Posts Tagged ‘Geoff Price’

Off to Palo Alto

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

My wife and I are packing up the Volvo in a few hours and heading down and across the Bay to take our son to his first ND game. If you’re at the alumni club tailgate, I’ll be the guy in glasses who’s in bad need of a haircut, toting around a big-eyed eight-month-old in a green #10 jersey. Feel free to say hello.

For my kid’s sake, I’m going to try to enjoy this game no matter what happens, but here are a few things the Irish could do that would help me achieve that more easily:

  • Protect the offensive backfield: Stanford is a horrible defensive team (81st against the run, 107th against the pass, 106th overall), but they’re pretty good at blowing plays up. Their 3.1 sacks per game are good for 11th in the nation, and their average of 7.9 tackles for a loss is 10th. They’ve got three different players - Clinton Snyder, Pat Maynor, and Udeme Udofia - with at least five sacks on the year. Maynor ranks 18th in the nation with almost 1.5 TFLs per game. Please, PLEASE keep them on the proper side of the line of scrimmage.
  • Defend the pass: Stanford’s rushing offense and total offense are similarly horrible, as they’re each ranked 106th overall. But they do pass for over 200 yards per game, and are right around the middle of I-A in that category. Trent Edwards may be gone, but senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander has given the Irish fits in years past: I for one remember the 2005 Fiesta Blow “play-in” game, when he torched ND with 11 of 15 passing for 197 yards as I cried in the stands. Ugh, flashbacks.
  • Show some mental toughness: Reality is that something’s going to go wrong at some point, though hopefully it won’t be on the game’s first series. The Irish managed to rebound pretty well from last week’s early setbacks, but the fact is that the offense spent most of the first half pretty much curled up in the fetal position until the defense went ahead and made some plays for them. Maybe with another win - and an all-around quality game on offense - under their belts, Jimmy Clausen & Co. can be even a bit more resilient this week.
  • Protect the rock: The Irish have lost 13 fumbles this year, including six in their last four games. There’s little doubt that they’ll be able to move the ball against Stanford at least somewhat effectively, but any combination of sacks (see above), penalties (ND has been whistled ten or more times in three games this year, including 11 for 103 yards against Duke), and - especially - turnovers can quickly bring that to a halt. Like I said last week: throwing a pick is one thing; putting the ball on the carpet is quite another.

Look: the fact is that this is another pretty bad team. Since their wins over USC and Arizona, Stanford has lost 23-6 to Oregon State, 27-9 to Washington, and 33-17 to Washington State. The Irish are certainly capable of winning today. Here’s to a fun afternoon of laughing at the LSJUMB and mocking their stupid mascot, a victory to close out 2007, and a happy drive home.

Go Irish, beat Cardinal!

* * *

A few more statistics and bits of news, for the junkies out there … the Cardinal give up over 180 rushing yards and almost 275 passing yards per game … they gave up 449 passing yards to Washington State last week, and 388 rushing yards to Washington the week before … they’re 117th in the nation in sacks allowed, at 4.2 per game … they average only 2.86 yards per carry on offense, and yield 4.3 on defense … they only convert 27% of their third downs, but they have a 76% success rate in the red zone … senior placekicker Derek Belch is just 13-of-20 (65%) in his field goal attempts this year … Stanford’s 3-7 record has come against what Jeff Sagarin ranks as the nations third-toughest schedule … the Irish have not won two games in a row to end a season since 1992 … John Sullivan, Pat Kuntz, Geoff Price, and Sergio Brown are all likely to miss the game with injuries, though Sully may get to see the field briefly for nostalgia’s sake … James Aldridge is on the depth chart and has been practicing in full pads, but reports indicate his having been “hobbled” this past week (though see here as well).

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.

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.

Gameday news and notes (ND vs. BC)

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Up next, a couple of quick injury updates:

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good stuff.]

* * *

That’s all for today. Go Irish!

Musical chairs

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

Center: John Sullivan / Dan Wenger

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

Left Guard: Mike Turkovich / Thomas Bemenderfer

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

Right Guard: Matt Carufel / Eric Olsen

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

Right Tackle: Paul Duncan / Chris Stewart

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

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

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

Right Defensive End: Dwight Stephenson Jr. / Justin Brown

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

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

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

Left Outside Linebacker: John Ryan / Anthony Vernaglia

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

Strong Safety: Tom Zbikowski / Sergio Brown / Ray Herring

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

Place-Kicker: Brandon Walker / Nate Whitaker

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

Punter: Geoff Price / Eric Maust

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll take it

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

Like OCDomer said (as well as Pat, I guess), a win is a win is a win. Even if it did come against a third-string walk-on freshman quarterback and a coach who did his best Karl Dorrell impersonation by running the ball only four times and asking said walk-on freshman to throw the ball constantly after falling behind by two scores despite the fact that there were over fifteen minutes left on the clock. And even if the Irish did manage only twelve first downs to UCLA’s twenty, and 140 offensive yards to UCLA’s 282. A win is a win is a win. And to be quite honest, it feels like a bit more than a win when it comes on a day that we get to see this face:

Good stuff. Oh, and by the way - Trojan fans, I got your “Booty for Booty” right here. (Word is, he prefers that kind anyway.)

