Thursday, September 29, 2005

Playmakers | by Pat

QB - Settling down after a somewhat erratic game against Michigan State, Brady Quinn had one of his best games of this young season. He looked calm and on target for the most part. We also got to see the deep ball and it looked pretty good. One of the best things I noticed is that he's getting really good at feeling the pressure in the pocket and deciding to use his feet when it's warranted. He's not the fastest quarterback in the nation, but he's fast enough and much quicker than opposing teams realize. When he's able to spin out of sacks and run for first downs on 3rd and long, that's just one more way he can break a defense's confidence. It sure is fun to watch him develop into an upper-level college quarterback.

RB - Another day, another century mark for Darius. It seemed that Washington had some success stringing out the draw plays, but I don't think anyone expects Walker to beat everyone to the corner. His strengths are patience and vision. Walker does seem to end every run out of bounds, but given how many carries he gets a game, that doesn't bother me. Besides, when the call is inside and ND needs a few yards, Walker has yet to shy away from lowering his helmet and delivering a pop to the defender. The only real negative from the game was when he failed to reel in Quinn's pass on 4th down.

Rashon Powers-Neal was back in action this week. But while it was great to see him explode into the endzone, most of the credit should go to the offensive line as the hole was huge. He still seems to strictly be a north-south runner, but that has its place and so far he's been effective on the receiving end of short passes. I also noticed that he did a great job blocking in the Washington game. Once he got on a guy he would keep on him until the play was over. Given how much Purdue is going to blitz, I hope RPN gets more than a few appearances in the backfield for both his blocking and change of pace from Walker's running style.

Speaking of change of pace, Travis Thomas made the most of his limited time. He was fast, decisive, and kept the ball firmly in his hands. I'm sure I'm not the only one that enjoyed watching him run over that poor Husky defender that tried to bring him down on the 5-yard line. A performance like that is a big confidence booster and hopefully is enough to earn him a few more carries outside of garbage time.

WR - New game, new breakout player. This time Samardzija took the honors as he leapt from red-zone receiver extraordinaire to all-around threat. Notre Dame's "possesion" receiver showed some great wheels on the 52 yard bomb for a touchdown and incredible hands as per usual the rest of the game. One of the best plays was pulling in a rifled 3rd down pass from Quinn in the red zone that was just a bit too low. He also made a nice play on the Husky hail mary to end the first half. About the only disappointment was that we didn't get to see him attempt that trick play pass.

Stovall appeared to regress a bit from the MSU game, but it's hard to tell from TV exactly why. Quinn seems to really look for Samardzija and Fasano (for good reason, they both catch everything) but I'd have to think that unless Washington was doubling him more often that not that Stovall was open. Stovall did make a great catch on the deep ball in the endzone and only came inches from a spectacular touchdown. The grab of a late Quinn pass on 3rd and long was equally impressive. The good news is that we've had two receivers have big games, which will only serve to make it harder to double one of them. I would like to see Shelton and possibly Grimes see some more passes thrown their way, but that's just me being greedy.

TE - The big play that everyone will remember of course is Fasano leaping over the UW cornerback. He had a great day as usual. Against Washington he also had some nice yards after the catch, which is great to see. With his size, when he catches the ball in motion he's a load to bring down. And after his leap, many of the Husky defenders made sure to hit him higher, which then resulted in Fasano being able to use his size to churn out a few extra yards. There are plenty of good tight ends in college football, but Fasano is going to be a definite challenger for All-American status if he can keep up this pace.

OL- The offensive line looked good all day, especially when it came to pass blocking. One of the reasons that Quinn had a great game is because he had all day to throw the ball. And on Walker's touchdown run, the hole was about 5 yards wide. A running back has to love being able to see the entire defensive backfield while he's running through the hole. What is really impressive is that the line held Manese Hopoi -- last year's Pac-10 tackle-for-loss leader and soon to be UW career tackle-for-loss leader -- to only 1 tackle. This is the same guy that sacked Matt Leinart 3 times last year. After too many penalties in the MSU game, I thought they did a great job on eliminating mental mistakes like jumping offsides too much. However, the holding penalty on the first drive was a costly one as it turned a first and goal into a 2nd and long that eventually became a botched field goal attempt. There is still the issue of failing to convert a 4th and 1 for the second straight game. At that point, the OL should have been able to blow the Huskies off the ball and that didn't happen. Credit to the Washington DL I suppose, but against better teams we're going to need to get those tough yards in close games. The injury to Bob Morton is a bit worrisome. It's true that Sullivan is more co-starter than backup, but the team will miss Morton, who I think is the most improved player on offense so far this young season. Hopefully Bobby won't miss too much time.

