Thursday, November 20, 2008

9 Minutes Over Baltimore | by Pat

The terrifying last moments of the Navy game is a sequence that's going to give cold sweats to Irish fans for a long time. A game that was all but put down suddenly sprang back to life, sparked by poor coaching, player mistakes, sloppy officiating, and a whole lot of hustle on Navy's part. (To borrow a favorite Mike Shannonism, "...this game that started as a small worm has blossomed into a cobra!") Here's a recap of the wet and wild finish.

Setting the scene: 9 minutes to go. Navy has just gone 4 and out, failing to gain a single yard on a 4th and 3 attempt. Their rushing attack that averages 308 yards per game has totaled 133 yards. Notre Dame, which has scored on its past four possessions is set to regain possession at the Navy 35 yard line. As CBS goes to commercial, we see Charlie prepping Evan Sharpley on the sideline. Bring in the subs!

As we start the drive, ND has indeed has brought in some backups. And yet, despite the many claims of Charlie "pulling the starters," Notre Dame actually kept the entire starting offensive line in for the duration of this drive. The skill position players have been replaced, with Sharpley in at QB, Jonas Gray at RB, Joseph Fauria at TE, and Gallup at WR, but all the regular linemen are still in there. (In all the postmortems around ND-land over the last few days, I think this salient fact has been largely missed.)

1-10 N35 NOTRE DAME drive start at 09:07.
1-10 N35 GRAY, J. rush for 1 yard to the NAVY34 (Vela, Ram).
2-9 N34 GRAY, J. rush for loss of 1 yard to the NAVY35 (Pospisil, Ross).
3-10 N35 GRAY, J. rush for 7 yards to the NAVY28 (Merchant, Emmet;Sovie, Clint),
PENALTY NAVY personal foul (Sovie, Clint) 14 yards to the NAVY14, 1ST
1-10 N14 GRAY, J. rush for 7 yards to the NAVY7 (Buffin, Ketric).
2-3 N07 GRAY, J. rush for 5 yards to the NAVY2, 1ST DOWN ND (Buffin, Ketric).
1-G N02 Timeout Notre Dame, clock 06:08.
1-G N02 GRAY, J. rush for loss of 2 yards to the NAVY4 (Tuani, Jabaree).
2-G N04 GRAY, J. rush for loss of 1 yard to the NAVY5, fumble forced by King,
Rashawn, fumble by GRAY, J. recovered by NAVY Frazier, Nate at NAVY5.
The heavens opened just as the drive started, with rain coming down sideways and the wind shaking the CBS cameras on the upper deck. Every play on the drive was a handoff to Gray, and on just about every play he tried to bounce the run to the outside. (As Michael mentioned, that's the sure sign of a newbie running back: used to out-running everyone.) But it was a good plan, and the only time that rushing Gray really hurt on this drive is when he ran out of bounds on 3rd down. Luckily for the Irish, Navy is hit with a horsecollar tackle penalty that moved the ball forward. On 1st and goal, ND moved to a goaline formation featuring Bemenderfer and Taylor Dever as extra tight ends. Another handoff to Gray, but Dever whiffed on a block-down that prevented Gray from running into the endzone.

Then, he fumbled. And everything changed. Instead of going up 34-7 with a four-score safety net and nobody complaining about the scrubs, the Irish left the door cracked and threw everything into doubt. I still think the decision to play Gray & Sharpley on this drive is defensible given the (again, overlooked) fact the first team OL remained in the game and had been shoving around the Navy defense for the past quarter. And right up until the fumble, things were fine. Until the 1st and goal, Navy only kept 7 men in the box, so they were expecting the run, but not completely selling out to stop it, and the handoffs to Gray were chewing up clock and gaining yards. But one turnover changes everything, doesn't it?

Navy got the ball on the 5, with just over 5:00 to go.
N 1-10 N05 NAVY drive start at 05:19.
N 1-10 N05 Dobbs, Ricky rush for 5 yards to the NAVY10 (FLEMING).
N 2-5 N10 Dobbs, Ricky pass incomplete to Schupp, Mike.
N 3-5 N10 Timeout Navy, clock 04:47.
N 3-5 N10 Dobbs, Ricky pass incomplete to Barnes, Tyree.
N 4-5 N10 Delahooke, Kyle punt 41 yards to the ND49, downed.
The rain appeared to have stopped for this drive, and Ricky Dobbs re-entered the game at QB for Navy (to apparently throw the ball a bit more). ND made a few substitutions, coming out with a mix of first-stringers and a sprinkling of backups: Mo Richardson, Paddy Mullen, Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming, Steve Quinn, Scott Smith, Toryan Smith, Ray Herring, Sergio Brown, Robert Blanton, and Gary Gray. The quick Navy three-and-out was a another strong showing for the defense, which had been playing well all day (as Jay mentioned below).

