Monday, September 04, 2006

Hit me with your best shot | by Pat

Midway through the third quarter, KaMichael Hall took a shot at Darius Walker as he was being tackled and nearly took his head off. Marcus Marter of the SBT got a picture of the impact and looking at it, it's amazing Darius was able to return from such a violent hit.

And in a way, his play to me summed up the entire game against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets came out of the gate with an unrelenting, aggressive style of play that knocked the Irish on their back and left them stunned and temporarily motionless. Yet, after shaking out the cobwebs, the Irish, much like Darius, were able to pick themselves back up off the turf, return to the game, and make the necessary plays needed to win.

It wasn't pretty, and many of the preseason concerns are now magnified, but it was still a win on the road against an opponent that was about as fired up as I've seen. After re-watching the game, here's my take on how the Irish did.

QB - For awhile there, Brady Quinn looked like the Quinn from 2004, and not the Quinn from 2005. Of course, that probably had something to do with the fact that he was getting hit like the Quinn of 2004. And even in 2004 I don't remember a head shot as hard as the one Philip Wheeler laid on him. Probably as a result, Quinn had some happy feet at times and was a bit off on his deep ball. Fair or unfair, the expectations on Quinn are sky-high this year and every little thing he does wrong is going to be magnified. Sure he looked off at times last night, but he'll be fine. And of course, when it really came down to needing to make the play, such as the goal line sneak, the 3rd and 9 pass to Rhema late in the 4th, and the 4th and 1 sneak to seal the game, Quinn came through.

RB - Walker seemed like the forgotten man in the first half with only 8 rushes. Weis mentioned that Quinn checked out of running plays frequently in the first half, which skewed the run/pass ratio and led to Weis calling run only plays in the 2nd half. And in the 2nd half, Walker shook off the hit to his head/neck and gave the Irish the spark on offense they needed. After his screen pass TD was called back on a penalty, Walker took a pitch and surprised me with the speed to beat Tech defensive back Kenny Scott to the corner and dive into the end zone. On that play Walker came through with a score when ND couldn't afford another field goal adventure.

It was great to see Travis Thomas get some carries and, as Weis noted, Travis' attack the hole mentality, combined with a tired Walker, is why he was in the game as ND was trying to run out the clock. And despite playing defense for nearly the entire game, he still looked pretty fresh running the ball. At fullback, Schwapp had a pretty uneven game. On running plays he's pretty decent and laid the lumber on a few guys. But on passing plays, his pass blocking was very leaky against the fast Tech linebackers. It almost seems like once he's moving forward, he can get the defender out of the way, but when he's playing a more reactive role, he has trouble blocking in space. When he got the ball he looked pretty good on the short yardage dives up the middle. Finally, it was fun to see freshman Munir Prince line up in the backfield, but hopefully soon he'll get to do more than just motion out wide.

WR - It was great to see Rhema back on the field and by the way he was throwing himself all over the field you could tell he was excited to be back. There were a few drops, but there were also a few tough catches. The holding call on him on the 1st drive was crap, but that's life. I really think that if ND had scored on that first drive it would have been a different game. Oh well. Samardzija had a fairly quiet night, but still had a really nice catch on the deep ball in the 4th quarter. I do have to say I love when Samardzija stiff-arms smaller corners while running for the first down line. The only pass thrown David Grimes' way was off-target, so he really didn't get a chance to do much. I suspect we might be seeing more of him though against PSU's 3-4 defense.

TE - John Carlson isn't the blocker that Anthony Fasano was, but he is still very aggressive against his man and certainly gives an all out effort. He might have a bit of trouble with defensive lineman during the season, but I think will be effective against linebackers. His circus catch in the 2nd quarter was an impressive display of his hands. Marcus Freeman had a good game blocking and looked pretty athletic on his one pass reception. I hope he starts to see the ball a lot more. There was also a freshman sighting when Will Yeatman came into the game late in the 4th when ND ran a 3-TE set while running out the clock.

