Wednesday, September 26, 2007

the Unknown Offense | by Jay

That pretty much sums it up for this season so far, doesn't it?

Although I have to say, I think I finally peeked out from under my own metaphorical paper bag this week. In fact, I think I can pinpoint the exact series: right when James Aldridge broke off the longest Irish run of the year, and Robert Hughes pounded it up the middle, dragging four Spartans with him into the end zone. Until the Michigan State game, the rushing attack had been Four Horses Running Backwards. What we saw on Saturday was a semblance of what we thought this team's identity was going to be to start the season. Finally, it looks like we're developing an identity, a core competency, or as Charlie put it, that "niche you can hang your hat on" (malapropism aside). Other thoughts:

• Aldridge & Hughes, with Allen mixed in: there's your rushing recipe for the rest of the year, and on into 2008.

• Aldridge's 43-yard gallop was the longest run by an Irish RB going back to Travis Thomas' 43-yarder against Penn State last year, on the fake punt. The only run longer was Quinn's 60-yard scramble against Southern Cal last year. (Darius Walker, God love him, only had 4 runs over 20 yards in '06). By the way, in all of 2005 we never had a run longer than 38 yards.

• Credit Turkovich on that drive. He may not be the best pass blocker in the world, but he mauled a lineman or two on some of those runs. Also, George West popped a couple of nice blocks downfield.

• Sharpley was in at the end of the game to manage the two-minute drill (and possibly a no-huddle). Don't read anything more into that.

• McNeil came in for Zibby for a defensive package called "penny", where you've got three cornerbacks on the field, and all your regular linebackers. Knowing that Purdue likes to spread it out (and still run the ball out of the spread), I wonder if we won't see more "penny" this week.

• We cut our sacks given up in half (and gave only one up to the "Sackmaster") and we cut the penalties way down, too (4 total). Progress. (I feel like a reporter for Pravda: Progress: Building a Better Future -- Today!)

• 3rd & 9. They convert. 3rd & 17. They convert. 4th & 2? No problem. That fumblerooski on 4th down was a nice play, but Danantonio was a little smug in explaining how it worked. He made it sound like a low risk proposition to put the ball on the turf and scoop it back up. I don't care how many times you practice it, fumbling the ball, whether on purpose or not, is risky. Credit to MSU for pulling it off.

The Big Picture. Our own Pete had an interesting take over on Cartier Field that I hadn't seen expressed in exactly this way so far. Read on...

"You're never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you're never as bad as they say when you lose." - Lou Holtz

This quote and others with a similar message have been kicked around these parts pretty often this season, as an attempt to shore up the troops and remind everyone that, as bad as things appear on paper, there are positives to be found and appreciated in this young team. We may look bad, and people may say that we are bad, perhaps the worst, but it's not as bad as it can feel when you're trying to reconcile your hangover, sunburn, and bruised ego following another defeat.

Taking a look at the projected depth charts, you may have expected 2007 to be a down year for the Irish, but it's probably a safe contention that nobody expected it to be this bad. Three games without an offensive touchdown, an offense in the cellar in nearly every statistical category, and defense that isn't strong enough yet to make a game competitive on its own. It's been bad. Very bad. Historically bad.

And people look back at Charlie Weis's track record, in particular his losses, and express concern over the fact that when he loses, he loses big.

However, others may point out that those losses aren't as bad as they appear. Notre Dame, despite hemorrhaging yards on defense, was in it against OSU in the fourth quarter of the Fiesta Bowl. The yardage against USC in 2006 indicated a much closer game than the score. Notre Dame was a few plays away from LSU at halftime of the Sugar Bowl. But the scores looked like we were just blown out of the water.

Simply put, Charlie Weis doesn't care about appearances. While many of us found enjoyment and hope among the despair in the heroic 2005 loss to USC, Weis said he didn't believe in moral victories, even though he just made the best case for one possible. The beginning and end of Charlie's motivation is to win football games, all the other chatter and white noise exists somewhere far off over the horizon.

In those blowout losses, Charlie Weis never relented from his attempts to win the game. It'd be easy enough, as the lead grew, to keep the ball on the ground, grind up a few more yards while chewing up clock, work harder to keep the defense on the bench than the offense in the end zone, and walk out of the stadium having "kept it close."

