Archive for the ‘Game analysis’ Category

Stop beating yourself.

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

Ugh. Now that I’m done throwing up, here’s an initial take on the game.

The reason this loss hurts so effing much is that the Irish have no one but themselves to blame for it. BC racked up 131 yards on 15 penalties, the defense played great and harassed Matt Ryan into a subpar passing performance and returned an interception for a touchdown, and Evan Sharpley had a strong performance in relief of the disappointing Jimmy Clausen. But throughout the game, the Irish were hamstrung by penalties, turnovers, dropped or mis-thrown passes, and many other stupid mistakes. These are the sorts of things that I termed “Inexcusables” after the Michigan State loss, and I argued after the Purdue game that they were the chief reason why the Irish were unable to pull out a win in West Lafayette. The same goes for today’s game, I think, and Charlie Weis’s post-game remarks suggest that he felt the same way:

“I think we had a chance in this game, but the bottom line is they won 27-14,” he said. “If I sit there and say, ‘God if we were just better on that snap, or if we would have hit this one pass or if we didn’t get a penalty. …’ But the thing is, we did.”

And did they ever. While there are many statistical measures of this sort of sloppiness - seven penalties, two turnovers, an average starting position of the ND 42.5-yard line on BC’s four scoring drives, under 21 minutes of possession time, and so on and so forth - it seems to me that a bit of “color commentary” on some of the major blunders is in order. So sit back and relax; this is going to take a while.

[UPDATE: If you want the quick version, read this great post by Ben Ford, where Weis describes six plays from the game which he thought showed "the difference between winning and losing." I've gone back and marked five of those plays in red below; the sixth was Andre Callender's 52-yard run from scrimmage to set up BC's first touchdown, but I decided not to count that as a "bonehead" play so much as a matter of getting flat-out beat.]

The first half:

  • Notre Dame’s first offensive series was highlighted by a pair of pass-blocking blunders. After two rushes and a nice reception by James Aldridge picked up a first down, Sam Young was called for holding on 2nd-and-10. The player Young was blocking, defensive end Allan Smith, got to Jimmy Clausen anyway on the play, and gave him a nice hit as he thew away the ball. Two plays later, on 3rd-and-17, Aldridge whiffed badly on blitz pickup but Clausen got rid of the ball in time to avoid a sack.
  • The second offensive series for the Irish was similarly error-filled. After another solid run by Aldridge and a completion to George West led to ND’s second first down of the day, Clausen hit John Carlson for six yards but then made two awful throws in the direction of Robby Parris, and the Irish were forced to punt. Geoff Price’s kick was good for only 32 yards, and the Irish failed to pin the Eagles back.
  • The Irish didn’t manage to pick up a first down on either of their next two offensive series, both of which ended in failed conversion attempts on third-and-short. After a six-yard completion to Carlson, Aldridge picked up one yard on 2nd-and-4 but had to leave the game with an injury. Armando Allen replaced him but was given no hole to run through on 3rd-and-3; he picked up only two yards and the Irish had to punt again. The next series started off well once again with a six-yard completion to Duval Kamara and a three-yard run by Robert Hughes, which got ND to the 46-yard line. But on a toss play to the right side, Hughes was stopped for a loss of a yard on 3rd-and-1, and the Irish lined up to punt once again.
  • Notre Dame’s next drive, which came right after Trevor Laws’s block of a BC field goal attempt kept the score at 6-0, perhaps summarized the team’s woes. The drive opened with an incomplete pass, but Clausen followed that up with an 8-yard completion to Carlson, and then Asaph Schwapp had a nice run for a first down. Clausen then threw incomplete to Carlson, a nicely-thrown ball on what I think was his first deep pass of the night, followed by a run by Hughes that was stuffed for a gain of one yard and then a beautiful 26-yard completion to Parris to convert another third down and bring the Irish to the BC 41-yard line. But after Hughes was stopped for no gain on first down, Eric Olsen (together with what seemed to me to be the rest of the offensive line) false-started on 2nd-and-10, and Clausen came under huge pressure on both of the next two plays, and the Irish were forced to punt from the BC 36. But here’s the kicker (as it were): J.J. Jansen’s snap was low, and Price let his knee touch the ground as he bent down to pick it up: twelve yards were officially lost on the play, but BC was able to start from the Irish 42-yard line instead of their own 20. Less than five minutes later, after a drive that included a dreadful pass interference penalty on Ambrose Wooden on a mis-thrown ball that could not have been caught, the Eagles were in the end zone, with a 13-0 lead.
  • The ensuing drive ND started with 1:19 on the clock, and the Irish scrambling to get some points on the board before the half. John Sullivan snapped the ball over Clausen’s head on first down, but the freshman managed to get rid of the ball without being sacked. A poorly-thrown pass to Kamara on second down was redeemed when DeJuan Tribble was called for a personal foul, and the Irish had 1st-and-10 at their own 43-yard line. On the next play, though, Sam Young was called for holding once again, and then Clausen threw an incompletion on second down, scrambled for four yards on third, and then was intercepted by Tribble on a pass thrown downfield to Kamara that looked to be at least five yards short. The Irish went into the locker room lucky to be down only by two scores, and with the sputtering offense constantly throwing away the momentum the defense was able to generate.