OL - Perhaps the most disappointing group of the game. The relentless Tech blitzes had the OL on their heels early and it seems that guys were flinching before the snap all game long. All of the penalties were very discouraging for such a veteran line. Ryan Harris looked rusty, as one might expect considering he sat out most of fall camp. Dan Santucci had a rough time initially with the quick GT lineman, but as the game wore on he started to win more than his fair share of the battles. Sullivan also was a bit slow to start, but if you rewatch that final 4th and 1 play to win the game, he absolutely destroyed the Georgia Tech line and gave Quinn an easy ride past the 1st down marker. Morton had the roughest game I thought as he missed a number of blitzing linebackers and was beat by the faster Yellow Jacket lineman more than the other lineman. Was he too worried with helping freshman Sam Young? I'm not sure, but Morton did have a rough game. As for that freshman Young, he's going to be a Consensus All-American at Notre Dame. I really don't see any way around it. His false start at the beginning of the game was about the only freshman jitters I saw from him all game. He was fast, was able to knock lineman and linebackers back, and was quick enough to keep the edge rushers away from Quinn pretty much the entire game. He's a keeper. Mattes and Duncan got in for a series with Mattes replacing Morton at guard. He's built like a tall tackle, but I thought Mattes did a pretty good job in his limited time on the field.

DL - It's kind of hard to judge the DL because I'm not sure if they were playing a more reactive style due to worries about Reggie Ball's mobility (glass half full) or because they were just being neutralized by the Tech OL (glass half empty). Victor was doubled team nearly the entire game, but he should be used to that by now. Laws and Landri weren't able to get much pressure up the middle, although they did get pressure later in the game as the Tech lineman started to tire. The Talley/Frome side of the line was the target of most of the most successful Yellow Jacket runs. I thought Frome looked good out there keeping contain and running down the play, but there still wasn't much in the way of a pass rush from either. One bright spot though was the appearance of freshman Morrice Richardson. By my notes, he first got into the game at the 12:54 mark in the 3rd quarter. And on his first play he blew by the Tech left tackle and nearly got to Ball as he was releasing the pass. Later in the game, Mo again beat the lineman with a speed move and would have had the sack on Ball had Crum not blitzed in and taken him down first. Expect to see a lot more of Richardson on 3rd downs.

LB - The play of rookie linebacker Travis Thomas was a bright spot in an otherwise bad performance by the linebackers. From making the first tackle of the game to always showing up near the ball, I was impressed by Thomas. His smaller size means he's probably going to keep losing the matchups with the opposing OL when they get their hands on him, but I was encouraged by his instincts, the angles he took, and his speed. Mitchell Thomas and Anthony Vernaglia on the other hand whiffed on a few open field tackles. And shortly thereafter, ND swapped out the SAM 'backer for an extra DB and stayed in the nickel formation for pretty much the rest of the game. As has been noted in Mike's Odds and Sods, other teams are going to have a field day running on ND if the third linebacker position isn't fixed soon. Crum looked ok at the middle, but I can't help but think he'd be more effective on the outside. Is Toryan Smith the answer in the middle? I don't know. But I know I'd love to see how he does in a game. Could Zibby play the nickel while Ray Herring substitutes in at strong safety? ND used Zibby and Herring on the field at the same time during the GT game, so maybe we'll see it again.

DB - Quick, name the last time the secondary was the least of your concerns on the Irish team. Ok, they aren't perfect, but I do like what I saw on Saturday. Nothing more needs to be said about Zibby. He's a warrior and likely will lead the team in tackles. Ndukwe's big hit on Johnson probably wouldn't have happened if he had bit on the fake toss to Tashard Choice. He stayed back in position and made a great play. He definitely looks quicker to me while still retaining his big hit ability. The frequent use of the nickel had some interesting outcomes. Richardson as the nickel back paid off as he's a very solid open field tackler and did a decent job against the run. However, in the long run I'd much have a linebacker in there. Having freshman Darrin Walls match up with Calvin Johnson one-on-one while Ambrose Wooden was in the locker room getting an injury tended to was a baptism by fire if I've ever seen one. Personally, I thought he did a great job. Sure he let up the big pass to Johnson, but the line of CBs who let up a pass to Johnson is long indeed. Walls has a very bright future at ND.

Special Teams - A real up and down day. The returns by Grimes and West were fantastic. The field goal shanks by Gioia where pretty bad. I suspect it will be an interesting battle all season long between Burkhart and Gioia. Weis did say that Gioia is kicking the next one, so we'll see what happens. On kickoffs, Bobby Renkes was a very pleasant surprise. He nailed the ball into the endzone, which was a concern before the season started. If he can keep that up, that will be a huge advantage for ND. Ditto the punts of Geoff Price. I can see the concerns of him out-kicking the coverage because he has a cannon for a leg. He really bailed ND out in the game with some excellent punting.

All in all, it was a sloppy first game. A bit disconcerting coming from such a veteran team, but I'll hold off until the Penn State game before getting too worried. Beside, major kudos to Georgia Tech. They played extremely hard and were outstanding on defense. The middle linebacker, #41 Philip Wheeler, is fantastic. It's no wonder they call him the Calvin Johnson of the defense.