Posts Tagged ‘Tom Zbikowski’

Eff the AP

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

The 2007 Associated Press football All-America teams were announced on Tuesday, and guess what? Notre Dame’s Trevor Laws, who led the nation in tackles from the defensive line positions (and was the only defensive lineman ranked in the top 100, let alone the top 50), isn’t on the first team. No surprise there, though: that sort of honor doesn’t go to a relatively unknown player from a 3-9 football team, even if that team does happen to be Notre Dame. But most of us figured that his spectacular numbers and consistently solid performance on an undertalented defense would land him SOME sort of All-America status: and so what’s genuinely shocking is that Trevor is NOWHERE to be found on ANY of the three All-America teams.

[UPDATE: He's also not a first- or second-teamer, nor is he even one of the NINE defensive linemen who receives an honorable mention, on the Sports Illustrated AA list. So eff them, too.]

To give you a sense of the craziness of this, here’s a comparison of Laws’s 2007 statistics with the players who made the AP’s AA squads over him - I’ve included both defensive ends and defensive tackles (first-teamers in yellow, seconds in green, thirds in blue), since Laws played a sort of “tweener” role in the 3-4:

So there you have it folks. If the fiasco of last year’s Heisman “race” wasn’t enough for you, here’s some hard evidence that postseason awards are MEANINGLESS indicators of the quality of one’s on-the-field play.

Lest I be accused of being just another whiny homer making a case for his own guy, let me be clear that I felt very much the same way - and seem to recall saying as much - when Tom Zbikowski was named a second-team All-American after the 2006 season. That was all about hype and name recognition, and had basically nothing to do with what Zibby had and (mostly) hadn’t done on the football field that year. Is the snubbing of Laws a matter of just desserts for the overexposure of Notre Dame football in years past? Maybe. But it’s really a shame to see a season like the one that Trevor had this year go so wholly unnoticed on the national scene, ESPECIALLY given the less-than-ideal circumstances (you know, 3-9 record, historically awful offensive ineptitude, and so on) that surrounded it.

Congratulations to all the guys who made the AA teams. Obviously they had really good seasons, and deserved some serious recognition. It’s just a shame that Laws wasn’t able to get his due.

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!

Let’s start moving forward now.

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

My Stanford recap is still in the works. In the meantime, I thought it was worth passing along this tidbit from the AP report on yesterday’s game:

As soon as the final whistle blew, the Notre Dame players gathered in the end zone to salute their fans and savor a season-ending victory.

The celebration continued in the locker room with multiple renditions of the school’s fight song and pictures for the departing seniors. The Fighting Irish managed to put a positive finish on the worst season ever for college football’s most storied team.


“When we were singing in there — and the last two games we didn’t even worry about our record, just that we were winning those games,” senior safety Tom Zbikowski said. “It feels good to get that feeling back of winning games.”

That’s exactly what you want to hear about a young team that’s trying to build for the future. There are no illusions, and there is no shortage of frustration, about the awfulness of a 3-9 season, but that doesn’t mean you have to hang your heads:

“It’s still 3-9. Let’s not kid ourselves,” [Charlie] Weis said. “But at least it’s 3-9 with two wins at the end of the year. Now all of a sudden, you’re going into the offseason winning the last game at home and then we go on the road and win our last game there. Let’s start moving forward now.”

Well said, Coach. The 2008 season begins today. 286 days ’til kickoff …

So much to be thankful for

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

A few days ago, Irish Envy member ‘littlerick77′ posted this story about taking his son to Notre Dame for the Duke game. It seemed worth sharing it with the wider community, especially since it’s Thanksgiving week. He’s allowing us to do that, and has also sent along a bunch of great pictures, which are included at the bottom - click on the thumbnails to get a larger view of them. Enjoy! -John

For those of you who don’t know, my son David has been battling a very aggressive form of childhood lung cancer called pleuropulmonary blastoma since he was two. He has had many treatments/surgeries over the years and he is now eight years old. However, his cancer has recently returned and is spreading at a rapid rate. We had planned our trip to Notre Dame four months ago before any of this occurred.

His third grade teacher knows how much he loves ND and she was talking to her husband about David. Her husband (who is Michigan alum) made a bunch of calls to friends and connections to people at the university and told them of David’s situation.

I can’t tell you how much more I believe in the Notre Dame “spirit and family” philosophy after this weekend. It was such an incredible experience, led by the ND Fire Department (specifically, Fire Chief Antonucci) who spent the time to get to know David in a short amount of time and had all of his staff make sure David had the best time possible!

