Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Odds & Sods - Night of the Living Base Head Edition | by Mike

Still flat. Hopes that the Irish would come out with fire and intensity following the Michigan game were quickly dashed in East Lansing. In the first half, the Irish looked as rattled against the Spartans in all phases of the game as they had against the Wolverines. A fumbled punt return, an interception, an offsides penalty on a kickoff that produced a 28-yard swing in field position - it all felt nauseatingly familiar. Without the luxury of playing the functional equivalent of speed bags in any of the first four games, Weis appeared reluctant to get his team too keyed up for any one of the opening games. It will be interesting if Weis sticks with this strategy during the start of the 2007 season.

This is a call. Michigan State's last touchdown of the first half came when Notre Dame sent Mike Richardson on the familiar corner blitz. I also recall at least one of Michigan's touchdown passes coming against this defense. In fact, I can think of several big plays against the Irish when Richardson blitzes. It's been a long time since an opponent was surprised by this call, and when a team is prepared for it, it's easy to defend. Can anyone recall the last time sending Richardson on the blitz created a big play for Notre Dame? If so, let us know in the comments. Note that this is not meant as a criticism of Richardson, who played an excellent game against the Spartans.

Perfect disguise. Once again, Charlie Weis treated Irish fans to a beautiful bit of misdirection. Last year, a pump fake to the sideline set up a wide open Stovall touchdown against BYU. Against Penn State this year, another pump fake to the sideline set up a 12-yard Walker dash on 4th and 2. Against MSU, with the Irish facing 4th and 1 from their own 37, Weis sent in Travis Thomas and multiple tight ends leaving the MSU defenders convinced Notre Dame would try to grind out the yard on the ground. Instead, Quinn lofted a pass to a lonely John Carlson for a 27-yard gain after the Spartan defense was completely fooled by play action. Beautiful design and beautiful execution.

We made it. After the game, many sought to attribute the comeback solely to a characteristic MSU implosion. Yet the critical plays in the second half were not the product of Spartan mental breakdowns - like only sending ten men out onto the field. None of Michigan State's turnovers could be considered unforced; all resulted from outstanding efforts by one or more Irish defenders. Stanton's fumble didn't simply squirt free in the rain. Ndukwe got both hands on the ball and ripped it free. Three Irish defenders combined to produce Stanton's first interception. With linebacker Maurice Crum quickly closing in, Stanton had to rush to get rid of the ball. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Derek Landri once again demonstrated his fantastic instincts and ability to read plays and dropped in front of Stanton's safety valve. Crum and Landri forced the awkward throw that Terrail Lambert grabbed and deposited in the endzone. Lambert's second interception was also the product of great efforts by three Notre Dame defenders. Stanton was about to get drilled by defensive tackle Trevor Laws and with no timeouts left, the Spartans simply could not afford to take a sack. Thus Stanton's attempt to throw into double coverage. Because Richardson and Lambert had the receiver blanketed the deflection and caroms that resulted in Lambert's pick were possible. The specific bounces the ball took should not distract one from the fact that deflections resulting in interceptions are exactly the sort of thing that happens when the ball is thrown into tight double coverage. The real luck regarding fourth quarter turnovers favored MSU, as Zbikowski had an interception negated by an incidental facemask.

Go ahead in the rain. There's nothing like Bob Davie commentary to put an Irish fan further on edge during a tight game. Following up his declaration during the Georgia Tech broadcast that "As a coach, your worst nightmare is to be tagged as someone with poor clock management," Davie assented to Musberger's bizarre clock management theories. When MSU had the ball with about five minutes left, Musberger wondered why Weis wasn't using his timeouts. Of course, had Weis used his timeouts at that point in time, he would have ended up saving more time for the Spartans on their final drive. One of Weis's less touted strengths is game management - which also explains how Weis has managed a 2-0 record in games where the Irish have scored less than 20 points. However, the comments that really brought back the Davie era occurred at the start of the fourth quarter. After Notre Dame had been fighting a strong wind all third quarter, the wind shifted directions between quarters and the Irish found themselves again going into the wind in the fourth quarter. Davie's attitude toward this phenomenon reminded me of both the weight he ascribed to factors beyond the coach's control and his defeatist belief that "no magic was going to fall out of the sky." Despite their shaken confidence early, by the fourth quarter the Irish were ablt to greet the shift with nonchalance.

Hang on to your ego. After the game ended, that lunatic John L. Smith sent his players out to guard the "S" at the center of Michigan State's field. Since Notre Dame has never and will never plant a flag in East Lansing, you're probably asking yourself why Smith & Co. felt such a step was necessary. The answer can be found here.