Sunday, December 31, 2006

It was Fifteen Years Ago Today | by Jay

I was but a senior in college, lost somewhere in the maze of the French Quarter on New Year's Eve.

I remember having driven down from St. Louis over Christmas break, and crashing with a dozen other buddies in a Travelodge that was across the river in a very shady part of town. I remember drinking hurricanes, and buying hand grenades from a vendor who had set up a makeshift bar in a first-story window on the street, and later that night, trying a couple of "whippets" from a guy who carried them in a wooden box with a strap around his shoulders, like the cigarette girls from the 1920s. I remember everywhere, people drinking in the streets, and dancing, and passing out, and Florida fans coming up to random Irishmen, doing a Gator "chomp" in their faces, and ND fans simply laughing and drinking some more. I remember two policemen sitting on the hood of their patrol car, chuckling at the debauchery moving past them, just watching it all go by. I remember standing with Brian and Alf and Scott in the courtyard of Pat O'Brien's knocking back hurricanes, sufficiently hammered and trying to figure out how they got a ring of fire to stay lit in the middle of a fountain. I remember jumping the line at Preservation Hall to join up with some friends, and getting asked to leave because we kept interrupting the music. I remember us trying to make our way to Jackson Square to catch the fireworks, and getting stuck in the crowds about a block away, and instead ducking into another bar for more drinks. I remember a hazy countdown, and someone spraying champagne, and kissing a girl at midnight whom I vaguely knew. I think she lived in Lyons.

I remember the Irish having no chance the next day, and I didn't care, because it was a new year, and I was young and drunk and in love, and I was surrounded by friends on Bourbon Street.

Praise the Lord, and Pass the Cheerios | by Jay

I see a lot of parallels between this year and the 1991 Notre Dame season. Both Irish teams were highly ranked to start the year; both stumbled in an early game against Michigan; both defenses were mediocre, with the defensive coordinator continually assailed (at the end of the year, defensive coordinator Gary Darnell left to take a job at Texas, and Holtz took over the defense himself for the bowl game). Both teams, despite disappointing seasons, were matched up in the Sugar Bowl against a much more highly-ranked opponent from the SEC, and a lot of people (a lot of the same people, probably) grumbled that the Irish didn't deserve an invitation. And in both cases, nobody -- I mean nobody -- gave the Irish a chance in hell of winning the game.

Here's an amusing piece of nostalgia that was posted over on IE: an article from the Miami Herald dated January 1, 1992.

Bob Rubin, Herald Sports Columnist

The multitude of orange and blue-clad Florida revelers and rowdies roaming Bourbon Street the past two nights, contrasted with the relative scarcity of its Notre Dame counterparts, suggests Florida will have a big edge in crowd support in the USF&G Sugar Bowl tonight at the Superdome. Make that another big edge. No, make that every big edge.

By any and all measures, psychologically and physically, Florida appears to enjoy superiority over Notre Dame. That should be exhilarating -- and just a tad worrisome -- to the Gators. You worry when it looks too easy.

Nevertheless, short of a major crap-out by Florida, it's hard to construct a scenario that ends with an Irish victory.

Notre Dame has a fine offense, but Florida's is finer, better balanced and more explosive, even with star tailback Errict Rhett not starting because of unexcused classroom absences. Willie McClendon, who will start in Rhett's place, is a heck of a runner, and Rhett will be available when and if he is needed.

He might not be needed against an Irish defense that has yielded a horrendous 112 points in its past three games. Notre Ame (no D) suffers from the two deadly I's, injuries and inexperience, and one of the two most glaring weaknesses is the defensive line. Teams have spread the Irish defense, then run up the gut. And run and run and run.

Notre Ame allowed an average of 204.8 yards rushing this season to rank 84th among 106 Division I-A teams. The Irish yielded 234 yards on the ground to Navy, 354 to Air Force and 326 to Hawaii in the last regular-season game.

Juggernauts those three ain't.

And while Florida's spectacular air game gets most of the public's attention, the Gators run nearly as often (49.5 percent) as they pass, and they usually run effectively.

The other glaring Irish defensive weakness is the lack of a pass rush. They recorded only 12 sacks. A strong veteran Florida offensive line yielded only 16 sacks in 390 pass attempts. Directing one of the nation's most innovative and sophisticated passing attacks, heady Gator quarterback Shane Matthews will strip a defense to bone if he has time. Notre Dame does have a fine secondary, but even the best will get toasted if there's no rush up front.

Notre Dame's defensive collapse led to the departure of coordinator Gary Darnell (ex-Gator assistant and interim head coach) for Texas -- voluntary, Notre Dame insists -- and the assumption of his duties by Coach Lou Holtz.

Holtz defends Darnell as "an excellent coach and beautiful person," but concedes, "things just didn't come together" with him in charge. Holtz, who normally deals only with the offense, has cracked the whip in a semi-desperate attempt to staunch the bleeding, but he doesn't know how much it will help -- if at all.

"You usually go through three stages in a situation like this," he said. "First, the players are intimidated. Then they're frustrated -- I can wear thin on people in a hurry, especially defensive linemen and backs, but I think we handled the mutiny well. Finally, they're motivated."

But are they? Asked if anyone has stepped forward on defense to assume a leadership role, Holtz replied, "The problem is when I take one step forward, they take two back. . . . But we must, we must show up on defense. If not, I think you'll enjoy the halftime scrimmage we've planned."

The classic way to overcome defensive woes is to play ball control and keep the defense off the field. Notre Dame runs well, averaging 269.1 yards per game. But Florida has defended against the run well, yielding an average of 100.3 yards but only 78.8 over its past eight games, and just 37 on 26 rushes against Florida State in the regular-season finale.

Gator Coach Steve Spurrier calls tackles Brad Culpepper and Tony McCoy the best tandem in the country, and Notre Dame doesn't dispute it. It's awfully tough to run inside against them. Look for Notre Dame to expand its limited use of the option because the Gators couldn't stop it against Syracuse, the only team to beat them. But the Irish aren't a true option team, as was Syracuse, and you can't become one in the limited time you have to prepare for a bowl.

Moving from the X's and O's to the intangibles, there's a joke making the rounds: What's the difference between Notre Dame and Cheerios? Answer: Cheerios belong in a bowl.

The Irish, 8-3 with losses in two of their past three games and a scare against Hawaii, earned a Sugar Bowl bid not on their record or performance, but on their name and ability to attract a large TV audience. They come into the game without much confidence or motivation. They have nothing at stake except a chance to end a disappointing season on an up note and regain a measure of lost pride -- basically, to prove they're not as bad as they've looked the past three games.

In contrast, the Gators come in on a terrific high from their first Southeastern Conference championship and that stirring victory over Florida State. A victory over Notre Dame would complete the greatest season in Florida football history and, pending the outcome of the Rose and Orange bowls, preserve their admittedly long-shot chance to emerge national champion.

Offense, defense, intangibles, fan support. Every way you look at it, the advantage goes to Florida. In the past, you'd say this is precisely the time the Gators find a way to screw it up, but these Gators are different. They don't gag when the opportunity for greatness arises.

They won't tonight. Make it Florida 31, Notre Dame 17.
Let's hope the parallels continue to hold true.

No Rest for the Awesome | by Pat

Earlier we noted the Irish doing a little community outreach in the New Orleans area. The LSU team also pitched in on a service project. Well, most of them, anyway.

SNOOZE, YOU LOSE: Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe said he is trying to take advantage of some extracurricular activities while in New Orleans, but that the physical demands of football are preventing him from doing so.

The latest was a Friday trip Coach Les Miles and many players made to a Habitat for Humanity rebuilding site.

"I meant to go, and then I get back to the room and laid down, and the next thing I know it's 9 o'clock," Bowe said. "I catch the TDs on Saturday and make you cheer and all, but you have no idea how tired you get with football."

When punters go missing.... | by Pat

...there is only one man to turn to.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

ND in N'awlins | by Pat

The Fighting Irish arrived in New Orleans on Wednesday, but their entrance was slightly more subdued than the parade into town enjoyed by their LSU counterparts. The Advocate has the scoop.

The Fighting Irish actually slipped into town under radar Wednesday night, then took part in a low-key Hurricane Katrina-related community service project before dropping by the New Orleans Saints practice facility to lift weights and run.

Later in the afternoon, after concluding practice in Baton Rouge, the Tigers’ caravan of buses, led by a police escort, rolled into downtown as a brass band played "Hold That Tiger" and a few dozen fans cheered and got autographs.

