Monday, November 12, 2007

Post-crash Cleanup | by Jay

Sifting through the wreckage of yet another loss, it's clear there were a litany of critical mistakes in this ugly game. I'll highlight a few of them.

Mistake #1. The first gaffe was on the very first play of the game. You all saw it: Clausen darts the ball to Carlson 25 yards downfield, hitting him in the chest. Carlson catches it, turns, and is immediately stripped by free safety Bobby Giannini. It was a nice effort by Giannini, and a poor one by Carlson. I won't say this "set the tone" for the game, because we did bounce back, but it was a harbinger of things to come.

So we hand over our first possession, and proceed to give up a long drive. But then the defense clamps down. Air Force has a 1st and goal on the 1 yard line, and they rush Hall twice for no gain, then Carney on the keeper for no gain. It's a great defensive stop and the defense is clearly fired up. AFA boots a field goal, which is something of a moral victory.

Mistake #2. ND gets the ball and drives to the Air Force 47, where it's 3rd & 8. Clausen drops back to pass, AFA fires the corner on a zone blitz, and although we're in max protect nobody picks it up. Travis Thomas is looking for the stunt up the middle (which AFA used effectively later in the game), but nobody is looking outside. Clausen gets crunched and we have to punt. The first drive was killed by a turnover, and the second with a sack. We're not off to a rousing start.

(By the way, Mike Anello is my hero. On the punt coverage, he pops into frame just as the ball hits the ground, and deftly swats it between his legs and away from the end zone, downing it on the 2.)

The defense picks up where it left off, stopping Chad Hall on consecutive handoffs for 2 yards and 3 yards. Carney drops back to pass on third down, and Laws gets a paw on the pass and breaks it up. Another good effort by the defense, and it sets up a punt.

Mistake #3 comes on the ensuing ND drive. We have excellent field position from AFA punting from the end zone, starting at the AFA 38. Three rushes by Allen churn out just one yard (the last play being a fake quick pass/handoff that we've run with some success in the past), so we decide to go for it on 4th and 9.

The decision to go for it in this situation is sound. We're down 3, it's still early in the game, the ball is on the AFA 37, it's too far to kick a field goal and probably too close to pooch it (especially with Geoff Price sitting out the game with an injury). But AFA spring another zone blitz on us, dropping a lineman, looping a linebacker around through the middle and blitzing a safety as well. It's a three-on-two matchup on the left side, and Clausen has no chance.

Mistake #4 is a killer. After the defense makes yet another great stop (total yards on the last two Air Force drives: 7), Clausen muffs a handoff to Schwapp -- or Schwapp muffs a handoff from Clausen -- the ball pops up in the air, John Rabold snatches it and rumbles into the end zone to make it 10-0 Air Force. I'm still not clear on whose fault this was; it didn't look like Schwapp was looking for the handoff at all, so it's likely a missed call on his part or Clausen's. Either way, it's a self-inflicted error that resulted directly in -7 points, and killed yet another drive. That's four times we've had the ball, and four times we've tripped over ourselves.

On the next Air Force drive, the Zoomies start to move the ball a little bit. Carney surprises us for 21 yards on a QB draw right up the gut, which is a nice call considering we were focused on Chad Hall, and had shut him down the last half dozen times or so the ball came to him. Air Force makes it all the way to the ND 35, when Carney runs an option left, gets engulfed by Irish linemen, and pitches it sloppily to Hall who can't get a handle on it. ND recovers. Another nice stop by the defense.

The Irish offense finally gets on track, taking it from the ND 37 all the way down to the Air Force 11. It's a nice combo of Aldridge + Allen + some well-timed passes, and it looks like this:

N 1-10 N37 ALDRIDGE rush for 16 yards to the AF47, 1ST DOWN ND
N 1-10 A47 ALDRIDGE rush for 3 yards to the AF44
N 2-7 A44 ALDRIDGE rush for 1 yard to the AF43
N 3-6 A43 CLAUSEN pass complete to GRIMES for 7 yards to the AF36, 1ST DOWN ND, out-of-bounds.
N 1-10 A36 ALLEN rush for 9 yards to the AF27
N 2-1 A27 ALLEN rush for 5 yards to the AF22, 1ST DOWN ND
N 1-10 A22 CLAUSEN pass complete to PARRIS for 3 yards to the AF19.
N 2-7 A19 HUGHES rush for 3 yards to the AF16
N 3-4 A16 ALLEN rush for 5 yards to the AF11, 1ST DOWN ND.

