Archive for the ‘The Bigger Picture’ Category

The Irish by the Numbers, Part I: 2007’s Offensive Breakdown

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

With the new year in full swing and school starting up again (welcome, Trevor and Sean!), it’s time to start looking back at 2007 and ahead to ‘08. Oh, that and wasting time thinking about ND football when we really should be writing our dissertations. So with that in mind, the Irish Roundup is proud to bring you “The Irish by the Numbers,” a multi-part series where we break down what happened last year and consider what’s to come.

First up, a great break-down that IE poster Jonathan (”Fishin’ Irish,” for the in-crowd) put together of the offensive numbers from the 2007 season. It was supposed to get up over break, but better late than never. I’ll be back later this week with a breakdown of some of 2007’s numbers on defense.

The Irish by the Numbers, Part I: 2007’s Offensive Breakdown

Here’s a breakdown of the team’s offensive stats by class from the 2007. By “seniors” I mean to include both fifth- and fourth-year guys, since none of 2007’s fourth-year seniors on offense will return for a fifth year anyhow.

Rushing*

Freshmen: 140 Carries, 646 Yards, 4.6 YPC, 6 TD’s**
Sophomores: 128 Carries, 469 Yards, 3.8 YPC, 0 TDS
Juniors: (i.e. Asaph Schwapp): 12 Carries, 14 Yards, 1.2 YPC
Seniors: 37 Carries, 93 Yards, 2.5 YPC, 5 TD’s

Passing***

Freshmen: 139 Completions, 246 Attempts, 6 INT’s, 56.5%, 1264 Yards, 7 TD’s, 103.85 QB rating****
Juniors: 77 Completions, 140 Attempts, 3 INT’s, 55.0%, 736 Yards, 5 TD’s, 106.66 QB rating

Receiving

Freshmen: 66 Receptions, 636 Yards, 9.6 YPR, 6 TD’s
Sophomores: 64 Receptions, 616 Yards, 9.6 YPR, 1 TD
Juniors: 32 Receptions, 258 Yards, 8.1 YPR, 2 TD’s
Seniors: 55 Receptions, 494 Yards, 8.9 YPR, 3 TD’s

Things seem to be looking up, huh? I’m sure I made a math error in there (I did a lot of it in my head), but you get the idea. Freshmen led EVERY SINGLE CATEGORY here in terms of production. That’s simply amazing. The more you look into this, the better this gets:

  • I’m willing to bet that all five of Travis Thomas’s touchdowns occurred when we were in the “goal line” formation. I feel pretty confident when I say that losing him here won’t hurt us, as either James Aldridge or Robert Hughes should be able to pick up improve upon where Thomas left off in that department.
  • The passing game should only improve next year now that Jimmy Clausen has had time to get his feet wet. A deeper, more talented, and more experienced offensive line should help, and the only starter graduating from the line is center John Sullivan. (However, some may see him leaving as a good thing …)
  • The only loss worthy of note in the receiving section is John Carlson. He’ll be tough to replace, but Will Yeatman, Mike Ragone, and incoming freshmen Kyle Rudolph and Joseph Fauria look to fill his place. Also, look for to-be-freshmen wideouts Mike Floyd and John Goodman to make an impact on next year’s depth chart, if not on the gridiron itself.

Obviously, there are lots of uncertainties that need to sort themselves out, and these young players have to become a lot more consistent if the Irish are going to return to ‘05-’06 form. But there’s reason for hope, anyway …

[NOTES:

* I'm factoring out sack yardage here, as well as leaving out Demetrius Jones's numbers, since he left the team mid-season.

** Here's where there's some wiggle room in the stats. JC's two rushing TD's are included here, but his attempts and yards were not. I didn't want to include sacks, as I thought it would detract from the main idea, and I wasn't about to dig through game play-by-plays to find his actual attempts/yardage sans the sacks.

*** Once again, Jones's numbers are factored out.

**** Clausen's Passer Rating. Armando Allen's passing stats were not included in the class QB rating.]

In defense of John Latina (?)

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

A lot has been made of the awful mess that was the 2007 Notre Dame offensive line. Some of this blame has gone towards Charlie Weis, in particular for to his decision to run non-physical practices that lacked real hitting. A significantly larger portion of the criticism has been directed at the offensive line coach, John Latina, who many believe has failed to generate a dominant unit in his tenure at Notre Dame.

I think both of these criticisms hold some merit, though neither gets at the whole story. My gut reaction on the criticisms of Coach Latina is to say “Hey, forget the situation - a winner wins and this man hasn’t been able to do his job.” Nevertheless, after reflecting on the situation it’s clear there are plenty of other reasons why the Irish have been hamstrung up front with the big uglies. As the season ends and the coaches head out on the recruiting trail, it seems increasingly likely that Latina - who has paid visits to Hafis Williams and Kenneth Page in the past few days - will be with the Irish into 2008. Thus it seemed worth looking more closely at the past three years to see whether the calls for his firing are valid or not.

