Sunday, November 27, 2005

Odds & Sods, Chardonnay and Brie Edition | by Mike

This week's thoughts...

Two states. Brady Quinn looked like two different quarterbacks in Saturday's game. In the first half, Quinn struggled with Stanford's defensive scheme. To the Cardinal's credit, they appeared to craft a well-designed gameplan that exploited Quinn's occasional tendency to try and force a deep pass when the short route is open. Whatever the source of Brady's problems, Weis and Quinn solved them at halftime. Quinn's first half numbers: 9/19, 175 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions. Quinn's second half numbers: 16/19, 257 yards, 1 touchdown, no interceptions. His quarterback rating for the second half was 215.2.

Walking to do. While several other key Irish players appeared to be slowed by nagging injuries, Darius Walker appeared to have finally recovered from the bumps and bruises that had slowed him down earlier in the season. Walker contributed 241 total yards to the Irish effort, every one of them critical. He rushed for a personal record of 186 yards on 35 carries and hauled in five passes for 55 yards. Walker finished the regular season with a 4.7 yard/carry average, bulling his way to a six-yard TD and taking a direct snap in for the 2-point conversion on his final two touches.

Carry the zero. Several Notre Dame players had statistical milestones within their reach entering the Stanford game. These milestones quickly fell by the wayside as the Irish offense zipped along to 665 yards. With his 80-yard catch and run on the second play of the game, Jeff Samardzija passed the 1,000-yard receiving mark, becoming only the third Irish receiver to do so. His second touchdown reception of the first quarter gave him 15 on the season. With 15 receiving TDs, Samardzija finds himself leading the nation. (However, because teams that play Hawaii are allowed an extra game, Dwayne Jarrett (14) will have the opportunity to catch or pass Samardzija when USC plays its twelfth game of the regular season next week.) When the game ended, Samardzija had racked up 191 receiving yards. Samardzija's season total of 1,190 yards gives him an Irish record, passing Tom Gatewood (1,123). Playing on a bum ankle did not prevent Maurice Stovall from recording a 136-yard night that brought him past the 1,000 yard mark, bringing his season total to 1,023. His second-half touchdown gave him 11 TD receptions on the season, tying Derrick Mayes for second on the Irish single-season list. Walker's bravura performance gave him 1,106 rushing yards on the season. Notre Dame and Miami of Ohio are the only schools with a 1,000 yard rusher, two 1,000 yard receivers, and a 3,000 yard passer. If Steve Smith notches 100 yards receiving against UCLA, USC will join this group.

Line of best Vic. In the first half, Notre Dame's offensive and defensive lines seemed to be showing the effects of a season's worth of wear-and-tear on units with limited depth. This was particularly true on the defensive line, where attrition has thrust new faces into significant roles. During the summer, Notre Dame's depth chart at defensive end projected to be something like this: Victor Abiamiri, Chris Frome, Travis Leitko, Ronald Talley, Justin Brown. Leitko was the first casualty, departing the university for a year. Frome suffered a season-ending injury against USC, and Talley suffered an injury against Syracuse that kept him out of Saturday's game. Thus Justin Brown notched his first start against the Cardinal. The new configuration along the defensive line seemed to have trouble in the first half, particularly when Trevor Laws sat out a few series. However, the line put things together for most of the second half. Abiamiri simply refused to be blocked, collecting four sacks for 43 yards.

Can I kick it? During the Syracuse game, Steve Gregory hit punter D.J. Fitzpatrick while Fitzpatrick's kicking leg was fully extended, drawing a personal foul. When Brady Quinn punted for the Irish in the first quarter, it was too early to tell whether Quinn was used primarily for the element of surprise or because Fitzpatrick had not fully recovered. However, when Fitzpatrick, wearing a cumbersome knee brace, missed his first PAT of the seaon, it looked like Fitzpatrick's injury would figure prominently in the game. Following Fitzpatrick's missed FG attempt in the third quarter, Carl Goia was given the opportunity to kick Notre Dame's first FG attempt of the fourth quarter. Yet when Notre Dame neededd a field goal to seal the game with 2:15 left, Fitzpatrick was sent out again and missed from 29. While Fitzpatrick's willingness to play through injury is commendable, the decision to use Fitzpatrick on the final attempt was perplexing. Fortunately, Fitzpatrick has five weeks to recover before the Irish take the field in their BCS game.

Jack-ass. Long-time BGS readers know how I feel about Keith Jackson. ABC's refusal to put the old fool out of his misery forced viewers to suffer through disconcerting displays of Jackson's dementia. Throughout the night, Jackson's descriptions of play were wildly inaccurate, such as the time he declared "completes it" as a pass was intercepted or when he stated that Stanford's PAT attempt was "for the win" or when he speculated the Notre Dame would use a tee on an FG attempt. However, Jackson moved from mere senility to outright jackassery when discussing Matt Shelton. Having suffered a second major ACL injury, Shelton was unable to repeat his spectacular performance of 2004, one that saw him torment Michigan defensive backs. Nonetheless, Shelton's ability to come back and contribute after another reconstructive surgery is certainly more laudable than, say, June Jones's solicitude of felons. While ESPN praised the latter on Friday, Jackson scoffed at the "horrible" season Shelton was having. The blustering fool made this comment after Shelton threw the block that sprung Samardzija on the 80-yard TD. Shelton would go on to haul in a 25-yard reception on a critical third down.

What if we give it away? As Stanford kept the game competitive until the final minute, it was hard to keep visions of past last-season crushing losses out of mind. Would the Stanford game turn out like '91 Tennessee, where Notre Dame's inability to kick a field goal following Craig Hentrich's injury allowed the Volunteers to pull off the largest comeback in Notre Dame Stadium? Fitzpatrick's injury and the two missed FGs made this comparison hard to ignore. Or would '93 Boston College be the more appropriate comparison? At times, Matt Traverso looked like Pete Mitchell against Rick Minter's defense. Or were we witnessing another '96 USC, where a certain trip to a Bowl Alliance game was lost in the final regular season game due to a missed extra point? Fortunately, one ruthlessly efficient final drive and Abiamiri pressure spared us this debate.

The blueprint. Saturday's game can be cast into several familiar narratives. For example, one could describe how Stanford followed the blueprint for an upset victory to near perfection. The familiar formula for an underdog victory is to win the turnover battle, limit penalties, and make big plays in special teams. Stanford did not commit a single turnover, finishing the game +2 in turnover margin. Only two penalties were enforced against the Cardinal (others were called, but those were declined). T.J. Rushing's 87-yard kickoff return provided Stanford with a huge special teams play. The Trees were also aided by Notre Dame's inefficacy in the kicking game due to a hobbled D.J. Fitzpatrick. It was this formula that allowed Stanford to remain in the game despite being outgained by over 300 yards. Viewed in this light, Notre Dame's seven-point win doesn't look so bad. Alternatively, one could interpret the game as a disappointing performance by a team that isn't quite as good as it thinks it is. Notre Dame never needed to punt in the second half, reaching the Stanford red zone on every second-half possession. Yet the Irish red zone offense sputtered, leading to two missed field goals. Which narrative is more accurate? Probably somewhere in between. That the Irish were able to win a game where they made so many more mistakes than their opponent is a good thing, but of course it's a bad thing that they made so many mistakes in the first place.