Posts Tagged ‘Dan Wenger’

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.

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?

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.

Taking Stock, Part II: Identity crisis

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

(This is Part 2 in a series of three posts evaluating the first eight weeks of the season and looking forward to what’s ahead. Part 1, “19 reasons why Notre Dame’s offense has sucked so badly in 2007,” is available here.)

Will the real Charlie Weis please stand up?

In the span of a mere three years, the head coach of the Fighting Irish has gone from an unknown quantity with a whole lot of jewelry on his fingers, to the savior of a program that had been mired in a decade of mediocrity, to a clever schemer with a penchant for running up the score on service academies who couldn’t win the big game, to an inept loser arrogantly presiding over the downfall of his alma mater’s proudest athletic program. The following numbers might be able to give some sense of the reasons for this transition:

Put another way, for those of you who prefer graphical representations to hard statistics:

And again, if you’d really just rather have it summed up in a picture:

Nope, there’s no way to get around it: the 2007 version of the Fighting Weises has been bad - really bad, especially on the offensive end. And I argued yesterday that none of the eighteen other explanations we might give of this team’s struggles can carry as much weight as the one that starts and ends with the head coach himself. In case my argument wasn’t good enough for you, though, here’s Weis saying pretty much the same thing in his Tuesday press conference:

Q. For those of us who haven’t followed Notre Dame football as closely as those people who cover it on a regular basis or are fans, could you kind of just quickly summarize what you feel has happened this year? Is it simply a case of being hit hard by graduation and the younger players who have been asked to fill in just haven’t performed or were not ready or the inexperience? In your overall big picture analysis, what’s led to 1 and 7?

COACH WEIS: Well, that’s a loaded question. (laughter) Well, first of all, let’s start with coaching, because what you just did in your question is gave me about 15 different excuses for us being 1 and 7, so why don’t we just start with 1 probably, with the transition that we’ve had from last year to this year, have not done the best job of having the team ready to go on a week in and week out basis, and we probably should leave it at that one because if you are looking for me to give you a whole dossier of problems that have happened this year, there would be too many things. If you want good fodder, let’s just throw me out there, okay.

Q. But in general, though, the fact that you have such an inexperienced team is a crucial factor…

COACH WEIS: It’s a factor, but that’s what it is. It’s a factor. It’s not the factor. There’s a lot of things that come — I think when you do that — once again, it would be easy for me to sit there and say, well, if these five things weren’t the case we’d be 7 and 1 right now. Well, the problem is they are the case. I started with what I felt was the number one reason, and I think that if you start with the head coach doing a better job, then you’d probably have a better record.

Now, all of this raises a natural question: which Weis is the real Weis? The one whose team had nineteen wins, many of them in blowout fashion, in 2005 and 2006, going to two straight BCS bowls and re-writing the offensive record books in the process, or the one who’s the head coach of a bowl-ineligible team that’s currently 1-7 and on pace to re-write those record books in quite a different way?

The primary schools of though on this question break down into two major groups:

  • The Dr. Jekyll Theory: Charlie Weis is an offensive genius and a brilliant head coach who’s simply been crippled by an undertalented and inexperienced roster this year. Sure, he’s made some mistakes in the way he’s done things - e.g. by not having enough full-contact practices, or doing too much scheming instead of taking a more piecemeal approach - but on the whole there aren’t any problems he can’t fix. We just need to be patient with him, and give him a chance to get his players on the field.
  • The Mr. Hyde Theory: Charlie Weis is the worst coach in the universe. He’s too fat, too stupid, too stubborn, and too ugly. He rode the coattails of Tom Brady while he was with the Patriots, and did the same with Brady Quinn and the rest of Tyrone Willingham’s recruits in his first two years at Notre Dame. Now, without a bunch of stars to carry him along, his true ineptitude is being exposed.

The argument I want to make here is that Charlie Weis is actually both of these characters at once: he’s Dr. Jekyll AND Mr. Hyde, the creative genius AND the over-scheming fool, the coach who squeezes the most out of his veteran players AND the man lucky enough to ride his star talent to victory. In other words, what we’ve seen in 2007 is just the other side of the coin from the previous two years.

Here’s why I say this. In the first place, I think the advocates of the “Mr. Hyde” theory are right to insist that the deficiencies in Weis’s coaching this year have gone far beyond problems of the “learning curve” variety: for example, while there’s no doubt that Weis was speaking truly when he said that he’s never been part of a team that practiced full-speed during the season, it’s also the case that he has a number of assistants on his team who presumably have seen that done, as well as other college coaches he knows who can tell him how they practice with their own squads. And even as Weis has begun to alter the way he runs practices, the reports I’ve seen indicate that the changes have been less than wholesale (with the possible exception of the “back to training camp” week following the Michigan game). In other words, the fact that Weis runs his practices in this particular way seems to be more than just an accident, more than just the result of ignorance: it’s plausibly an essential, if not quite central, aspect of the way he thinks that teams should prepare for games.

