging "to do" list so that I don't beat myself up over letting down the group. It's not about you, it's about me.

1. Coming off a very difficult loss to a rival that has now beaten them eight straight times, Notre Dame faces another that's beaten them six straight. Can Notre Dame end the losing streak against BC or will the combined weight of the USC loss and recent history against the Eagles be too much to overcome? Explain.

Personally, I have been very slow to put the emotional USC game behind me and re-focus on Boston College. And that's the problem with the B.C. game in a nutshell, isn't it? We look at B.C. as a "nice" game to play since they are the "other" big Catholic football school. But for whatever reason the Irish never seem to take the game against the Eagles very seriously. I don't know why, but I suspect it just boils down to the fact that you can't emotionally have a big "rivalry" game every week. You get fired up for Michigan and USC and even Michigan State. In the midst of a long tough slog with no real break in the action, Boston College kind of creeps up on you as just the next game on the schedule.

B.C., on the other hand, looks at the Notre Dame game as one of their BIG rivalry games. For the Eagles, beating the Irish brings a sense of validation born of the inferiority complex that comes from being, in the eyes of most, the "other" big Catholic football school.

Which means that, psychologically, Boston College has shown up to these games more ready to play than Notre Dame has most years. Add in to the mix a very draining loss to USC last week, and the Notre Dame football team is a prime candidate for a letdown loss to B.C. To stave it off, the Irish need to be a lot more resilient than I have been since last Saturday. Hopefully they have been able to shake off the Trojans and re-focus on the Eagles during practice.

I think the Irish will get it done tomorrow. (Okay, who here is truly surprised that I like ND in this game? Seriously.) It's a real break that we get this game at home, where the team can draw some energy from the home crowd and can actually build on the positive vibes of the success they had against USC last week even though they didn't get the win.

But mostly, I think we're a better team. Notre Dame is ranked at #17 in Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings this week, going 4-2 against the 13th toughest schedule in Division I. Boston College is ranked #47, with a 5-2 record against the 82nd toughest schedule. Wins against Northeastern, Kent State, and NC State don't impress me.

2. Not unlike Notre Dame's defense, BC's offense has been pretty erratic this season. While in their most recent win, they rolled up 480 total yards and scored 52 points; in their two losses, they've averaged 109 yards and 11 points. Which BC offense and which ND defense show up on Saturday? Why?

This game has the makings of Notre Dame's first comfortable win since the Nevada game. Boston College has two narrow wins over Florida State (28-21) and Wake Forest (27-24). Those schools are ranked #44 and #68 by Jeff Sagarin. Clemson, which hammered the Eagles 25-7 is ranked by Sagarin at #41, which is 23 spots below the Irish. NC State, who surrendered the aforementioned 480 yards and 52 points to BC, is ranked at #91.

The ND defense needs to improve. They really, really need to improve. They will give BC some success. But ultimately the Eagles will look more like the team that played Clemson than the team that played NC State.

3. Does anyone seem primed to have a Robby Parris-like breakout moment against the Eagles? If so, who is it and why?

Mike Ragone. We have been waiting for Coach Weis to get the multiple tight ends sets working in the offense. BC largely frustrated Kyle Rudolph (and Clausen) last year and can be expected to give #9 a lot of attention. Robby Parris is "full go" for the game (which amazes me), but I expect him to be a step slow against BC. We'll need another threat in the passing game to step up, and Mike Ragone is overdue.

4. It's been an and up-and-down year for Boston sports. After a strong start, the Red Sox folded in the second half of the year. The Patriots, meanwhile, seem to be on the upswing after a 59-0 dismantling of Tennessee. For their part, Boston College has seemed as though their season could go either way. Ultimately, will the Eagles be the Sox or the Pats?

Honestly, who cares about Boston Sports? Boston College is in something of a rebuilding year. If they do as well as the Red Sox (a wild card team who were SWEPT by the Angels in the playoffs) they will be very happy.

5. While most Irish fans refer to BC as "Fredo", tell me to which other cinematic character you would compare the Eagles.

Why mess with a good thing? The sniveling, weak, younger brother of the Godfather saga is a truly inspired cinematic comparison. To me, the Eagles are typecast as Fredo, and I can't even envision them playing another role.

Conclusion: Enough already. Just go out there and put the Eagles in their place. Get your cleats on their necks and don't let them up. No need for last-minute heroics this week. Is anybody up for a little domination?

