Posts Tagged ‘Evan Sharpley’

So much to be thankful for

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clausen to start vs. Air Force

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

Per the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette:

Freshman Jimmy Clausen will be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback for Saturday’s game against Air Force, Notre Dame football media relations director Brian Hardin said Wednesday evening.

Irish coach Charlie Weis was not available for comment and unlike in previous weeks did not speak after Wednesday’s practice.

“Whoever plays the best, that’s what you look for,” Weis said Tuesday when asked what he was looking for. “It really is not that difficult. Sometimes you make it more difficult than it is, just whoever plays the best.”

This, though, is likely a long-haul decision as Weis said Tuesday he would take into account who would be the best quarterback for his team through the final three games and beyond.

Anyone with questions about Clausen’s health might be interested to know that Michael Rothstein reported that Clausen “looked slower” than Evan Sharpley on Tuesday’s practice, and had poorer “extension” on his legs. It’s of course hard to know exactly what to make of something like this, though, and one imagines that he certainly wouldn’t be starting if he weren’t ready to go.

Weis is expected to speak to the media after Thursday’s practice. We’ll have more details as they become available.

Ugly handful

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

Speaking to the media after Notre Dame’s loss to Boston College three-and-a-half weeks ago, Irish head coach Charlie Weis went over six plays that he thought showed “the difference between winning and losing” (John’s insanely lengthy riff on the same theme can be found here). In a similar vein, here are five plays from last Saturday’s loss to Navy that do the same.

1. The facemask call.

Situation: 3rd-and-8 at the Notre Dame 22-yard line. Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada rushes for two yards and is enveloped by three or four tacklers after his pitch-out option is covered. As he is being brought down, Joe Brockington catches him by the facemask and is called for a ten-yard facemask penalty. Rather than forcing Navy to try to convert a 4th-and-6 or attempt a 38-yard field goal, they are able to methodically cut through the red zone and score a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.

Analysis: This one may have been the least brutal of these mistakes, but it hurts in a situation where the Irish defense had a real shot at making one of those key stops that was needed if they were to beat Navy. The frustrating thing about it was that Brockington wasn’t the only tackler, and using that extra hand was certainly not necessary when you have two other defenders on the runner and he is already a lot smaller than you.

Alternative outcome: Notre Dame stops Kaipo and Navy has to face a fourth-down-and-long situation. There is a chance the Midshipmen might have tried to go for it, given ND’s offensive production this year (or lack thereof), but as early as it was in the game it would seem the smart decision would have been to line up and try to kick a field goal. Either way the odds are likely that the score would have stood at 7-0 or 7-3 as opposed to 7-7 at the end of that drive.

2. The missed field goal.

Situation: It’s the third quarter, and Notre Dame leads 21-20 thanks to a missed extra point attempt. The Irish been driving steadily down the field, thanks to a huge dose of James Aldridge. But Evan Sharpley misfires on two consecutive passes, and the drive grinds to a halt at the Navy 23-yard line. But Brandon Walker misses wide right on his field goal attempt, and the Irish fail to extend their lead.

Analysis: The trouble is that the field goal was only the tip of the iceberg. Notre Dame had been running the ball very successfully, so it almost made sense to not bother throwing it at all (a point John raised in his initial post after the game). It’s possible, however, that Aldridge was winded, and Armando Allen had rushed for no gain on first down. Sharpley, as always, was a bit inaccurate, and two incompletions later the Irish have to kick or go for it. In my mind it was probably this kick, more so than the missed practice attempts during halftime, that convinced Charlie Weis that ND needed a few more yards at the end of the game. The lack of a consistent kicking game has been a plague for far too long at college football’s greatest institution. The Irish have to be able to find a consistent, good kicker.

Alternative outcome: Walker makes the field goal and extends the lead to 24-20. Nothing spectacular, though it would have made it impossible for Navy to go up by seven with a touchdown and a two-point conversion (see “The fumble,” below): the real reason to highlight this play is because of how ND killed the drive. It’s been a while since the Irish could count on the three points as most teams do, and right now they really need the kind of kicker who is going to be either number one or two on the team in terms of points at the end of the year.

3. The fumble.

Situation: Notre Dame is on its second play of the series, at its own 29-yard line. Three Navy players make it into the backfield and as two of them turn Sharpley into a human sandwich, Chris Kuhar-Pitters forces a fumble and returns it to the ND end zone for an easy six points. After Kaheaku-Enhada converts the ensuing two-point conversion attempt, the Midshipmen find themselves up by a score of 28-21.