Of course, that doesn't mean there wasn't any fanfare for the visiting Irish. has video of the team greeted by a brass band and Sugar Bowl officials in the lobby of the team hotel. Of course, they weren't on their way in, but rather on their way out to participate in a community service project at the Hope Haven Center, run by Catholic Charities. Weis explained the rationale for the midday work.
“We’re going to go do some community service,” Weis said. “We’re not doing it as a P.R. move. I think it’s really important for our players, given what our university stands for, to get a feel for how devastated this area really was.” also has a short video on the service project. If you are planning on being in the New Orleans area for the Sugar Bowl, the New Orleans ND alumni club will be continuing the service work at the Hope Haven Center on both January 1st and 2nd. Check their website for more details.

After the team finished the service project and practice at the New Orleans Saints practice facility was over, the players were able to enjoy a bit more freedom than last year's Fiesta Bowl, when Weis kept the team under rather tight lock and key. Both as a treat to the senior-laden team and as another sign that Weis is looking for ways to keep the team loose before the big game, Weis admitted he was easing up on the players.
“I’m giving them a lot more free time and hopefully they’ll stay out of trouble in the French Quarter,” Weis said. “I think part of being in New Orleans is the experience of being in New Orleans. I don’t think you can come down and have it be all work and no play because then you really don’t get rewarded for the fact that you made it to a BCS game.”
With only the team captains as chaperones, the players hit up the French Quarter, which elicited this understatement of the year from Brady Quinn.
“We went to the French Quarter and looked around. We’re not used to that type of environment. We just wanted to see what Bourbon Street and some of the other places had to offer. It was different. This definitely isn’t South Bend. It was fun. There’s a lot of culture here.”
Of course, it seems not all had fun during their trip as pickpocket rumors followed the players after a Thursday night trip to the French Quarter.

On Friday, the Irish practiced in the Super Dome for the first time. As always the practice recap, along with Charlie's latest presser and a practice photo gallery, is up on

Friday, December 29, 2006

Swamp Stories | by Jay

The Baton Rouge Advocate is doing a bang-up job on their Sugar Bowl coverage. They've got a great series on the ND-LSU matchups of yore, with capsules on all nine games between the Irish and the Bayou Bengals (ND leads the series, 5-4).

They also put up a couple of nice in-depth articles on two of the most memorable tilts, in 1970 and 1971. Both are great reads. Here are some excerpts from the piece on the 3-0 Irish victory at South Bend in 1970:

Joe Theismann was a senior quarterback in 1970 when he led Notre Dame to a 3-0 victory over LSU in South Bend, Ind. The Irish (9-0) beat the Tigers (7-2) on Scott Hempel’s 27-yard field goal with 2:54 left in the game...

LSU had not allowed a rushing touchdown in 1970 and kept Notre Dame out of the end zone. Still, Theismann said he thought eventually someone would score. “I’ve never thought a game would end in a tie,” Theismann said. “You’re always thinking about winning the game.”

Theismann thought he’d done just that late in the fourth quarter when he threw into the end zone, where LSU defensive back Tommy Casanova had the play covered perfectly. “I remember hitting Tommy in the chest with the pass, and he dropped it,” Theismann said. “Playing at Notre Dame, it never hurts to have the luck of the Irish on your side.”

Hempel kicked the game-winning field goal on the next play.

“That was the kind of game where we knew that one score could make a difference,” Theismann said. “It turned out to be a field goal instead of a touchdown.”

Notre Dame lost its No. 1 ranking a week before playing LSU despite defeating Georgia Tech 10-7. Another close call, this one against the Tigers, dropped the Irish two spots to No. 4...

Until last week, Theismann didn’t know much about LSU’s motivation in 1970. He found out the Tigers held a grudge against the Irish because Notre Dame’s decision to end its self-imposed 45-year ban on playing in bowl games cost LSU a chance to play in the Cotton Bowl after the 1969 season.

Those Tigers, 9-1, had no fall-back plan and stayed home in the postseason. Theismann sounded surprised to learn LSU players from that team still have the trophies they designed — with a large screw as the centerpiece — to commemorate their circumstance.

He also still has hard feelings about the way the 1970 season ended. Notre Dame lost to USC 38-28 a week after defeating LSU, upset No. 1-ranked Texas 24-11 in the Cotton Bowl and finished 10-1, ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, behind an 11-0-1 Nebraska team.

After Nebraska defeated LSU 17-12 in the Orange Bowl, Huskers coach Bob Devaney said, “Even the pope would vote for us.”

Enough AP voters did to give Nebraska the championship over Notre Dame. Coaches voted Texas a second consecutive title in UPI’s poll and ranked the Fighting Irish No. 5.

LSU fans and players who remember 1969 and the special trophy crafted as a reminder of Notre Dame’s impact upon LSU’s bowl fate might chuckle at how Theismann summed up how the next season, 1970, ended for the Irish.

“We beat the No. 1 team in the country and wound up being second,” Theismann said. “We got screwed.”
There's another nice retrospective at Classic Ground, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune posted some good stuff on the '70, '71, and '84 games as well.

Other random, fun facts about the ND-LSU series...
  • Notre Dame has played LSU more than any other SEC team (ten games). We've played Tennessee eight times, and Alabama six.
  • LSU has been ranked eight out of the ten times ND has faced them (including the upcoming Sugar Bowl).
  • Notre Dame has beaten a higher-ranked LSU team twice ('84, ND-unranked over LSU #6; and '97, ND-unranked over LSU #11).
  • The only time ND has met LSU in a bowl game was in the 1997 Independence Bowl, a 27-9 Tiger win.

Tennessee Double Dip | by Pat

A few days before Christmas, Notre Dame's Class of 2007 rolled up to sixteen members when safety Harrison Smith publicly committed to the Fighting Irish. Growing up a Tennessee fan with two Vol alumni for parents, Smith spurned his hometown team and decided to head north to South Bend.

"Tennessee and Notre Dame have both been leaders," Smith said. "It was just back and forth through the whole process.

"Lately, I just kept coming back to Notre Dame and decided that's where I wanted to go."

You can watch video of Smith's press conference here.

Smith, who won the Gatorade State Player of the Year award for Tennessee was highly recruited and picked ND over offers from Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Stanford. The Stanford offer is worth a mention as Smith is also a very strong student, scoring over 1800 on the SAT and carrying a 3.8 GPA at Knoxville Catholic (nice school logo there, Catholic).

The consensus among recruiting services is that Smith is a 4-star safety/athlete recruit. In addition to his solid work during the season, Smith earned plenty of respect at the Athens Nike camp earlier in the year. At 6-2, 200 pounds, Smith ran the second fastest 40 time at the camp and the fastest 20-yard shuttle time. Again, the 4.38 time isn't as important as the fact that on the same track on the same day he outran a whole camp full of competition. (For the record, the kid that beat him in the 40 is Eric Berry, the #1 CB recruit in the nation.)

Likely coming in as a free safety, Smith (#22 in the picture to the left) also could probably play wide receiver in a pinch. Check out these highlights -- including a pretty impressive one-handed catch -- at this link. (his highlights start at the 1:10 mark) Still, my guess is that Smith will stick on the defensive side of the ball and compete with David Bruton, Sergio Brown, Kyle McCarthy, and Jashaad Gaines for the free safety position vacated by the departure of Chinedum Ndukwe.

Along with Golden Tate, ND has now landed two of the top three players in Tennessee. The third, and some say best, from the Volunteer State is linebacker Chris Donald, who will choose between -- you guessed it -- Tennessee and Notre Dame on January 6th during the Army All-American bowl game.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Holiday Hangover | by Jay

The final regular season AP Poll is here, and here's the penultimate P6 Standings. Gazoo's Ghost has a one-point lead on the field with 101 total points, despite having neither Ohio State nor Florida in his top two slots. Well done. (That Wisconsin pick for Group F is buoying quite a few entries).

Bringing up the rear is my good friend HTownND with a grand total of 15 points (Texas-8, Cal-6, UGA-0, Clemson-0, TCU-1, South Carolina-1). HTown still owes me a case of beer from when Jeff Suppan won at least 15 games for the Cardinals in '04, so maybe this is karmic payback.

The winning P6 standings will be based on the final AP poll, after the bowls are wrapped up. Still hunting for an appropriate piece of CFB kitsch for the winner; we understand that Al Miller is thoroughly enjoying his prize from last year.

