Posts Tagged ‘John Carlson’

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!

20 questions from the Duke game

Saturday, November 17th, 2007

I’ll have a proper recap of the Duke game some time this weekend, but for now here are twenty questions that have been on my mind:

  1. Is THAT what a D-I football team is supposed to look like? ‘Cause I almost thought it was …
  2. Is it just me, or does Duke head coach Ted Roof look an awful lot like Steve Martin?
  3. They were saying “Huuuuuuughes,” right?
  4. What in the world does Dan Wenger do with his helmet? It looks like he’s been using it as a hammer. Do they not repaint these things after losses?
  5. What’s up with all the empty seats at midfield? Do these people not even have the courtesy to find somebody who’ll take their tickets? What an embarrassment …
  6. Did anybody else find it morbidly fitting that Travis Thomas ended his Irish career with a fumble?
  7. How serious was Tom Zbikowski about the whole quarterback thing? Can you imagine how annoying that must’ve been for Charlie Weis to put up with his pestering for three straight years?
  8. Has there ever been a more absurd penalty call than the excessive celebration flag on John Carlson for giving the “first down” signal?
  9. I don’t mind instant replay, but do they really have to take so long with it? It was OBVIOUS that Thaddeus Lewis hadn’t fumbled that ball; why spend ten minutes coming to a decision?
  10. Does anybody else feel a weird desire for the NBC contract to come to an end, just so that we could see a halfway competent broadcast crew during a home game?
  11. Speaking of NBC, what in the world was that sideline reporter wearing? He looked like he was off to give a seminar at Cambridge.
  12. Did it seem to everyone like we saw a lot less of Asaph Schwapp?
  13. How in the world is this team going to find ways to get carries for all three of their tailbacks next year?
  14. Can someone get Weis a handkerchief?
  15. And maybe a field goal kicker as well?
  16. So, Notre Dame > Duke > Northwestern > Michigan State > Penn State > Wisconsin > Michigan > Illinois > Ohio State, right?
  17. How satisfying was it to see plays run out of the shotgun, and without the ball flying over the quarterback’s head?
  18. Wasn’t it great to see Chris Stewart get so much playing time?
  19. And how about Kerry Neal and Brian Smith as the two starting outside linebackers?
  20. Doesn’t winning feel wonderful?

Taking Stock, Part II: Identity crisis

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

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

Will the real Charlie Weis please stand up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsettled?

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the execution, stupid.

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop beating yourself.

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

The first half:

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

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

The second half:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll take it

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

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

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

Anyway, here are some thoughts on the game.


The game ball goes to …

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

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


By the numbers

Offense:

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

Defense:

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

Mistake-free football

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

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


Worth noting:

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

All in all …

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

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

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.)

Konrad Reuland is leaving Notre Dame

Monday, September 24th, 2007

After rumors began to surface yesterday evening that sophomore tight end Konrad Reuland, currently #3 on ND’s depth chart at his position behind senior John Carlson and fellow sophomore Will Yeatman, was going to transfer from ND, they were quickly squelched as just that - rumors - and some even reported to have positive evidence of their falsity. Things looked a bit bleaker this morning, though, as an Eric Hansen article in the South Bend Tribune quoted Reuland as saying last night that “I’ve still got a lot to think about,” and suggested that an answer would be forthcoming today.

Apparently that was accurate, as a current headline on Irish Illustrated announces that Reuland is in fact leaving the team, a report apparently confirmed by the same source who denied it yesterday:

the same source that told me yesterday he wasn’t leaving told me today he’s left. … It’s a small school (source didn’t say where) , but he wants to play in the pac10 next year so he’s going D2 im assuming or D3.

This last remark - that Reuland will transfer to a Division II or III school for the rest of this academic year and then enroll at a school in the Pac 10 for 2008 (he was recruited by both USC and Stanford out of high school) - seems to square with the rest of what’s being said. It’s perhaps worth noting that Konrad’s brother Warren, a senior in high school, is currently committed to Stanford as a wide receiver.

Obviously this loss hurts the Irish, though clearly Reuland isn’t the WORST person who might have left the team. Tight end is a position of real strength for the Irish, with Carlson and Yeatman ahead of Reuland on the chart, freshman Mike Ragone behind him, and five-star senior Kyle Rudolph committed to enroll next year. Nevertheless, Reuland’s talents will surely be missed, both this year and on down the line.

Best of luck to Konrad - who has apparently handled all of this with real maturity - wherever he ends up. ND’s youth movement just got a little younger.

[UPDATE: The SB Tribune is on it now, with this quote from Weis:

After meeting with Konrad Reuland on Sunday, he has decided he will leave the team and withdraw from Notre Dame. I appreciate all Konrad has done for Notre Dame, and I wish him nothing but the best.

HLS and SI have the story up as well, and so does Subway Domer.

One more thought, though: if ND applies the same standard to Reuland as they did to Demetrius Jones, then he won't be allowed to transfer to either Stanford or USC, since both of those schools are scheduled to play the Irish from now until eternity.]