Friday, September 28, 2007

Basketball on Grass

It's time for Notre Dame-Purdue. The Irish are now in uncharted territory, having never searched longer than four weeks to get their first win of the season. But here they are, 0-4, staring back into the abyss of what could potentially be an 0-8 start. First things first, though - the Boilermakers. Block out all thoughts of 0-8. Concentrate on the Boilermaker and their obnoxious drum, and it might be only as bad as 1-7.

Preview #5...

Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Purdue Boilermakers
12:00 PM EDT
Ross-Ade Stadium - West Lafaytette, IN

Why Purdue Will Win

Although they've gotten next to no help from both their offensive and special teams brethren, Notre Dame's defense hasn't been a great help to their own cause by surrendering a horrid 233 yards per game on the ground. They have not faced, nor have their opponents needed, a truly gifted quarterback (Ryan Mallett might be one in a year or two, but anybody who wants to claim his performance was indicative of Michigan's "putting the game in his hands" clearly wasn't paying attention). And now, here in Week 5, comes another disciple of Joe Tiller's crazy lock-and-load, fun'n'gun, spread-and-bread offense. Or you could just call it "basketball on grass". Your pick.

Following in the footsteps of Drew Brees & Kyle Orton is senior Curtis Painter, who's bloomed in his second full season as Purdue signal-caller. After leading the nation in picks last year, Painter's thrown just 1 through the first four games of 2007 to go with 16 TDs and a completion rate just under 69%. In short, he is the veteran QB talent that Notre Dame hasn't seen yet this season, unless you want to count Anthony "12-of-22 with an interception" Morelli. With favorite targets Dorien Bryant, Greg Orton, TE Dustin Keller, & Selwyn Lymon (pictured, right, burning the Irish secondary for some of his Irish-opponent-record 238 yards in last year's game) to choose from, Painter should feel giddy at the prospect of facing a reeling Irish defense that has been historically bad against the pass during the previous two seasons and has many of the same players Painter teed off on a year ago (Curtis threw for 398 yards in the loss). Why does Purdue win this game? Because they run an offense the Irish haven't seen yet, run it ridiculously well, and pounce on the fragile 0-4 psyche that wanders into their stadium.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Because the law of averages says they have to at some point...right? Unfortunately for the Irish, the schedule doesn't ease up for them in the seemingly neverending quest to put a 'W' on the board in 2007. But Purdue's lofty 4-0 record and gaudy stats being pitted against the unprecedented Irish start gives everybody a convenient reason to ignore the fact Painter and the BoilerBoys accomplishments came against an opening slate that included 3 Division I teams that are a combined 3-9 (Toledo, Central Michigan, & Minnesota), plus Division I-AA Eastern Illinois (2-2). Purdue's defense is just as shaky as Notre Dame's - overall rank of 59, and surrendering 227 passing yards per game. Though an optimist could argue those numbers to be misleading because Painter and the offense have raced to the type of leads which pretty much force their opponents to throw on every down in order to catch up.

This is why the Irish will win: controlling the line of scrimmage for the second straight week. While their weren't many positives to take out of last week's Michigan State loss, here was one undeniable plus - the offensive line cleared holes for James Aldridge and Robert Hughes, while allowing 4 sacks (two of which were indisputably the result of a young QB not knowing when to throw the ball away). For a unit that surrendered an astonishing 23 through the first three games being matched up with a team that led the nation, that was a fair showing for the Irish vs. the Spartans. As long as the game is close, within 10 points, the Irish shouldn't bother throwing the ball. Pound, pound, pound, play keep-away from Painter and Co., and frustrate Purdue by being an opponent they can't knock out in the first round - Purdue has outscored its opponents 72-20. And when all other reasons for optimism fail, remember that this guy...

is still Purdue's defensive coordinator.

