Sunday, September 18, 2005

Odds and Sods III | by Mike

Desultory reactions to yesterday's kick in the teeth:

...and my word. In a game filled with suprising events, none may have been more surprising than Charlie Weis's decision to go for it on 4th and 15 from the MSU 37 with 6:02 left in the first half. The Irish converted when a scrambling Brady Quinn hit Maurice Stovall at the sideline for a 17 yard gain. In addition to keeping a drive that ultimately produced a touchdown alive, the call sent a powerful signal to Weis's team.

Safety dance. In the first quarter, Chinedum Ndukwe attempted to jump the route on a Drew Stanton pass. If Ndukwe had hauled in the ball, he would have had a sure touchdown. Instead, the ball grazed by Ndukwe's fingertips and was taken for a big gain by the MSU receiver. This play foreshadowed Notre Dame's safety play throughout the game - toeing the line between making great plays for the Irish and giving up huge plays to the Spartans. Together, Ndukwe and Tom Zbikowski combined for an interception, a forced fumble that gave Notre Dame the opportunity to win the game at the end of regulation, and a fumble recovery that led to a touchdown. Obviously, these were all huge plays. However, the MSU staff appeared to detect weakness in the coverage ability of the Irish safeties and created a gameplan to attack this perceived weakness. Throughout the game, MSU used screens and other tactics to draw the Irish safeties out of position, creating opportunities for big plays in the passing game. As the season progresses, one of the key developments for Notre Dame will be whether Bill Lewis and Brian Polian can improve the coverage skills of the defensive backs while retaining their playmaking ability.

Run don't walk. After being held to 38 rushing yards in the first half, Darius Walker appeared to be a completely different running back in the second half, finishing the game with 116 yards. Part of his second-half improvement can be attributed to a tired MSU defense (ND had over a 10 minute advantage in time of possession) and running when MSU expected the pass, particularly on draws. However, the biggest change between halves was the decisiveness in Walker's runs. In the first half, he constantly danced while attempting to make the first man miss, allowing the rest of the Spartan defense to converge. In the second half, he followed his blockers and took the yardage his line created for him, rather than trying to create all his yardage on his own. It was quite refreshing to see such obvious results of halftime coaching from a position coach, though it came too late to prevent one of the biggest gaffes of the game - Walker not staying in bounds on 3rd down with a little over a minute left in the first half.

Sam. Jeff Samardzija caught three touchdowns Saturday, bringing his season total to five TD grabs. The single season Notre Dame record for touchdown receptions belongs to Derrick Mayes (11), followed by Jack Snow (9) and Jim Seymour (8). It seems quite likely that Samardzija will work his onto this list, and he certainly has a shot at the record.

McKnight moves. By the time Weis called the fake reverse pass to McKnight in the Pitt game it was clear that Charlie Weis was determined to find ways to get McKnight the ball in the open field. Heading into the season, I believed McKnight's ability to create separation in one-on-one coverage and his ability to gain yardage after the catch would be critical to Weis's passing game. When McKnight went down in the Michigan game, I wondered how our passing game would fare without him. Stovall (8-176-1), Samardzija (6-96-3), Fasano (7-93-0), and Shelton (6-87-0) all had big games in McKnight's absence. However, other than Samardzija's 31-yard touchdown, almost all of those yards came in the air. Some of this can be attributed to Quinn's passing, but we need a receiver to emerge who will scare defenses when he has the ball in his hands.

Teenage riot. The youth movement continues under Coach Weis. Congratulations to freshmen Steve Quinn and David Grimes. Quinn made his first appearance in a game for the Irish, bringing the number of freshmen to see playing time to nine (from last year's recruiting class of fifteen). Grimes had his first career reception, an 11 yard grab that helped set up Notre Dame's final touchdown.

Don't call it a comeback. What can be taken away from Notre Dame coming from 21 points down to tie the game before losing in overtime? Can anything be taken away from it? The message from South Bend is "no."

"Sometimes you feel good about yourself if you come back," [Weis] said, "but guess what, that's just not good enough."

"I don't really consider it a comeback. For me comebacks are when the team comes back to win the game," Irish running back Darius Walker said. "Nobody comes back to lose the game."
There are no moral victories in Notre Dame Stadium (despite Davie's attempt to construe the 2000 Nebraska game as such). Yet fans who witnessed the last three years did see something different in the way this year's team responded to being down. In the previous three years, the Irish found themselves down by more than a touchdown fourteen times. They came back to win just three times (after trailing Navy by 8 in the third quarter in 2002, in overtime after trailing Washington State by 19 at the half in 2003, and after trailing Michigan by 9 at the half in 2004) and to take the lead once (retaking the lead following a 24-6 deficit to Boston College before losing 27-25 in 2003). Far more often, once the Irish went down two scores, the wheels came off. And not just against USC, but also against teams like Syracuse and Purdue. In the end, a loss is still a loss, but the mental toughness the Irish displayed yesterday when down three touchdowns evinced a sea change in confidence, a confidence that should pay dividends in the win column in the future.

Dear mama. Watching MSU plant their "State" flag at midfield following the game was sickening. Not because such behavior is unexpected from MSU (Tai Brown on Line 1). Nor because the fault lies entirely with MSU. When we beat them, they can't plant the flag. (Though I still wouldn't have shed a tear had the flag bearers been put in their place). What was so disappointing was that Carl Grimes participated. After Saturday's article in the SBT, we expected more from Carl, but we're confident Janice Grimes will set him straight.

Out of the blue. Not that this has anything to do with Notre Dame football, but yesterday I got the sense that Ed Orgeron was not hired to be Ole Miss's coach by an athletic director. Rather, Ed Orgeron, Head Coach, was greenlit by the producers of Taradise.