What’s so frustrating about looking back at the first half is that these plays show how many of the team’s woes - especially those of the offense, though a defense that gave up a 52-yard run from scrimmage on their opponent’s fourth offensive play is hardly beyond reproach - are the fault of an inability to get the “little” things right. Receivers were getting open, quarterbacks were being protected, yards were being gained … and yet the Irish ended up with only 60 yards passing and 16 rushing at halftime, because of missed throws, penalties along the offensive line, and - especially - an ongoing inability to pick up yards on third down and short. Put all that together and you get a two-touchdown hole going into the locker room.

The second half:

  • The second half started off well for the Irish, as BC’s opening drive was stuffed, and Johnny Ayers’s punt was good for only 36 yards, allowing ND to start from their own 36, their second-best field position of the day. But on the very first offensive play, Clausen threw a dangerous pass and it bounced off of John Carlson’s hands and into those of BC’s Tryone Pruitt. The interception was returned 30 yards to the ND eleven-yard line, and three plays later the Eagles were in the end zone and the lead stood at 20-0.
  • It was at this point that Evan Sharpley came in to replace Clausen, and while he started off shakily - nearly being picked off on his first throw after Kamara tipped it up into the air, and badly overthrowing Allen on his second - he settled down and went four of five for 64 yards the rest of the way, leading the Irish to a touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, the Eagles were stopped at the 21-yard line, and the game clearly seemed to be swinging ND’s way. A minute and a half later, Brian Smith picked off a Matt Ryan pass over the middle and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown. Just like that, BC’s lead stood at 20-14, with almost 24 minutes remaining in regulation.
  • After Smith’s touchdown, though, the Irish were penalized for excessive celebration in the end zone, and were forced to kick the ball off from their own 15-yard line. Nate Whitaker’s bloop kick got only as far as the BC 38, and it was returned 18 yards by Brad Newman as the Eagles lined up to start their second in three drives on the Irish side of the field. Five plays and less than two minutes later, they were on the board again. The lead was back to two scores and the Irish seemed to have lost much of their momentum.
  • ND’s next drive went three-and-out, ending after Kamara dropped a pass on 3rd-and-3 following a seven-yard run by Armando Allen. After the defense forced BC into a three-and-out of their own on the next series, Sharpley led the Irish to a first down around midfield but then threw three straight incompletions in the direction of Robby Parris: Pruitt nearly got his second interception of the game on the first of them, and the third down throw landed in the open field as Sharpley and Parris appeared to have gotten their signals crossed. (This drive also featured the “inadvertent whistle” that seemed to suck out whatever life was remaining in the stadium.)
  • After another BC three-and-out, Tom Zbikowski had a nice punt return, and a holding penalty on the Eagles moved the Irish to the BC 39-yard line, their best starting field-position of the day. Sharpley was nearly intercepted once again on his first pass downfield, and then overthrew Carlson on second down but was bailed out when BC’s Roderick Rollins was flagged for a late hit. But on first down and ten from the BC 24, Mike Turkovich was called for a hold as Armando Allen broke of a nine-yard run. Sharpley did hit Kamara for 13 yards on 2nd-and-20, but then Paul Duncan was burned badly and Sharpley was sacked for a loss of three yards. Brandon Walker then missed a 41-yard field goal attempt wide to the right, and the Irish wasted another golden opportunity handed to them by BC’s sloppy play.
  • BC’s next drive ate up 5:34 on the clock, but they were thwarted on a fourth-down conversion attempt and the Irish started up from their own 25-yard line. Sharpley moved the ball downfield effectively, completing a pair of screen passes to Armando Allen for gains of nine and five yards, and generating some positive net yardage with his feet with a pair of runs despite being sacked on one play by BC’s Ron Brace, who bursted untouched through the middle of the line. Then a 21-yard pass to Parris then had fifteen more yards tacked on because of another personal foul on the Eagles, and suddenly the Irish were at the BC 22. After a pair of incompletions, Sharpley made a spectacular play getting the ball to John Carlson as he was going down under heavy pressure, but after a lengthy review it was determined that Carlson had been stopped just short of the first down marker. No matter, though: Sharpley hit Parris for a 13-yard touchdown on fourth down, and the Irish were back within a score … or maybe not. Mike Turkovich was called for holding once again on the play, the Irish were forced to line up again and try for 4th-and-11 from the 23, and everyone knows how that story ends. The Eagles ran the clock down to under three minutes on their next drive, Sharpley went 0-for-4 (though one of those should have been caught by Parris) on the ensuing series, and the upset bid was over.

