Thursday, November 10, 2005

Remember, remember the 5th of November | by Pat

After a brief hiatus, let's get back to highlighting some of the players and plays from ther previous week's game.

QB - Considering that UT only allowed 3 passing touchdowns total in their first seven games, the fact that Quinn's 3-touchdown, 0-interception day felt like an "off day" is really amazing. True, he wasn't at his best, but we should give some credit to a superb Tennessee front four. And even when his touch might have been off a bit (and that's being really nit-picky) he still made great decisions, had only a few forced passes, and stood tall against a tough pass rush. He did rifle in a few of those incomplete passes on the short slant routes on third downs, but when the option is a slower pass that could be intercepted, I'll take the former. On NBC they said that Quinn has avoided about 5 sacks a game due to his feet, and I believe it. He had a great run in the 4th quarter to evade a UT sack. With Quinn on the bench, Wolke showed fine form as always, handing the ball off in the 4th quarter. Here's hoping he gets in early enough to throw a few passes against Navy.

RB - I noticed the comments below about ND's running game, and I think there are a few things we need to point out. First, I don't think I'm surprising anyone when I say that it appears that Walker is nicked up a bit. Maybe I'm wrong, but that looks like a wrap under his pads to me, and lately he hasn't shown the burst he had earlier in the year. And yet, he was still running hard and averaging 4.6 yards a carry, right up until his final two carries when he only managed 1-yard gains against a UT defense with 8 men in the box. He also was extremely useful as a receiver on screens that took advantage of the over-aggressive UT front four. With his four receptions, Walker is now only 11 catches away from the record for most receptions by a running back in a season (Bob Gladieux - 1968). The play of the game, though, was his block in the first quarter that flipped the blitzing Volunteer linebacker and gave Quinn time to find Fasano for ND's first touchdown. Walker's pass blocking really has been getting better all year long. In-season improvement...what a concept.

Travis Thomas had a rougher time carrying the ball than Walker, but he also had a few carries where the Vols defense got to him just around the same time the ball did. He's seeing more and more carries early in the game which I think is great. He presents a different style of runner than Walker and keeps Walker from wearing down like he did in the Michigan game. Already he seems to be the de facto replacement for Rashon Powers-Neal on short yardage and red-zone situations.

Schwapp opened up some decent holes as a blocker and once again saw time at tailback at the end of the game. I think he's doing great for a freshman, but I think ND does miss the versatility of RPN, especially with the threat of screens. As in the Purdue game, ND ran a play-action pass near the goalline looking to hit Schwapp in the flat for the TD, but he was covered, so Quinn had to tuck and run. I expect Schwapp and the rest of the running back depth chart to get a lot of carries against Navy.

WR - Stovall's touchdown grab was absolutely the best of his career. Just a great play. But right up there was Mo's blocking during the game. He cleared the way for Fasano's TD, and helped to spring Samardzija for his 73-yard gallop down the sideline; you really get the feeling that he enjoys tossing around smaller defensive backs. Weis has mentioned the need for blockers to play with a defensive attitude, and I think Stovall definitely has bought into that. He has to be shooting up the draft boards right now: he's having a great season and is on pace to finish 6th on ND's all-time receiving list (or maybe 5th, if you count the bowl game).

Another game, another touchdown catch for Jeff Samardzija. Another game, and another chance to prove that he can catch anything. He also showed that he has "surprisingly good speed" as he turned the corner on his 73-yard gainer. He did have the mental lapse on the lateral pass, which is odd because in another game (Purude, I believe) he dropped a pass near the line of scrimmage and ran out and dove on it as the defenders stood around and watched. Either way, I don't think any ND receiver is going to let a ball like that bounce around again, as Charlie seems to love finding a few teaching points from each game and drilling them into the team during the next week's practice.

TE - It's hard to believe that it took Anthony Fasano 32 receptions to notch his first touchdown. And he almost didn't get it. It took a full extension to reach the ball past the pylon. Definitely a great touchdown play in a season full of great touchdown plays. And as always, he proved to be a solid blocker on the big and physical Tennessee linebackers.

John Carlson had a quiet day statistically, but was working hard as a blocking tight end. One sequence of plays in particular showcased Weis' love of calling the same play out of different formations. On the first play, Carlson lined up off the line of scrimmage on the right side. Stovall and Samardzija were split out wide. On the snap, Santucci let the defensive tackle slide by him as he released to seal off the end. As Quinn handed the ball off to Walker, Carlson shot over on a "wham" block to knock the tackle, who had a straight shot at Walker, away from the play. The result was a 4 yard gain. Next play, Schwapp came in and lined up offset right. Stovall and Samardzija both lined up on the left side. On the snap though, same play. Schwapp came over and drilled the tackle and Walker rushed up the middle again for 11 yards. ND has run this play a lot this season, but usually when a tight end is involved it is Freeman who throws the block. Nice to see Carlson getting physical.