I wish more drives looked like this, because it seems like the mix we've been envisioning since the first game of the season. Schwapp even gets in on the act, throwing a great block on the first play to spring Aldridge for his long gainer. (If you don't believe me, check the tape. Asaph actually made quite a few excellent blocks in this game, which gives me hope for him yet.)

So we're on the AF 11, and it's 1st & 10. What happens next I can't qualify as an out-and-out mistake, but it's a frustrating three-play set. First is a play-action pass that never has time to set up because the OL can't sustain protection; Clausen has no time and has to throw it away. Second is another pass, a fade to Grimes in the left corner that's well-covered. Third is another pass, with Clausen threading it to Parris just across the end zone line, but the pass is broken up. You'd like to see a little more effort by Parris here, because I think the ball was catchable, but he was out-battled by the defender. Nonetheless, three straight passes after you've run the ball well for fifty yards is a head-scratcher. We kick the FG and it's 10-3.

We kickoff, and the defense responds with yet another terrific stop. This time, AFA elects to go for it on 4th & 1 at the 50 yard line. It's a handoff going right, and Trevor Laws makes a great stop.

(Have you heard of this guy Laws, by the way? He's a defensive tackle. He only leads the country in tackles by a defensive linemen, to go with his two forced fumbles, two blocked kicks, and numerous passes batted down. On any other team with a better record, he'd be a shoo-in for first team All-American. Sadly, I don't think he's going to get it.)

ND puts together another scoring drive, featuring several nice plays including a 14-yard out to Grimes, which is a route and completion I haven't seen in oh, forever. I had momentary flashbacks of Samardzija dragging across the middle 15 yards deep, and Quinn finding him open on the other side of the coverage. That's exactly what happened here, and you wish you saw more of it. The drive ends with a beautiful fade to Carlson in the right corner of the end zone. It's 10-10.

So let's review the defensive effort to this point in the game. Air Force drives are going like this:

A42 14 56
A02 3 5
A47 3 2
A33 6 30
A31 6 19

Five drives, 112 yards, three points, and it's nearly halftime. That's pretty solid. Unfortunately, it starts to unravel right here. (The defense would ultimately yield 405 yards and 34 points).

It's only about two and half minutes until the half, and if we get another stop here we can bring it into the locker room tied, or maybe even ahead if we can scrape out one last scoring drive. Instead, we give up plays of 17, 10, 15, 14, and 8 yards, culminating in a touchdown on a reverse by Air Force that made us look silly (and John Ryan looking the silliest of them all). The key to this drive (and the key to the Air Force offense for the rest of the game, really) was the first play, a 17-yard run up the gut by the fullback Jim Ollis, his first carry of the game. The Ollis carry was an option, and Brockington was playing the pitch and took himself out of the play. Nice adjustment by Calhoun to carve out the middle, which really opened things up outside later on. We'd been playing the outside pitches & runs pretty well, but that left the middle open, and Air Force took advantage of it.

So, 1:09 until the half, and on the first play Clausen is sacked on a delayed stunt up the middle for Mistake #5. The defender comes in clean, unseen, untouched, and nobody so much as shot him an ugly look on his way to sacking the quarterback. A few more plays here and there, and it's halftime, 17-10, Air Force.

The second half was a combination of Air Force finally getting their offense on track, and us futilely trying to play catch-up. Calhoun opens another drive with a handoff to Ollis, this time a counter-cutback that works for 15 yards. The drive also features a nifty reverse to Armstrong, and several more runs up the middle. The biggest gaffe (Mistake #6) comes on the sixth play of the drive, where it's 3rd and 3 on the ND 33. Carney breaks the huddle, receiver Mark Root splits out wide -- and nobody covers him. I mean, nobody. Nobody lines up across from him, none of the safeties roll over the top, nobody even seems to notice him. Carney does, though, and hits him for 26 yards uncontested. The next play is a play-action pass to Quintana in end zone for a score, and it's 24-10. (Quintana, man...that creep can roll.)