Anyway, here are some thoughts on the game.


The game ball goes to …

I know the easy thing to do here is to go with Maurice Crum Jr. (seven tackles, one sack, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions, and a touchdown), but doing so would indicate that he actually had a better game than, say, Trevor Laws (five tackles, one sack, two pass breakups, and an all-around great job of being a pain in the butt), which in my mind is hard to say. Plus, there were two plays in the first half - eight-yard rushes by Joe Cowan and Kahlil Green, respectively - when he whiffed pretty badly on his tackles. But no question that Crum played a great second half and largely redeemed what has been a mediocre season for him so far.

In my mind, though, credit needs to go to the defense as a whole, rather than to any one or two individuals: Pat Kuntz, for instance, led the team with eight tackles and also had two pass breakups, Joe Brockington had another solid game with six tackles, and Tom Zbikowski showed some signs of life with five tackles, a sack, and a beautiful strip to force a fumble. These guys were bouncing around the field like I haven’t seen them do in years - they actually looked to be enjoying themselves. Kudos to Corwin Brown for the job he’s done in bringing this unit around.


By the numbers

Offense:

  • I already noted that the Irish had only 140 total offensive yards on the day. But that’s a bit of a misleading statistic, since the average starting field position for Notre Dame’s four scoring drives was the UCLA 27-yard line. If you don’t have far to go, you’re not going to get many yards. That said, five three-and-outs, a turnover on downs, and a drive that started at the opponent’s twelve and resulted in four yards and a field goal, do not a good offensive day make.
  • If we take out the yards lost on UCLA’s three sacks and the kneel-downs at the end of the game, Notre Dame ended up with a somewhat respectable 81 rushing yards on the day, which is right at UCLA’s average for the season (though that number includes sacks, of course). James Aldridge netted 52 yards on his 22 carries, and Armando Allen provided a nice change of pace with three carries for 19 yards. Not good enough, to be sure, but also not disastrous against the Bruin defense.
  • While Jimmy Clausen completed 17 of his 27 passes, they netted only 84 yards - an average of 3.1 yards per attempt. Clausen didn’t make any awful mistakes, but there were some times when he held on to the ball too long, and he didn’t look very good throwing the ball long downfield. Each of John Carlson (six catches for 38 yards), Aldridge (three for 18 yards), and Duval Kamara (two for 20 yards) had a nice day, but this passing game is going to have to do a lot more if the Irish want to beat Backup College or the Spoiled Children.
  • While time of possession was evenly divided in the first half, Notre Dame held the ball for 20:15 after halftime.

Defense:

  • As mentioned above, UCLA totaled 282 offense yards on the day, more than double the production of the Irish. 193 of those yards came through the air, on 16 completions - an average of 12.1 yards per completion, and a clear sign that the Irish pass defense has got to tighten up. The Bruins netted only 89 yards rushing, but that that number jumps up to 140 if we discount the yardage lost on Notre Dame’s five (!!) sacks. Still, though, all these numbers look really good against a UCLA offense that averaged 199.4 rushing yards and 225.2 passing yards coming into yesterday’s game.
  • After recovering three Bruin fumbles and intercepting four passes, the Irish defense now ranks ninth in the nation with 19 forced turnovers on the season. They also rank fourth in total pass defense (and 22nd in pass efficiency) and 41st overall defensively.

Mistake-free football

Well, not quite. We saw some pretty awful tackling at times in the first half, and there were a few times when our offensive linemen got toasted by the UCLA pass rush. There were some bad penalties, too: Raeshon McNeil getting called for a block in the back on a Zbikowski punt return a bit before halftime, pushing the Irish back to their own 30 instead of enabling them to start from midfield; Toryan Smith handing UCLA a first down on a bad pass interference penalty just after the half; Eric Olsen picking up an awful personal foul penalty that turned 3rd-and-9 into 3rd-and-24; and TWO holds called as Aldridge broke a nice run on 3rd-and-eleven near the start of the fourth. The Irish also failed once again to convert in short yardage, as Clausen’s fourth-down sneak attempt with ten minutes to go in the fourth quarter went nowhere.

But there’s no doubt that there was a major improvement in this department: my list of “inexcusables” was less than half as long as it was last week, and UCLA’s complete offensive incompetence more than made up for ND’s handful of errors.