Similarly, consider the case of game-by-game adjustments in the offensive schemes. There’s no doubt that this sort of thing is a crucial part of Weis’s approach to gameplanning, and that it was a huge element of his success in the NFL and in his first two seasons with the Irish. But there’s also no denying that it’s been a big part of what’s kept this offense from generating any consistent production. The key thing, though, is that this sort of constant tinkering is just a part of who Weis is: if he doesn’t do it, he simply isn’t going to be successful; but when he does do it, it’s sometimes going to blow up in his face.

In other words, both of these examples - and I think there are many, many others - suggest that the aspects of Weis’s coaching style that have doomed the 2007 squad aren’t just accidental traits of a coach trying to figure out the college game. Rather, they’re just parts of what make him Charlie Weis, as opposed to Tyrone Willingham, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, or Pete Carroll. And so on reflection, it really shouldn’t be surprising that with Weis at the head, this particular Irish team has performed so poorly. He simply isn’t the right coach to make this group look even mildly respectable against teams like the ones they’ve played so far.

But on the other hand … there’s NO reason to deny the obvious fact that VERY SAME coaching style was a HUGE part of Notre Dame’s success in 2005 and 2006. Given a (relatively) experienced group of savvy veterans, a quarterback who soaked up the playbook like a sponge and practically had to be dragged from the practice field when it was time for his backup to take some snaps, a versatile tailback and a group of wide receivers who together were proficient at every aspect of the game (rushing, blocking, route-running, pass-catching, blitz-pickup, and so on), an experienced offensive line with the ability to make game-by-game adjustments, and so on, Weis was able to put together an offensive attack that had his team in national championship contention for two straight years. Chalking that up solely to dumb luck, or even to the undeniable greatness of Brady Quinn & Co., smacks of the sort of myopia that one expects only from a delusional Michigan alum.

In other words: my proposal is that it’s just a fact about Charlie Weis’s talents and coaching style that, given an experienced group of talented veterans, he can put together a dynamic offense with a chance to win a national championship. At the same time, though, its a fact about those very same talents and that very same coaching style that they don’t work well at getting a bunch of scrappy youngsters consistently to piece together any semblance of an offensive attack. It’s a both/and, not an either/or.

What this means, though, is that the biggest challenge facing Charlie Weis isn’t necessarily that of “learning how to be a college coach”: he’s already given ample evidence that he can do a damn good job of that, given the right players. And note once again that by “right players” I don’t mean “superstars all around”: with the exception of the quarterback position, Notre Dame never had the level of talent on offense in 2005 and 2006 that teams like USC and Michigan had. The crucial task, in other words, is that of transforming Jimmy Clausen, James Aldridge, Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Duval Kamara, Robby Parris, Golden Tate, Will Yeatman, Mike Ragone, Dan Wenger, Sam Young, Matt Romine, Eric Olsen, and the rest into the kinds of players that Quinn, Darius Walker, Jeff Samardzija, Maurice Stovall, Rhema McKnight, John Carlson, Anthony Fasano, Mark LeVoir, Dan Santucci, Ryan Harris, Bob Morton, and John Sullivan were in 2005 and 2006: not just a bunch of players with enough talent to win a lot of games, but a group of hard-working players who showed up ready to go each week, were competent enough to do what he asked them to do, and - by and large, anyway - responded well to Weis’s coaching style. Given that, there’s every reason to think that Weis can once again make the Irish a team to be feared.

The question is, how do we get from here to there? It’s not just about allowing players to mature physically, drilling the playbook into them, or even teaching them the proverbial fundamentals. Rather, I think the key question is whether Weis can get these young players to keep their heads in the game, to continue working hard - on Saturday afternoons as well as on the practice field, in the weight room, in film study, and so on, both through the remainder of this season and through the offseason that will follow it. And the difficulty is that with the way the first eight games of 2007 have gone, the possibility of having players get discouraged and just give up is a real one.

But that’s a topic for tomorrow’s post …

Taking Stock, Part I: 19 reasons why Notre Dame’s offense has sucked so badly in 2007

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

I don’t know about you, but it feels like the middle of the season to me: Fall Break and the bye week are behind us, the complexion of the schedule has changed dramatically, and we’ve hit what can only be described as rock bottom after the Loss that Shall Not Be Discussed. So it’s in this spirit that the Irish Roundup brings you “Taking Stock,” a three-part series (wow, doesn’t that sound fancy?) evaluating the 2007 season up to this point and looking ahead to its remainder.

