Posts Tagged ‘George West’

You stay classy, Palo Alto.

Monday, November 26th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here we go again …”

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

A phantom personal foul after a long completion just outside the goal line. A missed field goal. An inefficient drive following a defensive stand, and then a late hit in punt coverage that gets flagged for 15 yards. These are the kinds of plays that have killed the Irish offense all year long, and for a while on Saturday they did the same.

Mistakes breed mistakes like rabbits in the Spring: a false start on fourth-and-two, a beautiful pass on fourth-and-17 that goes through the receiver’s hands, and suddenly you’re staring at 0-0 halftime score against one of the worst teams in college football.

And then, the momentum changes: the defense forces turnovers on consecutive drives, and each of them is turned quickly into seven points. It’s 14-0 at the half. You’ve got things back under control.

THAT’S the storyline that matters from Saturday’s game. Not the 400 yards of total offense, not the three touchdown passes by Jimmy Clausen, not even the explosive emergence of Robert Hughes or the always-gratifying Senior Day win. For once, this team showed a bit of resiliency: they didn’t let themselves get overwhelmed when things went badly. And say what you will about the quality of their opponent, but a 28-7 win (which could very well have been more like 42-0 if not for mental mistakes and bad calls) is a 28-7 win. Suddenly the future looks a lot brighter.

A few numbers to take away from the game:

  • Hughes (17 carries for 110 net yards, and a reception for another 13) obviously earned that game ball, though Armando Allen (nine rushes for 43 yards, and two receptions for 17) and James Aldridge (eight carries for 28 yards, plus a catch for another seven) had solid days as well. One of the biggest challenges facing Charlie Weis (or whoever is calling the plays) in 2008 will be finding a way to get enough carries for each of his three horsemen, together with throwing enough balls in the direction of Duval Kamara, George West, Robby Parris, and Golden Tate, not to mention David Grimes, Will Yeatman, Mike Ragone, and Michael Floyd. The talent is there; I imagine they’ll enjoy letting the spotlight fall where it may.
  • Clausen’s numbers (16-of-32 for 194 yards and three touchdowns) don’t speak to how well he played, especially given that at least four or five catchable balls were dropped. He also showed some good presence in the pocket, and did a good job of avoiding pressure, picking up 25 yards on his six scrambles.
  • The offensive line continued to show some signs of improvement, though pass protection was still a bit spotty at times. It was especially nice to see the screen game start to click.
  • Joe Brockington, David Bruton, Trevor Laws, and Darrin Walls each had a half-dozen tackles, and the defense on a whole played very well. This was the first time this year we saw freshmen Kerry Neal and Brian Smith both starting at the outside linebacker position, and they had quiet but solid days with three tackles a piece. Freshman Ian Williams getting his first start at the nose guard position, also played well, picking up three tackles and generally doing a good job of clogging up the middle.
  • The Irish possessed the ball for over 35 minutes, the first time all year they’ve really managed to control the clock - their previous high had been 32:02 against UCLA.

Finally, a few areas where a good deal of work is still needed:

  •  I’ve already mentioned the troubles in pass protection, as well as the dropped balls by the wide receivers. Clausen’s never going to be able to win those seven Heismans if his teammates don’t help him out.
  • While the Irish pass defense was largely sound, giving up only 138 total passing yards, there were still some blown coverages, and Duke could have picked up some more yardage if open receivers hadn’t been missed.
  • J.J. Jansen’s long-snapping was iffy once again, though Eric Maust made a remarkable play to bail him out and get the punt away under pressure.
  • Notre Dame continues to lack any semblance of consistency in the kicking game, as Brandon Walker missed his lone field goal attempt, from 30 yards out. It may have had something to do with the weather, but those are the kind of kicks you’ve got to make. It will be a shame if the Irish continue to cripple themselves by having to go for broke on fourth down instead of putting points on the board the cheap way.
  • Lastly, penalties were a problem once again: the Irish were whistled eleven times for 103 yards, after committing only nine penalties in their previous three games combined.

All in all, a solid day against an undermanned opponent. There should be plenty more of those in the future as this team continues to develop.

Unsettled?

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personnel notes

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Talk of the Town

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

A bit more than a month ago, just before Notre Dame’s season opener against Georgia Tech, NBC’s John Walters posed the following question:

Will freshman wide receiver Golden Tate emerge as a cult favorite, inspiring a freshman cheering section who dub themselves “Golden Taters” and toss Ore-Ida crispers after each score?