Obviously the penalty on fourth down that had the touchdown brought back is the one that sticks in our minds, but note this: if Turkovich hadn’t been called for the first of those two holds (the one that came on 1st-and-10 from the BC 24), then a pickup of even a few yards by the Irish would have allowed Walker to attempt a field goal from within 40 yards. If he’d been able to convert that then the score would have been 27-17, and the Irish could have been happy to kick another field goal on the next drive to cut the lead to one score, instead of going for the TD on fourth down. (Walker, who showed some leg strength but was way off to the right on his kick, is obviously not without fault himself.) This game was not lost on one or two plays: it was the frequency of ND’s errors - bad penalties, dropped passes, missed blocks, misthrown balls to open receivers, and so on - that repeatedly stalled the offense just as it got going, and placed far too much of the burden on the Irish defense. Was the excessive celebration penalty understandable? Coming from a guy who was dancing around the room making obscene gestures and yelling “SUCK IT” in front of his wife and son, I’d have to say yes: but in a sense, so were the holding penalties. The point is, they were dumb moves in big spots, and the Irish have nobody but themselves to blame for having made them.

Perhaps I should end by quoting what I said after the Purdue game:

If the Irish are going to avoid going 0-8 to start the season, their so-far steady diet of these sorts of mental and physical mistakes is going to have to change. Some of them can be attributed to underclassman jitters, others to players trying to do too much to help a team dig itself out of a hole, and others perhaps to frustration. But they’ve got to stop, and it’s hard to believe that the coaching staff doesn’t know that.

0-8 is no longer a possibility, but a 1-7 start that would put the Irish out of contention for a bowl game looms ominously in the horizon. We’re past the midseason mark now, and so youth and inexperience no longer carry much weight as excuses.

There is no question that this team has got the talent to beat USC next Saturday. But they won’t be able to do that if they can’t stop beating themselves.

I’ll take it

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

Like OCDomer said (as well as Pat, I guess), a win is a win is a win. Even if it did come against a third-string walk-on freshman quarterback and a coach who did his best Karl Dorrell impersonation by running the ball only four times and asking said walk-on freshman to throw the ball constantly after falling behind by two scores despite the fact that there were over fifteen minutes left on the clock. And even if the Irish did manage only twelve first downs to UCLA’s twenty, and 140 offensive yards to UCLA’s 282. A win is a win is a win. And to be quite honest, it feels like a bit more than a win when it comes on a day that we get to see this face:

Good stuff. Oh, and by the way - Trojan fans, I got your “Booty for Booty” right here. (Word is, he prefers that kind anyway.)

Anyway, here are some thoughts on the game.


The game ball goes to …

I know the easy thing to do here is to go with Maurice Crum Jr. (seven tackles, one sack, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions, and a touchdown), but doing so would indicate that he actually had a better game than, say, Trevor Laws (five tackles, one sack, two pass breakups, and an all-around great job of being a pain in the butt), which in my mind is hard to say. Plus, there were two plays in the first half - eight-yard rushes by Joe Cowan and Kahlil Green, respectively - when he whiffed pretty badly on his tackles. But no question that Crum played a great second half and largely redeemed what has been a mediocre season for him so far.

In my mind, though, credit needs to go to the defense as a whole, rather than to any one or two individuals: Pat Kuntz, for instance, led the team with eight tackles and also had two pass breakups, Joe Brockington had another solid game with six tackles, and Tom Zbikowski showed some signs of life with five tackles, a sack, and a beautiful strip to force a fumble. These guys were bouncing around the field like I haven’t seen them do in years - they actually looked to be enjoying themselves. Kudos to Corwin Brown for the job he’s done in bringing this unit around.


By the numbers

Offense:

  • I already noted that the Irish had only 140 total offensive yards on the day. But that’s a bit of a misleading statistic, since the average starting field position for Notre Dame’s four scoring drives was the UCLA 27-yard line. If you don’t have far to go, you’re not going to get many yards. That said, five three-and-outs, a turnover on downs, and a drive that started at the opponent’s twelve and resulted in four yards and a field goal, do not a good offensive day make.
  • If we take out the yards lost on UCLA’s three sacks and the kneel-downs at the end of the game, Notre Dame ended up with a somewhat respectable 81 rushing yards on the day, which is right at UCLA’s average for the season (though that number includes sacks, of course). James Aldridge netted 52 yards on his 22 carries, and Armando Allen provided a nice change of pace with three carries for 19 yards. Not good enough, to be sure, but also not disastrous against the Bruin defense.
  • While Jimmy Clausen completed 17 of his 27 passes, they netted only 84 yards - an average of 3.1 yards per attempt. Clausen didn’t make any awful mistakes, but there were some times when he held on to the ball too long, and he didn’t look very good throwing the ball long downfield. Each of John Carlson (six catches for 38 yards), Aldridge (three for 18 yards), and Duval Kamara (two for 20 yards) had a nice day, but this passing game is going to have to do a lot more if the Irish want to beat Backup College or the Spoiled Children.
  • While time of possession was evenly divided in the first half, Notre Dame held the ball for 20:15 after halftime.

