Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Odds and Sods: Live Edition | by Mike

This one's going to be a little rough around the edges. Thirty-nine states in our great nation received the Notre Dame-Washington game Saturday. Your humble correspondent resides in one of the eleven benighted states that aired the Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech game instead. Thus I had no choice but to watch the game at a local sports bar. My observations this week reflect the fact that I had no sound, was peering through a forest of backwards hats, and couldn't tape the game to review certain plays. Feel free to chime in with any corrections.

Chemical warfare. During Willingham's time at Notre Dame, Irish fans witnessed a phemonenon that I came to term "forgo the links" games. These were games where, though expected to lose, Notre Dame would play with a fire and preparedness rarely seen during those years. Florida State 2002 and Michigan 2004 are examples. One suspected that the coaching staff had devoted far more time to motivation and gameplanning in the preceding week than they usually did. Saturday's game had every sign of being Willingham's latest forgo the links game. According to a Seattle Times article, Willingham's players noticed a difference.

Willingham insisted all week, however, that wasn't his main motivation, that the game meant no more to him than any other.

His players weren't fooled.

"There was a difference at practice last week," said cornerback Josh Okoebor. "We knew he wanted this game bad, and I feel real disappointed that we let him down because we really could have won. He's intense every week, but you could tell he had that extra oomph for this one."
Go. I continue to be pleased with Weis's willingness to go for it on fourth down, even though Notre Dame failed to convert on any of its three attempts against UW. As revealed in the South Bend Tribune, the party line on the fourth-down attempts related to problems in the kicking game.
Weis said that Fitzpatrick's difficulty kicking toward one end of Husky Stadium in pre-game factored into the decisions.

"We had a little problem in warm-ups kicking field goals into the open end over there," Weis said. "In hindsight, I probably would have just gone ahead and kicked the field goals anyway.

"That's why we went for it, in case you were wondering why we went for it on fourth downs. That's why we did that."
While successful conversions against the Huskies would obviously have been preferable, Weis's decision to attempt the conversion on seven occasions in the first four games bodes well. First, Weis's continued willingness to go for it on fourth down communicates to his players that he believes fourth down conversions are routine. The more confidence the players have in these critical situations, the better. Second, attempting the fourth down conversion puts considerable pressure on the opposing defense. After putting all their effort into getting that big third down stop, the defense finds out their work isn't done after all. Recall that Michigan's two biggest plays -- Manningham's touchdown and Avant's scamper to the 1-yard-line -- occurred on fourth down. I believe the offense usually has a psychological edge on fourth down. Third, in many situations the expected value of going for it is greater than punting. Finally, I dug the play call on the pass to Walker, even though the pass ultimately slipped from Darius's hands.

The Specials. Special teams against Washington were a mixed bag, but I suppose it's better to discover the kinks against the hapless Huskies than most of the teams on our schedule. Samardzija and long-snapper Scott Raridon didn't seem to be on the same page in the first half, leading to botched field goal and PAT attempts. With Samardzija being rather preoccupied with other business, perhaps we can entice Adam Tibble to return from med school and use his remaining eligibility.

As expected, Weis was able to take advantage of Washington's weak special teams. In the first quarter, Chase Anastasio came right up the middle to block a Husky punt. According to the Seattle Times:
[Anastasio] said coach Charlie Weis approached him during warmups and said the Huskies were ripe to have a punt blocked.
Ray. Ray Herring, whose serialized recruiting journal for Florida Today forever endeared him to Notre Dame Nation (if you missed it before, be sure to check it out now), saw his first collegiate action Saturday. Herring's special teams appearance brought the number of freshman who have seen playing time in the first four games to 10 out of last year's 15-member recruiting class.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn there is a connection between Weis's penchant for playing freshmen and this year's early recruiting returns.