From what I’ve heard this hasn’t happened quite yet, though a recent opinion piece in the Observer - written last week, while Tate was merely “our best young kick returner,” and not yet college football’s hottest young commodity - does include in its byline the suggestion that “Golden Taters” should become a staple at ND’s dining halls. (No word on that one either.)

In any case, there’s no doubt that Golden’s been on our minds: based on a quick glance over the transcripts from Charlie Weis’s Sunday and Tuesday press conferences, I see at least six questions dealing specifically with Tate, and a quick spin on Google reveals 99 news articles and 20 blog posts that talk about the superstar frosh - all of these since Monday.

That Tate has become a hit should hardly come as a surprise to any of the nearly 20,000 people who have watched his high school highlight video.

Put all of this together and there’s reason to think that Golden Tate, and not George West, is the diminutive Irish receiver soon to be a household name.

While we’re on the subject of names, though, let me just go on the record as saying that while “Golden Boy” is definitely okay, it’s been done - more than once, in fact - and so I’d prefer something more along the lines of “Jumpman23” or even “His Airness,” though if it turns out that Adidas won’t allow those, I could definitely live with busting out a classic once again.

But all of this hype pales in comparison to what the kids at Keough Hall are up to:

I mean, you can’t be an Irish legend until you’ve been immortalized on a bestselling t-shirt, right? At present they’re available for 15 bucks via Facebook, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the parking lot a week from Saturday. Nearly 80 have been ordered already, and it’s hard to imagine that there’s a ceiling on how many of these could be sold when all is said and done.

In any case, freshmen of Notre Dame, I think it’s time to make Walters’s prediction come true.

Available at a Meyer near you, while supplies last.
Just make sure to defrost them first - we don’t want anyone to lose an eye.

Youth Movement

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

Against Purdue last Saturday, true freshmen and sophomores accounted for 48 of Notre Dame’s 71 rushing yards (67.6% - sacks not included) and 268 of their 377 receiving yards (71.1%). This continued what has clearly been one of the stories of the season for the Irish: they start a true freshman at quarterback in Jimmy Clausen, and each of their three leading rushers (James Aldridge, Armando Allen, and Robert Hughes) and four of their six leading receivers (Robby Parris, George West, Duval Kamara, and Golden Tate) are just one or two years removed from high school. On the season, 362 of Notre Dame’s 391 rushing yards have come via true freshmen or sophomores, as have 582 of their 822 total receiving yards - numbers good for 91.2% and 70.8% of the team’s offensive output in those categories.

How do these numbers stack up to other Division I programs, whether national championship contenders or teams in “rebuilding” mode? [NOTE: While I've done my best not to include redshirt sophomores in these statistics, I've probably made some mistakes somewhere. Where possible, I've also tried not to include sacks in the rushing totals, though that doesn't really work for teams with dual-threat quarterbacks.]

Let’s start with top-ranked LSU and USC. The Tigers start an upperclassman at quarterback in Matt Flynn, and while their #1 rusher is an upperclassmen, each of the five players who follow him in total rushing yardage are true freshmen or sophomores. Still, though, only 750 of LSU’s 1117 total rushing yards, or 67.14%, have come from underclassmen - much less than Notre Dame’s 91.2%. Meanwhile, among their receiving corps, LSU has only two underclassmen with more than 100 receiving yards on the season, and true freshmen and sophomores account for a total of 416 of their 1084 total receiving yards, or 38.4%.

USC, meanwhile, also starts an upperclassman at quarterback, but four of their five leading rushers are true underclassmen. On the whole, true freshmen or sophomores account for 71.2% of USC’s rushing yards, still far less than the percentage for Notre Dame. Only two Trojan underclassmen have 99 or more receiving yards, though, and underclassmen account for only 330 of 898, or 36.8%, of their total receiving yards.

It also seems worth looking at a few other programs with third-year coaches. One such team is the Florida Gators, who start a true sophomore at quarterback in Tim Tebow. Tebow is also the team’s leading rusher, and fellow sophomore Percy Harvin leads the team in receiving yards and is also their third-leading rusher. But on the whole, the Gators’ offense is still much less dependent on underclassmen than Notre Dame’s: 71.4% of their rushing yards come from true freshmen or sophomores, to go with 53.6% of their receiving yards.

The Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois are also in their third year under head coach Ron Zook. They start a true sophomore at quarterback in Juice Williams, but three of their four leading rushers - Williams is #2 - are upperclassmen, and underclassmen have accounted for only 267 of their 1278 rushing yards (20.9%) so far this season. Meanwhile, the leading receiver for the Illini is freshman Arrelious Benn, with 286 yards on the season, but overall their underclassmen have accounted for only 55.6% (438 of 787) of Illinois’s receiving yards.

Finally, let’s take a look at the University of Washington, in their third year under former Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham. The Huskies start a true sophomore at quarterback in Jake Locker, and he is also the team’s leading rusher. But Locker is the only UW underclassman with substantial rushing yardage, and true freshman and sophomores have accounted for 503 of the Huskies’ 804 yards on the ground so far, or 62.6%. Moreover, all of Washington’s top receivers are upperclassmen: true freshmen and sophomores have only 17 receiving yards so far this year for UW, a mere 1.97% of their 861 total.

Here’s a chart detailing those statistics:


What these numbers make clear is that Notre Dame’s offense is MUCH more reliant on true freshmen and sophomores than other programs. Moreover, the fact that the Irish have fallen behind in each of their games so far this year means that very few of these numbers are based on performance in “mop-up duty”: ND’s depth chart lists a true freshman or sophomore at either first- or second-string for every offensive position except center. Thus far this year, a huge portion of the offensive burden has been placed on players only one or two years removed from high school - and judging by how things have gone, there is no reason to think this state of affairs won’t become even more pronounced as the year goes on.

None of this is meant to excuse an 0-5 start that is the worst in Notre Dame’s history. This team has underperformed, and they have no-one but themselves to blame for that. But comparisons like this certainly help to put things in perspective.

Giveaway

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

Once we get past a 23-0 halftime deficit, a yet-again woeful running game, and the ongoing struggles of the ND secondary (in the first half, anyway), there are lots of different “glass is half-full” kinds of ways for Irish fans to conceptualize yesterday’s loss.

One possibility, taken up for instance over at Classic Ground, would be to think of the game as a coming-out party for ND’s underclassman wide receivers: seven catches for 93 yards by sophomore Robby Parris, six for 68 yards and a touchdown for freshman Duval Kamara, three for 104 yards and a touchdown - plus another where he could have taken it to the house but was underthrown - by freshman Golden Tate, and four catches for 37 yards by sophomore George West. (Junior David Grimes (three catches for 34 yards in the first half before going out with an injury) and fifth-year senior tight end John Carlson (five catches for 30 yards and a great leaping grab to give Jimmy Clausen his first career TD pass - the video is here) also had strong games.)

We could also talk about the play of the defensive line: Trevor Laws (six tackles, three for a loss and one sack) and the much-maligned John Ryan (also six tackles, two for a loss and one sack, starting in the place of the injured Justin Brown) both played tremendously, as did linebacker Joe Brockington, who led the team with nine total tackles. (As I noted yesterday, for some reason Derrell Hand, last week’s replacement for Brown, didn’t see the field at all. No word yet on any possible reasons for this.)

Another possibility, which is pretty ridiculous by my lights, focuses on the strong play of Evan Sharpley, and even argues that Clausen, despite having almost the same numbers, should be benched.

Meanwhile, a somewhat different way to think about Saturday’s storyline, exemplified by OCDomer’s post on the game, turns to the stat sheet to highlight the ways the Irish have improved, but also to bring out the extent to which having lost that game should be regarded as a disappointment rather than a sort of moral victory.

I think this last approach is pretty much the right one, though I want to take it in a somewhat different direction. Last week one of the ways I broke down the game was in terms of what I called Inexcusables: “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).” When I look back at the Purdue game and the sorts of mistakes that the Irish made, what I see is a case where what clearly could have been a win against a top-25 team turned into yet another disappointing loss, thanks in this case to many instances of the sorts of mental and physical mistakes that have no place on a top-flight team.

