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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