Sunday, September 28, 2008

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 21

All around them, the questions lingered: what would this team do with the opportunity to make a statement? How would they respond when given a chance to seize the initiative in the late stages of a close ballgame? While the Irish somehow rose up to fend off San Diego State in the fourth quarter, that hardly should count as the impressive, "corner-turning" performance people had in mind as they keep searching for reasons to think this Irish squad has come a long way from their 3-9 season.

Well, here's a comparison point for you: in the fourth game of the 2007 season, Notre Dame came home from a humbling performance in Michigan to face a Big 10 opponent of average ability and played basically to a draw in the first half, trailing 17-14. They were shut out in the second half and dropped to 0-4 as the free fall continued.

In 2008, the Irish came home for the fourth game of the season following a humbling performance in Michigan to face a Big 10 opponent of average ability and played to a 14-14 draw in the first half. They then racked up 21 points and 200 yards of offense in the third quarter alone.

The 2007-2008 comparisons may not necessarily be apples-to-apples, but they could say just as much about how far the Irish have come as anything else. Let's make no mistake about it, the Irish should be able to put up those types of performances against a thoroughly average Purdue team. The fact that many are turning cartwheels over it only underscores how rare and freakish a phenomenon it has become for Notre Dame to dispatch a team it should have no problem dispatching. This was something the Irish should be capable of by now.

And now that it's finally here, this is no time for a reversion to the mean before another mediocre opponent comes waltzing into Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish have three crucial "swing" games remaining on the schedule - in two weeks at a rapidly-improving North Carolina, then November 1st against Pitt and then November 8th at Boston College. Toss in four very winnable games against Stanford and Syracuse at home, Washington and Navy on the road, and suddenly the idea of the Irish being a nine or even ten win team as they head to Southern Cal isn't completely insane. In order for that to happen though, they need to take the final 30 minutes of the Purdue game and use it as the rock upon which the rest of the season is built, not some happy accident that occurred by virtue of the opponent's below-par resistance.

On offense, the Irish again moved the ball in the first half only to act like the "bizarre white substance" known as the goalline was territory not to be trifled with. After opening with a three-and-out, Jimmy Clausen directed the Irish to the Purdue 39 only to be stopped on fourth and 1...again. On the next possession the Irish made their first trip inside the red zone...and saw it end with a shanked Brandon Walker field goal after Duval Kamara's valiant effort on the fade route was ruled an incompletion.

Freshman corner Robert Blanton finally pumped a little life into the Irish by joining the parade of underclassmen scorers when he jumped one of the Boiler's timed slants and used a couple blocks for a 47-yard touchdown return. Even though a fatigued Irish defense yielded a touchdown on the next drive, Clausen needed only six plays and 2:11 to knot the score on the next drive, which featured a beautiful deep ball to Mike Floyd (another freshman) on third down.

On the opening possession of the third half, the Irish needed only 5 plays to move 81 yards for a lead they never relinquished. It was this possession where the light really seemed to turn on for a number of players, including one Armando Allen who racked up the five longest runs of his young career on his way to 134 yards rushing, also a career-best.

Probably the most impressive play of the game, given when it occurred and the statement it made, came with the Irish facing a fourth down at the Purdue 30. The Boilermakers had connected on a long touchdwon to make it 28-21 and were set to regain possession down only one score late in the third quarter. For this particular play, everybody, even Charlie Weis, knew better than to expect a Walker field goal try. Having successfully harassed Clausen into a miss on third down, Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack (remember him?) dialed up the blitz once more. Clausen recognized the one-on-one chance this would provide and, given a crucial split second as Sam Young picked up an untouched blitzer, lofted an absolutley perfect pass to David Grimes for his third touchdown of the day. This is what improving teams do - they answer when challenged. For the quarter the Irish held the ball for 11:00 minutes exactly, racked up 204 yards, went 1-of-3 on third downs (but 2-of-2 on fourth downs) and put up 21 points after failing to score in the third quarter all year. Slice it down because they were facing an awful defense if you must, but that's progress.

Which, admittedly, won't signify much if they don't build on it next week. Much like how the fourth quarter of the San Diego State game carried over into the first half of the Michigan game, this second half against Purdue has to serve as a springboard to the next game. In other words - no three-and-out opening drive against Stanford.

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.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Anatomy of a Goalline Pass

When it works, it's a thing of beauty. And when it doesn't, it has sent many posters on NDNation into a Tourette's style stream-of-consciousness profanity streak. I speak of course, of the play-action pass used frequently by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish inside the five-yard line.

It's not a big secret where this play comes from - turn on the TV during Sundays and you'll notice that practically every NFL team has it in the playbook and uses it, some teams quite liberally, in the red zone. The reason for that is when properly executed it has a great success rate because the defense gets sucked into an as-expected run, leaving at most one or two men covering as many as three receivers.

Against Michigan, the Irish called the play from the 1-yard line on 2nd and Goal midway through the second quarter. To place it in context, here was the Irish drive up to that point:
1st and 10 at ND 13Armando Allen Jr rush for 2 yards to the NDame 15.

2nd and 8 at ND 15Jimmy Clausen pass complete to Golden Tate for 60 yards to the Mich 25 for a 1ST down.

1st and 10 at MICH 25Jimmy Clausen pass complete to Michael Floyd for 9 yards to the Mich 16.

2nd and 1 at MICH 16James Aldridge rush for 7 yards to the Mich 9 for a 1ST down.

1st and Goal at MICH 9James Aldridge rush for 8 yards to the Mich 1.

Three runs and two quick passes, one a screen and the other a slant that both receivers turn into longer gains, extra long in Tate's case. Here's what the Irish break out with on 2nd and Goal:

Three tight ends - Yeatman to the left, Rudolph on the right. Luke Schmidt motions from left to right, along with fullback Asaph Schwapp and Robert Hughes. From the get-go it looks like a run formation, and the Wolverines counter with 9 men crowding the line of scrimmage.

At the snap the Irish get a good push on Michigan's six-man front, but linebacker John Thompson is steaming through untouched, as is #90 Tim Jamison from the top of the screen. Both Schmidt and Yeatman immediately break into a pass pattern, while #9 Kyle Rudolph holds briefly as it he's going to block before breaking across the middle opposite of Yeatman.

Here's where you can see how the play was set up to work and the one reason it does not. Everybody on the Michigan defense, especially #49 Thompson, who's simply put his head down to ram into Hughes, and #8 Jonas Mouton, trying to move past Yeatman towards the pile, is thinking it's a run. There's one exception and it's what ultimately dooms the play - Tim Jamison is going for Jimmy Clausen the whole way, and #55 Eric Olson doesn't pick him up. This may be a product of how Olson is supposed to be blocking on the play - he's waiting to pick up #45 Obi Ezeh (obscured in this view but charging through the middle on a beeline for Hughes).

