Posts Tagged ‘Chris Stewart’

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.

You stay classy, Palo Alto.

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Crooked refs. Awful field conditions. An obnoxious stadium announcer. A dreadful marching band whose absurd antics amuse no one but themselves and their similarly drunk friends. A beautiful new facility gone to waste as one of America’s most esteemed universities presents a gameday experience matched only by the ineptitude of their football program. That’s right - another day, another dollar, another road trip to Stanford.

A few thoughts about the trip in general: as I said, the new Stanford stadium really is very nice. We had endzone seats in the upper tier, but the view was great - and right up above us there was a big grassy area where kids could play, and so my son really managed to enjoy himself. That’s why it’s such a shame that the other elements of gameday at Stanford are so embarrassingly horrible: at least when you used to go, you sat on splintered wooden benches in a dumpy stadium, so the rest of what was going on around you didn’t seem so bad.

And it was awful. The parking crew exercised no control over tailgaters taking up spaces the width of four cars to spread out their folding chairs, and the only way they managed to determine whether a lot was full was by directing a line of cars into it, having them drive around for ten minutes, and seeing whether they came out the other side. The pre-game “festivities” featured a mediocre cover band playing bad rock-and-roll, and then deciding to abandon their break so that they could drown out ND’s alumni marching band. The stadium announcer showed himself to be as classless as he was annoying when he twice referred to Jimmy Clausen as “Casey,” and also pretended to get him mixed up with Tom Zbikowski at one point. And the band - oh, the band. I understand that they’re having fun, but the stupid halftime shows really do nothing at all for the fans. No wonder the stadium was half-empty. Honestly, we felt embarrassed for Stanford University at any number of different junctures on Saturday afternoon.

Speaking of which, there was a football game as well:

  • Jimmy Clausen played very well - he completed 19 20 of his 32 passes for 196 225 yards and a touchdown. He also made some really nice moves to get away from would-be tacklers, though on some occasions he ran out of bounds for lost yardage instead of throwing the ball away. His downfield throws were a bit uneven, and the one play on which he was intercepted was a really bad decision. Altogether, though, it was a solid day for a true freshman quarterback who showed some nice improvement over the course of the year - now it’s time for him to hit the weight room, practice those deep routes, and soak up the rest of the playbook.
  • Duval Kamara - six receptions for 93 yards - had a really nice day catching the ball. It’s clear that he’s a tremendous talent, and there’s little doubt that he’ll be the #1 receiver on the team next year: the challenge is figuring out who else is going to catch it. George West was as invisible on Saturday as he has been for most of the season, Robby Parris saw the field sparingly, and David Grimes showed why he’s best suited to be a third option rather than a featured guy. Hopefully Will Yeatman and Mike Ragone have got the stuff to help replace John Carlson next year; I’d also look to see Michael Floyd see the field early and often, much as Kamara did this year.
  • Robert Hughes - 18 carries for 136 yards - had a spectacular game, as he became the first Notre Dame freshman to pass the century mark twice in a season since Autry Denson did it in back-to-back games in 1995. He could use a bit more speed, though, as both of his long carries really should have gone for scores. Armando Allen started off well, as he picked up 18 yards on his first three carries, but after that he started going backwards, and while the banged-up James Aldridge did manage to get into the game, he didn’t end up touching the ball. Asaph Schwapp had another dreadful day, as he gained only four yards on his three carries, fumbled the ball once, and did a less-than-stellar job of blocking. I really have trouble seeing why Charlie Weis bothers putting him on the field. Kudos to Travis Thomas, who made the most of what was (thankfully!) his last stand as a goalline back by punching his one carry into the end zone from a yard out, and to Junior Jabbie, who’s shaping up into a great situational back for third-down passing situations.
  • Once again, we saw a lot of Chris Stewart on the offensive line, as he pretty much switched off series-by-series with Paul Duncan at right tackle. And once again, the play along the offensive line, and in pass protection in particular, was pretty terrible: Clausen was sacked on five occasions and pressured pretty heavily on many others, and while the running game was effective, the Irish running backs netted only 3.15 yards per carry if we factor out Hughes’s two huge runs.
  • The defense played quite well, and in particular they did a much better job at containing the outside run than they had in weeks past. Ian Williams had six tackles in his second start at the nose guard position, and made a strong case for some heavy playing time or even a starting role next year. Darrin Walls got turned around on one or two plays but had a great game overall, Brian Smith played a nice game on the outside, and David Bruton was his usual athletic self. But missed tackles were still a significant problem, as was fatigue - Stanford possessed the ball for over 21 minutes in the second half, and you could see the Irish defenders tiring out.

