Sunday, September 12, 2010

Can I Change My Pick For Heisman? Michigan Reaction.

I actually have a lot of work to do today, but I wanted to very quickly throw out my thoughts on the tough loss to Michigan yesterday in a hard-fought, dramatic, and at times bizarre, football game.

  • Denard Robinson is simply an astounding talent. He has been blessed with God-given ability, and he is making the most out of it in a system that is perfectly suited to maximize his potential. My Heisman Trophy ballot now has Robinson as my #1 choice, and I don't think anyone else is close enough to him to deserve to be #2 or #3.
  • The fact that Denard Robinson is an amazing football player does not somehow transform Rich Rodriguez from scumbag to coaching genius. I'm looking at you Kirk Herbstreit.
  • Robinson had 258 rushing yards and 244 passing yards, for 502 total yards of offense. By himself. All players not named Denard Robinson had just 30 rushing yards for Big Blue.
  • Everyone will want to lament the fact that the Notre Dame defense gave up 532 yards to the Wolverines. Are you surprised to know that even though Notre Dame's starting quarterback was out of the game for most of the first half, the Irish still out-gained UM on the day with 535 yards? Yeah, I was surprised by that too.
  • Despite Michigan's gaudy totals, I thought the defense played very, very well. Robinson certainly gashed us for a handful of big plays that were decisive, but Michigan only converted on 3 of 16 third downs in the game. Michigan was shut out in the second half until the final touchdown with 27 seconds remaining.
  • Dayne Crist is going to be really good, pretty soon. He played just a little over one half of football yesterday and had almost 300 yards of total offense himself. He was 13 of 25 for 277 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT. He also had 30 yards rushing and 1 sack for -11 yards, for a net 19 rushing yards. Total rushing and passing = 298 yards. His two touchdown passes were for 53 and 95 yards (to TJ Jones and Kyle Rudolph, respectively). But there is still a lot of room for improvement, in both accuracy and in decision making.
  • Coach Kelly better take good care of Dayne Crist, because "next man in" at quarterback is problematic.
  • I wonder if we'll ever learn what was going on with Dayne that caused him to sit out most of the first half. Loss of vision in one eye? So very strange, especially since he didn't appear to take any big hits on the noggin. I hope it was just a one-time thing and that Dayne is 100% healthy going forward. But it's a damn shame that such a freak thing probably cost us the game. Twenty-one of Michigan's 28 points came in the first half after Crist left the game.
  • Notre Dame quarterbacks threw three interceptions (one per QB). This was a huge factor in Notre Dame losing the field position battle. Notre Dame's ASFP (Average Starting Field Position) was it's own 25. Michigan's ASFP was its own 32. On the young season, AFSP is 2 for 2 as a predictor of who wins the game.
  • Another big factor in the field position battle was the inconsistency of Irish Punter Ben Turk. Turk punted 8 times on the day. Half of his punts were very good, pinning Michigan back inside their own twenty (two of them inside the 10). Half of his punts were poor: 38 yards to the UM 44, 37 yards to the UM 35, 29 yards to the 41, and 34 yards to the UM 48. Ben needs to step it up and drive the ball deeper when there's no danger of a touch-back.
  • It's really nice to see our linebackers leading the team in tackles instead of our safeties. Manti Te'o is really maturing as a player. He had 13 total tackles on the day (6 of them solo). Carlo Calabrese, the meathead from New Jersey was second on the team with 10 tackles (3 solo).
  • I like Mike Mayock as the new analyst. He's a football junkie who knows his stuff and doesn't mince words. He's actually value-added on the broadcasts.
  • Our defensive line play has been a very pleasant surprise. Ian Williams, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Ethan Johnson are all playing really well.
  • Armando Allen was clearly the lead dog among running backs yesterday, and I have to think it was largely because he provided some leadership on the field while Dayne was out. He looked good, and Cierre Wood never really got it going.
  • Did anyone else wonder if Kyle Rudolph's hamstring was going to hold up on his 95-yard race to the end zone? Nice job by the training staff getting him back to full health.
This was another amazing edition to the Notre Dame - Michigan series. It is painful that we came out on the losing end. But I think the team took some giant strides forward in the cajones department yesterday. They fought hard for sixty minutes in the face of severe adversity, and darn near pulled off a miracle. There will be no shame losing to this Michigan team once the end of the season rolls around, because as long as D. Robinson stays healthy the Wolverines are going to win some games.