Worth noting:

  • Leo Ferrine, David Grimes, and Dan Wenger all made the trip to Pasadena, but sat out the game with injuries.
  • Justin Brown returned after missing the past two games, though he didn’t impact the box score.
  • Robert Hughes didn’t see the field, nor did Matt Romine, Ray Herring, or Morrice Richardson. Chris Stewart made the trip to Pasadena, but didn’t end up playing. This was also the first game all season in which Evan Sharpley didn’t play.
  • Geoff Price replaced Eric Maust as Notre Dame’s punter, and averaged 40.3 yards on nine punts, with three downed inside the twenty yard-line.

All in all …

There’s no doubt that this team is improving, on both sides of the ball. If we take out the Michigan game, Notre Dame’s margin of defeat dropped constantly up until yesterday, from 30 points against Georgia Tech, to 21 against Penn State, to 17 against Michigan State, to 14 against Purdue. Notre Dame’s offensive line seems to have turned a corner since the debacle at the Big House, and the Irish defense has given up a total of 208 rushing yards the past two games after yielding an average of 232.8 yards in the first four weeks. Suddenly the possibility of making it to a bowl game doesn’t seem as utterly far-fetched as it once did.

Accomplishing that, though, will require pulling off a huge upset against Fredo or the Condoms. Look for the Notre Dame campus to be energized this coming week, and the stadium to be jumping when the Eagles come to town. The monkey’s off their back - now the Irish just need to keep on improving from week to week.

News and notes (10/5/07)

Friday, October 5th, 2007

As promised, here’s a quick update on some of what’s going on around the ND football universe as the Irish prepare to take on UCLA tomorrow evening.


Uncontroversial

First up, the quarterback situation. Despite the best efforts of certain individuals to argue that Jimmy Clausen should be benched despite completing 18 of 26 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown against Purdue, ND head coach Charlie Weis never wavered on his statement from earlier in the week that Clausen would be the starter unless he was injured. In fact, he never even let it become an issue: while Ben Ford mentions casually in his blog post about Wednesday’s practice that “Clausen will be your starter against the Bruins,” a quick scan of the news coverage leading up to the game shows how much of a non-story this “controversy” turned out to be. In my mind, this was a good decision by Weis: he never made a dramatic announcement in a press conference, but just let things play out on the practice field.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning, though, that Ford also reported on Wednesday that backup Evan Sharpley “is taking more reps in practice than usual this week,” reps which Weis said Sharpley had “earned” based on his performance against Purdue. But both Ford and Michael Rothstein also commented that Clausen looked perfectly healthy by mid-week, and that he was throwing on the run without any of the problems you’d expect from someone still bothered by a hip injury.


Injury worries

One worrisome storyline for the Irish over the past few weeks has been the spate of injuries that have hit the team. Here’s an update on how various players are doing:

  • As mentioned above, the hip injury that Jimmy Clausen suffered against Purdue seems to have healed completely, though Michael Rothstein does mention that he had to take more steps than Evan Sharpley did to throw the ball back during warmups. Whether this is related to his off-season elbow surgery is unclear.
  • Junior wide receiver David Grimes, who injured his ankle last Saturday against Purdue, apparently may have taken a few reps during practice on Thursday, and he will accompany the team to Pasadena, but it’s unclear how much he’ll play and whether he can make much of an impact if he does. [UPDATE: BGS quotes a Scout.com article in which Weis says that the staff's decision on Grimes "will go right to Saturday. He’s looked better every day, but he hasn’t gotten meaningful reps in practice all week long. He’s come out late every day because he’s been in there getting treatment."]
  • Sophomore offensive guard Dan Wenger, who was the starter at the beginning of the season until he injured his leg against Michigan, is reportedly “ready to play” for Saturday’s game. But Ford notes that he was still “moving slowly” on Tuesday, so once again it’s unclear how much he’ll be able to bring. Ford also has a great little piece on Wenger and his replacement, fellow sophomore Matt Carufel, who apparently doesn’t want to give the starting job back now that he’s gotten it.
  • Senior defensive end Justin Brown, who also missed the past two games due to injury, was back in practice on Tuesday and reportedly ran laterally - albeit “gingerly”- with the team, which was something he hadn’t been able to do last week. According to Ford, Brown is a “go” for Saturday’s game.
  • No official word, though, on the status of freshman offensive tackle Matt Romine, who was also a scratch for last Saturday’s game due to an arm injury.

Notes on the depth chart

Finally, a couple of remarks on Notre Dame’s depth chart for Saturday’s game. While the online chart hasn’t changed since last week, Weis made it clear after the Purdue game that Eric Maust has now replaced Geoff Price as the team’s first-string punter. Maust has averaged 43.7 yards on his seven punts so far this season.

