Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades | by Pat

A look back at Saturday's game.

QB - Giving a grade on this one really depends on if you want to take the short view or the long view on things. On one hand, Quinn still looked a bit off with his receivers. At times passes were thrown too short, too long, to the wrong shoulder, or to the wrong team. Inconsistent would be an apt adjective. But in the greater scheme of things, there are plenty of reasons to think of better times ahead.

The way that Quinn settled down after MSU took its biggest lead of the game and executed a perfect 8 for 8 touchdown drive showed great maturity. Also, the arm strength he showed on some of those 3rd and long throws - especially the out to Stovall while avoiding the rush - was extremely impressive. Sure the career marks don't mean much when they coencide with a loss and a bit more accuracy on the deep ball would be nice, but there is no denying that he is a vastly improved quarterback from the one we saw last year. The best part is that he still has nearly half of his college elibility left.

RB - Not a banner day running the ball, due mainly to the aggressive and successful play of the Spartan defense. Still, it was nice to see Walker still running hard in the 4th quarter when the defense appeared to tire a bit. Hopefully Coach Haywood reminds Walker that in certain time management situations, it's better to take a yard or two loss rather than get out of bounds. At the end of the first half, Walker angled for the sideline which stopped the clock and enabled MSU to keep enough time on the clock to score before the half.

The no-show of Rashon Powers-Neal was a bit surprising, but I wouldn't read too much into it just yet. Schwapp had a bit of a "welcome to college ball" game and I'm sure will hear about his decision to reach with the ball on the goal line on 1st down. The play where he was stuffed for no gain on 4th and 1 was a miscommunication apparently, so I can't fault him for running into an unblocked linebacker. (Looking back, ND twice ran a option play where Schwapp took the dive up the middle while Quinn and Walker rolled left. It seemed those two plays were setting up the 4th and 1 where Quinn would fake the inside handoff to Schwapp and roll out with Walker with nothing but plenty of open field in front of them. A nice look at Weis using certain plays to set up others. Problem is, Walker ran one way while while Quinn seemed to be ready to go the other. I'm not trying to point the blame finger, just commenting that giving the ball to Schwapp probably wasn't the preferred option on that play.) However, Schwapp still looks effective blocking, so I imagine he'll still see plenty of playing time, goal line fumble and all. Travis Thomas logged his second straight DNP-CD. Hopefully the matchup with the Huskies will result in plenty of PT for everyone.

WR - The first game without Rhema McKnight and the receivers still looked pretty good. Most of that can attributed to the full-time return of Matt Shelton, who looked great. I don't recall seeing ND try to hit Shelton over the top, but rather the Irish seemed to use his speed and quickness on short outs and slants. I'd imagine eventually those quick outs will turn into out and ups as the defense tries to cheat in and jump the short route. Samardzija is on a record-setting pace and just seems to have a knack to find the holes in the zone. Brady's confidence in him is soaring right now, as it should be.

Stovall finally broke out, but like Brady, did so in an uneven fashion. From my nosebleed seats in the stands I was able to watch him more than the TV cameras allow and he really was open all game long. He still needs to use his size a bit better to fight off smaller corners for the ball, but he looks much better than he did last year. Getting back to Shelton for a second, his injury/cramp in the 4th quarter gave us another glimpse of how Weis' bold approach to play calling. David Grimes came into the game to replace Shelton and Weis immediately called the freshman's number on the very next play. It was Grimes' first career reception and you could tell that the Spartans certainly didn't expect him to be the target. To his credit, Grimes made a great catch and looked pretty fluid turning up field and getting the first down.

TE - I don't think I've ever seen a football player flip over as many times in a game as Anthony Fasano does. He's one of the few offensive guys that hits the defender as hard as they hit him. Each one of his receptions seems to end in a collision worthy of a Driver's Ed "Blood on the Highway" film. And yet he pops back up ready to do it all over again. On the whole, the tight ends had a bit more trouble this week blocking the large MSU defensive line, but that isn't terribly surprising considering that even the ends at MSU check in around 300lbs. Kudos to Marcus Freeman, who's name hasn't been called over the PA yet this year, but really has been doing a solid job keeping linebackers and lineman off Quinn and Walker.

OL - Five false start penalties are never a good thing, but it should be noted that the first two weren't exactly Notre Dame's fault. The Irish did a legal, quick shift of the tight ends hoping it would draw the Spartan defense offsides. The Spartans did jump and the ND OL reacted before the Spartans could get out of the neutral zone. But both were blown as false starts against the Irish. Coach Weis mentioned in his press conference that he told the officials he was going to do this formation shift before the game and yet they still flagged the Irish, much to Weis' chagrin. It will be interesting if Weis is stubborn and continues to use this shift or if he will drop it since the average college official doesn't seem to be too worried about the details. (Sorry, pet peeve. Since they started announcing the number of the offending lineman, is it too hard to get the number right? There are only five of them out there and #64 ain't one of them.)