Based on my back-of-the-envelope notes, here’s a narration of some of the key “Inexcusables” from the first half:

  • On the first series of Purdue’s opening drive, the Boilermakers faced third down and two yards to go from the Irish 44 yard line. Curtis Painter was sacked on the play, but freshman linebacker Kerry Neal, who didn’t factor in on the sack, was caught offsides, giving Purdue a free first down. This drive ultimately led to a field goal, and a 3-0 lead for the Boilermakers.
  • On Notre Dame’s second offensive series, with the Boilermakers leading 10-0, the Irish faced fourth and one from the Purdue 35 yard line. Charlie Weis elected to go for it, but freshman tailback Robert Hughes was stopped for no gain.
  • After the Irish - led by Laws, who had two straight tackles for losses of eight and eleven yards respectively, though Painter did follow these up with a 40-yard completion to Greg Orton, on which Darrin Walls was burned badly - forced a Boilermaker punt on the ensuing drive, Tom Zbikowski - who did have seven tackles and a pick, but also missed pretty badly on some plays - let the ball bounce by him at the ten yard line, thinking it would carry into the end zone. It didn’t, and was downed by Purdue just outside the goal line.
  • On the next drive, Clausen got out of his end zone right away, with a 17-yard completion to Grimes. But after two failed rushing plays - both by James Aldridge, who fumbled on the second one - Jimmy Clausen rolled to his left under pressure and then tried to throw across the middle to John Carlson, who was blanketed by the Purdue defense. Clausen’s pass was picked off and returned to the Notre Dame 25, and six plays later - the last of them a John Ryan sack on third and five - the Boilermaker lead stood at 13-0.
  • A few drives later, with the score now at 20-0 Purdue, Sam Young was called for holding on first and ten. The very next play saw Armando Allen fumble the ball after catching a screen pass from Clausen. The Boilermakers recovered, and just over a minute later extended their lead to 23-0.
  • Next up, on Notre Dame’s last drive of the second half, after two nice catches by Kamara and West brought the Irish near midfield, John Sullivan - who made this same mistake either two or three times against Michigan - snapped the ball over Clausen’s head on second and five, for a seven-yard loss. Clausen got out of this jam, though, finding Golden Tate for a 36-yard completion on third and twelve. At this point, though, the Irish offense stalled, with three straight incompletions, and the team lined up for a 35-yard field goal attempt, to try and get on the board before halftime. The kick was blocked by Alex Magee and returned to the Purdue 46 yard line.
  • Finally, the ensuing Boilermaker drive saw David Bruton flagged for a late hit after a catch by Selwyn Lymon. He was bailed out, though, when Kyle McCarthy intercepted Painter on the very next play.

In sum, then: we have an offsides penalty that led to three points, a failure to convert on fourth and short from just outside field goal range, a foolish decision resulting in an interception that led to a field goal, a fumble that led to a touchdown, and a blocked kick that effectively took three points off the board - and those are only the cases in which ND’s mistakes actually came back to haunt them.

While the Irish looked much better in the second half, though, it too was far from mistake-free:

  • On Notre Dame’s first drive of the half, Michael Turkovich was called for holding on third and two from the Purdue 46 yard line, and two plays later the Irish had to punt the ball away.
  • After a Zbikowski interception and a solid drive resulting in Clausen’s TD pass to Carlson, the Irish failed to convert on their ensuing extra point attempt.
  • After another solid defensive series and a solid drive that got the Irish to the Purdue 31 yard line, Junior Jabbie was held to no gain on fourth and one - the second time in the game that this had happened.
  • On the ensuing drive, Purdue faced third and 21 from their own 33 yard line. Painter came under pressure and tried to scramble for the first down, but freshman linebacker Brian Smith ran him out of bounds ten yards short of the marker. But Smith (at least I think it was him - the box score, though, says it was Dwight Stephenson) shoved Painter after he was clearly off the field - a ticky-tack call, but a foolish mistake in any case. On the very next play, after Dan Dierking was held to two yards on first and ten, Stephenson was whistled for a personal foul facemask call, giving Purdue yet another free first down, at the Irish 25. Then, once again on the very next play, Smith was caught offsides, moving the Boilermakers to the 20. The Irish defense held Purdue to a field goal, though, and the score stood at 26-6.
  • The next Irish drive, highlighted by a 43-yard bomb down the sidelines to a speeding Golden Tate on fourth and five from the ND 37, led to another touchdown: but this was followed up once again by a missed extra point, this time with Nate Whitaker kicking in place of Brandon Walker. What could have been a 26-14 game stood at 26-12.
  • A bit later, after the Irish had scored again (and hit the PAT this time) to narrow the margin to 26-19, Walls was flagged for holding on the very first play of Purdue’s ensuing drive. This moved the Boilermakers past midfield, and they were in the end zone five plays later.
  • Notre Dame moved down the field quickly on their next drive, though, with a long completion to Parris and a personal foul against Purdue bringing them to the Boilermaker 18 yard line within a minute. But on second and ten from the 18, Evan Sharpley was intercepted - it is unclear whether he simply misthrew the ball, or whether Carlson or Duval Kamara might have run the wrong route - and Purdue had the ball back, with a two-touchdown lead and 4:33 on the clock.
  • Finally, after the Irish forced third down and four and called timeout with 2:16 on the clock, Walls was called for holding once again, ending any hope of a last-dash comeback as the Boilermakers were able simply to run out the clock on their next four plays.

