Posts Tagged ‘Robby Parris’

You stay classy, Palo Alto.

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Crooked refs. Awful field conditions. An obnoxious stadium announcer. A dreadful marching band whose absurd antics amuse no one but themselves and their similarly drunk friends. A beautiful new facility gone to waste as one of America’s most esteemed universities presents a gameday experience matched only by the ineptitude of their football program. That’s right - another day, another dollar, another road trip to Stanford.

A few thoughts about the trip in general: as I said, the new Stanford stadium really is very nice. We had endzone seats in the upper tier, but the view was great - and right up above us there was a big grassy area where kids could play, and so my son really managed to enjoy himself. That’s why it’s such a shame that the other elements of gameday at Stanford are so embarrassingly horrible: at least when you used to go, you sat on splintered wooden benches in a dumpy stadium, so the rest of what was going on around you didn’t seem so bad.

And it was awful. The parking crew exercised no control over tailgaters taking up spaces the width of four cars to spread out their folding chairs, and the only way they managed to determine whether a lot was full was by directing a line of cars into it, having them drive around for ten minutes, and seeing whether they came out the other side. The pre-game “festivities” featured a mediocre cover band playing bad rock-and-roll, and then deciding to abandon their break so that they could drown out ND’s alumni marching band. The stadium announcer showed himself to be as classless as he was annoying when he twice referred to Jimmy Clausen as “Casey,” and also pretended to get him mixed up with Tom Zbikowski at one point. And the band - oh, the band. I understand that they’re having fun, but the stupid halftime shows really do nothing at all for the fans. No wonder the stadium was half-empty. Honestly, we felt embarrassed for Stanford University at any number of different junctures on Saturday afternoon.

Speaking of which, there was a football game as well:

  • Jimmy Clausen played very well - he completed 19 20 of his 32 passes for 196 225 yards and a touchdown. He also made some really nice moves to get away from would-be tacklers, though on some occasions he ran out of bounds for lost yardage instead of throwing the ball away. His downfield throws were a bit uneven, and the one play on which he was intercepted was a really bad decision. Altogether, though, it was a solid day for a true freshman quarterback who showed some nice improvement over the course of the year - now it’s time for him to hit the weight room, practice those deep routes, and soak up the rest of the playbook.
  • Duval Kamara - six receptions for 93 yards - had a really nice day catching the ball. It’s clear that he’s a tremendous talent, and there’s little doubt that he’ll be the #1 receiver on the team next year: the challenge is figuring out who else is going to catch it. George West was as invisible on Saturday as he has been for most of the season, Robby Parris saw the field sparingly, and David Grimes showed why he’s best suited to be a third option rather than a featured guy. Hopefully Will Yeatman and Mike Ragone have got the stuff to help replace John Carlson next year; I’d also look to see Michael Floyd see the field early and often, much as Kamara did this year.
  • Robert Hughes - 18 carries for 136 yards - had a spectacular game, as he became the first Notre Dame freshman to pass the century mark twice in a season since Autry Denson did it in back-to-back games in 1995. He could use a bit more speed, though, as both of his long carries really should have gone for scores. Armando Allen started off well, as he picked up 18 yards on his first three carries, but after that he started going backwards, and while the banged-up James Aldridge did manage to get into the game, he didn’t end up touching the ball. Asaph Schwapp had another dreadful day, as he gained only four yards on his three carries, fumbled the ball once, and did a less-than-stellar job of blocking. I really have trouble seeing why Charlie Weis bothers putting him on the field. Kudos to Travis Thomas, who made the most of what was (thankfully!) his last stand as a goalline back by punching his one carry into the end zone from a yard out, and to Junior Jabbie, who’s shaping up into a great situational back for third-down passing situations.
  • Once again, we saw a lot of Chris Stewart on the offensive line, as he pretty much switched off series-by-series with Paul Duncan at right tackle. And once again, the play along the offensive line, and in pass protection in particular, was pretty terrible: Clausen was sacked on five occasions and pressured pretty heavily on many others, and while the running game was effective, the Irish running backs netted only 3.15 yards per carry if we factor out Hughes’s two huge runs.
  • The defense played quite well, and in particular they did a much better job at containing the outside run than they had in weeks past. Ian Williams had six tackles in his second start at the nose guard position, and made a strong case for some heavy playing time or even a starting role next year. Darrin Walls got turned around on one or two plays but had a great game overall, Brian Smith played a nice game on the outside, and David Bruton was his usual athletic self. But missed tackles were still a significant problem, as was fatigue - Stanford possessed the ball for over 21 minutes in the second half, and you could see the Irish defenders tiring out.