Extra! | by Jay

Extra! Read all about it! New York tabloids want the Giants to get Charlie Weis!

You probably saw links to these two articles earlier this week. Keep in mind these are opinion columns and not reportage. Meyers and Serby are expressing a wish, not divulging any ongoing negotiations. Still, the Giants are Charlie's dream job. If they come calling, you have to consider the possibility that he'd take the offer.

But what the tabloids don't realize that he has another dream job, one that he already holds. One at his alma mater. One that affords him much more quality family time than the rat race of the NFL. Oh, and one that involves a massive buyout if the contract is broken. As recently as a week ago Charlie was reiterating why he likes it at ND:

Q. One other thing. How much have you really embraced the college coaching? Is it easier than you thought it would be, or do you have any desire to go back?

Charlie Weis: I don't have any desire to go back to the NFL. I've embraced it probably even more because it's my alma mater. I love it here; my wife loves it here; my kids love it here.
Maybe someday Charlie would accept a job with the Giants. But right now, it doesn't seem likely.

the Ballad of JaMarcus Russell | by Jay

Did you know LSU has a living, breathing folk tale starting at quarterback?

To the tune of Johnny Yuma, by Johnny Cash...

JaMarcus Russell

was a tiger
He roamed through the South
JaMarcus Russell, of the bayou
He wandered alone

He searched the land
This giant lad
He was twelve yards high

And two lanes wide
and sixty-two tons
of Cajun pride
The tiger, JaMarcus Russell

(Repeat 1st verse)

He got fightin' mad
This bengal lad
Went on the attack
As a quarterback
Where the only law
Was to throw the ball
The tiger, JaMarcus Russell

(Repeat 1st verse)

Fightin' mad
This giant lad
With a dream he'd hold
'Til his dyin' breath
He'd search his soul
And gamble with death
The tiger, Jamarcus Russell

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bowling With the Enemy | by Pat

As we head into the bowels of bowl week we've got an opportunity for a sneak peak into some of the 2007 opponents. After nearly a month of extra practice, bowl game teams often look different from the ones we saw earlier during the regular season; ND fans should remember that the first inkling we had that Jeff Samardzija had potential wasn't his diving end zone catch against Pitt, but rather the bowl in 2004 where the mostly unknown sophomore led the team in receptions.

As it turns out, eight of ND's 2007 opponents are playing in bowl games this year...

Emerald Bowl
Dec. 27th - 8:00 pm ESPN (Dan Fouts, Tim Brant, & Jack Arute)

The first opponent bowl game features a Bruin team coming off one of the biggest program wins in a long time. Backup-turned-starting QB Pat Cowan has the team behind him after the upset over SC and the Bruins have more Freshman All-Americans (3) than they do senior starters who are out of eligibility (2), so it's possible that a strong finish to 2006 could lead to even bigger and better things in 2007. UCLA's defense is the big story now, but it should be interesting to ND fans to see how the UCLA passing game has progressed. Keep an eye out for freshman wide receiver Terrance Austin (#4), a speedy player who was offered by ND last year and should play a bigger role in the UCLA aerial attack next season.

Champs Sports Bowl
Dec. 29th - 8:00 pm ESPN (Brad Nessler, Bob Griese, Paul Maguire, & Bonnie Bernstein)

Between them, Purdue and Maryland have 16 wins, but only 2 of those come over opponents with winning records (Maryland over Middle Tennessee State and Clemson). ND fans likely remember the frustrating Boilermaker pass attack, specifically the performance of Selwyn Lymon, who lit up the Irish for 238 yards and 2 TDs. But his future stardom which seemed a given after that game is far from a sure thing as he only totaled 215 yards and 1 TD over the next 8 games. Purdue remained an offensive force through the air, finishing #6 nationally in passing offense, but sophomore QB Curtis Painter saddled the impressive yardage total with a mediocre 21-18 TD/INT ratio. He'll be back next year so watch to see if he's improved his decision making during the December practice sessions. Defensively, the Boilermakers were in the NCAA cellar all season long with a #114 total defense ranking. I suspect they still won't look great, even though Maryland checks in with a paltry #96 ranking in total offense. Another quick Maryland note: the Terrapins are the new team for Southern Cal freshman Antwine Perez. The former 5-star safety recruit will transfer there and be eligible to play in 2008.

Meineke Car Care Bowl
Dec. 30th - 1:00 pm ESPN (Pam Ward, Mike Gottfried, & Jimmy Dykes)

The first of two bowl games that feature two 2007 ND opponents. It will be hard to get much from BC as they are being coached by interim head coach and former defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani. New coach Jeff Jagodzinski won't come in until after the bowl game so don't look for too many scheme clues. Instead, keep an eye out for players who will be back to make the trip to South Bend next year like stars QB Matt Ryan and FB/LB Brian Toal as well as all-conference freshmen KR Jeff Smith and LB Mark Herzlich. BC played musical chairs with their field goal kicker during the year but are down to one after the season's initial starter, Ryan Oliger,was suspended for violation of team rules.

We all know that Navy is going to feature hard-working, efficient, undersized players and the option attack isn't likely to change much for next year. I'm going to check out QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and see just how far along the sophomore has come since the ND game, his first as the full-time starter.

Outback Bowl
Jan. 1 - 11:00 a.m. ESPN (Mike Patrick, Todd Blackledge, & Holly Rowe)

ND's most complete game of the year came against the young Nittany Lions. But after a whole season and an extra month of practice, it will be interesting to see just how much PSU has matured. First-time starting QB Anthony Morelli was uneven and finished the regular season with a 53% completion rate and a 10-8 TD/INT ratio. A full month of practice will be very beneficial for the strong-armed QB and his fleet of young receivers. Still, the Tennessee defense will be a tough test so it will be interesting to see how effective the Nittany Lion passing game can be. The youthful PSU secondary also should be playing better after a full season of experience now under their belt. Look to see how they perform against Tennessee's potent QB/WR duo of Erik Ainge and Robert Meachem.

Gator Bowl
Jan. 1 - 1:00 p.m. CBS (Verne Lundquist, Gary Danielson, & Tracy Wolfson)

This is one of the bowl games that I'm most interesting in watching, with the prime matchup being WVU's rushing juggernaut against the blitzing, relentless Yellow Jacket defense. ND fans will get a preview of Tech's next starting QB as four-year starter Reggie Ball was declared academically ineligble and will not play in the bowl game. As of now, Ball is being replaced by sophomore Taylor Bennett, who played in six games this year. Calvin Johnson will likely be a frequent target, but I'd imagine that Tech will try to involve some of the younger wide receivers and get them some additional confidence heading into next year. Like UCLA, the Yellow Jackets are a young team with only one starter running out of eligibility following the bowl game so nearly everyone playing on New Year's Day will be around to make the trip to South Bend next fall.

Rose Bowl
Jan. 1 - 5:00 p.m. ABC (Brent Musburger, Bob Davie, Kirk Herbstreit, Lisa Salters, & Bonnie Bernstein)

The Rose Bowl is the second bowl game featuring two ND opponents. And not just any two oppponents, but ND's biggest two rivals. While this game is the "asteroid" game for many ND fans, it reminds me of a Chuck Klosterman article from Esquire about the Nemesis and the Archenemy. The analogy isn't perfect, but read the article and tell me you can't find some sort of similarity in the way ND fans feel versus SC (nemesis) and Michigan (archenemy).

The Trojans have lost their last two games in the Rose Bowl and certainly will be determined to halt that streak. With such a young team, especially on defense and at running back, it will be interesting to see which of the freshman and sophomores make a play for more playing time next year. Keep an eye out for the younger receivers like Patrick Turner, Vidal Hazelton, and David Ausberry, who could play the Samardzija role and give a sneak peak at the Trojan air attack post-Jarrett and Smith.

Like the Trojans, Michigan lost their last game of the season and lost their last game in the Rose Bowl. But unlike Southern Cal, the Wolverines are likely still fuming from missing out on playing Ohio State for the national championship. It will be interesting to see if they come out fired up to prove they belonged in Glendale or if the team comes out flat after missing out on the big prize. Personnel-wise, Michigan returns most of their star players on offense for next year and the winner of this game will likely be the strong favorite for #1 heading into next year.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Saturday, December 23, 2006

the Bulletin Board | by Jay

"Yeah, [Notre Dame] are the darlings of the media world. Hopefully we can knock them off their media high horse that they are always on. We want to show everybody that they don't really deserve to be where they are."