USC Post Script

A week ago, on the eve of their much-anticipated game against USC, I posted here an open letter to the Notre Dame football team. In that post I urged the Fighting Irish to -

Play hard. Run like your hair is on fire. Hit like a freight train. If you get hit hard, hit back twice as hard. Finish your blocks. Take care of the football. Don't commit a dumb penalty. Play every play with the urgency of a last-minute drive. Wrap 'em up on your tackles. Play with all the heart we know you have.
It was my hope that if they did these things, if they gave it everything they had on every play, they would beat the Trojans.

And they almost did.

As it turned out, despite giving it their all, the Irish last Saturday ran out of time 4 yards short of a touchdown that, depending upon whether they chose to attempt a 1 or a 2-point conversion, would have tied or even possibly won the game. To get to that final play Notre Dame had rallied from a 20-point deficit earlier in the 4th quarter that left many Irish fans, including this one, worried that the game was teetering on the verge of another lopsided finish.

I share the tremendous disappointment of a missed opportunity to beat USC, and of yet another Trojan victory that extends their win streak over ND to 8.

Over the past few seasons USC's dominance over Notre Dame and their blowout wins in both Los Angeles and South Bend left me frustrated and embarrassed and, frankly, angry that the Irish were not even remotely competitive against the Trojans.

This week I have been emotionally drained, but I have not had a single moment of frustration, embarrassment, or anger. This week, I have have been able to hold my head high and I have been especially proud to be a Notre Dame alumnus. Because last Saturday the Fighting Irish played exactly how I hoped they would. They played hard, they fought and they scraped, they took care of the ball and didn't commit dumb penalties. They played with heart and with character and they surprised the college football world by going toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the nation for 60 minutes and coming within a whisker of pulling an upset that would have been one for the ages.

Great game guys. Thanks for being such outstanding representatives of Notre Dame.

Now go beat B.C.!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dear Fighting Irish

An Open Letter to the Notre Dame Football Team

Dear Fighting Irish,

Tomorrow's a big day. It's a big day for you, and a big day for tens of thousands of Notre Dame alumni and for the millions of subway alumni who embrace Our Lady's University and all she stands for. There has been an intensity and a buzz on campus all week that is felt all the way out here in Southern California. Your fans and supporters genuinely believe that this is the year the Fighting Irish can restore the proper balance to the college football universe by beating USC. We BELIEVE you can do it.

I was going to write to encourage you to think about all the history of Notre Dame football, and to go out there tomorrow and win the game for Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, and Holtz. To win for the former players that tried their best to "Play Like a Champion" when they wore that uniform and ran out through the tunnel and into Notre Dame Stadium. To win for the alumni, young and old, who will be standing in the middle of their living rooms and cheering you on because they can't sit down during a Notre Dame football game even when it's on T.V.

But I'm not going to encourage you to beat USC for me, or for thousands of other alumni and fans and players you have never met and will probably never meet. It would be both foolish and selfish to expect you to play for all of us.

You need to play tomorrow for YOU. The mighty Trojans of Southern California are rolling into Notre Dame Stadium tomorrow afternoon and they want to show the world, again, that they are better than you. Look around your locker room. No player on your team has EVER won a game against USC. Every Notre Dame - USC game gets a tremendous amount of national and even international attention and every game is broadcast on national television so that everyone who cares at all about college football can watch the game. The senior class that graduated last Spring never beat USC, nor did the seniors that graduated the year before that, or the year before that. If Notre Dame does not win tomorrow, then this year's seniors will be added to that group of players who never beat Southern Cal.

Why does it matter? It matters because the results of the USC game stick with you for the rest of your life like a giant tattoo on your face. The USC - Notre Dame rivalry is one of the biggest in all of sport, and for the rest of your life after you leave Notre Dame you will be reminded about how you played against the Trojans. In your social life, in your professional life, everywhere you go it will be with you. It can be with you in a good way, or in a bad way - but it will be with you. You'll bump into Notre Dame alumni and fans. You'll meet alumni of other college football powers. You'll be introduced to, and maybe even work with, former players and coaches from USC. And the question will always be there.

How'd you guys do against USC when you played at Notre Dame?