At the end of the day, a win is a win, no matter how bad the opponent (and the venue). The Irish came out strong, played with emotion, and rebounded nicely from the things that set them back. But many of those back-setting things - in particular the three fumbles and the five sacks - were exactly the sorts of problems that have killed this squad all year long. A team that puts the ball on the carpet, and allows its opponents to do the same to their quarterback, with that kind of frequency is not a team that’s going to win many games. Maybe experience will cure all - but only time will tell.

Obviously there’s a lot to think about as we head from the season of our discontent to what will hopefully be the the looooongest offseason - 285 days to go! - the Fighting Irish will have to endure for quite some time. I’ll have plenty of “bigger picture”-type of thoughts in the days and weeks ahead. In the meantime, here’s to West Virginia and Mizzou in the MNC game!

“Here we go again …”

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

A phantom personal foul after a long completion just outside the goal line. A missed field goal. An inefficient drive following a defensive stand, and then a late hit in punt coverage that gets flagged for 15 yards. These are the kinds of plays that have killed the Irish offense all year long, and for a while on Saturday they did the same.

Mistakes breed mistakes like rabbits in the Spring: a false start on fourth-and-two, a beautiful pass on fourth-and-17 that goes through the receiver’s hands, and suddenly you’re staring at 0-0 halftime score against one of the worst teams in college football.

And then, the momentum changes: the defense forces turnovers on consecutive drives, and each of them is turned quickly into seven points. It’s 14-0 at the half. You’ve got things back under control.

THAT’S the storyline that matters from Saturday’s game. Not the 400 yards of total offense, not the three touchdown passes by Jimmy Clausen, not even the explosive emergence of Robert Hughes or the always-gratifying Senior Day win. For once, this team showed a bit of resiliency: they didn’t let themselves get overwhelmed when things went badly. And say what you will about the quality of their opponent, but a 28-7 win (which could very well have been more like 42-0 if not for mental mistakes and bad calls) is a 28-7 win. Suddenly the future looks a lot brighter.

A few numbers to take away from the game:

  • Hughes (17 carries for 110 net yards, and a reception for another 13) obviously earned that game ball, though Armando Allen (nine rushes for 43 yards, and two receptions for 17) and James Aldridge (eight carries for 28 yards, plus a catch for another seven) had solid days as well. One of the biggest challenges facing Charlie Weis (or whoever is calling the plays) in 2008 will be finding a way to get enough carries for each of his three horsemen, together with throwing enough balls in the direction of Duval Kamara, George West, Robby Parris, and Golden Tate, not to mention David Grimes, Will Yeatman, Mike Ragone, and Michael Floyd. The talent is there; I imagine they’ll enjoy letting the spotlight fall where it may.
  • Clausen’s numbers (16-of-32 for 194 yards and three touchdowns) don’t speak to how well he played, especially given that at least four or five catchable balls were dropped. He also showed some good presence in the pocket, and did a good job of avoiding pressure, picking up 25 yards on his six scrambles.
  • The offensive line continued to show some signs of improvement, though pass protection was still a bit spotty at times. It was especially nice to see the screen game start to click.
  • Joe Brockington, David Bruton, Trevor Laws, and Darrin Walls each had a half-dozen tackles, and the defense on a whole played very well. This was the first time this year we saw freshmen Kerry Neal and Brian Smith both starting at the outside linebacker position, and they had quiet but solid days with three tackles a piece. Freshman Ian Williams getting his first start at the nose guard position, also played well, picking up three tackles and generally doing a good job of clogging up the middle.
  • The Irish possessed the ball for over 35 minutes, the first time all year they’ve really managed to control the clock - their previous high had been 32:02 against UCLA.