Our first day started by meeting Coach Weis, Zibby (David’s favorite player), Jimmy, Evan and Armando at Thursday’s practice. Chad Klunder, who is the Director of Football Operations, was such a great host to us, walking us around, giving David souvenirs and making sure he was enjoying himself. He also set us up with pre-game field passes and upgraded our game tickets.

We got to go to the luncheon on Friday, where David was called up to the stage by Coach Weis - David was a little nervous, but later told me that was the favorite part of his day! We also got a tour of the locker room where David got a picture with Zibby’s helmet in front of his locker. We were also very fortunate to meet Father Jenkins, who was a very nice man. We ended the day going to the pep rally later that night.

Game day was awesome - obviously because of the win, but more importantly because it was David’s first ND home game experience and he loved every moment of it! Even though it got a little cold out there, he wanted to stick it out and enjoy it. We did end up catching the last few minutes of the game with the Chief in the press box.

To me, it was just very touching to have so many people go out of their way and take time out of their schedules to give a wonderful experience to a little boy they had never met before. That is why I love Notre Dame so much: the people, the culture, the love they have for their own - it all came together in one full weekend to show that ND loves David as much as David loves ND. No matter what happens down the road, I know this past weekend gave me the greatest memories I could ever share with my son - THANK YOU TO ALL THE STAFF, PLAYERS, COACHES, AND EVERYONE ASSOCIATED WITH NOTRE DAME FOR ALL YOU DID FOR US!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

GO IRISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

20 questions from the Duke game

Saturday, November 17th, 2007

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

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

Ugly handful

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

Speaking to the media after Notre Dame’s loss to Boston College three-and-a-half weeks ago, Irish head coach Charlie Weis went over six plays that he thought showed “the difference between winning and losing” (John’s insanely lengthy riff on the same theme can be found here). In a similar vein, here are five plays from last Saturday’s loss to Navy that do the same.

1. The facemask call.

Situation: 3rd-and-8 at the Notre Dame 22-yard line. Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada rushes for two yards and is enveloped by three or four tacklers after his pitch-out option is covered. As he is being brought down, Joe Brockington catches him by the facemask and is called for a ten-yard facemask penalty. Rather than forcing Navy to try to convert a 4th-and-6 or attempt a 38-yard field goal, they are able to methodically cut through the red zone and score a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.

Analysis: This one may have been the least brutal of these mistakes, but it hurts in a situation where the Irish defense had a real shot at making one of those key stops that was needed if they were to beat Navy. The frustrating thing about it was that Brockington wasn’t the only tackler, and using that extra hand was certainly not necessary when you have two other defenders on the runner and he is already a lot smaller than you.

Alternative outcome: Notre Dame stops Kaipo and Navy has to face a fourth-down-and-long situation. There is a chance the Midshipmen might have tried to go for it, given ND’s offensive production this year (or lack thereof), but as early as it was in the game it would seem the smart decision would have been to line up and try to kick a field goal. Either way the odds are likely that the score would have stood at 7-0 or 7-3 as opposed to 7-7 at the end of that drive.

2. The missed field goal.

Situation: It’s the third quarter, and Notre Dame leads 21-20 thanks to a missed extra point attempt. The Irish been driving steadily down the field, thanks to a huge dose of James Aldridge. But Evan Sharpley misfires on two consecutive passes, and the drive grinds to a halt at the Navy 23-yard line. But Brandon Walker misses wide right on his field goal attempt, and the Irish fail to extend their lead.

Analysis: The trouble is that the field goal was only the tip of the iceberg. Notre Dame had been running the ball very successfully, so it almost made sense to not bother throwing it at all (a point John raised in his initial post after the game). It’s possible, however, that Aldridge was winded, and Armando Allen had rushed for no gain on first down. Sharpley, as always, was a bit inaccurate, and two incompletions later the Irish have to kick or go for it. In my mind it was probably this kick, more so than the missed practice attempts during halftime, that convinced Charlie Weis that ND needed a few more yards at the end of the game. The lack of a consistent kicking game has been a plague for far too long at college football’s greatest institution. The Irish have to be able to find a consistent, good kicker.

Alternative outcome: Walker makes the field goal and extends the lead to 24-20. Nothing spectacular, though it would have made it impossible for Navy to go up by seven with a touchdown and a two-point conversion (see “The fumble,” below): the real reason to highlight this play is because of how ND killed the drive. It’s been a while since the Irish could count on the three points as most teams do, and right now they really need the kind of kicker who is going to be either number one or two on the team in terms of points at the end of the year.