Analysis: People that were complaining about Jimmy Clausen, eat your hearts out. In fairness the blitz seemed to have come mostly from Evan’s blindside, but once it is obvious you are going to take the sack, you have to tuck the ball and just go down. Kuhar-Pitters saw the throwing arm flailing out there and took advantage. In a game that was going to be determined by long drives and few turnovers, this is a huge game-killer.

Alternative outcome: Notre Dame was up 21-20 at this point and had the opportunity to move down the field and get a touchdown, having done so on three of their first five drives. Weis probably would have elected to go for seven as opposed to trying to make it a two-score game (no guarantee, as he is the biggest river-boat gambler out there - pun intended), but in any case there was the potential to make it a two-score game at 29-20 or at least make it more difficult for Navy to catch up at 28-20.

4. The sack.

Situation: Notre Dame has excellent field position, after an excellent Tom Zbikowski punt return to the Navy 38-yard line. Facing 4th-and-8 at the Navy 24, Weis elects to go for the first down as opposed to attempting the field goal. Kuhar-Pitters comes flying around the left side of the line and makes a spectacular play by leaping over Armando Allen to sack Sharpley. Navy’s ball.

Analysis: This one is a tough one to try to lay any definitive blame. Was it a poor coaching decision to go for the touchdown with 2:01 left? Tough to say since the Irish while hadn’t been able to stop Navy, they do rely on long, sustained drives and - as the ensuing three-and-out made clear - moving the length of the field in two minutes is tough to accomplish with their playbook. So suppose we leave that issue aside. Was it poor blocking? Weis has already said that Allen is not the best blocker among ND’s backs, and that’s fair since he is build to be a speedster, not a big obstacle. Moreover, the leap itself was a spectacular play, very Lavar Arrington. The one good thing to take away from the play might be that the Irish offensive line picked up every other player pretty well (something that frankly wouldn’t have happened earlier in the year, as we may have seen more of a jailbreak), and that it took a great play by a defender to make the stop. What is not fun about the play is the missed call on the facemask: it should have been a penalty to give the Irish a first down, but in that situation you can’t rely on refs to win the game for you.

Alternate outcome: The Irish had excellent position, so if they had got the first down it’s probable that they would have scored one way or another and eaten up enough time to make a Navy score unlikely. Best outcome is that ND scores a touchdown or kicks a field goal and eats up about 40 more seconds in the process, leaving Navy only a little over a minute to try to tie the game. Worst outcome, ND fails to score, and Navy still has very little time to try to take the lead. This was obviously the toughest play of the entire game, and in my opinion was what did the Irish in.

5. The failed two-point conversion.

Situation: In the third overtime, Notre Dame scores the touchdown and is forced to attempt a two-point conversion per NCAA rules. ND brings in their “goal-line back” in Travis Thomas and attempts a running play. Frankly it’s tough to tell if the play was designed to run between the tackles or bounce it out to the right but Thomas was tackled for no gain and the Irish lose to Navy for the first time in over four decades.

Analysis: In my mind, this was the worst coaching decision of the game. While in years past it would be okay to rely on ND’s physical advantage along the line of scrimmage, we had already seen that this play wasn’t a sure thing earlier in the game, when the same play was run and Thomas had to make a second effort outside to score. It was painfully obvious what kind of play was going to be run as soon as #26 came in, so it wasn’t any sort of trickeration-gone-wrong. I am no coach, but it would have been great to fake the run and pass with him in, especially after the pass interference call on the previous play.

Alternative outcome: Not much to say here, except that the Irish would have had another shot at winning the game. Sometimes you lose, even to Navy. Kudos to them for putting themselves in a position to win, and hey - if Notre Dame is going to lose to anyone in any year, I would choose the Midshipmen over anyone else.

In conclusion, what we have here is another game that could have been won, multiple times. But at the end of the day it’s just another loss, and the Irish going to end the 2007 season with a maximum of four wins. There were positives to take from the game, such as an offense that actually seemed to be on the field and a much-improved showing on special teams (other than the ongoing troubles with the kicking game). This stage of the season is more about damage control and preparing for 2008, so in a way it was nice to see a competitive game even if the result was in the wrong column.

