Posts Tagged ‘Pat Kuntz’

Hand, out.

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

As if Omar Hunter’s defection and the loss of Pat Kuntz for the spring semester due to academic issues weren’t enough, BlueandGold.com is now reporting something that has been rumored for weeks, namely that defensive lineman Derrell Hand’s playing career is apparently over, due to a spinal cord disease:

Senior to be defensive lineman Derrell Hand’s football career is likely over because of a hereditary disease in his spinal cord, Hand’s former high school coach, Brian Fulk, explained to BlueandGold.com this afternoon.

Fulk said the pain in Hand’s lower back started to become a problem toward the end of last season, especially during periods of inactivity, and the diagnosis was more serious than anyone would have expected.

“He’s not the type of player to complain about injuries and he really never said that his back was hurting him, at least when he played for me,” said Fulk, who coached Hand at West Catholic High School in Philadelphia. “It kind of came out of nowhere for me.”

Hand is expected to get a second opinion but if the initial diagnosis is correct, Fulk said that playing football could severely aggravate the injury and potentially cause long-term problems.

“He’s going to get a second opinion about it,” Fulk said. “But at this point, it doesn’t look real good for him to play football ever again.”

Hand, you probably recall, was arrested for soliciting a prostitute before the 2007 season and was suspended for the first three games. He played sparingly thereafter, as he saw the field for a total of just over 27 minutes in a total of four games and recorded just three assisted tackles. His presence will be sorely missed along 2008’s very inexperienced defensive line, though - please keep his future in your prayers.

Off to Palo Alto

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

My wife and I are packing up the Volvo in a few hours and heading down and across the Bay to take our son to his first ND game. If you’re at the alumni club tailgate, I’ll be the guy in glasses who’s in bad need of a haircut, toting around a big-eyed eight-month-old in a green #10 jersey. Feel free to say hello.

For my kid’s sake, I’m going to try to enjoy this game no matter what happens, but here are a few things the Irish could do that would help me achieve that more easily:

  • Protect the offensive backfield: Stanford is a horrible defensive team (81st against the run, 107th against the pass, 106th overall), but they’re pretty good at blowing plays up. Their 3.1 sacks per game are good for 11th in the nation, and their average of 7.9 tackles for a loss is 10th. They’ve got three different players - Clinton Snyder, Pat Maynor, and Udeme Udofia - with at least five sacks on the year. Maynor ranks 18th in the nation with almost 1.5 TFLs per game. Please, PLEASE keep them on the proper side of the line of scrimmage.
  • Defend the pass: Stanford’s rushing offense and total offense are similarly horrible, as they’re each ranked 106th overall. But they do pass for over 200 yards per game, and are right around the middle of I-A in that category. Trent Edwards may be gone, but senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander has given the Irish fits in years past: I for one remember the 2005 Fiesta Blow “play-in” game, when he torched ND with 11 of 15 passing for 197 yards as I cried in the stands. Ugh, flashbacks.
  • Show some mental toughness: Reality is that something’s going to go wrong at some point, though hopefully it won’t be on the game’s first series. The Irish managed to rebound pretty well from last week’s early setbacks, but the fact is that the offense spent most of the first half pretty much curled up in the fetal position until the defense went ahead and made some plays for them. Maybe with another win - and an all-around quality game on offense - under their belts, Jimmy Clausen & Co. can be even a bit more resilient this week.
  • Protect the rock: The Irish have lost 13 fumbles this year, including six in their last four games. There’s little doubt that they’ll be able to move the ball against Stanford at least somewhat effectively, but any combination of sacks (see above), penalties (ND has been whistled ten or more times in three games this year, including 11 for 103 yards against Duke), and - especially - turnovers can quickly bring that to a halt. Like I said last week: throwing a pick is one thing; putting the ball on the carpet is quite another.

Look: the fact is that this is another pretty bad team. Since their wins over USC and Arizona, Stanford has lost 23-6 to Oregon State, 27-9 to Washington, and 33-17 to Washington State. The Irish are certainly capable of winning today. Here’s to a fun afternoon of laughing at the LSJUMB and mocking their stupid mascot, a victory to close out 2007, and a happy drive home.

Go Irish, beat Cardinal!

* * *

A few more statistics and bits of news, for the junkies out there … the Cardinal give up over 180 rushing yards and almost 275 passing yards per game … they gave up 449 passing yards to Washington State last week, and 388 rushing yards to Washington the week before … they’re 117th in the nation in sacks allowed, at 4.2 per game … they average only 2.86 yards per carry on offense, and yield 4.3 on defense … they only convert 27% of their third downs, but they have a 76% success rate in the red zone … senior placekicker Derek Belch is just 13-of-20 (65%) in his field goal attempts this year … Stanford’s 3-7 record has come against what Jeff Sagarin ranks as the nations third-toughest schedule … the Irish have not won two games in a row to end a season since 1992 … John Sullivan, Pat Kuntz, Geoff Price, and Sergio Brown are all likely to miss the game with injuries, though Sully may get to see the field briefly for nostalgia’s sake … James Aldridge is on the depth chart and has been practicing in full pads, but reports indicate his having been “hobbled” this past week (though see here as well).