First, though, a bit of background on Coach Latina for those unacquainted with his resume: during his six-year period as an offensive line coach at Temple from 1983-1988, Latina had three lineman drafted by the NFL and four signed as free-agents. Temple tailback Paul Palmer led the nation in rushing in 1986. Following that, he produced seven NFL linemen in five years at Kansas State (1989-1993), six All-ACC linemen at in five years at Clemson (1994-1998), and eleven NFL linemen in six years at Ole Miss (1999-2004). Ole Miss allowed the fewest sacks in the SEC, and in two of his years at Clemson the Tigers were among the top two in the ACC in rushing yardage.

All of this sets him up as a man who came to Notre Dame with quite a distinguished background and an excellent resume. But all that really ought to matter to Irish fans is the job he’s done since 2005. So let’s take a look, shall we?

2005

Situation: Weis is entering his first year and the Irish have an offensive explosion, jumping to one of the top rated offenses in the nation. Brady Quinn has a breakout year, and Darius Walker rushes for nearly 1200 yards.

Offensive Line:

  • LT - Ryan Harris (6-5, 288, JR) - Mike Turkovich (6-6, 290, FR)
  • LG - Dan Santucci (6-4, 290, SR) - Brian Mattes (6-6, 285, SR)
  • C - Bob Morton (6-4, 292, SR) - John Sullivan (6-4, 298, JR)
  • RT - Dan Stevenson (6-6, 292, SR) - Scott Raridon (6-7, 304, SR)
  • RT - Mark Levoir (6-7, 311, SR) - Paul Duncan (6-7, 292, FR)

Evaluation: This was clearly the best offensive line of the past three years. ND had an almost all-senior starting line and all were legitimate talents. The biggest glaring spots here are the lack of sophomore and junior depth as well as how light all these seniors were. Ty Willingham preferred the lighter/quicker offensive lineman, which doesn’t gel with Weis’s pro-style offense. Latina seems to have been able to install the system well with good players despite their physical limitations.

Grade: B+

2006

Situation: The Irish come into the year ranked #2 in pre-season polls and looking to improve on their 9-3 record and BCS bowl loss. Brady Quinn is looking to be one of the top Heisman candidates, and most of the skill players are back to back him up.

Offensive Line:

  • LT - Ryan Harris (6-5, 292, SR) - Mike Turkovich (6-6, 290, SO)
  • LG - Dan Santucci (6-4, 290, 5th) - Eric Olsen (6-4, 290, FR)
  • C - John Sullivan (6-4, 298, SR) - Bob Morton (6-4, 292, 5th)
  • RG - Bob Morton (6-4, 292, 5th) - Brian Mattes (6-6, 287, SR)
  • RT - Sam Young (6-7, 292, FR) - Paul Duncan (6-7, 292, SO)

Evaluation: The team as a whole didn’t live up to the hype, getting beaten soundly by top competition. While most of the blame lies with the defense giving out points to anyone who asked, the offense looked lost at times, and certainly didn’t dominate like they did in ‘05. The linemen were about the same size as the previous year, so either they hit a ceiling for gaining weight or they were not coached well in terms of gaining size. Young started all thirteen games as a freshman and did well for the situation while having some struggles. Clearly depth was becoming a pressing concern as the two-deep now had two sophomores, two freshman, and one starter being a potential backup for Sullivan. In the NFL draft, Harris was selected in the third round and Santucci in the seventh.

Grade: C

2007

Situation: Notre Dame is turning the page, having lost most of its starters from the previous year. Though no one is actively saying it is a rebuilding season, all signs point to a downturn from the previous two. Virtually the entire two-deep is being replaced along the line, and there are new receivers, running backs, and quarterbacks. However they are all more highly touted coming out of high school and ND looks to use youthful talent over experience.

Offensive Line: (granted there was a lot of movement)

  • LT - Sam Young (6-8, 310, SO) - Taylor Dever (6-5, 289, FR)
  • LG - Mike Turkovich (6-6, 301, JR) - Thomas Bermenderfer (6-5, 285, JR)
  • C - John Sullivan (6-4, 303, SR) - Dan Wenger (6-4, 287, SO)
  • RG - Eric Olsen (6-5, 303, SO) - Dan Wenger (6-4, 287, SO)
  • RT - Paul Duncan (6-7, 308, JR) - Chris Stewart (6-5, 339, SO)

Evaluation: Well, the team was awful, and a lot of the troubles extended from the o-line. The Irish gave up record numbers of sacks, penalties, and negative yardage plays. That being said, this fact can be traced largely to the fact that there were only had two returning starters among the ENTIRE two-deep, one of whom was a true sophomore. The unit showed moderate improvement as the year went on, but still lacked any real luster. Sullivan did not look like his old self, and Wenger actually looked like one of the best players on the unit by season’s end.

Grade: D

The upshot of all of this is that it would be wrong to lay all of the blame for ND’s struggles up front at the feet of Coach Latina. Sure, we’re three seasons in and the Irish have yet to have an overpowering offensive line unit, but a lot of it is attributable to size issues in 2005/2006, depth issues in 2006/2007, and inexperience issues in 2007. It seems that Weis may hold off passing judgment on Latina until the end of the 2008 season and I would advise others to do so as well. While we haven’t seen much in terms of a finished product, the Irish have been working hard to develop their current players (18 lbs. by Young in one offseason - whew!), and it’s highly unlikely that they’ll have another situation where they have to replace almost the entire unit in one season. In any case, next year eight of the nine players who were listed along the two-deep from the end of the 2007 season will be back: the line’s performance in 2008 should give us a much better indication of whether Latina is up to the task.