-- Chase Pittman, LSU defensive end

Sound a little familiar?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

the Great Pelini | by Jay

Meet Bo Pelini, the line-'em-up-and-get-after-'em defensive coordinator for LSU. A nine-year NFL defensive assistant, Pelini spent one year as DC at Nebraska under Frank Solich, then went to Oklahoma for a year and served as the co-defensive coordinator on the Sooners team that went to the championship game. After that he moved to LSU in '05, when head coach Les Miles snatched him up, impressed at the way his Sooners defense had handled Miles' Oklahoma State squad. These days, Pelini's constantly touted as a head coaching candidate (rumors of Pelini to Michigan State or Stanford were floated this season), although it looks like he's going to stick with LSU for at least another year.

Pelini broke into football on George Seifert's 49ers team and was mentored by Seifert proteges Ray Rhodes and Pete Carroll (a close friend of Pelini's). As Pelini explains:

“To know where my influences come from you’d have to go back to my time at San Francisco with George Siefert and Pete Carroll,” said Pelini. “Most of the things that we do come from that system. It’s not the same system, but the concepts are very similar. It’s a totally different type of football in college, you have to adapt and do some things differently, but that’s where most of my plays come from; my early upbringing when I was with the 49ers.”
He's only 38. His players love him. All-American defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey calls him the mastermind. "He's kind of silent on the field but in the meeting room he goes crazy," Dorsey said of Pelini. "We all have his mindset. I feel so confident going out there with him."

A good piece in the New Orleans Times-Picayune elaborated on the difference between Nick Saban's former LSU defense and the new scheme brought in by Pelini.
Pelini’s defensive philosophy is built around aggressiveness and turnovers – he likes lots of both. Unlike Saban, who preferred man-to-man coverage in the secondary, Pelini likes zone and while he will blitz, it won’t be near as much as Saban.

Saban was a chess master once the offense broke the huddle, giving his players many options and relying on them to pick up the changes quickly. Pelini wants his players’ minds uncluttered so they can take the shortest distance to the ball and be ready to take it away when they get there.

“You play with great effort and get 11 hats to the football,” Pelini said. “That’s where great defense starts. We talk about it all the time.

“When you get there you have to get there in a bad mood with the awareness that you’re not going there just to make a tackle but get the ball out, too.”

LSU players welcomed the change, even while they couldn’t argue with the success they had under Saban. Last year, LSU was No. 3 in total defense, No. 5 in pass defense and No. 7 vs. the run with most of that crew returning.

But these days, when a defense is called from the sideline, the confusion ends there. Usually, regardless of what the offense lines up in or changes into, Pelini’s defenses play the hand they’ve dealt.

“(Under Saban) we would get two or three calls at a time and we’d make the call according to the formation,” said middle linebacker Cameron Vaughn, who calls the defensive plays. “That was good but a lot of times we lacked communication because it’s hard with 92,000 people screaming in your ear. We had a lot of busts doing that.

“With Coach Pelini, the call is going to be the call 90 percent of the time. We’ll check it sometimes, but usually it will just play out. We have a lot fewer communication busts.”

Said safety Jessie Daniels: “It’s much easier to execute when you have so much less to think about. We made a lot of mistakes Saturday, but if we execute this defense the way we’re supposed to, we’ll be fine. The guys really like playing it.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt also noted some differences in LSU under Pelini:
COACH MARK RICHT: Well, just now I mentioned some of those things, which is the types of coverages they play behind their blitzes. Coach Saban, not 100%, but a much higher percent of the time, they were playing man coverage behind their blitzing schemes. Even when they weren't blitzing, they were playing a lot more man coverage. Most of the time, not all the time, but most of the time, the corner backs were right up on top of you, in your face, pressing the receivers. So that's different. Not to say that LSU doesn't do that some, but they don't do it as high a percentage as Coach Saban's group. Just overall, percentage of blitz is less with Coach Miles' team and Coach Pelini's philosophy.
Despite the professed emphasis on creating turnovers (Pelini's Huskers were second in the nation in takeaways with 47), the Tigers have been lackluster in this regard so far under Pelini. Last year LSU forced only 14 turnovers, and this year they're not much better, with only 19.

But that's about the only deficiency you can point to. As Charlie pointed out a couple days ago at his presser, the LSU defense is tremendous in just about every respect:
Let's go over to defense. You've got Bo Pelini as the defensive coordinator, second year there at LSU. In his first year at LSU they finished third in the country in defense. They're giving up 12 and a half points a game, 4th in the country; three yards per pushing attempt; 93 yards rushing per game, that's 15th in the country; 145 yards passing per game, that's 3rd in the country; 248.8 yards total a game, that's 2nd in the country in total defense. They have 38 sacks, which is 6th in the country, and they're holding opponents to touchdowns in the red zone, which I always talk about touchdowns in the red zone, teams have only scored nine out of 27 times for 33 percent touchdowns in the red zone...

Bo doesn't blitz an extraordinary amount of times. I think the typical mentality in a game like this is probably to try to pressure you more, come up and get in the face of the wide receivers and see if you can get off the line of scrimmage. I know statistically what they do from even over or under. I mean, I can go right down their fronts and tell you what coverages they run and the stats of pressures on 1st down, but the bottom line is you've got to be ready. With this long a time that the coaching staffs have, you have to be ready for just about anything because those staffs could be thrown out the window and they could go to a whole different perspective than what they normally do.

Well Merry Christmas To You Too, Ron | by Jay

As Pat mentioned below, Ron Talley landed with the Blue Hens of Delaware. Seems like a random destination; the key for Talley was immediate playing time at a position he preferred, and by joining a Division 1-AA school he won't have to sit out a year.

When Talley left ND back in October, it was an outwardly amicable (if puzzling) departure, with both Talley and Weis saying the decision was mutally agreeable. "He's not thrown off the team. He just doesn't want to be part of it anymore. I wish him well," said Charlie at the time.

Tuesday, Talley filled in some blanks, and took a few shots at the Irish coaching staff in the process (quotes collected by UHND):

Talley left Notre Dame, in part, because of a verbal disagreement with Weis about his role on the team. Talley said the coaches expressed a desire to move him from end to tackle. ‘’Basically, I lost trust in them,'’ Talley said. ‘’They wanted to do things with me to their advantage, not my advantage.'’ (Chicago Sun Times)

“Some things were going on that were unjustified,” said Talley, who was also considering transferring to Tennessee State. “I really just couldn’t trust the coaches any more.” (Central Delaware News)

“It seemed like the coaching staff would tell me one thing and then another,” he said. “The situation they wanted to put me in wasn’t in my best interests. It was only in their best interests. In the end, I really couldn’t trust them. It was enough for me not to want to be there anymore.” (South Bend Tribune)

One poster over on NDN mentioned that this sounded a lot like what some former Patriots players who washed out of Belichick's system have said, complaining about position switches and unhappy with coaches jerking them around.

Two reactions. First of all, let's not begrudge Talley his reluctance to switch positions. I don't really understand his reasoning here (given the dearth of bodies at DT, he was being offered more playing time and a greater role on the team, and for a guy of his limited speed it seems like a natural move) but ultimately it's his decision and his preference. It would have been nice for him to put the team's needs ahead of his own, but if he's ultimately not going to be happy making the switch then he made the right decision to get out. Sometimes a position move is accepted gracefully (Travis Thomas, or Darrin Bragg, for instance) and sometimes it means the player's going to end up searching for greener pastures (David Wolke, who was offered a spot at backup running back when the QB depth chart filled up). That's fine; that's all natural fallout of reconstituting a football roster from year to year.

If it only were so simple for Ron Talley. Obviously there's more going on here (in his mind, at least) than simply rejecting a switch to DT. Whatever problems he had with the coaching staff -- and I think it's safe to say we're getting less than half the story here -- it's poor form to pop off to the press about it. Moreover, it's just colossally dumb. Any goodwill that still existed -- goodwill that may have generated say, a positive reference to an NFL scout, or an invitation to come back and finish a degree somewhere down the line -- is now gone.