The Prediction

One never knows when Brock Spack is running the D for the opponent, does one? While a veteran crew probably could slice-and-dice the Boilers D (like Brady Quinn did for the past two seasons), it is by now painfully obvious that the Irish are not a veteran crew, a lesson Charlie Weis was unwilling to accept for the first three weeks of the season. With a more humble, aggressive, gut-check attitude in place over the past two weeks, the Irish should just keep moving forward with the few things they did well against the Spartans, hoping that it's enough against an overconfident Purdue squad. Unfortunately, I doubt it will be enough, but I've been wrong before...

Purdue 35, Notre Dame 24.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Post Mortem: Michigan State 31, Notre Dame 14

Notre Dame has played 119 seasons worth of football, and has lost at least four games in 25 of them. So the 2007 season isn't exactly alone in its ignominy. It'll get special attention though, since it is now the first time Notre Dame lost their first four to open a season. If you'd rather not be hammered over the head with that statement, don't watch ESPN this week, read the paper, go on the internet (in which case you could not be reading this blog post...interesting catch-22 we find ourselves in), or do anything except drink water and go to the bathroom. "Notre Dame is 0-4" is about to become the second most overused phrase in sports television, right behind (you guessed it, Pat), "The Masters is on CBS".

The real bug about yesterday's 31-14 loss to Michigan State is that, even for a 17-point loss, it was a game that was quite obviously winnable. The Spartans aren't that good. Right now, Notre Dame's just that bad. When they needed to mix up the offensive gameplan a bit in the second half after some first-half success on the ground, they couldn't do it. When they needed to come up with one more play on defense on 3rd downs to get Michigan State off the field, they couldn't do it (3rd and 17? C'mon.) And on a day when they really needed to get some consistency out of their special teams play, they got what was hands down the worst performance of Geoff Price's career and YET ANOTHER penalty on Travis Thomas that pushed the young offense deep into the shadow of their own goalposts during the second quarter. The hits just keep on coming.

But, and it is a least a token of saving grace to say this, there were legitimate positives to take away from the game (the first half, anyway). "Training camp" seemed to have finally established the possibility of a core, power running game out of James Aldridge (with Robert Hughes as a 'Plan B' with loads of potential). The defense continued to put out a game effort despite being faced with a staggering 7 possessions that began in Notre Dame territory. Seven. Half of the Michigan State drives began on the opposite side of the 50 - usually when a stat like this pops up, you think the other team shot themselves in the foot with turnovers, like how Michigan State fumbled inside its own 10. But only one of those 7 turns in 'plus-territory' for the Spartans once set up by a turnover. I guess the Irish special teams were tired of the offense being the only ones to hang the defense out to dry.

What the defense could not do...AGAIN (at the risk of sounding like Mike Valenti) was contain the rushing attack along the edge. I know the Spartans pride themselves on having their pounders like Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick carry the ball, but a healthy portion of their 219 rushing yards came by running to the boundary. It's almost sad to think about how much Pat Kuntz and Trevor Laws are leaving on the field only to be totally let down by a linebacking corps which can't shed blocks. Maurice Crum was all over the place, racking up 16 tackles, but mostly he was the one cleaning up after at least one other Irish defender either couldn't bring down Ringer or had been taken out of the play.

In total, Saturday was probably the most frustrating of the four losses this season because this was a team Notre Dame was capable of beating, and in the first half the Irish accomplished most of the things they needed to do in order to win. When the Irish can figure out how to make that carry over across 60 minutes, they're not just going to win a game this season. They're going to win a whole bunch in the years to come.