Win big.

Friday, November 16th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

And on defense:

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

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

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

Pleasantly surprised

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

From Charlie Weis’s Tuesday press conference:

I think the younger guys are trying to put themselves in a position to step up, and I think that there will be guys who will probably send us a message here in the next couple weeks of which direction they intend to go.

Not getting into one player, but it was probably one of the most enjoyable parts of my entire week, happened yesterday morning at 5:30. Yesterday morning at 5:30 I’m sitting in my office and I keep the door locked because I don’t like just anyone walking in at 5:30, and my phone rings and one of the players on our team is outside. I said, oh, no, here we go again. He wants to talk to me so he knocks on my door. I thought we had another person that was looking to pack his bags and go.

And it was just the opposite. He said he hasn’t slept all night. He’s an under classman. He hadn’t slept all night and he felt he needed to step up and take on more of a leadership role, and he was asking for some advice on how to do that. I mean, that’s the type of guys you want on your team, guys that aren’t sleeping because they’re worrying about how they can - he’s a regular player, but how they can step up and take on more of a leadership role. I thought that was a good way to start the week.

it’s a great way to start your week, a great way to start your week after you get through the grinds of the game and the aftermath of the game and recruiting and all those things that go on through Sunday, to be in your office early and you’re watching tape and you’re watching some Duke and getting ready for your meetings and everything and have a kid — your double secret probation line that no one knows rings and you think my wife is calling with something wrong, and it’s one of your players outside, hey, can I talk to you. You think, here we go. And he wants to talk to you about how he can be a better leader.

We talked for a few minutes, and I said let me think about it. I set up an appointment and he came back last night and we followed up after I had a whole day to think about it. They’re the rewarding moments, you know, in life, when you see a young man kind of take the bull by the horns.

Now, in a new Rivals.com video feature, we learn that the “mystery player” was none other than second-year offensive tackle Sam Young:

With the line the way it is right now, I’m trying to put myself in a position to help us get better, more than anything, and whatever that role entails for me, I’m more than willing to fill it.

I was there and I just decided, you know, just go up and talk to him, and he was available, so we just talked about a bunch of different things. I think it was a good decision, and just talking back and forth and bouncing stuff off each other - I think how it plays out is yet to be seen, but I think it was a good conversation.

Watch the whole thing - Young (as well as James Aldridge, who is also interviewed) comes off as intelligent and remarkably articulate, and gives you a good feeling about the direction this team is heading. There’s apparently no doubt in the players’ minds about whether they’re going to right this ship and who the coach is who’s going to help them do that - hopefully we fans can be as patient, and really work to understand the difficulty of the situation they’re facing.

***

Later on in his presser, in a different context, Weis did actually talk about the kind of player and leader that Young is capable of becoming:

Q. With Sam, going back to the question I asked you Sunday about leadership, and you mentioned the offense, not really sure who’s going to step up and be a leader there, is Sam a guy that could do that?

COACH WEIS: Yeah, he’s a contender. See, the one thing about Sam, he’s played more football than anyone else on the offensive line, once Sully leaves. Sully is such a domineering personality that you would never really notice the other guys’ leadership ability while he’s there because it’s almost like overstepping your bounds. So it’ll be kind of interesting how that matriculates after he’s not there because that’s exactly what you’re looking for because you want to see who are those people that are going to start assuming that because I don’t think leadership is something you can try to fake or create. Either you have it or you don’t have it. Now, in the offensive line position we really don’t know what the answer is because Sully has really been the man all year long.

Q. As far as the season that Sam had, how would you kind of evaluate where he is now?

COACH WEIS: I think that ever since he settled — after he moved over and then settled down or settled into the position, I think that from about the midway part of the year on, he’s gotten progressively better.

Q. Comment on the expectations for him being off the chart. You described him as an NFL looking offensive tackle when you signed him. Did you ever have to talk to him about his expectations?

COACH WEIS: Actually we’re trying to get him to gain weight. How many times do you hear you’re trying to get a guy who weighs 317 to gain weight, but he’s actually on a program where he’s drinking extra shakes and things like that. He’s so big that he can carry a lot more weight than he’s carrying right now. Some of those guys as the season goes on have a tough time keeping weight on. I think that he’s at the stage now, the offensive linemen are at a stage, there’s really a couple different stages in their development, one in between their freshman and sophomore year when they become more physically ready to play on a regular basis where they came in with some brute strength, now they become more physically ready, and then between the sophomore and the junior year, I think that becomes more where they start to develop into like front line players.

