Posts Tagged ‘Jimmy Clausen’

The Irish by the Numbers, Part I: 2007’s Offensive Breakdown

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

With the new year in full swing and school starting up again (welcome, Trevor and Sean!), it’s time to start looking back at 2007 and ahead to ‘08. Oh, that and wasting time thinking about ND football when we really should be writing our dissertations. So with that in mind, the Irish Roundup is proud to bring you “The Irish by the Numbers,” a multi-part series where we break down what happened last year and consider what’s to come.

First up, a great break-down that IE poster Jonathan (”Fishin’ Irish,” for the in-crowd) put together of the offensive numbers from the 2007 season. It was supposed to get up over break, but better late than never. I’ll be back later this week with a breakdown of some of 2007’s numbers on defense.

The Irish by the Numbers, Part I: 2007’s Offensive Breakdown

Here’s a breakdown of the team’s offensive stats by class from the 2007. By “seniors” I mean to include both fifth- and fourth-year guys, since none of 2007’s fourth-year seniors on offense will return for a fifth year anyhow.

Rushing*

Freshmen: 140 Carries, 646 Yards, 4.6 YPC, 6 TD’s**
Sophomores: 128 Carries, 469 Yards, 3.8 YPC, 0 TDS
Juniors: (i.e. Asaph Schwapp): 12 Carries, 14 Yards, 1.2 YPC
Seniors: 37 Carries, 93 Yards, 2.5 YPC, 5 TD’s

Passing***

Freshmen: 139 Completions, 246 Attempts, 6 INT’s, 56.5%, 1264 Yards, 7 TD’s, 103.85 QB rating****
Juniors: 77 Completions, 140 Attempts, 3 INT’s, 55.0%, 736 Yards, 5 TD’s, 106.66 QB rating

Receiving

Freshmen: 66 Receptions, 636 Yards, 9.6 YPR, 6 TD’s
Sophomores: 64 Receptions, 616 Yards, 9.6 YPR, 1 TD
Juniors: 32 Receptions, 258 Yards, 8.1 YPR, 2 TD’s
Seniors: 55 Receptions, 494 Yards, 8.9 YPR, 3 TD’s

Things seem to be looking up, huh? I’m sure I made a math error in there (I did a lot of it in my head), but you get the idea. Freshmen led EVERY SINGLE CATEGORY here in terms of production. That’s simply amazing. The more you look into this, the better this gets:

  • I’m willing to bet that all five of Travis Thomas’s touchdowns occurred when we were in the “goal line” formation. I feel pretty confident when I say that losing him here won’t hurt us, as either James Aldridge or Robert Hughes should be able to pick up improve upon where Thomas left off in that department.
  • The passing game should only improve next year now that Jimmy Clausen has had time to get his feet wet. A deeper, more talented, and more experienced offensive line should help, and the only starter graduating from the line is center John Sullivan. (However, some may see him leaving as a good thing …)
  • The only loss worthy of note in the receiving section is John Carlson. He’ll be tough to replace, but Will Yeatman, Mike Ragone, and incoming freshmen Kyle Rudolph and Joseph Fauria look to fill his place. Also, look for to-be-freshmen wideouts Mike Floyd and John Goodman to make an impact on next year’s depth chart, if not on the gridiron itself.

Obviously, there are lots of uncertainties that need to sort themselves out, and these young players have to become a lot more consistent if the Irish are going to return to ‘05-’06 form. But there’s reason for hope, anyway …

[NOTES:

* I'm factoring out sack yardage here, as well as leaving out Demetrius Jones's numbers, since he left the team mid-season.

** Here's where there's some wiggle room in the stats. JC's two rushing TD's are included here, but his attempts and yards were not. I didn't want to include sacks, as I thought it would detract from the main idea, and I wasn't about to dig through game play-by-plays to find his actual attempts/yardage sans the sacks.

*** Once again, Jones's numbers are factored out.

**** Clausen's Passer Rating. Armando Allen's passing stats were not included in the class QB rating.]

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!

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).

So much to be thankful for

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

Win big.

Friday, November 16th, 2007

Sorry, but anything else is a loss in my book. I mean, come on people - this is DUKE. 1-9 Duke. 108th in the nation in total offense and 98th in total defense. Four wins in the last four seasons. A team so insignificant in the eyes of the local community that their home crowds look like this:

(Via goduke.com. Ten bucks to anyone who can tell me what the guy on the far right is carrying.)

