Sunday, September 06, 2009

Odds & Sods: Folsom Prison Blues Edition | by Mike

Race: out. Well, that was a fun way to start the season. It's tough to complain about a game where the defense shuts out the opponent and the offense scores touchdowns on five of its first six possessions. Jimmy Clausen and Michael Floyd put on quite the show, producing comical stat lines in the process. Golden Tate had a nifty sideline grab, but I think I liked his blocking on the Swing pass to Floyd even more. The defense crashing through the Nevada offensive line on 4th and inches and Brian Smith's sacks were also fun. The Irish were one of a handful of Division I-A (sorry, no "FBS" here) to play an opponent with a pulse, and they thoroughly demolished that opponent.

Last gang in town. The excitement over the passing statistics against Nevada should be tempered by the fact that Nevada was ranked last in passing defense last year. It's not like these numbers were achieved against Southern Cal. On the other hand, Nevada was ranked 54th in pass efficiency defense, usually a more meaningful statistic than simple passing defense. And Jimmy Clausen's pass efficiency rating for the first week? Tops in the nation. There may be something to the apparent improvement in the running game, given that Nevada was ranked sixth in rushing defense last year.

Nevada's prior year offensive ranking provides some context to the defense's first shutout since Rutgers in 2002. Nevada finished fifth in total offense last year. The current incarnation of the Wolfpack offense includes three 1,000 yard rushers, including EDSBS favorite Colin Kaepernick, one of just five players in major college football history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. Yesterday's game was just the third shutout of Chris Ault's 25-year Hall-of-Fame career at Nevada. A major contributing factor was the defense's performance on 3rd down - limiting Nevada to just 2/11 on third-down conversions. That's an impressive number against a mobile quarterback like Kaepernick. Though aided by a missed field goal, the shutout might be more impressive than the offensive numbers.

First to finish, last to start. The following is the list of the twenty-one players I believe saw their first game action yesterday (corrections welcome):

Dayne Crist
Theo Riddick
Deion Walker
Shaquelle Evans
John Goodman
Christopher Gurries (walk-on)
Bobby Burger
Tyler Eifert
Lane Clelland
Mike Golic, Jr.
Jordan Cowart
Hafis Williams
Kapron-Lewis Moore
Sean Cwynar
Manti Te'o
Anthony McDonald
David Posluszny
Dan McCarthy
Zeke Motta
Jamoris Slaughter
Nicholas Tausch
There are a few things I like about how these players were brought into the mix. First, many of these guys were able to redshirt their freshman year, particularly along the lines (Clelland, Golic, Hafis, KLM, Cwynar). This is actually a significant change from a few years ago, when the lack of bodies in the upper classes forced pretty much every healthy lineman to play as a freshman (as was the case with Turkovich, Duncan, Young, Olsen, Kuntz, etc.). Second, few freshmen were thrust into starting roles. In 2006, Sam Young had to hold down a starting position from the moment he arrived on campus. Yesterday, (outside of specialists like Tausch and Cowart) the freshmen were allowed to get a fair amount of playing time in the second half, after the game was in hand. Third, while most of the freshmen were introduced in low-risk game situations, Weis mixed in some of the more experienced backups in the first half, getting them valuable experience with the first team and against a first-team defense. Matt Romine, Andrew Nuss and Jonas Gray all saw meaningful playing time in the first half. This is how programs with depth develop experience, and a marked change from previous years.

I'm waiting for the man. Every one was waiting for Manti Te'o to enter the game, and he did not disappoint. When Te'o recorded his first tackle, the crowd's eruption was clearly discernible on the broadcast. Te'o certainly looked fluid moving through traffic. I expect Te'o's playing time to be one of the most hotly debated topics of the season. As much promise as Te'o shows, he is still a freshman (and one without the benefit of early enrollment). He doesn't have the experience to play Mike, so when Te'o comes in as Will, Brian Smith has to move to Mike. We know how effective Brian Smith can be at Will (two sacks yesterday), but he does not yet appear similarly productive at Mike. Which is the better combination - Brian Smith at Will and Toryan Smith at Mike or Manti Te'o at Will and Brian Smith at Mike?

The next movement. The one disappointing part of Saturday's game was Vai Taua's success on the ground, particularly with inside runs. Taua rushed 18 times for 114 yards, a 6.3 ypc average. The defense didn't so much stop Taua as the offensive onslaught took him out of the game. Taua's success leaves the questions about the defense's ability to stop the run unanswered. The Michigan State and Southern Cal rushing attacks still look like big challenges, and if Brandon Minor is healthy he will join Brandon Graham and Mike Martin as the list of concerns for the Michigan game.