At the end of the day, a win is a win, no matter how bad the opponent (and the venue). The Irish came out strong, played with emotion, and rebounded nicely from the things that set them back. But many of those back-setting things - in particular the three fumbles and the five sacks - were exactly the sorts of problems that have killed this squad all year long. A team that puts the ball on the carpet, and allows its opponents to do the same to their quarterback, with that kind of frequency is not a team that’s going to win many games. Maybe experience will cure all - but only time will tell.

Obviously there’s a lot to think about as we head from the season of our discontent to what will hopefully be the the looooongest offseason - 285 days to go! - the Fighting Irish will have to endure for quite some time. I’ll have plenty of “bigger picture”-type of thoughts in the days and weeks ahead. In the meantime, here’s to West Virginia and Mizzou in the MNC game!

20 questions from the Duke game

Saturday, November 17th, 2007

I’ll have a proper recap of the Duke game some time this weekend, but for now here are twenty questions that have been on my mind:

  1. Is THAT what a D-I football team is supposed to look like? ‘Cause I almost thought it was …
  2. Is it just me, or does Duke head coach Ted Roof look an awful lot like Steve Martin?
  3. They were saying “Huuuuuuughes,” right?
  4. What in the world does Dan Wenger do with his helmet? It looks like he’s been using it as a hammer. Do they not repaint these things after losses?
  5. What’s up with all the empty seats at midfield? Do these people not even have the courtesy to find somebody who’ll take their tickets? What an embarrassment …
  6. Did anybody else find it morbidly fitting that Travis Thomas ended his Irish career with a fumble?
  7. How serious was Tom Zbikowski about the whole quarterback thing? Can you imagine how annoying that must’ve been for Charlie Weis to put up with his pestering for three straight years?
  8. Has there ever been a more absurd penalty call than the excessive celebration flag on John Carlson for giving the “first down” signal?
  9. I don’t mind instant replay, but do they really have to take so long with it? It was OBVIOUS that Thaddeus Lewis hadn’t fumbled that ball; why spend ten minutes coming to a decision?
  10. Does anybody else feel a weird desire for the NBC contract to come to an end, just so that we could see a halfway competent broadcast crew during a home game?
  11. Speaking of NBC, what in the world was that sideline reporter wearing? He looked like he was off to give a seminar at Cambridge.
  12. Did it seem to everyone like we saw a lot less of Asaph Schwapp?
  13. How in the world is this team going to find ways to get carries for all three of their tailbacks next year?
  14. Can someone get Weis a handkerchief?
  15. And maybe a field goal kicker as well?
  16. So, Notre Dame > Duke > Northwestern > Michigan State > Penn State > Wisconsin > Michigan > Illinois > Ohio State, right?
  17. How satisfying was it to see plays run out of the shotgun, and without the ball flying over the quarterback’s head?
  18. Wasn’t it great to see Chris Stewart get so much playing time?
  19. And how about Kerry Neal and Brian Smith as the two starting outside linebackers?
  20. Doesn’t winning feel wonderful?

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.

Personnel notes

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

With the Southern Cal (yeah, that’s what I said) game just a few days away, there’s a bunch of news to cover regarding depth chart moves, injury updates, and the like. I’m going to run down the highlights position-by-position, but for the quick version, see the summary below:

  • Running backs: First-string tailback James Aldridge suffered a high ankle sprain against BC and is officially listed as “doubtful” for Saturday’s game, and Michael Rothstein quotes Charlie Weis as saying that while Aldridge “intends to play this week,” “the odds of that happening aren’t that high.” Given that all season even players who have been described as “probable,” “game-time decisions,” or even “ready to go” haven’t ended up playing much if at all (think David Grimes, Dan Wenger, and Maurice Crum last week), I’d say there’s just about no chance that Aldridge ends up seeing the field, which is really bad news for the Irish. With the injury to Aldridge, former co-#2’s Travis Thomas, Armando Allen, Junior Jabbie, and Robert Hughes are now listed as co-#1’s on the new depth chart, with Aldridge’s name in italics. Here’s what Weis said about this in his Tuesday press conference: “Well, I think what we would not do this week, since this is USC, is just throw Robert (Hughes) in and Armando (Allen) in there right off the bat. I think that we would go a little heavier with Travis (Thomas) being involved in this mix, too, more than he has this year. I think that that would be part of that combination. I’m not saying by committee, but I think that he would probably take off some of the pressure of James, and obviously Robert and Armando would be much more involved.”
  • Wide receivers: David Grimes didn’t play against BC, but Weis said in his Tuesday presser that it sounds like Grimes has “a legitimate chance of playing” in the Southern Cal game: he “was close to being able to go on Saturday (vs. Boston College), but it’s always tough when you haven’t practiced all week long to try to go when you haven’t had a meaningful rep in practice.” Meanwhile, as Rothstein notes in his excellent breakdown of this week’s depth chart changes, Grimes is now listed behind Robby Parris at the “Z” receiver slot, and fellow former #1 George West is now behind freshman Duval Kamara at the “X” position. Golden Tate, meanwhile, is still listed as third string for the “Z” slot, and Weis made a helpful clarification in his presser as to why Tate didn’t play much on offense against BC, saying that it wasn’t because of injury: “That was because we were going to play a significant amount of no huddle in the game, and in the no huddle our outside receivers do not flip flop positions, so they need to know both outside positions both as the weak side receiver and the strong side receiver. And really at his experience level, you want him to be able to play one position. Not (put him in a position) where he has to know both the X and the F and know both right and left. That was not the type of game that you want a guy with very little experience to be involved in.”
  • Offensive line: As I noted earlier, Dan Wenger sat out his fourth straight game last week with a leg injury. But when asked about Wenger’s health on Tuesday, Weis was unambiguous (for once): “He’s back. I think I would list Tom (Bemenderfer) down there [as the backup at right guard], but I think if I needed a backup inside, Danny (Wenger) would be the first backup inside at all three positions. I know I only list him at one. I list him (Wenger) as the backup center but he’d probably go in first at right guard and he’d probably go in first at left guard, as well.” On the new depth chart, Wenger is in fact listed as the backup to both John Sullivan at center and Eric Olsen at right guard, with Bemenderfer listed as Mike Turkovich’s backup at the left guard slot. Weis also noted that Chris Stewart, who saw the first game action of his career against BC, has been working both at right tackle and at right guard in practice, though the former position is his primary responsibility. Finally, Rothstein notes that Matt Romine, who’s missed several games with a right elbow injury, was wearing a “slightly less bulky” brace on Tuesday. He’s still probably a ways away from being back, though.
  • Linebackers: I also noted that Maurice Crum sat out the BC game, because of a turf toe injury he suffered against UCLA. Weis described Crum, like Grimes, as having a “legitimate chance” of playing against SC, noting that he “is walking without a limp this week, and that’s a good thing.” But both Rothstein and Ben Ford note in their reports from Tuesday’s practice that Crum looked a bit slow, so it’s perhaps reasonable to think that his status may be up in the air. The new depth chart, meanwhile, lists Anthony Vernaglia, who had been a starter at outside linebacker until last week but saw time at ILB against UCLA as well as BC, as Crum’s backup, with freshman Brian Smith taking over Vernaglia’s position from last week as the backup to John Ryan, and Morrice Richardson now in Smith’s old position as the backup to Kerry Neal.
  • Cornerbacks: Thankfully there’s no injury news to report here, but there has been a little bit of shifting on the depth chart: Darrin Walls is now listed as a co-#1 with Ambrose Wooden at the left cornerback spot, and at RCB, former tailback Munir Prince - who as I noted before the BC game has been seeing more playing time recently - is now listed as a co-#2 with Raeshon McNeil, behind Terrail Lambert.

Okay, that’s all. Here’s a quick summary for anyone who might have been overwhelmed by all that text:

  • James Aldridge is injured and probably won’t play against Southern Cal. Travis Thomas will play a key role backing him up, together with freshmen Robert Hughes and Armando Allen.
  • David Grimes will probably be back for the SC game, though he is now listed at second string behind Robby Parris. George West has also been bumped to second string, by freshman Duval Kamara. Golden Tate is not injured.
  • Dan Wenger is healthy and back on the offensive line, listed as a backup at two positions (center and right guard). Tom Bemenderfer is the backup at the other guard position.
  • Maurice Crum has reportedly looked a little slow in practice, so it’s fair to say that his status for Saturday may be uncertain. Anthony Vernaglia is now listed as his backup, with Brian Smith taking over Vernaglia’s spot from last week as the backup to John Ryan and Morrice Richardson taking Smith’s spot behind Kerry Neal.
  • Ambrose Wooden is now listed as a co-#1 with Darrin Walls at one cornerback slot, and Munir Prince as the co-#2 with Raeshon McNeil at the other.