And yes, I’m well aware that they’ve played well some times this year: beating Northwestern, staying within a couple scores of Virginia, Navy, Miami, and Wake Forest, putting up 24 against Georgia Tech. But it’s Duke, and it’s Senior Day, and it’s DUKE, for heaven’s sake, so anything less than a comfortable margin of victory will leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I almost fear to do this after the Irish failed abjectly in meeting pretty ANY of the “benchmarks” I set for them last week, but here are a few more specific things that I for one would like to see. Let’s start with the offense:

  • 160 yards rushing. The Dukies give up an average of 176.9. There’s no excuse for not coming at least close to that.
  • 4.5 yards per carry. Again, the Blue Devils’ average yield this season has been over 5.0.
  • 250 yards passing. Same story get again: Duke yields 266.0 yards a game through the air. No excuse for not ending up in the vicinity.
  • No more than two sacks. Duke has 21 sacks through ten games. The Irish have given up 17 in their last three. Time to close the turnstiles along the offensive line.

And on defense:

  • Under 70 rushing yards. Duke averages 52.9, last in the NCAA.
  • Under 200 passing yards. Throwing the ball is actually one of the Blue Devils’ stronger points, as they rank 71st with 213.2 yards per game. It would be great to see the Irish defense can come up big in third-and-long situations and keep sophomore quarterback Thaddeus Lewis under that number.
  • Plus-1 in turnovers. If Jimmy Clausen ends up throwing an interception, I can deal with that, though another fumble and I might jump out the nearest window. But Duke has turned the ball over 18 times through their first ten games - there’s no excuse not to force a couple.
  • Get to the quarterback. Obviously this is in part a product of playing option offenses in the last two weeks, but the Irish have a total of ONE sack in their last four games. Obviously the absence of Pat Kuntz will hurt, but ND should be able at least to triple that number with a few well-timed blitzes by defensive backs or edge rushes from the outside linebackers - Duke has given up four sacks a game so far this year.

Put all that together and you’re in a good position to win by at least a couple of touchdowns, which strikes me as the minimum margin of victory against a team like this one.

The fact is that as badly as the Irish played in their last couple of games, Navy and Air Force are both CONSIDERABLY better than Duke. The Blue Devils have been competitive in a lot of their games this year, but that’s probably in part because teams were taking them lightly. Tomorrow’s Senior Day, though, and the 1-9 Irish shouldn’t be looking past ANYONE at this point. Last year’s team would have beaten Duke by a score of 41-10 or something of the like; this year, something along the lines of 28-13 seems big enough.

100 reasons why I love Charlie Weis and am glad he’s our coach

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

With his team at 1-9 and its offense mired in the pits of Division I-A, Charlie Weis has taken a lot of much-deserved (and some undeserved) flack for the job he’s been doing as head coach of the Fighting Irish. And since I’ve been about as negative as anyone - well, maybe not quite ANYONE - about Weis, I think it’s time for me to come clean and make it known that my opinion of him is by no means exhaustively negative. Hence here are 100 reasons why I love Charlie Weis and am glad he’s our coach:

1. He’s a Jersey guy. Me too, or at least I was until I moved to California. And Jersey guys stick with Jersey guys.

2. He’s a Notre Dame alum. Again, me too, though I only got a lousy graduate degree. And if I love the place this much never having lived on campus for an extended period of time or gone through all the rest of the crazy brain-washing (an ND logo stamped into the middle of your WAFFLES?!), think of how much he cares about it.

3. He’s a family man. Seeing the way he relates to his wife, son, and daughter is really heartwarming. And say what you will about having Charlie Jr. on the sidelines: the fact is that it shows a level of attachment and devotion to his son that’s remarkable in a guy who works 20-hour days. Speaking of which …

4. He works like all hell. Want to catch Coach Weis on his way to work in the morning? Try tripping past the Gug on your way back from closing down the ‘Backer. In any case, be flexible with your definition of “morning,” and DEFINITELY don’t wait for the sun to rise.

5. He’s as pained by the losing as anyone. Do not - I repeat, do NOT - mistake his occasional press-conference brashness for a lack of awareness of how bad things have been this year, let alone a glib attitude about it. If your team got its butt hammered in, you got booed, and then you were dragged in front of an audience of overeager reporters with lots of dumb questions, you’d get pretty pissy as well. And hey, what do you want him to say? “We suck, we have sucked, we will suck, and I quit”? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

6. He gives back. Lots of ND football coaches have started charitable organizations after they’ve retired, but Hannah and Friends has been running from day one. And a lot of Weis’s efforts have been tied directly to the local community, which is admirable given the touchy history of town-gown relations between South Bend and the university. Even his lawsuit, which I must admit wasn’t my favorite decision (you know, high cost of medical services due to malpractice insurance, lawyers = scum of the Earth, etc.), was going to be used to help others rather than pad his own pockets.

7. He cares about his players. Weis got a lot of praise for driving Robert Hughes back to Chicago after his brother was killed, and rightly so. But the fact of the matter is that this fits right into a much more overarching pattern: sure, he manages to anger or even alienate some of his players, but at the end of the day they know it’s just because he’s trying to push them to do well, like an overbearing dad making his kid practice the piano because he really, really, REALLY wants him to be good at it. Peel away those layers, my friends, and you’ll find love at the core.

