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.

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