Before the start of the season I thought we'd beat Michigan and quite likely lose to Sparty. I would probably revise that now. I think the defense is stout enough to slow down MSU's power game, and as long as Dayne is healthy we're going to score some points.

Go Irish!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Gipper

I'm a Notre Dame alumnus, a huge Fighting Irish fan, and heck, I even write a Notre Dame football blog. I've seen Knute Rockne, All-American and Rudy. So I always figured I had a decent understanding of, and the proper amount of respect for, the history of Notre Dame football. But a recent coast-to-coast plane trip provided me the excuse to finally dig into The Gipper: George Gipp, Knute Rockne, and the Dramatic Rise of Notre Dame Football, which has been sitting in my stack of books to read for a few weeks. I'm glad I packed it in my bag, because it was thoroughly enjoyable, extremely educational, and it made my trip across the country jammed into coach class much more bearable (not that I ever fly in other than coach).

The Gipper, written by Jack Cavanaugh and published by Skyhorse Publishing, focuses on the improbable and inscrutable life and career of George Gipp, but really covers the intertwined Notre Dame careers of Gipp and his famous coach, Knute Rockne. I was astounded by how much I didn't know about Rockne, Gipp, and college football in general in the early twentieth century.

Notre Dame was a very respectable football program before Knute Rockne became the coach. In the ten seasons prior to Knute being named head coach, Notre Dame's record under four different coaches was 66 wins, 7 losses, and 5 ties, for a winning percentage of .878, which is just shy of Rockne's .881 winning percentage over 13 seasons. Notre Dame had already burst onto the national scene with its historic win over Army at West Point in 1913, which featured quarterback Gus Dorais throwing the ball to end Knute Rockne in a historical display of passing proficiency which truly changed the way football was played from that day forward.

But it was the ascendancy of George Gipp as Notre Dame's star player and the promotion of Knute Rockne from assistant to head football coach that took Notre Dame football to the next level. When Rockne first became Notre Dame's coach, during Gipp's second varsity season in 1918, a typical crowd at a big game would be 5,000 fans at standing-room-only Cartier Field. In Rockne's final season, 1930, Notre Dame opened a new 54,400 seat stadium on campus and played Army at Soldier Field in Chicago in front of a crowd estimated at 110,000 fans. And, of course, as the fame of the Fighting Irish grew, so did the reputation of the University of Notre Dame which has sought since Rockne to achieve recognition and respect for its academic accomplishments while it nevertheless embraces the fame and the financial rewards that accrue to its football team.

The Gipper covers what is known of George Gipp's life growing up in Laurium, Michigan and all his exploits as a Notre Dame football player and sometime student. Ample coverage is given to Gipp's very sporadic academic pursuits as well as his expertise as a billiards player, card player, and gambler. And the author tries to sort the fact from the fiction of Rockne's "Win one for the Gipper" speech and Gipp's tragic death. As amazing as Gipp's statistics and performance as a football player are, I was even more amazed by how easily it apparently all came to him. He rarely practiced football, and normally reported for the season at the last minute, if not a week or two late. He was a talented baseball player who was actively sought after by multiple major league franchises and was the best pool shooter in Northern Indiana. He broke a leg near the end of his first varsity season, and scored a key touchdown in his final game, against Indiana, after suffering a dislocated shoulder and a broken collar bone.