Up first, a detailed evaluation of why the Notre Dame offense has been so dreadful this year. We all know the statistics, so I’m not even going to bother listing them again: the question I’m going focus on here is “Why?” rather than “How bad?” Here are what I - with the invaluable help of the rest of the IrishEnvy crew - take to be the nineteen biggest problems, in inverse order of importance:

19) Too much hype: No doubt Charlie Weis did the right thing by refusing to throw his players under the bus by calling 2007 a “rebuilding” year, but did we all have to believe him? Nearly all ND fans had the Irish winning at least three of these first eight games – a clearly unreasonable expectation. The team’s current 1-7 record would be completely satisfactory if they’d played hard, scrappy football and shown improvement from week to week, but the burden of everyone’s high hopes can’t have been a help in making that happen.

18) Scheduling: A calendar front-loaded with top-notch opponents, with all of the easy games at the end of the year. Four of the first six games played on the road. A bye week after USC (though having extra time to prepare for Navy never hurts). No doubt it’s difficult to put together ND’s schedule, but this year’s version was just atrocious.

17) Recruiting: Many are going to wonder why this isn’t higher on the list. The reason for that is that the talent gap between the Irish and their opponents doesn’t even begin to account for the awfulness of their offensive (ha!) game. No doubt the paucity of upperclass talent feeds into many of the more serious problems in a major way, but in itself it’s only the tip of a very large iceberg.

16) Too much shuffling of the depth chart: I’ve already been over this in some detail, and I still stand by the analysis I gave there, namely that while many of these shifts have been due to injuries or other unpredictable things, some – in particular taking so long to settle on James Aldridge as the #1 tailback, and even then giving too many carries to other players – were clearly mistakes.

15) Distractions: The obvious example of this is Demetrius Jones not showing up for the team bus to Michigan, after which the Irish played what was clearly their worst, and least-inspired, game of the season. But there have been other cases as well, such as Derrell Hand’s arrest, the ongoing quarterback controversy, the departures of Konrad Reuland and Matt Carufel, the rumors of dissension among Irish players, and so on. These are not the sorts of things that help a young team get over their struggles.

14) Penalties: Obviously there are some – Mike Turkovich’s touchdown-negating hold against BC, for one – that stick in the forefront of your mind, but the fact is that false starts, holding calls, and other offensive penalties have been a huge problem all year long, regularly putting the offense in a position where it has to pick up huge yardage to move the chains. Thankfully there were far fewer such mistakes against USC, so maybe that’s the beginning of a trend.

13) Injuries: Aldridge, David Grimes, Matt Romine, and Dan Wenger have all missed significant time with injuries, and Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate have been banged up as well. For a team as thin as this one is, having front-line players like these get injured is obviously a big problem, and keeps the squad from developing a consistent rhythm.

12) Play-calling: Once again, this is a factor that a lot of people are going to want to put a lot higher, though see my lengthy post from after the BC game for why I thought that in that case at least, this issue was WAY overblown. There’s no doubt, though, that there have been some huge mistakes made in this department: the obvious examples are the crazy schemes employed at the starts of the games against Georgia Tech and Michigan, though there are others as well. This team has to do more than just develop its “bread and butter” plays in practice; it has to run them on the field as well. Of course, that’s hard to do when players consistently fail to execute the plays you’ve called.

11) Inexperience: You could try to lump this in with recruiting, but it’s really a different issue, since it’s meant to pick out the fact that many of even the more “veteran” players – Turkovich, Paul Duncan, Evan Sharpley – saw very little playing time before this year, and so aren’t able to do as much as one would hope to bring the younger players along. I’ve been told that last year, Bob Morton and the other offensive linemen were telling Sam Young what to do on almost every play – this year, there’s only one lineman with more than one year of experience other his belt.

10) A rift within the team itself: I’m putting this right in the middle of the list only because I obviously don’t know if the various rumors that have swirled around are true. But the fact is that there have been some pretty clear signs – both on the field and off – that this squad hasn’t really come together well. Some of this is natural, as younger players and veterans compete for playing time, but if it’s as bad as some have said it is, then its ramifications may be extensive indeed.

9) Lack of leadership: This isn’t just about the veterans; underclassmen can be leaders as well. Some of this is the result of the “musical chairs” that has been played with the depth chart, whether due to injuries, poor personnel decisions, or surprising performances by players (whether of the good variety or the bad). No matter what the cause, though, not having players who can bring everyone together in the huddle or on the sidelines and focus their energies on the task at hand is going to be a huge problem for any team.