That’s it! I’ll be back tomorrow with some analysis of the team’s depth along the offensive line, pre- and post- the departure of Matt Carufel.

Gameday news and notes (ND vs. BC)

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

Here are few updates on the Irish depth chart, and the health of ND’s various injured players, heading into this afternoon’s game against Boston College.

* * *

It was reported on the Web Thursday night, and yesterday the Chicago Tribune picked the story up: sophomore offensive lineman Matt Carufel, who started the past three games at right guard after classmate Dan Wenger went down with an injury and was listed to start again against Boston College, has been excused from the team for undisclosed personal reasons and will miss today’s game:

Irish guard Matt Carufel, who started the last three games, has returned home to Minnesota and is expected to decide on his future at Notre Dame by Sunday, the Tribune has learned.

Carufel has been excused from practices this week due to “personal reasons.” On Friday, Carufel was at his former high school in St. Paul, Cretin-Derham Hall, spoke extensively with assistant coach Andy Bishoff, and indicated that he may not return to the Irish.

“He’s struggling with if he’s going to stick around there or not,” Bishoff told the Tribune. “He just doesn’t know if he fit at Notre Dame like he thought he would.”

Carufel also could return to Notre Dame to finish out the semester. If Carufel decides not to return to the Irish, Bishoff said Minnesota and Iowa are two schools likely to be at the top of the list of potential destinations.

Apparently Carufel was absent from practice on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. His departure, together with the elbow injury (I am told it involves torn ligaments) that is going to keep freshman Matt Romine out for the foreseeable future and the obvious questions of whether Wenger’s leg is 100% healed, suddenly leaves the Irish almost paper-thin along the offensive line. Carufel’s backup on this week’s official depth chart (which I’ve already discussed at some length here) is fellow sophomore Eric Olsen, who had previously been listed behind Mike Turkovich on the other side of the line at left guard, and who has played in ever game except the loss to Michigan. Olsen saw the field by far the most of any of the backup offensive linemen through the first five games, so hopefully he’ll be ready to play.

But after that, the rest of the second string o-line consists of freshman Taylor Dever behind Sam Young at left tackle, junior transfer Thomas Bemenderfer behind Turkovich at left guard, Wenger behind fifth-year senior John Sullivan at center, and sophomore Chris Stewart behind Paul Duncan at right tackle. If Wenger is ready to go, it’s obviously not a stretch to see him splitting minutes with Olsen in Carufel’s place, since Sullivan essentially never leaves the field. Stewart and Dever, meanwhile, haven’t gotten into any games yet this year.

(It’s perhaps worth noting that the Notre Dame depth chart published in the South Bend Tribune this morning lists Stewart as the starter at right guard, with Olsen listed as backing up both Stewart and left guard Turkovich, and Bemenderfer as the backup center to Sullivan. Wenger, meanwhile, is completely absent from that chart, though Romine is listed as Duncan’s backup at right tackle. It’s hard to believe this chart is accurate, though, since there are also several other funny things about it, including Eric Maust listed ahead of Geoff Price as the team’s punter, and Anthony Vernaglia absent from the chart altogether.)

So obviously we’re not going to know for sure who’s going to play where until the game is underway, but I’d be surprised if what we see at the right guard position doesn’t primarily involve Olsen and/or Wenger, depending especially on the health of the latter (on which see below).

* * *

Up next, a couple of quick injury updates:

  • David Grimes, who ended up not dressing for the UCLA game because of an ankle injury suffered against Purdue, was back in practice this week, albeit with a heavily taped ankle. Watching Grimes on Wednesday, Ben Ford thought that he was “still having a little bit of trouble with the initial burst and explosion when he makes a break from a standing position.” Charlie Weis was quoted in Eric Hansen’s excellent column in today’s SBTrib as saying that Grimes hadn’t participated in any cutting drills this week, and that he would be a game-time decision, but that he “still doesn’t look full speed to me … If he doesn’t look close to full speed, then I just won’t play him.” My gut here says that we don’t see Grimes on the field today.
  • Meanwhile, I haven’t seen any reports of how Dan Wenger looked in practice this week, but an article from Wednesday’s SBTrib has this little nugget: “We’re finally getting him back on a more full-speed basis this week,” Weis said of Wenger. “He’s not automatically going to get thrown (into the right guard mix). He’s going to have to earn his way back out there.” It could be, in other words, is that the reason Wenger was made the backup to Sullivan on the depth chart for this week is that he’s not fully healthy, and less will be expected of him there because of how little Sullivan comes out of the game. But once again, I wouldn’t read into the fact that Wenger isn’t listed in the SBT depth chart, since they list Romine as a back-up, and Weis has said that he’s at least a few weeks away from returning.