Bullet on the chart. Willingham apologists - including a certain defenseless coordinator - have made much of the fact that Weis defeated Willingham with "Willingham's players." While Willingham recruits such as Quinn and Walker played critical roles in Saturday's game, many key positions on the depth chart are still occupied by players who committed to Bob Davie. Here's Saturday's official starting line-up, along with the head coach to whom they committed:

X 21 STOVALL - Willingham
LT 68 HARRIS, R. - Willingham
LG 50 SANTUCCI - Davie
C 76 MORTON - Davie
RT 73 LeVOIR - Davie
Y 88 FASANO - Davie
Z 83 SAMARDZIJA - Willinhgam
QB 10 QUINN, B. - Willingham
TE 87 FREEMAN - Davie
HB 3 WALKER - Willingham
LE 95 ABIAMIRI - Willingham
LT 98 LAWS - Willingham
RT 66 LANDRI - Davie
RE 75 FROME - Davie
WLB 39 HOYTE - Davie
MLB 46 MAYS - Davie
OLB 40 CRUM JR. - Willingham
LCB 22 WOODEN - Willingham
WS 18 NDUKWE - Willingham
SS 9 ZBIKOWSKI - Willingham
RCB 30 RICHARDSON - Willingham
 Over half the offensive starters and four starters on defense committed to Bob Davie. (While one can argue that, despite appearing on the first play, Marcus Freeman is not a true starter, he took the place of Rashon Powers-Neal, who also committed to Davie.) Thus, it is inaccurate to claim that Weis beat Willingham with the team Willingham "built." While Willingham did leave Weis some important pieces, such as the aforementioned Quinn and Walker, Davie in turn had left Willingham with sure-fire first-round-draft-choice Jeff Faine and first-round-draft-choice-under-any-other-coaching-regime Julius Jones. I reject John Saunders' canard that Weis inherited a better situation at Notre Dame than Willingham did.

Take it from the man. The secondary continues its "make a big play, lose a big play" play against the Huskies. (Is Terry Silver instructing them?) While Washington gained 227 of its yards on a mere five plays, Ndukwe and Wooden came up with huge plays in the red zone. Ndukwe ripped the ball free at the one and recovered the fumble, and Wooden made his first career interception in the endzone after a harried Stanback was flushed from the pocket. Four games into the season, the good plays have overcome the bad plays, but improvement will be needed to earn wins against our coming opponents.

What happened. With the season a quarter complete, we can look back at some of our previous games with the benefit of more context. Immediately after the Pitt game, Irish fans had to be happy with the 42-21 defeat of a ranked team. Then Pitt went out the next Friday and proceeded to drop an OT game to Ohio, 16-10. At this time, self-professed analysts throughout the media crowed about how little Notre Dame's victory over Pitt meant. When Pitt was gummed to death by a Callahan-led Cornhusker team, 7-6, the chorus only increased. While the Pitt victory has certainly lost a good deal of its luster, Notre Dame's offensive performance against Pitt remains impressive even in light of Pitt's collapse. While Wannstache destroyed Tyler Palko in remarkably quick fashion, he does appear to have improved the Pitt defense. In fact, in the three games Pitt has played since their thrashing at the hands of Notre Dame, they have given up exactly one offensive touchdown. Ohio netted a field goal and returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Nebraska's sole score came on a 39-yard drive, and Pitt shut out Youngstown State. While these defensive performances came against weak teams, this underscores how ruthlessly efficient Notre Dame's offense was against Pitt, scoring touchdowns on six of ND's first seven possessions before calling of the dogs.

In traditional Sparty fashion, one might have expected MSU to follow up its win at Notre Dame Stadium with a loss to the Zook-led Illini. Instead, MSU dropped 62 points on the former defensive coordinator. So far, MSU looks to be for real, rather than their typical rollercoaster year (such as beating Ohio State's best team in decades in a year they finished 6-6).

And that Michigan victory? Okay, they just suck right now, but the loss to Wisconsin did occur at Camp Randall rather than Ann Arbor. On a semi-related note, it would be a personal affront to Bo if Michigan were even to entertain firing Lloyd Carr any time soon, so Michigan shouldn't even think about it.

Soon forget. This weekend should represent the closing of a chapter in Irish football. While that certain subject couldn't be avoided in the lead-up to and review of this game, hopefully that distraction has passed. We're leaving behind, "Hold me, I'm Irish." Let someone else deal with, "Mold me, I'm a vicious animal."