Defense:

  • As mentioned above, UCLA totaled 282 offense yards on the day, more than double the production of the Irish. 193 of those yards came through the air, on 16 completions - an average of 12.1 yards per completion, and a clear sign that the Irish pass defense has got to tighten up. The Bruins netted only 89 yards rushing, but that that number jumps up to 140 if we discount the yardage lost on Notre Dame’s five (!!) sacks. Still, though, all these numbers look really good against a UCLA offense that averaged 199.4 rushing yards and 225.2 passing yards coming into yesterday’s game.
  • After recovering three Bruin fumbles and intercepting four passes, the Irish defense now ranks ninth in the nation with 19 forced turnovers on the season. They also rank fourth in total pass defense (and 22nd in pass efficiency) and 41st overall defensively.

Mistake-free football

Well, not quite. We saw some pretty awful tackling at times in the first half, and there were a few times when our offensive linemen got toasted by the UCLA pass rush. There were some bad penalties, too: Raeshon McNeil getting called for a block in the back on a Zbikowski punt return a bit before halftime, pushing the Irish back to their own 30 instead of enabling them to start from midfield; Toryan Smith handing UCLA a first down on a bad pass interference penalty just after the half; Eric Olsen picking up an awful personal foul penalty that turned 3rd-and-9 into 3rd-and-24; and TWO holds called as Aldridge broke a nice run on 3rd-and-eleven near the start of the fourth. The Irish also failed once again to convert in short yardage, as Clausen’s fourth-down sneak attempt with ten minutes to go in the fourth quarter went nowhere.

But there’s no doubt that there was a major improvement in this department: my list of “inexcusables” was less than half as long as it was last week, and UCLA’s complete offensive incompetence more than made up for ND’s handful of errors.


Worth noting:

  • Leo Ferrine, David Grimes, and Dan Wenger all made the trip to Pasadena, but sat out the game with injuries.
  • Justin Brown returned after missing the past two games, though he didn’t impact the box score.
  • Robert Hughes didn’t see the field, nor did Matt Romine, Ray Herring, or Morrice Richardson. Chris Stewart made the trip to Pasadena, but didn’t end up playing. This was also the first game all season in which Evan Sharpley didn’t play.
  • Geoff Price replaced Eric Maust as Notre Dame’s punter, and averaged 40.3 yards on nine punts, with three downed inside the twenty yard-line.

All in all …

There’s no doubt that this team is improving, on both sides of the ball. If we take out the Michigan game, Notre Dame’s margin of defeat dropped constantly up until yesterday, from 30 points against Georgia Tech, to 21 against Penn State, to 17 against Michigan State, to 14 against Purdue. Notre Dame’s offensive line seems to have turned a corner since the debacle at the Big House, and the Irish defense has given up a total of 208 rushing yards the past two games after yielding an average of 232.8 yards in the first four weeks. Suddenly the possibility of making it to a bowl game doesn’t seem as utterly far-fetched as it once did.

Accomplishing that, though, will require pulling off a huge upset against Fredo or the Condoms. Look for the Notre Dame campus to be energized this coming week, and the stadium to be jumping when the Eagles come to town. The monkey’s off their back - now the Irish just need to keep on improving from week to week.

Giveaway

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

Once we get past a 23-0 halftime deficit, a yet-again woeful running game, and the ongoing struggles of the ND secondary (in the first half, anyway), there are lots of different “glass is half-full” kinds of ways for Irish fans to conceptualize yesterday’s loss.

One possibility, taken up for instance over at Classic Ground, would be to think of the game as a coming-out party for ND’s underclassman wide receivers: seven catches for 93 yards by sophomore Robby Parris, six for 68 yards and a touchdown for freshman Duval Kamara, three for 104 yards and a touchdown - plus another where he could have taken it to the house but was underthrown - by freshman Golden Tate, and four catches for 37 yards by sophomore George West. (Junior David Grimes (three catches for 34 yards in the first half before going out with an injury) and fifth-year senior tight end John Carlson (five catches for 30 yards and a great leaping grab to give Jimmy Clausen his first career TD pass - the video is here) also had strong games.)

We could also talk about the play of the defensive line: Trevor Laws (six tackles, three for a loss and one sack) and the much-maligned John Ryan (also six tackles, two for a loss and one sack, starting in the place of the injured Justin Brown) both played tremendously, as did linebacker Joe Brockington, who led the team with nine total tackles. (As I noted yesterday, for some reason Derrell Hand, last week’s replacement for Brown, didn’t see the field at all. No word yet on any possible reasons for this.)

Another possibility, which is pretty ridiculous by my lights, focuses on the strong play of Evan Sharpley, and even argues that Clausen, despite having almost the same numbers, should be benched.

Meanwhile, a somewhat different way to think about Saturday’s storyline, exemplified by OCDomer’s post on the game, turns to the stat sheet to highlight the ways the Irish have improved, but also to bring out the extent to which having lost that game should be regarded as a disappointment rather than a sort of moral victory.

I think this last approach is pretty much the right one, though I want to take it in a somewhat different direction. Last week one of the ways I broke down the game was in terms of what I called Inexcusables: “a tendency for stupid mistakes, bad penalties, and other sorts of errors that are frankly inexcusable for a top-flight team (think Justin Brown getting tossed out of the GT game, Travis Thomas getting into a fistfight against PSU, and so on).” When I look back at the Purdue game and the sorts of mistakes that the Irish made, what I see is a case where what clearly could have been a win against a top-25 team turned into yet another disappointing loss, thanks in this case to many instances of the sorts of mental and physical mistakes that have no place on a top-flight team.