More interesting, though, is the report from the Gary Post-Tribune that sophomore James Aldridge is now Notre Dame’s official #1 running back. There had been little doubt that this was so the past couple of weeks, but the official depth chart still listed him together with Travis Thomas, Armando Allen, and Junior Jabbie as co-#1’s. Once again, this change isn’t reflected in the chart at UND.com, but it does seem to be official. (HT: IrishTat.)


That’s all for now! I might be back tomorrow morning with some gameday notes.

Go Irish!

Some News and Notes

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

Based on the reports of yesterday’s practice from Michael Rothstein and Ben Ford, as well as the transcripts of Charlie Weis’s press conferences from Tuesday and Sunday, here’s an update on some of the major news swirling around the Irish universe.


First up, the quarterback situation. Weis said on Tuesday that he still wasn’t sure whether freshman QB Jimmy Clausen was completely recovered from the injury he suffered against Purdue, though it was expected that he would be:

I’m not 100% sure what Jimmy (Clausen) is going to look like. He’s supposed to be set and ready to go. I have to see that, you know? Some guys are set and ready to go, and they don’t play for another two weeks. Other guys that are set and ready to go, they’re ready to go that day. I’m going to have to see visually on the field how it goes right there, because (quarterbacks coach) Ron (Powlus) and I met today, and we didn’t even script who was in for what plays because we figured we will go by what we see when they’re out there.

He made it clear, though, that only an unexpectedly slow healing process would keep Clausen from starting against UCLA:

Q. If Jimmy (Clausen) is healthy enough, he’s the starter?

COACH WEIS: That’s what it would be. If he’s healthy enough, he’ll start.

Ford says, though, that during the stretch of practice he witnessed, Clausen “ran laterally, seemingly pain-free, which you’d think would be tough to do if he had an injured hip.” So at this point there’s clearly no reason to expect to see Evan Sharpley starting in his place on Saturday.

One point that Weis made in his press conference which seems to have been overlooked by many of those who’ve called for Sharpley to start on the basis of his performance against Purdue is that the basis for these decisions also involves what happens on the practice field:

I don’t think there’s ever such a thing where there are two guys that are equal. They might play like that in a game, but I think when it’s all said and done, you have to evaluate just not — not just solely by game day. Sometimes game day — like in last week’s case, both quarterbacks did a lot of good things, neither one of them were perfect, but I think the evaluation is based on a whole bunch of things, not just one game.

When asked how Sharpley has handled being Clausen’s backup, Weis said that it hasn’t been a problem, though he emphasized once again that nothing is set in stone for next Saturday’s game:

Evan is probably one of the most prepared people on the team, so he knows whether or not he starts or not that he’s going to be ready as if he is starting. Right now I can’t tell you for sure exactly how this is going to go down. I don’t know what Jimmy’s health is for sure, I don’t know how it’s going to happen in a game, but I do know that Evan will be ready to play when his number is called.

So we’ll see how this plays out, but at this point there’s obviously no reason to expect that Weis is going to make any changes unless he’s forced to.


Up next, other news on the injury front. As both Ford and Rothstein note, junior wideout David Grimes, who injured his ankle against Purdue, was absent from practice yesterday. Weis said in his press conference, though, that Grimes is healing surprisingly well, but that he’s “questionable” for Saturday’s game:

He was in much better condition than we were anticipating. He probably won’t go today, I would say — I can give you my day to day answer, but I would say he’s probably 50/50 for the game. So if I went to my background — I would call him questionable, not doubtful, but not probable, either. I would say he’s questionable.

Meanwhile, sophomore offensive lineman Dan Wenger, who’s been out the past two weeks with a leg injury suffered against Michigan but was expected to possibly be able to return for the UCLA game, was practicing with the team. Ford, though, says that Wenger looked to be “moving slowly,” while Weis said in his press conference that Wenger, like Grimes, was “questionable” for Saturday’s game - obviously we’ll have to keep an eye on this one.

Ford also notes that defensive end Justin Brown, who also sat out against Michigan State and Purdue, looked to be moving a bit better in Tuesday’s practice than he had the previous couple of weeks:

Justin Brown was still running gingerly, but at least this week he was running laterally with the rest of the team, which is an improvement.

Weis, meanwhile, called Brown “probable” for UCLA. Brown was supposed to be a “game-time decision” against Purdue, but he didn’t end up making the trip to West Lafayette. Obviously getting him back and healthy is very important for the Irish, who are very thin along the defensive line.

No word on the health of freshman offensive lineman Matt Romine, who missed the Purdue game with an arm injury, or sophomore cornerback Raeshon McNeil, who has been rumored to have been seen on crutches this week.


Up next, a bit of news on special teams. Both Ford and Rothstein note that senior punter Geoff Price, viewed a preseason All-America candidate in the eyes of many after a very strong 2006 season, has apparently lost his starting position to sophomore Eric Maust, who replaced Price in the Michigan State game and handled all the punts against Purdue. Weis had this to say about the situation in his Tuesday press conference:

Q. With your punting situation, is Geoff Price healthy?

COACH WEIS: He is.

