Posts Tagged ‘Justin Brown’

Taking Stock, Part III: Dig deep

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Musical chairs

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

Center: John Sullivan / Dan Wenger

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

Left Guard: Mike Turkovich / Thomas Bemenderfer

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

Right Guard: Matt Carufel / Eric Olsen

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

Right Tackle: Paul Duncan / Chris Stewart

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

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

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

Right Defensive End: Dwight Stephenson Jr. / Justin Brown

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

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

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

Left Outside Linebacker: John Ryan / Anthony Vernaglia

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

Strong Safety: Tom Zbikowski / Sergio Brown / Ray Herring

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

Place-Kicker: Brandon Walker / Nate Whitaker

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

Punter: Geoff Price / Eric Maust

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll take it

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

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

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

Anyway, here are some thoughts on the game.


The game ball goes to …

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

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


By the numbers

Offense:

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

Defense:

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

Mistake-free football

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

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


Worth noting:

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

All in all …

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

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

News and notes (10/5/07)

Friday, October 5th, 2007

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


Uncontroversial

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

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


Injury worries

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

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

Notes on the depth chart

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

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


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

Go Irish!

Some News and Notes

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

COACH WEIS: He is.

Q. So it’s performance-based?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

Missing in action

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

According to Michael Rothstein, Dan Wenger, Matt Romine, Justin Brown, and Harrison Smith all didn’t make the trip to West Lafayette for the game today. John Ryan started in Brown’s place and played very well, with six solo tackles (two for a loss, including one sack), but at least according to the box score it doesn’t look like Derrell Hand, last week’s starter in place of Ryan, played at all.

We all knew that Wenger was going to be out at least until the UCLA game. Meanwhile, Brown was supposed to be a “game-time decision,” and Romine was reportedly wearing a big cast and brace in practice this week.

But it’s unclear why Smith - who had been playing on special teams, from what I recall [see update below] - didn’t make the trip, and especially puzzling that Hand seems to have sat the game out. Anybody have any idea what happened?

[UPDATE: I was wrong about Smith playing on special teams. I just now managed to track down the season-long game participation statistics, and he hadn't seen the field in the first four games either. It still seems funny, though, that he didn't dress - Rothstein thought so as well.

One more note, though: according to that same game log, it doesn't look like Ray Herring, who had played in each of the first four games, saw the field today either. Not nearly as puzzling as the Hand situation, to be sure, but still worth remarking on.]

News and notes: Gameday edition

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

I promised on Thursday that I’d run down anything interesting to do with ND’s depth chart, so here goes:

  • At the right guard position, Chris Stewart and Dan Wenger are listed as the two backups to Matt Carufel. This is no change from last week, but what’s notable is that both Stewart and Wenger are going to be missing this weekend.
  • As I noted on Thursday, with the departure of Konrad Reuland, freshman Mike Ragone is now the official third-string tight end. There were some reports from the MSU game that Ragone was seeing the field ahead of Reuland anyway, though, so this isn’t a huge deal.
  • Derrell Hand, who started last week when Justin Brown was out with an injury, is still listed as the #3 LDE, behind co-#1’s Brown and Dwight Stephenson, Jr.

Other than that, there’s not much doing there.

A quick update on the injury front, though: as I mentioned earlier this week, Charlie Weis has said that Dan Wenger, who has a left leg injury, will definitely miss today’s game, and will be back by next Saturday at the earliest. Meanwhile, Justin Brown, who sat out against MSU and reportedly still looked a bit hobbled in practice this week, is going to be a game-time decision today.

Also worth noting: the South Bend Tribune managed to get in touch with Chris Stewart on Friday, and here’s what he had to say:

I’m trying to be careful not to say too much right now, because everything’s up in the air. I’m just trying to figure everything out first and then move forward.

Clearly a good sign for fans who’d like to see the young man return to the team. The official ND position is that Stewart has left the team for “personal reasons,” with Weis’s blessing.


Meanwhile, I know it doesn’t quite count as Notre Dame news, but I thought it was worth sharing this snippet from a USA Today profile of Cal-Berkeley superstar running back Justin Forsett:

For Justin Forsett, February 2004 arrived with no place to sign on the dotted line.The 5-8 running back assumed he was headed to Notre Dame, but the Irish offered scholarships to two bigger running backs. Which was news to him.

It would be easy to say Forsett, now a senior at California, had the last laugh. Notre Dame is 0-4. The school where he landed is 4-0. But holding grudges isn’t Forsett’s nature.

“It was a tremendous blessing for me to end up where I am,” he says. “At the time I couldn’t see it. I didn’t know where I’d be after Notre Dame turned me down, and it definitely hurt. But God works in mysterious ways, and there couldn’t be a better place than here.”

So how did Forsett get from nowhere to here? From castoff to Cal’s most valuable player so far as the No. 6 Golden Bears head into Saturday’s critical game at No. 12 Oregon?

Before signing day in 2004, Notre Dame’s running backs coach at the time, Buzz Preston, visited Forsett and his father, Rodney, and mother, Abby, at his high school, Grace Prep in Arlington, Texas. According to the Forsetts, Preston said Notre Dame would have a scholarship for him.

