Breaking down the ND/Michigan game, amateur-blog style.
QB - The first hint that Quinn was having an off day came when his 2nd pass of the game sailed over a wide open Jeff Samardzija during an otherwise flawless opening drive. It can certainly be argued that if beating #3 Michigan at Michigan with no turnovers is an "off day" then hopefully he will have 10 more. Still, I imagine Quinn will be working on quite a few snaps, both shotgun and under center, during practice this week. And while he did get sacked twice, his improved pocket mobility is still pretty impressive. Both sacks were from defensive back blitzes so for the second straight game no defensive lineman was able to come away with a sack.
RB - Once again the playbook called for Darius, Darius, and more Darius, as Walker danced and darted for over 100 yards. He also added 22 more receiving yards to bring his total on the year to 74 yards, which is exactly how many receiving yards he totaled in all of 2004. He did appear to tire a bit in the second half, but given the heat, his 26 rush attempts, and Michigan's physical defense that isn't surpising. Hopefully his fumble was an isolated incident. Schwapp continues to impress. I'd wager that back in the summer a prediction that he would be lining up wide against Michigan would have met much laughter, but that's what happened on at least one play. As a blocker he's very physical and as he refines his technique he's going to be a monster. He also almost ripped off a big run if not for a nice arm tackle by Gabe Watson.
WR - Obviously the injury to McKnight is the big story here. Not only is he a great weapon, his presence on the field also forces other teams to use their nickel back to try and defend Jeff Samardzija. If Rhema is out for a long duration, someone else on the receiving corps is going to have to step up. The obvious candidate is Maurice Stovall. He looks like he's in great shape and has the size to make plenty of big plays. It's time for him to take control during his last year. Hopefully Matt Shelton will be back to full strength soon to help stretch the defense and add more depth. Speaking of Samardzija, another game, another great endzone catch. It's catches like that that result in gaining your quarterback's confidence. One great thing I noticed again about the WRs is that they always get past the first down markers on 3rd down. No more 4 yards curls on 3rd and 5.
TE - I'm pretty sure I can just cut and paste week to week about Fasano's performance. Excellent run blocking and nice receptions on third down to keep the drive alive. He was expected to be a dominant force this year and so far is living up to the billing. I'm still hoping to see Carlson's size/speed combo at work over the middle of the field.
OL - Michigan's defensive line played them tough, but the OL held it together. The switching center routine did result in a fumble, but I think Morton was replaced due to injury so I can't complain about that too much. LeVoir is really impressing me so far. He had a solid 2004, but now is playing aggressively and is really taking it to the opposing lineman. I'm going to repeat this plenty of times, but the improvement across the board on this unit is perhaps the most satisfying part of this season. They are working well together and delivering the hit, rather than absorbing it.
DL - Great job getting pressure on Henne and getting their hands his passing lanes. One of the announcers mentioned that the Michigan OL outweighed the Irish DL by an average of 50 pounds. That sounds like a stat you hear when we play Navy. And yet the D-line was consistently able to shrink the pocket and force Henne to move around, which doesn't appear to be his strong suit. Not only is five batted down passes impressive, the surprising stat is that all four starting lineman contributed. When is the last time all four lineman batted down a pass in a single game? I'd wager it's been awhile. Ronald Talley played even more minutes and looks like a keeper. His emergence is really helping to offset the loss of Travis Leitko. I don't think there is one unit that is exceeding expectations more than the defensive line so far. After losing Tuck, Budinscak, and Pauly the line has used its speed to really disrupt opposing passing plays while still staying solid against the run. Kudos to Coach Oliver.
LB - Mays looks like he is shot out of a cannon on those linebacker blitzes out of the middle. Pure effort guy and a ton of fun to watch. And I think Michael Hart is still trying to figure out where he came from on that vicious hit near the end of the first quarter. Both Mays and Hoyte did a great job in pass coverage, especially late in the game on those impressive pass deflections. Once again the overall linebacker speed was impressive. Crum seems to do a good job in pass coverage, but I'm sure others on the team will let him know that he's now the only defensive starter without a pass breakup. I was surprised to see Scott Smith get in the game so early, but he took a pretty good angle on the Breaston reverse and got the tackle. We might see him more often if Mays keeps playing like a human battering ram.
DB - Some will say that Henne had a bad game on his own right, but I'd like to think the DB's helped a bit. Wooden had the play of the game. He hurt his arm on a tough tackle and then came back to race across the field in time to shove Avant out at the 1 yard line on a play that ended up saving a touchdown. He also had solid tackles on Michigan's big TE, Ecker, that limited his yards after catch. Zbikowski's goal line interception was the kind of clutch play that ND is going to need from its secondary if they want to keep winning big games. There seemed to be some miscommunication on the TD pass to Manningham, but I'll also give Michigan some credit for a nice play call on 4th and short. Nduwke wins the head-up award with his recovery of Henne's goal line fumble. Breaston did get behind the defense a few times, but luckily, like against NIU, he couldn't quite reel them in.
Special Teams - Special teams work is probably what won the game for Notre Dame. Everyone kept holding their breath waiting for that big, back-breaking Michigan kick/punt return, but it never happened. Because Fitzpatrick was able to get plenty of hang time on his punts, ND players had time to get down and contain Breaston. Also notable were Terrail Lambert and David Bruton, who were excellent as gunners on ND punts. Both avoided being jammed on the line and just pulled away from the opposing defender in the open field. One of Fitzpatrick's punts only covered 36 yards and yet Bruton was already there, ready to tackle Breaston as he caught the ball. Watch them the next time ND punts (hopefully not for awhile on Saturday). I'd also like to see Zibby more at punt returner. Granted Grimes hasn't really had a chance to show what he can do, but Zbikowski seems to have that knack for squeezing out an extra 5 yards on each return. We can probably thank his days as an option QB for that.
Sure there were misfires and certainly Weis has a laundry list of things to work on at practice this week, but the team came out strong, which is vitally important when playing a tough road game. Like at Pitt they scored on their opening drive, which shows definite improvement over a team that only notched two touchdowns last year on game opening drives (Navy, USC). The team has played with intensity and passion and that should only amplify this Saturday when they head back home for Charlie's home opener.
Monday, September 12, 2005
Breaking down the ND/Michigan game, amateur-blog style.