You chose Notre Dame perhaps for many reasons. Hopefully you have found there what you sought. But one of the things you came to Notre Dame for was the chance to prove that you have the talent and the determination to be the best. Now is your chance. For the past several years the USC game has, unfortunately, shown that the Notre Dame football team was not the best, was not among the best, and was a long way from being the best. Tomorrow is your chance to prove that things at Notre Dame have changed. That we do have great players with the talent and the drive and the heart to be among the best. You have the chance to go out into the stadium tomorrow and make that statement, and if you meet the challenge and beat the Trojans, you will have the privilege of carrying that victory with you for the rest of your life. And you will also have the distinction of being the team that restored Notre Dame to it's rightful place among the college football elite.

Play for that. And play for your fellow students in the Northwest corner of the stadium who will also be asked, for the rest of their lives after they leave Notre Dame, "How'd you guys do against USC when you were there?" You guys are all in this together.

Play hard. Run like your hair is on fire. Hit like a freight train. If you get hit hard, hit back twice as hard. Finish your blocks. Take care of the football. Don't commit a dumb penalty. Play every play with the urgency of a last-minute drive. Wrap 'em up on your tackles. Play with all the heart we know you have.

And Beat the Trojans!

Believe me, no one will mind if you win tomorrow for you, instead of for us. We'll still be just as proud to be sons and daughters of Notre Dame, and just as happy that Notre Dame football is back.

Go Irish!


OC Domer

Monday, October 12, 2009

Irish Blogger Gathering: The Quest for a Signature Win

Welcome to the USC-week edition of the Irish Blogger Gathering, hosted right here at OC Domer in a nod to the fact that I have to live my life surrounded by Trojan alumni & fans. Having grown up in California, and living in So Cal for the past 16 years, the USC game annually is the "Big One" at OC Domer HQ. Win this game, and you get a full year of smack-talk satisfaction out of it. Lose this game and you're in for a full year of crap at every cocktail party and other social function you attend for 12 long months. It's funny how many more USC fans you meet when they're winning than when they're losing.

Added to the usual stakes surrounding a USC-ND game this year is the Quest for the Signature Win. Charlie Weis is in his fifth season as Notre Dame's head football coach. He rolled up a lot of wins in 2005 and 2006, but lost the Bowl game following each season. 2007 & 2008 were unequivocal disasters with the exception of the Hawaii Bowl win last Christmas Eve. Can you name Coach Weis' biggest win to date? Neither could I, so I looked it up. The candidates for "signature win" are:

  • Unranked ND beats #23 Pittsburgh, 42-21. (2005)
  • #20 ND beats #3 Michigan, 17-10. (2005)
  • #13 ND beats #22 Purdue, 49-28. (2005)
  • #4 ND beats #19 Penn State, 41-17. (2006)
Those are Coach Weis' only wins over ranked opponents, and the last one was more than three full years ago (September 9, 2006 over the Nittany Lions). It's nice to win games over weaker teams (which itself has been pretty uncertain for the last three years), but WE ARE ND! We should be competing with and beating highly ranked opponents our fair share of the time. And it needs to start now.

This week's IBG Questions:

1. The weather forecast for Saturday's game (as of this writing) has the high temperature in the mid 40's with some chance of rain (or snow?). What weather would give Notre Dame the best chance to beat USC? Why?

Think snow. Better yet, think sleet and wind chill. Snow can be beautiful, and it might be novel enough that the Trojans find it amusing to play in. But cold, near-frozen rain in a driving wind would be ideal playing conditions. USC's players, as talented as they are, traditionally have not adapted well to poor weather in South Bend. Frankly, if it gets cold enough, you quickly get the sense that they'd just as soon be anywhere else but playing football in Notre Dame stadium. Our guys don't really like it either, but they're more used to it and can gut it out better. The worse the weather is on Saturday, the more I like our chances.

2. Irresistable Force or Immovable Object? Notre Dame's offense is ranked #10 in yards (470 per game) and #27 in points (32.6 per game). USC's defense is ranked #6 in yards allowed (238.6 per game) and #4 in scoring allowed (just 8.6 points per game). In 2008 Notre Dame had just 91 total yards against USC. Will the Notre Dame offense be able to move the ball on Saturday? If so, how?

To me, this is the key question in the game. USC graduated most of the players off their 2008 defense (you can watch them playing on Sundays now), but the guys they have plugged in this season are playing very well. Notre Dame returns most of the players who were completely bottled up in 2008. What has changed?