Let’s start moving forward now.

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

My Stanford recap is still in the works. In the meantime, I thought it was worth passing along this tidbit from the AP report on yesterday’s game:

As soon as the final whistle blew, the Notre Dame players gathered in the end zone to salute their fans and savor a season-ending victory.

The celebration continued in the locker room with multiple renditions of the school’s fight song and pictures for the departing seniors. The Fighting Irish managed to put a positive finish on the worst season ever for college football’s most storied team.


“When we were singing in there — and the last two games we didn’t even worry about our record, just that we were winning those games,” senior safety Tom Zbikowski said. “It feels good to get that feeling back of winning games.”

That’s exactly what you want to hear about a young team that’s trying to build for the future. There are no illusions, and there is no shortage of frustration, about the awfulness of a 3-9 season, but that doesn’t mean you have to hang your heads:

“It’s still 3-9. Let’s not kid ourselves,” [Charlie] Weis said. “But at least it’s 3-9 with two wins at the end of the year. Now all of a sudden, you’re going into the offseason winning the last game at home and then we go on the road and win our last game there. Let’s start moving forward now.”

Well said, Coach. The 2008 season begins today. 286 days ’til kickoff …

So much to be thankful for

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

A few days ago, Irish Envy member ‘littlerick77′ posted this story about taking his son to Notre Dame for the Duke game. It seemed worth sharing it with the wider community, especially since it’s Thanksgiving week. He’s allowing us to do that, and has also sent along a bunch of great pictures, which are included at the bottom - click on the thumbnails to get a larger view of them. Enjoy! -John

For those of you who don’t know, my son David has been battling a very aggressive form of childhood lung cancer called pleuropulmonary blastoma since he was two. He has had many treatments/surgeries over the years and he is now eight years old. However, his cancer has recently returned and is spreading at a rapid rate. We had planned our trip to Notre Dame four months ago before any of this occurred.

His third grade teacher knows how much he loves ND and she was talking to her husband about David. Her husband (who is Michigan alum) made a bunch of calls to friends and connections to people at the university and told them of David’s situation.

I can’t tell you how much more I believe in the Notre Dame “spirit and family” philosophy after this weekend. It was such an incredible experience, led by the ND Fire Department (specifically, Fire Chief Antonucci) who spent the time to get to know David in a short amount of time and had all of his staff make sure David had the best time possible!

Our first day started by meeting Coach Weis, Zibby (David’s favorite player), Jimmy, Evan and Armando at Thursday’s practice. Chad Klunder, who is the Director of Football Operations, was such a great host to us, walking us around, giving David souvenirs and making sure he was enjoying himself. He also set us up with pre-game field passes and upgraded our game tickets.

We got to go to the luncheon on Friday, where David was called up to the stage by Coach Weis - David was a little nervous, but later told me that was the favorite part of his day! We also got a tour of the locker room where David got a picture with Zibby’s helmet in front of his locker. We were also very fortunate to meet Father Jenkins, who was a very nice man. We ended the day going to the pep rally later that night.

Game day was awesome - obviously because of the win, but more importantly because it was David’s first ND home game experience and he loved every moment of it! Even though it got a little cold out there, he wanted to stick it out and enjoy it. We did end up catching the last few minutes of the game with the Chief in the press box.

To me, it was just very touching to have so many people go out of their way and take time out of their schedules to give a wonderful experience to a little boy they had never met before. That is why I love Notre Dame so much: the people, the culture, the love they have for their own - it all came together in one full weekend to show that ND loves David as much as David loves ND. No matter what happens down the road, I know this past weekend gave me the greatest memories I could ever share with my son - THANK YOU TO ALL THE STAFF, PLAYERS, COACHES, AND EVERYONE ASSOCIATED WITH NOTRE DAME FOR ALL YOU DID FOR US!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

GO IRISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

100 reasons why I love Charlie Weis and am glad he’s our coach

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

With his team at 1-9 and its offense mired in the pits of Division I-A, Charlie Weis has taken a lot of much-deserved (and some undeserved) flack for the job he’s been doing as head coach of the Fighting Irish. And since I’ve been about as negative as anyone - well, maybe not quite ANYONE - about Weis, I think it’s time for me to come clean and make it known that my opinion of him is by no means exhaustively negative. Hence here are 100 reasons why I love Charlie Weis and am glad he’s our coach:

1. He’s a Jersey guy. Me too, or at least I was until I moved to California. And Jersey guys stick with Jersey guys.

2. He’s a Notre Dame alum. Again, me too, though I only got a lousy graduate degree. And if I love the place this much never having lived on campus for an extended period of time or gone through all the rest of the crazy brain-washing (an ND logo stamped into the middle of your WAFFLES?!), think of how much he cares about it.

3. He’s a family man. Seeing the way he relates to his wife, son, and daughter is really heartwarming. And say what you will about having Charlie Jr. on the sidelines: the fact is that it shows a level of attachment and devotion to his son that’s remarkable in a guy who works 20-hour days. Speaking of which …

4. He works like all hell. Want to catch Coach Weis on his way to work in the morning? Try tripping past the Gug on your way back from closing down the ‘Backer. In any case, be flexible with your definition of “morning,” and DEFINITELY don’t wait for the sun to rise.