(One side note about this sequence: walk-on Kevin Smith got into the game at middle linebacker on the 3rd and 5. There was a note on Irish Eyes earlier in the week from a friend of the family that Charlie personally told Smith, a four year walk-on linebacker, that he was going to be added to the travel roster for the Navy game and play on special teams. With a brother at the Naval Academy, it was a very nice move by Charlie and his staff to not only bring Smith along, but get him in the game as well.)

ND got the ball back with only four and a half minutes left to go in the game and still up 20. With ND taking over on the 49 yard line, the second team OL finally took the field (left to right: Romine, Nuss, Bemenderfer, Robinson, Dever). Robert Hughes replaced Jonas Gray at running back.
1-10 D49 NOTRE DAME drive start at 04:33.
1-10 D49 SHARPLEY rush for no gain to the ND49, fumble by SHARPLEY recovered
by ND TEAM at ND49.
2-10 D49 HUGHES rush for 1 yard to the 50 yardline (Deliz, Jeff).
3-9 D50 HUGHES rush for 6 yards to the NAVY44 (Merchant, Emmet;Nechak, Matt).
4-3 N44 HUGHES rush for 1 yard to the NAVY43 (Sovie, Clint;Vela, Ram).
A fumbled snap on 1st down put ND in a bit of a hole, and the second stringers miss a few blocks here and there on the next two downs. On 4th and 3, Charlie elects to go for it rather than punt. A slow-developing run play is called, Trevor Robinson is pushed backwards by the Navy defensive tackle, and Hughes is brought down only a yard past the line of scrimmage. The Irish turn the ball over on downs.

The Nightmare Begins. For all the coaching choices that Charlie made on Saturday, this decision to go for it on 4th down was by far the worst. To this point in the game, Navy's offense had been largely ineffective. Pinning them deep with a punt with only 2:30 left in the game would have been a smart, conservative play call. Yes, ND was technically only one missed block away from Hughes picking up the first down and effectively ending the game, but the decision to go for it was still a far more risky gamble than the situation warranted. Now, instead of starting with the ball somewhere inside their own 20, Navy set up 1st and 10 on their 43 yard line, giving them an extra 20-30 yards.
1-10 N43 NAVY drive start at 02:30.
1-10 N43 Dobbs, Ricky rush for 4 yards to the NAVY47 (QUINN).
2-6 N47 Dobbs, Ricky pass complete to Barnes, Tyree for 14 yards to the ND39,
1ST DOWN NAVY, PENALTY ND personal foul (WASHINGTON) 15 yards to
1-10 D24 1st and 10.
1-10 D24 Dobbs, Ricky pass incomplete to Washington, Mar.
2-10 D24 White, Shun rush for 24 yards to the ND0, 1ST DOWN NAVY,
TOUCHDOWN, clock 01:39. Harmon, Matt kick attempt good.
Despite the relatively decent Navy field position, ND stuck with the backups, and even brought in a few 3rd stringers. Steven Filer replaced Steve Quinn at one LB spot and Kevin Washington replaced Toryan Smith at another. And it was Kevin Washington that gave Navy a big boost with a personal foul that tacked 15 yards onto a 14-yard pass. CBS was too busy recapping Michigan's loss to Northwestern to talk about the penalty, but it appeared to be illegal hands to the face: Washington drilled Navy QB Dobbs in the helmet as he released the pass.

Suddenly, just 32 seconds after ND turned the ball over on downs, Navy was already on the Irish 24-yard line. After an overthrown pass into the endzone, Navy attacked ND's 3rd string linebackers. Steve Filer got caught in no man's land between the QB and the pitch man Shun White, and Washington got blocked out of the play by the Navy OL. Navy's fastest back, White, sped through past the blocked ND players and into the endzone. Touchdown Navy.