Young players are prone to making mistakes and even the (relatively) few that were made on Saturday were enough to sink the Irish against an efficient Navy squad. Let’s hope that ND starts to make offensive games like that more of a standard, and builds some overall consistency as a team. If the offense can muster performances like that against their final three opponents, the Irish will have a shot to end 2007 on a positive note.

Congratulations to the Midshipmen. I hope they enjoyed that day off; they certainly earned it.

-Jared

Pardon me as I stab myself in the eye with a fork.

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

It seems to me that a loss like this one is better left to message board rants (and hilariously angry blog posts - nice job, Jay) than detailed analyses of the sort I’ve usually given, but in lieu of another installment of Simon Smith and his Amazing Dancing Bear, let me just point out four crucial statistics that I think have been somewhat overlooked in the discussions I’ve been party to so far (both on IE and BGS).

338

That’s the total number of offensive yards that Navy had through four quarters and three overtime periods, their second-worst offensive output of the season. At the end of regulation, their rushing total was only 240 yards - a season-worst, and a full football field below their average through the first eight games - and their passing total stood at 38: a combined offensive output of 278 yards, their lowest of the year and over 170 yards below their season-long average coming in. Navy’s average gain of 3.9 yards per carry was also a season-worst, and by a considerable margin at that. The Midshipmen had to punt the ball twice yesterday, something that had happened only two other times all season, and they would have had to do it a third time if Joe Brockington hadn’t been called for a personal foul facemask penalty after a third-down stop on the second Navy possession. Add to that two forced fumbles (only one of which was recovered by the Irish, of course) and two drives where the Midshipmen were held to a field goal attempt - something that had been accomplished only once in each of their previous two games - and it becomes clear that anyone who wants to blame this loss on Corwin Brown’s defense has got another thing coming.

4

That’s the total number of sacks yielded by the Irish, to a defense that came in with only five sacks in their first EIGHT GAMES. Sorry folks, but all is not well with Notre Dame’s offensive line (on which see also “3.7,” below).

27

That’s the total number of passes thrown by Evan Sharpley, on a windy day when it was clear from the start that he was going to be woefully inaccurate. Add in the four sacks and the four (I think) other times where a pass play was called but Sharpley ended up scrambling for positive yardage, and you end up with what looks to have been about 35 pass plays called against a team that was obviously overwhelmed in the trenches when it came to stopping the Irish running game, a fact that Charlie Weis failed to exploit with any consistency until the end of the third quarter. Going through the play-by-play, I count NINE times that Sharpley was asked to throw the ball on first-and-ten. Offensive genius, my ass.

3.7

That’s the average yardage per carry picked up by the Notre Dame offense. It’s easy to look at the box score, see 235 net rushing yards, and conclude that the running game was a real bright spot yesterday. But it took SIXTY-THREE runs to get to that total, and nearly all of the Irish rushing efficiency seemed to be of the “fall forward” variety: the Irish offensive linemen stood up and shoved their massively undersized counterparts nice and hard, and the tailbacks ran through the wreckage they created. If you’re trying to build a D-I football program, that’s not much to hang your hat on.

The bell tolls, indeed. Now, off to find that fork …

Taking Stock, Part III: Dig deep

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

(This is the third in a series of three posts analyzing the season so far and looking ahead to its remainder. Part I, “19 reasons why Notre Dame’s offense has sucked so badly in 2007,” is available here, and Part II, “Identity crisis,” is here.)

If it’s true, as I argued it is in the first two posts of this series, that the primary reason Notre Dame’s offense has been so bad this year is because of Charlie Weis himself, and that putting this season together with the last two gives us reason to think that the same characteristics that seem to make Weis a very good or even great coach for a bunch of hard-working, self-motivating, experienced veterans like the ones he had in 2005 and 2006, make him a downright awful coach for a bunch of unpolished youngsters like these ones, then an obvious question we need to ask ourselves is whether he’s going to be able to help this current group make the necessary transition. There’s no reason to think that the raw talent isn’t there; the issue is that of developing it in the right ways.

One aspect of this, which many people picked up on in commenting on the earlier posts (see OCDomer’s helpful response here, for example), concerns the purely “physical” aspect of their development. Can Weis and the rest of his staff help these players build the strength and stamina they need to perform at a high level? Can they teach them the “fundamentals”? Can they help players like Jimmy Clausen and Armando Allen put on enough weight - of the right kind, mind you - to absorb the physical pounding that comes with playing D-I football? And so on.