5. He’s as pained by the losing as anyone. Do not - I repeat, do NOT - mistake his occasional press-conference brashness for a lack of awareness of how bad things have been this year, let alone a glib attitude about it. If your team got its butt hammered in, you got booed, and then you were dragged in front of an audience of overeager reporters with lots of dumb questions, you’d get pretty pissy as well. And hey, what do you want him to say? “We suck, we have sucked, we will suck, and I quit”? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

6. He gives back. Lots of ND football coaches have started charitable organizations after they’ve retired, but Hannah and Friends has been running from day one. And a lot of Weis’s efforts have been tied directly to the local community, which is admirable given the touchy history of town-gown relations between South Bend and the university. Even his lawsuit, which I must admit wasn’t my favorite decision (you know, high cost of medical services due to malpractice insurance, lawyers = scum of the Earth, etc.), was going to be used to help others rather than pad his own pockets.

7. He cares about his players. Weis got a lot of praise for driving Robert Hughes back to Chicago after his brother was killed, and rightly so. But the fact of the matter is that this fits right into a much more overarching pattern: sure, he manages to anger or even alienate some of his players, but at the end of the day they know it’s just because he’s trying to push them to do well, like an overbearing dad making his kid practice the piano because he really, really, REALLY wants him to be good at it. Peel away those layers, my friends, and you’ll find love at the core.

8-26. Nineteen wins in two years. Say what you will about ‘06 having been a disappointing campaign, but ten wins is ten wins. Say what you will about the quality of the opponents he beat, but you can only win the games you play (and it’s not as if Michigan, Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Penn State, and UCLA are a bunch of nobodies). Say what you will about losing the “big games,” but he’s run into some downright juggernauts, especially in the postseason. If his teams had had any semblance of a D-I defense, not to mention better offensive lines and maybe some more talent at the tailback position, they very well might have won a pair of national titles. After the misery of the decade or so that preceded ‘05-’06, those wins were glorious to behold.

27-30. Four Super Bowl rings. Yeah, I know he wasn’t the head coach, and I know he was able to ride the coattails of Parcells, Belichick, et al, but championships are championships, and I’ll take a guy who’s won them over a guy who hasn’t.

31-98. Jimmy Clausen, Armando Allen, James Aldridge, Duval Kamara, Omar Hunter, Kerry Neal, … well, you get the point. That’s 68 recruits in three years, with a bunch more on the ‘08 “big board” who still have lots of interest in the Irish. Compare that to his illustrious predecessor, who recruited a total of 52 in his three seasons, barely more than Weis & Co. brought in through their first TWO. It’s not just about the rankings, either: you can’t win with an empty cupboard, and trust me, Ty left it BARE.

99. His players believe in him. Make no mistake about it: you don’t have top-notch recruits with offers from Everywhere breaking down the doors to play for you the week after being present for a 38-0 spanking if you’ve “lost the team.” Nor do insomniac offensive linemen pad over to your office in rainbow flip-flops and knock on your door at 5:30am to ask how to be a better leader unless they think that leading is a worthwhile endeavor. Sure, there may be some players, especially among the upper classes, who’ve sort of thrown in the towel, and there’s no doubt that this team has often played tentatively and has had a tendency to get discouraged when things have gone wrong, but a lot of them seem genuinely excited about the future of the program. And that’s a hell of an accomplishment when you’re 1-9.

100. The glimmers of hope. Clausen dropping a beautiful pass over two defenders. Kamara stiff-arming an undersized defensive back and plowing through a pair of tacklers to pick up eight yards. Armando Allen bursting around the outside for a gain of eleven. James Aldridge running over a would-be tackler at the line of scrimmage. Golden Tate snagging a touchdown bomb, with his FINGERNAILS. Kerry Neal and Brain Smith playing like men possessed on the outside. Darrin Walls looking more and more like a shut-down corner every week. Chris Stewart crushing defensive linemen to open up holes for his tailbacks. And on and on the list goes … no doubt this year’s team has been a HUGE disappointment, but the flashes we’ve seen (and yes, they’ve only been flashes, and have been few and far between the lengthy stretches of awfulness) have made it clear that Weis and his staff have brought in some extraordinary talent. At this point it’s about developing these kids and teaching them to win.

Of course, none of this counts as evidence that Weis will definitely, or even probably, be able to accomplish what he needs to in order to right this oh-so-sunken ship. But just as he’s responsible for a big portion of the damage, it’s also going to be his task to repair it, at least for the time being. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Pleasantly surprised

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

From Charlie Weis’s Tuesday press conference:

I think the younger guys are trying to put themselves in a position to step up, and I think that there will be guys who will probably send us a message here in the next couple weeks of which direction they intend to go.

Not getting into one player, but it was probably one of the most enjoyable parts of my entire week, happened yesterday morning at 5:30. Yesterday morning at 5:30 I’m sitting in my office and I keep the door locked because I don’t like just anyone walking in at 5:30, and my phone rings and one of the players on our team is outside. I said, oh, no, here we go again. He wants to talk to me so he knocks on my door. I thought we had another person that was looking to pack his bags and go.