ND, down two scores now, really needs to answer this with its own touchdown. There's a quick pass to Grimes, and a nice pitch to Aldridge for seven yards and a first down (with another great block by Schwapp. I'm not making this up). Then Grimes drops a sideliner that hits him in the hands, then drops another pass over the middle that hits him in the chest. It would have been a first down. Cripes. Count these as Mistakes #7 and #8: unforced miscues that cost us another drive.

The next Air Force drive is looking like it's going to be another scoring effort, until Chad Hall hears a phantom whistle and inexplicably stops, and stands up on a 3rd & 1 handoff, allowing himself to be tackled. Air Force punts.

ND takes over on their own 12, but can't get untracked; there's a nice screen pass to Allen on the drive but Air Force bottles up Aldridge twice and forces a punt. Sullivan and Olsen are both hurt on this drive, and are replaced by Wenger at center and Bemenderfer at guard.

The defense is softened up now from the middle runs, and Air Force takes advantage of it. Ollis up the middle, option left to Hall, option right to Hall, and the Falcons drive all the way to the ND 38. Then, on 3rd & 8, another great call by Calhoun: a shovel pass to Hall that goes for 25 yards right up the middle. All the action is headed outside, and the linebackers flow along with it, and Carney squirts it back to Hall who jitterbugs his way down to the 13. Air Force scores on a rollout pass to the tight end Madsen in the end zone, who's seemingly surrounded by blue jerseys but not actually covered. 31-10, Air Force.

It's at this point in the game I would have expected the Irish players to call it a day. I wouldn't have been surprised in the least, and I probably wouldn't have begrudged them, either, down by three touchdowns at the start of the fourth quarter in the 10th game of the year. But the Irish respond, and put together two fine scoring drives sandwiching another Air Force field goal. The key seems to be that screen pass that has sputtered so often this year. We run it to Jabbie and suddenly it works like a charm: 13 yards, 8 yards, 12 yards, and 18 yards. Jabbie racks up 51 yards on screen passes between the two drives, both of them capped by Clausen touchdown passes. The first TD goes to Grimes on a picture-perfect fade, and the second to Allen on a swing pass featuring a nice look-off from Jimmy -- the first swing pass of the day to Allen. After the second touchdown it's 34-24, with about 8:00 left in the game. There is hope.

Air Force takes over on their own 38. Hall goes for 6 on a handoff right. On the next play, Ian Williams (playing for an injured Kuntz) busts up the middle and drops Hall for a 2-yard loss. On 3rd & 6, it's Ian Williams again, bringing down Hall for two yards. The Irish defense has regrouped momentarily, and forces a punt just when they need it most.

Unfortunately for the Irish, it would be the last glimmer of hope in the game. Clausen throws low for Parris incomplete, then flings it to Parris again under pressure for two yards. Needing 8 yards, Grimes for some reason runs a 7-yard out pattern, and it's 4th and a long 1. The Irish offense scrambles to get into position, and Clausen sneaks it, but comes up way short. I almost wish they had called a timeout here, and set something up, because the team looked confused; the play looked like a fire drill. Air Force gets the ball with a short field, rushes 7 times and gets the touchdown (41-24), and save for a token Irish drive at the end, the game is over.

There's a moment in the movie The Darjeeling Limited where a train comes to an unexpected halt in the middle of the Indian desert. The conductor and several passengers climb outside, poring over a map.

"What's going on?" asks one of the main characters.

"He said the train is lost."

"How can a train be lost? It's on rails."

"Apparently we took a wrong turn at some point last night."

"How far off course are we?"

"Nobody knows. We haven't located us yet."

"What did you just say? Say that again."

"We haven't located us yet."

"Ahh! Is that supposed to be symbolic?"

Until this season, I'd thought the Irish football program was on rails, of a sort, too. I'd figured the ride would be bumpy at times, but there'd be a visible path, and a lower bounds, and I expected to keep clattering along in a positive direction. I certainly wasn't expecting a season like this.

We've taken a wrong turn somewhere in the night, and we got lost. We still haven't located us yet.