Sunday, November 18, 2007

Odds & Sods - Devil's Haircut Edition | by Mike

The big question following Notre Dame's victory over Duke is how much of the Irish victory is attributable to improved play and how much is due to weakness of the opponent.

The Middle. Filling in for injured starters, Dan Wenger and Ian Williams made their first starts as center and nose guard, respectively, and both held strong along the middle of their line. Wenger consistently got the better of Duke DT Vince Oghobaase. Given that Oghobaase is a former five-star recruit and freshman All-American, I don't think Wenger's play is diminished by the opponent. On the other side of the ball, Williams held his ground, despite the challenge of playing nose guard in a 3-4 as a freshman. Williams should give the Irish much needed flexibility along the DL next year, including allowing the defense to shift to an even-man front when needed.

This guy is a bulldozer. With a wrecking ball attached! Freshman Robert Hughes turned in one of the best performances by an Irish running back this year, gaining 110 yards on 17 carries and bulling his way to a touchdown. Of those 110 yards, more than 60 came after first contact with a Duke defender. Obviously, rushing for 100 yards against Duke is not the same as rushing for 100 yards against Southern Cal. It wouldn't be reasonable to expect Hughes to break that many tackles against every opponent. Nonetheless, Hughes showed some qualities that are impressive regardless of opponent. The vision on short-yardage plays and the balance he demonstrated are both key attributes for a running back and largely independent of the opponent faced.

Jimmy Jazz. Clausen completed 16 of 32 passes for 194 yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Those numbers would have been even better but for five drops. Clausen also completed passes to eight different receivers. Perhaps the best measure of Clausen's improvement was the Irish offense's performance on 3rd down. The Irish converted on 10 of 18 third downs, the most third-down conversions for ND since the 2005 Southern Cal game. A few of these came via Jimmy's feet, as Clausen displayed a good feel for knowing when to scramble for the first down. Although he did underthrow a deep pass to Golden Tate after Tate had slipped by his man, Clausen threw with dart-like precision for most of the game. The first touchdown pass to Grimes was the type of throw that had recruitniks drooling over Clausen's play. Obviously, the Duke defense played a significant role in Clausen's success, but at least three other factors appear to have contributed to Clausen's development. First, Clausen is simply healthier than he has been at any other time this season. Clausen entered the season dinged up and then took some pretty brutal hits early in the season. Second, Clausen has the benefit of game experience against Division I defenses. Third, I think Clausen has more confidence in both himself and his pass protection. Earlier in the season, Clausen (understandably) seemed to play as if his first priority was to avoid getting sacked. Yesterday, he knew when to work through his progressions and when to bail out of the pocket and make something happen on the run. Whether Clausen can maintain this level of production against better defenses remains to be seen, but it will certainly be exciting to see what Clausen accomplishes if he can stay healthy and get quality blocking.

Carry the Zero. Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis entered the game with a touchdown pass in twelve straight games, but the Irish defense ended that streak. But for a Zack Asack scamper with 1:12 left, the Irish defense would have had a shutout. The touchdown didn't seem to bother Weis, who said after the game, "I'd rather get those kids in the game than worry about the shutout." Even if the opponent was Duke, it was still nice to see the defense put up such a solid performance.

No Confidence Man. There's a Lou Holtz quip to the effect that a fast player that doesn't know what he's doing will just run himself out of the play sooner. A player with average speed that knows what he's doing will generally beat a fast player that's not sure of his responsibility. I think this principle extends to confidence - a confident player with average speed will generally beat a faster player who lacks confidence and therefore plays tentative. One of main the problems for this year's Irish team appears to be a crisis of confidence. I can recall reading quotes from Air Force players that they could see the lack of confidence in the faces of the Irish players. This lack of confidence has led to hesitation on the field, which has led to big plays for opponents. On the game's first drive, the Irish seemed to be gaining some confidence. However, after the bizarre personal foul call on John Carlson and the ensuing missed field goal, the team seemed to have a "here we go again" mentality and proceeded to muddle through most of the first half. For this reason, I think the biggest play of the game was Eric Maust's punt in the second quarter. With the Irish set to punt from the Duke 49, Maust was unable to pull down a high snap. Yet somehow Maust was able to locate the ball, pick it up, and get a punt off before the three swarming Blue Devils reached him. The improvised punt then rolled to the Duke 20. This play saved at least 50 yards in field position. Had Duke ended up with the ball at the Notre Dame 30 - or worse, returned a blocked punt for a touchdown - any trace of confidence the Irish had could have been lost. I don't want to think about whether that would have changed the outcome of the game, but it seems possible.

That personal foul on Carlson, by the way, was positively baffling. It's unrealistic to expect officials to call a perfect game. For example, while it was clear on television that a Duke receiver committed offensive pass interference against Darrin Walls, I can understand how officials miss plays like that on the field. Things are happening at a fast pace, and officials may find themselves with a poor angle, screened by other players, or simply out of position. I'm sure similar errors were made in Notre Dame's favor at other times in the game. But the PF on Carlson defies any explanation. This was a dead ball foul after the play was over. Carlson was flagged simply for extending his arm to make the first-down signal. He did not get in the face of a Duke defender when he did it; in fact, he was still on his knees. It's also clear that Carlson did not say anything to a Duke defender, so he wasn't flagged for taunting or trash talk. Players routinely make the first-down gesture in a far more ostentatious manner without drawing a flag. I simply can't guess as to what was going through the officials head when he threw the flag. Ultimately, I guess this was just a case of getting the officiating a game between two 1-9 teams deserved.

Leaders of Men. Once again, Trevor Laws did what Trevor Laws does, which is fight to the whistle every single play. Laws's sack of Lewis, where he came up off the ground to make the play, was typical of his persistence. I don't know how the defense will replace Laws, but he seems less concerned. Speaking of the underclassmen forced into action this season, Laws said after the game, "When they grow up a little bit, come into their bodies and their positions, with that work ethic, it's going to be great." Hopefully Pat Kuntz and David Bruton will follow Trevor's example and join Maurice Crum as next year's senior leaders on defense.