Based on my back-of-the-envelope notes, here’s a narration of some of the key “Inexcusables” from the first half:

  • On the first series of Purdue’s opening drive, the Boilermakers faced third down and two yards to go from the Irish 44 yard line. Curtis Painter was sacked on the play, but freshman linebacker Kerry Neal, who didn’t factor in on the sack, was caught offsides, giving Purdue a free first down. This drive ultimately led to a field goal, and a 3-0 lead for the Boilermakers.
  • On Notre Dame’s second offensive series, with the Boilermakers leading 10-0, the Irish faced fourth and one from the Purdue 35 yard line. Charlie Weis elected to go for it, but freshman tailback Robert Hughes was stopped for no gain.
  • After the Irish - led by Laws, who had two straight tackles for losses of eight and eleven yards respectively, though Painter did follow these up with a 40-yard completion to Greg Orton, on which Darrin Walls was burned badly - forced a Boilermaker punt on the ensuing drive, Tom Zbikowski - who did have seven tackles and a pick, but also missed pretty badly on some plays - let the ball bounce by him at the ten yard line, thinking it would carry into the end zone. It didn’t, and was downed by Purdue just outside the goal line.
  • On the next drive, Clausen got out of his end zone right away, with a 17-yard completion to Grimes. But after two failed rushing plays - both by James Aldridge, who fumbled on the second one - Jimmy Clausen rolled to his left under pressure and then tried to throw across the middle to John Carlson, who was blanketed by the Purdue defense. Clausen’s pass was picked off and returned to the Notre Dame 25, and six plays later - the last of them a John Ryan sack on third and five - the Boilermaker lead stood at 13-0.
  • A few drives later, with the score now at 20-0 Purdue, Sam Young was called for holding on first and ten. The very next play saw Armando Allen fumble the ball after catching a screen pass from Clausen. The Boilermakers recovered, and just over a minute later extended their lead to 23-0.
  • Next up, on Notre Dame’s last drive of the second half, after two nice catches by Kamara and West brought the Irish near midfield, John Sullivan - who made this same mistake either two or three times against Michigan - snapped the ball over Clausen’s head on second and five, for a seven-yard loss. Clausen got out of this jam, though, finding Golden Tate for a 36-yard completion on third and twelve. At this point, though, the Irish offense stalled, with three straight incompletions, and the team lined up for a 35-yard field goal attempt, to try and get on the board before halftime. The kick was blocked by Alex Magee and returned to the Purdue 46 yard line.
  • Finally, the ensuing Boilermaker drive saw David Bruton flagged for a late hit after a catch by Selwyn Lymon. He was bailed out, though, when Kyle McCarthy intercepted Painter on the very next play.

In sum, then: we have an offsides penalty that led to three points, a failure to convert on fourth and short from just outside field goal range, a foolish decision resulting in an interception that led to a field goal, a fumble that led to a touchdown, and a blocked kick that effectively took three points off the board - and those are only the cases in which ND’s mistakes actually came back to haunt them.

While the Irish looked much better in the second half, though, it too was far from mistake-free:

  • On Notre Dame’s first drive of the half, Michael Turkovich was called for holding on third and two from the Purdue 46 yard line, and two plays later the Irish had to punt the ball away.
  • After a Zbikowski interception and a solid drive resulting in Clausen’s TD pass to Carlson, the Irish failed to convert on their ensuing extra point attempt.
  • After another solid defensive series and a solid drive that got the Irish to the Purdue 31 yard line, Junior Jabbie was held to no gain on fourth and one - the second time in the game that this had happened.
  • On the ensuing drive, Purdue faced third and 21 from their own 33 yard line. Painter came under pressure and tried to scramble for the first down, but freshman linebacker Brian Smith ran him out of bounds ten yards short of the marker. But Smith (at least I think it was him - the box score, though, says it was Dwight Stephenson) shoved Painter after he was clearly off the field - a ticky-tack call, but a foolish mistake in any case. On the very next play, after Dan Dierking was held to two yards on first and ten, Stephenson was whistled for a personal foul facemask call, giving Purdue yet another free first down, at the Irish 25. Then, once again on the very next play, Smith was caught offsides, moving the Boilermakers to the 20. The Irish defense held Purdue to a field goal, though, and the score stood at 26-6.
  • The next Irish drive, highlighted by a 43-yard bomb down the sidelines to a speeding Golden Tate on fourth and five from the ND 37, led to another touchdown: but this was followed up once again by a missed extra point, this time with Nate Whitaker kicking in place of Brandon Walker. What could have been a 26-14 game stood at 26-12.
  • A bit later, after the Irish had scored again (and hit the PAT this time) to narrow the margin to 26-19, Walls was flagged for holding on the very first play of Purdue’s ensuing drive. This moved the Boilermakers past midfield, and they were in the end zone five plays later.
  • Notre Dame moved down the field quickly on their next drive, though, with a long completion to Parris and a personal foul against Purdue bringing them to the Boilermaker 18 yard line within a minute. But on second and ten from the 18, Evan Sharpley was intercepted - it is unclear whether he simply misthrew the ball, or whether Carlson or Duval Kamara might have run the wrong route - and Purdue had the ball back, with a two-touchdown lead and 4:33 on the clock.
  • Finally, after the Irish forced third down and four and called timeout with 2:16 on the clock, Walls was called for holding once again, ending any hope of a last-dash comeback as the Boilermakers were able simply to run out the clock on their next four plays.