Finally, a few areas where a good deal of work is still needed:

  •  I’ve already mentioned the troubles in pass protection, as well as the dropped balls by the wide receivers. Clausen’s never going to be able to win those seven Heismans if his teammates don’t help him out.
  • While the Irish pass defense was largely sound, giving up only 138 total passing yards, there were still some blown coverages, and Duke could have picked up some more yardage if open receivers hadn’t been missed.
  • J.J. Jansen’s long-snapping was iffy once again, though Eric Maust made a remarkable play to bail him out and get the punt away under pressure.
  • Notre Dame continues to lack any semblance of consistency in the kicking game, as Brandon Walker missed his lone field goal attempt, from 30 yards out. It may have had something to do with the weather, but those are the kind of kicks you’ve got to make. It will be a shame if the Irish continue to cripple themselves by having to go for broke on fourth down instead of putting points on the board the cheap way.
  • Lastly, penalties were a problem once again: the Irish were whistled eleven times for 103 yards, after committing only nine penalties in their previous three games combined.

All in all, a solid day against an undermanned opponent. There should be plenty more of those in the future as this team continues to develop.

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.

Taking Stock, Part II: Identity crisis

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

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

Will the real Charlie Weis please stand up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsettled?

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personnel notes

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

With the Southern Cal (yeah, that’s what I said) game just a few days away, there’s a bunch of news to cover regarding depth chart moves, injury updates, and the like. I’m going to run down the highlights position-by-position, but for the quick version, see the summary below:

  • Running backs: First-string tailback James Aldridge suffered a high ankle sprain against BC and is officially listed as “doubtful” for Saturday’s game, and Michael Rothstein quotes Charlie Weis as saying that while Aldridge “intends to play this week,” “the odds of that happening aren’t that high.” Given that all season even players who have been described as “probable,” “game-time decisions,” or even “ready to go” haven’t ended up playing much if at all (think David Grimes, Dan Wenger, and Maurice Crum last week), I’d say there’s just about no chance that Aldridge ends up seeing the field, which is really bad news for the Irish. With the injury to Aldridge, former co-#2’s Travis Thomas, Armando Allen, Junior Jabbie, and Robert Hughes are now listed as co-#1’s on the new depth chart, with Aldridge’s name in italics. Here’s what Weis said about this in his Tuesday press conference: “Well, I think what we would not do this week, since this is USC, is just throw Robert (Hughes) in and Armando (Allen) in there right off the bat. I think that we would go a little heavier with Travis (Thomas) being involved in this mix, too, more than he has this year. I think that that would be part of that combination. I’m not saying by committee, but I think that he would probably take off some of the pressure of James, and obviously Robert and Armando would be much more involved.”
  • Wide receivers: David Grimes didn’t play against BC, but Weis said in his Tuesday presser that it sounds like Grimes has “a legitimate chance of playing” in the Southern Cal game: he “was close to being able to go on Saturday (vs. Boston College), but it’s always tough when you haven’t practiced all week long to try to go when you haven’t had a meaningful rep in practice.” Meanwhile, as Rothstein notes in his excellent breakdown of this week’s depth chart changes, Grimes is now listed behind Robby Parris at the “Z” receiver slot, and fellow former #1 George West is now behind freshman Duval Kamara at the “X” position. Golden Tate, meanwhile, is still listed as third string for the “Z” slot, and Weis made a helpful clarification in his presser as to why Tate didn’t play much on offense against BC, saying that it wasn’t because of injury: “That was because we were going to play a significant amount of no huddle in the game, and in the no huddle our outside receivers do not flip flop positions, so they need to know both outside positions both as the weak side receiver and the strong side receiver. And really at his experience level, you want him to be able to play one position. Not (put him in a position) where he has to know both the X and the F and know both right and left. That was not the type of game that you want a guy with very little experience to be involved in.”
  • Offensive line: As I noted earlier, Dan Wenger sat out his fourth straight game last week with a leg injury. But when asked about Wenger’s health on Tuesday, Weis was unambiguous (for once): “He’s back. I think I would list Tom (Bemenderfer) down there [as the backup at right guard], but I think if I needed a backup inside, Danny (Wenger) would be the first backup inside at all three positions. I know I only list him at one. I list him (Wenger) as the backup center but he’d probably go in first at right guard and he’d probably go in first at left guard, as well.” On the new depth chart, Wenger is in fact listed as the backup to both John Sullivan at center and Eric Olsen at right guard, with Bemenderfer listed as Mike Turkovich’s backup at the left guard slot. Weis also noted that Chris Stewart, who saw the first game action of his career against BC, has been working both at right tackle and at right guard in practice, though the former position is his primary responsibility. Finally, Rothstein notes that Matt Romine, who’s missed several games with a right elbow injury, was wearing a “slightly less bulky” brace on Tuesday. He’s still probably a ways away from being back, though.
  • Linebackers: I also noted that Maurice Crum sat out the BC game, because of a turf toe injury he suffered against UCLA. Weis described Crum, like Grimes, as having a “legitimate chance” of playing against SC, noting that he “is walking without a limp this week, and that’s a good thing.” But both Rothstein and Ben Ford note in their reports from Tuesday’s practice that Crum looked a bit slow, so it’s perhaps reasonable to think that his status may be up in the air. The new depth chart, meanwhile, lists Anthony Vernaglia, who had been a starter at outside linebacker until last week but saw time at ILB against UCLA as well as BC, as Crum’s backup, with freshman Brian Smith taking over Vernaglia’s position from last week as the backup to John Ryan, and Morrice Richardson now in Smith’s old position as the backup to Kerry Neal.
  • Cornerbacks: Thankfully there’s no injury news to report here, but there has been a little bit of shifting on the depth chart: Darrin Walls is now listed as a co-#1 with Ambrose Wooden at the left cornerback spot, and at RCB, former tailback Munir Prince - who as I noted before the BC game has been seeing more playing time recently - is now listed as a co-#2 with Raeshon McNeil, behind Terrail Lambert.

Okay, that’s all. Here’s a quick summary for anyone who might have been overwhelmed by all that text:

  • James Aldridge is injured and probably won’t play against Southern Cal. Travis Thomas will play a key role backing him up, together with freshmen Robert Hughes and Armando Allen.
  • David Grimes will probably be back for the SC game, though he is now listed at second string behind Robby Parris. George West has also been bumped to second string, by freshman Duval Kamara. Golden Tate is not injured.
  • Dan Wenger is healthy and back on the offensive line, listed as a backup at two positions (center and right guard). Tom Bemenderfer is the backup at the other guard position.
  • Maurice Crum has reportedly looked a little slow in practice, so it’s fair to say that his status for Saturday may be uncertain. Anthony Vernaglia is now listed as his backup, with Brian Smith taking over Vernaglia’s spot from last week as the backup to John Ryan and Morrice Richardson taking Smith’s spot behind Kerry Neal.
  • Ambrose Wooden is now listed as a co-#1 with Darrin Walls at one cornerback slot, and Munir Prince as the co-#2 with Raeshon McNeil at the other.

That’s it! I’ll be back tomorrow with some analysis of the team’s depth along the offensive line, pre- and post- the departure of Matt Carufel.

It’s the execution, stupid.

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop beating yourself.