3. The fumble.

Situation: Notre Dame is on its second play of the series, at its own 29-yard line. Three Navy players make it into the backfield and as two of them turn Sharpley into a human sandwich, Chris Kuhar-Pitters forces a fumble and returns it to the ND end zone for an easy six points. After Kaheaku-Enhada converts the ensuing two-point conversion attempt, the Midshipmen find themselves up by a score of 28-21.

Analysis: People that were complaining about Jimmy Clausen, eat your hearts out. In fairness the blitz seemed to have come mostly from Evan’s blindside, but once it is obvious you are going to take the sack, you have to tuck the ball and just go down. Kuhar-Pitters saw the throwing arm flailing out there and took advantage. In a game that was going to be determined by long drives and few turnovers, this is a huge game-killer.

Alternative outcome: Notre Dame was up 21-20 at this point and had the opportunity to move down the field and get a touchdown, having done so on three of their first five drives. Weis probably would have elected to go for seven as opposed to trying to make it a two-score game (no guarantee, as he is the biggest river-boat gambler out there - pun intended), but in any case there was the potential to make it a two-score game at 29-20 or at least make it more difficult for Navy to catch up at 28-20.

4. The sack.

Situation: Notre Dame has excellent field position, after an excellent Tom Zbikowski punt return to the Navy 38-yard line. Facing 4th-and-8 at the Navy 24, Weis elects to go for the first down as opposed to attempting the field goal. Kuhar-Pitters comes flying around the left side of the line and makes a spectacular play by leaping over Armando Allen to sack Sharpley. Navy’s ball.

Analysis: This one is a tough one to try to lay any definitive blame. Was it a poor coaching decision to go for the touchdown with 2:01 left? Tough to say since the Irish while hadn’t been able to stop Navy, they do rely on long, sustained drives and - as the ensuing three-and-out made clear - moving the length of the field in two minutes is tough to accomplish with their playbook. So suppose we leave that issue aside. Was it poor blocking? Weis has already said that Allen is not the best blocker among ND’s backs, and that’s fair since he is build to be a speedster, not a big obstacle. Moreover, the leap itself was a spectacular play, very Lavar Arrington. The one good thing to take away from the play might be that the Irish offensive line picked up every other player pretty well (something that frankly wouldn’t have happened earlier in the year, as we may have seen more of a jailbreak), and that it took a great play by a defender to make the stop. What is not fun about the play is the missed call on the facemask: it should have been a penalty to give the Irish a first down, but in that situation you can’t rely on refs to win the game for you.

Alternate outcome: The Irish had excellent position, so if they had got the first down it’s probable that they would have scored one way or another and eaten up enough time to make a Navy score unlikely. Best outcome is that ND scores a touchdown or kicks a field goal and eats up about 40 more seconds in the process, leaving Navy only a little over a minute to try to tie the game. Worst outcome, ND fails to score, and Navy still has very little time to try to take the lead. This was obviously the toughest play of the entire game, and in my opinion was what did the Irish in.

5. The failed two-point conversion.

Situation: In the third overtime, Notre Dame scores the touchdown and is forced to attempt a two-point conversion per NCAA rules. ND brings in their “goal-line back” in Travis Thomas and attempts a running play. Frankly it’s tough to tell if the play was designed to run between the tackles or bounce it out to the right but Thomas was tackled for no gain and the Irish lose to Navy for the first time in over four decades.

Analysis: In my mind, this was the worst coaching decision of the game. While in years past it would be okay to rely on ND’s physical advantage along the line of scrimmage, we had already seen that this play wasn’t a sure thing earlier in the game, when the same play was run and Thomas had to make a second effort outside to score. It was painfully obvious what kind of play was going to be run as soon as #26 came in, so it wasn’t any sort of trickeration-gone-wrong. I am no coach, but it would have been great to fake the run and pass with him in, especially after the pass interference call on the previous play.

Alternative outcome: Not much to say here, except that the Irish would have had another shot at winning the game. Sometimes you lose, even to Navy. Kudos to them for putting themselves in a position to win, and hey - if Notre Dame is going to lose to anyone in any year, I would choose the Midshipmen over anyone else.

In conclusion, what we have here is another game that could have been won, multiple times. But at the end of the day it’s just another loss, and the Irish going to end the 2007 season with a maximum of four wins. There were positives to take from the game, such as an offense that actually seemed to be on the field and a much-improved showing on special teams (other than the ongoing troubles with the kicking game). This stage of the season is more about damage control and preparing for 2008, so in a way it was nice to see a competitive game even if the result was in the wrong column.