Once again, then, and even if we overlook the holding penalties against Walls: we have two points taken off the board on missed kicks, a solid drive into opposing territory ending with a failure on fourth and short, an interception from well within scoring range, and a back-to-back-to-back trio of inexcusable penalties extending a drive that had been effectively stopped, leading to a field goal.

If the Irish are going to avoid going 0-8 to start the season, their so-far steady diet of these sorts of mental and physical mistakes is going to have to change. Some of them can be attributed to underclassman jitters, others to players trying to do too much to help a team dig itself out of a hole, and others perhaps to frustration. But they’ve got to stop, and it’s hard to believe that the coaching staff doesn’t know that.

(But hey - at least we’re not the Bears.)

Pound it

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

I know it’s been discussed before, but it’s worth emphasizing: if Notre Dame is going to beat Purdue this weekend, they’re going to do it by running the ball successfully. Here’s a breakdown of ND’s last four games against Purdue: two losses under Tyrone Willingham in 2003 and 2004, and two wins under Charlie Weis in 2005 and 2006.

What these numbers make clear is exactly what most of us already thought: if you run the ball successfully against the Boilermakers, you can win the game, and if you don’t, you can’t. (Let me re-emphasize this point for all those bemoaning how historically bad our offense has been this year: in 2003 and 2004 Willingham managed an average of 57.5 rushing yards a game against PURDUE.)

When asked about his game plan for Saturday, Coach Weis said on Tuesday that a key aspect of it is “that you have to try your best to try to keep their offense off the field.” Interestingly, though, a closer look at Purdue’s numbers from last year doesn’t necessarily bear out the specific importance of possessing the ball for long periods of time. Here’s a game-by-game rundown of Purdue’s wins and losses from the 2006 season, with their opponents’ rushing statistics and time of possession:

So these numbers don’t indicate a strong relationship between POSSESSING the ball, and so keeping the Purdue offense off the field, and beating the Boilermakers. They do, though, reemphasize the importance of gaining serious yardage on the ground, and also give further support to a point I made yesterday: namely, that Purdue is REALLY BAD at defending the run. (316 rushing yards given up to ILLINOIS?!)

Come Saturday, then, the best hope for Irish fans rests on the backs of the four horses.

By the numbers: Is there hope for the Irish against Purdue?

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

When the o-4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish arrive in West Lafayette to face the 4-0 Purdue Boilermakers, they’ll have their work cut out for them. Purdue is ranked #25 in the nation in the coaches’ poll, and is just one spot out of the top 25 according to the AP. They also rank seventh in the nation in scoring offense with 48.5 points per game, and eighth in total offense with 527 yards per game.

Nor is Purdue the kind of pass-first, pass-second, pass-third, run rarely team that some might take them to be: the Boilermakers are averaging almost 203 yards per game on the ground, good for 29th in the nation, to go with their twelfth-ranked passing offense (324 yards/game). While ND head coach Charlie Weis said in his press conference yesterday that Purdue is still “a passing team first,” one that runs the ball “to keep you honest,” it’s clear that this has worked well so far for them in both categories: they average almost six yards per rush, and have given up only three sacks in their first four games.

None of this bodes well for an Irish defense that, while it ranks 52nd in the nation in yardage against at 352 yards per game, is 91st in scoring defense (as BGS noted earlier this week, the chief reason for this disparity rests in field position: Irish opponents have had to go 45 yards or less on eleven of their 23 scoring drives). ND’s defense looks good statistically against the pass, giving up only 120 yards per game (good for 55th in the nation), but this is largely a factor of the “blowout” quality of their losses: teams have run for an average of 232.8 yards per game against the Irish, leaving ND’s rushing defense with a national ranking of 111th.

All of this adds up to a point spread that favors the Boilermakers by more than three touchdowns, and a general sense that Notre Dame’s first-ever 0-5 start is all but inevitable.