And it was just the opposite. He said he hasn’t slept all night. He’s an under classman. He hadn’t slept all night and he felt he needed to step up and take on more of a leadership role, and he was asking for some advice on how to do that. I mean, that’s the type of guys you want on your team, guys that aren’t sleeping because they’re worrying about how they can - he’s a regular player, but how they can step up and take on more of a leadership role. I thought that was a good way to start the week.

it’s a great way to start your week, a great way to start your week after you get through the grinds of the game and the aftermath of the game and recruiting and all those things that go on through Sunday, to be in your office early and you’re watching tape and you’re watching some Duke and getting ready for your meetings and everything and have a kid — your double secret probation line that no one knows rings and you think my wife is calling with something wrong, and it’s one of your players outside, hey, can I talk to you. You think, here we go. And he wants to talk to you about how he can be a better leader.

We talked for a few minutes, and I said let me think about it. I set up an appointment and he came back last night and we followed up after I had a whole day to think about it. They’re the rewarding moments, you know, in life, when you see a young man kind of take the bull by the horns.

Now, in a new Rivals.com video feature, we learn that the “mystery player” was none other than second-year offensive tackle Sam Young:

With the line the way it is right now, I’m trying to put myself in a position to help us get better, more than anything, and whatever that role entails for me, I’m more than willing to fill it.

I was there and I just decided, you know, just go up and talk to him, and he was available, so we just talked about a bunch of different things. I think it was a good decision, and just talking back and forth and bouncing stuff off each other - I think how it plays out is yet to be seen, but I think it was a good conversation.

Watch the whole thing - Young (as well as James Aldridge, who is also interviewed) comes off as intelligent and remarkably articulate, and gives you a good feeling about the direction this team is heading. There’s apparently no doubt in the players’ minds about whether they’re going to right this ship and who the coach is who’s going to help them do that - hopefully we fans can be as patient, and really work to understand the difficulty of the situation they’re facing.

***

Later on in his presser, in a different context, Weis did actually talk about the kind of player and leader that Young is capable of becoming:

Q. With Sam, going back to the question I asked you Sunday about leadership, and you mentioned the offense, not really sure who’s going to step up and be a leader there, is Sam a guy that could do that?

COACH WEIS: Yeah, he’s a contender. See, the one thing about Sam, he’s played more football than anyone else on the offensive line, once Sully leaves. Sully is such a domineering personality that you would never really notice the other guys’ leadership ability while he’s there because it’s almost like overstepping your bounds. So it’ll be kind of interesting how that matriculates after he’s not there because that’s exactly what you’re looking for because you want to see who are those people that are going to start assuming that because I don’t think leadership is something you can try to fake or create. Either you have it or you don’t have it. Now, in the offensive line position we really don’t know what the answer is because Sully has really been the man all year long.

Q. As far as the season that Sam had, how would you kind of evaluate where he is now?

COACH WEIS: I think that ever since he settled — after he moved over and then settled down or settled into the position, I think that from about the midway part of the year on, he’s gotten progressively better.

Q. Comment on the expectations for him being off the chart. You described him as an NFL looking offensive tackle when you signed him. Did you ever have to talk to him about his expectations?

COACH WEIS: Actually we’re trying to get him to gain weight. How many times do you hear you’re trying to get a guy who weighs 317 to gain weight, but he’s actually on a program where he’s drinking extra shakes and things like that. He’s so big that he can carry a lot more weight than he’s carrying right now. Some of those guys as the season goes on have a tough time keeping weight on. I think that he’s at the stage now, the offensive linemen are at a stage, there’s really a couple different stages in their development, one in between their freshman and sophomore year when they become more physically ready to play on a regular basis where they came in with some brute strength, now they become more physically ready, and then between the sophomore and the junior year, I think that becomes more where they start to develop into like front line players.

Next year, of course, Young will be the most experienced member along the offensive line, so it would definitely be great to see a peak in his development.

***

Finally, a few more notes from the presser, while we’re at it:

  • John Sullivan, Pat Kuntz, and Sergio Brown will all miss this week’s game, and Mike Ragone and Geoff Price are doubtful. Obviously the most important of these losses are those of Sullivan, who will be replaced by sophomore Dan Wenger, and Kuntz, whose replacement will be true freshman Ian Williams, who is actually seventh on the team in tackles and had 17 in the last two games, when he played significant minutes in place of the banged-up Kuntz. Weis said, though, that while Sullivan has a chance to be back next week, Kuntz probably won’t.
  • Weis also talked about the development of sophomore offensive lineman Chris Stewart, who’s played significant minutes in each of the past couple of games. He said Stewart has been doing a good job of keeping his weight down, and that he’s starting to put himself in a position where he can be a more regular player. Weis also said he plans to give Stewart playing time at both tackle and guard against Duke.
  • Because of Ragone’s injury, sophomore fullback Luke Schmidt will be “cross-trained” at both fullback and tight end this week, and will have a chance to see the field as a “tweener guy.”

Let’s hope the team can get out there and win one - in convincing fashion, preferably! - for the seniors.