8) Failure to execute the “finesse” plays: What I have in mind here are the dropped passes or missed receivers that we’ve seen so often this year. In countless cases, a player has been open and either the ball has gotten there and he’s failed to catch it, or the ball has been thrown over his head or at his feet. Mistakes like this stall an offense like nothing else, except perhaps for …

7, 6) Poor pass- and run-blocking: I can’t figure out which of these to put first, since each feeds into the other in countless ways. But it’s important to emphasize that the problems here haven’t just been with the offensive line: whether it’s tailbacks whiffing or getting run over on pass protection, fullbacks failing to open up holes in the running game, or wide receivers missing blocks downfield, there’s no getting around the fact that the blocking on this team has been atrocious at every level.

5) Lousy position coaching: When you have a team composed almost solely of either young players recently out of high school and “veterans” who’ve barely played a down, what you need is a group of assistant coaches able to teach them the proverbial fundamentals. So far this year, there’s been little evidence that that’s happened, and the lack of week-to-week progress suggests significant deficiencies in the sort of training these players are receiving.

4) Practice routines: The influence that having had contact-free practices for so much of the season and pre-season has had on this team probably can’t be overstated: once again, many of these players are new to college football, and they just don’t know what real “game speed” looks (and feels) like. But there have been other problems as well: to give just one example, there is no doubt that the decision to develop overly creative plays rather than taking a “building-blocks” approach did a great deal to set this team back and prevent real progress in the early weeks.

3) Tentative play: The USC game was a paradigm of the tendency among offensive players to look like they’re more concerned with avoiding mistakes than with doing something right. Whether it’s the overly-complicated character of the offense they’re running, the shock of game speed, the burden of high expectations and the consequent fear of criticism, or whatever, there’s no doubt that many of this offense’s failures – dropped passes, missed blocks, inability to hit holes in the running game, and so on – can be attributed to an all-around tentativeness.

2) The “snowball” effect: With the exception of the post-halftime spurts against Purdue and BC, one steady tendency for this team has been that when things go bad, they get worse. The offense has shown very little resiliency, whether to their own mistakes or to those of the defense and special teams, and we’ve often seen the proverbial wheels fall off at the first sign of difficulty (the Michigan State game was the paradigm instance of this). Once again, this can be traced to many of the other problems above, but it’s clearly a place where this team’s many defects have often come to a head.

1) Charlie Weis: Sorry coach, but the buck stops with you. I’m going to have more to say about this in a post tomorrow, but for now just let me say that I think Weis has done a simply terrible job coaching this squad, and while I don’t think this one season is sufficient to show that he’s the “worst coach in the universe,” I also don’t think that the old “learning curve” excuse is good enough. In my mind, there’s reason to think that Weis is a good-to-great coach for seasoned veterans, and an outright terrible one for young players. If this is right, then the key question is whether he can transition this group from the latter category to the former without doing irreparable harm to them – I’ll have much more to say about this tomorrow and Thursday in Parts II and III of this series.

Trojans inspect playing field, continue to whine

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

I know I promised an injury update for today’s game, but this article in the LA Times was just too funny to let pass. So instead of the usual detailed breakdown (quick version: Aldridge won’t play, Grimes has reportedly looked a bit hobbled in practice, Wenger is back, no word that I’ve seen on Crum; and see here for the veritable litany of busted Trojans), I submit to you: The Victors, Two Years Later.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Most of USC’s players strolled casually onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium on Friday for the Trojans’ walk-through before today’s game against the Fighting Irish.

But Desmond Reed never broke stride as he sprinted to the far end zone on grass significantly shorter and more manicured than it was in 2005, when Reed suffered torn right knee ligaments and nerve damage while turning to field a ball on a kickoff return. [Ed: TURNING to field it, mind you - on which see more below.]

Reed said last year he thought the grass was grown long intentionally to slow down the Trojans and that it caused his injury.

“They actually cut it,” defensive line coach Dave Watson said.

Said Dennis Slutak, USC’s director of football operations: “You could actually hit a golf ball out of this.” [Ed: Apparently Slutak isn't much of a golfer. Somebody want to get Ty Willingham on the phone to help him out?]

That’s right, folks. Two years after winning - WINNING!! - at Notre Dame stadium in a game that ended with a series of questionable calls and non-calls which Charlie Weis and (so far as I can recall) the rest of the Irish chose not to question, and after which Weis took his son into the SC locker room to congratulate the players and coaches on their victory, following which the Trojans won out the rest of the season on their way to the BCS national title game, their players and staff are STILL complaining about the length of the grass back on October 15, 2005.

Nor are their gripes limited to Irish fields of lore. Pete Carroll, for one, is already gearing up to make excuses for this year’s game:

… on Friday, after walking the field, Carroll said he was surprised it did not have a uniform feel.

“I don’t understand why it’s like that, I mean who plays here?” he said. “They sharing it with a local JC or something?”