From the wider view, you can see that the play is basically over because Jamison, as a seasoned fifth-year veteran end should, hasn't fallen for the play fake, surely a combination of knowing his assignment and studying tape of Notre Dame's tendency in the red zone. But you can see from this view where the play was going - suck in the linebackers to the run and open the middle of the endzone for two crossing tight ends, which is precisely what happens. Mouton is left alone responsible for two receivers taking him to directly opposite corners. He chooses to trail Rudolph but is already a step behind and wouldn't have a chance on a strong throw. Meanwhile, Yeatman is wide open. Having an extra split second to plant his feet gives Clausen all the time he needs to lay one in for either man, though he appears set on Rudolph from the outset. Instead, Jamison's rush forces Clausen into an off-balance pop fly. Cornerback Donovan Warren - playing "center field" in the back of the end zone and also a step behind Rudolph - is able to come over the top for the pick because of the extra hang-time, but he a) cannot land with a foot in bounds, and b) gets flagged for pass interference as he shoves off Rudolph to gain positioning. Given a first down inside the one, Notre Dame finishes off the drive with a run to Robert Hughes.

So, good call or bad call to go play-action pass on second down? If you remember your West Wing, you'll recall an episode when White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry proudly declares that the US Missile Defense test has just met "9 of the 10 criteria for a successful test"...the 10th criterion being the part where the system actualy, you know, takes out the weapon. Similarly, a lot of things work as scripted on this play, but the simple heads-up work by a defensive veteran wipes it all out. There seems to be an argument over whether Michigan saw and anticipated this play coming, but upon further review they didn't show the Irish anything special defensively and Clausen had the open men he wanted.

The deeper question: why throw on second-and-goal from the one, especially since you just demonstrated on the very next play that, unlike a year ago, the Irish can in fact put the ball in from short yardage behind an improved offensive line? Why take the risk of an interception or sack, both which very nearly happened on this play? I'm not sure it can be boiled down to Weis and Haywood simply have an inbred allergy to the running game. I think Haywood realized that coming to a second-and-1 after two solid runs by James Aldridge, Michigan would be guessing run or at least susceptible to a play-fake, making this pass (in his mind) a higher probability of scoring a touchdown than a run on second down. The Irish then beat 10 of the 11 Michigan defenders, but in order for it to work they needed Clausen to either figure out a way to step out of Jamison's rush - something he's still learning to do - or rifle one to Yeatman in the face of the blitz. Neither happens, but the Irish catch a break and live to score another play.

Personally I saw no reason not to keep the ball on the ground here, but I can see the thinking that led to this play at this moment in the game. It just didn't work out. Late in the 4th quarter with the game sealed, the Irish tried this play again on 4th down, only with Michael Floyd & Duval Kamara split wide. That was they play Irish fans will remember Quinn-to-Samardzija executing multiple times through 2005 and 2006. Floyd outjumped the Michigan defender but couldn't corral the ball in wet conditions, dropping it into the lap of Stevie Brown as he lay on the turf.

So is there too much cutesy jump-ball throwing for the Irish at the goal line? I'd say it's tough to point out these two plays as evidence of that, but they could merely be added to the pile of goalline passes we saw (some which worked, many which did not) from a year ago. Two games in is not the definitive data set on where the Irish are in the redzone, but considering that of 5 red zone TDs three were by air and two on the ground (with two others by air from outside the 20), you get the feeling the Irish will again trend more towards the pass in these situations. Then again, maybe not.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Out-Rudying Rudy

Rudy, the 1993 David Ansen film starring Sean Astin as everybody's favorite walk-on scrub, is basically required viewing for any Notre Dame fan. We all know the storyline by heart: scrawny Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, told time after time he's too small, too slow, too stupid to amount to anything beats back the odds to win admission to Notre Dame and becoming an inglorious tackling dummy for Ara Parseghian's Fighting Irish. Overcoming everything with pure grit and determination, Rudy wins the respect of the Irish players and coaches, finally getting into a game with 27 seconds left in the home finale of the 1974 season. What a story.

Now, what if I were to tell you that you could have that life-long dream fulfilled and be a vital cog in the special teams unit currently ranked 3rd best in country at stopping kick returns, 8th best against punt returns? Is that something you might be interested in?

Well then here once more, the man who needs no introduction, winner of Section 29's prestigious Sean Calloway Award for 2007, from Orland Park, Illinois, #37...Mike Anello!

Anello won plaudits last year for his scrappiness, and further recognition early this season for completing the journey from walk-on ex-wrestler to scholarship special teams gunner. But if last season he was merely an extra who got picked out to deliver a few lines, his play this year has him receiving the all-out headliner treatment. Doing a quick Google News search for "Mike Anello" found the following write-ups:
If he hadn't before, Mike Anello has most definitely arrived now, with a niche carved out for himself that would make a lot of special teams coaches across America envious. His height (listed as 5'9 in the Irish program) and weight (listed, again emphasis on listed, as 170 pounds) hardly make him a candidate to be dishing out hits against some of the quickest and most agile return men around. Fortunately for Anello he hit the jackpot by playing with all those buzzwords that every fan/coach is looking for - heart, emotion, desire, instinct, fire, intensity, and grit. When a guy who not only looks like the water boy but has been mistaken for such at his own stadium (just randomly click on any of the above articles, that particular anecdote is in practically all of them) is blowing past your return unit and either recovering or causing fumbles at will, it tells who's actually giving 110% out there on the field. Every team in America is out there looking for a Mike Anello, and the Irish are one of the lucky teams that have one.

Just to cap off the story, here's the thoughts of the original version on Rudy 2.0, from the Sun-Times article linked above:
Rudy Ruettiger has a remedy for what ails Notre Dame's football program. His name is Mike Anello.

''Emotion. That's what's missing,'' said the former Notre Dame walk-on who was the inspiration for the movie ''Rudy.'' ''That's what Anello has. He has that spirit, that heart. He is all passion. I wonder what you could do with a whole team of Anellos.''

Earlier this season, Weis rewarded Anello -- whom he describes as being ''5-foot-2'' and weighing ''12 pounds'' -- with a scholarship. Not long after, Anello was stopped outside Notre Dame Stadium by security and told the entrance he was attempting to use was for ''players only.''

''If people don't know I play football, I don't bother telling them,'' he said. ''They wouldn't believe me anyway.''

Actually, there is a growing legion of believers. Count Ruettiger among them.