8-26. Nineteen wins in two years. Say what you will about ‘06 having been a disappointing campaign, but ten wins is ten wins. Say what you will about the quality of the opponents he beat, but you can only win the games you play (and it’s not as if Michigan, Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Penn State, and UCLA are a bunch of nobodies). Say what you will about losing the “big games,” but he’s run into some downright juggernauts, especially in the postseason. If his teams had had any semblance of a D-I defense, not to mention better offensive lines and maybe some more talent at the tailback position, they very well might have won a pair of national titles. After the misery of the decade or so that preceded ‘05-’06, those wins were glorious to behold.

27-30. Four Super Bowl rings. Yeah, I know he wasn’t the head coach, and I know he was able to ride the coattails of Parcells, Belichick, et al, but championships are championships, and I’ll take a guy who’s won them over a guy who hasn’t.

31-98. Jimmy Clausen, Armando Allen, James Aldridge, Duval Kamara, Omar Hunter, Kerry Neal, … well, you get the point. That’s 68 recruits in three years, with a bunch more on the ‘08 “big board” who still have lots of interest in the Irish. Compare that to his illustrious predecessor, who recruited a total of 52 in his three seasons, barely more than Weis & Co. brought in through their first TWO. It’s not just about the rankings, either: you can’t win with an empty cupboard, and trust me, Ty left it BARE.

99. His players believe in him. Make no mistake about it: you don’t have top-notch recruits with offers from Everywhere breaking down the doors to play for you the week after being present for a 38-0 spanking if you’ve “lost the team.” Nor do insomniac offensive linemen pad over to your office in rainbow flip-flops and knock on your door at 5:30am to ask how to be a better leader unless they think that leading is a worthwhile endeavor. Sure, there may be some players, especially among the upper classes, who’ve sort of thrown in the towel, and there’s no doubt that this team has often played tentatively and has had a tendency to get discouraged when things have gone wrong, but a lot of them seem genuinely excited about the future of the program. And that’s a hell of an accomplishment when you’re 1-9.

100. The glimmers of hope. Clausen dropping a beautiful pass over two defenders. Kamara stiff-arming an undersized defensive back and plowing through a pair of tacklers to pick up eight yards. Armando Allen bursting around the outside for a gain of eleven. James Aldridge running over a would-be tackler at the line of scrimmage. Golden Tate snagging a touchdown bomb, with his FINGERNAILS. Kerry Neal and Brain Smith playing like men possessed on the outside. Darrin Walls looking more and more like a shut-down corner every week. Chris Stewart crushing defensive linemen to open up holes for his tailbacks. And on and on the list goes … no doubt this year’s team has been a HUGE disappointment, but the flashes we’ve seen (and yes, they’ve only been flashes, and have been few and far between the lengthy stretches of awfulness) have made it clear that Weis and his staff have brought in some extraordinary talent. At this point it’s about developing these kids and teaching them to win.

Of course, none of this counts as evidence that Weis will definitely, or even probably, be able to accomplish what he needs to in order to right this oh-so-sunken ship. But just as he’s responsible for a big portion of the damage, it’s also going to be his task to repair it, at least for the time being. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Benchmarks

Friday, November 9th, 2007

At 1-8 after a crushing loss to Navy last Saturday, Notre Dame needs a win this week if they’re going to avoid having lost to TWO service academies in the same season. Perhaps even more than the win itself, though, the Irish need to build on the few successes they’ve had so far this season, to prove to themselves and their fans that at least they’re developing, as individuals and as a team. Here are some benchmarks to look for in tomorrow’s game (statistics via und.com, ncaa.org, and cfbstats.com).

On defense

The Irish held Navy to 278 yards of total offense through four quarters of regulation last week, and also stopped the Midshipmen on one of their three overtime drives: not a dominant performance by any means, but more than good enough to keep the Irish in the game (recall that seven of Navy’s points came off a fumble recovery). This week, their opponent is once again dangerous on offense (the Falcons’ 272.8 rushing yards per game rank fourth nationally), but at the same time much less consistent overall: Air Force has been held under 350 yards of total offense four times this year, and under 250 once. Their running game has also been contained on occasion - 146 net yards against BYU and 133 against TCU, as well as 212 against New Mexico - and while the Falcons have had a few good days passing the ball - 176 yards against South Carolina State, 193 against Utah, and 237 against Navy - they rank only 118th nationally in this department. But against the wishbone attack, it’s hard to say exactly what would count as success: if, like last week, the Irish defense can force a turnover or two and hold the Falcons to 24 points on the day, it will be hard for me to complain.