Thought experiment

Monday, November 12th, 2007

From a commenter, identified as “Hal,” on a post at Blue-Gray Sky:

I’d like to do an experiment:

Take a team like Michigan and put them in ND’s shoes. Remove Hart and Henne for the whole season, and replace them with Frosh and Sophs. Take away Manningham and replace him with a Frosh. Then, remove a couple of O-line starters. Lastly, take the junior and senior classes and remove a dozen of the most talented guys, including those who might fill those holes in the O-line. Throw in a bit more inexperience at some key positions on D.

What’s Michigan’s record now? I’d say 3-8, 4-7.

I’m not picking on Michigan, and I’m not saying we should be losing to Navy and Air Force. I’m just saying that there are some pretty serious extenuating circumstances going on here. This is hard to stomach, but it’s not inexplicable.

It’s not time to panic.

At this point in the season I’m about as despondent as one can be about the future, and pretty much fed up with excuse-making, but something about this really speaks to me. A few other variables not mentioned here include:

  • Playing an insanely difficult schedule, composed almost entirely of away games, to start the season.
  • Having your best quarterback trying to recover from off-season elbow surgery, with your top two tailbacks coming off of injuries as well.
  • Seeing lots of key players (Aldridge, Grimes, Wenger, Kuntz, Bruton, etc.) go down with injuries at various points during the season itself.
  • Bringing in a brand-new defensive coordinator who’s trying to implement a new scheme using personnel recruited for the old one.

Add to this distractions like the Demetrius Jones situation and the (rumored, though perfectly predictable) tensions between the upper and lower classes, and you’ve got a recipe for a season that starts badly and quickly snowballs into mind-numbing awfulness. No doubt the coaching staff has failed MISERABLY in getting things back on track, but that doesn’t change the fact that the circumstances they’re dealing with have been, as Hal says, “serious[ly] extenuating.”

THAT’S why Charlie Weis will be back in 2008, this year’s suckitude notwithstanding. And it’s also why I’m done complaining about 2007 … unless we lose to Duke, that is.

On being in denial

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

For me, it all started with the Michigan State game in 2006. The Irish had started off the season with a pair of relatively lackluster wins - a 14-10 squeaker at Georgia Tech, a 41-17 win against Penn State in South Bend that was frankly much closer than the scoreboard made it out to be (the Nittany Lions kept pace with the Irish in terms of overall yardage, but turned the ball over three times) - and then suffered an absolutely inexplicable 47-21 spanking at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines, the first genuine blowout loss in Charlie Weis’s young career as a head coach.

Now it was late September, the fourth week of the season. My wife and I were watching the game in the lounge area of a Northern California restaurant, since we don’t have cable at home and ABC was showing the stupid USC game. We were eager to see our Irish rebound from the last week’s tough loss. Let’s just say they came out a bit flat. As the Spartan lead grew from 7-0, to 14-0, to 17-0 at the end of the first quarter, then stayed in the high teens as MSU matched the Irish score-for-score through the end of the third, a chorus of voices resounded in my head: first quietly, then louder and louder as the situation grew more desperate.

What if this is the beginning of the end? What if last season was a fluke? What if Weis really just isn’t a good gameday coach?

Each time I’d find myself asking one of those questions, I’d abruptly shut it down with a well-placed excuse: it was Rick Minter’s defense that couldn’t stop the Spartan attack; MSU had a 3-0 record coming in; it wasn’t Weis’s fault if his players couldn’t motivate themselves. As the voices persisted, the excuses matched them blow-for-blow.

Then, of course, it was time for the BIG excuse: a stirring, inspiring, exhilarating, insert­­-­­­­your-word-here-just-know-it-was-awesome fourth­-quarter comeback led by the unparalleled Brady Quinn and a suddenly revitalized defense. The Irish rattled off 19 straight points in the rain in East Lansing, moved their record to 4-1, and kept the whatifs at bay for the time being.

Three weeks later, though, they were back: after another pair of sloppy performances against inferior opponents (easily blameable, of course, on Minter’s defensive schemes), the Irish found themselves trailing again, this time late in the fourth quarter against UCLA. The voices were screaming, my heart was pounding, the rage inside was building up … and then … AN UNBELIEVABLE PLAY BY QUINN AND SAMARDZIJA! THE IRISH WIN! TAKE THAT, VOICES!

Never mind the fact that the only reason the offense got the chance to pull that rabbit out was that Bruin frontman Karl Dorrell failed to run out the clock on the preceding drive; never mind that finding yourself in a position where you need to go 80 yards in 34 seconds against a 4-2 team is hardly evidence of great coaching; and never mind that this sort of hole-digging - anybody remember Stanford in 2005? - had been one of the trademarks of the Weis era. We WON. The voices were WRONG. Charlie Weis was the BEST.

Fast-forward to November 2007. The excuses have had their day. Sure, the team is young - but we’re three months into the season now, and there’s little doubt in my mind that the squad we saw yesterday would STILL lose 33-3 to Georgia Tech, 31-10 to Penn State, 38-0 to Michigan and USC, and so on. Sure, the defense has given up some serious points in the last couple of weeks - but it’s hard to blame them for getting discouraged when their offense can’t even move the ball against AIR FORCE. And yes, I’m well aware that this program is dealing with overcoming a stretch of really bad recruiting, that there’s very little talent (or leadership) among the upper classes, that injuries have been a problem, that there’s a learning curve - for coaches and players alike - in adjusting to the college game, and so on and so on.