It’s hard not to take this as evidence that either (1) Carroll can’t read or understand English, or (2) he’s a whiny scumbag who’s unwilling to respect what an opposing coach has to say about the state of his own playing field. Otherwise, the Poodle’s remarks might have taken account of this, from Weis’s Tuesday press conference:

this is the Midwest, and we’re going to play five games in a row at home. That’s where we are right now. Now, fortunately this is only game two. But it isn’t like our grass grows like we’re living in the south. It is what it is. It’s patchy and it’s not the same as playing on Bermuda grass in the south. It isn’t like we were playing on field turf; I don’t think that would go over too well in Notre Dame tradition. It’s grass, it’s mid October, it’s not as perfect as it would be earlier in the year. That’s just the way it is.

That’s right, Petey. It’s SOUTH BEND FRICKING INDIANA. It’s either too hot or too cold or too sunny or too rainy or too damn snowy about, oh, 257 days a year, and so the grass don’t grow quite like it does in sunny LA. And no, the only junior college with which the Irish are sharing their field is the one whose football team you coach. (Zing!)

Now, you might think that Reed’s gripe is a bit more legitimate, given the seriousness of the injury he suffered against the Irish two years ago. But if you did think that, then you’d be failing to take into account the excellent detective work that the guys at the IRT did before last year’s SC game:

How many of these pundits have actually gone back to watch the play which ended Reed’s season? Not many. If they did, they would clearly see that this was a player way out of position in the first place. It is our assertion that the grass was not the culprit here, but a player out of position.

Now, with the help of photographic evidence obtained through NBC we can reconstruct the play and prove that Reed is to blame for the injury. Not the grass.

Reed1.jpeg

This is the first screenshot from the kickoff where Reed was injured. This is the first moment the Reed enters the screen. He is the cut off figure on the right hand side of the photo near Notre Dame’s 14 yard line.

Reed2.jpeg

Here is Reed running back to field the kickoff between the 8 and 9 yard lines.

Reed3.jpeg

At the five yard line Reed makes a weird turn to try and field the ball flying over his head. This is where he goes down.

Reed4.jpeg

Here is Reed laying on the 2 yard line as the ball sails over his head. Clearly, if Reed was positioned to field the kick-off on the goal line, there would be no discussion of tall grass and Weis’ desire to injure and maim opposing players.

You make the call. Here at the Roundup, though, the company position is that the Trojans are a bunch of whiny bitches, and they’re going to get their asses handed to them this afternoon, no matter what the field may look like.

Go Irish, dammit.

Unsettled?

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

One thing that has been partly a symptom but also to some extent a likely cause of Notre Dame’s struggles this year is the way the lineup has shifted around from week to week. As I’ve discussed in some detail (see here and here), each of the last two weeks has seen major changes to the Irish depth chart, and when we compare the chart from the current week from the one at the start of the season (helpfully summarized here by Ben Ford), we find a remarkable number of changes:

  • At only three offensive positions (tight end (with the exception of Konrad Reuland’s departure), “Z” wide receiver (with the exception of Barry Gallup dropping off the chart), and fullback) and four defensive ones (defensive end (with the exception of Derrell Hand’s return from his suspension), “Mike” linebacker, free safety, and right cornerback (with the exception of Munir Prince catching up to Raeshon McNeil)) is the depth chart the same at mid-season as it was at the start.
  • Six players (Duval Kamara, Eric Olsen, Robby Parris, Evan Sharpley, James Aldridge (who is low on the depth chart this week only because of injury), and Kerry Neal) currently listed as starters weren’t starters or even co-starters at the beginning of the season, and two other current starters (Sam Young and Paul Duncan) have switched positions. (Sharpley was of course officially listed as a co-starter, but only as a smokescreen.)
  • A total of eight players (Young, Taylor Dever, Thomas Bemenderfer, Dan Wenger, Olsen, Brian Smith, Anthony Vernaglia, Morrice Richardson) are listed as having switched positions. (Though note that most of those switches, with the exception of Vernaglia’s, are relatively minor, and simply involve being on the other side of the offensive line or linebacking corp.)

Moreover, in part because of injuries but also because of depth chart changes, only ten positions (left guard, center, tight end, fullback, left defensive end, nose tackle, “Jake” linebacker, both safeties, and right cornerback) have had the same starter for each game so far, and only twelve players (Duncan, Young, Mike Turkovich, John Sullivan, John Carlson, Trevor Laws, Pat Kuntz, John Ryan, Maurice Crum, David Bruton, Tom Zbikowski, and Terrail Lambert) have started at some position or other in every game so far. (Since they opened with three wide receiver sets, Asaph Schwapp wasn’t in on the opening plays against Michigan or BC, but perhaps he should count as number 13 on this list.)

(A more complete breakdown, both of game-by-game starting lineups and of depth chart changes, is available here. Note that I haven’t included any of the special teams positions, though there has also been considerable variability at punter, place-kicker, and on kickoffs.)