In addition to providing a real education about two Notre Dame legends, The Gipper offers real insight into what college football was really like in its infancy. The lax academic standards, the Sunday pro games played under assumed names, players playing at West Point for four years after exhausting eligibility in All-American careers at other schools. The 1918 season that was almost entirely canceled due to a nationwide flu epidemic. Michigan's campaign to keep Notre Dame out of the Western Conference (forerunner to the Big Ten) and to blackball Notre Dame from playing Western Conference teams. All are covered here in an entertaining, easy to read presentation that fans of Notre Dame will love, and that all fans of college football history will appreciate.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Purdue Review and Muck Fichigan (IBG Week 2)

Her Loyal Sons hosts the Irish Blogger Gathering for this week. I've been on the road for work this week, putting in some long hours in the office, and my blogging has predictably suffered. Who the heck schedules any sort of actual work between September 1st and the Super Bowl anyway? It's anti-American in my view.

So I want to put down a few very quick thoughts on the Irish win over Purdue in Coach Brian Kelly's first game.

The Irish beat Purdue by 11 points, making the wise guys in Las Vegas look pretty darn wise. I had predicted a 14-point win, so I was pretty close. But the game was actually closer than the final score indicated. The Irish only out-gained Purdue by 36 yards (358 to 322). Each team had 20 first downs.

The things I saw that I really liked included an obviously improved ground game (Armando Allen was solid at 5.2 ypc, Cierre Wood was eye-popping at 8.3 ypc), and a generally solid bend-but-don't break defense that also managed to generate some pressure on the quarterback. Purdue's longest play from scrimmage was a 23-yard scramble by the quarterback. The longest run by a non-QB was 14 yards. The longest Boilermaker pass play was just 16 yards. The Irish sacked Marve 4 times. The final really good thing was a very solid special teams performance that contributed greatly to the Irish win in the field position battle. Notre Dame's ASFP (Average Starting Field Position) was it's own 33-yard line. Purdue's ASFP was the 22-yard line.

Dayne Crist's stat line was "fine." 19 of 26 for 205 yards, 1 TD and zero INT. I don't know how things go in your house, but in my house if my wife (or my daughter) tells me that something is "fine" that's not synonymous with "good." "Fine" is synonymous with "not at all fine, and you better figure it out and fix it mister or there's gonna be trouble later." It wasn't all on Dayne, as his receivers dropped several catchable balls. But Dayne had quite a case of Brady Quinn-itis going on, allowing his adrenaline (or something) to severely affect his accuracy. I am going to chalk it up to first-start jitters and hope there are no second-start jitters. Thank goodness for Kyle Rudolph who appears in the early going to be Crist's security blanket. Michael Floyd and Theo Riddick need to step it up against Michigan, and of course catch and hold onto the ball. Between the drops and three fumbles, the ball was on the ground way too often in game one. And a safety? Really? I trust that's the last we'll see of that.

All in all, a "good " start for the Irish in the Kelly era. Better than "fine," but not great.

Now a quick, but pithy contribution to this week's Irish Blogger Gathering

1) You've now seen Notre Dame Football: The Kelly Edition, Volume 1, Episode 1. Was it everything you thought it would be? Were characters missing from this episode that you were expecting to see featured? Did it strike you as a carbon-copy of Kelly's Cincinnati teams, or is there something discernible between the 2 programs beyond the colors of the uniforms?

It was not everything I thought it would be, as discussed above. I never felt like the passing game was truly "clicking", although the success in the running game was a bit of a surprise. I hope we'll see more from Theo Riddick this week. If he doesn't step up, opponents will shut down M. Floyd and dare you to find another way to beat them.

Was it a carbon copy of Cincinnati? Seriously? What Notre Dame fan has ever watched a Bearcats game? I haven't seen more than 5 minutes of Cincinnati highlights that I pulled off You Tube once. I only watch football that matters.

2) Pick one positive play, offense or defense, by the Irish from last Saturday that you feel serves as a bit of metaphorical foreshadowing for the 2010 Irish. Extra points if you can stretch the metaphor to fit Kelly's entire tenure at Notre Dame.

Man, you piled the words metaphorical, foreshadowing and tenure into this one question. I guess we know who the English major is.