But Charlie didn't. He passed the ball, made every attempt to continue scoring points to reduce the deficit, and when the team sputtered, gave the opponent chances to take advantage of the defense. That's the risk you run when you try to win. Charlie's losses look so bad because he never took his foot off the gas pedal, and never accepted anything less than the maximum effort to win. If he's going to lose, he's going to lose big while still trying to win. Appearances be damned.

As this season approached, Charlie knew he was dealing with a different type of team. Inexperience abound, lack of leadership, and a dearth of talent amongst the players he should be able to count on to pick up the slack of the departed. If we schlubs can see how this season was going to be trouble, I have no doubts that Charlie knew he was in for a bumpy ride as well.

As the season has disastrously progressed, Weis has been criticized (and rightfully so) for overemphasizing his scheme and gameplanning at the expense of fundamentals and establishing an identity. Some have speculated that Weis did it because of his arrogance and over-reliance on his X's and O's acumen, but I disagree. Weis did it because he wanted to give the team the best chance to win, and win now. So he risked it on specific game plans to take advantage of the opponent, in an all or none situation.

It looks now like we got none, and that being recognized after the Michigan game, Weis went back to square one and started building this team brick by brick. Perhaps Charlie should have recognized that no scheming and tweaking could compensate for a rudimentary offensive line and players across the board learning their positions. It may have been a mistake, but I don't think it was an oversight. I think it was Charlie taking a risk to win now, like he has his whole career, and it blew up in his face, as risks are sometimes wont to do.

He told us this was going to happen at the beginning of the season. He was going to deliberately refuse any rebuilding behavior, and expressed a continue desire to win, and to win now. So he develops game plans that try to compensate for weaknesses on the team so we can win now. It didn't work.

He could have slammed players around in training camp, risking injuries he couldn't afford, but that doesn't help him win now. He could have started establishing the playbook from scratch, running sparse plays until perfected, but that wouldn't help the team win now. He could have started building this team brick by brick over the summer, but he threw his lot into the schemes in an attempt to win now. It was a risk, and it didn't work.

But Weis probably saw it as a risk worth taking, as he said, he had an obligation to the seniors to win now.

Maybe he should have recognized the severity of our deficiencies from the outset and set out to travel the long road of correcting them, but it's not his style. We've loved and lamented his risk-taking style in the past, and this season, like those blow-out losses, was made worse because of a commitment to win now, appearances be damned. But that's our coach's way, come hell or high water.

We love this quality (among Super Bowl rings, Charlie Jr. on the sideline, and taking the responsibility for the team) when he wins, and hate them when he loses. Guess what? That's because losing sucks, and we don't feel good when it happens. Anything Charlie does would be criticized if we continued losing, and those criticisms would have nothing to do with the validity of the claim, but just another way of saying, "I feel bad that we continue to lose." Go to any message board of a losing team and you'll see the same.

Charlie took a huge gamble to start the season, and it didn't pay off. That's why they're gambles. So now we're back to square one, and we're building the team brick by brick.

We could have lost to Georgia Tech by 10, or lost to Penn State by 6, or lost to Michigan by 14, and it would have looked better. But we still would have lost, and that's all Charlie cares about.

No amount of bellyaching and criticism will change the outcome of the first four games, and while there are critiques of Weis to be had, you can never doubt his desire to win.

So what do we do now? We continue to support the team and its staff, we continue to look for improvements and development, and we trust that, with Weis committed to rebuilding, we continue to get better and close the margin of defeat. Don't worry about wins and losses, just worry about how the team looks. At this point, the record is just about appearances, and guess what? Appearances be damned.

The first three games were a complete wash, as schematic adjustments failed miserably. The MSU game was the first game where the team was committed to growing and improving, and surprise surprise, they did. But they had a long way to go, and therefore still lost. And the team will probably continue to lose, but also continue to improve. And after a while, we'll start winning, and continuing to improve and win.

In a noble attempt, Weis tried to win now with a severely overmatched team, and failed miserably. You can't blame him for trying his best to win now, considering that's what we hired him for. He's a risk-taker, and if we want to enjoy the benefits it brings, we also must be prepared for the dangers it possesses.

But now that he's committed to improving the team, forget about the past, and stay focused on the future. Because it's going to be bright.
Agree? Disagree? Let's hear it.

Finally, here's a bit that ran on NPR last week on the Irish's toils and troubles.