Young players are prone to making mistakes and even the (relatively) few that were made on Saturday were enough to sink the Irish against an efficient Navy squad. Let’s hope that ND starts to make offensive games like that more of a standard, and builds some overall consistency as a team. If the offense can muster performances like that against their final three opponents, the Irish will have a shot to end 2007 on a positive note.

Congratulations to the Midshipmen. I hope they enjoyed that day off; they certainly earned it.

-Jared

The Trevor Laws Heisman campaign begins … now

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

Yeah, we all know it’s not going to happen, at least not if the powers that be have their way, which will ensure that college football’s most prestigious individual award goes to either a quarterback or a tailback from now until eternity. But in this season of upset wins, devastating losses, broken booty fingers, and the like, and with many sportswriters talking about how wide-open the Heisman race is this year, it’s worth at least making the case for one guy whom nobody’s talking about at all.

Let’s start, as we are wont to do here at the Roundup, with the numbers. Here’s a comparison of Trevor Laws’s season-long statistics with those of the players recently named quarterfinalists for the Lott trophy (yes, Tom Zbikowski is one of them, and Big Trevor isn’t … don’t get me started), which “honors the college football Defensive IMPACT Player of the Year” - while it claims to factor in some sort of off-the-field component, the list of nominees is a virtual who’s-who of big-name defensive players, and so it’s instructive to see how Laws stacks up against them:

The two players highlighted in yellow are the defensive players getting (somewhat) serious attention in the Heisman race: LSU defensive end Glenn Dorsey (see here, here, and especially here for writers who’ve promoted him) and Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis (see here and here). By any reasonable measure, Laws looks to have been having a better defensive season than either of them: the only statistical categories he trails them in are sacks and - in the case of Laurinaitis - interceptions, and he’s nearly doubled Dorsey’s season-long tackle count. And yet, for all the talk about the media obsession with Notre Dame (and Zbikowski’s inclusion in the Lott award list is of course a shining example of this), when we look at the various Heisman polls (see here and here for a couple of examples), what we see are Dorsey and Laurinaitis often quite well-established in at least the “Also Receiving Votes” category, with Laws sharing the fate of the rest of his teammates.

Do I know that I’m pissing into the wind here? Of course I do. The Heisman Trophy - like all the rest of the postseason awards for which Laws won’t be in consideration - is determined by preseason hype and wins alone, as evidenced by the following (italicized numbers projected to 13-game season - click to enlarge):

Don’t despair, though. There’s something you can do. In case you’ve missed the commercials, this year YOU can help decide the Heisman winner! So head on over to Nissan’s Heisman Vote and make Big Trevor your write-in candidate. By my reckoning, the Roundup’s regular readership of a mere few hundred a day could easily get Laws onto the leaderboard, where Georgia Tech’s Tashard Choice currently occupies the bottom spot with just 169 ballots cast in his favor, good for less than 1% of the vote but still enough to get his name up there. (Heaven knows what would happen if the heavyweights *cough*BGS*cough* got behind this.) Together we can make a difference, and salvage one of the few bright spots from this wreck of a season.

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.

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.

Gameday news and notes (ND vs. BC)

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

Here are few updates on the Irish depth chart, and the health of ND’s various injured players, heading into this afternoon’s game against Boston College.

* * *

It was reported on the Web Thursday night, and yesterday the Chicago Tribune picked the story up: sophomore offensive lineman Matt Carufel, who started the past three games at right guard after classmate Dan Wenger went down with an injury and was listed to start again against Boston College, has been excused from the team for undisclosed personal reasons and will miss today’s game:

Irish guard Matt Carufel, who started the last three games, has returned home to Minnesota and is expected to decide on his future at Notre Dame by Sunday, the Tribune has learned.

Carufel has been excused from practices this week due to “personal reasons.” On Friday, Carufel was at his former high school in St. Paul, Cretin-Derham Hall, spoke extensively with assistant coach Andy Bishoff, and indicated that he may not return to the Irish.

“He’s struggling with if he’s going to stick around there or not,” Bishoff told the Tribune. “He just doesn’t know if he fit at Notre Dame like he thought he would.”

Carufel also could return to Notre Dame to finish out the semester. If Carufel decides not to return to the Irish, Bishoff said Minnesota and Iowa are two schools likely to be at the top of the list of potential destinations.

Apparently Carufel was absent from practice on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. His departure, together with the elbow injury (I am told it involves torn ligaments) that is going to keep freshman Matt Romine out for the foreseeable future and the obvious questions of whether Wenger’s leg is 100% healed, suddenly leaves the Irish almost paper-thin along the offensive line. Carufel’s backup on this week’s official depth chart (which I’ve already discussed at some length here) is fellow sophomore Eric Olsen, who had previously been listed behind Mike Turkovich on the other side of the line at left guard, and who has played in ever game except the loss to Michigan. Olsen saw the field by far the most of any of the backup offensive linemen through the first five games, so hopefully he’ll be ready to play.