Okay, here's your play. Score still tied 0-0 in the first quarter. The Irish have had the ball twice, punted twice. Armando Allen is the featured back and has had runs of 4, -2, 1, and 4 yards and one reception for no gain. Purdue is in Irish territory and driving, when Darrin Walls intercepts a Marve pass at the Irish 16. The Irish offense takes the field, with Cierre Wood at running back in relief of Armando Allen. On the first play of the drive, Cierre Wood takes the hand-off and slashes his way up field for 16 yards and a first down. He follows up with a 15-yard rush on the next play, and also adds another 15-yard run later in the drive. To cap the drive Armando Allen scores a TD on a nifty 22-yard drive that had a lot more energy than any of his carries before Wood entered the game.

Metaphorically, Cierre Wood's first carry was an injection of youth, energy, and talent into the the Irish offense that picked the team up and propelled it to a touchdown and, ultimately, to victory. This foreshadows the injection of youth, energy and talent in the person of Coach Kelly and the players he will bring into the Irish program.

3) Pick another play, offense or defense, by the Irish from last Saturday again, but this time, make it a negative play. Tell us how that play serves as a bit of metaphorical foreshadowing for the 2010 Irish. And again, bonus points for stretching it over Kelly's tenure.

Is it too easy to pick Michael Floyd's great catch and run, followed by his horrible fumble that cost the team a touchdown and put the outcome of the game in doubt?

That was a foreshadowing of the growing pains that we will see for much of 2010. We'll see flashes of brilliance, signs of great potential, and then we'll see flashes of failure, signs that we aren't ready to be champions yet. We saw all that on just that single painful play.

4) You know us, we're stat geeks. Give us a stat that we should be watching this season that will A) Tell us something enlightening about the 2009 Irish and/or B) Tell us something enlightening about the average Top-5 teams at the end of the 2009 season.

I love Average Starting Field Position (ASFP). It tells you a lot about the hidden yardage within a game. A team that takes care of the ball and makes few mistakes will generally win the AFSP battle, and they will usually win the game. Against Purdue, as noted above, the Irish won the ASFP battle by 11 yards (the 33 versus the 22 yard line). That's a fairly sizable margin, and that's why the Irish won by 11 points even though we barely out-gained the Boilers and both teams had 20 first downs. Turnovers is arguably the most important stat in football, and special teams play is the most under-appreciated. ASFP usually reflects a team's performance in both these important areas.

5) Notre Dame is currently a 4 point favorite in the coming Michigan game. You get 3 points for being at home. The AP poll actually ranks Michigan higher than ND. ND is 1-4-1 in the last 6 games with Michigan in which the Irish were favored and 9 and 6 in the last 15 games in which Michigan was favored. Does any of this worry you? Why or why not?

Let's see. Last November, with Irish QB Jimmy Clausen passing for 329 yards, UConn beat Notre Dame 33-30 in double OT in Notre Dame Stadium. One week ago, Michigan whipped UConn 30-10. So therefore Notre Dame is favored to beat Michigan this week by 4 behind a young QB making his second start.

Makes. No. Sense.

I'd prefer to be the underdog against UM any time. But I doubt that Coach Kelly is going to let the boys be over confident going into this game.

6) Last week, Frank at UHND put the Gathering on the spot with our predictions for the season. After week 1, are there any of those predictions that you'd like to alter? Any upon which you'd double down?

Clearly I was giving the Big East and Pittsburgh too much credit. I had Pitt ending the season as the highest-ranked Irish opponent, and I had their running back Dion Lewis winning the Heisman. Pitt has serious QB problems, which allowed Utah to just pack the box against them and stuff Dion Lewis. Lewis is in for a long season.

7) Describe in no fewer than 30 words why you hate Michigan.

Over the summer there was much discussion about a major re-alignment of college football, and many felt that Notre Dame could not survive as a relevant, national football power if it remained independent. So-called experts have repeatedly opined that it was obvious that Notre Dame should join the Big Ten. What most commentators fail to understand is that Notre Dame is independent for one reason, and one reason only: The University of Michigan, under a succession of football coaches and athletic directors, led a conspiracy fueled by anti-Catholic bigotry and jealousy which aimed to keep Notre Dame out of the Western Conference (forerunner of the Big Ten) and to discredit Notre Dame as a University and as a football program. Notre Dame became an independent and America's college football team playing coast-to-coast because the other universities in its own back yard refused to respect them enough to put them on the schedule. Given the long and inglorious history of despicable treatment of Notre Dame by the members of the Big Ten generally and Michigan particularly, Notre Dame should not EVER consider joining the Big Ten until the members of that conference issue a formal, public apology to Our Lady's University.