As for the blocking, there were a few more missed blocks on Saturday than in the first two games and MSU's most hirsute lineman, Domata Peko, seemed to be in the backfield an awful lot. Credit of course to the Spartan linemen for playing a good game, but I hope the Irish line gets back to the attacking mentality they showed in the first two games.

DL - Continuing a theme, the Irish line just didn't seem to have the necessary push, especially early in the game. Stanton had enough time to spread out a picnic on a few plays, which makes covering all the receivers nearly impossible. All four starting lineman did have season highs in tackles, but the stats are a bit deceiving I would say. Perhaps they were trying more to contain Stanton than make a mad dash at him and leave plenty of field for Crazy Legs to run, but even with a more conservative defense you don't want to give the QB all day to check off his receiving options.

They did improve as the game progressed, which is another testament to Reuben Mendoza's summer conditioning. Late in the game when the Spartans went conservative and tried to run out the clock they were consistently stuffed. The three Spartan rushes for -1 yard in the shadow of their own endzone near the end of the 4th quarter was inspired play by the Irish line. Still, it wasn't the best game by the Irish DL and improvement will be needed to compete with the likes of USC and Tennessee.

LB - Not too much to say on the linebackers. Hoyte was his usual team-leading tackler self. Need proof the defense is more aggresive this year? Hoyte already has as many tackles for loss this season (8.0) as he did all of last year. Mays was flying all over the place and had the key fumble recovery late in the 4th quarter. Crum continues to impress me. Hard to believe that Crum is only 3 games into his college career. Let's just hope that he's able to stay at the Apache position, where he seems comfortable and effective and isn't forced to move around to fill depth holes in other positions.

DB - Stanton had a pretty good day throwing the ball all over the field, but I don't think the secondary played an especially bad game. Both Zbikowski and Nduwke love to deliver the big hit, but their pass coverage still seems to let guys get behind from time to time. Teams seem to be picking on Zbikowski a bit. The first MSU touchdown to Matt Trannon was a great throw by Stanton to his 6'6" receiver, but it was also run right at TZ. Tommy might have still been a bit shaken up after MSU's center, Chris Morris, took a few liberties with Tommy's face and facemask at the bottom of the pile on the series' first play, but it looks as though Zbikowski just misplayed the ball to Trannon. I'll be interested to see how he plays in the future - especially since I predict more play-action thrown his way - as you never really want to coach your players to be less aggressive on the field.

Some will say that Nduwke is a linebacker playing free safety, but I think it's way too early to start moving him back to that position. He doesn't look like a natural ball hawk back there (paging David Bruton?) but I think he will keep improving. Let's just hope in the future he isn't tackled on an INT return by the fattest man on the field. I'm glad he did the interception (even if it was a forced pass on 3rd and long) to make up for the one that went right through his hands on the first play of MSU's second drive.

I think it's safe to say that Ambrose Wooden already has the Most Improved Player award locked up. He just seems to grow and improve every quarter he's out there. The tough hit on Jeremy Scott on 3rd and 22 in the 4th quarter was a great play we haven't seen all that often from an Irish cornerback. Richardson is playing much better than last year, but still seems a step too slow to react to poorly thrown passes that are prime interception candidates. Ferrine has been pretty quiet thus far as the nickel back, but that's not always a bad thing. Maybe the whole #15 jersey/burnt toast cornerback thing will end with him. One can hope anyways.

Special Teams - Still waiting for that big return. Hoskins has been close a few times, but the Spartans did a good job kicking into the endzone. Zbikowski seems to be taking the lead role as Irish punt returner. Bruton and Lambert continue to do a fantastic job covering the returner on punts. I'm telling you, watch them next time. They just fly down the field. The punt block on Fitzpatrick wasn't very encouraging as Mitchell Thomas let a blocker go right up the middle untouched, so hopefully those kind of mistakes will be coached out of the players. As for our kickoffs, it seems that Fitzpatrick is consistently getting more distance than Gioa (60.5 yards per vs. 55.8 yards) but they are still rotating. I'm guessing it's a move to save some of D.J.'s leg strength for field goals. Gioia does have two touchbacks so I know he can do it. He just needs to work on his technique and see if he can dial down the height a tad for a bit more distance. John Carlson did a great job forcing a fumble on a kickoff return, and is being rewarded with a special teams captain role for the game against Washington. That's the second straight week that the special teams captain title is given to the guy that forces a fumble on a kickoff/punt return.

The first loss is always tough and it is easy to point fingers and assign blame. But what I like is that improvment in multiple areas is already evident. As Coach Weis has said, you don't get medals for comebacks. But you can take the positives from the loss and build on them for the future. Even with the disappointing and emotionally draining loss, it appears the Notre Dame program is still pointed in the right direction.