* * *

Finally, one more personnel-related note. Pat at BGS noted earlier this week that sophomore Munir Prince, who was recruited as a tailback but made the switch to cornerback in the off-season, saw some playing time on defense against UCLA. A question in Michael Rothstein’s mailbag from this week picked up on this point:

I noticed late in the UCLA game when the Irish were on defense, Darrin Walls nor Raeshon McNeil were on the field. Is this because the Irish were running a prevent zone and those guys match up better in man-to-man, or did the coaches feel better with the more experienced dime lineup of (Terrail) Lambert, (Leo) Ferrine, (Ambrose) Wooden, (David) Bruton, Zibby but then there was (Munir) Prince, what gives? Thanks.
-Pete McLoughlin

Pete,
Honestly, we’re not sure. From the television view we had, we didn’t even notice the shift in this package and who was in. What we can tell you is we noticed Prince in the game a lot. It shows more than anything that the sophomore is finally adjusted to his move to cornerback. As for that package, we’ll take a good look this week when we’re back on site for games.

Anyway, just thought that was worth noting. That’s great for Munir, and hopefully he’ll continue to get on the field and play well the rest of the season.

[UPDATE: The always-insightful OCDomer has this to say, over at NDLNA:

I noticed Munir in at corner for stretches against UCLA. It seemed he was man-up on UCLA's best wide-out. Coach Weis has always said Munir was very fast. If he has developed his footwork at DB to the point that he is trusted to cover the fastest receivers on the other team, that's awesome. It means we shouldn't see the other team's speed burner running wide open down the field any more. It's also great for Munir. He's obviously been working very hard to learn the new position - hats off to him!

Good stuff.]

* * *

That’s all for today. Go Irish!

Musical chairs

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

As Michael Rothstein noted yesterday, the latest version of ND’s official depth chart is out, and it’s different in some pretty significant ways from previous installments. Rothstein does a good job of noting the major changes, but I thought it was worth looking in a bit more depth at who’s moved where, and also relating these changes to some of Charlie Weis’s remarks from his Tuesday press conference.

Running back: James Aldridge / Travis Thomas OR Armando Allen OR Junior Jabbie OR Robert Hughes

What this means: I noted last week that there were reports that Aldridge had been made the official #1 tailback, but this is the first time I’ve seen it reflected in the depth chart. This is also a sort of a promotion for Hughes, who had been listed behind each of the other four backs in previous depth charts. While the Irish will certainly continue to change personnel in their backfield, it’s likely that a bit more consistency will help this team to establish a real offensive identity.

“Z” Wide Receiver: David Grimes / Robby Parris / Barry Gallup Jr. / Golden Tate

What this means: There’s actually no change here, though some may be surprised to see Tate still listed so far down. Weis was asked about this in his press conference today, and he said that Tate “got dinged a little bit in the [UCLA] game. He got knocked in the head a little bit.” But he insisted that Golden “will be involved in this mix right here.”

Center: John Sullivan / Dan Wenger

What this means: Wenger, who had been the starter at the right guard position earlier in the season, has been out the past few weeks with an injury suffered against Michigan, but he did travel to Pasadena and was supposed to be available, though he didn’t end up playing. Weis said in his press conference today that Wenger “hasn’t practiced that many reps full speed yet,” and that he won’t “just automatically get thrown in there” until he’s completely ready to go. The position switch could be simply a matter of putting him behind a more experienced player so that less is demanded of him, but it’s hard to know for sure.

Left Guard: Mike Turkovich / Thomas Bemenderfer

What this means: Bemenderfer had been listed as the backup center behind Sullivan, so this is a position switch of sorts for him, though he hadn’t seen more than a couple minutes of playing time in the first five games according to Lou Somogyi’s breakdown from last week. Once again, it’s hard to know whether it’s permanent.