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

The first half:

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

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

The second half:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Youth Movement

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

Against Purdue last Saturday, true freshmen and sophomores accounted for 48 of Notre Dame’s 71 rushing yards (67.6% - sacks not included) and 268 of their 377 receiving yards (71.1%). This continued what has clearly been one of the stories of the season for the Irish: they start a true freshman at quarterback in Jimmy Clausen, and each of their three leading rushers (James Aldridge, Armando Allen, and Robert Hughes) and four of their six leading receivers (Robby Parris, George West, Duval Kamara, and Golden Tate) are just one or two years removed from high school. On the season, 362 of Notre Dame’s 391 rushing yards have come via true freshmen or sophomores, as have 582 of their 822 total receiving yards - numbers good for 91.2% and 70.8% of the team’s offensive output in those categories.

How do these numbers stack up to other Division I programs, whether national championship contenders or teams in “rebuilding” mode? [NOTE: While I've done my best not to include redshirt sophomores in these statistics, I've probably made some mistakes somewhere. Where possible, I've also tried not to include sacks in the rushing totals, though that doesn't really work for teams with dual-threat quarterbacks.]

Let’s start with top-ranked LSU and USC. The Tigers start an upperclassman at quarterback in Matt Flynn, and while their #1 rusher is an upperclassmen, each of the five players who follow him in total rushing yardage are true freshmen or sophomores. Still, though, only 750 of LSU’s 1117 total rushing yards, or 67.14%, have come from underclassmen - much less than Notre Dame’s 91.2%. Meanwhile, among their receiving corps, LSU has only two underclassmen with more than 100 receiving yards on the season, and true freshmen and sophomores account for a total of 416 of their 1084 total receiving yards, or 38.4%.

USC, meanwhile, also starts an upperclassman at quarterback, but four of their five leading rushers are true underclassmen. On the whole, true freshmen or sophomores account for 71.2% of USC’s rushing yards, still far less than the percentage for Notre Dame. Only two Trojan underclassmen have 99 or more receiving yards, though, and underclassmen account for only 330 of 898, or 36.8%, of their total receiving yards.

It also seems worth looking at a few other programs with third-year coaches. One such team is the Florida Gators, who start a true sophomore at quarterback in Tim Tebow. Tebow is also the team’s leading rusher, and fellow sophomore Percy Harvin leads the team in receiving yards and is also their third-leading rusher. But on the whole, the Gators’ offense is still much less dependent on underclassmen than Notre Dame’s: 71.4% of their rushing yards come from true freshmen or sophomores, to go with 53.6% of their receiving yards.

The Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois are also in their third year under head coach Ron Zook. They start a true sophomore at quarterback in Juice Williams, but three of their four leading rushers - Williams is #2 - are upperclassmen, and underclassmen have accounted for only 267 of their 1278 rushing yards (20.9%) so far this season. Meanwhile, the leading receiver for the Illini is freshman Arrelious Benn, with 286 yards on the season, but overall their underclassmen have accounted for only 55.6% (438 of 787) of Illinois’s receiving yards.

Finally, let’s take a look at the University of Washington, in their third year under former Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham. The Huskies start a true sophomore at quarterback in Jake Locker, and he is also the team’s leading rusher. But Locker is the only UW underclassman with substantial rushing yardage, and true freshman and sophomores have accounted for 503 of the Huskies’ 804 yards on the ground so far, or 62.6%. Moreover, all of Washington’s top receivers are upperclassmen: true freshmen and sophomores have only 17 receiving yards so far this year for UW, a mere 1.97% of their 861 total.

Here’s a chart detailing those statistics:


What these numbers make clear is that Notre Dame’s offense is MUCH more reliant on true freshmen and sophomores than other programs. Moreover, the fact that the Irish have fallen behind in each of their games so far this year means that very few of these numbers are based on performance in “mop-up duty”: ND’s depth chart lists a true freshman or sophomore at either first- or second-string for every offensive position except center. Thus far this year, a huge portion of the offensive burden has been placed on players only one or two years removed from high school - and judging by how things have gone, there is no reason to think this state of affairs won’t become even more pronounced as the year goes on.

None of this is meant to excuse an 0-5 start that is the worst in Notre Dame’s history. This team has underperformed, and they have no-one but themselves to blame for that. But comparisons like this certainly help to put things in perspective.