''Fans want that type of spirit, emotion and passion,'' he said. ''That's what the kid stands for. It gives them hope."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 35, Michigan 17

Editor's Note: After 10 days of jousting with the Blogger server, we are pleased to announce that we have finally beaten the insurgent little rogue into submission and can resume our normal blogging activities. Hoo-rah.

The Irish took a fairly significant step in the right direction on Saturday, blowing past Michigan 35-17 on a day that started and ended with flooding of biblical proportions. In between, the Irish rained on the Wolverine's parade by pouncing on every single one of Michigan's all-too-numerous mistakes, affording themselves the luxury to hit cruise control throughout a slop-filled second half. Beating the Wolverines of 2008 hardly qualifies as an earth-shattering victory, but it was the type of day the Irish needed after their opening act against San Diego State.

In a script most recently seen during the 2006 and 2007 editions of this contest, when Notre Dame turnovers led to one embarrassingly easy Michigan score after another, the Irish turned the tables as "Big Blue" spent most of the afternoon figuring how many unique ways they could think of to shoot themselves in the foot. The result was a 14-0 Notre Dame lead less than 5 minutes into the contest, an edge the Wolverines were never able to whittle under 11 points in spite of strong performances by young quarterback Steven Threet and freshman running back Sam McGuffie. To their credit, every week the Wolverines start to look incrementally better running the Rich Rodriguez offense. It's that pesky concept of ball security they're having trouble with, as they fumbled 7 times (losing 4 of them) to go with two interceptions.

Unlike in 2007, when the Irish were more likely to look a gift horse in the mouth than bother to attempt any scoring, they punched in two early fumbles for touchdowns, burned the UM secondary late in the first quarter and then again midway through the second on their way to 28 first half points - or, to put it in proper context, more points on offense in one half against Michigan than they scored in the first four games against Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan, & Michigan State a year ago. While not exactly the breakthrough everybody's waiting for, it's a least the kind of positive forward movement that will have the therapist saying, "We're making some genuine progress."

It takes two points of date to make a line, and this performance definitely ticked the Irish stock up from their starting point a week ago versus the Aztecs. Not close to blue-chip status, mind you, but enough motion to make their progress worth tracking going forward. Among the trends to watch:
  • How will the running back spot continue to shake out? Robert Hughes and James Aldridge, the latter getting his first action of the season, handled 28 of the 34 running attempts for 3.8 yards a pop - hardly dazzling but again a sign of progress for a team that was the country's worst at running the ball a year ago matched up with a team that was one of the best at stopping the run. While the Irish have the luxury of three backs each hosting a unique skill set, they need somebody to step up as the indisputable hot hand.
  • Tate is the new Ismail: With four catches against the Wolverines for 127 yards a touchdown, sophomore Golden Tate's numbers of 10/220/2 through 2 games in '08 put him at essentially double his output for all of 2007 (6/131/1). Last season John Carlson led the Irish with 372 yards receiving in 12 games - look for Tate to blow past that mark before the end of September.
  • Safety help, and then some: There are two ways to look at the stats through two games showing that Notre Dame's leading tacklers are, by quite a wide margin, their two safeties Kyle McCarthy and David Bruton. When no other two Irish defenders combined have as many solo stops as the two men in the deep backfield, is this a sign the Irish have no reinforcements? I would argue that, for the moment, the high tackle count for the safeties is not a concern. Notre Dame played consecutive games against spread-the-field offenses where the best defense is sure-tacklers in open space, not necessarily bulky defensive lineman or lateral moving linebackers. Both McCarthy and Bruton have executed that role flawlessly in the first two weeks - as the Irish face a more traditional power running team this week and a wide-open run'n'shoot offense next, more of the burden will fall to the other 9 guys on the field.
  • Call Me Haywood: The Irish offense was more fluid, better scripted, better managed, and better executed. Credit to Charile Weis, Mike Haywood, and the offensive staff for putting a big red bullseye on the Michigan secondary and getting the Irish offense ready to shoot to kill. When it mattered, the Irish picked up right where they left off against San Diego State in the 4th quarter and also helped grind the game to the finish in nearly unplayable second half conditions. There are nits to pick with selected play calls and while the Irish gained only 260 yards of total offense, they were ready and they accomplished what they set out to do, which put Michigan in a hole they were unable to dig out of.
  • Get Well Soon: Weis demonstrated a little toughness (and I'm gonna guess a willingness to guzzle Vicodin during halftime) after being clipped by John Ryan during a punt return late in the first half. Diagnosis - torn ACL/MCL, which naturally is the same injury that befell Tom Brady, Weis' former pupil, a week ago in New England. NBC excerpted some coverage of the hit and the aftermath here.
Even though the Irish have a lot to be satisfied with about how the game went on Saturday, they certainly cannot sit back and be satisfied (and boy, does that sound like a Rumsfeld-ism). The Irish spent the weekend talking about respect and how the Michigan game was viewed as a chance to earn some back, from Maurice Crum's speech at Friday's pep rally to Weis' post-game comments:
They wanted to make a statement that Notre Dame is not some garbage school out there that everyone can crap on all the time.
After Saturday, maybe a few people out there would concede that teams can't crap on Notre Dame all the time. But this is no time for the Irish to feel content that they've proven everybody wrong, because they haven't. A lot of work remains before this team can legitimately claim to be a finished product, but for the first time in a long time it looks like they're well on the way towards that goal.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 21, San Diego State 13

To me, the result of this game has wound up meaningless. I mean, good and truly meaningless. It doesn't even concern me, which it should because for most of the game the Irish manage to take the concept of "playing down to your opponent" to a sickening new level.

What I mean is that there was literally no way for Notre Dame to win yesterday. No matter what type of progress they managed to make, no matter what they did or didn't do, it was a classic no-win situation. If they'd come out with the "as expected" result of a 48-3 beatdown, the prevailing attitude from people outside would've been "Big deal, it's SDSU and they just lost to Cal Poly. Call back when you beat a real team". Then there was the sickening alternative that the Irish could embarass themselves by failing to win by four touchdowns or (gulp) losing.

In a lot of ways this was, plain and simple, Notre Dame's moment on the brink. At least as far as it concerns Charlie Weis. There's no recovering from an opening day loss to a team you had 9 months to prepared for, that's not only terrible but coming off a loss to a Championship Subdivision opponent. And the margin for error wound up being fractions of a centimeter - that's how much further away David Bruton would've needed to be to give the officials a clear view on the replay of San Diego State's goalline fumble in the fourth quarter. The play would've put the Aztecs up 20-7, had fruit raining down on the field, and NDNation's Suicide Hotline switchboard lit up like the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas Tree.

Now, that was my prediction of what would follow an Irish loss. How maddening is it that it's basically what happened despite the fact that they won?