Other observations from a weekend of football:
  • What's going on in New England is starting to border on criminal (in the figurative sense, not the literal). Tom Brady-to-Randy Moss is quickly becoming like a real-life version of SuperTecmo Bowl. You know, when you would choose to be the Raiders and intentionally down all the kickoffs at your own 1-yard line, just because you knew Bo Jackson would score whenever he touched the ball? Right now, New England's that good. I know Mike D never loses faith in Peyton and his Colts, but if they meet up in the AFC title game again this year? Don't count on being saved by dropped touchdown passes.
  • We have an early leader for greatest sports rant of 2007. As you might all guess, Mike Valenti was the runaway winner in 2006, and pretty much has the rant of the century award locked up. But for sheer "A-Bomb style" meltdown quality this year, we haven't really seen it before Saturday, when Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy stepped to the podium after his Cowboys rallied to beat Texas Tech. Here's what he had to say towards one columnist who questioned the heart of his quarterback after the previous week's loss to Troy. (Note: this happened shortly after Oklahoma State won on Saturday. So just imagine what might've gone down had they lost...

  • LaDanian Tomlinson has only one rushing touchdown through three games. Or, to sum it up in a way that makes all those who scrambled to pick him first in fantasy football feel really bad about themselves, he has one fewer than Notre Dame.
  • Forget all this talk about 0-4. How many days until Season 4 of Lost?

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Friday, September 21, 2007

September 23, 2006...

"I didn't always lose. I won't always lose again." - James J. Braddock, The 'Cinderella Man'


Circle the Wagons

Fear, Fear for Old Notre Dame. The Frightened Irish. The Fighting Rash. Three-and-out Jesus. If it was a 'clever' pun designed to tweak Notre Dame's storied past in comparison with its stormy present, you heard it this week.

Not without good reason, mind you. The Irish have been historically bad up to this point in the season, dropping to 0-3 while scoring just 13 points, none of them in the form of an offensive touchdown. And now the Irish, who've allowed 23 sacks through the first 12 quarters of 2007, get to face the upstart Michigan State Spartans, 3-0 under a new head coach (Mark Dantonio) and still ticked about blowing a 37-21 lead in last season's downpour that produced the single greatest rant in the history of sports rants. If Sparty pulls a similar trick this weekend, everybody tune into 1270 WXYT on Monday morning to hear Mike Valenti's thoughts. You will not leave disappointed.

Game 4...

Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Michigan State Spartans
3:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame Stadium - South Bend, IN

Why Michigan State Will Win

Describing Notre Dame's offensive line as a 'sieve' is an insult to sieves everywhere. The Irish would probably have better pass blocking results if they unveiled a big sheet of Charmin-Ultra in front of Jimmy Clausen on every play. Under the aggressive schemes of former Ohio State defensive whiz Dantonio, Michigan State has racked up 17 sacks, tied with Penn State (gee, wonder who helped them get up there) and Indiana for tops in the nation. Georgia Tech and Michigan are tied for second nationally with 13, before you ask. And yes, the Irish "lead" the nation in sacks allowed with 23.

So there's no big secret behind what the Spartans want to do here - pressure, pressure, and more pressure, until the Irish finally start to beat some of it back. MSU's defense is a hodgepodge of youth and experience, with vets like DE Ervin Baldwin (who picked-six Brady Quinn last year), LB SirDarean Adams (who did the same thing to Quinn in '05), and LB Kaleb Thornhill. The front seven are, for the most part, a battle-tested group. The back four are not, as Sparty trots out no seniors on the two deep at either corner or free safety - if the Irish do open up the passing game, look for them to stay away from team captain Travis Key at strong safety. For the moment though, Michigan State's concerns about inexperience versus an explosive passing attack are academic - the Irish may be a lot of things at the moment, but nobody would apply the word 'explosive' towards their offense in a positive light. If State controls the line of scrimmage and collapses on top of the Irish running game, allowing them to tee off on young Clausen in the backfield, it'll be another long day for ND and its fans.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Can we invoke the rule that, at least once a season, the Irish win a game they have absolutely no business winning? Sometimes this occurs because the Irish trip over themselves and outplay a superior opponent, other times because they do just enough to overcome their incompetence when playing a lesser opponent. Recent examples of this rule being executed include: 2002 Michigan, 2003 Navy, 2004 Tennessee, 2005 Stanford, 2006 UCLA. Somehow, when all seems lost forever, ole Notre Dame pulls yet another rabbit out of the hat and makes you think, "Ya know what? Everything's gonna be ok."