After mulling this a bit -- and removing the lens of 20/20 hindsight -- it's still hard to fault ND too much for sticking with the backups. Getting guys like Filer playing time at linebacker will certainly pay off next season. And even if Navy scores there, it's still a two touchdown lead with barely over a minute to go against an opponent with a negligible passing game. They'd have to recover an onsides kick, score quickly, recover another onsides, and score again, all in about a minute -- and that could never happen, right?

Now to the interesting/terrifying/scream-inducing part of the game:
Harmon, Matt kickoff 8 yards to the NAVY38, on-side kick, recovered by ND
PARRIS return to the NAVY38, PENALTY ND illegal touching(PARRIS)
15 yards to the NAVY45

Harmon, Matt kickoff 14 yards to the ND41, on-side kick (touch by receiving team),
recovered by NAVY on ND41.
CBS couldn't get back from commercial before Navy attempted the first onside kick, but it was a beauty. The kick took a picture-perfect bounce, and the Navy players crashed into the Irish "hands" team, who were waiting tentatively for the ball. Robbie Parris out-jumped a Navy player reaching for the ball and slapped it out of bounds. The ref immediately threw a flag and charged Parris with "illegal batting." Say what?

The offical description for illegal batting can be found in the NCAA rulebook in Section 4, Article 1-c:
"No player shall bat other loose balls forward in the field of play or in any direction if the ball is in the end zone."
Since the ball that Parris batted was ruled to have moved forward, ND was penalized 15 yards and the ball kicked again. It appears that a Navy player had blocked Sergio Brown before the ball traveled the required 10 yards, but if the ref had called the correct penalty on this (Section 6-2, Article 2-g) the outcome would have still been a re-kick. It's hard to say if Parris was unaware of the forward batting rule, or if he just wasn't able to knock the ball sideways enough. He probably could have made the catch, but we know he was coached to act like a DB on a 4th down pass (Charlie said so in the postgame presser: "We told him to bat the ball out of bounds; unfortunately when he hit it, it went forward...")

On the re-kick, Navy pulled off another excellent chipper. This one did not have a high bounce, and it went directly towards Hughes who patiently waited for the ball to make a higher bounce than it did. Meanwhile, the Navy players crashed into the hands team again. Hughes missed the ball, and the Navy players pounced on it after it ricocheted off a few players.

The passisivity with which ND approached both onsides kicks was infuriating. Even if you think batting the ball out of bounds is better than trying to catch it, ND reacted rather than aggressively going after it. Fans will complain when a team muffs an onside kick, but if the players are hustling and being the aggressor, it's tough to criticize, especially with the pigskin bouncing around like a pinball. But when the team is allowing the Navy players to knock them off their feet, that points to coaching as a problem.

Navy recovered with pretty good field position and about a minute and a half left on the clock. Still down two scores. ND wisely put the first string defense back out on the field.
1-10 D41 NAVY drive start at 01:36.
1-10 D41 Timeout Notre Dame, clock 01:36.
1-10 D41 Dobbs, Ricky pass complete to Barnes, Tyree for 40 yards to the ND1,
1-G D01 Dobbs, Ricky rush for no gain to the ND1 (SMITH, T.).
2-G D01 Timeout Navy, clock 01:22.
2-G D01 Dobbs, Ricky rush for 1 yard to the ND0, TOUCHDOWN, clock 01:21.
Harmon, Matt kick attempt good.
The Irish had to know that Navy would take a shot down the field, and yet, Navy's Tyree Barnes still got behind Raeshon McNeil on the first play. The replay doesn't show if Barnes put a move on McNeil, or just beat him in a sprint. Either way he was wide open to haul in Dobbs's pass.

The sideline official right next to the play inexplicably signaled "touchdown," even though Barnes was a full yard short. The play was reviewed, and the touchdown was reversed, but the real controversy was just beginning. Barnes's toe was in bounds as he caught the ball but his heel came down out of bounds. Everyone knew it wasn't a touchdown, but was it even a catch?

The NCAA rule uses a vague "foot in bounds" definition which allows for some referee and replay offical interpretation. (Section 2, Article 7-c-1)
If one foot first lands inbounds and the receiver has possession and control of the ball, it is a catch or interception even though a subsequent step or fall takes the receiver out of bounds.
That said, it seemed like a fairly straightforward "out of bounds" call to me: the whole foot came down, and part of it was over the line. Instead, the refs gave him the catch. Puzzling call. Some might even say, "awful." (Of course, the more worrisome aspect was that a Navy player was that wide open in a situation where a pass was expected.)