More on the ugly history of Michigan's treatment of Notre Dame can be found here:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Burning Questions: IBG 2010, Week 1

Frank V. at hosts this weeks Irish Blogger Gathering. If you are new to the IBG concept, it was the brainchild of Subway Domer, who thought it would be cool to virtually gather a group of Notre Dame football bloggers around the campfire each game week to get their reactions to a common set of questions or issues. Each week a new host gets to pose the questions, and his or her blog serves as the centralized collection spot for the links to each blogger's posted response to the questions for that week. As I said, is hosting the IBG this week, so head over there once you're done here to see how all the other IBG members reacted to his very challenging set of questions. It's fun, and you might meet some interesting bloggers. Just as a program note: I will be proudly hosting the IBG during USC week this season. You won't want to miss that one!

Without further ado, here are this week's questions and my reactions.

Name one offensive player and one defensive player you are most excited to see in the new systems and why.

There are a lot different ways to go with this one. How can you not say "Dayne Crist"? Damn near the whole enterprise is on his shoulders. If he plays well in the system and stays healthy, the year is going to be a success. If he struggles or gets hurt, things are going to be a whole lot tougher. I wish I were deep enough to pretend that I was "excited" about an O-line player. But I'm shallower than that. I want to see Cierre Wood, who really impressed me in the Blue & Gold Game. I want to see if he really is as explosive as he looked in the spring. I want to see Theo Riddick at receiver. He might be the key to the spread this season. He needs to be really effective to make defenses pay when they try to shut down M. Floyd.

On defense the easy answer is "Manti." He was so hyped and showed such promise, that I want to see if he can maximize that ability and really control the game from the middle of the defense. But I also want to see if Ian Williams can be a dominant nose tackle and really control the middle of the line. If he can gum up the middle, that will go a long way in improving the Irish run defense. If he gets pushed around that means the defense is getting pushed around. Finally I want to see if the cornerbacks (Walls, Gray, Blanton & Wood) can be consistently "sticky" in blanketing opposing receivers and shutting down the passing game. Has the new coaching staff been able to teach them better "ball skills" (i.e., what to do when the ball is in the air, other than flailing about helplessly and watching the receiver catch it for a touchdown).

What’s one reason you think Brian Kelly is the right coach this time. What’s one reason you think he might not be?

Well I've written quite a bit on this in the past (It's okay if you want to go read it, I'll wait here for you), and all of what I have written has been very supportive of the new hire. Short version: He fits the model that has produced the most successful coaches at Notre Dame in the past:

For me, the preferred model is the one that has made Notre Dame most successful in the past. Hire a coach who has been a very successful college head coach elsewhere. Find a guy who has displayed a knack for over-achieving at a "lesser" program, of doing "more" with "less." Frank Leahy was very successful at Boston College before coming to Notre Dame. Ara Parseghian won at Northwestern. Dan Devine won at Arizona State and Missouri. Lou Holtz won at William & Mary, North Carolina State, and Arkansas.
What could, maybe be possible stumbling blocks? I'd have to reach, but maybe his spread scheme doesn't work as well against the elite teams Notre Dame regularly plays. Maybe the guys he recruits to fit his system don't match up well against the elite athletes at places like USC. Maybe the academic challenges don't allow the players to devote enough time to football. Maybe truly elite players don't want to come to ND to play in the spread. If you held a gun on me and made me name reasons why Kelly might not succeed, those might be the reasons. But I don't believe any of them.

A lot of people are labeling Purdue, Boston College, and Michigan State as toss up games. Considering Notre Dame beat all three of these teams during the disappointing 2009 season, do you consider these games toss-ups or games you expect Notre Dame to win?