How should Charlie react to this? We know he doesn't shy away from a public challenge, especially one that could negatively impact recruiting (see: Hiben, Joey and Cumbie, Jamie). Don't be surprised to see a statement from Weis "clarifying" the situation from ND's point of view.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

BGS Holiday Bits | by Pat

A quick rundown of some recent ND news items that deserve mention:

Two Twos and a Three
The AP All-American Team, perhaps the most prestigious of the numerous All-American teams, was announced and ND placed three players on the multi-team list. Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija were named 2nd Team AP All-Americans while Tom Zbikowski was named to the 3rd team. Congrats to all three, who were also named to the AP All-American teams last year as well. Especially noteworthy is Samardzija's 1st team All-American nod by the Football Writers of America Association. That makes Samardzija ND's first two-time 1st Team All-American since Bobby Taylor in '93 and '94 and the only 1st team repeat from last year's FWAA list.

Still, I have to say that the fact that John Carlson didn't make any AP All-American team while Zibby did is just about all the proof you need that these lists are largely made out in the fall and don't change. Outside of QB, RB, and WR, I really don't think the voters pay much attention and as a result fall back on pre-season choices. I have to think that Carlson didn't make it due to his injury which kept him out for a few games, but I really believe he was one of the three best tight ends in the country this year. On the flip side, Zibby went from leading the team in interceptions in 2005 to zero INTs in 2006. His production as a punt returner also trailed off a bit. I'm still a big fan of his and think it's great that he's rumored to be returning to ND, but I also have to admit that there were likely guys out there who deserved to be on this list more than he did. The good news for both Carlson and Zibby is that they likely both will have another shot to stake their claim for the 1st or 2nd team next season.

Double Duty
Zibby's fellow All-American teammate Samardzija recently admitted that even though many are predicting his draft status will slip a few rounds if he keeps talking about baseball, Jeff isn't stopping. Here's a recent Q&A from Joe Schad's ESPN Insider blog ($) :

Are you really the next Bo Jackson?

"I never said Bo Jackson. These NFL teams want to know how much time they'll get from me. An un-thought question that is asked a lot is body size. Obviously baseball doesn't want me to get up to 220 and football doesn't want me at 210, a pitching weight. So that's a big part of it, too. Time, body-type and also if I would be worn out and able to do it. Those are the three things they ask. I usually say it's no big deal to all three questions. My plan from Day 1 is going to be to just do both as long as I can. People think it's about two-sport hype. But that's not what it's about. I just want to do both as long as I can to make sure I made the right decision. There is no doubt that if I say I'm playing both that will completely affect my NFL draft status. It's a decision I live with every day. And trust me, there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about it."
I imagine the football/baseball issue is going to only get more heated for Samardzija as the NFL draft prep begins after the bowl game. Remember, since he played for the Cubs over the summer, playing baseball for the Irish is no longer an option.

RVSP Accepted
Along the NFL draft prep lines, earlier I noted that Quinn was named to the Senior Bowl roster and questioned if he would play. It seems that the answer is yes as Quinn accepted the invite and will show his stuff down in Mobile this spring. Joining Quinn will be teammates Ryan Harris, Rhema McKnight, Victor Abiamiri, and Jeff Samardzija. Troy Smith has also accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl and will finally play behind the same OL as Quinn, which I assume will put to an end any bickering between ND and OSU fans on the internet.

My Boy is Wicked Smaht
Once again the Irish Round Table scores the video goods. This time they have a quality copy of the Brady Quinn-as-student video shown during the Heisman Trophy ceremony. While this video certainly doesn't fall under the negative media approach to Brady Quinn that we wrote about a few days ago, as that commentary related mostly to reaction to his football skills, it does go to show why ND fans are so nuts over Quinn, despite games like Michigan and USC this year. He's just a damn fine representative of ND. We're all going to miss him next year.

This Hype Meter Goes to 11
Exit Brady Quinn as overrated, enter Jimmy Clausen as overrated. At least Quinn was able to enjoy college for two and a half years before becoming a collegiate poster boy and therefore target for lazy/dumb/lazy&dumb sportswriters and fans and their cries of overrated. After winning a state championship in his final high school game -- for the record, he didn't lose any of high school games -- Jimmy Clausen was greeted with, among other game reviews, this article that went for the cheap and easy slam-the-popular-kid routine. I'm not that worked up about a local smalltime sportswriter (the Daily Breeze? Really?) writing a dumb article and I'm not linking it so ND fans can get outraged and flood his inbox with angry emails (that he will take to his editor as proof that he needs a raise for increasing the paper's website hits). Merely, this just struck me as a glimpse of things to come next year. The leap from beating up tiny private schools with an army of D-1 teammates to facing teams like Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan, Southern Cal, and Duke is enormous, as are the pressures of beating out three upperclassmen for the starting gig. And anything less than a stellar season as the full-time starter will bring out the boo-birds. ND is about to have a full-fledged QB battle with no serious incumbents for the first time since, what, 2000? 1994? And one of the potential starters is one of the most hyped recruits in a long time. You can practically hear the sportswriters drooling.

Fight for the Blue and Gold
The next stop in Ronald Talley's football career will take place at the University of Delaware. By heading to a D I-AA program, Talley will be eligible to play right away and not have to sit out a year. The Chicago Sun-Times states that the main reason for Talley's decision to leave the Irish was due to the coaching staff's desire to move him to defensive tackle versus Talley's desire to remain at defensive end.

We've Come a Long Way
Helping to rid the final shreds of embarrassment over the MBA tailgating video that hit the internet earlier in the season, this talented and dedicated ND fan put on a great performance while prepping for the showdown against the Trojans of Southern Cal. Someone get this man a Stadium Lot parking pass for next year.

Remember, Remember, the 9th of December
Finally, here's a quick anecdote from Ivan Maisel's blog ($) over on espn.
He may be loud and he may be big, but even Charlie Weis can be inconspicuous. On the night that Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn did not win the Heisman Trophy, the Fighting Irish coach stood behind a pillar at the far end of the lobby outside the Nokia Theater. If you came down the stairs into the lobby and craned your neck to the left, you might have seen Weis, which is how he liked it.

When public figures like Weis are in a public setting -- that is, one they don't control, complete with civilians -- they lurk on the edge of it. To dive in would be to surrender their time and their shield. Speaking of which, I can remember being in South Bend some years ago for a banquet at which then-coach Lou Holtz would speak. He stood in the second-floor lobby of the athletic building, self-pinned against a trophy case, sipping a diet Coke and girding himself to go on stage.

So Weis is off to one side, and I walk up and re-introduce myself and congratulate him on going 10-2. And here, from memory, is what he said:

"Listen, it's a polite thing to say, and politically correct, but if I'm happy with a 10-2 record, I'm going to get fired," Weis said. "The two losses were not close. We're not where we want to be. But I'm telling you, with the players we have coming in, including a couple of recruits that nobody knows are going to commit to us, we're going to be a lot better. A couple of years from now, you are going to remember that we had this conversation tonight."

"All right," I said. "I'll remind you. No, you remind me."

"I won't have to," Weis said. "We'll just look at each other, and you'll know."

You can't hear tone of voice online. On the screen, Weis might sound arrogant in that exchange. He didn't in person. He is fixed on a prize, and he intends to claim it.

One other thing: that's why journalists love unscripted moments. That's the real Charlie Weis.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Hold That Tiger | by Jay

• Right now it looks like we're 8.5- to 9-point underdogs to LSU.

• On the stat sheet, LSU is incredibly balanced between offense and defense, between the run and the pass. In fact, they're the most strongly-balanced team in the country (see table, below).

• Of course the stat sheet only tells one layer of the Tigers' story. What about the wins and losses? LSU went 10-2 this year, with a bunch of blowouts over crummy competition, a few decisive victories over decent teams, and two key losses. (Sound familiar?) For such a dominant statistical juggernaut, the final tally is mixed.

• Blowouts:

LA-Lafayette (6-6), Arizona (6-6), Tulane (4-8), Miss St (3-9), and Fresno State (4-8). Kentucky (7-5) was another blowout, the only one against a team with a winning record.

• Tight wins:

1. At Tennessee, 28-24. The Tigers needed a TD pass to win it with :09 seconds left, this despite the fact that starting Vol QB Erik Ainge had been knocked out in the first quarter. The Vols picked off Jamarcus Russell three times, returning one for a score, and took the lead with 7 minutes to go. Russell then put the Tigers on his back and hoofed it down the field, putting together a 15-play, seven-minute, 80-yard scoring drive to take the lead and ice the game.