Saturday is going to have to be one of those days. In terms of raw physical talent, the Irish match up just fine with the Spartans. It's the psychological disposition of each team which will determine whether it's a tough, competitive football game or just another "go-through-the-motions" affair for the Irish. They spent all week back in a barebones, training camp mentality, bunkered in from the negativity swirling around the national media and what surely must've been a depressingly bad on-campus environment. How bad did things get? Even a well-intentioned attempt by student government to let the boys know we're still behind them went horribly awry, caught in a net by the P.C. Police - Kelly Green has the blow-by-blow of how it went down; check out Tuesday's entry on the main page. Shame on the Student Body Prez for leaving the GaTech game with 3 minutes to go.

So if the Irish win, they're gonna have to take all that anger and emotion and vortex of doom and spit it back in the face of the guys they line up across - in other words, I don't think it'll take very long to tell if the last week of "training camp"-style practices made the team hungrier. Things are going to get better, or they'll just continue to get worse. Look for the Irish to spend a lot of time in the first quarter asserting themselves in the trenches; if they succeed, that'll mark the first time this season. And it'll be why they can carry the momentum deep into a game they desperately have to win.

The Prediction

Too much was expected too quickly out of many areas for this 2007 Notre Dame team. Not that we should just excuse the level of awfulness they've managed to plummet too, not that it has somehow become okay to get taken behind the woodshed by an 0-2 Michigan team, but we have to recoginze that not only fans but the coaching staff expected a lot of players to climb the ladder quicker than they were able to. The Irish are back to basics this week, and look for that to mean a lot of running plays and the expectation of tough, aggressive spirit, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines. That should yield at least an offensive touchdown or two, and beyond that...who knows? This is the first time in a while where I'm picking against the Irish even though I feel it's a game they can definitely win. Too many variables surround the squad right now to go into the game with a good feeling.

Michigan State 24, Notre Dame 14

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A New Purpose

Well, after a few pokes and prods from one Pat Girouard, here it is - "the blog".

To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Here, age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. This blog is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.

Note: this is actually the speech Walt Disney gave to dedicate Disneyland. Still, it's pretty inspiring. Hope to hear from at least a few of you on these pages as the weeks and months roll by. And to all those who might have read this page while it was known as "Sox-Irish", I'll still be around to blog nonsensically about those twin terrors in my life, the Chicago White Sox and the Fighting Irish. For now though, enjoy as I turn the wheel over to some dear friends of mine. Blog away, ladies and gents.

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.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Post Mortem: Penn State 31, Notre Dame 10

Superman didn't exactly fly on Saturday night. But he gave some encouraging signs that he will one day soon.

Jimmy Clausen, parents and older brothers in tow, arrived on Saturday night, and the results produced a little bit of everything: encouragement, incompetence, improvement, regression, and ultimately a 31-10 loss to the veteran Nittany Lions in which Notre Dame's performance echoed all the same themes as a week ago: the Irish are young, inexperienced, and played the part all too often.

Darrin Walls got the game off on the right foot for the Irish with a terrific interception of an Anthony Morelli jump-ball , then darted back upfield, weaved past a couple blocks and notched Notre Dame's first touchdown of the year. That would be as good as it got, with the Irish piling up 3-and-outs due to a conservative gameplan clearly designed to keep Clausen upright. It was modestly successful at best, as the young signal-caller still got beat up and sacked 6 times, to say nothing of numerous hurries and scrambles. Meanwhile, the Irish managed to pull off a Bluto Blutarsky-esque 0.0 net yards of rushing.

The opening drive was Clausen's best, as Charlie Weis called for a steady diet of Armando Allen around the edge with screen plays that moved the ball into Penn State territory, but a pair of false start penalties on Paul Duncan short-circuited the momentum and the Irish came away with nothing as Nate Whitaker missed a 50-yard field goal. On the positive side, he clearly had the leg. Damn accuracy issues.