Q. So it’s performance-based?

COACH WEIS: Eric (Maust) punted last week, and Eric will be punting again this week.

Weis also emphasized that he thought Maust did a “nice job” punting the ball against Purdue. Ford, meanwhile, notes that Price was holding the ball as Brandon Walker practiced kicking field goals - Evan Sharpley, meanwhile, was the holder for Nate Whitaker, who Ford notes didn’t do as well - at least on Tuesday - as Walker did:

Walker, with Geoff Price holding, missed wide left from 32 yards and Whitaker, out of Evan Sharpley’s hold, was good from that distance. But from there it was all Walker. He hit from 35, 40 and 43 yards, while Whitaker missed from those distances. So edge to Walker in the kicking game, at least Tuesday.

Once again, we’ll just have to wait and see how all of this shakes out.


Finally, a few words on the talk of the town, freshman wide receiver Golden Tate. Weis was probably asked as many if not more questions about Tate than about the quarterbacks, and here’s some of what he had to say:

I used Golden Tate this morning as an example to the entire team as what you can do by running full speed on the show team. We had this conversation on Sunday with the team. Sometimes when people are running the “look squad” to simulate the opponent’s offense or defense, they look at that like it’s a penalty. Other guys use it as a way to get themselves down the other end of the field, and that’s what he’s done. He’s just gone down — for the last two or three weeks he’s easily been the best player on the field going against our defense. And when you watch the tape, and you see him make these plays, then you want to get him on the field on offense.

We have a guy who can run fast down the field and catch the ball, can go up and get the ball. We see that in practice every day, and if you go back to — what game was it, the Penn State game where we threw it up the left sideline and it got called back for holding. He was in the game for one play — no, for a couple plays, but one that we threw to, he goes up there and gets it, but it’s not his fault it was called back. He’s in a jump ball situation and he comes down with it. He has an uncanny ability to do that.

While Weis made it clear that Tate isn’t going to be relegated to show team this week, he did emphasize that the Golden Boy still has a ways to go:

we all found out the other day that he can run go routes and catch the ball in traffic. That’s what he’s done in practice every single day. Now we have to make sure he can run a handful of other routes and run them with some type of precision, so you’re not guessing where he’s going to be on different routes. That’s what we’re going to work on this week.

Weis emphasized that the “draw it up in the dirt” strategy he was able to employ with Tate on Saturday against Purdue can only get the team so far:

 

Q. When you see these guys making big catches in games and another one and another one, are there situations where maybe you will put them in on plays that they haven’t practiced and say the play before, “Hey, this is what you’re going to do, now go do it”?

COACH WEIS: Well, we sort of did that the other day, grabbed them and said, “Come in here and run a go,” and they said, “What?” I said, “Run right by that guy,” and the (defensive) guy is sitting there listening to you, and he’s looking at you like you’re a liar, and he runs right by him. You can’t do that with all the routes, now, because sooner or later they figure that out.

Weis also went back to the comparisons he’d made before between Tate, who played primarily at running back until his senior year in high school, and fellow frosh Duval Kamara:

As we talked about the other day, Duval has been up the whole time because Duval was a more polished receiver. Golden just might be one of the best athletes on the team, and he’s certainly one of, if not the fastest one on the team. So it’s one of the things that we felt we needed. We need more straight-line speed to stretch this field right here, and he certainly does that. I think Duval is ahead in route running, but you can’t coach speed. Either you have it or you don’t.

Anyone who doubts whether Tate’s got it, of course, needs to take another look at this.

Highlights from Charlie Weis’s Sept. 23 press conference

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

The transcript is now up from Charlie Weis’s press conference on Sunday, Sept. 23. Here are some of the key points.


On the status of Justin Brown, who sat out Saturday’s game: “Justin is going to be able to go today [i.e., in Sunday's practice]. That was a game time decision where we just didn’t feel — he had rolled his ankle a little bit earlier in practice, earlier in the week, and it was a day to day type of thing where we weren’t really sure whether or not he could go or not. But even right to game day, he just didn’t feel that he could just push off enough on that day. It was close. It was close to him being able to go on Saturday, but according to both Justin and Jim (Russ, head trainer), he’ll be back and ready to go. That’s the answer to Justin.”

On Geoff Price’s struggles: “It was a tough day at the office. He’s not bothered by an injury.”

On freshmen linebackers Kerry Neal and Brian Smith, who played a lot in passing situations, and whether they’ll see the field more on run downs:

“[They're] spotty on run downs. I see them being in the two deep on run downs. I don’t think that right now they’re ready to be prime time every down players, but I think their progress has grown at a much higher pace than a lot of other people. One thing they’ve both shown is they can get after the passer. We definitely needed some edge pressure, which both those guys provide. And then different roles, I think they not only played themselves into the two deep on regular defense but put themselves close to being on the field on a more regular basis.”