Average Rank of Offenses, Defenses
rush O pass O rush D pass D average
LSU 37 23 15 3 19.50
TCU 9 49 4 34 24.00
Ohio St. 18 33 16 29 24.00
Wisconsin 26 48 23 2 24.75
Louisville 10 7 21 75 28.25
Notre Dame 76 10 50 50 46.50

2. Alabama, 28-14. The drive chart tells the story: LSU jumped out to an early lead, and Bama threw the ball all over the place trying to catch up. They were actually able to put together some decent drives, but four of the longest ones ended in a missed FG, a fumble, an interception, and another missed FG. LSU pitched a shutout in the second half.

3. Ole Miss, 23-20 in OT. More on this in a second.

4. Arkansas, 31-26. The Pigs' running game gouged the LSU defense for 298 rushing yards, including an 80-yard score by Darren McFadden, and Arkansas outgained LSU and forced two fumbles on long drives. But LSU controlled the momentum throughout the game and never trailed after their first score. Every time Arkansas threatened, LSU answered; an interception deep in Arkansas territory set up an easy 4th-quarter score, and after the ensuing McFadden run, kickoff returner Trindon Holiday took the kick ninety yards for a final LSU touchdown. A solid victory despite the final score, this was the Tigers' lone "signature" win of the year over a tough, full-strength opponent.

• And the two losses:

1. at Auburn, 7-3. A classic defensive struggle that could have gone either way. LSU actually outgained Auburn by almost 3:2, but Auburn clamped down when it counted and forced six punts. LSU nearly won it at the end of the game with a frantic, last-ditch drive. With :02 left on the clock and the ball on the Auburn 24, Russell hit Craig Davis on the left sideline for about twenty yards, but he was tackled before he could reach the end zone, and time expired.

2. at Florida, 23-10. Worst game of the year for the Tigers, and possibly one of the worst self-inflicted losses by any team this year. It was a comedy of errors for LSU, including: a missed field goal, a blocked punt, three interceptions, a muffed punt for a fumble, a TD pass called back on a penalty, a safety on a muffed kickoff return, and a fumble on the Gators' one-yard line. LSU outgained Florida and forced a couple turnovers of their own, but the Tigers couldn't get out of their own way; their second half possessions went safety, punt, missed FG, made FG, interception, interception.

So, despite the Tigers' impressive statistical rankings, the actual game results have been mixed. I think there are some analogs here to ND's season: losing to its two toughest opponents (one in a particularly mistake-filled game), coming from behind to defeat a couple of average teams with last-ditch drives, etc. Overall, this Tigers team hasn't really "put it all together" for a big game this season. That's either good news or bad news for the Irish, depending on your point of view and your general level of holiday cheer.

The official LSU website is pretty cool: it's got the full-length video available for every Tigers game this season. Late last night I dialed up the Ole Miss game (the 23-20 OT win) and watched most of it. My chickenscratch notes from 1am (you can skip this if you've got better things to do):

• LSU starts the game trying to establish the run, and it's not going anywhere. Ole Miss is stacking the box but the Tigers keep trying to pound it. Almost every look is I-formation, with one or two tight ends. Announcer: "They have not come out gunnin' tonight". Punt on first two possessions.

• This Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis is incredible, making plays all over the field. No wonder he's an All-American. OM still putting six, seven, eight in the box.

• On defense LSU blitzing off the edge, up the middle, zone blitzing. Different blitzes from different angles, but not much pre-snap movement. Ole Miss not very imaginative on offense: simply handing off left or right, and the QB Schaeffer looks shaky when having to pass. On 4th down OM tries a fake punt, a pass, but it's covered well by LSU, giving the Tigers the ball on the Miss 41.

• Three or four straight runs by LSU, and Russell finally connects on a nice pass to the WR Davis down to the 7. No blitz by OM on this play. Two runs, a holding penalty. LSU lines up with 4 wide and Russell in the shotgun (they use shotgun almost exclusively when there are 3 or 4 receivers in the formation); Russell hits Dwayne Bowe on a post from the right. Big target (Bowe's a tree) and nice rope from Russell finding the open man.

• Ole Miss has 3rd & 4; calls timeout. After the break they quick-snap it and catch LSU napping. First down. Later this drive they have 3rd & 9. Recognize a big blitz from LSU, run a screen pass left and score from 22 yards out. Tie game.

• Ensuing kickoff, OM goes onsides and recovers on the LSU 39. Tigers caught napping again. OM runs a swing pass and five dives and punch it in. 14-7 Ole Miss.

• OM still stacking it. LSU goes to pass, OM blitzes & sacks Russell. Another blitz, Russell wings it and it's almost picked off. When Russell gets in trouble, he just chucks it down the field. LSU punt.

• GREAT punt return by Ole Miss (31 yards). FG try to end the half and misses.

• Begin second half. Another great return by OM (60 yards). Common theme here: napping on onsides kick, lousy coverage on ST, etc. FG good. 17-7 Ole Miss.

• LSU still running: dive, dive, inside handoff to WR Early Doucet. Russell hits Davis after being flushed out of the pocket, threw across his body. Incredibly strong throw. Another inside handoff out of the shotgun bottled up by Willis. Great tackle. Russell pressured again, just puts it up for grabs; it's tipped and should have been picked off. LSU tries FG and misses.

Impressions of Russell: great on reading & executing the short throws, not much touch on the long ones (plenty of overthrows), and will throw the ball into danger when pressured.

• Ole Miss runs a few more dives. New QB for Ole Miss (Adams). Seems a better passer; at one point, play-action, pump-fake, and hit the TE over the middle. Great set up with all those dives; linebackers bit and middle was open. (Cue John Carlson here).

• LSU still blitzing from different positions. On third and six they send 7 and get a sack. Ole Miss kicks FG. 20-7 at the end of 3Q.

Big play for LSU: on first down on next drive, big pressure by OM, Russell avoids a sack, and another sack, scrambles around and finds Doucet for 42 yards. It's a total Hail Mary, but it works out. A couple of plays later Russell has Davis wide open down the sideline on a blown coverage and he just overthrows it. Not great on the long throws. LSU goes for it on 4th & 8 and pass is incomplete.

• OM gets the ball back and seems to want to sit on the lead. Run, run, 1-yard pass, punt.

• LSU finally goes into panic mode. Four wide on every play, Russell in the shotgun on every snap. He completes a shallow cross for 18, a swing pass to the RB Hester for 8, a short out to Doucet for 7, a short out to Bowe for 9. Russell comfortable with the short, quick pass and excellent at finding the open man. Why didn't they do this earlier?

• Second and goal, Russell hits Doucet on a Jarrett-esque jump ball over the middle for the TD. Terrific grab. 20-14 Ole Miss.

• Ole Miss stalls out, punts. LSU still in passing formation, completes a couple, then Russell is sacked & fumbles, but recovered by LSU. LSU punts; touchback.

• Ole Miss just trying to hang on. Rush, rush, rush, rush, then a sack on 3rd & 7. Punt.

• Last drive of regulation. LSU on its own 42. Ole Miss blitzes on almost every down. Russell hits Davis for 20 yards on a crossing pattern; a couple of plays later it's 3rd & 6 and Russell rushes up the gut on a called QB draw for the first, and down to the 5. Ballsy.

• First and goal: big blitz, nearly sacked, threw it out of the end zone. Second & goal: goes off the hands of Bowe on a cross, incomplete. Third and goal: wheel route to Hester, he drops it. Fourth and goal: Bowe lines up left and crosses right on the slant, Russell fires a bullet, complete. Touchdown. 20-20.

• Extra point for the win: blocked by Ole Miss! Going to OT.

• OT: Ole Miss starts with the ball, LSU forces a fumble. LSU takes over, rushes 5 times up the middle and then kicks a field goal. Winner.

Some more stuff on Les Miles, Jimbo Fisher, Jamarcus Russell, and Bo Pelini coming up.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Dever Decides | by Pat

The influx of recruits continued late last week when California offensive lineman Taylor Dever became the 15th player to make a public commitment to Notre Dame on Thursday night. Dever, seen on the right bending the defender in half, echoed sentiments by recent commits Ian Williams and Golden Tate that a recent trip to ND's campus sealed the deal.

