Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Post Mortem: Michigan State 23, Notre Dame 7

Lots of college football coaches will tell you that a big question mark on a team is how they respond to their first road game of the season particularly if it comes after they've opened with multiple home games. The Irish haven't opened a season under such circumstances since 2000, when they played three straight in South Bend to open the year. In their first road game that season they traveled to East Lansing and somehow, someway, were on the verge of a 21-20 victory despite gaining just 212 yards of offense. But Jeff Smoker hit Herb Haygood on a slant for a 68-yard touchdown to give Michigan State a fourth straight victory over Bob Davie's Irish, a streak they would run to 5.

Coincidentally, 2000 had been the last time the home team was victorious in the series between the Irish and Spartans. That streak ended Saturday as ND experienced a reversal of fortunes from their performance against Michigan the weekend before - it was they who went into a hostile environment and turned into their own worst enemy, shoving aside whatever progress and potential might've been made so far this season for more hand-wringing over what has gone wrong.

The simple truth is this: Notre Dame was 3-9 last season and it wasn't a hard luck 3-9, if such a thing even exists. They earned it through terrible play & terrible coaching. People who were expecting an about face into 10-2, 11-1 (including you, Lou Holtz, bless you), were off in fantasy land. 3-9 is like a horrendous stain on the carpet - you can scrub and scrub, but it's never completely going to go away. I liken it to a 12 game season that can be broken up into four quarters - where are you after 3 games, 6 games, etc. So, three games into the season, what do we know about the Irish that we didn't know before?

They are better than they were a year ago. Anybody who wants to dismiss that as simply playing three weaker teams as compares to last year's "murderer's row" opening three of 7-5 Georgia Tech, 8-4 Penn State, and 8-4 Michigan is welcome to that opinion. They would be wrong, but they're welcome to it. After 3 games last season the Irish had yet to crack 200 yards of offense in any game, yet to have ANY play on offense that went longer than 15 yards, yet to score a touchdown on offense, yet to win a game, yet to go one quarter without allowing a sack, yet to win the turnover battle in any game, yet to [fill in the blank]. You can pick any category or metric you want, and the Irish are further ahead this year after three games than at the same point a year ago.

They remain far from a Top 25 team. That's reality. Deal with it. When you go 3-9 with a team as young as the Irish were, there is no miracle drug for the following season. 7-5 should be where they finish, 8-4 would be a nice accomplishment. And both of those records would put them in a position to play a winnable bowl game against an opponent at their level, a position they haven't been in since the 1998 Gator Bowl, when they lost to Georgia Tech. This is not a team that is supposed to be competing for a national championship or a BCS berth, and the results through three games fully reflect that.

Golden Tate & Michael Floyd can flat-out play. I seem to recall a lot of angst in recent recruiting cycles over how the Irish kept "missing" on all those stud wide receivers and how it made no sense given that Coach Weis could sell the success of Brady Quinn throwing to Jeff Samardzija, Maurice Stovall, & Rhema McKnight. Through three games in '08, there is mounting evidence that Jimmy Clausen will use Tate & Floyd, along with Duval Kamara, to take the Irish passing game back to, if not beyond, the heights of 2005 and 2006. Through the third game Tate has 303 receiving yards, just 69 yards away from passing John Carlson's team leading total for the whole '07 campaign. Clausen and Evan Sharpley combined to throw 12 TDs all of last season; Clausen has 6 through the first three games this year, 2 apiece to Floyd and Tate. The future is bright for this aspect of the Irish offense.

Passing progress aside, the Irish must find a way to run the ball. Last season Notre Dame average a beyond pathetic 75 yards per game on the ground. This year it's ticked all the way up to...78.2, though that figure was depressed by an abysmal performance in East Lansing, where the longest ground play was 24 yards to Tate on reverse, and the three Irish tailbacks (Robert Hughes, James Aldridge, & Armando Allen) combined for 30 yards on 15 carries. For the day the Irish rushed for only 16 yards due to yardage lost on three sacks of Clausen, the first three the line surrendered all year. In games one and two the Irish were far from dominant in the ground game, but they did rush the ball "just enough". As you get deeper into a season that won't cut it - and that's all anybody can really say at this point. If I knew the solution to get the running game going, I'd be out at Cartier helping Weis and John Latina run practice. Instead I'm sitting behind a computer.

Everything about special teams is better, except the one area that matters most. This seems to be a real lightning rod topic. Here are the fact concerning Notre Dame's performance on special teams through three games (and remember, these rankings stack them up against plenty of teams that have already played four games):
  • Armando Allen is in the Top 50 nationally for both punt returns (11.17 per) and kickoff returns (24.12 per).
  • Eric Maust is again in the top 40 for net punting, averaging 41.62 per boot (down just slightly from 42.09 last season)
  • The Irish have allowed 13 yards total on opponent punt returns through 3 games.
Unfortunately, there is one unit which people look to in assessing the quality of the special teams phase, as it is the only one which directly puts points on the board: placekicking. Brandon Walker (above, right, in the closing moments of the MSU game) won the job in fall camp amid reports that his leg strength and form had gotten much stronger. That much was clear when he was called upon for his first 50+ attempt of his college career Saturday. He put plenty of leg on the 51-yard boot...but sailed it way to the right. Late in the game with the Irish trying to claw back within one score, he went out to attempt a 41-yarder - and shanked that one badly to the right as well. Through one season and three games, Walker is 1-for-10 on attempts over 30 yards, the one make a 48-yarder against UCLA. And the kicking woes don't stop or start with him either - through three games the Irish have whiffed on finding a reliable snapper for kick attempts, using true freshman Braxston Cave and walk-on senior Kevin Brooks with muddled success.

Meanwhile, junior Ryan Burkhart consistently leaves kickoffs 10 yards shy of the endzone. At the top of my list for frustrating developments in the Charlie Weis Era, I'd have to put, "How has it come to pass that Notre Dame can't find one kicker who can make it outside of 30...or one who can put the ball consistently inside the five yard line on a kickoff?"

Heading into quarter two, here's one man's take on the Michigan State game: it was two very average teams meeting up and in those matchups, the team with fewer mistakes generally wins. So toss in two missed field goals, an interception in the endzone, and a fumble at the 14-yard line, and the game is exactly as Weis described: one where the Irish still had a chance to win despite being thoroughly undeserving of such.

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