But there are NO EXCUSES for what we saw in yesterday’s game:

  • Drive 1: 1 play, 28 yards, fumble.
  • Drive 2: 5 plays, 10 yards, punt.
  • Drive 3: 4 plays, -9 yards, turnover on downs.
  • Drive 4: 2 plays, -1 yard, fumble.
  • Drive 5: 3 plays, 3 yards, punt.
  • Drive 6: 13 plays, 52 yards, field goal.
  • Drive 7: 7 plays, 50 yards, touchdown. (Extended by personal foul penalty after failed conversion on third-and-long.)
  • Drive 8: 3 plays, -4 yards, punt.
  • Drive 9: 1 play, 0 yards, halftime.
  • Drive 10: 5 plays, 11 yards, punt.
  • Drive 11: 5 plays, 17 yards, punt.
  • Drive 12: 10 plays, 57 yards, touchdown.
  • Drive 13: 8 plays 71 yards, touchdown.
  • Drive 14: 4 plays, 9 yards, turnover on downs.
  • Drive 15: 8 plays, 40 yards, turnover on downs.

That’s FOURTEEN real drives, TEN of which failed to result in points, and another that should also have gone for zero if not for an idiotic hit out of bounds. It’s SIX sacks given up. It’s 58 rushing yards on the day, an average of ONE-POINT-FIVE per carry (factor out the sacks and you get 30 carries for 105 yards … still not sufficient). It’s … well hell, IT’S A SEVENTEEN POINT LOSS TO AIR FORCE, and it’s INEXCUSABLE.

Let me make one thing clear: I am NOT saying that Charlie Weis should be fired. Weis deserves the same treatment that Ty Willingham got: a chance to follow up a dreadful season (and the 5-7 campaign in 2004 was clearly that) with a good one. If the appeal to equity isn’t enough to convince you of this, then 19 wins in two years and a trio of top-ranked recruiting classes - not to mention the mass chaos that would ensue on his departure - ought to do the trick.

But come on, folks. It’s time to face facts. For two years now, the only thing consistent about this team has been its inconsistency. There have been - and still are - some great players, and they’ve made for some great moments. And maybe - MAYBE - getting to the light at the end of the tunnel (where we WILL get, mind you) won’t require changing things at the top. In the meantime, though, we need to be honest with ourselves about what’s been going on.

Through two years of sloppiness and inconsistent play, I stood firm. I accentuated the positives until the negatives faded from view. I drank the Kool-Aid like water, and shouted down the haters with the best of them. And whenever my wife would ask me, in her wide-eyed way, whether Charlie Weis was after all not that good of a coach, I’d squirm, shift my eyes, and stammer out another excuse.

I thought I was keeping the faith. It turns out I was only in denial.

It’s happening again …

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

Why is it that every time I get good and mad at Charlie Weis - you know, mad enough to hop on the next flight to South Bend, march over to him and Charlie Jr. on the sidelines, grab them by their necks, and shove those stupid headsets up their asses - someone has to come along and say something stupid that makes me feel obligated to run to his defense?

Actually, wait. Before you answer that question, let me start you off with a hypothetical scenario.

Imagine you’re the general manager of a baseball team, and you have to choose between two players - call them “Smith” and “Jones” - whose numbers over a three-year stretch look pretty much identical:

  • Smith: .278 avg., 87 HR, 282 RBI
  • Jones: .274 avg., 88 HR, 289 RBI

Taking a look at those stats, you might conclude that Smith and Jones are players of pretty much the same caliber. If you did this, though, you’d be the biggest idiot to occupy a front office since, well, lots of the GM’s who apparently occupy them right now. Why do I say this? Because a judgment like that ought to be based, not just on a brute overall comparison of two three-year stretches, but on at least a year-by-year breakdown of their statistics. If you did such a thing, something like the following could very well turn up:

What these numbers would reveal was that Smith and Jones achieved those similar three-year statistics in very different ways: Smith did it with a single great year followed by two mediocre ones, while Jones had two solid years and a third terrible one. As a GM, you might come up with all sorts of possible explanations for these numbers, which you’d have to play off against each other to reach a final verdict: perhaps Smith was using steroids, or just got really lucky, in that Brady Anderson-esque first season; perhaps Jones was injured, or poorly protected in his lineup, or once again just really unlucky, in that third season; and so on. Obviously it would be tough to figure out which of these explanations was the right one - the only point is that looking only at un-parsed numbers that span three full years isn’t sufficient to make a judiciously informed decision.