Without Michael Floyd in the lineup, Coach Weis has been much more creative this year with how he creates favorable match-ups and tries to get the ball in Golden Tate's hands. Thus, it will be more difficult for the Trojan defense to double Golden and take him out of the game. Also, in contrast to late 2008, Coach Weis has some more weapons in his arsenal. Kyle Rudolph is a real match-up problem, and Coach Weis has been creative in moving him around and in stretching the defense vertically with Rudolph. Mix in a little bit of Robby Parris and Shaq Evans and Jimmy should be able to find an open receiver. The offensive line has matured in both pass protection and run blocking, so I think we'll be able to move the ball some. Last year the Irish had some success running straight at the Trojan defense with James Aldridge, who will be back for this game. Rather than trying to get Armando Allen to the edge (a losing proposition), I'd like to see Robert Hughes and James Aldridge running inside the tackles, with some play action passes mixed in. I think the Irish will be able to move the ball, but I don't think we'll be able to sustain 80-yard drives. In order to score points, we'll need some big plays on defense and special teams to set up scoring opportunities.

3. USC's offense is #22 in yards (430.6 per game) and #53 in scoring (28.8 points per game). Notre Dame's defense is #100 in total defense (403.2 yards per game) and #59 in scoring defense (allowing 23.8 points per game). Will the Notre Dame defense be able to slow down the USC offense? If so, how?

USC's offense is a very balanced attack, averaging just slightly more passing yards per game than rushing yards. I'm hanging my hat on two factors. One is the fact that USC quarterback Matt Barkley is a freshman. I am hoping that at some critical moment in the game a combination of environment, moment, confusing Jon Tenuta defense, and inexperience will coalesce into a major mistake or two by the young QB. I am also hoping that the defensive stat sheet for Notre Dame against Washington is the beginning of a trend. I have been lamenting for a very long time that the leading tacklers in ND's defense are the defensive backs. The safeties have almost always been the leading tacklers, way ahead of any linebacker, and the defensive linemen were statistical ghosts. There was a sharp turnaround in that pattern against UW. Kyle McCarthy was still the leading tackler. But linebacker Manti Te'o was second, and several other members of the front seven stepped up in a big way to dislodge the defensive backs from their normal spots atop the stat sheet. In other words, the defensive front seven finally started making plays against the Huskies. If that continues, it will allow the defensive backs to concentrate on down field coverage and hopefully eliminate big plays in the passing game.

I don't expect the Irish defense to stop USC. They haven't stopped anyone else. But I think they can slow them down enough, and make enough plays, to keep Notre Dame in the game.

4. In 2008, with Michael Floyd unable to play due to injury, Golden Tate had 2 catches against USC for a team-high 15 receiving yards. How do you expect Golden Tate to play against USC this year?

I expect Golden to play much better. As noted above, Charlie is working much harder to find creative ways to get the ball into Tate's hands. It reminds me of the way Lou Holtz made sure that Tim Brown got his touches, or even the way USC always found a way to get Reggie Bush the ball.

However, I don't expect Golden to put up the clown numbers he has for past few weeks. I think he'll have perhaps 120 total yards. But he won't be able to carry the team on his back. In order for the Irish to win, somebody else is going to have to break some big plays. Who will be the hero?

5. Jimmy Clausen has started to get some Heisman buzz. In your opinion, which Notre Dame player is the most deserving of Heisman attention, Jimmy or Golden Tate? Why?

Jimmy is playing well. But in Floyd's absence Golden Tate has been ridiculous. His highlight reel is absolutely sick. If he continues to play the rest of the season the way he has the past few weeks, I think Golden is more Heisman-worthy than Jimmy. But Jimmy could change my mind on Saturday. In fact, I hope he does.

6. Overrated or Underrated. Notre Dame cracked into the AP Poll at #25 this week. Are they overrated or underrated at #25? Where would you put them in your poll?

The Irish are underrated at #25. I'd put Notre Dame at about #20. As I look at the AP poll I see about 5 teams that in my view should be below the Irish.

7. USC Song Girls: Ambassadors of Collegiate Goodwill or Anachronism from a bygone era of oppressive sexist stereotypes?

I'm gonna have to come down pretty firmly on the side of "Ambassadors of Collegiate Goodwill."