No matter how you spin it, that’s a lot of guys moving around. (For comparison’s sake, last year’s Irish team had sixteen players start in every one of their thirteen total games, not including Zbikowski, who sat out against Stanford with an injury.) And it’s easy to look at this situation and think that it reflects poorly on Charlie Weis and his staff: either they did a poor job of evaluating talent at the start of the season, or they’ve been doing too much shuffling around from week to week and so have kept the team from settling into a real rhythm, or whatever. But when we look more closely at where many of the changes have come, we see a different story.

Here are the cases where the need to make changes in the depth chart clearly wasn’t the fault of the coaching staff:

  • “X” receiver: George West was listed as the starter here at the beginning of the year, but now the true freshman Kamara, who was originally third-string behind West and D.J. Hord, has moved up to the #1 spot. This is clearly a matter of a player showing what he brings to the field and taking the job away from a more experienced guy who was legitimately ahead of him at the start of the year, not a case where talent was misevaluated in any way.
  • “Z” receiver: Parris is now listed ahead of Grimes for the #1 spot, but that may be in part a product of Grimes’s injury. In any case, Grimes’s solid play last year clearly earned him his early-season starting position, just as Parris’s play this season (second on the team in receptions with 19 and the first in receiving yardage by a long shot with 272) may have done the same for him at mid-season.
  • Right guard: Wenger was the starter here at the beginning of the year, but he suffered an injury against Michigan and hasn’t played since. (He should be back this week, though, and Weis has indicated that he’ll be the primary backup for all of the interior positions along the o-line.) Matt Carufel was Wenger’s replacement for three games until he was beaten out by Olsen last week - but once again, having a player perform surprisingly well at a “need” position (especially when he overtakes someone who was originally a backup) is hardly something a coach can be criticized for.
  • Right defensive end: Early season co-starters Justin Brown (who missed several games with an injury) and Dwight Stephenson Jr. started off dividing playing time between them, but Stephenson has now risen to the #1 spot. During one of the games when Brown was injured, Derrell Hand started in this position, and there have been others where the team started off in a nickle package and either Neal or John Ryan was listed as a defensive end.
  • Right outside linebacker: This is where Neal has been playing extremely well, and taken the starting job away from the once-again disappointing Vernaglia (who’s now listed as the backup to Crum at the “Jake” linebacker spot).

In other words, all of the above personnel shifts can be chalked up either to injury (Grimes, Wenger, Brown) or unexpectedly solid play from underclassmen who hadn’t seen much if any game action before (Kamara, Parris, Olsen, Neal), and so it would be wrong to blame the staff for them.

But that’s not to say that there aren’t some other positions where the coaching staff is arguably at least partly at fault for the fact that there was so much uncertainty through the early part of the season:

  • Running back: This one really is something of a head-scratcher, since it became clear to most fans that Travis Thomas wasn’t going to get the job done long before he stopped getting a significant number of carries, and even though he didn’t actually start after week one, it took until the Michigan State game in week four for Aldridge to take over that position instead of Armando Allen. Allen has shown himself to be a good change-of-pace back who has a chance to be a dynamic every-down player in the future, but he’s not there yet, and trying to work the offense around his speed instead of building around the skill and power of Aldridge was pretty clearly a bad decision. When the guy who is obviously your best running back is basically your third option for the first third the season, something seems to have gone wrong in decision-making.
  • Quarterback: It’s been argued - with considerable force, in my mind, though I don’t think Jimmy Clausen deserved to be pulled before this week - that Sharpley should have been named the starter at the beginning of the season, and that the team would have been better off in the long run if that had been the decision made. It seems clear enough in hindsight that the choice of Demetrius Jones as the starter against Georgia Tech was a disaster, and that the time spent practicing a spread-style offense would have been better used working on more traditional sets. If Clausen would in fact have been the starter if not for his elbow surgery, then replacing him with someone who would run the same type of offense may well have been the best bet. Once again, this seems to be a matter of the staff getting to “cute” with schemes and crafty personnel decisions rather than taking a more careful, “building-blocks” approach.
  • The offensive tackles: The two-game experiment with moving Sam Young to right tackle clearly didn’t go very well, though it’s not as if he’s been stellar since going back to his original position. But if Young is in fact that much more comfortable playing on the left side of the line, then there’s a natural argument that says he never should have been moved in the first place. [EDIT: See Matt's comment below. What I should have said was that the experiment with putting Duncan on the left side of the line and leaving Young on the right did not work well, though it's not as if the line has been airtight since they were switched back. But the need for a mid-season switch like this with relatively veteran players suggests that there were some mistakes made in preseason evaluations.]