With Walls' big play the obvious highlight, the Irish defense for a second straight week put up a game effort under adverse conditions - Penn State had 9 possessions in the first half and only two of them began inside their own 25-yard line. Of the three Nittany Lion touchdown drives, none covered more than 65 yards. And the Irish's best chance to turn the field position battle in their favor went out the window when they turned into their own worst enemy with another idiotic personal foul penalty, this time on former linebacker and current special-teamer Travis Thomas.

That, unfortunately, was the watchword of the evening as far as the Irish were concerned: mistakes. Every variety too - dumb ones, communication ones, assignment ones, coaching ones, mental ones, made by youngsters and veterans alike. The Irish racked up 97 yards worth of penalties on 14 flags, and in nearly every situation where they could least afford a mistake, they made one. Clausen's one legitimate chance to air it out while the game was still in reach came on a dazzling FedEx laser to Golden Tate which would've moved the ball from the ND 33 to the Penn State 25...but it was nullified by a holding call against RT Sam Young. When the Irish D again stiffened after the only pass coverage breakdown of the night (51-yard completion from Morelli to Chris Bell made possible by a gamble-gone-wrong from David Bruton), Ambrose Wooden got flagged for pass interference and took the Lions from a 4th-down field goal try to first down at the 2. Of all the penalities, Wooden's was the least justifiable, the definition of a questionable-at-best PI call, but the yellow laundry was on the field whether the Irish liked it or not.

Finally, the dam broke in the fourth quarter as Austin Scott chewed turf at Beaver Stadium and scored the clinching touchdowns against an exhausted first-string for the Irish. Penn State wasn't a particularly impressive team on Saturday, but they didn't have to be with a solid, explosive defense matched against a Notre Dame offense searching to establish an identity. The silver lining is that, true to Charlie Weis' word, they did in fact get better this week. Instead of looking stupid on about 80% of the plays, they cut it down to 60%. One can only hope the percentage drops drastically for this upcoming matchup against Michigan, suddenly deprived of all luster and hype in the wake of the first EVER occurrence of an 0-2 start for both schools.

And make no mistake, the Irish did in fact make strides towards figuring out what type of offense they're going to be, with Clausen at the helm, Allen in the backfield, and an offensive line which (on occasion) bought the young QB time to collect his wits on passing attempts. Notre Dame clearly was at its nadir against Georgia Tech (which rose to #15 in the polls this week...just so you know), and the results against Penn State did in fact reflect improvement, albeit not nearly enough. Now a second week of work with Clausen as the undisputed first-stringer takes the Irish into their titanically underwhelming battle with the Wolverines, who will be without senior quarterback Chad Henne. Looks like the bally-hooed battle between Clausen and Ryan Mallet, another top-ranked prep QB who enrolled early at UM, will commence a year or two earlier than expected.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Into the Lion's Den

No, I'm not gonna apologize for this obvious cop-out of a headline. Because right now, having suffered a 30-point beatdown and now sending in a freshman quarterback to compete amid the bright lights of a 108,000 blood-thirsty Penn State fans...a little gallows humor is appropriate.

Happy Valley will be rocking tomorrow night, awaiting the Irish's first visit since 1991 and more than ready for payback after Brady Quinn and Company quickly derailed the Nittany Lions' hopes of repeating their 2005 success with a 41-17 smashing on September 9th, 2006. 365 days later...
  • Paterno's crew is the veteran outfit, led by matured quarterback Anthony Morelli, versatile running back Austin Scott, athletic receivers Deon Butler & Derrick Williams (pictured below, right) and All-America caliber linebacker Dan Connor.
  • Notre Dame is hording a lot of young talent, but it bears repeating that they are young and inexperienced - and they certainly played the part last Saturday. Maybe it would've been a different story had the Irish broken their young bucks in against, shall we say, Florida International. But they didn't.
  • The Penn State fans have the super-intimidating "WHITE OUT" stunt planned for Saturday night. And they give the Irish crap about the green jerseys...
So here we are, another go-round for the Irish and the first in the 2007 series of game previews. Let it begin...

Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. #14 Penn State Nittany Lions
6:00 PM EDT
Beaver Stadium - State College, PA

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Is this a trick question? Hard to find is the optimistic Notre Dame fan after the week ND Nation has been through. The 33-3 loss to Georgia Tech set a lot of people to wondering if those who had foretold doomsday (Mark May) were actually right, if the Irish really were so wet behind the ears that they would lay an egg to the tune of a 1-7 or 0-8 start. Tough to think such things coming off the previous two seasons, but such is life in the world of Notre Dame. You are either on top or scrambling like crazy to get there. There is no middle ground, and if you didn't win then you lost. Doesn't matter if you looked good or respectable doing it - you still lost. And when you look silly doing it, like in a game when you rack up just 122 yards of offense, that's when the enemies really start brandishing the heavy artillery.

The "advance scouting report" on Penn State's defensive was relayed to me on Saturday as this - "They're all great, but you haven't heard of any of them." After hearing that except same superlative being lobbied on behalf of the Notre Dame offensive line all summer, color me unimpressed. Even so, as Charlie Weis quipped this week, the Lions don't employ the 'blitzkrieg' defense alĂ  Georgia Tech, "but I would". Count on seeing plenty of pressure coming from the Lions back-7, which features two outstanding linebackers in Connor & Sean Lee, plus great defensive backfield led by corner Justin King (blazing fast) and Anthony Scirroto at free safety.

So what the hell does Notre Dame have to do to stay in the game - forget for the time being about planning to win, how do you find a reason to believe they won't be humiliated and let Jimmy Clausen be devoured? For one thing, expect the offense to stay far more true to its NFL-style Patriot roots this week. The Boy Wonder showed even in mop-up duties against GaTech that he has a lot of the attributes Weis wants from the QB position in his preferred offense. And for all the hype, for all the accolades, for all the doubt and occasionally self-inflicted criticism Clausen creates, it's still true that he's no ordinary college freshman. The kid's about to turn 20 - held back once to develop physically before high school, and that was after starting school at age 6. Never lost a game in three years as a starter in Southern California. While some pointed out that he usually faced less strenuous competition being part of a small private school's conference in Thousand Oaks, I'd wager even 'lesser competition' in SoCal trumps what he'd see in the 'elite' Pennsylvania divisions.

But the Irish need two things - one, minimize the mistakes on offense. Clausen needs to be held back from attempting to be another Brady Quinn (for now). Second, and here's how the Irish can win, is to attack and create turnovers. Force a couple, turn them into points, and all of a sudden we've got a ballgame. The Irish are underdogs and with good reason, so we have to chalk this game in the same category of '02 Florida State, '04 Michigan & '05 USC. The 'hidden plays' of special teams, of momentum-changing turnovers and stops, will determine the Irish fate. The minimum threshold of success: force at least 3 turnovers, and score 14 points off those turnovers.

Why Penn State Will Win

Because Ed Bradley (we can assume) is not an idiot and saw everything he needed to see in last week's Georgia Tech film. He has a defense on caliber with Georgia Tech's - not as proven a commodity along the front 4, but solid at linebacker and safety and more than capable of bringing the pressure. But will history repeat itself? Last season the Nittany Lions got caught with their pants down, Butkus Award winner Paul Posluszny admitting after the game, "We expected them to keep going deep, but they just cleaned us all out and went underneath." That's why, if he really isn't an idiot, Bradley won't rely solely on what he saw in the Georgia Tech game film when preparing. With Clausen back under center, new wrinkles from what the Irish ran last week are not just inevitable but essential. However, the Penn State defense is still quick, angry about what happened last season, and fully aware of just how inexperienced their opposing quarterback is.