8. Green Jerseys? There's a lot of "green" talk coming from campus this week, and it raises the question of whether the team will be wearing green on Saturday. Do you want to see the green jerseys or not? Why?

Unless the team is begging Coach Weis for the chance to wear the green because they think it will really fire them up, I don't want to see the green jerseys for a while. Lately the green jerseys have not been "lucky" and they certainly haven't been associated with big wins. To me, the wearing O' the green has been a bit of contrived emotion tried by coaches who have run out of ways to motivate the team.

That said, if we're winning at halftime (or even keeping it really close at half time), coming out in green for the second half might be just what the doctor ordered.

9. Name the next number in this sequence: -3, -20, -38, -35, _______. Explain.

The next number in the sequence is +3. There is no way this game doesn't get decided in the final moments. I see a tie game at the end of regulation. USC gets the ball first, but we hold them to a field goal. Notre Dame gets the ball and scores a touchdown, and doesn't need to kick the extra point. Irish win by 3.


The Domer Law Blog IBG Contribution for this week is HERE.

The Brawling Hibernian's post is HERE.

OneFootDown checks in for this week HERE.

Subway Domer is in the house.

And Sarah at Bad Trade goes on the record.

Charlie's Nasties aren't feeling it. Yet.

Husky Quick Hits

I am honored to be the host of the Irish Blogger Gathering this week, and I'll have that post up in just a little bit. But first I want to drop in just a few comments on the overtime win against the Washington Huskies last week.

Wow. Another amazing, heart-attack inducing victory for the Irish. That's three white-knucklers in a row, after an equally gut-wrenching loss against Michigan in week 2. The post-Purdue post was entitled "Irish Learning How to Win." This post might as well be "Learning How to Win: The Sequel."

Watching the game I couldn't help but feel how unnecessary all the drama was. If the Irish offense had simply been it's normal efficient self in the Red Zone instead of uncharacteristically stalling out and settling for five field goals, the game wouldn't have been close.

If Jimmy Clausen, in the middle of an otherwise terrific game, hadn't suffered a brain cramp and thrown an ill-advised backwards pass to Armando Allen that was a gift-wrapped Washington touchdown with about 4:39 remaining in the first half, the Irish probably go in at halftime with a lead instead of trailing by 1.

It was a pretty close game, statistically. Notre Dame out-gained UW 530 to 457 yards. But Washington had more first downs (25-23), was better converting on 3rd down (7 of 17, versus 2 of 10 for ND), and ran 19 more offensive plays than ND (79 to 60).

The difference (besides sheer intestinal fortitude) was the effectiveness of the Irish passing game. Jimmy Clausen threw for 422 yards, gaining 13.6 yards per attempt and 18.3 yards per completion. By contrast, Jake Locker had "just" 281 passing yards at 7 yards per attempt and 12.8 yards per completion.

The Notre Dame offense gained 8.8 yards per play, while UW was held to 5.8 yds per play.

In a game that close and that dramatic, it is perhaps not surprising that there were some controversial calls (or non-calls) by the officials. Some Washington players, and some on-air buffoons at ESPN, feel that the Huskies got hosed by the officiating crew, and they point to Robert Hughes' gutsy 2-point conversion run with 1:20 remaining in regulation that put the Irish up 30-27. Replays show that as Hughes moved the entire Husky defense toward the goal line on that run, his knee may have touched down just before the ball broke the plane. The cameras didn't have a clear shot of the play, but it didn't matter because the play was never reviewed, and no Washington player or coach disputed the call (Washington's coaches had a challenge they could have used, but didn't).

It has to be remembered that Hughes' run didn't give the Irish the lead. They already led 28-27. The 2-pt conversion just made it a 3-point lead instead of a 1 or 2 point lead. Thus, Notre Dame couldn't be beaten in regulation by a field goal.