Purdue is an easy win. Purdue usually makes a game of it against the Irish because they are overlooked most years sitting on the schedule as the "breather" game behind Michigan and Michigan State. They can't hide this year. They are the opener. and they will have the full attention of the Fighting Irish on Saturday.

Boston College and Michigan State will both be close. I think we get by B.C. in a close one, and I think we lose Dayne Crist's first road start in a night game at Sparty's house. I just think that we still will have trouble matching up physically against an old school power team, especially in a hostile environment. Michigan State is the only game on the schedule where I don't pick the Irish as the likely winner.

What’s one reason you think Notre Dame could shock the world and pull of another 1964-type season? What’s one reason you’re concerned we might see more of a 1997-type season?

(Please hold while OC Domer fires up google to learn what happened in 1964 and 1997).

Oh, okay. As I wrote just last night, I favor the Irish in 11 of 12 games, although I think the learning curve and general inexperience will most likely cost us a few games. But the 2009 Irish lost six games in 2009 by a combined 28 points. If this coaching staff is as good as we think it MIGHT be, are they worth 5 points per game? Can the 2010 Fighting Irish be, on average, 5 points per game better than in 2009? If they can be just that little bit better, they can have a 1964-like year. (1964 was Coach Ara Parseghian's first at ND. The Irish won their first 9 games before losing their only game of the year to USC. I hate those guys).

1997 was Boob Davie's first year as Head Coach at ND (or anywhere, for that matter). The Irish started the year ranked #11 in the country, but went 7-6 and finished unranked. (By the way, go check out that schedule. Very tough). We have young guys all over the two-deep, playing in a new system. If Dayne Crist is no Jimmy Clausen, if the learning curve is just a little steeper than we HOPE it is, then a 7-win season is very, very possible.

Which freshmen do you see contributing the most on the field this year (outside of TJ Jones – that’s too easy)?

Let me use my Nostradamus-like powers to peer into the two-deep and see who the Freshman are. Hold on a sec.

Okay, the answer is: Prince Shembo. The coaches clearly like him. When asked where they like him, Coach Kelly said "on the field." Plus, you have to love a guy named Prince. I also expect early enrollee Lo Wood to contribute. We are now scary thin at CB, so we need him to step up.

TJ Jones. I said it anyway.

Other than Dayne Crist (too easy again) who is the one player Notre Dame can least afford to lose to injury for any significant period of time?

I say Michael Floyd. He is the true #1 receiver. By being the Alpha play maker and drawing a lot of attention, he allows Theo Riddick and TJ Jones to be very effective #2 and #3 receivers. If Floyd goes down, who is the true #1? Last year we had Golden Tate to step up, and teams doubled him and still shut down everyone else. I don't know if we have a #2 of Tate's caliber. Maybe it's Riddick. Maybe it's Jones. Maybe not.

The other area where injuries would really hurt is at CB. If Walls or Gray get hurt we have a real problem. Blanton can step up from #3 corner to #2 corner. But who plays corner in the nickel then? Or the dime? We're looking at freshman then. Hi Lo!

2010 Season Predictions:
  • Notre Dame record: 9-3
  • Bowl game for Notre Dame with opponent: I really have no idea, and I won't insult you by pretending that I do.
  • Final ranking: 21
  • Opponent with the the highest final ranking: Pitt
  • Notre Dame’s offensive & defensive MVP: Michael Floyd & Harrison Smith
  • Best opponent offensive & defensive player: Ricky Dobbs (Navy QB) & Greg Jones (Mich. St. LB)
  • Best opposing coach: Mark Dantonio, MSU. Honorable Mention to Jim Harbaugh, Stanford
  • Game you are most excited to watch: Tie. Utah, because I'll be there. And USC, because it's USC.
  • Game you wouldn't mind watching on DVR: Western Michigan. Seriously? We're playing Western Michigan?
  • National Champion: Nebraska. Just because it would drive all those SEC people crazy.
  • Heisman Winner: Dion Lewis
  • Purdue game prediction: The Boilermakers won't know what hit them! (31-17, Irish).