Not that much so when you factor in how the Irish made enough mistakes to crowd two or three games worth in a span of 50 minutes. This type of performance, it goes without saying, will not get the job done against Michigan. It barely - emphasis on barely, a sad commentary in and of itself - got the job done against San Diego Flippin' State.

Since I've ranted on without merit or actual contribution to the discussion for a solid three paragraphs, it shouldn't be surprising that I can parse this game down to one thing: turnovers. The Irish committed six of them - four in the actual (2 fumbles, 2 interceptions) and two in the practical with a pair of missed field goals. Of those six botches, we can safely assume that three of them (the fumble and two FGs) cost the Irish points, while another (an interception thrown in the endzone from the 17-yard line) costed the Irish some likely points. Assuming the bare minimum of succes in all four instances (made FGs), the game winds up being 33-13 and only three in five Irish fans are trying to slash their wrists instead of four.

To me, that's the story of the game, just like I kinda-sorta predicted it would be on Friday - you can argue all day about the benefits of multiple years in the system, experience, savvy, arm strength improvements, etc. Fact is this is still a) a very young team and b) a very young team playing its opening game. Screw-ups on some scale were inevitable, and while plenty of people put up the face that they would stomach such mistakes, the reality is everything got shot to hell the first time the Irish didn't run the ball on third-and-two. The knives were out and it only got worse.

Everything about the offense was still screaming "awkward! out of synch!" While it certainly cannot all be explained away by "first-game jitters", you cannot dismiss the fact that this was Game 1. The unfortunate reality is that everybody convinces themselves that you're gonna come out of the chute looking like a finished product from the first snap. Maybe a team laden with juniors and seniors can do it. A team that counts just two seniors on the entire two-deep (WR David Grimes and QB Evan Sharpley, along with just three juniors) and it was again something people decided to ignore in the hope that it will go away.

Not that "youth" explains every problem either. To start with, whoever was calling the plays did a terrible job of trying to get a read on what was working. Obvious run downs became lob passes. Long downs when one might try to stretch the field gave us swing routes. A rhythm was finally established once and for all when the Irish went for broke with an up-tempo response to that game-changing fumble which probably wouldn't have been a fumble but a back-breaking touchdown with the proper replay angles. Of course, we can say that about Robert Hughes' "fumble" too at the three yard line early in the second quarter.

Which now brings me to what I consider the silver lining, a chance to turn a heap of negatives into a positive: the Irish did absolutely everything they could to give the game away and still came out with a win. To quote the omnipotent Vin Diesel: "It doesn't matter whether you win by an inch or a mile - winning's winning." The prevailing reaction for a long time among Notre Dame fans is to see the results and then reverse-engineer everything back to either a lack of emotion or a lack of coaching. Emotion wasn't why Robert Hughes got stripped at the goalline, or why Duval Kamara let a perfectly-thrown laser bounce off his hands into a SDSU defender (seriously, when somebody went on to NDNation last night and tried to blame that pick on Clausen with the logic of "You can't throw it that hot", I knew the place had officially gone off the deep end. It restored my faith ever so slightly to see most of the board renounce that poster on the spot).

Here's one humble take on this opener: there was a near-fatal amount of mistakes in this game, but every single one of them was correctable. Last season had a terrible vibe to it from the word go - there was no way to define it but you knew it when you saw it. This year it's thankfully simpler: Hughes needs to work on ball security near the goalline. Kamara on catching the ball, particularly on a slant, with his hands and not his body. Clausen on the timing and sequencing of his reads, something that grows with time as a quarterback. And in another brilliant step forward, he audibled out of a planned comeback route on 3rd-and-11 and told Mike Floyd to head for the endzone. Perfectly thrown ball, touchdown Irish. Here's hoping it was the first of many more to come.

Friday, September 05, 2008

What's #1?

Finally, at long last, game day is...almost here. One day more, Irish fans. One last night of having to beat back the nightmares of a five-man rush and a zero-man block against Michigan. One last night of waking up and thinking, "There's no way we actually lost to Navy...right?" One last time having to think about how nice it would be to rush for merely 20 yards. One final evening of going to bed with only the hypothetical to fall back on.

At 3:30 PM EDT, Irish football is back. Which brings us to the final stop in the countdown, our #1 key to the season. Hit it (no, seriously. I mean HIT it.)

#1 - Passing the Physical

How many times did you see Notre Dame blow somebody away at the point of attack? How many times did they make a solid, true open-field tackle? How many times did it seem like the Irish shied away from blunt force and let their opponent dictate the pace of the game? How many lineman does it take to protect Jimmy Clausen? While the answer to these first three is a consensus "Hardly ever", "Not many", and "Too often", nobody knows about that fourth one - it's never been done before. (I'll be here all week, be sure to tip the waitress)

Notre Dame's biggest "identity" crisis last year wasn't one of playcalling, or scheming, or even emotional makeup. It was the simple meat-and-potatoes of what the jump to the next level entails. In college you don't get six weeks of training camp and unlimited practice time each day. You don't get four preseason games and the luxury of "easing up" the contact of your starters so they can stay fresh for the games that really count. There are no dress rehearsals in the NCAA - every game counts and you need to be ready for the trials as soon as the lights go up. There is no grace period. This was something Charlie Weis either did not grasp, or he dismiessed it as unimportant next to his all-powerful playbook.

The time to get a team featuring more greenhorn starters than anybody can remember ready is during spring and fall camp - having them knock the snot out of each other so that the games come across as easy, not waiting until the opening drives of the year to rotate players like crazy so they learn to "play fast" against the real deal. This is the litmus test on which the entire season is going to hinge - how physical can the Irish be? I'm not asking for total domination at the line, for 10 sacks per game defensively, or 250 yards rushing. But last season was like a walking nightmare, and too often the Irish were out there playing like nothing more than the walking wounded. If that patten turns, hopefully the Irish win total will too.

Well, 12 days of articles and clever cliches and prognostications, and now it's gut check time. After all that, how do you see the Irish season unfolding? Well, let me totally cop out by announcing myself to be out of the prediction business. Personally I don't see the same things that are making people predict 9, 10, or even 11 (God bless you, Lou Holtz) wins. Even factoring in some expected improvement, that's an almost impossible leap for a team that good-and-earned every one of its 9 losses a year ago.

Tomorrow's game could let some people down because the near-uniform expectation is that the Irish will come out, steamroll the Aztecs into submission, and win 48-3 (and people will instantly hit the NDNation message boards bitching about how the defense let up a field goal). Personally I doubt such an explosion is coming, and there's no way to quantify how much San Diego State's already playing a game versus the Irish making their debut will register. Don't be stunned if the Irish make some of those classic, infinitely correctable errors that occur in an opener. I still think it's a relatively comfortable to automatically go against my vow to stay out of the prediction business forever, let's say ND 27, San Diego State 10.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Of Prime Importance

Since we know nobody bothers to check out the blogs on Saturdays, we move the countdown into the hurry-up so's to be able to finish tomorrow and not on the actual Zero Hour of 3:30 PM Saturday. We look at one man and one unit that hold Irish fortunes in their hands...

