Friday, September 14, 2007

Things to Do in Ann Arbor When You're 0-2...

Before plugging along with a preview of what could very well be the least inspiring meeting in the history of this rivalry (did you know Notre Dame and Michigan have NEVER both been 0-2?), we take a moment to acknowledge the dark side of strong recruiting and legitimate competition for playing time, two things that were in short supply under the Dome not so long ago.

The quarterback competition has its second (and probably last) casualty, as all signs point to the transfer of Demetrius Jones, potentially to Northern Illinois, or even Northwestern or Tennessee. Nothing written in stone as of yet, but Charlie Weis diplomatically demurred comment this evening, saying only that Jones wouldn't be making the trip to Ann Arbor to take on the Wolverines and that player and coach had yet to speak about why that was.

It's never a good thing for a young guy of strong character and talent, which Jones is, to leave a top-flight university. But this is a stark example, as was Zach Frazer's transfer three months ago, of what is very likely to happen when you recruit a position ridiculously well. Ultimately, only one guy can take the snaps and if any of the others are worth their salt, they'll be itching to get back on the field and compete - if they think they can't do it where they are, they move on. It's that simple.

What will inevitably start now is the cry that Weis mishandled Jones' situation, setting him up for failure as the quarterback who got fed to the wolves versus Georgia Tech with no aide from his offensive line or running attack. While it's true the Irish offensive line has been atrocious, leaving both Jones and Jimmy Clausen to scramble for their lives, the reverse of it is also true: Jones was given a unique opportunity to seize the starting position and didn't capitalize for a number of reasons, some of which fall squarely on his own shoulders. Contrary to popular belief, Weis did not junk his entire offense in favor of a run-run-run style meant to limit Jones' contribution to that of an extra running back. Check Blue-Gray Sky's analysis of the 27 plays Jones ran during his 1st half appearance against Georgia Tech - 13 out of "the spread", 14 out of the more conventional Weis-ian offense. The biggest chink in the armor was ball security - Jones' two fumbles land squarely on him, nobody else.

So with a very disappointing first half against the Yellow Jackets and the ultimate 33-3 loss it helped produced, Jones gave way to Jimmy Clausen, with a few hints from Weis that had the Boy Wonder been at full health throughout training camp, he likely would've gotten the nod. For those pontificating about how Clausen looks much more agile and composed in the Irish huddle than Jones did, consider the fact that Clausen is four months older than Jones, enrolled early, comes from a football-obsessed lineage that had him with private QB coaches straight out of the cradle, and was tagged as Weis' number one recruiting priority from the moment he took the job in South Bend. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but in hindsight it looks fairly obvious that Jones & Frazer were the fallback plan in case the Irish didn't land Clausen.

So, with the Irish and Wolverines both staring down the pike at 0-3, what the f&*k is the fallback plan now?

Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Michigan Wolverines
3:30 PM EDT
Michigan Stadium - Ann Arbor, MI

Why Michigan Will Win

Wounded animal syndrome. That, and Mike Hart's guarantee. While I appreciate Hart's willingness to provide bulletin board material, how much brass do you really think you have to guarantee a win over an 0-2 team? Regardless of his lame attempts at channeling Joe Namath, this is a moment where Hart is truly putting his money where his mouth is. With senior QB Chad Henne out of the game, and seeing two weeks of film with Tashard Choice and Austin Scott simply wearing down the Irish defense, look for the Wolverines to pound a steady diet of Hart in on the Irish for as long as possible. They have the offensive line to do it, anchored by NFL-ready Jake Long. A key matchup will be Notre Dame's "outer 4" on defense versus Michigan's tackles and tight ends - if the linebacking corps (led by John Ryan and Anthony Vernaglia on the respective boundaries) can box Hart in, the Irish defensive line has held up remarkably well so far this season. Those 196 yards for Choice and 113 for Scott didn't look pretty, but you can't hang very many of them on Pat Kuntz or Trevor Laws. Laws in particular has been a force, pacing the Irish in tackles so far this season.

One of the funnest things to watch as a football fan is when 11 guys line up for each side, every single one of them knowing exactly what's about to happen, and seeing who can just simply impose their will on the other. Something's gotta give on Saturday, and if it happens to be the Irish defense giving Mike Hart daylight to run with, Lloyd Carr will be spared the job security questions for at least one week.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Because this week, the gloves come off. This week, the Irish open up the playbook and let Clausen, Allen, Grimes, West, Tate, Hord, Parris, Aldridge, and Thomas show what they can do. This week, against a team that's been absolutely torn to shreds, the Irish take a little of their pride back.

Whew. I'm jacked up and ready to go! Woo HOO!!!

The Prediction

Okay, that wasn't the most sophisticated analysis you're ever going to read. But after a week of acclimating himself to the world of bigtime college football in front of 110,000 of his closest friends in Happy Valley, how can Jimmy Clausen not walk out of that tunnel tomorrow confident in himself? How can the Irish not walk out there knowing full well that there's nothing left to lose, so it's time to play like it? Quite frankly, the pressure is on Michigan this week. First there was all the speculation surrounding their coach (not quieted when Carr went on one of his 'Grampa Simpson' routines), then Hart opened his trap. Now they desperately need a win to avoid being the biggest embarrassment to conventional college football wisdom since Alabama opened the 2000 season at #3, only to bottom out with a loss to Central Florida on Homecoming. The Irish aren't quite the homecoming team, but they know it's do-or-die time. Sometimes you throw all caution to the wind when picking a game (see my gut instinct regarding last year's USC game). Today is one of those days.

Notre Dame 22, Michigan 19.

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