Right Guard: Matt Carufel / Eric Olsen

What this means: I’ve already noted that Ben Ford wrote something last week about how Carufel didn’t want to give Wenger his starting position back, and it’s possible that he’s succeeded there. Meanwhile, Olsen had been the backup to Turkovich at left guard, so this is a switch for him, and a strong indication that Turk has managed to hold on to his position.

Right Tackle: Paul Duncan / Chris Stewart

What this means: Matt Romine had been listed as the backup to Duncan a few weeks back, but now he doesn’t appear on the depth chart at all, and Weis said in his press conference today that his elbow injury is “a little ways away” from being sufficiently healed, and that “I don’t expect to see him any time soon.” Stewart, meanwhile, had previously been listed as the backup to Matt Carufel at the right guard position.

Left Defensive End: Trevor Laws / Derrell Hand OR Paddy Mullen

What this means: Hand had been listed as the third-string right defensive end, so this is a minor position switch for him. Mullen, meanwhile, had been listed as Laws’s sole backup but had only seen a few minutes of playing time. Bringing Hand over to help the sophomore out might mean that Laws will be able to take a few more breathers, though Weis also indicated (see below) that Justin Brown might be the first off the bench to spell Laws.

Right Defensive End: Dwight Stephenson Jr. / Justin Brown

What this means: Brown and Stephenson had been listed as co-#1’s before, and when Brown went down with an injury Stephenson didn’t always start in his place. Stephenson did start last week, but Weis said in his press conference today that Brown could be in the game for either Stephenson or Trevor Laws, and that he’ll “go in first,” before Hand or Mullen.

Right Outside Linebacker: Kerry Neal / Brian Smith / Morrice Richardson

What this means: With the freshman Neal starting, senior Anthony Vernaglia is now a backup at the other OLB spot (see below). This is a big move for Neal, who’s played really well the last few weeks but of whom Weis said after the Michigan State game that he wasn’t ready to play consistently against the run. Weis said in his press conference today that Neal has “a bigger body than some of those other guys, and he’s more of a — he’s not as tall as John — but he’s more of a John Ryan type of player. So it kind of gives you — when those two guys are out there — it gives you more of a mirrored look on the right side and the left side.”

Left Outside Linebacker: John Ryan / Anthony Vernaglia

What this means: When asked why Vernaglia played at inside linebacker against UCLA, Weis said that this was done “out of need,” but that “this week he’s going to practice at both inside and outside. He’ll be listed at one (position on the depth chart). I think I put him as the backup Sam behind John Ryan. I think that’s where I put him, as the best backup left outside linebacker, but he’ll practice at both inside and outside this week.” We’ll see how much this ends up affecting Vernaglia’s playing time, but it’s clearly hard to see it as anything but a demotion for a player who has only thirteen total tackles on the season.

Strong Safety: Tom Zbikowski / Sergio Brown / Ray Herring

What this means: Herring had been ahead of Brown on the depth chart before, but Zbikowski rarely comes off the field except to bring in an extra cornerback, and so it’s hard to see this as a very big deal. (By Somogyi’s count, Herring had played a total of 6:23 at safety through the first five games, and the game participation statistics don’t show him as having played at all the past two weeks, even on special teams.) It’s perhaps worth noting, though, that there had been some whispers that Brown might be unhappy with his roles on the team and thinking of leaving, so the fact that he’s moved up on the depth chart may make him feel a bit better about his future.

Place-Kicker: Brandon Walker / Nate Whitaker

What this means: After he won the kicking competition this past week and hit two field goals, including a 48-yarder, against UCLA, there was little doubt that Walker would be ND’s placekicker for the foreseeable future. Whitaker will still handle kickoffs, though.

Punter: Geoff Price / Eric Maust

What this means: Maust replaced Price in the Michigan State game and handled the punts against Purdue, but Price returned last week and had a strong game. Weis said today that Price’s biggest problem has been with inconsistency:

We all know that he’s got the leg that can hit the ball 70 yards. But when you go out in the game and hit two or three crummy ones and then drop a snap on top of it, at that position you can’t hide.

I never call a player out, but there’s certain positions, the quarterback throws three interceptions, everybody in the stands sees it. An offensive lineman misses three blocks, you might not see it, depending on what happened on the play. But when a punter is out there and the ball goes 25 or 30 yards, it’s tough to hide that.

But I think that he’s really working on his consistency. I think that last week with the exception of one kick that he didn’t hit very well, I think that he kicked — he punted nine times and I think he had a very, very good day.