But while I think these kinds of questions are really very important, they actually weren’t the focus of what I was trying to bring out in my earlier posts. At the heart of my argument on Tuesday was the idea that many of this team’s biggest problems so far have been mental rather than purely physical: they’ve been tentative, distracted, easily discouraged, and so on. Similarly, my argument on Wednesday centered on the proposal that there was something about the psychological make-up of the 2005 and 2006 teams that made them respond well to Weis’s coaching style in a way that this one hasn’t. To be honest, I have little doubt that these guys will get there physically; the real question for me is whether they can keep their heads in the game.

Here’s what Aaron Taylor had to say about this in a (somewhat over-the-top) post he wrote after standing on the Notre Dame sidelines for the USC game:

These players are done. They don’t seem to play with passion or even be bothered when things are going wrong. In fact, it almost seemed like they were used to it. Laughing and joking on the sideline by a select few players while receiving the worst beat down in the 70+ game history with USC. What’s worse than them laughing was that no one seemed to do anything about it. No one yelling at the players. No one holding each other accountable on their respective sides of the ball. No one finally saying, “enough is enough” and doing something about it. Blank stares and apathy by starters and veterans. Guys seemingly relieved when something goes wrong and it wasn’t their fault. Embarrassing … and they just seem to take it. Except for the defense, however, as Corwin [Brown] and his boys come to play.

In my mind, it’s this sort of thing that’s far and away the biggest threat to the development of the current freshmen and sophomores. If they get discouraged and hang their heads when things go wrong, then the way Charlie Weis coaches will consistently be received as overwhelming and overbearing. And if this kind of behavior really is characteristic of their mindset right now, then that gives us reason to think that they many never become the kinds of players they need to be if they’re going to become winners down the line.

While I obviously wasn’t able to be on the sidelines for the SC game, a worrying moment for me came right at the midpoint of the third quarter. The Irish trailed 31-0 following Vidal Hazelton’s touchdown reception, and faced a third-and-three after Armando Allen had churned out a seven-yard run. Evan Sharpley broke the huddle, and you could see Sam Young and Mike Turkovich give a half-hearted clap, sigh, hang their heads, and shuffle over to the line of scrimmage. It was the look of a group that had been whipped: a team that HAD said “enough is enough,” albeit not in the way one would hope for.

If Taylor’s diagnosis is right - and it should be said that similar rumors have swirled around this team for much of the season - then there’s a LOT to be worried about. One scenario this recalls is the end of the 2004 season, which started off with an embarrassing 2-6 record that included a 38-0 blowout loss on the road to Michigan, a 45-14 smoking at home against Southern Cal, and a 37-0 home defeat to Florida State. After squeaking past Navy and BYU at home and easily beating Rutgers (you know, back when they were awful) on the road, Tyrone Willingham’s Irish were left a chance to finish the season at 6-6 and put themselves in contention for a bowl invitation they’d almost certainly receive. We all remember how that ended: Notre Dame lost, 38-12, to a Syracuse team that one week earlier had been simply spanked by Rutgers. And in the eyes of many of the Irish faithful, the sorry performance on that day was an example of a team that had quit on their coach.

Unlike Willingham’s team, which headed into that last game with a shot at a .500 regular season record, the current group of players has no hope for a postseason bowl. But that doesn’t make the end of their season any less important. It’s not just that the Irish need to win out these last four games and end the year at a somewhat respectable 5-7, or even that they need to generate some positive momentum heading into the offseason, but that they need to show that they aren’t going to go the route that the Irish of 2003 went against the Orangemen. This team needs to show some heart, some spirit, some drive: they need to push around their undersized and under-talented opponents, to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, to hit - hard - and wrap up, to give evidence of what Weis’s offense and Brown’s defense can do when the balance of the talent is on their side. In a word: they need to show that they’re not going to quit.

Let me reiterate: the primary reason I say this is not because of the remainder of the 2007 season itself. This year is lost, no doubt about that. The key issues have to do with the development - in particular, the psychological maturation - of the young players: are they going to allow themselves to be mired into a cycle of losing, with everything that attends it? Or are they going to break out, push harder, and continue to improve themselves? Are they going to develop the tough, dedicated, non-defeatist mindset that allowed Brady Quinn and his colleagues to play so well under Weis in 2005 and 2006? Or are they going to go a different route?