Once again, then, and even if we overlook the holding penalties against Walls: we have two points taken off the board on missed kicks, a solid drive into opposing territory ending with a failure on fourth and short, an interception from well within scoring range, and a back-to-back-to-back trio of inexcusable penalties extending a drive that had been effectively stopped, leading to a field goal.

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.

(But hey - at least we’re not the Bears.)

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.

Week four changes to ND’s depth chart

Friday, September 21st, 2007

(Cross-posting from Irish Envy.)

After this week’s free-for-all there were a few changes to ND’s depth chart, but nothing really major. Here’s a rundown, in what I take to be approximate order of significance and/or surprisingness.

  • Dan Wenger’s undisclosed injury has him out for at least this week, with Matt Carufel starting in his place at RG and human planet Chris Stewart as the backup.
  • Duval Kamara has moved ahead of D.J. Hord for the #2 “X” receiver spot, with George West still the #1. Grimes, Parris, Gallup, and Tate are listed in the “Z” spot, in that order. Sorry Tate fans, looks like you’ll have to wait a bit longer.
  • Just like last week, Sam Young will be starting at LT rather than RT, with Taylor Dever as his backup. The Paul Duncan-Matt Romine combination is at RT, with Duncan still the #1, for now anyway. Mike Turkovich is still the starter at LG, with Eric Olsen behind him.
  • Derrell Hand is listed behind #1a Justin Brown and #1b Dwight Stephenson Jr. at RDE.
  • Kerry Neal is now the #2 LOLB. Morrice Richardson, who had been the #2 there, moves to ROLB, where Neal had been the co-#2, but Richardson is #3 behind #1 Anthony Vernaglia and #2 Brian Smith.
  • The depth chart now lists Travis Thomas, James Aldridge, Armando Allen, and Junior Jabbie as all tied for the #1 RB spot, with Robert Hughes behind them. In week one, Thomas was listed as the lone starter.
  • And of course, Jimmy Clausen is our #1 QB, with Evan Sharpley listed as his lone backup.

Everything else seems to be the same as it was in week one. Ben Ford has some more thoughts here - they are worth reading, as always.

UPDATE: This exchange from Charlie Weis’s Thursday press conference is worth noting in this connection:

Q. Not a lot of change in the depth chart. Did that mean the starters all showed you something this week?

COACH WEIS: The most important thing for us was not to create sacrificial lambs. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be quick hooks in some cases, okay? But if I all of a sudden start pulling people and say, `”this guy is going to start, this guy is going to start,” the obvious thing that goes with it is, “well, it’s their fault.” I think we’re all part of the problem. I think there’s a lot more bodies that you might see show up in the game this week.

As is this one, which was discussed at UHND:

Q. The physical practices, I would think, would lend themselves for some players to look better than others just based on their style of play being more physical. I would think James Aldridge is a back that this is a week where it would be a chance for him to shine.

COACH WEIS: This is a James Aldridge-type of week. That’s exactly right. I would expect to see James early and often.

Q. How has he relished this opportunity? Do you see him as a guy that knows this is his chance to step up and do something?

COACH WEIS: He knows that he’s going to get plenty of opportunity. That’s what he knows. So I would imagine he’s very excited.

And finally, a couple of questions about our kickoff returns, where Armando Allen has been notably absent the past couple of weeks:

Q. Armando Allen no longer returning kicks?

COACH WEIS: He might be back there some returning kicks. Most of these kickers kick it to one spot, like this guy usually kicks it to one spot. Golden (Tate) will get the brunt of it. And with Junior (Jabbie) back there, Junior is a good returner, but he’s also a very good blocker. So if you’re going to feature one guy, we’d rather not Golden or Armando be the lead blocker. We’d rather them be the guy with the ball in their hands.

Q. Do you always want to have one blocker?

COACH WEIS: No, you want two returners if the guy sprays the ball all over the place because you would like two equally good returners. I think with Armando and Golden, we have two guys that are explosive returners. If a guy is going to hit the ball one spot all the time, that’s when you use a returner back there with better blocking ability.