The fact is that these four positions - tailback, quarterback, and the two exterior linemen - are obviously crucial to the success of a football team, and so if Weis and his staff did make bad decisions with how they managed them, then it’s very likely that that had adverse effects on the way the team played on the field, as well as on the overall progress the team was able to make, through the early part of the season. And while in each case the questionable decisions I’ve highlighted here were understandable, it seems reasonable to put some blame at the feet of the coaching staff if they really did mis-evaluate their talent in these kinds of ways.

But at the same time, looking at these position changes as a whole reveals two really positive things about the state of the Irish: first, that there are lots of talented underclassmen playing extraordinary football; second, that the coaching staff has continually been willing to put those players on the field and even in the starting lineups, no matter how much seniority may have been had by the players they were replacing. If we continue to see more personnel moves over the remainder of the season, it will probably be for these kinds of reasons rather than the more worrisome ones suggested in the second category above. This is an extremely young team, and it’s going to take everyone a while to settle in.

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.

It’s the execution, stupid.

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Amidst all the armchair analysis of Saturday’s loss to Boston College, many excellent points have been raised about what the Irish are and - especially - aren’t doing right: offensive line and quarterback play on the bad end; the all-around liveliness of the defense and the play of individual standouts like Trevor Laws, Brian Smith, and Darrin Walls on the good. But one point that many people, both on the IrishEnvy boards and elsewhere, have kept coming back to as an area that has hurt the Irish is Charlie Weis’s play-calling. I’ve said in many little discussions already that I think this argument is silly, but I thought it was worth writing a longer post detailing exactly why I think this.

Let me preface my argument by saying that I’m well aware that I know absolutely nothing about play-calling. Heck, I don’t even play Madden. But given the specific sort of argument I’m going to make here, I think that’s a good thing: I’m not going to sit here and tell a Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator how to do his job; instead, I’m going to show you exactly how the plays that Weis called against BC regularly put the Irish in a position to convert simple first-downs and so move the ball down the field. My focus, in other words, will be (once again) on specific boneheaded mistakes rather than abstract generalities.

To start, let’s look at OCDomer’s breakdown of Saturday’s offensive drives:

  1. 6 Plays, 3 yards, punt.
  2. 5 plays, 16 yards, punt.
  3. 3 plays, 9 yards, punt.
  4. 3 plays, 9 yards, punt.
  5. 10 plays, 22 yards, ball turned over on downs when punter’s knee touches ground while fielding low snap.
  6. 5 plays, 9 yards, Clausen pass intercepted.
  7. 1 play, 0 yards, Clausen pass intercepted.
  8. 7 plays, 79 yards, TD pass from Sharpley to Parris.
  9. 3 plays, 7 yards, punt.
  10. 6 plays, 16 yards, punt.
  11. 6 plays, 15 yards, missed 41 yd FG attempt.
  12. 11 plays, 53 yards, ball turned over on downs.
  13. 4 plays, 0 yards, ball turned over on downs.
  14. 1 play -1 yard, game over.

It’s certainly easy to look at that drive chart, together with a box score that shows that the Irish had only 222 total yards to BC’s 459 (not to mention the fact that ND is still ranked 111th or worse in every major (andminor“) offensive category) and conclude that coaching is at fault, and - as I’ll argue shortly - I think you’d be quite right to do that. But that doesn’t mean the fault is with PLAY-CALLING. Here’s a breakdown of what brought those drives to a halt (some of which is noted by OCDomer):

  1. 6 Plays, 3 yards, punt. [Holding by Young forces 2nd-and-20.]
  2. 5 plays, 16 yards, punt. [Clausen fails to hit open Parris in near field on two consecutive throws.]
  3. 3 plays, 9 yards, punt. [Allen fails to convert on third and three.]
  4. 3 plays, 9 yards, punt. [Hughes fails to convert on third and one.]
  5. 10 plays, 22 yards, ball turned over on downs when punter’s knee touches ground while fielding low snap. [Olsen false starts on 2nd-and-10; Clausen under huge pressure next two plays.]
  6. 5 plays, 9 yards, Clausen pass intercepted. [Drive starts with 1:19 on clock. Young called for holding on 1st-and-10.]
  7. 1 play, 0 yards, Clausen pass intercepted. [Dangerous pass by Clausen bounces off Carlson's hands and is picked off.]
  8. 7 plays, 79 yards, TD pass from Sharpley to Parris.
  9. 3 plays, 7 yards, punt. [Kamara drops a first-down throw on 3rd-and-3.]
  10. 6 plays, 16 yards, punt. [Sharpley misses on two consecutive downfield passes to Parris.]
  11. 6 plays, 15 yards, missed 41 yd FG attempt. [Turkovich whistled for holding on 1st-and-10; Duncan burned badly to give up a sack; Walker misses FG attempt.]
  12. 11 plays, 53 yards, ball turned over on downs. [Turkovich called for holding on 4th-and-1 TD throw.]
  13. 4 plays, 0 yards, ball turned over on downs. [Parris drops a downfield throw by Sharpley; Sharpley throws the ball to nobody on 4th-and-10.]
  14. 1 play -1 yard, game over. [Kneel-down to run out clock.]

