Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 33, Washington 7

Dueling thoughts that came to me while wondering if Game 5 of the World Series was ever going to be completed...

- One of the key questions for me after wrapping up Notre Dame's "first quarter" of the season was how (and if) the tailback pecking order would appear. The grab-bag approach simply wasn't going to translate into a solid running attack. After wrapping up Game 7 in Seattle, the answer appears to be that while the Irish don't need to turn one player into a Javon Ringer-eqsue 35 carries per game back, they do know where they stand alongside Jimmy Clausen in the backfield. Namely: when the Irish come out in what is essentially the "base" offense at this point with a spread-the-field, no-huddle attack, Armando Allen is the best option with his vision improving every week and his status as (by a wide margin) the best pass-catching back. Meanwhile, after duking it out with Robert Hughes for awhile, James Aldridge has emerged as a reliable option for the Irish in the short yardage/goalline package. Throw in Hughes and the rapidly developing frosh Jonas Gray, it makes an imposing package.

After winning Mike Haywood's open competition for such chores, Aldridge picked up a couple key third-and-shorts as well as his first career touchdown against North Carolina two weeks ago, and he continued to hammer away this week with 84 yards and two more touchdowns from close range against the Huskies. It's good that the arrow is pointing up and that the Irish appear settled on who'll be doing what for them going forward in the final five games, since the dominating game against UW (252 yards on the ground, second best in the Weis era behind his '05 debut against Pitt) bumped the Irish all the way up to...91st in the country running the ball. Work remains to be done in this department.

- I would say that the only thing proven with conclusiveness on Saturday was the answer to the riddle, "Exactly how good do you have to be to thoroughly dominate Washington?" And the answer was, "Really, honestly...not all that good." Which is not to say the Irish played poorly, but it seemed pretty clear by their body language in the second quarter (which Golden Tate pretty much confirmed after the game) that once they'd established a quick 14-0 lead, they went into sleep mode on offense. Clausen played the part, tossing two interceptions - one was called back due to pass interference - and misfiring a number of throws that wouldn't be described as easy but which Irish fans have quickly grown used to seeing him make. The statline was the definition of pedestrian: 14/26 for 201 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. The Irish basically played on Saturday like it was going to be a game only as long as they allowed it to be, so it was great that they lived up to their vow for a fast start which snuffed any shred of hope their awful opponent might've had. Here's hoping they pivot the focus back to "4 full quarters" this week as they'll now take on 2 good teams and 1 great one over this closing stretch.

Monday, October 27, 2008

One Can Only Imagine...

What these two could've been talking about.


To just close the book on these guys (I mean, for real. Let's just close the book), submit your own caption in the comments section. You know you want to. Go on, get it out of your system for good and all.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

When the World Series calls ...

... accept the charges. (Note: For those of you new to this blog, welcome. Please allow me to hi-jack George's outstanding work during the bye week to discuss a non-ND sports story).


As loyal readers of this blog should know, Philadelphia sports have a long history of losing. Longer than many of our lifetimes. I won't belabor this point, but just add 5 years to the ND football drought, and then act (ignoring women's hoops and soccer) like men's basketball, men's soccer, and women's volleyball are followed as closely (no offense, Olympic sports fans).

Immediately following ND alum Brad Lidge's fifth save of the postseason, my brother (ND '02 and current Philly resident) started texting me about getting tickets. I was intrigued, but went back to normal life. On Saturday, I get a text: my brother is at a wedding and listening to two of his buddies tell stories of World Series games they attended. His message: "We need to do this." Without giving time to second-guess myself, I channel Eric Gast and book a $294 flight Friday night DFW to PHL.

Stubhub says tickets are pushing $500, minimum. Due to an incredible serendipitous scheduling with a Monday off for Bishop Dunne homecoming and the World Series schedule, I will be in Philly for all 3 home games. I will let you know how the view from the Broad Street bars is.

Go Phils!
Why Can't Us?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Post Mortem: North Carolina 29, Notre Dame 24

Damn it. Sorry...it's just....damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it.

Perhaps the most sobering truth to come out of this is that this was actually the first time in a long time that Notre Dame played competently enough early that you could truthfully accuse them of choking away the game late. If there's been a time in the last three seasons when the Irish were so thoroughly in control of a game only to foolishly turn it into a loss, I can't remember it. And that is actually a significant, positive development. Why does it have to piss me off so much, though?

Wrapping up the loss both immediately and one day after, Charlie Weis asserted that his (still very) young team was "finally starting to get it". He'd never seen a locker room so down after a loss since the 2005 USC game. While there certainly isn't much of a comparison of those two games regarding what was at stake - win that '05 game and the Irish may very well have gone on to the BCS championship game, while this Saturday was merely for a spot in the Top 25 - the fact is that the first half against UNC was about as perfect as the Irish have played versus a quality opponent since those breathtaking 60 minutes against the Trojans on 10/15/05. That's why the second half was so hard to stomach.