“We left the meeting feeling wonderful because we were on our way to Notre Dame,” says Rodney, a minister.

About a week before signing day, Justin called Notre Dame, then coached by Tyrone Willingham. “I hadn’t heard from them in a while,” he says. “They told me they didn’t need me anymore.”

Preston, now at New Mexico, says the Irish never offered Forsett a scholarship. It wasn’t for lack of ability; the Irish simply were looking for taller backs.

This much was certain: Forsett was blindsided by the news. “Forsett loses lone offer,” read the headline on the Rivals.com recruiting site on Jan. 28, 2004.

After signing day passed, Forsett’s high school coach, Mike Barber, a former NFL player, feverishly sent more highlight tapes to coaches around the country. None of the schools in Texas or Florida, where Forsett played his first two years of high school football, were interested. “Nothing. Nobody. Even Baylor didn’t want him,” Rodney says. South Carolina State was an option, but Forsett’s goal was to play Division I-A.

Forsett’s highlight tape landed at Cal.

“We watched his tape and thought this is too good to be true,” coach Jeff Tedford says. “There’s got to be something wrong with this kid. There’s a skeleton in the closet somewhere. So we thoroughly investigated everything about him and brought him here with his father, and he’s the greatest kid you ever want to meet.”

(snip)

When needed the most, Forsett has shined. In Cal’s opening win against Tennessee, Forsett ran for 156 yards on 26 carries. Last week against Arizona, Cal’s offense stalled when Forsett was nursing ankle and quadriceps soreness. After the Wildcats scored 17 unanswered points, Forsett lobbied to go back in and led the Bears on their final touchdown drive.

Forsett is the Pacific-10’s second-leading rusher (121.0 yards a game), behind only Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart (125.8). He’s also tied for the conference lead with seven touchdowns. “He’s been a guy who’s carried the load for us so far,” Tedford says.

Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but if what Forsett says is true, then it’s appalling: not just because an offer was pulled from a kid who’s turned out to be this talented, but because of the incredibly shady way in which it was done. Next time somebody starts telling you about Willingham’s classiness, make sure to bust this one out.

Oh, and next time you see Junior Jabbie or Travis Thomas get dragged down for a loss, remind yourself that at least they’re tall.

(HT: GoshenGipper.)


Finally, a quick thought on today’s game.Earlier this week I argued that the key to beating Purdue is running the ball effectively. I think this was only half right: the other crucial component if the Irish have any hope of winning is stopping the pass. This BGS post talks about the improvement of Purdue QB Curtis Painter from last year - when he led the nation in interceptions - to this. When I first read it, I thought that his improved numbers - 68.7% completions, 16 TDs, and only one interception through four games this year - might be due to Purdue’s weak schedule, but a bit more research proved that wrong: at this point last year, with an equally woeful foursome of opponents to start the year, Painter had thrown only 8 TD’s and had been picked off five times. Make no mistake about it: the Irish are going up against a good QB tomorrow, and a downright scary offense.Notre Dame fans are fond of pointing out that the team ranks eleventh in the nation in pass defense so far this year, but that statistic is a bit misleading, especially given both (1) the ease with which teams have run the ball against the Irish and (2) the degree to which these first four games have been blowouts. And as the South Bend Tribune pointed out today, when we consider pass efficiency defense, the Irish rank only 52nd nationally. The opening drive of the second half against Michigan State, which saw the Spartans convert through the air on 3rd-and-9 and 3rd-and-17 and then for a sixteen-yard touchdown, was a case in point of ND’s struggles against the pass this year. Ryan Mallett threw for three touchdowns against ND two weeks ago, and MSU scored four through the air last week. Tomorrow’s game will be a huge indicator of whether first-year defensive coordinator Corwin Brown is making progress with this team. Expect to see plenty of frosh LB’s Brian Smith and Kerry Neal (profiled in today’s SBT, by the way), who played well in passing situations against the Spartans, but - according to Charlie Weis in his Sunday press conference - aren’t quite ready to play consistently against the run.No matter how effectively ND runs the ball today, unless the Irish can hold Painter to no more than three TD’s passing and perhaps pick off a pass, Purdue will almost certainly win going away.


With that happy thought in mind, though, let’s take a look back into the history of the Notre Dame-Purdue series, courtesy of YouTube …[NOTE: For some reason, I've been having trouble embedding YouTube clips since we switched the site over from Blogger, so I'm just providing links for now.]We begin in 1964, Ara Parseghian’s first year as head coach of the Irish, as John Huarte leads the Fighting Irish past Bob Griese’s Boilermakers. (You can see a copy of the program here.) Notre Dame would go on to go 9-1-0 that year, their only loss coming at the hands of the USC Trojans. Lindsey Nelson has the call here.Next up is 1966, the year the Irish won their first national title under Parseghian. This game - a picture of the program is here - started off well for the Boilermakers, as Leroy Keyes returned an interception for a touchdown. But on the ensuing kickoff, Notre Dame’s Nick Eddy took one of his own to the house.This game also saw the famous duo of QB Terry Hanratty and wideout Jim Seymour, whom Time magazine would call “the hottest young passing combination in the US,” hook up for three long passes, all shown here.Up next is 1973, with highlights from West Lafayette. Notre Dame would go on to win the national title that year as well, under head coach Dan Devine.