"Once I went to Notre Dame I knew it was the place for me," Dever said. "There wasn't one thing I didn't like. I liked the coaches, the facilities, the players, the students. I really enjoyed myself."
The 6-6, 300 pound lineman is the 3rd offensive lineman of the class of 2007 and is a classic case of the unknown sleeper recruit. Playing in Nevada County, California -- about halfway between Sacramento and Reno -- Dever didn't have any D-1 scholarship offers until Fresno State officially offered him on Sept. 30th of this year. That sparked a rush of offers from many Pac-10 schools like Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona State, Washington, and Washington State, as well as programs like Boise State and UNLV. The offers kept flowing in and pretty soon both Miami and Nebraska reached out to offer Dever. Finally, at the end of November, ND offered when Weis visted Dever's high school, along with Coach Latina and Coach Polian.

Considering that he grew up a huge ND fan, Dever seemed like a likely commit from the moment ND offered. He had planned to come out for the football banquet but snow canceled his flight. He made alternate plans for the next week and committed last week during an in-home visit from Coach Polian.

One comment that keeps popping up in stories about Dever is "athletic" which is always something you want to read about lineman. Dever, who also plays basketball for his high school, sounds like a tackle prospect for now. Wherever he ends up, Dever seems pretty happy with his decision.
“When you think of Notre Dame, you think of the golden dome and the basilica. But to actually get out there and see that in person was pretty amazing,” he said. “To step on that field and look up into those stands, it was pretty amazing.

“But there is a lot that is going to be expected. I’m not going to go to Notre Dame and just be happy to be there. I’ve been told there’s a lack of depth on the offensive line and that I’ll have the chance to play early.

“Ultimately, that’s up to me and how hard I work. And that’s something I’m pretty good at."
The absence of OL recruiting during the Willingham era is slowly but surely being fixed and a legitimate depth chart is starting to take shape. It's still a year or two away, but it's getting there. Here's a quick look at the depth chart for 2007. I took a few liberties, such as assuming Sully will be returning, Turkovich will play guard, and that Nuss and Emeka are guards and not (defensive) tackles. Obviously, none of this is set in stone. I also left off Northwestern transfer Thomas Bemenderfer for now, since he's not on the roster yet and I have no idea what his contributions to the team will ultimately be.




Turkovich Olsen




Hopefully freshman All-American Sam Young will be a stalwart at left tackle for the next three years. Paul Duncan is my guess to start at right tackle with Bartley Webb backing him up. For now Young's backup might be Duncan, who would slide over and let Webb pick up the slack at right tackle. Center looks to be in pretty good hands with Sully and Wenger. The depth at guard is getting much better and I imagine that two decent ones will come out of the Turkovich/Olsen/Carufel/Stewart mix. My guess is Olsen (left) and Stewart (right). The only real certain thing is that ND's line will be pretty green next year, but the depth chart is being filled with some pretty talented players.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sugar by the Spoonful | by Jay

One of the interesting things about Charlie is his willingness to adjust his approach to game preparation based on what's worked and hasn't worked in the past. The Michigan State game in '05 comes immediately to mind. CW fully admitted he goofed on downplaying the off-field hoopla surrounding the first home game of the season, and as a result the team came out flat and distracted. He completely changed his tune this year, fully embracing the homefield pageantry, even going so far as to try and fly the band out for the Southern Cal game for the first time in a long time (as it turns out, only the seniors were able to go.)

For LSU he's singing a completely different tune than he did in the lead-up to the Fiesta Bowl last year. Charlie talked about it a little bit in his presser a couple of weeks ago, and here's a good followup piece in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel describing Charlie's more gradual approach to prepping the team.

Weis insists he’s learned his bowl-preparation lesson. He will not seek advice from other coaches as he did last year (“It didn’t work,” he says). He will not cram too much information into too short a period of time, and he will not have long, grueling practices.

“I’m not sure if (the team was) stale or flat or what,” Weis says, “but we have a whole different schedule and approach. We had a whole year to try to right that wrong. We’re doing a bunch of things different.”

The No. 1 difference: Short and sweet is a top priority.

“I want to be flying around at the start of the game,” Weis says, “and the only way you do that is by practicing to fly around, and the only way you can fly around is if you’re not going for a long period of time.”

Thus the emphasis on shorter, brisker practices. Players will get small snippets of the game plan each practice, then work to hone them.

“Spread it out and give it in little pieces,” Weis says. “You work into those phases so that nothing gets stale.”

Staleness can be an issue when you have five and a half weeks off before the Sugar Bowl. That’s why the No. 1 offense will practice against the No. 1 defense.

“We’ll spend the next few weeks with the good guys against the good guys,” Weis says.

Last year, Weis was concerned about revealing the game plan too soon. This year, revelation already has started.

“I thought the way we did it last year was too drastic,” Weis says. “There’s a more logical way to do it. We’re trying to use logic this year.”

Logic includes academics. This is finals week, and the only football-related activities are two conditioning sessions with strength coach Ruben Mendoza. The Irish will resume bowl preparations this weekend.

“We’re trying to keep them sharp and crisp and not stale,” Weis says. “We don’t want to burn them out. With exam week, you’ve got to let the kids be students.”

After that, it’s full focus on a strong LSU team that is strong on speed and athleticism.
We'll see if the new approach works.

LSU also went back to work this afternoon prepping for ND. Les Miles pointed out something about the Irish that, well, I've never seen pointed out before:
“Notre Dame is very good,” Miles said. “We are concerned with a number of things they do. They are very talented. They have been Notre Dame for a long time.
I'm just completely baffled. Was that intentional? Was that some kind of Jedi Mind Trick meant to confuse and befuddle the Irish? If so, it's working. I'm all messed up.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Headline Writers Rejoice: Golden Tate to ND | by Pat

Following on the heels of Ian Williams' public commitment to the Irish, all-around star Golden Tate announced that he will join Williams and the rest of the Class of 2007 at Notre Dame. And really, as a senior at Pope John Paul II (school colors: blue and gold) and with a first name of Golden, where else could he go?

The 14th public member of the 2007 class hails from Tennessee but is looking forward to the next four years at Notre Dame.

“To be honest I just felt right at home after I was there for two days and I thought this is where I need to be,” said Tate. “I told my mom if you can give me a good reason not to go here (Notre Dame) then I won’t, but she pretty much felt the same way I did so this is where we decided I needed to go.”
The 5-11, 175 pound Tate plays in a private school league that apparently is pretty light on the competition, so it should be a sizable jump to Division 1. But light competition or not, Tate has been extremely productive. As a senior he averaged over 10 yards a carry and 18 yards a catch and racked up just under 2,000 total yards. On defense he had 3 interceptions to go with the 10 he recorded as a sophomore and junior. And to top it all off, he was recently named Tennessee's Division II Mr. Football for the second straight year, the Middle Tennessee Player of the Year, and the 26th annual Charles Greenhill State Player of the Year, which he won over fellow Irish recruits Harrison Smith and Chris Donald, the East and West Tennessee Players of the Year respectively.

Tate selected ND over offers from Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. The in-state Volunteers reportedly were interested early, but when Tate didn't respond with any interest Fulmer and Co. moved on.

The recruiting sites are all complimentary of Tate but there is some difference of opinion on him. Although the rankings are fluid, Tate is currently slotted as a 4-star guy and the 12th best "athlete" in his class. He's a member of the Top 250 on Rivals, while over on he's a 4-star guy and the 32nd WR in the class. ESPN's Scouts, Inc. are the most impressed; they have him as the #3 WR and the #18 player overall.

Tate also has been selected to play in the brand spanking new All-American Offense-Defense Bowl. Yep, has decided to create a new major high school all-star bowl to compete with the U.S. Army All-American game in January. That means twice the number of kids pulling hats out of bags amid much forced fanfare. Joining Tate in the new bowl game will be ND recruit Andrew Nuss. Meanwhile, over at the more established U.S. Army game, ND commits Jimmy Clausen, Gary Gray, Duval Kamara, Greg Little, Aaron Nagel, and Justin Trattou will be participating. Mike Ragone and Armando Allen were also named to the team but won't be participating.

Getting back to Golden, the speedster is also a solid baseball player who hopes to follow in Jeff Samardzija and Evan Sharpley's footsteps by playing both football and baseball at ND. The Irish hardballers are currently looking at him to play centerfield, and the fact that he spent the summer playing baseball rather than attending the football combines is likely one of the reasons for the mixed reviews from the recruiting sites.