After the sorry performance against USC two weeks ago, and Taylor’s description of the mood on the sidelines, it’s natural to think that this team has already made its choice. But I want to suggest briefly that such a judgment would be unfounded.

In the first place, it’s worth pointing out that the practice reports we’ve seen following the SC game have generally painted the picture of a pretty fired-up team. Here, for example, is Ben Ford’s account of what things were like just three days after the loss:

The energy level was extremely high, starting with the defensive linemen, where Justin Brown and Kallen Wade raced to the blocking sled. Wade — who’s got a much longer stride — won by a length. (Sorry, that’s a little Breeders’ Cup excitement working its way into a football blog.)

But the receivers were by far the most energetic group today. Coach Rob Ianello had them running the running backs’ gauntlet — that’s a first, as far as I know — and the players let loose with some great Captain Caveman-style yells, especially [Robby] Parris and walk-on Nick Possley.

But in my mind, the far more important sign is another thing that happened right after the USC game: Michael Floyd and Jonas Gray, two highly-regard recruits who had been watching the game from the same vantage point as Aaron Taylor had, made verbal commitments to the Irish, turning down offers from numerous teams having considerably more on-the-field success. They had been with the Irish players before, during, and after the loss; they had gotten an in-depth look at what the attitude of the team was like. And yet - or and so, we might think - they decided that this was a group that they wanted to be a part of.

It might be easy to chalk this up to a couple of kids looking for early playing time, but that would be a mistake. Floyd, for example, had an offer from his homestate school, the woeful Minnesota Gophers, where he could likely have started from day one. Gray’s case is even more instructive in this regard: in giving his pledge to the Irish, he reneged on an earlier commitment to Nebraska, a move that suggests that in his mind anyway, the two programs are headed in quite different directions. Notre Dame, he seemed to be saying, is genuinely rebuilding, while the Huskers are simply falling apart.

It’s hard to imagine how Floyd and Gray - as well as other recruits, like Trevor Robinson and Kenneth Page, who were also high on the Irish after visiting for the USC game - could have gotten such a positive impression if the attitude on the team had been as thoroughly defeatist as the picture Taylor paints. Notre Dame’s recruiting successes this year suggest, not just that Weis, Brown, and the others are terrific at that aspect of their jobs (though they surely are), but also that there is a sizeable contingent of players who are happy to be at Notre Dame, genuinely excited about the direction the team is headed, and devoted to turning this ship around.

All that really matters, of course, is what happens on the playing field: and that’s why these next four games are so important. In the first place, if the Irish continue to be embarrassed and fail to show tangible signs of improvement, it’s easy to imagine that a good number of their committed players might decide that they’ve been mistaken about the overall direction of the team, and jump ship. Secondly, though, there’s the psyche of the current players - the ones who will make up the core of this team in 2008 and beyond - to consider: any positive momentum they can build over the remainder of 2007 will do wonders for their confidence, and go a long way to making them the kind of “Weis guys” that I’ve been arguing they need to become, while continuing to struggle in the ways they have so far will seriously undermine this possibility.

It’s time for this team to show us what they’ve got, and to decide for themselves what kind of team they’re going to become.

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.

Get Dirty!

Friday, October 19th, 2007

You probably already know this, but the LA Times is reporting that Mark “Dirty” Sanchez is going to be the starting quarterback on Saturday for the Trojans of Southern Cal, in place of the injured John David Booty. Sanchez, a redshirt sophomore, was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school but has seen little game action since coming to SC, his most newsworthy accomplishments having come - ahem - off the playing field. Starting in place of Booty last week, Sanchez had a tough first half against a less than dynamic Arizona defense, but completed 11 of 15 passes for a very Clausen-esque 74 yards in the second half as the Trojans narrowly avoided their second straight upset loss.

It’s hard to think that this is anything but good news for the Irish, as we all remember what happened last time Corwin Brown’s defense faced an inexperienced backup:

Put that together with a beat-up SC offensive line (All-American tackle Sam Baker will be out, as well as guard Alatini Malu), and one can only expect that by the time the game draws to an end, Evan Sharpley won’t be the only quarterback wearing a green jersey.

Sweet dreams tonight, Mark. The nightmare begins Saturday, 3:30pm EST.

I got your Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse right here …

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.

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.

Stop beating yourself.

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

The first half:

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

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

The second half:

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

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

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

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

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

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