Postmortem: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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.

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