What does it all add up to? A potentially very long night for Clausen - despite the fact that not every one of them was a protection problem, the Irish offensive line still surrendered 9 sacks last week. And Weis may have noted that Bradley doesn't blitz quite like Tenuta. "But I would."

The Prediction

Despite all the doom-and-gloom that hovered over the Irish for the past 6 days, there may just be no better tonic than to strap on the pads and get back to hitting people under the lights on Saturday. It's just too much a leap of faith to expect a win, but with the guy Weis has wanted since the day he was hired (Dec. 12, 2004) now quarterbacking the Irish, expect a more fluid offense that at least nets a touchdown or two. If the Irish can catch JoePa's crew off-balance and exploit the same type of mistakes that happened last year to turn the game into a blowout, they've got a fighting chance. But like I said, this game represents some very inexperienced hunters going into the lion's den. And they're talented, ornery lions...not to mention one very senile one.

Penn State 34, Notre Dame 21

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Post Mortem: Georgia Tech 33, Notre Dame 3

It could've been worse.

That's your first reaction. And then the counterpoint: How? How in the hell could it POSSIBLY HAVE BEEN WORSE?

Well, if the kicking game had been as bad as rumored and Brandon Walker missed that 24-yard field goal, the final score would've been 33-0.

How bad was Notre Dame's debut on Saturday? It was the worst opening game in the history of the program, going just off the score. Problem is, the score makes the game seem closer than it really was.

Everybody said the deathly hallows began calling for Tyrone Willingham after the 2004 opener against BYU when the Irish mounted a paltry 11 yards of rushing. Hey, at least that game ended in the black - Notre Dame's net total yesterday was -8, thanks mainly to 9 sacks given up. (For those interested in exploring the parallels further, the Irish had just 24 total yards against the Cougars in '04, but ran for 92 against the Yellow Jackets.

After all the cloak-and-dagger routines were finally exhausted, Weis did indeed send Demetrius Jones out to lead the Irish offense. That probably didn't shock most Notre Dame fans; what did was the offense Weis asked Jones to lead. It bore no resemblance to the confident, crisp attack paced by Brady Quinn and Darius Walker over the previous two years. Instead, Jones' mobility and a never-ending rotation of personnel unveiled an offense that seemed nearly identical to West Virginia's spread-run attack. As far as overhauls go, this was a pretty drastic one by Weis. And it didn't work.

It very well could have behind a more experience offensive line. But the transition from an older but unspectacular group to a talented but inexperience one couldn't have been rockier. Along the interior, nothing changed from 2006 - it was still John Sullivan alone on an island, with Dan Wenger (LG) and Mike Turkovich (LG) having a severe case of "deer-in-the-headlights" syndrome, totally unable to adjust to the tenacity of the Georgia Tech blitz. Sam Young was effective at right tackle against Adamm Oliver, but junior left tackle Paul Duncan got beat like a drum all day against the agile Darrell Robertson (3 TFL and a fumble recovery).

Behind that kind of offensive line performance, any quarterback would struggle. But the biggest question left on a day full of them seems to be: why didn't Jones run Notre Dame's offense? Instead of the quick passes and designed screens and slants meant to counter a blitz-happy defense like Tech's, the Irish lived on the edge by calling one sweep and option after another throughout the first half, with only quick flashes of success. Jones threw only three times (1 completion) and it looked like he was only given four or five called passes in total.

The offensive ineptitude ruined any opportunity for the Notre Dame defense to establish a new rep for itself, although its first-half efforts are worthy of mostly praise instead of criticism. Of Tech's first five possessions, the worst starting position they had was their own 32. Three times in the opening 20 minutes they started with the ball in Notre Dame territory. Yet Corwin Brown's 3-4 scheme beat them back from the endzone all three times. But the D also contributed a penalty that seemed to totally deflate the Irish spirit when, having gotten a stop to put Tech at 4th and 9 from the 40, Justin Brown got into a shoving match that resulted in a dead-ball foul and moved the ball 15 yards forward on a drive that Tech would use to score the game's first touchdown.