Four years later, in 1977, a young Joe Montana would come off the bench to lead the Irish to victory in what would be yet another National Championship season.

Next up, let’s fast-forward to 1996, as Allen Rossum - who looks SICKENINGLY fast in this clip - returns the opening kick for an Irish touchdown.

The next three clips - from 1999, 2003, and 2004 respectively - remind anyone who may have forgotten why Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham were fired. Ugh. I was there for that last one, and I think it is burned into my retinas for eternity. Ugh.

We can end on a positive note, though, with highlights from the last couple of years.

Anyway, enough messing around on the web. Time to start some proper pre-gaming.

Go Irish!

A bit more on the latest news

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

A brief article that appeared online this afternoon in the South Bend Tribune confirmed a rumor that had spent most of the day spreading like wildfire around the ND internet universe:

Notre Dame’s 6-foot 5-inch, 339-pound offensive guard Chris Stewart has left the school with the intent to transfer. … Stewart practiced at both nose tackle and offensive guard, but did not see game action at Notre Dame.

But an hour or so later, another article appeared that suggested that Stewart’s departure might not be for good:

Stewart’s father, George, confirmed that the 6-foot-5, 339-pound offensive guard was flying home to Spring, Texas, Thursday with the intent to transfer, but George Stewart also said Chris left the door ajar back in South Bend.Or at least his family is hoping so.

“I know he’s been a little homesick and he revealed to me he would like to come home and see his family, just visit with us,” George Stewart said via telephone. “Transferring is something he’s thinking about, but, really and truly, my family and I are hoping we can all sit down and talk and possibly iron out a few things and try to get him headed back to South Bend if possible.”

(snip)

Stewart was a second-team USA Today prep All-American coming out of Klein High School and enrolled early with running back James Aldridge and wide receiver George West in January of 2006 to get a head start academically and athletically.

He didn’t play as a true freshman, and then was moved to nose tackle in the offseason. He was moved back to offensive guard this fall and was laboring to move up the depth chart ever since.

Stewart will not accompany the team to Purdue.

“We’re going to visit over the weekend and see what we can do to help him,” George Stewart said. “We don’t want to see him miss out on a golden opportunity, maybe, because of a miscommunication or whatever. Usually there’s a miscommunication involved in incidents like this.

“I don’t quite know everything right now. One thing I do know is my feelings haven’t changed about Notre Dame. That’s why I wanted him to go there all along and I want him to, hopefully, be back up there next week.”

Similarly, Michael Rothstein cites an article from Irish Illustrated in which Stewart’s father is quoted as saying that he’s “not allowing him [Chris] to give up on it just yet.”

On one level, this development is promising, since Stewart was a highly-regarded prospect coming out of high school and has a good chance to perform well for the Irish at some point in the future. On the other hand, if he really doesn’t want to be at ND and he just comes back because his father pushes him, then that isn’t the best thing for anyone. If it’s just a case of homesickness, though, then perhaps a weekend back in Texas really will straighten it out. The fact that Ben Ford describes Stewart as having been “excused for personal reasons,” which is probably the official line that the team is taking at this point, suggests that the Irish may be leaving the door open as well.

According to ND’s official web site, Stewart hasn’t seen the field yet this year, though he moved up to second string at the right guard position on the team’s depth chart when Dan Wenger went down with an injury. Andrew Nuss, who reportedly switched from the defensive line to the offensive line earlier this week, is not listed on the depth chart as of yet.


Ford and Rothstein also report two other bits of injury news worth pasisng along. The first also pertains to the offensive line:

Freshman left tackle Matt Romine has a very large brace/cast on his left arm, going from well below the elbow to way up his bicep/tricep area. He was requested for freshman media chatting tonight, but was rejected.

Secondly, Ford notes that defensive lineman Justin Brown, who sat out against Michigan State, still looks a bit hobbled:

Justin Brown did not run latterally when the rest of the team did, and still ran pretty gingerly when moving straight ahead. I’m not sure what this means in relation to his availability for Saturday’s game, but if he plays, it won’t be at 100 percent.

There probably won’t be anything revealed about this until game time Saturday, but we’ll keep our ear to the ground.


Finally, one last bit of news along the transfer front, this time pertaining to Konrad Reuland:

Former Irish tight end Konrad Reuland told the Tribune Thursday he’ll take his time shopping for his new school and instead attend Saddleback Community College in his hometown of Mission Viejo, Calif., for the balance of the academic year.He will not play football for Saddleback, a junior college power in California.

“This will make me eligible at my new school in 2008, although, I’ll have to sit out the first three or four games, as I understand the NCAA rules,” he said. “I just don’t want to rush into anything. Everything is looking up.

With Reuland’s departure, freshman tight end Mike Ragone has officially moved into the third spot on ND’s depth chart. I’ll have a bit more analysis of the depth chart at some point tomorrow.