On problems with kick coverage:

“The first thing that’s got to happen is we’ve got to kick it better. That helps. Once you kick it better, the guys that are in one on one situations, which when you go back and watch it, you’re going to see some guys unblocked at the point right there to make a tackle that are unblocked. I mean, when you have an opportunity to make a play, you’ve got to make a play.”

On Jimmy Clausen:

“Well, the two things that he does the best is he can read coverages and he can make every throw. They’re the two things he can do, okay. Now, at this point, for example, and we had this conversation this week, at this point in his career what he’s doing is calling plays in the huddle more than running the offense. … And this is part of the evolution of a quarterback. When they first start playing early in their career, they relay the plays from the sideline to the guys in the huddle and then go to the line of scrimmage and run the play. That will grow while he’s here, okay, from calling the plays to running the offense, and that is a natural transition that takes place over time. With any quarterback that’s when everything changes.”

On Matt Carufel, who made his first career start:

“… he was decent. We were pretty good at the point of attack with the straight on physical stuff. Where we had a little bit more problem is with movement, you know, and I know you’ll go back and watch it the way I do, but you’ll see movement creating some more problems than just lining up. When we were just lining up smacking people in the mouth, I thought he held up fine.”


Another topic that figured prominently in the discussion today was the level of emotion that the team showed in the locker room after the loss. This was a big area of concern for many fans, given the rumors that started to circulate after the loss to Michigan that the ND players may have given up caring. But according to Coach Weis, this is far from the case. Here are some of the highlights of what he said:

I think probably the thing that encouraged me the most of anything was how many people in the locker room after the game showed obvious emotion on the outcome of the game. It’s probably the first time this year that I saw so many players that were moved by the game, and that is, more than anything else, the one thing that people don’t get a chance to see, and it’s probably the greatest reason for optimism — how much they really care.

When asked to give an example of what he meant by this, Weis replied:

Well, when you go in there and you’re talking to the team after game time, I think one of the things you have to do is make sure that you don’t tear them down because you already know they’re feeling bad. But when you look in guys’ — look in some of their faces and you see them to the point where — not losing it but like where it’s that important to them, where you look in their face and it’s that important to them, that’s when you know they’re the type of players you want playing on your team. And sometimes it’s one guy, sometimes it was two guys, but there was a bunch of them yesterday that looked like that. That is a very, very strong positive when it’s that important to that many people.

And again:

As I said to them in the locker room after the game, I said, “fellows, you’re either all in or all out, it’s one or the other. The boat is going to sail with or without you. It’s okay if you want to be out, but you’re either all in or all out.” And I’d say for the majority of the people, the majority of the people were all in.

When asked whether this last remark meant that there was also a minority that was “all out,” Weis replied:

Those people I don’t know yet. You don’t know the answer to that question yet because when you’re looking at 100 guys, you can’t read everybody. I mean, you’re trying to, but I’m not a mind reader, I can’t read everybody. But you can see — what you can see, you can see the guys that are undeniably all in.

Weis also said that it seemed to be specifically the “older guys” who were showing the most emotion. There’s no question in my mind that this is a good sign.


So where do the Irish go from here? One thing Weis made clear is that he has no plans to abandon the “simple is better” strategy that the offense employed this past week:

 

Q. You talked last week about creating a niche. At least in the running game it looked like you made some good progress in that. Have you made enough where you feel like you can start getting creative and throwing in some more stuff?

COACH WEIS: Oh, I think that you — let’s not get to that creative (and) throw in too much more stuff. I think you have to put in breakers now. In other words, you can’t just say, “okay, here’s the handful of plays you ran last week. Let’s run the exact same plays the exact same way the next week.” Those coaches, they get the tape. They are not going to say “let’s run the exact same plays the exact same way.” I think you have to add on to it.

But I’m not trying to go overboard in anything we’re doing. I’m trying to grow this. I say we’re going to start with a core and go from there, and that’s what we’re doing. We established a core and we’re going to kind of grow from there.

Weis also said that while he didn’t think that this week’s extra-physical, “back to training camp” practices led to fatigue in the second half, he planned to cut things back a bit this week:

I think it’s important to make sure we work on being physical on both sides of the ball. The only way we can do that is ones against ones, which we’ll be doing elements of that this week. Now, we will not do as drastic as it was last week because you also don’t want to physically beat up your team. So there’s the fine line in there of working on being physical and tackling and taking to the ground, which we will do, and at the same time protecting your team and getting them ready to play Purdue.