But is it? Sticking just with the numbers once again, I think Irish fans can find a few reasons for hope:

  • The first lies in the extremely low quality of opponents that Purdue has played thus far. The Boilermakers blew out 1-3 Toledo, 2-2 Eastern Illinois, 1-3 Central Michigan, and 1-3 Minnesota in the first four weeks of the season: hardly a gauntlet of the sort that the Irish have faced. (For what it’s worth, Toledo, Central Michigan, and Minnesota are ranked 86th, 107th, and 100th in the nation by SI, and Eastern Illinois is a I-AA team. Compare this to ND’s opponents: both Penn State and MSU are either ranked or just outside the top 25 in both polls, while Michigan ranks 30th and Georgia Tech 44th.)
  • The second lies in the generally low quality of the defenses that Purdue has had to face. Toledo ranks 106th in the nation in total defense, giving up 476 yards per game, while Eastern Illinois (386 yds/game) ranks 99th, Central Michigan (509.8 yds/game) 115th, and Minnesota (543.3 yds/game) 119th. It sounds strange to say it, but the Fighting Irish will be the BEST defensive team that Purdue has faced so far this year.
  • The third point relates to the overall quality of Purdue’s defense: while the Boilermakers rank 15th in pass efficiency defense at 97.3 yards per game, they’ve given up 147 yards per game on the ground, good for 61st in the nation, and last week’s game saw Minnesota rush for 232 yards against them. This bodes well for an Irish running game that started to get rolling last week, with their three underclassmen tailbacks totaling 150 yards between them against a Michigan State team that ranks 26th in the nation in rushing defense. If the Irish can run the ball effectively once again and keep Purdue off the field, they’ll have a shot.

In sum: this is going to be a tough one for the Irish, but the fact is that they’ve squared up against four quality opponents so far this season while Purdue has been able to cakewalk. Will the Irish win? I have my doubts. But look for them to put a scare into the West Lafayette crowd come Saturday.

(Team statistics courtesy of NCAA.org.)

Postmortem: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

Despite a “back to training camp” mentality in practice this week, Charlie Weis’s Fighting Irish came up short yet again this week, falling to 0-4 for the first time in Notre Dame’s illustrious history. Here’s my analysis of what went wrong (and, occasionally, right)


The turning pointLooking back at a game like this - so close through the first half, then out of hand so quickly - the question of what went wrong is a natural one. The answer, though, is quite obvious: just take a look at the first two drives of the second half.

The trouble started when ND’s opening kickoff of the second half was returned 52 yards to the Irish 45 yard line. It took MSU less than three minutes to march down the remainder of the field on a drive that included two long completions on 3rd-and-9 and 3rd-and-17 respectively, topped off by a 16-yard touchdown pass to Mark Dell that increased the Spartan lead to 24-14.

The next nail was driven in on ND’s very next drive. After an 18-yard rush by James Aldridge to the ND 42, the Irish picked up eight more yards on their next two plays and faced 3rd-and-2 from their own 50. But Aldridge and Robert Hughes were stopped short on consecutive carries, and the Irish turned the ball over to MSU at midfield.

The Spartans scored again two drives after this last big stop, to make the score 31-14, and the Irish didn’t complete another first down until the game’s final drive, long after the outcome was no longer in doubt.


By the numbers

In lieu of a lot of amateurish analysis of such things as blocking schemes, missed tackles, and so on, I’ve pored over the box score to find a few statistics that I think are especially helpful in encapsulating today’s game from the ND perspective. The good

  • With 18 carries for 104 net yards, sophomore James Aldridge became the first ND tailback to break the century mark this year. Aldridge and fellow underclassmen Robert Hughes (6 rushes, 33 yards, 1 TD) and Armando Allen (3 rushes, 13 yards) totaled 150 rushing yards between them, with an average of 5.6 yards/rush.
  • Maurice Crum Jr. led the Irish with 16 total tackles (6 solo, 10 assisted). David Bruton was next with 15 (8 solo), followed by Trevor Laws with nine (all assisted, as well as a fumble recovery) and Joe Brockington with seven (3 solo). It was nice to see Crum have such a solid week after being so quiet in the UM game.
  • Freshmen Kerry Neal - a sack, a batted pass, and two hits on the quarterback - and Brian Smith - three tackles, one for a loss - had solid games and showed a lot of energy. Look to see even more of them against Purdue. Fellow frosh Ian Williams - four tackles, one solo, from his DT position - also played well once again.

The bad

  • Jimmy Clausen - 7-of-13 passing for only 53 yards and a fumble - had a really tough day. In his postgame press conference, Weis made it clear that the decision to pull Clausen in favor of Evan Sharpley near the start of the fourth quarter was not based on Clausen’s poor play or on a desire to “protect” the prized freshman, but was motivated by the fact that ND had to start passing the ball more and Sharpley was more experienced and so better equipped to run a “two-minute”-type of offense.
  • Wideouts George West - three catches for 25 yards - and David Grimes - three catches, two of them really difficult ones, for 24 yards - both had decent days, given how quiet ND’s passing game was. But even given the continuing struggles of the offensive line, it’s hard to see how a large part of the burden for ND’s lethargic air attack doesn’t fall on the inability of our wide receivers and tight ends to get open.

The ugly

  • Spartan tailbacks Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick shredded the Irish defense for 227 yards between them, on 46 carries.
  • The Irish netted only nine total first downs, only three of them coming in the second half. Of those three, two of them came on long runs by James Aldridge in ND’s first two drives, and the last came on the last play of the game, a pass to John Carlson on 4th-and-6.
  • While Spartan QB Brian Hoyer completed only eleven of his 24 passes, those completions went for a total of 135 yards (an average of 12.3 yds/comp) and FOUR touchdowns.