But after that, the rest of the second string o-line consists of freshman Taylor Dever behind Sam Young at left tackle, junior transfer Thomas Bemenderfer behind Turkovich at left guard, Wenger behind fifth-year senior John Sullivan at center, and sophomore Chris Stewart behind Paul Duncan at right tackle. If Wenger is ready to go, it’s obviously not a stretch to see him splitting minutes with Olsen in Carufel’s place, since Sullivan essentially never leaves the field. Stewart and Dever, meanwhile, haven’t gotten into any games yet this year.

(It’s perhaps worth noting that the Notre Dame depth chart published in the South Bend Tribune this morning lists Stewart as the starter at right guard, with Olsen listed as backing up both Stewart and left guard Turkovich, and Bemenderfer as the backup center to Sullivan. Wenger, meanwhile, is completely absent from that chart, though Romine is listed as Duncan’s backup at right tackle. It’s hard to believe this chart is accurate, though, since there are also several other funny things about it, including Eric Maust listed ahead of Geoff Price as the team’s punter, and Anthony Vernaglia absent from the chart altogether.)

So obviously we’re not going to know for sure who’s going to play where until the game is underway, but I’d be surprised if what we see at the right guard position doesn’t primarily involve Olsen and/or Wenger, depending especially on the health of the latter (on which see below).

* * *

Up next, a couple of quick injury updates:

  • David Grimes, who ended up not dressing for the UCLA game because of an ankle injury suffered against Purdue, was back in practice this week, albeit with a heavily taped ankle. Watching Grimes on Wednesday, Ben Ford thought that he was “still having a little bit of trouble with the initial burst and explosion when he makes a break from a standing position.” Charlie Weis was quoted in Eric Hansen’s excellent column in today’s SBTrib as saying that Grimes hadn’t participated in any cutting drills this week, and that he would be a game-time decision, but that he “still doesn’t look full speed to me … If he doesn’t look close to full speed, then I just won’t play him.” My gut here says that we don’t see Grimes on the field today.
  • Meanwhile, I haven’t seen any reports of how Dan Wenger looked in practice this week, but an article from Wednesday’s SBTrib has this little nugget: “We’re finally getting him back on a more full-speed basis this week,” Weis said of Wenger. “He’s not automatically going to get thrown (into the right guard mix). He’s going to have to earn his way back out there.” It could be, in other words, is that the reason Wenger was made the backup to Sullivan on the depth chart for this week is that he’s not fully healthy, and less will be expected of him there because of how little Sullivan comes out of the game. But once again, I wouldn’t read into the fact that Wenger isn’t listed in the SBT depth chart, since they list Romine as a back-up, and Weis has said that he’s at least a few weeks away from returning.

* * *

Finally, one more personnel-related note. Pat at BGS noted earlier this week that sophomore Munir Prince, who was recruited as a tailback but made the switch to cornerback in the off-season, saw some playing time on defense against UCLA. A question in Michael Rothstein’s mailbag from this week picked up on this point:

I noticed late in the UCLA game when the Irish were on defense, Darrin Walls nor Raeshon McNeil were on the field. Is this because the Irish were running a prevent zone and those guys match up better in man-to-man, or did the coaches feel better with the more experienced dime lineup of (Terrail) Lambert, (Leo) Ferrine, (Ambrose) Wooden, (David) Bruton, Zibby but then there was (Munir) Prince, what gives? Thanks.
-Pete McLoughlin

Pete,
Honestly, we’re not sure. From the television view we had, we didn’t even notice the shift in this package and who was in. What we can tell you is we noticed Prince in the game a lot. It shows more than anything that the sophomore is finally adjusted to his move to cornerback. As for that package, we’ll take a good look this week when we’re back on site for games.

Anyway, just thought that was worth noting. That’s great for Munir, and hopefully he’ll continue to get on the field and play well the rest of the season.

[UPDATE: The always-insightful OCDomer has this to say, over at NDLNA:

I noticed Munir in at corner for stretches against UCLA. It seemed he was man-up on UCLA's best wide-out. Coach Weis has always said Munir was very fast. If he has developed his footwork at DB to the point that he is trusted to cover the fastest receivers on the other team, that's awesome. It means we shouldn't see the other team's speed burner running wide open down the field any more. It's also great for Munir. He's obviously been working very hard to learn the new position - hats off to him!

Good stuff.]

* * *

That’s all for today. Go Irish!