He

also said that this week, unlike last week, the coaching staff and players will sit down at watch game tape:

One of the things we’re going to do different than last week — last week we didn’t watch the tape. So this week we are going to watch the tape because there’s plenty of — unlike last week, especially on offense, there wasn’t anything good to say. Now we can sit here and say, “hey, this is good, this is good, this is good, this is good. Okay, now, this is bad, this is bad, this is bad.” So you can differentiate the two.

And then we go out to practice and we’ll go ahead and work and clean up all the things that were bad, make sure we — not only do we see them visually but we go out and try to rectify them and then you can move on. Where last week when you went right into training camp, you weren’t even worrying about Michigan. You weren’t really worrying about Michigan State. We were just worried about ourselves.

But now this week is a little different because we get a chance to go back and correct — correct both visually and on the field what our problems were yesterday and then move on from there.

All in all, Weis said it was the “first time in a while” where a game left him with “several things I can walk out … feeling good about.” But at this point, all eyes are fixed on the future: “right now,” said Weis, “we’re trying to beat Purdue.”

Sounds about right to me.

Postmortem: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

Despite a “back to training camp” mentality in practice this week, Charlie Weis’s Fighting Irish came up short yet again this week, falling to 0-4 for the first time in Notre Dame’s illustrious history. Here’s my analysis of what went wrong (and, occasionally, right)


The turning pointLooking back at a game like this - so close through the first half, then out of hand so quickly - the question of what went wrong is a natural one. The answer, though, is quite obvious: just take a look at the first two drives of the second half.

The trouble started when ND’s opening kickoff of the second half was returned 52 yards to the Irish 45 yard line. It took MSU less than three minutes to march down the remainder of the field on a drive that included two long completions on 3rd-and-9 and 3rd-and-17 respectively, topped off by a 16-yard touchdown pass to Mark Dell that increased the Spartan lead to 24-14.

The next nail was driven in on ND’s very next drive. After an 18-yard rush by James Aldridge to the ND 42, the Irish picked up eight more yards on their next two plays and faced 3rd-and-2 from their own 50. But Aldridge and Robert Hughes were stopped short on consecutive carries, and the Irish turned the ball over to MSU at midfield.

The Spartans scored again two drives after this last big stop, to make the score 31-14, and the Irish didn’t complete another first down until the game’s final drive, long after the outcome was no longer in doubt.


By the numbers

In lieu of a lot of amateurish analysis of such things as blocking schemes, missed tackles, and so on, I’ve pored over the box score to find a few statistics that I think are especially helpful in encapsulating today’s game from the ND perspective. The good

  • With 18 carries for 104 net yards, sophomore James Aldridge became the first ND tailback to break the century mark this year. Aldridge and fellow underclassmen Robert Hughes (6 rushes, 33 yards, 1 TD) and Armando Allen (3 rushes, 13 yards) totaled 150 rushing yards between them, with an average of 5.6 yards/rush.
  • Maurice Crum Jr. led the Irish with 16 total tackles (6 solo, 10 assisted). David Bruton was next with 15 (8 solo), followed by Trevor Laws with nine (all assisted, as well as a fumble recovery) and Joe Brockington with seven (3 solo). It was nice to see Crum have such a solid week after being so quiet in the UM game.
  • Freshmen Kerry Neal - a sack, a batted pass, and two hits on the quarterback - and Brian Smith - three tackles, one for a loss - had solid games and showed a lot of energy. Look to see even more of them against Purdue. Fellow frosh Ian Williams - four tackles, one solo, from his DT position - also played well once again.

The bad

  • Jimmy Clausen - 7-of-13 passing for only 53 yards and a fumble - had a really tough day. In his postgame press conference, Weis made it clear that the decision to pull Clausen in favor of Evan Sharpley near the start of the fourth quarter was not based on Clausen’s poor play or on a desire to “protect” the prized freshman, but was motivated by the fact that ND had to start passing the ball more and Sharpley was more experienced and so better equipped to run a “two-minute”-type of offense.
  • Wideouts George West - three catches for 25 yards - and David Grimes - three catches, two of them really difficult ones, for 24 yards - both had decent days, given how quiet ND’s passing game was. But even given the continuing struggles of the offensive line, it’s hard to see how a large part of the burden for ND’s lethargic air attack doesn’t fall on the inability of our wide receivers and tight ends to get open.

The ugly

  • Spartan tailbacks Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick shredded the Irish defense for 227 yards between them, on 46 carries.
  • The Irish netted only nine total first downs, only three of them coming in the second half. Of those three, two of them came on long runs by James Aldridge in ND’s first two drives, and the last came on the last play of the game, a pass to John Carlson on 4th-and-6.
  • While Spartan QB Brian Hoyer completed only eleven of his 24 passes, those completions went for a total of 135 yards (an average of 12.3 yds/comp) and FOUR touchdowns.