#3 - I Understand You're Contemplating a Blitz

The hiring of Jon Tenuta to be "Assistant Coach - Defense" raised a few eyebrows around college football, but it raised the expectations of Notre Dame fans high as a paper kite. This is a guy who could've gone to be a defensive coordinator anywhere he chose, so why was he coming to work under Corwin Brown, pundits asked. Irish fans, meanwhile, were asking 'How many sacks will we get during the opponent's first drive?"

It's no secret Tenuta loves to blitz. If you watched any tape of the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech games from the last two years, you know this. I would also hesistate to call his blitz packages "exotic", which is another one of those in vogue descriptors being thrown around to describe defense these days. This guy is pure old school - playing defense is about one thing: see ball, get ball. Everything else is just window dressing.

Knowing Tenuta's football philosophy, the real trick for the 2008 Irish will be how will his schemes can be grafted on to the preferences of defensive coordinator Corwin Brown. One of the interesting notes is that the Irish only face what could be called a "traditional" offense once in the first month. San Diego State is a wide-open, pass-60-times-per-game unit, Michigan is in the throes of an awkward transition to the zone-read spread attack, and Purdue is once again Purdue. Michigan State, with classic dropback QB Brian Hoyer and running back Javon Ringer, is the kind of team Tenuta's blitz-happy defense likes. Brown's shifting personnel groups and 3-4 setup to get more atheletes into space rather than running straight for the quarterback would work better against the other early opponents.

Both Brown, Tenuta, and Charlie Weis have been pretty clear that Brown is still the coordinator and Tenuta is the linebackers coach and sounding board for the defensive gameplan, not the other way around. The expectation is that he can enhance the defense, not drastically overhaul it. That's why it's a little dangerous to be on the outside looking in, see they hired the mad scientist and assume, "Great! We're gonna blitz on EVERY play." The Irish need more consistency from the defensive line and continued great play from their secondary in order to spring Tenuta's schemes with maximum efficiency. To be simply reachnig for the big red 'BLITZ' button on every down is probably going to wind up creating more problems as good offensive coaches, particularly ones in pass-oriented offenses, will diagnose that early and favor a quick-step passing game to counter. In the end, whatever gains the Irish defense make will be measured not by how they adjust to Tenuta, but how Tenuta adjusts to them.

#2 - Chemistry Set

Let's get it out of the way right off the bat: team chemistry is overrated. Or, to be more accurate, it's the ultimate 'chicken-or-the-egg' quandry; as in, "Which comes first?" Do you win because of your great team chemistry, lose because of bad, or do you only have great/bad team chemsitry because you lose? Well, like any chemistry problem, we should remember this is dependent on any number of elements that are all independent yet must fuse together in order to work properly. And in sport, the number one element in the hallowed "team chemistry" equation is winning.

Although a lot of people (self included) didn't want to accept it before last year started, 2007 had all the proper elements for a spontaneous combustion. Tons of young starters along with a huge void in the middle of the team (leadership & experience wise) left the Irish trying to construct a team as the season went along. Hardly a recipe for success, and soupled with a huge miscalculation on the part of Charlie Weis, things snowballed so badly that by the time October rolled around it wasn't a question over if Weis had lost the team. The issue was if he would ever be able to get it back.

The offseason storylines were mainly about what the head coach was doing to change, but some things have to come from within. That's why Weis went after his players early in camp, telling 'em point blank that at some point, 'I can't do it for ya', as if he were Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday. At the end of the day though, a large part of football, particularly in college, can be determined by who wants it more, who's willing to lay it down for his teammates the most. That's why losing seasons unravel ridiculously fast at the amateur level - in the pros everybody's playing for a paycheck, but in college you're mostly playing for pride, and each other. Last year's team never developed that unity, and a lack of cohesion from the head coach on down turned the tide from bad to worse.

So a big part of the direction the Irish travel in 2008 won't be decided with a playbook or a wristband or physical matchups - it'll be what kind of mental approach the team takes to the situations that challenge them. Last year there were moments when one bad play, such as in the Air Force game when a perfectly thrown ball and a 28-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage ended with a John Carlson fumble. Like many other moments, that first mistake was the equivalent of a retreat siren; hardly anybody was willing to take a stand and fight through it as a team. And it wasn't just the games against the Academies where the Irish seemed more than willing to roll over and quit, shrug off mistakes made as the equivalent of "Who cares, we would've lost anyway." That attitude cannot show up when they face adversity this season, and the prime counter to it will be that always elusive "chemistry" that comes from knowing the other 10 guys in the huddle have your back. This team needs to get to the point where the motivation isn't avoiding a lecture from Weis, it's staying away from the dreadful feeling that goes with knowing you let your teammates - your brothers - down.

So what is it - do you win because of great team chemistry, or have great team chemistry because you win? Let's tune in Saturday and start to find out.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

"We'll never be anything but OK until that happens"

Back to football for a moment - though we're going to have a follow-up commentary on the state of the Dillon Pep Rally before the weekend's over. But there's a game to be played and a mentality to be forged, and that brings us to rung #4 in our top 12 ladder...

#4 - Fire in the Belly

Right at the top of the list of Notre Dame Fan's Theses concerning the 2007 team was a detectable lack of emotion. I myself have trended more with Charlie Weis on this issue - the 'rah rah' stuff doesn't hold up past the first whistle; at that point it comes down to who's better prepared.

It wasn't very long ago that a certain mentally unhinged radio host decried his own team's collapse against the Irish in a fiercely emotional contest by noting that Notre Dame "played with fire, emotion, poise, and tact" (while Michigan State "sat there and CHOKED ON APPLESAUCE!"...never gets old). During 2007 though, the Irish were too often hit with the "tin soldiers" label in contrast to their looser, more fired-up opponents.

We've seen this card get played before, and it was interesting at the time because the man who threw it down was none other than Charlie Weis. Reflecting on reason's for why his team lost the home opener in 2005 (his Notre Dame Stadium debut), he reasoned that the team came out wound way too tight due to his efforts to insulate them from every little distraction that might pop up in the hoopla of Notre Dame home game. The next home date was one where he emphasized soaking up the attention and the spotlight, remembering that high-stakes moments were the reason they came to Notre Dame. That game, you might recall, was the USC game of October 15, 2005, arguably the finest and most inspired performance the Irish have mounted under Weis.