The inexcusablesOne of the biggest problems the Irish have faced over the past few weeks is a tendency for stupid mistakes, bad penalties, and other sorts of errors that are frankly inexcusable for a top-flight team (think Justin Brown getting tossed out of the GT game, Travis Thomas getting into a fistfight against PSU, and so on). Here’s a rundown, based on my own back-of-the-envelope notes, of how ND did in these categories against Michigan State. (The moral in short: not well.)

Going nowhere on the ground

  • The play-by-play shows six rushing plays (sacks not included) for negative yardage, two for no gain, and four for only one yard.

Failing to convert on third- or fourth- and short

  • I marked down two key junctures where this happened: one on ND’s third drive of the game, where Asaph Schwapp got the ball on 3rd-and-1 and was brought down for no gain; and the other, mentioned above, on ND’s first drive of the second half, where Aldridge picked up one yard on 3rd-and-2 and Robert Hughes was then held to no gain on 4th-and-1.

Bad penalties

  • On MSU’s second drive of the game, with ND leading 7-0, Brian Hoyer completed a 25-yard pass to the ND 24 yard line and was clearly pushed to the ground by Trevor Laws. The penalty was marked off half the distance to the goal, and the Spartans scored three plays later.
  • After ND held MSU on their third drive of the game, with the score tied 7-7, MSU punter Aaron Bates sent a kick out of bounds at the ND 17 yard line. Travis Thomas, who has had a remarkable tendency to commit bad penalties this year, was called for holding, and the ball was brought back to the 9.

Old-fashioned mental mistakes

  • On ND’s first drive after the first MSU touchdown, Irish punter Geoff Price dropped the snap and barely managed to get away a 27-yard kick.
  • Inside two minutes to go in the first half, with ND facing 3rd-and-13 from their own 30 yard line, the Irish were called for delay of game.
  • Toward the end of the third quarter, with MSU facing 4th-and-2 from the ND 34 yard line, the Irish were nearly whistled for an illegal substitution but managed to call a timeout beforehand. On the very next play, MSU tight end Kellen Davis blew by a flatfooted Maurice Crum for a 34-yard touchdown catch.
  • Later in the third quarter, Price made yet another mistake, this time a punt that shanked off his foot and sailed out of bounds, for a net of only eleven yards.

Kick coverage

  • We’ve already discussed the opening kick of the second half, which was returned 52 yards to the Irish 45 yard line by MSU’s Devin Thomas. The Spartans were in the end zone less than three minutes later, for a 24-14 lead.
  • In the middle of the third quarter, a 54-yard Geoff Price punt that was caught at the MSU 15 yard line was returned 18 yards. Ten plays and 67 yards later, the Spartan lead stood at 31-14.

Not getting rid of the ball on time

  • Jimmy Clausen seemed to have less of a problem in this area than in weeks past, but there were some times where he still held on for too long when he should have thrown it away. Obviously the key instance of this came near the start of the second quarter, when Clausen ran backwards as the pocket collapsed and had the ball taken right out of his hands by MSU’s Jonal Saint-Dic.

Pass protection

  • ND only gave up four sacks for a total of 32 yards - an improvement after giving up 24 in their first three games, but still not satisfactory.

Injury worriesAny Irish fan whose heart didn’t skip a beat when it looked like John Sullivan might have to leave the game mustn’t have been following the team too carefully. With backup center Dan Wenger out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury, junior walk-on Thomas “The Man, The Myth, The Legend” Bemenderfer was ND’s only remaining center. Thankfully, Sullivan was able to return.

One thing I didn’t see talked about was the fact that defensive end Justin Brown sat out today’s game with an undisclosed injury, with Derrell Hand taking his starting spot. It’s unclear how serious Brown’s injury is and from what I know it wasn’t talked about much before the game, but here’s what Michael Rothstein had to say about it earlier this week:

Justin Brown is looking a little bit hobbled these days. During a running lines drill the Irish typically do, every other player did side steps while Brown lugged along straight ahead. He also stretched with a trainer instead of another player and was doing calf and leg stretching maneuvers while the rest of the Irish were doing other stretches. And he looked very awkward doing so. As another reporter put it, he was the definition of ‘gingerly.’

Yikes. As we all said after the Hand “incident”, the last thing this team needs is a loss of bodies along the defensive line. We’ll have to keep an eye on this one.


In sum, this game was obviously a huge disappointment, though there were signs of improvement - in particular the running game and some signs of life along the offensive line - that give reason for hope. But the things the Irish did wrong - in particular the second straight week of shoddy defense and tackling, a startlingly inept passing game, an inability to pick up crucial first downs on short yardage, a once-again bad job of covering kick returns after an improvement in this area against Michigan, and several key mental mistakes in big spots, not to mention the way things completely derailed after a couple of bad sequences at the start of the second half - give reason to be seriously concerned.Charlie Weis and the rest of the coaching staff have got a lot of work to do. They’re out of free passes at this point.