DL - The lack of a pass rush again is troubling. Stanback had entirely too much time to set up and throw deep balls on our secondary. Washington's offensive line is big, but really not all that great so it is a bit disconcerting that we couldn't generate consistent pressure on Stanback. Of course, they were incredibly tough against the run, but as we learned that year, that alone doesn't win games. To be fair, the line did come up with some big plays in important situations. The best play was Landri blowing through the line and forcing Stanback to roll out and try a forced pass that was picked off by Wooden. Abiramiri also sacked Stanback for a big loss to force a hail mary to end the half. But still, too much time for Stanback most of the day. He obviously had trouble when he was forced to leave the pocket and far too often he wasn't forced out. It seems that ND is really missing a true pass rusher ala Justin Tuck. Frome is a solid, dependable player, but he's not the edge pass rusher that we need in certain situations. One bright spot has been the play of Ronald Talley, who really does seem to get better every game. However, he does need to cut down on the needless penalties, such as his big (late) hit on Husky QB Johnny DuRocher.

LB - You didn't hear the linebackers' names called out much, but that could do with the fact that Washington was trying to throw over their heads all game. Mays did force another fumble but didn't seem to blitz as much. I could be wrong on the blitz frequency though, that's just my perception. It also seemed like we stayed in our base 4-3 and didn't see much nickel or dime package. Perhaps Minter was just trying to keep things vanilla before we played Purdue and USC. Let's face it, it wasn't fun watching Washington complete all of those long passes, but it's not like the game was really ever in any doubt. I'll take the hit in defensive pass rankings if it means we give Purdue looks they haven't seen all that much. Hoyte was solid as usual, but did have a costly facemask penalty that prolonged a drive that led to a TD. Crum was all over the place, but wasn't terribly involved in each play as he finished with only one tackle. I don't think that's a reflection of his play more than Washington's tendency to attack other areas of the defense.

DB - Well, when it comes to complaining about the play of the secondary, I figure Notre Dame fans have it down to a science by now. Once again, the play of the safeties seems to be the big topic of consternation. Both Zibby and Nedu love to hit, and perhaps that's the problem. They are both still biting on the play-action way too much. When a play actually is a run, they fly up and deliver the big hit, but as we saw on that botched halfback pass, they still get caught in no-man's land on play action. Whenever Zibby ended up in one on one coverage it was pretty obvious that Stanback was going to throw his way. On the big 69 yard pass completion to Marlon Wood, TZ actually was doing a good job keeping up with one of the Huskies' fastest players, but lost a few steps when he peeked over this shoulder to make sure nothing was going on behind him. That's an error that can and should be corrected with coaching so I don't buy any of the talent complaints about why our secondary has been lackluster thusfar. Zibikowski did have a great play on a jump ball to the back of the endzone. He was in position and came over and knocked the pass away.

Nduwke is not the typical ball hawking free safety. but does have 4 fumble recoveries so far this year to go along with one interception. That's a lot of production considering our entire defense in 2004 only had 15 fumble recoveries. So the question is, can you stomach giving up 15 and 20 yard pass plays in the middle of the field if your free safety has a knack of coming up with the turnover? We should keep in mind too that he's only 4 games into meaningful playing time. Some fans will claim that he'd make a great Apache linebacker, but at some point you have to stop moving a player from position to position and just let him grow into the one he's playing. Besides, the coaching staff tried him at Apache linebacker in the spring and moved him back to safety. As with Zbikowski, his mistakes seem to be the variety that are correctable with good coaching. Physically he has more than enough size and speed to play.

Richardson still tends to not look for the ball, but he's much improved from last season. Wooden keeps impressing me. He didn't have the best game against Washington, but is showing a tendency to be more physical, which is nice to see. Towards the end of the game, Terrail Lambert came into the game and Washington went right after him. It was very encouraging to seem him make a great play on the ball in the air and deflect a touchdown pass. According to the latest depth chart he's now the definite #2 cornerback behind Mike Richardson and I would hope he gets more and more playing time this season. On Washington's last touchdown, Leo Ferrine missed the ball, but was in good position and actually turned around to look for the ball. Like Lambert, he's young and I think they both are going to turn into very productive members of the ND secondary.

Special Teams - Good and bad for special teams. The good include more kickoffs into the endzone and Chase Anastacio laying out to block a punt. The bad includes botched field goals and extra points due to poorly handled snaps. As for kick returns, Grimes looked pretty good on his one 30 yard return. He took off with no hesistation, picked a lane, and went right at it. ND fans are still holding their breath that the Irish can return a punt or kickoff for a touchdown for the first time since 2002, but Grimes and Zibby on punt give me hope that we'll see one this season.

Given all the pre-game distractions, I think the team played a good game. Sure a 50 point blowout would have been nice, but there are also benefits to comfortable wins that still leave the team feeling like they could have done more. I'm sure the coaches will have a busy week of practice planned and the best part is that now the focus is all on football rather than our choice of head coach and the surrounding media circus. The pass rush and secondary remain a concern, especially with Purdue up next. Here's to hoping that honest to goodness coaching can actually make an impact mid-season.