Hopefully Price can return to the consistently excellent performance we saw in 2006 that made him a preseason All-American candidate this year.

Anyway, that’s all I see for now. I’ll try to find some time tomorrow to write something about BC.

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.

News and notes: Gameday edition

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

I promised on Thursday that I’d run down anything interesting to do with ND’s depth chart, so here goes:

  • At the right guard position, Chris Stewart and Dan Wenger are listed as the two backups to Matt Carufel. This is no change from last week, but what’s notable is that both Stewart and Wenger are going to be missing this weekend.
  • As I noted on Thursday, with the departure of Konrad Reuland, freshman Mike Ragone is now the official third-string tight end. There were some reports from the MSU game that Ragone was seeing the field ahead of Reuland anyway, though, so this isn’t a huge deal.
  • Derrell Hand, who started last week when Justin Brown was out with an injury, is still listed as the #3 LDE, behind co-#1’s Brown and Dwight Stephenson, Jr.

Other than that, there’s not much doing there.

A quick update on the injury front, though: as I mentioned earlier this week, Charlie Weis has said that Dan Wenger, who has a left leg injury, will definitely miss today’s game, and will be back by next Saturday at the earliest. Meanwhile, Justin Brown, who sat out against MSU and reportedly still looked a bit hobbled in practice this week, is going to be a game-time decision today.

Also worth noting: the South Bend Tribune managed to get in touch with Chris Stewart on Friday, and here’s what he had to say:

I’m trying to be careful not to say too much right now, because everything’s up in the air. I’m just trying to figure everything out first and then move forward.

Clearly a good sign for fans who’d like to see the young man return to the team. The official ND position is that Stewart has left the team for “personal reasons,” with Weis’s blessing.


Meanwhile, I know it doesn’t quite count as Notre Dame news, but I thought it was worth sharing this snippet from a USA Today profile of Cal-Berkeley superstar running back Justin Forsett:

For Justin Forsett, February 2004 arrived with no place to sign on the dotted line.The 5-8 running back assumed he was headed to Notre Dame, but the Irish offered scholarships to two bigger running backs. Which was news to him.

It would be easy to say Forsett, now a senior at California, had the last laugh. Notre Dame is 0-4. The school where he landed is 4-0. But holding grudges isn’t Forsett’s nature.

“It was a tremendous blessing for me to end up where I am,” he says. “At the time I couldn’t see it. I didn’t know where I’d be after Notre Dame turned me down, and it definitely hurt. But God works in mysterious ways, and there couldn’t be a better place than here.”

So how did Forsett get from nowhere to here? From castoff to Cal’s most valuable player so far as the No. 6 Golden Bears head into Saturday’s critical game at No. 12 Oregon?

Before signing day in 2004, Notre Dame’s running backs coach at the time, Buzz Preston, visited Forsett and his father, Rodney, and mother, Abby, at his high school, Grace Prep in Arlington, Texas. According to the Forsetts, Preston said Notre Dame would have a scholarship for him.

“We left the meeting feeling wonderful because we were on our way to Notre Dame,” says Rodney, a minister.

About a week before signing day, Justin called Notre Dame, then coached by Tyrone Willingham. “I hadn’t heard from them in a while,” he says. “They told me they didn’t need me anymore.”

Preston, now at New Mexico, says the Irish never offered Forsett a scholarship. It wasn’t for lack of ability; the Irish simply were looking for taller backs.

This much was certain: Forsett was blindsided by the news. “Forsett loses lone offer,” read the headline on the Rivals.com recruiting site on Jan. 28, 2004.

After signing day passed, Forsett’s high school coach, Mike Barber, a former NFL player, feverishly sent more highlight tapes to coaches around the country. None of the schools in Texas or Florida, where Forsett played his first two years of high school football, were interested. “Nothing. Nobody. Even Baylor didn’t want him,” Rodney says. South Carolina State was an option, but Forsett’s goal was to play Division I-A.

Forsett’s highlight tape landed at Cal.

“We watched his tape and thought this is too good to be true,” coach Jeff Tedford says. “There’s got to be something wrong with this kid. There’s a skeleton in the closet somewhere. So we thoroughly investigated everything about him and brought him here with his father, and he’s the greatest kid you ever want to meet.”

(snip)

When needed the most, Forsett has shined. In Cal’s opening win against Tennessee, Forsett ran for 156 yards on 26 carries. Last week against Arizona, Cal’s offense stalled when Forsett was nursing ankle and quadriceps soreness. After the Wildcats scored 17 unanswered points, Forsett lobbied to go back in and led the Bears on their final touchdown drive.