OL - A pretty good game for the offensive line. The rushing stats weren't ideal, and any hole that opened against this good UT defensive line usually closed up in a hurry. Still, our line played a very good game against the best D-line in college football and kept the penalties to a minimum, despite numerous attempts to try and draw them offsides. One of the plays of the game was when Mark LeVoir absolutely buried Vol DB Stewart as he went up to grab Quinn's tipped screen pass to Fasano. Towards the end of the game things seemed to breakd down; the Vol defense limited ND to two field goals and got too much penetration into the ND backfield. With a much easier schedule the rest of the season, I hope ND works on that short yardage grind that'll be needed in the bowl game.

DL - I was impressed by the D-line on Saturday. A line with little depth and starting an undersized redshirt freshman at end not only held their own against a mammoth UT offensive line, but put fairly consistent pressure on Ainge. The stats only show 3 sacks, but there were many more plays where Ainge was pressured into early throws or chased from the pocket and forced to throw off the run. Sure, there were times when Ainge had all day to throw, and this is where I think ND misses the pure speed edge rusher. But the ND line, to their credit, never quits -- Landri in particular -- and a QB like Ainge who isn't a fast decision-maker found himself in trouble.

Arian Foster had a big game for Tennessee running the ball, but it seemed that a lot of his yards were the result of his own abilities rather than big holes opened up by the offense. Abiamiri hasn't had the season that some expected but he really is a disruptive force if you watch him. He was only a step away from Ainge on numerous throws, and I'm pretty sure the UT tackle still has a handful of his jersey.

It was interesting late in the game to see ND resort to the 3-man rush. I started to scan the sideline for Kent Baer, but the difference was that nearly every time they presented a 3-man rush, we blitzed either Hoyte or Mays, sometimes both. One of the few times we only rushed three and dropped everyone else back into coverage was on Wooden's interception.

LB - Hotye and Mays spent plenty of time blitzing, but Tennessee did a good job picking it up most of the day. Mays still had a few big hits and kept the Vols from having more big plays on the ground. Hoyte also had a great defensive play right before Wooden's interception where he batted down a sure first-down pass.

Mo Crum had one of his best games, I thought. Ainge did pick on him twice on the 3rd-and-long pass plays that both resulted in first and goal for the Vols, but Crum was all over the field for the rest of the game. He shot through the line for tackles for loss and finally got a pass deflection on great play near the sideline in the 4th quarter.

CB - I can't remember a game where Notre Dame brought so much pressure on blitzes from the edge. Zbikowski notched his first career sack on a blitz, Nedu almost had a sack, and Richardson blitzed numerous times from his corner slot. Granted the Tennessee offense isn't a barn burner, but the coverage was solid and both interceptions came as ND was trying to ice the game. (Note to Wooden: Don't outrun your convoy. A few steps behind them to read the blocks and you're the one handing the ball to the ref in the endzone.) Ferrine looked pretty good in the nickel with a great play on the ball near the endzone. It's fun to watch the secondary get better from game to game. They are really playing with a lot of confidence now.

Special Teams - The fact that Tennessee doesn't have a special teams coach really showed; ND had one of its best all-around games on special teams in a long time. Zbikowski shredded their punt defense for over 100 yards and a touchdown and Richardson forced a key fumble on a return early in the game. Even D.J. Hord looked good, averaging over 20 yards a kick return. Both he and Grimes have been one guy from breaking a really long kickoff return a couple of times. Hopefully they can get one before the season ends.

About the only thing that still isn't ideal are our kickoffs, which still tend to die out around the 8 yard line. Fitzpatrick reaches the endzone about once a game, so he does have the leg for it, but most of them tend to fall short. As long as the kick coverage team does a good job filling all the lanes we should be okay, but I'd much rather have the kick land a yard or three deep in the endzone and make the returner think about his options for a few seconds.

Overall, it was a big win for the Irish. Tennessee is having a rough year but they are still a very solid team filled with future NFL players. The fact that ND didn't panic when the Vols tied things up show that they are really buying into the whole "winning" thing that Weis brought to the program. The next step I'd like to see is the team put away the opponent early and not let them back into the game. With Navy, Syracuse, and Stanford coming up, I think the opportunities to work on that will be ample.