Washington fans (and ESPN buffoons) forget about the ridiculous "roughing the snapper" call that would probably have cost Notre Dame the game had the Irish defense not bowed their necks and staged a goal line stand for the ages. With UW up by two (24-22) the Huskies got the ball at their own 25 with 12:23 to go and started a long drive that bled the clock and would likely have iced the game if it had ended in a touchdown. Eventually Washington found themselves with a 1st-and-goal at the Irish 1-yard line. Here's the sequence from that point:

  1. Rush for -1 yard.
  2. On 2-G from the 2, incomplete pass.
  3. On 3-G from the 2, Locker rushes for no gain.
  4. On 4-G from the 2, UW kicks a field goal to put them up by 5. A bogus "roughing the snapper" penalty instead gives UW another 1st-and Goal from the Irish 1 yard line.
  5. On 1-G from the 1, a run for no gain.
  6. On 2-G from the 1, a false start moves 'em back to the 6.
  7. On 2-G from the 6, pass completed down to the 1.
  8. On 3-G from the 1, Locker sneaks for no gain.
  9. On 4-G from the 1, delay of game penalty moves 'em back to the 6.
  10. On 4-G from the 6, UW kicks the field goal (again).

Without this amazing defensive stand keeping the Huskies out of the end zone despite a blown official's call, UW goes up by 9 points or more and ND simply would not have enough time to score twice to win the game. As it was, the Irish still trailed by 5 with just over 3 minutes to play and had to drive 63 yards in 5 plays to take the 3-point lead on Hughes' conversion with 1:20 to play in regulation.

The Huskies responded with an impressive drive of their own. They drove 70 yards in 9 plays to kick a game-tying field goal with just 6 seconds left on the clock.

Or did they? The biggest play on UW's last-minute drive was a 37-yard pass from Jake Locker to James Johnson on 3rd-and-10 that gave the Huskies a first down at the ND 26-yard line and really set them up in field goal range. Upon further review, it seems there is considerable doubt about whether Johnson caught the ball before it hit the ground.

The play wasn't reviewed, and it wasn't challenged. Like Hughes' 2-pt conversion, there is no way to know how a review might have turned out.

The point, rather, is that these things go both ways and that over time they probably even out. I only spent time on this because I was so irritated by ESPN's treatment of this huge Irish win. Rather than focusing on the great plays made by both teams, ESPN decided they needed to throw cold water on the victory and de-value it by repeatedly showing the Hughes replay and implying that Notre Dame would have lost but for a blown call by the officials. Notre Dame had the lead even without the 2-pt conversion, and who knows how things would have played out if the lead was 1 instead of 3? Would everything after that point have gone exactly the same in that parallel universe? Unlikely.

By the way, the officials who called the game were from the Pac-10.

There is some irony in Washington complaining about poor officiating costing them the game. I watched the Washington vs. Arizona this past Saturday. Arizona was controlling that game in the second half, but UW won the game, 36-33, on a miraculous play that involved a bad pass bouncing off a receiver's foot and bouncing up into the arms of a defender who ran it in for the winning touchdown with 2:37 to play. Except that the ball didn't bounced off the receiver's foot. It bounced off the ground.

These things have a way of evening out.

And, adding more irony, Notre Dame probably benefited from the lucky bounce that secured the win for Washington, as the UW win over Arizona (even on a blown call) helps Notre Dame's strength of schedule and likely factored into Notre Dame cracking the polls this week at #25.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Jake and the Dawgs Visit Rock's House (Plus the IBG)

This post will serve as your combination platter U-Dub preview and Irish Blogger Gathering entry for the week. First my pre-game thoughts as yet another "Greatest Dual Threat Quarterback Ever" leads the Washington Huskies into Notre Dame Stadium.

This game is all about Notre Dame. The Irish smoked a Jake Locker-less Huskies squad in Seattle last year, 33-7. And the game was not nearly as close as the score indicated. Last year's game at Washington was the only Notre Dame game I ever remember watching where I felt like the opponent had actually given up. It was a great performance by a prepared Irish squad, and an embarrassing display of hopelessness by U-Dub. Seeing the lack of Husky heart in that game, it was no wonder they went 0-12 on the season.

What a difference a coach and a quarterback can make.

Other than changing head coaches and getting their star QB back from injury, the 2009 Huskies are largely the same group of players that UW fielded in 2008. Yet this year the Huskies came within a whisker of beating SEC powerhouse Louisiana State (31-23), and they did beat the visiting USC Trojans two weeks ago (16-13). Washington is 2-2 on the year, the two losses being to LSU and last week to Stanford (34-14) in their first road game of the season.

Looking at the Huskies' season so far, they seem to have a split personality. The Dawgs really enjoy home cooking, and really feed off the home crowd at Husky Stadium, reputedly one the loudest stadia in the nation when the crowd gets into it. The close game against LSU and the win against USC were both home games.