What's really interesting about Tate regarding football is that no one, save perhaps the coaching staff, really knows at what position Tate will end up. He plays primarily running back in high school but as of now is sounding like his first shot at ND will be at wide receiver. Then again, someone with his size and speed is an ideal cornerback candidate. About the only prediction that I'm comfortable making now -- aside from four years of "Another 'Golden' Moment" headlines -- is that he'll likely see early action fielding kickoffs, something he excelled at in high school.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Season of Backlash | by Jay

As it turns out, it wasn't even a silver medal; it was a bronze for Brady. Herewith a final word on the Heisman voting, and a couple of notes on the season at large.

Troy Smith won the Heisman, and Darren McFadden came in second, with Brady a distant third. I think it's important to note that anti-ND bias is not necessary to explain those Heisman voting totals. If quarterbacking the top-ranked team was enough to garner Gino Torretta and Jason White the Heisman, it's easy to understand a Smith victory; his excellent passing numbers were just the icing on the cake of an undefeated, #1 season. While McFadden's 3:1 advantage over Quinn in first place votes was initially surprising, it's less so when you factor in SEC provincialism. I don't doubt that many in Dixie honestly believe that the best player in the SEC has to be the best player in college football.

Heisman Trophy voting by region

Player Northeast Mid-Atl. South Southwest Midwest Far West
Smith 431 413 409 447 451 389
McFadden 107 117 227 209 120 98
Quinn 171 112 96 119 151 133

No, where I think the anti-ND bias was really evident was in the media's coverage of the Heisman campaign. Pundits engaged in a lot of purposive data-mining to criticize Quinn, while failing to mention glaring issues with other candidates. For instance, I can recall several talking heads arguing that Quinn played poorly against Southern Cal because he completed less than 50% of his passes. Anyone making this argument is either stupid or disingenuous. First, Quinn was barely under 50%, and had even one of the dropped passes that he laid in a receiver's hands been caught, he would have been over 50%. Second, Quinn put up 348 yards of total offense and three touchdowns without a single turnover. When someone picks out the lone part of Quinn's stat line that isn't impressive and focuses on that exclusively, you can't help but wonder at their motivations. The really stunning thing is that Quinn's numbers against Southern Cal were exceptional in comparison to what others had achieved against the Trojans: Quinn put up more total offense and threw more touchdown passes against the Southern Cal defense than anyone else this year.

The same people that searched so hard for Quinn's flaws were just as quick with excuses for his competitors. That Darren McFadden could only manage 36 yards against USC on 11 touches was blamed entirely on his (self-induced) injury, if it was acknowledged at all. You would be hard pressed to find media criticism of Troy Smith's performance against Illinois, though it was statistically worse than the performance against Michigan that hung around Quinn's neck like a millstone.

Midway through the season, many commentators (including one ESPN Heisman Watch writer) offered Smith's superior TD-INT ratio as proof that he was the nation's best QB. When Quinn ultimately finished ahead of Smith in this statistic (recording the fifth best such ratio in CFB history), I can't recall the stat's previous champions acknowledging this. At the end of the season, Quinn and Smith were in a near statistical dead heat, but save Allen Barra of the New York Sun, not a single columnist sought to seriously weigh the merits of the Irish quarterback. His numbers were written off as inflated, coming against a spate of cupcakes including -- gasp -- all three service academies! Nevermind the fact that one academy actually went 9-3, or that Quinn's lowest outputs in passes and yardage came against Army and Air Force, respectively. If you bothered to look at it, ND's strength of schedule (19th in the country) was of a magnitude tougher than Ohio State's (40th). Incredible rallies against Michigan State and UCLA were denounced as meltdowns by the opposition rather than courageous comebacks by the Irish; the revisionist slant on the UCLA game -- at the time, a "lucky win" against a vastly inferior opponent -- is especially ironic given what happened to Southern Cal at the Rose Bowl in their final game against the Bruins.

But what really gets me is the venom directed at Quinn. In a field of candidates that included an admitted NCAA rules violator and convicted criminal (Smith) and someone who put FnDC -- Fightin' 'n Da Club -- before his team (McFadden), many commentators acted like Quinn was the asshole, an overrated impostor who scammed his way into the conversation by virtue of his good looks and the ineluctable star power of the Notre Dame brand. Quinn's stumbles (or stumble, singular) was cause for great celebration. You might remember this representative article from Mike Freeman of CBS Sportsline, back in September:
C'mon, be honest. You chuckled when you heard Notre Dame got beat by Michigan one cajillion billion to seven, didn't you? You laughed. You giggled and burped. You frolicked around the house like you were being tickled on the feet by a supermodel in her skivvies. You spit mustard and bratwurst all over your shirt when you saw Brady Quinn's face planted in the turf and throwing sloppy interceptions like Kerry Collins. I can tell you loved it. I still see the smirk cemented on your face.

Introducing Brady Quinn. Fine gentleman, future NFL quarterback, and the most outlandishly overrated player in the history of college football...If I ask who the best college quarterback in the nation is right now and you answer Quinn and not Smith, then you are a brainwashed fool.
Furthermore, while Troy Smith's early indiscretions were being recast as an inspirational story of redemption -- look at what he had to overcome! -- Quinn's four-year odyssey from Diedrickian punching bag to the top of the Irish record books was all but forgotten.

During his time under the microscope at ND, especially during a rough and tumble two years where he was repeatedly thrown to the lions, Quinn never faltered or pouted. Whether he was taking his lumps under Willingham or besting Peyton Manning's marks under Weis, Quinn always carried himself with aplomb. In the volumes of quotes the media extracted from Quinn, you won't find a single damning word. He was never in trouble off the field. He was a good student.

And for such a well-known celebrity, he was exceedingly modest. When Chris Fowler greeted Brady on stage to present him the Maxwell Award, the first thing out of Fowler's mouth wasn't "Congratulations", but, "So, do you consider this an upset, since everyone expected Troy Smith to win?" Quinn might have been shocked, and he might have been forgiven for snapping off some snide retort. But he humbly deflected the slam, and instead praised Smith, calling him a "great player" and saying that "he should do just fine for himself" on Saturday at the Downtown Athletic Club.

That combination of stellar talent and grounded character is so rare in a sport where it seems just about everyone has a checkered past. Quinn's everything you'd want in a college football player, both on and off the field. Everybody, regardless of alma mater, would love to have this guy on their team, wouldn't they? In our "Villains" piece, we stated that we had to respect John McKay because the only reason he gave to dislike him was the success he had against the Irish; he was a consummate class act. I would have thought fans of other programs would feel the same way about Quinn, but obviously I was wrong.


Such was the season for Notre Dame in the media: we really took it on the chin, over and over. The voters who put ND way up at #2 at the beginning of the season and the reporters who touted Brady as the preseason Heisman leader fell over themselves to tear Quinn and Notre Dame from that perch when the season didn't go as predicted. The national mood changed almost immediately as the season began, and it never recovered. As ND struggled (but won) against Georgia Tech (and Ohio State was busy beating Texas), that #2 ranking suddenly seemed terribly undeserved, even if it were the writers and voters who put the Irish there in the first place. The Michigan loss sealed it.

The backlash was ferocious, a negative feedback loop that devoured itself. An offhand comment by Charlie to local reporters about ND's place in the BCS rankings turns into a full-fledged brouhaha, with Charlie portrayed as a big whiner; when Urban Meyer goes on the PR offensive to lobby for the Gators, he's praised for being the squeaky wheel that got the grease. While many top BCS squads are feasting on vastly inferior teams (including some really embarrassing matchups, like Florida-Western Carolina), it's ND that's pilloried for playing -- stop me if you've heard this -- three service academies in one year. The Heisman race becomes a zero-sum game; it is not enough for Troy Smith to win, but Brady Quinn must lose (in fact, it is not enough for Brady Quinn to lose; he must be eviscerated in the process). Other teams lose to inferior opponents on their schedule and suffer lesser consequence; Notre Dame loses to two of the top five teams in the country and is saddled with disdain. And when that 10-2 Notre Dame team gets selected for a BCS bowl, it is, of course, unfair; yet by the BCS's own rules Notre Dame is a clear and proper choice for selection. Such was 2006 for Brady Quinn and the Irish.

But the book on the season isn't closed just yet. There's one chapter left. Maybe a win over LSU will knock the anti-ND narrative off its rail, and recast this Irish team as something more worthy in the eyes of the college football punditry. Oh wouldn't it be nice...

On the other hand, who cares. To hell with the pundits. Let's win it for the only group that matters. Let's win it for us.