14 months later, after a relapse into his control freak tendencies of the NFL saw the Irish and their bunker-mentality get worked over by the hang-loose and party-down Ohio State Buckeyes, then watching his attempts to back pedal the Michigan rhetoric blow up badly in a 47-21 home loss, Weis again tried to cut loose and let the kids have some fun before the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. The Irish made a game of it for a half, but went down 41-14. And in 2007, a young team seemed at times far more concerned with getting a Weis tounge-lashing than they were with the reality of the performance. The "emotion" of the college game had them playing in a constant house-of-cards mentality rather than geeking up for the Gipper.

The fact that Weis hasn't quite "nailed" the emotional pulse of his team isn't a total surprise, because it's something that can change from week to week, moved in large degree by the results - we want the Irish to exude some confident body language, but do we want them to be the kind of team where an offensive lineman celebrates landing a hit on a defensive back who just intercepted a pass? (As happened in USC's loss to Stanford last season...go ahead guess on which side) Emotion being spat out just because the head coach said, "Let's see some fire and intensity around here!" is probably more harmful than helpful.

Which is why the spring and fall has seen Weis seizing on those "teaching moments" he prefers to show when the right and wrong time to press the 'freak out' button is. It's why he printed up shirts and spread the philosophy of "Dive Right In". This year's Irish will probably be as flawed as thier most recent counterparts in some areas - one area they will not lack for is the burning desire to punch the other guy flush in the mouth. No more reacting, no more waiting on things to happen. As Weis pledged in his opening fall media session, "We're gonna find the 22 guys who are out there making stuff happen."

This could wind up being the single defining characteristic of Notre Dame football in 2008. Many message board posts have waxed poetic of the glory days when Lou Holtz and his boys would pick fights in tunnels, in contrast with an Irish squad that seemed content to roll over in the face of provocation last year (or perhaps be smart enough to walk away and avoid putting an already impotent offense in 3rd-and-30 with a personal foul penality). Whether this newfound emphasis on emotion after previously being so blase about it shows development or desperation on Weis' part, as some media types feel content to debate, wholly misses the point and shows how much they aren't paying attention. One of Charlie's key maxims is to not keep repeating something that's not working, and his business-is-business approach has been too hit or miss to stay on as a trustworthy blueprint.

And ultimately, it's the players and not Coach Weis who have to step up and take charge of their season, as he was quick to remind them during the opening week of camp. Remember that pressure field goal Weis had Brandon Walker take during the open practice in August? That "wild celebration" I alluded to wasn't good enough in Weis' eyes, to the point he made the team 'practice' the dog-pile after a game winning kick. He didn't sugarcoat why either (premium content alas, but one quote in particualr I think the Irish Illustrated guys wouldn't mind sharing):
When I pulled the 22 guys together in the huddle, I told them that sooner or later, you guys are going to have to take over the team. I told them we can never be great if emotion has to be coached. We’ll never be anything but okay until that happens.

A Sad Day

We'll move on to football related business later tonight. First: news of a most disheartening nature came in from campus yesterday. From the student daily, The Observer:
Dillon Hall Rector Fr. Paul Doyle shocked residents Sunday when he announced the residence hall's pep rally, held every year before the first home football game of the season, was cancelled.

The pep rally, a series of skits mocking aspects of Notre Dame life, has been a Dillon Hall tradition since the late 1970s, lead pep rally scriptwriter Ryan O'Connor said.

Fr. Doyle cited two reasons for his decision.

"I failed to provide the necessary direction and support," he said.

The rector also told his residents the pep rally "was not coming together in a timely fashion."

Though this year's event is not intended be rescheduled, Fr. Doyle expressed his intent to hold a pep rally in the future.

"I hope we can have a pep rally next year that is the sort of pep rally the Dillon men and campus community have come to expect," he said.

Before Fr. Doyle broke the news of the pep rally's cancellation to the dormitory as a whole Sunday night, he had a private meeting with current Dillon Hall President, Brendan McQueeney.

"Fr. Doyle felt that he had not given us enough guidance," McQueeney said. "He said that he normally has a meeting with the Hall President at the end of the [previous] school year to get the ball rolling, which didn't happen."

There was a lot of miscommunication on both sides, McQueeney said.

After speaking to McQueeney, Fr. Doyle held a meeting in order to tell hall staff about the cancellation, O'Connor, a resident assistant, said.

The sudden decision surprised hall staff and scriptwriters, O'Connor said.

The students in charge of putting the pep rally together had been working since the spring and throughout the summer, O'Connor said. They were almost finished with the preparations when they heard the news.

"The script was already written," he said. "Tryouts were supposed to be that night. Everything was all set."

The scriptwriters had also already established several guests to speak and appear in skits, O'Connor said. "We had lined up Charlie Weis, Evan Sharpley and Jack Swarbrick, the new athletic director," he said.

Fr. Doyle personally called each of the guests to tell them about the cancellation, O'Connor said.

The news was frustrating to the students who had been working hard on the script, O'Connor said.

"Usually [the pep rally consists of] dumb, juvenile humor," he said. "But this year our object was to make it clever and intelligent without getting laughs at other people's expense."

Fr. Doyle had not read the script when he made the decision to cancel, O'Connor said.

O'Connor said he believes that the wheels were partly set in motion by problems with the pep rally t-shirt.

"Our t-shirt design was rejected by the Student Activities Office," he said.

The setback with the t-shirts seemed to show the rector that the event was not going to be ready in time, O'Connor said.

The explanations given by Fr. Doyle did not satisfy many students involved in the planning. He gave no further details regarding the decision to The Observer.

"He didn't have a very strong argument," contributing scriptwriter Evin Harpur said. "He said we weren't prepared, but any problems could have been remedied if we were made aware of them.

"We would have definitely been ready by Thursday, but Fr. Doyle is a good guy and would not have cancelled the show if there weren't a reason."

The sudden cancellation has led to much speculation among residents.

"I think there is a deeper issue," Harpur said. "I don't know if his hands are tied."

O'Connor said it seems the decision was made unilaterally, but "some are wondering if the orders came down to him" from somewhere else, O'Connor said.

After Fr. Doyle cancelled the pep rally, the writers and other residents tried to come up with alternative ways to put on event this season, McQueeney said.