Last week down on the Farm, in a stadium that was filled to the rafters with 36,390 wine-sipping Cardinal fans (only 36 thousand fans for a PAC-10 game? Really Stanford?) the Huskies were basically dominated, 34-14. Playing without their home crowd, but hardly in a hostile environment, the Huskies allowed 424 total yards --- 321 of those yards on the ground (an average of 6.4 yards per rush).

The "amazing" Jake Locker had 20 net yards rushing on 7 carries and went 16 of 31 (52%) for 191 yards with 1 TD and 2 INTs.

I don't doubt that part of the problem for U-Dub last week was them looking ahead to this week's game against the Irish. But that's a pretty weak performance, even granted that Stanford is an improved team under Coach Harbaugh.

Tomorrow, the Huskies are going to face not just 36 thousand apathetic Cardinal fans, but 80 thousand die-hard Notre Dame fans. Playing in Notre Dame Stadium as the second leg of back-to-back road games will be a challenge for Washington. As I wrote at the top, this game is all about the Irish.

It's all about whether they are prepared and focused and hungry. In my view, if the Irish had a good week of practice, and if they come into the stadium tomorrow ready to take care of business, and if they play with the requisite energy and heart, there is no way they lose this game. As noted before, both teams in this game are playing essentially the same guys that played in last year's game in Seattle, and that was a blow-out home loss for Washington.

On defense, Coaches Tenuta and Brown have to contend with the vaunted dual-threat quarterback, Jake Locker. Given all his hype, I might be worried. Except that Locker is the third "dual threat" QB our defense has faced this season. Our coaches and players have therefore had plenty of opportunity to fine-tune our strategies for defending this type of attack. The Notre Dame defense totally frustrated Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick, and were in turn frustrated by Michigan's Tate Forcier. So they've had a chance to see what works and what doesn't work. What doesn't work is really poor tackling inside Michigan Stadium. In addition to our own experience, the defense gets the added assistance of watching film of Stanford neutralizing Locker and the Husky offense. If we improve our tackling (which has been emphasized in practice this week), I have confidence that the Irish defense will fare well against the Huskies' offense.

On offense, the Irish coaches face a real quandary. One can't help but notice the rushing numbers Stanford put on U-Dub. 321 yards on 50 carries? Really? It will be very tempting for Coach Weis to hand the game plan over to run game coordinator (and O-line coach) Frank Verducci, and the maybe learn how to play golf. Notre Dame's offensive linemen outweigh Washington's defensive linemen by an average of 30 pounds per man (315 vs. 285). One easy route to success would be to send Irish running backs at the Washington defense in waves. Pound them with Robert Hughes, and Jonas Gray, and Theo Riddick, and Armando Allen. Again, and again, and again.

No doubt we'll see some of this in the game plan.

The quandary comes from the fact that Notre Dame plays USC in two weeks (after a bye week next week), and USC's defense is not going to be impressed with a one-dimensional offense featuring a group of running backs that is generally slower than just about every player on the USC defense. To beat USC, Notre Dame will need a balanced attack, including a potent aerial attack that stretches the field vertically. Prior to the Purdue game I wrote:

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.
(Emphasis added).

While the win over Purdue was a gutsy one, my fears about the direction of the offense in the absence of Michael Floyd were largely realized. With the exception of the final scoring drive, the win over Purdue was the result of a very conservative, ground-based attack, with short horizontal throws mixed in. Kudos to the offensive line and the running backs for taking charge of the game and keying the win. But our "vertical" passing game all but disappeared last week.

The longest play from scrimmage against Purdue was Theo Riddick's 24-yard rush in the 2nd quarter. The two longest pass completions in the game were a 22-yard completion to TE Kyle Rudolph on the final scoring drive and a 23-yard completion to RB Gary Gray in the 1st quarter. Both of those plays consisted of very short throws (caught near the line of scrimmage) and long runs-after-catch. The longest completed down field throw was a 17-yarder to Golden Tate on that final scoring drive.

In order to get the ball into the hands of our one remaining play maker, Coach Weis had to resort to the wildcat package and get the ball to Golden Tate in the backfield. That might be enough to get the job done against Washington too, but it won't be enough against USC.

It's axiomatic that you take the games one at a time and you don't look ahead. But part of the game plan this week has to be finding a wide receiver who can complement Golden Tate and threaten the defense down the field if Tate is double covered (which he will be).

