Posts Tagged ‘Matt Ryan’

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.

Untested

Friday, October 12th, 2007

When the unbeaten Boston College Golden Eagles take the field at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, they’ll bring with them a 6-0 record and a #4 ranking that is one of the highest in the program’s less-than-illustrious history. But they’ll also be riding a winning streak compiled against the likes of Army, North Carolina State, Bowling Green, and Div. 1-AA UMass - a schedule tough enough to be ranked only 78th in the nation by Jeff Sagarin, compared to Notre Dame’s #3-ranked schedule.

Jason Kelly’s excellent column in today’s South Bend Tribune makes this point quite effectively:

The Eagles will be a case study on the subject of mirage vs. reality.

Other than a win on the road at Georgia Tech, Boston College got to 6-0 without the strain of travel or any opponent more imposing than a pop quiz (and Notre Dame makes seven, perhaps).

In other words, the “0″ rings a little hollow. Yell into it and the echo of vanquished opponents — Army-my-my, Bowling Green-een-een, UMass-mass-mass — is faint and uninspiring. Again, not that Notre Dame merits much more respect than that right now, but the circumstances reek of a set-up.

But do the 1-5 Irish really have a shot against a team that ranks eleventh in the nation in passing yardage and third against the run? Looking more closely over the numbers, here are some reasons for hope. (Note: all statistics via NCAA.org.)

Let’s start with the BC offense. While senior signal-caller Matt Ryan has led BC to 314.2 passing yards per game, good for eleventh in the nation as noted above, the Eagles’ running game is considerably less dynamic, as their 140.7 yds/game average ranks only 70th overall. Moreover, when we look at the quality of BC’s opponents at stopping the run, we see that only two of the six teams the Eagles have played have been at all stout in this respect so far this year: Georgia Tech ranks sixth in the nation with an average of 68.5 yards given up, and Wake Forest ranks 27th with an average of 111.0. (I’m discounting UMass, whose average of 90.8 looks imposing until you remember that they play in 1-AA, and have compiled that average against the likes of Holy Cross, Colgate, Towson, and Maine.) Against those two teams, the Eagles totaled only 146 yards on the ground, though to be fair they did gain 92 yards against Georgia Tech in week three, well above the Yellowjackets’ average. If we leave out the games against NC State (ranked 114th in the nation against the run) and Army (ranked 78th), in which BC totaled 433 yards, the Eagles have yet to put together a genuinely dominant game running the ball. To be sure, an Irish defense that gives up 189.8 yards a game on the ground, good only for 96th nationwide, might be a nice opponent to pick up a third such game, but the point at present is only that BC’s stats so far this season make it far from indubitable that this will happen.

The Eagles’ vaunted passing attack actually shows a similar trend: they’ve played against only two statistically solid pass defenses - NC State (192.2 yds/game, good for 25th nationally) and (again, Div. I-AA) UMass (214.4 yds/game) - and have struggled against both, totaling only 346 yards against the two of them. Meanwhile, while the Eagles did put up 371 passing yards against Army’s 40th-ranked pass defense (so ranked, of course, thanks in part to having played Akron, Rhode Island, Temple, and Tulane), their other three opponents respectively rank only 69th (Bowling Green), 71st (Georgia Tech), and 83rd (Wake Forest) nationally in pass defense. The fact that BC’s air attack has been really effective only against teams that have shown little ability to defend against the pass this season gives reason to hope that an ND squad that ranks fourth nationally in passing yardage given up and 22nd in pass efficiency defense might be able to slow the Eagles down.

Here are those numbers in a bit more detail (my apologies for not being as much of a tech-wiz as the show-offs at HLS):

When we look in some depth at the numbers put up by BC’s defense, we find a similar trend. As noted above, the Eagles’ run defense ranks third in the nation, giving up a scant 49.7 yards per game: but while they have clearly been able to hold teams below their season-long averages, they’ve faced only one opponent with a rushing game ranked higher than 71st nationally in Div. I-A. Moreover, the fact that BC has been able to get out to some nice leads against these inferior opponents has meant that they’ve simply faced fewer situations in which teams can run the ball against them: the Eagles have rushed the ball 208 times to their opponents’ 158, and have given up a less than dominant average of 2.9 yards per carry. This isn’t to say that BC’s run defense is weak: it clearly isn’t, and it will be a big challenge for an ND rushing attack that ranks last in the nation with only 33.0 yards per game. But it is to say that the Eagles’ schedule so far hasn’t faced them with much of a threat in this department: against Georgia Tech, which is the one team they’ve faced with a top-flight running game, BC was up 14-0 at the half and 21-0 going into the fourth quarter, and the Yellowjackets threw 39 passes and were able to run the ball only 28 times.

Meanwhile, the Eagles’ passing defense has looked downright bad so far this year, giving up 290.8 yards per game, good for only 110th in the nation. To some extent this might also be a product of teams’ having to throw the ball more once they fall behind, but every BC opponent except UMass (none of whose other opponents were I-A teams) has exceeded their season-long passing average against the Eagles, in many cases by large margins. On the season, BC’s opponents have completed 59.4% of their passes for an average of 6.3 yards per attempt, making for numbers that aren’t far behind Heisman candidate Ryan’s 62.7% completion rate and 7.3 yard average. Defending the pass is by far the Eagles’ biggest weakness: they gave up 368 passing yards to Wake Forest and 351 to NC State, and while they settled down a bit by giving up an average of only 209 passing yards per game against Georgia Tech, Army, and UMass in weeks 3-5, they followed that up by reverting to early-season form and allowing Bowling Green to throw for 401 yards against them last week. If the Irish offense can recapture the form that led to a 65.4% completion rate and 377 passing yards against a similarly mediocre Purdue pass defense, there’s no reason to think that ND won’t be able to move the ball downfield against BC.

Once again, here are those numbers in a bit more detail for the stat junkies:

Like I said when I offered a similar breakdown before the game against Purdue: I have plenty of doubts as to whether the Irish can win this one. But there’s clearly hope for an upset that would, as Kelly wonderfully puts it once again, “tear down one of the new McMansions dotting the college football landscape.”

Ohh, you mean THAT rivalry …