Some suggested postponing the pep rally to the Thursday before the second home game versus Michigan, in order to have more preparation time and the writers offered to go back over the script and "clean up" the show, McQueeney said. By the time suggestions had been offered, however, the decision was final, he said.
For those of you who might not be familiar with it, a key theme of the dorm life at Notre Dame is each dorm's "signature event", a solo moment when they become the center of attention on campus. Prominent examples include the Fisher Regatta, Keenan Revue, The Alumni Wake, The Keough Chariot Race, Sorin's Fall Talent Show, Badin Breakdown, Pop Farley Week, Football 101 at Walsh Hall, Pangborn's Phox Fire...the list goes on. Every single one of these events is woven into the fabric of Notre Dame's residence life, something the University prides itself on - which it should. The residential community at Notre Dame is different than many other Universities, precisely because of these events which help unite and entertain the entire student body. It's the shared experiences of seeing Crackhead make a total fool of himself at each year's Dillon Pep Rally or watching cardboard boats sink every year in St. Joseph Lake at the Fisher Regatta that give real meaning to the phrase the University gladly shills out on t-shirts proclaiming that on this campus, "We Enter As Many, We Leave as One."

Which brings us to yesterday's out-of-the-blue announcement that Dillon Hall, without warning or notice of any kind, has seen it's traditional Pep Rally (which takes place on the Thursday night before the first home game) canceled due to what's been termed a lack of "necessary direction and support".

First things first: as all of us on the blog have a special place in our hearts for Dillon, and three of us served as resident assistants with Father Doyle, let us be very clear on one thing: we trust his judgment. If he felt the rally was falling badly behind schedule and harmed beyond repair logistically, we believe him. What we find very troubling is how the decision was dropped on the Men of Dillon without warning and with absolute finality, despite offers from our fellow Dillonites to perform their due diligence in order to pull the rally off on another weekend.

Furthermore, the timing and half-explained decision gives us pause since the organization and logistics of the Dillon Rally have long been an exercise in controlled chaos; it is, after all, an event which needs to come together very quickly, often smack in the middle of move-in week and the start of class. Three years ago there was an exception for this as the organizers had three full weeks to prepare (and the Rally got shortened by rain anyway), since the Irish home opener did not occur until September 17th. Last year's rally had to be ready, and was, before the end of the first week of school due to a September 1st opener. How was it that this year's organizers had time to write a script, announce auditions, and arrange for appearances by the head coach and new athletic director yet somehow weren't putting the event together in a timely fashion? To hear that this year the hurried nature of plotting the rally became an insurmountable obstacle strikes us as logic conveniently propped up without much explanation in order to mask somebody else's agenda.

Anybody who has seen previous Dillon Pep Rallys knows the event has a long history of speaking truth to power, from targeting the Vagina Monologues controversy - a skit Father Doyle participated in - to other "sacred cows" of the campus like Mr. Dining Hall Food Stealer Watcher. The humor might strike some as "sophomoric", but it is not demeaning. The primary goal of the event is to formally induct the Dillon freshman into the community and to get the campus at large pumped up for the season in a way that includes no roof-raising, Monk Malloy-approved 'skits', or canned speeches made solely for the enlightenment of tourists and visiting alumni. Here is Charlie himself speaking at the '06 edition of the Rally. Note how he specifically praises a pep rally being put on by students, for students:

Additionally, here is Notre Dame-sanctioned coverage of last year's Rally extolling the virtues of the event:

Again, let us state that it is not the decision made by Father Doyle to cancel the rally's planned performance on September 4th with which we take issue. We have no reason to doubt him if he says there was too much commotion in order for an effective performance on that date. What we find very upsetting is how this decision has apparently given way to an out-and-out cancellation of the rally this year, in spite of the willingness of Dillon Hall's upperclassmen to take whatever actions were necessary to put the DPR back where it belongs - front and center on South Quad as a true example of what it means to belong to the community of Notre Dame. Knowing how much the rally has meant to Dillon Hall, its residents, and Father Doyle gives us a strong suspicion that the decision to put the Pep Rally on ice for the year (with only the "hope" that it will return next year as the kind of rally Dillon and the community have come to expect) is a result of somebody inside the Main Building taking issue with a joke in the script or the planned t-shirt and once again hitting the PC panic button. Even though we fully acknowledge that we do not have all the facts, it appears to us that this is another in a long chain of actions taken by ResLife and Student Activities to reign in and dumb-down things that once made Notre Dame special, lest anybody find it offensive or uncomfortable.

Previous skits and performances at the Rally may have gone overboard, and we would probably agree that at times the rally drags on without end and without much actual humor. But when examining it versus the over-rehearsed, over-killed "raising of the roof" which requires tickets at the JACC on Fridays, there is little question which event captures the true spirit and enthusiasm of the Notre Dame student body as football season gets underway. There is also no question that at least until Sunday the University was proud to market Dillon Hall's annual Pep Rally as a unique part of the Notre Dame spirit. What happened to change that apparently is something that nobody in the administration wants known, in all likelihood because they know it will be exposed as the flimsy, hyper-sensitive display of hand wringing that it probably is.

As of this posting (9/3/08, 2:15 PM Pacific time), there has been no indication that any further explanation of why the Pep Rally was canceled will be forthcoming. Additionally, we'd like to note that other Signature Events within the dorm system at Notre Dame have seen their activities neutered over the course of the past few years, so in that context the DPR can merely be seen as the latest victim. What we'd like from any and all fans of the Irish out there, as well as the readers of this blog (all 7 of them) is for you to leave some notes of encouragement in the comments section of this post that we can forward on to the current leaders of Dillon Hall, letting them know we are behind them and to hope they will find some way to keep the Pep Rally alive this year, perhaps at an off-campus location ala the Keenan Revue. Not to steer off into a poltically charged comment or come across as somebody making a mountain out of a molehill, but it really [bleep]in' angers me that the University makes the time and effort to protect the Vagina Monologues but sweeps aside an event that's become so ingrained in not just the Dillon Hall, but Notre Dame, experience. Please take time to leave a comment.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

You'll Rue the Day You Crossed Me Blogger

We received not one but two - TWO! - emails asking what happened to the countdown. My reaction was, "Wait a minute, we've got readers?" Next, "What do you mean what happened?" Turns out Blogger was archiving the last four days of posts and never actually published the blog since last all those past stories are up now, a little late but better than never. We move now into the Top 5.

Having attended last night's UCLA-Tennessee contest with Paul (and having been true LA 'fans' and skipped out after than Volunteer touchdown late in the 4th quarter, missing the end of the game and overtime), I cannot stress the importance of this one enough:

#5 - Kick it To Me Straight

In Wedding Crashers, Rule #76 is "No Excuses, Play Like a Champion." The second half of this sentiment is already well represented inside the Notre Dame locker room, but it is time for the first to be surgically attached to the kicking and coverage units as well as their co-leaders, Charlie Weis and Brian Polian.