The inexcusablesOne of the biggest problems the Irish have faced over the past few weeks is a tendency for stupid mistakes, bad penalties, and other sorts of errors that are frankly inexcusable for a top-flight team (think Justin Brown getting tossed out of the GT game, Travis Thomas getting into a fistfight against PSU, and so on). Here’s a rundown, based on my own back-of-the-envelope notes, of how ND did in these categories against Michigan State. (The moral in short: not well.)

Going nowhere on the ground

  • The play-by-play shows six rushing plays (sacks not included) for negative yardage, two for no gain, and four for only one yard.

Failing to convert on third- or fourth- and short

  • I marked down two key junctures where this happened: one on ND’s third drive of the game, where Asaph Schwapp got the ball on 3rd-and-1 and was brought down for no gain; and the other, mentioned above, on ND’s first drive of the second half, where Aldridge picked up one yard on 3rd-and-2 and Robert Hughes was then held to no gain on 4th-and-1.

Bad penalties

  • On MSU’s second drive of the game, with ND leading 7-0, Brian Hoyer completed a 25-yard pass to the ND 24 yard line and was clearly pushed to the ground by Trevor Laws. The penalty was marked off half the distance to the goal, and the Spartans scored three plays later.
  • After ND held MSU on their third drive of the game, with the score tied 7-7, MSU punter Aaron Bates sent a kick out of bounds at the ND 17 yard line. Travis Thomas, who has had a remarkable tendency to commit bad penalties this year, was called for holding, and the ball was brought back to the 9.

Old-fashioned mental mistakes

  • On ND’s first drive after the first MSU touchdown, Irish punter Geoff Price dropped the snap and barely managed to get away a 27-yard kick.
  • Inside two minutes to go in the first half, with ND facing 3rd-and-13 from their own 30 yard line, the Irish were called for delay of game.
  • Toward the end of the third quarter, with MSU facing 4th-and-2 from the ND 34 yard line, the Irish were nearly whistled for an illegal substitution but managed to call a timeout beforehand. On the very next play, MSU tight end Kellen Davis blew by a flatfooted Maurice Crum for a 34-yard touchdown catch.
  • Later in the third quarter, Price made yet another mistake, this time a punt that shanked off his foot and sailed out of bounds, for a net of only eleven yards.

Kick coverage

  • We’ve already discussed the opening kick of the second half, which was returned 52 yards to the Irish 45 yard line by MSU’s Devin Thomas. The Spartans were in the end zone less than three minutes later, for a 24-14 lead.
  • In the middle of the third quarter, a 54-yard Geoff Price punt that was caught at the MSU 15 yard line was returned 18 yards. Ten plays and 67 yards later, the Spartan lead stood at 31-14.

Not getting rid of the ball on time

  • Jimmy Clausen seemed to have less of a problem in this area than in weeks past, but there were some times where he still held on for too long when he should have thrown it away. Obviously the key instance of this came near the start of the second quarter, when Clausen ran backwards as the pocket collapsed and had the ball taken right out of his hands by MSU’s Jonal Saint-Dic.

Pass protection

  • ND only gave up four sacks for a total of 32 yards - an improvement after giving up 24 in their first three games, but still not satisfactory.

Injury worriesAny Irish fan whose heart didn’t skip a beat when it looked like John Sullivan might have to leave the game mustn’t have been following the team too carefully. With backup center Dan Wenger out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury, junior walk-on Thomas “The Man, The Myth, The Legend” Bemenderfer was ND’s only remaining center. Thankfully, Sullivan was able to return.

One thing I didn’t see talked about was the fact that defensive end Justin Brown sat out today’s game with an undisclosed injury, with Derrell Hand taking his starting spot. It’s unclear how serious Brown’s injury is and from what I know it wasn’t talked about much before the game, but here’s what Michael Rothstein had to say about it earlier this week:

Justin Brown is looking a little bit hobbled these days. During a running lines drill the Irish typically do, every other player did side steps while Brown lugged along straight ahead. He also stretched with a trainer instead of another player and was doing calf and leg stretching maneuvers while the rest of the Irish were doing other stretches. And he looked very awkward doing so. As another reporter put it, he was the definition of ‘gingerly.’

Yikes. As we all said after the Hand “incident”, the last thing this team needs is a loss of bodies along the defensive line. We’ll have to keep an eye on this one.


In sum, this game was obviously a huge disappointment, though there were signs of improvement - in particular the running game and some signs of life along the offensive line - that give reason for hope. But the things the Irish did wrong - in particular the second straight week of shoddy defense and tackling, a startlingly inept passing game, an inability to pick up crucial first downs on short yardage, a once-again bad job of covering kick returns after an improvement in this area against Michigan, and several key mental mistakes in big spots, not to mention the way things completely derailed after a couple of bad sequences at the start of the second half - give reason to be seriously concerned.Charlie Weis and the rest of the coaching staff have got a lot of work to do. They’re out of free passes at this point.