Thursday, August 30, 2007

#3 - Starting Fast

And then there were three - the countdown marches on with just 39.5 hours until kickoff...

#3 - Starting Fast

The trademark of Notre Dame's breakthrough in 2005 was fast starts. Each of the first two games has come to be defined by the first Irish offensive series. With that in mind, a little trip down memory lane...

September 3, 2005 - Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh

The Irish defense didn't come out awe-inspiring, yielding a 8-play, 73-yard touchdown march capped by Tyler Palko's 39-yard alley-oop to Greg Lee that infuriated Weis and left every Irish fan with the gnawing feeling of "Here we go again..."

What happened next is hard to describe even with the benefit of two year's hindsight. The Irish offense trotted onto the field, and immediately things seemed off. Three tight ends? Jeff Samardzija as the ONLY wideout? Standing high in the corner endzone of Heinz Field at that moment, most of us didn't even know who Samardzija was. And then the Irish ran a bootleg. What kind of crazy offense is this?

5 plays had the Irish at midfield. The sixth play was the one where you just knew everything was about to change for Notre Dame football. Brady Quinn ran a designed screen play to Darius Walker, who just scooped in the pass and started running, using his convoy all the way to the endzone. A 51-yard screen pass TD on the sixth play of the season. To put this in perspective: Notre Dame had more offensive touchdowns after the first six plays under Charlie Weis than they did after the first 139 plays under Tyrone Willingham.

September 10, 2005 - Notre Dame vs. Michigan

An even bolder opening-act was planned for the next week against then-#3 Michigan.

Having drilled them on it all week, Weis opened the game with the Irish in a five-wide shotgun set and had Quinn run the no-huddle. The junior responded by going 5-for-6 for 44 yards to complement tough running by Walker, and the Wolverines were still looking around confused as hell when Quinn connected with Rhema McKnight for the 7-0 lead. The Irish held on for a 17-10 victory and UM never recovered, dwindling to a mediocre 7-5. The game was ultimately cited as proof that Weis can't win the big game because the Wolverines weren't that good. Hey media, you guys made the rankings, so don't whine when somebody makes you look stupid.

Over the past two years, Weis has gone back to 'empty' to strike the opening notes several times, notably against Penn State in '06 (drive stalled thanks to a penalty, but the Irish claimed a 3-0 lead) & BYU in '05 (touchdown on a drive in which Quinn threw against the Cougar blitz on every down). What does he have in store for Saturday?

That, far more than the seemingly interminable drama over the identity of the starting quarterback, is the real strategic advantage Weis needs. Jon Tenuta is no dummy; while life would be easier for the Yellow Jackets if they knew with certainty that it were Sharpley, Clausen, or Jones behind center, the real challenge is prepping for the offense Notre Dame runs. Whoever becomes QB adds wrinkles, but Tenuta had all last summer and all this summer to devour tape of Weis' system and try to pick out the coach's tendencies.

Anybody who's heard Weis talk knows his personal point of honor is to avoid patterns in his playcalling. That seemed to recede a bit in 2006, as a softer interior of the line changed his running preferences and defensive lapses coupled with turnovers and missed opportunities forced the Irish to toss out the script in their biggest games (case in point Michigan '06, in which whatever gameplan Weis had going in surely must've been blown to hell before the end of the 1st quarter).

Late last season, especially for the USC and LSU games, the Irish repeated ad nauseum the importance of a quick start, the kind that knocked teams like Pitt and UM back on their heels in 2005. Neither game produced one, as the Irish squandered the momentum of a highlight reel catch by McKnight that covered 38 yards on the game's first play from scrimmage against USC (as previously mentioned, the drive stalled on the Trojan 29 and Weis gambled on 4th down rather than basically give the ball away on a missed field goal). The Sugar Bowl was an even bigger flop out of the gate, as Samardizja got dinged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that wiped out a first down gain to the 42 and put the Irish in 1st-and-20 from their own 27. Weis gambled again when the drive stalled and lost with Travis Thomas' fake punt run stuffed for a loss.

So, under Weis, Notre Dame fans have been getting (for better or worse) a pretty good read on what kind of game it's gonna be based on the first drive. This season, for obvious reasons, is no different. New quarterback, revamped defense, high expectations as usual from the fanbase with little to no regard for the non-expectations of outsiders, and all those questions wondering, "How can Notre Dame move on from the loss of all those playmakers?" To which I laugh a little, not because I disrespect Quinn, Walker, Samardzija, Rhema McKnight, Anthony Fasano, et al, but because these were all the same guys that belonged to a team "WITH NO PLAYMAKERS!!!" back when Tyrone Willingham coached them. Essentially, I'm looking at the opener on Saturday as a dare - a dare for Charlie Weis to shock people once again, to change it up so dramatically that people can't help but notice.

And, for some spine-tingling reason, I think Weis (and, far more importantly, his players) are about to take people up on that dare.

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