Weis started his coaching career as a special teams mind. He'd been on the job at Notre Dame less than 30 minutes when he said his initial impression of the 2004 team was that their special teams play "stunk". He preached how quick improvement in the "third phase" was usually the easiest path to a quick team turnaround. He got players who'd become disaffected and buried on the depth chart to buy into the idea that special teams work can win a game or two every year.

And yet he somehow couldn't muster enough confidence or moxie to find anyone on the roster able to attempt a 41-yard field goal against Navy.

Questionable kick decisions aside, the Irish special teams in the past two years have taken a noticeable downturn. The explosiveness is gone from the return unit, kickoff and punt coverage has been middling to poor, and all of it exacerbated by the fact that despite having two scholarship kickers, the Irish did not once put the ball into the endzone for a touchback last season (in their defense though, that lack of scoring on offense afforded few attempts). Criticized as he was for not sending then-freshman Brandon Walker out to win the game versus the Midshipmen, could you really blame Weis for having doubts about a guy who was 6 for 12, and an even more dubious 1 for 7 on kicks longer than 30 yards?

Rather than shrug off his problem, Weis elected to face it head on, admitting during Februrary's signing day press meeting, "I screwed [special teams] up." And as the meeting between the Bruins and Vols last night showed, do not write off the kicker and punter as purely disposable parts. UCLA turned a blocked punt into 7 points, then relied on four missed field goals in closing out UT 27-24 in overtime. Oh, what might have been had Fulmer's boys taken care of business on special teams.

So what evidence do we have that things will markedly improve for the Irish this year? Let's focus on kicking. Walker is settled for field goals and extra points, while junior Ryan Burkhart handles kickoff duties. A lot of anecdotal evidence has littered the practice reports about improved leg strength and accuracy, particularly from Walker, as cause for hope. Weis also made a point of heaping some pressure on the sophomore early in camp with practice-ending kicks that would either free the Irish (with a make) or earn the whole team extra sprints (via miss). Walker made it, sending his teammates on a wild celebration that hopefully will be repeated at some point this season. Right now, like many other elements, the strength of the Irish kicking game is an unknown commodity. It needs to become known in a very, very short span of time - because while hope springs eternal before the season, the Irish do not have much margin for error. Such teams often find their fortunes turned on the foot of their kicker.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Take Me To Your Leader

Our talking points get more serious as the clock ticks under 7 days to go before kickoff. Rolling to a stop in the sixth spot is...

#6 - Greetings, Linemen. Take Me To Your Leader

Remember last season how young Notre Dame's offensive line was? (Hint: really, really young.) In contrast to the previous two seasons, when the five projected starters all had significant time together and plenty of experience to fall back on - 2005: 102 combined starts, 2006: 92 - the 2007 offensive line had just 46 career starts on their ledger, divided among only two players, fifth-year center John Sullivan with 33 and sophomore tackle Sam Young with 13.

At the same time the Irish offense was imploding due in no small measure to no running lanes and frequent pocket collapses around whichever poor sap got sent back to handle the Irish quarterbacking duties, a number of teams in major college conferences were flying high even as they dealt with those same youth movements, raising plenty of questions, more than a few hackles, and perhaps a few suicide contemplations within the Irish fanbase. The most popular example was undoubtedly Georgia, which started last year 5-2 and got hammered by Tennessee and nearly upset by Vanderbilt in consecutive road games last season. But the Bulldogs righted themselves for the big showdown with Florida thanks to an unscripted surge of emotion that's been much ballyhooed about (since they won the game, after all) and by the end of the year the team from the hard conference with three true freshman on the offensive line along with a freshman running back and sophomore quarterback was considered the hottest team in the country and a trendy BCS champion pick for this upcoming season.

The Irish featured first-time players galore last season: redshirt freshman Dan Wegner, Eric Olson, & Chris Stewart, plus first-time starters Mike Turkovich and Paul Duncan along with freshman Matt Romine, transfer Thomas Bemenderfer, and the since-departed Matt Carufel. How come they managed to allow a ludicrous 58 sacks while Georiga apparently jelled into one of the nation's best? The answer, in part, comes from that shadowy category of intangibles. A selection from the Sports Illustrated piece three weeks ago that anointed the Bulldogs #1:
Offensive lineman Chris Davis can find the hole. He's one of the Bulldogs trying to fill it. Of the five starters Georgia must replace, Davis says, none will be missed more than center Fernando Velasco. During a 2007 season in which the Bulldogs started three freshmen up front—Davis and Clint Boling at the guards and Trinton Sturdivant at left tackle—Velasco was 328 pounds of glue. "Fernando was a lot older than we were, a lot wiser," says Davis, who has been working at center since Velasco's departure. "We were all young pups."
To quote many a wise man, leadership is not something that can be faked. Either you have it or you don't. And in a game where so much can swing on one person stepping up to take charge of a fragile situation, leadership (or lack thereof) can have devestating consequences on either you or your opponent.

Don't take that as throwing John Sullivan under the bus. By all accounts, Sully was a fine representative of Notre Dame on the field and off, well-liked by his teammates and well-respected by his coaches. Would they have made him a captain prior to the start of the season if things had been otherwise? But despite having what should've been a rudder in the middle of the line to help a green QB and inexperience linemates, the Irish looked rudderless for almost all of 2007. The line was far from the only problem last year, but it goes without saying that a breakdown in the trenches is usually the start of a chain reaction that ends in failure for an offense. It wasn't something that could be pinned on any one player, something easy to define. It was more along the lines of pornography - you simply know it when you see it. Something significant was missing, and knowing it's not there and figuring out how to put it there are too very different things. There was a reason Young showed up at Weis' office before dawn last November to ask about what he could do to move forward and become a better leader for next season.

The good news for the Irish is that the deer-in-the-headlights phase appears to be over for several players, notably Stewart at right guard and Turkovich at left tackle, where he beat out Duncan during training camp. The right-to-left lineup will feature Young back at his preferred right tackle spot, Stewart, Wegner, Olson, and Turkovich, with good depth coming in Duncan, freshman Trevor Robinson, as well as Romine and Taylor Dever. Having able-bodied players, all of whom made a conscious effort to get bigger and stronger in the offseason, can only help the cause. But every great insurrection needs a fiery leader. Even if the '05/'06 unit didn't necessarily have a Jeff Faine or Aaron Taylor along the line, they still had outspoken, no-excuses types who paced an Irish offense that proved veteran players could work in Weis' NFL attack.

Has the offensive line found its leader? I suppose the short answer to that is, "They better have" and the long answer, "They better have, but who the hell can say?" A lot of things we've already discussed in this preseason - stronger running game, smarter Clausen, the development of Mike Haywood - will be inexorably linked to how the line performs, and how the line performs will depend on if somebody steps into that void and says, "No more." The answers to those questions starting this Saturday at 3:30 eastern.