So there you go. Out of twelve failed offensive drives (obviously the last one doesn’t count), the Irish had five that were handicapped by penalties along the offensive line, two that ended on failures to convert short yardage on third down, two that each involved a pair of poor throws to open receivers, and two others that ended when third-down throws were dropped by wide receivers. Put that together and you get six of twelve drives that would have been sustained if not for straightforward offensive incompetence (dropped or mis-thrown passes and an inability to convert short yardage) and five more where the offense had to face extra-long yardage situations because of penalties. That’s eleven of twelve failed drives (the one that is left out here is the one that started and ended with Clausen’s second interception) grinding to a halt because of nothing but old-fashioned on-field ineptitude.

So here’s my question: how is ANY of this the result of the plays that were called? It seems to me - and perhaps someone who knows more about football can show me where this is wrong - that all a coach can do in the play-calling department is put his team in a position to convert one first down at a time so that they can move on down the field. This is going to be immensely hard to do when the offensive line moves your team backwards rather than forwards with dumb penalties, and it is also going to be hard to do when you call plays that should be good for first downs and your team FAILS TO EXECUTE THOSE PLAYS. So far as I can tell, not even ONE of ND’s failed drives on Saturday is attributable to Weis having called the wrong plays (whether it was not running enough, not passing enough, not passing the ball downfield enough, and so on and so forth): instead, in every case where there weren’t penalties along the o-line to move the team backwards (and indeed in some of those cases, too), the offense had a chance to convert a third down and extend their drives, a play was called on which they could clearly have done just that, and they failed to do their job. It is simply beyond me how this loss could be ascribed to the plays that were called rather than what was done with them once the huddle was broken.

None of this is to say that Weis’s play-calling has been beyond reproach in PREVIOUS weeks; I no longer have my notes on them, but I sincerely doubt you could make this same sort of argument (at least with this same force) in those cases. (The Georgia Tech and Michigan games are especially striking examples of goofy scheming.) Nor - as I’ve already mentioned - is it to say that he’s beyond criticism for Saturday’s loss. In fact, I can think offhand of at least ten other things for which Weis deserves a lot of flack:

  1. An offensive line that can’t block.
  2. The fact that the (in many case most veteran) members of said line continually commit dumb penalties.
  3. A team that is unable to convert in short yardage situations.
  4. A pair of quarterbacks who were barely above 30% passing on the day.
  5. A veritable smörgåsbord of dropped passes by the wide receivers.
  6. The fact that his team seems regularly to come out flat in big games.
  7. The fact that his practice routines didn’t get his players ready for “game speed.”
  8. The way the wheels have tended to fall off for this year’s team as soon as they’ve faced the tiniest bit of adversity.
  9. The fact that many of the members of his coaching staff don’t seem to be able to get their jobs done.
  10. The fact that the Irish are 1-6 this year (and 1-8 in their last nine games).

All of these things are, in part at least, the fault of the head coach, and many of them bring out the sorts of problems that doomed the Irish against BC. Weis DESERVES to be blamed, in other words, for the way his team has failed to execute: but last Saturday at least, the plays he called would have enabled his team to move down the field if they’d managed to do just that (i.e., execute).

(While we’re at it, let me point out a few things that handicapped the Irish against BC but were NOT Weis’s fault:

  1. The fact that his #1 tailback (Aldridge) left the game with an injury after getting only five carries.
  2. The fact that his #1 wide receiver (Grimes), his top middle linebacker (Crum), and a starting offensive lineman (Wenger) as well as a backup (Romine) all weren’t able to play because of injury.
  3. The fact that that was one of the worst-officiated football games I’ve ever seen.
  4. The fact that BC has sold its soul to the devil in exchange for theological liberalism and a win-streak against the Irish.
  5. Ty Willingham’s recruiting (yes, that old hat).

Again, I’m certainly not saying Weis is blameless - on that, see the above. I’m just saying we’ve got to keep the whole picture in mind.)

Whew. That was a long post for such a silly argument. But in many ways I think the complaints about the plays that were called on Saturday illustrate people’s inability to look realistically at a game and diagnose what actually went wrong as opposed to trotting out the same old gripes week-in, week-out. There is a LOT that is wrong with this team, and a LOT of that is arguably the fault of Charlie Weis. Foremost among these problems is a failure to move the ball on offense - but so far as I can tell, the chief problem against BC wasn’t on the sidelines. It was on the field.