Seeing nothing in the run-first attack piloted by Jones, Weis turned to plan B with Evan Sharpley leading a pass-first offense. Sharpley played alright, but he compounded the problem of pass protecting by displaying none of the quick decision-making skills needed to be Division I-A quarterback while being sacked 7 times. Despite leading the lone scoring drive, he didn't do much to to impress in his 10-of-13 stint save for picking up a fourth down (where most of the credit should go to Robby Parris for adjusting to a badly thrown ball) and staying alive after fumbling a play-action fake before completing an 11-yarder to John Carlson that put the ball on the Tech two. That's when the most head-scratching moment of the day occurred.

The Irish were down 19-0, less than a yard from a first down, two from the goaline, and desperately needing a score to turn a little momentum in their favor. Weis had Armando Allen, James Aldridge, Robert Hughes, and Travis Thomas to choose from, apart from a fullback dive by Asaph Schwapp or a straight-on QB sneak. Of all the options, the one that had shown absolutely nothing so far on the day was Thomas. And Weis called for the stretch play to his senior, who promptly got drilled back five yards and forced in Brandon Walker to kick a glorified PAT, lest the Irish come away with nothing. Walker's spot-on kick wound up being the highlight of the day.

But not all the drama was done yet - with the Irish down 26-3, in what Weis termed a "get-your-feet-wet situation", the Boy Wonder himself strolled onto the field. Jimmy Clausen answered questions about his arm strength by lofting a perfect spiral well over the head of a streaking DJ Hord, but did go 4-of-6 for 34 yards. Of the Irish QB trio, Clausen seemed to be the only one with a true grasp of Weis' offense - the real offense, not the bizarre DNA-experiment doppleganger that was concocted for Georgia Tech - and could be the starter against Penn State.

It's hard to say what Jones' might do in Weis' offense, because despite playing all but the two-minute drill of the first half, he never got an opportunity to run Weis' offense. The mish-mash of sweeps and options and draw plays netted the Irish some yardage, but they blunted their own progress by looking completely dazed in the face of Tech's blitz. If Jones is, as he describes himself, "a drop-back passer who can run", why did you get the feeling not one of Weis' first-half play calls was a pass play?

Despite the QB drama that will continue to simmer until Weis names the starter on Tuesday afternoon, the real issue is still in the trenches. Not that I want to brag, but I guess I was prophetic when stating that line play (both offense and defense) would be the biggest factor in deciding Notre Dame's fate. The O-Line was horrendous. Defensively the Irish didn't get beat much up the middle, and Trevor Laws was again a force while playing defensive end. But the key to the 3-4 is athleticism in the open space and sound technique by the linebackers to keep things between the hashes and not get beat to the corner. Tashard Choice, a ridiculously under-rated back who led the ACC in rushing last year, routinely got to the corner and that played a big role in his 196-yard day.

Now the Irish are left wondering how things could've gone so wrong so quickly, especially with trips to Penn State and Michigan (go Appalachian State!!!) looming. Judging by Weis' post-game comments - namely, that Clausen was held back from getting as many snaps as Sharpley because of the elbow thing, and that the plan was for the QB AGAINST GEORGIA TECH to be an additional running threat - I was wrong to think Weis would immediately go with whomever he saw as the best long-term option. The plan for Jones to be the quarterback and run this type of offense was a self-contained plan meant for Georgia Tech and their mad scientist of a D-coordinator, Jon Tenuta. Turned out not to make much of an impact when you have a lot of players who've never played more than a couple of meaningful snaps (if any at all) at nearly all the key positions. What's next for the young squad? Weis said it best:
"We're either going to get better or get worse, but we're not staying even. I'm not going to make any idle threats. We're going to watch the tape tomorrow and critically evaluate where the problems are and go about fixing them; so that when we go to Happy Valley, we are not having this same conversation next Saturday night."

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