Now imagine that you’re a sportswriter with an agenda, and you’re covering the free agency situations of Smith and Jones. Perhaps Jones is in fact offered the better contract because of the judgment that, well, he had two good seasons followed by what may very well have been a mere aberration, while Smith had just one good season before sliding into mediocrity. (Obviously there would be a risk here, since maybe Jones really is a .220-13-54 hitter after all: but hey, we can’t predict the future.) If you were a sportswriter with an agenda, you might gloss over the fact that Smith’s and Jones’s numbers look so different when you break them down into one-year chunks, and instead cook up some OTHER, more exciting explanation of Jones’s superior contract offer: perhaps he’s better-looking, or darker- or lighter-skinned. Maybe the fans like him more. Heck, maybe Jones is sleeping with the owner’s daughter. The details don’t matter - the point is, it would be very easy to use the Smith-Jones situation to make an argument like this:

  1. Smith and Jones have nearly identical three-year numbers, so that can’t be the explanation of the difference in their contract offers; and
  2. There’s this OTHER difference between Smith and Jones - appearance, skin color, fan preference, whatever - that’s pretty salient; so
  3. That other difference must be what accounts for their different offers.

Such an argument, though, would be demonstrably faulty: for you’d have failed to take into account the many other less-newsworthy but still quite plausible explanations that might be given to account for their different offers - in this case, the most obvious one would be the different YEARLY statistics that the two players put up. But if you were a sportswriter with an agenda, this wouldn’t matter to you: you could gloss over these natural explanations in order to get on your moral high horse, and argue - or perhaps just insinuate - that something unjust was going on. You know, “Come and see the violence inherent in the system,” and all that.

Which brings me back to Charlie Weis. Here’s the illustrious Gene Wojciechowski, writing for ESPN.com:

When [Tyrone] Willingham finished 6-5 in his third year (by the way, he beat eighth-ranked Michigan, ninth-ranked Tennessee, Michigan State and Navy), [Notre Dame President Rev. John] Jenkins called for the punt formation. It is that glaring difference in treatment that legitimizes questions asking whether Willingham’s firing was racially motivated. If nothing else, it keeps alive the perception that racial undertones were at work.

Wojciechowski’s argument has exactly the same form as the inanely stupid one offered by our hypothetical journalist-with-an-agenda: since Explanation A (in this case, the coaches’ records in their third seasons) doesn’t account for the difference in treatment, it simply MUST be based on something MUCH more insidious, and the most reasonable candidate is skin color.

Of course, Wojciechowski doesn’t actually come out and SAY that it’s a matter of racism: he simply says that the situation “legitimizes questions” about such a possibility, and “keeps alive the perception” that this might be so. But the same could be said for, say, the government’s response to crazy conspiracy theories about 9/11 or the JFK assassination: MAYBE the reason they’re not addressing these theories is because of a huge cover-up, but it’s much more likely to be due to the inanity of the theories themselves.

The same point applies here: you can say all you want - and Wojciechowski damn near says it all - to paint a picture of Weis and Willingham as coaches with nearly identical tenures, but the fact is that there’s a completely race-independent explanation of why Willingham was fired after three years while Weis won’t be:

The obvious explanation for the Weis/Willingham situation is, in other words, just like that of the Smith/Jones one: namely that TWO IS GREATER THAN ONE. Willingham was fired in 2004 because he’d had TWO straight mediocre seasons (not to mention a prior record as a head coach) that strongly suggested that 2002, i.e. his ONE good year, was the same sort of aberration as our hypothetical Smith’s supposed breakout year, and Weis will be retained beyond 2007 because he has had ONE (very very very) bad season, and the TWO good ones that preceded it suggest that it may (though I stress MAY) be the current one that’s the aberration. When you actually look at the numbers, no explanation could be more obvious than that.

But if, like Wojciechowski, you’re a journalist with an agenda, you can paper over those kinds of statistics. After all, you can’t dispute the numbers:

Weis is 20-14 after his first 34 games; Willingham was 21-13 after the same period and 21-15 when he was fired.

Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, Weis is WHITE, and Willingham is BLACK. Q.E.D.

[APPENDIX: Let me just add two things. (1) I'm NOT saying Charlie Weis is a good head coach, or even that he doesn't deserve to be fired. (2) NOR am I saying that the confidence I once had that Weis could turn this thing around is anything but very fragile right now (see here and here, for example). The ONLY point I was trying to make is that it is simply ridiculous to act as if the only relevant variable differentiating Weis's tenure from Willingham's is the color of their skin. It's not, and Wojciechowski should be ashamed of himself for trafficking in this sort of innuendo. His article embodies all the reasons why so many people in this country are unable to take the issue of racism seriously.]

“Wait ’til next week …”

Monday, November 5th, 2007

So says the Kool-Aid drinker. NEXT week will be the week this team gets it together. NEXT week will be the week Weis’s offensive philosophy really starts to sink in. NEXT week will be the week we finally see the potential that so far has been primarily latent in this young team begin to unleash itself. Be patient. Hold your horses. Just wait ’til next week …

Well, I’ve waited. With high apple pie in July hopes have I waited. And each of the fabled next weeks has come and gone, turning gradually into a this week, then a last week, then a two, three, four weeks ago week. And so far, next week has generally been a week not that different from all the others.

So no, don’t talk any more about next week. And please, PLEASE don’t start talking about next year. There is an awful lot that is wrong with this team, and no amount of fantasizing about the future is going to change that. To be honest, right now I’m happy it’s Monday: at least that means that this week’s next week is almost a week away.

*gulp*

Maybe we can get it going against Air Force, though. I heard they lost to Navy by two scores!