Next year, of course, Young will be the most experienced member along the offensive line, so it would definitely be great to see a peak in his development.

***

Finally, a few more notes from the presser, while we’re at it:

  • John Sullivan, Pat Kuntz, and Sergio Brown will all miss this week’s game, and Mike Ragone and Geoff Price are doubtful. Obviously the most important of these losses are those of Sullivan, who will be replaced by sophomore Dan Wenger, and Kuntz, whose replacement will be true freshman Ian Williams, who is actually seventh on the team in tackles and had 17 in the last two games, when he played significant minutes in place of the banged-up Kuntz. Weis said, though, that while Sullivan has a chance to be back next week, Kuntz probably won’t.
  • Weis also talked about the development of sophomore offensive lineman Chris Stewart, who’s played significant minutes in each of the past couple of games. He said Stewart has been doing a good job of keeping his weight down, and that he’s starting to put himself in a position where he can be a more regular player. Weis also said he plans to give Stewart playing time at both tackle and guard against Duke.
  • Because of Ragone’s injury, sophomore fullback Luke Schmidt will be “cross-trained” at both fullback and tight end this week, and will have a chance to see the field as a “tweener guy.”

Let’s hope the team can get out there and win one - in convincing fashion, preferably! - for the seniors.

Thought experiment

Monday, November 12th, 2007

From a commenter, identified as “Hal,” on a post at Blue-Gray Sky:

I’d like to do an experiment:

Take a team like Michigan and put them in ND’s shoes. Remove Hart and Henne for the whole season, and replace them with Frosh and Sophs. Take away Manningham and replace him with a Frosh. Then, remove a couple of O-line starters. Lastly, take the junior and senior classes and remove a dozen of the most talented guys, including those who might fill those holes in the O-line. Throw in a bit more inexperience at some key positions on D.

What’s Michigan’s record now? I’d say 3-8, 4-7.

I’m not picking on Michigan, and I’m not saying we should be losing to Navy and Air Force. I’m just saying that there are some pretty serious extenuating circumstances going on here. This is hard to stomach, but it’s not inexplicable.

It’s not time to panic.

At this point in the season I’m about as despondent as one can be about the future, and pretty much fed up with excuse-making, but something about this really speaks to me. A few other variables not mentioned here include:

  • Playing an insanely difficult schedule, composed almost entirely of away games, to start the season.
  • Having your best quarterback trying to recover from off-season elbow surgery, with your top two tailbacks coming off of injuries as well.
  • Seeing lots of key players (Aldridge, Grimes, Wenger, Kuntz, Bruton, etc.) go down with injuries at various points during the season itself.
  • Bringing in a brand-new defensive coordinator who’s trying to implement a new scheme using personnel recruited for the old one.

Add to this distractions like the Demetrius Jones situation and the (rumored, though perfectly predictable) tensions between the upper and lower classes, and you’ve got a recipe for a season that starts badly and quickly snowballs into mind-numbing awfulness. No doubt the coaching staff has failed MISERABLY in getting things back on track, but that doesn’t change the fact that the circumstances they’re dealing with have been, as Hal says, “serious[ly] extenuating.”

THAT’S why Charlie Weis will be back in 2008, this year’s suckitude notwithstanding. And it’s also why I’m done complaining about 2007 … unless we lose to Duke, that is.

Get Dirty!

Friday, October 19th, 2007

You probably already know this, but the LA Times is reporting that Mark “Dirty” Sanchez is going to be the starting quarterback on Saturday for the Trojans of Southern Cal, in place of the injured John David Booty. Sanchez, a redshirt sophomore, was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school but has seen little game action since coming to SC, his most newsworthy accomplishments having come - ahem - off the playing field. Starting in place of Booty last week, Sanchez had a tough first half against a less than dynamic Arizona defense, but completed 11 of 15 passes for a very Clausen-esque 74 yards in the second half as the Trojans narrowly avoided their second straight upset loss.

It’s hard to think that this is anything but good news for the Irish, as we all remember what happened last time Corwin Brown’s defense faced an inexperienced backup:

Put that together with a beat-up SC offensive line (All-American tackle Sam Baker will be out, as well as guard Alatini Malu), and one can only expect that by the time the game draws to an end, Evan Sharpley won’t be the only quarterback wearing a green jersey.

Sweet dreams tonight, Mark. The nightmare begins Saturday, 3:30pm EST.

I got your Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse right here …

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.

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.