A lot of armchair quarterbacking took place the next morning as people floated various punches and counter-punches: Why didn't Notre Dame run the ball more? Why didn't Weis kick a field goal early in the fourth quarter after the Irish fell behind by five? What was going through Clausen's head on that mid-fourth interception? Why didn't Michael Floyd immediately drop to the ground after catching that last pass? How could the replay officials so brazenly interject into a game as they did in the last two minutes, once with a pretty inexplicable overturn that allowed the Irish to get the ball back?

Valid inquiries, all. But the simple fact is that the reason for Notre Dame's loss can be boiled down to one simple number: 5. As in five turnovers by Notre Dame, all in the final 31 minutes of the game, to North Carolina's zero (although there was one forced turnover, a strip by Robert Blanton on a 3rd-and-18 completion that went unchallenged). Only a team with superb raw talent could lose the turnover battle 5-0 and still be in the game until the final play. Look at it another way: the Irish played well enough early that they would've survived losing the turnover battle 4-0. It was Jimmy Clausen's pick-six on the first play of the second half that provided the winning margin. So at least there's discernible progress made on the front of being a team that can withstand going -4 in the turnover category (not to mention big-time progress in pass blocking, pass catching, QB decision-making, playcalling, general emotional approaches, etc etc).

Is it too trite to invoke the "Rome wasn't built in a day" scenario now? The Irish reached the halfway point at 4-2, going 4-0 at home while competing (but not winning) in two road games against Top 25 teams. This is the mark of a team trying to rebuild itself from the scorched earth crater of a 3-9 season. As fans we naturally (and foolishly) expect the rebuilding process to be far ahead of schedule. It isn't. It's right where it's supposed to be. Maybe that puts the program somewhere different from where we all historically expect Notre Dame to be, but put it like this: the Irish have proven themselves good enough that a loss now comes as much from their own shortcomings as any talent or coaching deficiency. A year ago it was a pleasant surprise to actually lose to a good (not even a great, just a good) opponent by less than 28 on the road. One year later the Irish now have nothing to blame but their own mistakes for such a loss.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Recruiting Needs for Speed

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! "It" in this case being the addition of two more players to Notre Dame's 2013 recruiting haul. First, from the shores of Jersey comes Nyshier Oliver, a one-time commitment to the Tennessee Vols who rates as an "athlete" but will likely start his ND career as a wide receiver; secondly, from Vero Beach, FL comes Zeke Motta, a load-bearing safety who rates as the most physical player at his position according to Rivals.com.

It sure seemed like recruiting was going to level off this season, and while this class won't be reaching the heights of a consensus #1 groups like last year, both Oliver and Motta continue a recent trend of picking up players who may not be tied down to one position. They have the physical skills to compete at several, much like current playmaker Golden Tate (principally a running back in high school who basically decided for ND's coaches that they should recruit him at receiver), safety/linebacker Harrison Smith, and fellow '13 commits Theo Riddick and E.J. Banks. Assuming Rivals can be trusted in reporting such things, Oliver stands to join Riddick as the fastest member of this pledge class with a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash. That comes after the Irish signed 8 players who clocked a 4.5 or better last season (it was 5 in the current sophomore class and 9 in the current junior class).

For a point of contrast, USC's current junior class had 14 signees at 4.5 and under, though that inclues several players who transferred, such as Emmanuel Moody & Jamere Holland (for further contrast, the '06 class at Notre Dame also lost three speedsters due to transfer - Munir Prince, Demetrius Jones, and Richard Jackson). More significant to me was the following: two of the players in that class who are now universally hailed as among USC's fastest and most athletic on both sides of the ball, running back CJ Gable and safety Taylor Mays, were not among those who came in under the magic "4.5". That underscores another point: 'speed' and 'game speed' are two very different animals and the first doesn't always translate into the second. That's why all those people who figured NFL teams ought to be trying to lure Usain Bolt into a camp were being laughed at by pro scouts. Just because a guy is fast doesn't mean he knows how to play.

I'll tell you this much though - Notre Dame keeps adding, at a far stronger clip than in the not-so-distant past, the speed and athleticism that closes the gap on teams like USC. Let's just hope they can develop into guys that know how to play.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 28, Stanford 21

Chalk up another one in the "things that are different from 2007 column".

A year ago Michigan running back Mike Hart guaranteed victory over a hapless 0-2 Notre Dame team, which doesn't seem like it was all that ballsy except when you consider he was doing so as a representative of an equally hapless 0-2 Michigan team that had lost to Appalachian State. Irish players and coaches tut-tutted the trash talk, toeing the familiar line that "we'll speak on the field", and whatever they said didn't carry much weight in a 38-0 drilling that was more lopsided than the score would have you believe.