Two plays later, Navy's QB managed to sneak into the endzone. And to make matters worse, David Bruton dove to block the extra point and in doing so slid into the kicker. Whistle, flag, and Navy yet again was kicking off 15 yards past the usual 30 yard line kickoff spot.

Harmon, Matt kickoff 14 yards to the ND41, on-side kick, recovered by
NAVY on ND41.
Unbelievable. Like a deja vu nightmare. The first thing that struck me was that ND's hands team was more aggressive this time around. Immediately after the kick, Robert Hughes took steps forward before it went 10 yards -- maybe there was some coaching going on after all. However, unlike the relatively flat bounce of the last kick, this one popped up high in the air and right over Hughes and Sergio Brown. Parris was getting set to haul in the ball, but got leveled by one Navy player, leaving another an easy jump and catch to secure Navy's second straight onside kick recovery. The refs did throw a flag on the play with the intent to charge Navy with hitting an ND player before the ball had left the 10 yard neutral zone, but the flag was waived off. While it was pretty clear that they committed this penalty on the first onside kick, it wasn't all that clear on this one. In fact, I'm inclined to agree with the officials that the ball had travled the needed 10 yards before Parris got smacked. If you want to see for yourself, check the 1:10 mark on this video.

The special teams were now officially terrible. The painful lack of execution on onside kicks seemed to indicate that our guys simply did not know what they were doing. It was a clinic on how not to cover an onsides kick.

With a minute left, Navy had the ball yet again and only was a touchdown away from one of the most stunning comebacks in college football.
1-10 D41 NAVY drive start at 01:21.
1-10 D41 Timeout Notre Dame, clock 01:21.
1-10 D41 Dobbs, Ricky rush for 7 yards to the ND34 (SMITH, T.).
2-3 D34 Dobbs, Ricky pass incomplete to White, Shun.
3-3 D34 Dobbs, Ricky rush for 3 yards to the ND31, 1ST DOWN NAVY (SMITH)
1-10 D31 TEAM pass incomplete.
2-10 D31 Dobbs, Ricky sacked for loss of 3 yards to the ND34 (KUNTZ;SMITH, H.).
3-13 D34 Timeout Navy, clock 00:33.
There was a last bit of controversy with Navy's final timeout. CBS and the scoreboard operators (and by extension, most everyone watching the game) thought Navy was already out of timeouts. This led to a bit of exasperation on the part of Steve Beuerlein in the announcer's booth, and ND coaches on the sideline, as everyone tried to figure out what the hell was going on. In this case, the refs had it correct: Navy hadn't been charged a timeout earlier in the game on Gray's fumble review, and so they did have one left.

Last seconds:
3-13 D34 Dobbs, Ricky pass incomplete to Barnes, Tyree (BLANTON).
4-13 D34 Dobbs, Ricky pass incomplete to Finnerty, Cory.
Whew. Blanton iced the win by breaking up a pass to Barnes, Dobbs overthrew a covered Finnerty on the next play, and the game was over. The Irish defense stood tall on this final drive, but frankly, they also got lucky when Shun White couldn't hold on to a 2nd and 3 pass. Had White held on to the reception, Navy would have been at about the 12 yard line. Again a Navy receiver slipped past ND's secondary and was pretty wide open.

Postmortem. A common refrain in the aftermath was that Charlie "took his foot off the gas" in this game. I'm not sure the substitution patterns and clock situations support that conclusion, however. Again, we kept the first string OL in the game, and if Jonas Gray scores instead of fumbles on the 2, it's 34-7, and we're all fat and happy. No, the problem wasn't letting up: the intent was to keep scoring, and we were two yards away from doing so. That doesn't explain away the problems in the game, but it does cross off one of the proffered theories of why we nearly lost.

No, the issues were more obvious than that, but no less damning: 1) Charlie deserves a heap of criticism for the decision to go for it on 4th and 3 instead of punting; 2) our defense should not have let Barnes get behind them for a 40-yard reception in an obvious passing situation; and 3), the special teams work was exceptionally shoddy, and betrayed a serious lack of preparation and hustle on onsides kick recovery.

Despite all that, it could have been worse. I'll take the win, tuck it under my jacket, and high-tail it out of town under the cover of night. Mark it a 'W'.