On special teams

The Irish averaged 26.2 yards per kickoff return against Navy, and their two punt returns went for 37 yards. It would be good to see them continue to build on that success, though it won’t be easy against an Air Force team that has yielded an average of just 18.1 return yards on kickoffs and 8.7 on punts. Special teams coverage will be important as well (the Falcons average 12.3 yards per punt return), and it goes without saying that the kicking game is a huge question mark. But at the end of the day, what Notre Dame really needs is one or two “big” plays from their special teams: think a punt return for more than 20 yards, a kickoff return past the 40, a punt downed inside the 10, a blocked punt or field goal attempt, and so on.

On offense

This is obviously where the big question marks are, since it’s the place where ND has been by far the suckiest this year. So here’s my laundry list of Things They’d Better Do:

  • Average at least 5.0 4.5 4.0 yards per carry on offense: Air Force opponents have averaged only 3.48 so far this season, so this is by no means a guarantee. I’ve already noted that last week, against a Navy team that was yielding an average of over 4.5 yards per run coming in, the Irish picked up just 3.7 yards on their average carry. But given the once again substantial size differential between the Irish offense and the Falcon defense - there’s a 40-lb. gap in the trenches, and Asaph Schwapp has 30 pounds on the average Air Force linebacker - Notre Dame has no excuse not to some improvement here.
  • Pass for at least 180 170 160 yards: Maybe this is the day Jimmy Clausen finally busts out, but maybe not. So we should keep our expectations reasonable: the Air Force pass defense is actually one of their stronger points, yielding just over 200 yards per game on the season, good for 33rd in the nation. If Clausen - who has averaged only 7.6 yards per completion, 4.4 yards per attempt, and 88.3 passing yards per game so far - completes, say, 17 of 26 pass attempts for 157 yards, Irish fans should be pretty happy.
  • Stay out of second- and third-down and long: Those of you looking for Clausen to start off his first series with a bomb to a streaking Golden Tate have (or had better have - you listening to me, Charlie?) another thing coming. I’ve noted that last week the Irish passed the ball nine times on first and ten - hopefully we’ll see them go to the run early and often tomorrow. (The other side of the coin here is offensive penalties, which killed the Irish through the first half of the season but dropped off sharply in their last two games. Hopefully this is a trend that will last through the rest of the year; this offense just isn’t good enough to be constantly digging out of 1st-and-15 or 2nd-and-20.)
  • Give up no more than two sacks: Obviously this will also play a key role in keeping the offense out of long-yardage situations. Yielding four against Navy last week was worse than bad: it was inexcusable. And Air Force comes in as the much more dangerous pass-rushing team of the two, averaging over two sacks per game (Navy had a total of five through their first nine contests). Keeping the undersized Falcons below that average would be a real positive for this offense.
  • Don’t turn the ball over more than once: Interceptions and - especially - fumbles have been an Achilles heel for this team all season long, and it’s time for that to stop now. Air Force opponents have turned the ball over a total of 25 times this year (14 interceptions, 11 fumbles lost): it’s one thing if Clausen throws a pick, but this team needs in particular to stop putting the ball on the carpet.
  • Make turnovers into points: Obviously this is especially important for drives that start on the opponents’ side of midfield, and this is an area where the Irish offense has been especially shaky this year. Here’s a guideline: if you start the post-turnover drive inside the opposing 40, three points is the minimum; if you start inside the 20, it darn well better be seven.
  • No more than one empty trip to the red zone: Somehow Air Force opponents have managed to convert fewer than two-thirds of their red zone chances so far this year, though that’s due in part to their 65% success rate on field goal attempts. (Irish opponents have averaged over 88% scoring from inside the 20.) But the Notre Dame kicking game has been - how shall we put it? - less than dynamic as well, so a big part of the burden here falls on the rest of the offense. In any case, this team just doesn’t move the ball well enough to blow the few scoring chances it does manage to get.
  • 400 375 350 yards of total offense: The fact of the matter is that this is asking an awful lot, especially after ND put up only 375 against the woeful Midshipmen defense. But at the end of the day, against an Air Force offense that comes in averaging just under 400 total yards a game, that’s probably what will be required if the Irish are going to have a real chance to win.

When you sit down, look at the numbers, and consider (1) what the Irish offense managed to do last week against a defense markedly worse than the one they’ll face this Saturday, and (2) the fact that the Air Force offense is almost certainly going to be good for a few scores, the specter of a possible 1-9 record heading into the Duke game becomes a real one. Here’s hoping the Irish can put their demons to rest.

Clausen to start vs. Air Force

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

Per the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugly handful

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

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

1. The facemask call.

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

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

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

2. The missed field goal.

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

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

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

3. The fumble.

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

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

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

4. The sack.

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

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

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

5. The failed two-point conversion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jared