One year later, and Stanford offensive lineman Chris Marinelli decided there was a pot that needed stirring before Saturday's game in South Bend, noting how much he despises Notre Dame's field, stadium, surrounding area (and in a moment of brutal honesty, who's really going to argue him on that one?) and pretty much the idea of Notre Dame in general. Publicly the Irish laughed it off; privately they seethed, finally boiling over during the one shining beacon of spontanaeity during Friday's pep rally when Pat Kuntz (pictured, above) vowed, "I'm gonna rip his head off!" in the most Meathead-ish way possible. I say that with affection, Pat.

Marinelli's talk generated plenty of ink, but it was Notre Dame who had the last word in beating the Cardinal 28-21 on Saturday, a game where they played well enough to withstand their own sloppiness in the final ten minutes. That's another huge step forward, and let's again be frank - playing with a three touchdown lead has been uncharted territory for Notre Dame in the last 19 games. Let's break down the good and bad of all three Irish phases from Saturday:

Offensively: Always start with the bad news first (bear with me). The Irish remain way behind the eight ball in developing their running game. At this point I'd say the biggest issue is continuity. I recall so vivivdly sitting in Weis' press conferences during 2005 where he'd say he vehemently opposed a two-back system, which was why Darius Walker, as the best runner and surest pass catcher, was the unquestioned #1 back. Five games into the season, there is little question at this point those same two labels can be bestowed on Armando Allen. Now, specifically for the Stanford game he appeared to suffer an injury that necessitate mixing in Robert Hughes and James Aldridge. But democracy ought to be at an end by now if all other things are equal. For the day Notre Dame's running backs averaged under 3 yards per carry. Their meager 83 yards rushing was aided significantly by a fake punt from Harrison Smith early in the fourth quarter. If the Irish have to go one-dimensional this whole year it's gonna be tough to avoid losing three or possibly four more games.

And with that, we arrive at the good news (you always go bad news first, this way the good news makes up for it). If the Irish indeed have only one leg to stand on right now for offensive consistency, every single week it turns into a stronger leg. It belongs to Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Mike Floyd, and a leaps-and-bounds improving passing game. Clausen rang up 300 yards for the first time to go with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Since the fourth quarter of the Michigan State game he's thrown for better than 800 yards with 7 TDs and no picks, looking very impressive in doing so as a number of them have been audibles. One particular beauty from Saturday was his 48-yard bomb to Floyd, when the freshman from Cretin-Derham Hall blazed past Stanford cornerback Wompamo Osaisai, who happens to be the Pac-1o champion in the 100 meter dash.

Defense: This was the definiton of an up-and-down day. Here were the numbers on Stanford's first three drives: 27 plays, 174 yards. The first two marches into Irish territory ended with interceptions, one a phenomenal grab by David Bruton off a tipped ball, the second a good screen read by Kuntz. The third was an embarassment, the Cardinal marching at will 95 yards for a touchdown to tie the game. In the first quarter alone Stanford had 107 yards rushing.

But here were the next six Cardinal drives, stretching from midway through the second until the 12:54 mark of the fourth quarter: 21 plays, 8 total yards. In that span the Irish tacked on another pick and three sacks, trebling their total from the first four games and no doubt making Marinelli regret his dare to, "Keep 'em coming." During those final 13 minutes, however, the Cardinal moved the ball again with a 7 play, 72 yard drive and a 36 yard TD drive set up by the first long punt return allowed by the Irish this season. Suddenly it was a game, but the Irish buckled down and forced a turnover on downs, then snuffed out a trick play as time expired to end the comeback. Basically, the Irish allowed one long drive but then strangled Stanford until they'd built a 28-7 lead - and then they failed to put the opponent away. That's the kind of thing you only can get a handle on by being in a position to put the opponent away, and again, this is foreign territory for now. Pretty soon it won't be.

Special teams: Can anybody here make a field goal? We all crucified Weis last season for not attempting a 41-yarder to win the game against Navy, but can you really blame him if his best option is Brandon Walker? Aside from two more Walker hooks, leaving him 1-for-7 on the season, the Irish had a bad day in coverage, allowing the first long returns of the year, including a 38-yard runback on a fourth quarter punt which set up Stanford's last score of the day. At his Sunday wrap-up presser, Weis addressed special teams on all fronts:
I was very disappointed in special teams across the board yesterday. I didn't like the kickoff coverage. I didn't like kickoff return. I didn't like the punt coverage. On the punt coverage two things happened. We get a penalty on David on the interference call, then we give up a 38-yard return. On punt return, we didn't get much production. Then we missed a couple field goals on top of it. So I wouldn't exactly give glowing marks on special teams.

Tomorrow we'll get going on fixing the special teams. That's where the majority of Monday is.

And will that include a re-opened competition for the placekicker job between Walker and Ryan Burkhart?

I think we definitely have to explore Ryan kicking field goals. We definitely have to explore that because in Brandon's case, it's not obviously a case of being able to kick it high enough or far enough. When you're 1 out of 7 kicking field goals, it just doesn't cut it. You only can hang so long on this. We're fortunate it hasn't cost us more than what it's cost us already.