Now, on to the Irish Blogger Gathering for this week, hosted by the founder of the IBG, Subway Domer. Subway has moved his blog into new digs, so head over there to check him out and to read all this week's IBG contributions once you're done here.

1. Describe your worst nightmare coming true on Saturday. Can that nightmare become a reality?

My worst nightmare is that Jake Locker plays like Tate Forcier, the Big Televen officials that called the Michigan game sneak into Notre Dame Stadium, and the defense once again forgets how to tackle. Yeah, it could happen. Locker is a talented QB with a lot of moxie. He will find a way to beat you if you give him half a chance. But I don't think it will happen. The defense is getting better each week, and I can't imagine the Indiana State Police letting those officials cross the state line.

2. Can we all agree that Jake Locker will be the best quarterback that we have/will face all season?

No. In the pre-season I picked USC's Matt Barkley as the top QB we will face. His shoulder injury has hampered his development, so I no longer think it will be Barkley. But that Forcier kid sure got my attention. Sparty's Kirk Cousins put 302 yards on us and even Purdue's Joey Elliott pu 289 yards and 3 TDs on the board. I don't think Locker will be as productive as any of those QBs against Notre Dame. So maybe Jake is 4th best QB we'll see.

3. Replace two starters on both sides of the football for the Washington game. Who are they, who are they replacing, and why?

On offense we have to get Duval Kamara out of there. He is dropping passes and getting called for inexcusable penalties. He is playing in Michael Floyd's stead, and nobody is going to replace Floyd, but Duval does not threaten defenses down the field at all. He's a decent possession receiver at his best, but not a speed guy. He has to be replaced by a speedster, and the most likely candidate is Shaquelle Evans. Put him in the same role Golden Tate played as a freshman - send him deep and chuck the ball to him a few times. Force the defense to account for him so Golden has a chance to get open too.

Give Robert Hughes the start over Armando Allen. He earned it with his play last week, and the U-Dub defense can be pounded into submission with a strong run game. Let Hughes pound the defense for a while and wear them down, then bring in Armando as the change-of-pace speed guy to break some big plays.

On defense Toryan Smith needs to make way for the youth movement. Toryan goes to the bench, Brian Smith slides over to the middle, and Manti Te'o starts at the Will linebacker spot. Toryan just hasn't been making plays. He lacks the speed and lateral movement to get to the QB on blitzes or to chase down any play that isn't run right at him.

Finally, I'd give Raeshon McNeil the start at cornerback over Darrin Walls. I haven't gone back and looked at the tape, but it just seems that I have seen #2 miss on too many plays this season.

4. Ty Willingham enters the stadium in the second quarter. What happens?

At the urging of the ushers, the crowd gets eerily silent. Coach Willingham, a look of intense concentration on his face, paces up and down the home sideline, seemingly oblivious to what's happening on the field. At last, he locates his golf ball near the southwest corner of the end zone, and hits an impressive 8-iron over the stadium rim and in the general direction of Legends. He doffs his hat in response to the polite smattering of applause from the crowd, and he leaves as mysteriously as he arrived.

5. Are you impressed with the improvement in the run game in 2009, or is it a figment of our imagination?

Impressed. I think Verducci is an improvement over Latina. Weis has given Verducci responsibility/authority for game-planning the ground attack, and these guys are all a year older and more developed. Add in a dose of more decisive running by the backs (thanks Coach Alford) and you have a better ground game.

6. Who's hotter, Wendi Nix or Erin Andrews? Why. It your hottie a defensive or offensive player?

I'm going with ... Hannah Storm. Hannah is a brunette, and a Notre Dame grad. She's hot and smart, although not as hot or as smart as my dear wife, (Hi Honey!) and I've always like her. She would certainly be on the defensive around me! (Badabing! I'll be here all week).

I'm not a big Wendy fan. And I'm not going to add to the unfair and cruel objectification of Erin Andrews after all she's been through lately.

7. Predictions please...

I predict I'm going to get some heat over my answer to question 6.

And I predict a comfortable Irish win. We control the ball on the ground, hit some big plays over the top as a change of pace, and have a bend-but-don't-break day on defense, giving up some points but keeping things under control.

Notre Dame 27, Washington 17 in a game played in a cold rain.