Monday, September 04, 2006

Odds & Sods - Slide Rules and Short-Sleeved Shirts Edition | by Mike

On the one hand, the Georgia Tech game was a disconcerting disappointment. On the other hand, one cannot reasonably argue that this was a game Georgia Tech "should have won." Yet even with these points in mind, it's difficult to find the right tenor for Saturday's game. At bottom, the question is which of Saturday's problems can be corrected and which will plague Notre Dame all year long.

Between the bars. One of my biggest preseason concerns materialized, as Carl Gioia was unable to put either of his field goal attempts through the uprights. While the 36- and 42-yard attempts may not have been chip shots, I suspect most top 25 programs would be comfortable sending out their field goal kicker from those distances. The misses affected the complexion of the game, swinging momentum in Georgia Tech's favor and energizing the crowd. What is particularly concerning about the kicking problems is that this looks like an area where improvement is unlikely. Placekickers usually develop less than any other position in college football - they either have it or they don't. If the Irish continue to give away points in the kicking game, this weakness will probably be outcome-determinative in at least one game this season.

While placekicking was troubling, kickoffs and punting were pleasant surprises. Bobby Renkes did an excellent job with the kickoffs, garnering one touchback and holding Georgia Tech inside the 20 on the other two kickoffs. While protection issues allowed Georgia Tech's rush to get uncomfortably close to punter Geoff Price at times, Price averaged over 50 yards on his 5 punts. Renkes, Price, and their accompanying coverage units were a big reason Georgia Tech scored the fewest points against the Irish since last year's Michigan game (interestingly, also a road game).

Run thru. Another preseason question mark, the linebacking corps, did not impress. Georgia Tech averaged 4.2 yards/rush. The linebackers had difficulty making plays and getting off their blocks. Indeed, I suspect taking away Calvin Johnson was not the only reason Notre Dame played so much of the second half with a fifth (or sixth) DB. The defensive backs were simply outplaying the linebackers. In particular, the oft-criticized safety duo of Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe had excellent games. Zbikowski led the team in tackles and Ndukwe finished third. Ndukwe also demonstrated that Calvin Johnson does not, in fact, catch everything. This game confirmed that the linebackers are a bigger issue for the defense than the secondary. Before the season, I wrote that while the linebackers might be shaky, few teams featured the power running game necessary to exploit this weakness. In particular, I thought Michigan's offensive line would still be unsettled by September 16. However, if Notre Dame's linebackers are even more unsettled than Michigan's OL come September 16, Mike Hart will have a big game. The long-term solution would appear to be Toryan Smith at MLB with Maurice Crum moving back outside. Yet without the experience provided by an early September tuneup against a patsy, Smith will probably not be in the starting lineup by the Michigan game.

Protect ya neck. The third major concern to emerge from the game was pass protection. Until midway through the second quarter, Jon Tenuta's blitzes gave the Notre Dame offense all kinds of problems. This was particularly troubling given that the Irish had an entire offseason to prepare for Tenuta's schemes. The question then becomes whether the Irish blockers failed to protect Quinn because of mental mistakes or because Georgia Tech's front seven was simply winning the physical battles up front. That the Irish solved the protection problems by the second half suggests that the sources of the problems were mental and schematic. However, in the first quarter GT got to Quinn even when the Irish went five wide. Weis has stated how five wide is his "comfort zone," forcing the defense to spread out and making blitzes easier to recognize. Since the Jackets were still getting to Quinn in this formation, they presumably won their share of physical battles. I would say that there were some blockers who made mental mistakes, some that got beat, and some that did both. While I expect Weis to correct the mental mistakes, it looks like the Irish will miss the blocking of Dan Stevenson and Anthony Fasano more than most thought they would.

After the smoke is clear. Don't let the above concerns lead you to believe that Notre Dame should have lost the game. While these issues may haunt Notre Dame in the future, the Irish controlled most of the game. Notre Dame had more first downs, more rushing yards, more passing yards, more total yards, better kickoff coverage, better kickoff returns, and a sizeable lead in time of possession. Georgia Tech's only statistical edge came in penalty yards (ND - 80 yards, GT - 28 yards). In 2005, GT usually won the battle of halftime adjustments, outscoring opponents 79-37 in the third quarter. On Saturday, the Irish won the decisive third quarter 7-0. During the final 34:23, the Irish outgained Tech 295 yards to 65 yards. Yet the most telling statistic was third-down conversions. The Irish converted on 7 of 16 third downs, while Tech converted on only 2 of 10 third downs and did not manage a single third-down conversion in the second half. The team that was able to sustain drives and retain possession was the team that won. This was also the down where the difference in quarterback play was most evident. Thus although Tenuta's defense put on an impressive display, the Irish did not steal a victory.

I will dare. Another factor to keep in mind in assessing Notre Dame's first-game performance is the quality of opposition. Notre Dame opened the season, on the road, against a BCS conference team. In Week 1, 14 of the 25 teams in the AP Top 25 played non-BCS conference teams. Of the 11 games against BCS conference teams, three involved Kentucky, Vandy, and Baylor. Of the Top 25 teams, only 5 played on the road. While Notre Dame didn't cruise to victory like most Top 25 teams did this weekend, they were also one of the few such programs not to schedule a walkover for the first game. Georgia Tech knocked off Auburn in Week 1 of 2005, then went on to hold Miami to 237 total yards and Georgia to 266 total yards.

The official ironman rally song. One of the reasons Notre Dame was able to take control of the game in the second half was because Georgia Tech's defense was gassed. Despite spending all summer in the stank Atlanta humidity, the Yellowjackets tired before the visiting Irish. Travis Thomas embodied Notre Dame's superior conditioning, coming in at running back to grind out 19 yards on 6 carries when the Irish were trying to run out the clock in the 4th quarter.

One of us must know. Bob Davie had a rare opportunity to speak from experience in the booth when he stated, "As a coach, your worst nightmare is to be tagged as someone with poor clock management." And so I ask you, dear reader, which game came to mind first when you heard this statement - LSU '98 or Purdue '99?

Tomorrow is already here. Eleven freshman got into the game for Notre Dame, and many were quite visible in their debuts. George West was the first Notre Dame player to touch the ball, taking the opening kickoff out to the 45-yard-line. On the next play, Sam Young came out at right tackle, becoming Notre Dame's first freshman offensive lineman ever to start the season opener. Raeshon McNeil brought down a Georgia Tech punt returner at the 12-yard-line. While Darrin Walls' most visible play was the long pass completion to Calvin Johnson down the sideline, the curious decision to leave one of the nation's best wide receivers alone with a freshman should not take away from Walls' otherwise encouraging play. Morrice Richardson brought a spark as a third-down pass-rush specialist. Sergio Brown, Jashaad Gaines, Richard Jackson, Munir Prince, John Ryan, and Will Yeatman also saw gametime.