Forsett is the Pacific-10’s second-leading rusher (121.0 yards a game), behind only Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart (125.8). He’s also tied for the conference lead with seven touchdowns. “He’s been a guy who’s carried the load for us so far,” Tedford says.

Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but if what Forsett says is true, then it’s appalling: not just because an offer was pulled from a kid who’s turned out to be this talented, but because of the incredibly shady way in which it was done. Next time somebody starts telling you about Willingham’s classiness, make sure to bust this one out.

Oh, and next time you see Junior Jabbie or Travis Thomas get dragged down for a loss, remind yourself that at least they’re tall.

(HT: GoshenGipper.)


Finally, a quick thought on today’s game.Earlier this week I argued that the key to beating Purdue is running the ball effectively. I think this was only half right: the other crucial component if the Irish have any hope of winning is stopping the pass. This BGS post talks about the improvement of Purdue QB Curtis Painter from last year - when he led the nation in interceptions - to this. When I first read it, I thought that his improved numbers - 68.7% completions, 16 TDs, and only one interception through four games this year - might be due to Purdue’s weak schedule, but a bit more research proved that wrong: at this point last year, with an equally woeful foursome of opponents to start the year, Painter had thrown only 8 TD’s and had been picked off five times. Make no mistake about it: the Irish are going up against a good QB tomorrow, and a downright scary offense.Notre Dame fans are fond of pointing out that the team ranks eleventh in the nation in pass defense so far this year, but that statistic is a bit misleading, especially given both (1) the ease with which teams have run the ball against the Irish and (2) the degree to which these first four games have been blowouts. And as the South Bend Tribune pointed out today, when we consider pass efficiency defense, the Irish rank only 52nd nationally. The opening drive of the second half against Michigan State, which saw the Spartans convert through the air on 3rd-and-9 and 3rd-and-17 and then for a sixteen-yard touchdown, was a case in point of ND’s struggles against the pass this year. Ryan Mallett threw for three touchdowns against ND two weeks ago, and MSU scored four through the air last week. Tomorrow’s game will be a huge indicator of whether first-year defensive coordinator Corwin Brown is making progress with this team. Expect to see plenty of frosh LB’s Brian Smith and Kerry Neal (profiled in today’s SBT, by the way), who played well in passing situations against the Spartans, but - according to Charlie Weis in his Sunday press conference - aren’t quite ready to play consistently against the run.No matter how effectively ND runs the ball today, unless the Irish can hold Painter to no more than three TD’s passing and perhaps pick off a pass, Purdue will almost certainly win going away.


With that happy thought in mind, though, let’s take a look back into the history of the Notre Dame-Purdue series, courtesy of YouTube …[NOTE: For some reason, I've been having trouble embedding YouTube clips since we switched the site over from Blogger, so I'm just providing links for now.]We begin in 1964, Ara Parseghian’s first year as head coach of the Irish, as John Huarte leads the Fighting Irish past Bob Griese’s Boilermakers. (You can see a copy of the program here.) Notre Dame would go on to go 9-1-0 that year, their only loss coming at the hands of the USC Trojans. Lindsey Nelson has the call here.Next up is 1966, the year the Irish won their first national title under Parseghian. This game - a picture of the program is here - started off well for the Boilermakers, as Leroy Keyes returned an interception for a touchdown. But on the ensuing kickoff, Notre Dame’s Nick Eddy took one of his own to the house.This game also saw the famous duo of QB Terry Hanratty and wideout Jim Seymour, whom Time magazine would call “the hottest young passing combination in the US,” hook up for three long passes, all shown here.Up next is 1973, with highlights from West Lafayette. Notre Dame would go on to win the national title that year as well, under head coach Dan Devine.

Four years later, in 1977, a young Joe Montana would come off the bench to lead the Irish to victory in what would be yet another National Championship season.

Next up, let’s fast-forward to 1996, as Allen Rossum - who looks SICKENINGLY fast in this clip - returns the opening kick for an Irish touchdown.

The next three clips - from 1999, 2003, and 2004 respectively - remind anyone who may have forgotten why Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham were fired. Ugh. I was there for that last one, and I think it is burned into my retinas for eternity. Ugh.

We can end on a positive note, though, with highlights from the last couple of years.

Anyway, enough messing around on the web. Time to start some proper pre-gaming.

Go Irish!