Monday, September 29, 2008

Odds & Sods: The Right Thing To Do Edition | by Mike

Three is a magic number. Statistically, Saturday's game was the best offensive performance of the post-Quinn era. Using a balanced attack, the Irish offense rolled up over 200 yards on the ground and Jimmy Clausen threw for the most yards of his career. A number of factors contributed to the offensive success - including the weakness of Purdue's defense - but one that stood out was the extensive use of 3 WR sets. Although a pass-first formation, the Irish enjoyed considerable success on the ground from this formation. The running backs ran 34 times for 194 yards (5.7 yards per carry), with Armando Allen rushing for 7.9 yards per carry en route to 134 yards on 17 carries. It will be interesting to see whether this becomes the offense's base formation in the future or whether the heavy use of this formation was simply a Purdue-specific gameplan. Recall that in 2005 and especially in 2006, the Irish used three-wide-receiver sets more than any other formation.

Still Grimey. After missing the Michigan State game due to injury, senior WR David Grimes returned against Purdue and caught four passes for 65 yards. While Grimes may not have the size and natural ability of Michael Floyd or Golden Tate, he's a fundamentally sound player who provides needed experience when the Irish employ 3 WR sets that include sophomores Clausen, Tate and Allen and freshmen Floyd and Kyle Rudolph. Grimes is also a more effective blocker than you might expect from someone his size. His 30-yard fourth-down touchdown reception was one of my favorite plays of the game, and in his post-game comments, Grimes described how the play happened:

"[W]e saw that it was blitz 0 which means that there was no safety in the middle of the field. Jimmy looked at me and I looked at him and we made a play. Jimmy threw it up and I ran under it and caught it."
Nice recognition by Grimes and Clausen.

Caught, can we get a witness? An overlooked play [EDIT: but apparently not overlooked by Pat] from the first quarter was Kyle McCarthy catching Desmond Tardy and preventing a touchdown. With Purdue leading 7-0, Tardy caught a Curtis Painter pass and raced towards the endzone. It was a big play for the Boilermakers, covering 39 yards, but McCarthy caught Tardy at the 9 yard-line. The Irish defense then held the Boilermakers to an unsuccessful field goal attempt. Had Purdue scored a touchdown on that drive and gone up 14-0, we could have seen a much different game since the offense may not yet have had confidence in its ability to play as it did in the third quarter.

Fighting in a sack. Once again, the Irish defense failed to record a sack. On the one hand, Purdue's offense features a fifth-year senior quarterback and a veteran offensive line that included four seniors and one junior and emphasizes quick passes. On the other hand, Painter attempted 55 passes and not all of them were three-step drops. Additionally, this was the third consecutive game without a sack. Even without reaching the quarterback, the defense has deflected a number of passes and forced many inaccurate throws due to pressure. Nonetheless, to compensate for the heightened risk of such frequent blitzing, it would nice to see the heightened reward of actual sacks.

Brand new. The latest freshmen to announce his presence was Robert Blanton, who intercepted a Curtis Painter and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown. I loved Blanton's determination to get into the endzone on the play. Ethan Johnson started and showed some pass-rushing ability. Kyle Rudolph recorded his first career touchdown reception and demonstrated some improved blocking. Michael Floyd had six catches for 100 yards, just four short of Golden Tate's total in his big game against Purdue last year. Jonas Gray also saw the field on special teams.

Kicked it in the sun. Notre Dame won the field position battle most of the game, in large part due to excellent coverage against Purdue's formerly successful kickoff return units. The Boilermakers were second in the nation in kickoff returns at 31.8 yards per return entering the game, but Mike Anello & Co. limited Purdue to 13.9 yards per return.

Purdue Photo Galleries | by Pat

Pictures of the Purdue game are up. Check out, the South Bend Tribune,, and Irish Eyes,

I was tempted to pick this shot of Armando Allen leaving Purdue defenders in his wake as the picture of the game. After all, that is about when ND finally started to get the ground game working. However, this week I'm going to go the picture with Kyle McCarthy's diving, touchdown-saving, tackle of Desmond Tardy. Had Tardy scored, Purdue would have taken a 14 point lead and who knows how ND would have responded. As it was, the Fighting Irish red zone defense held the Boilermakers to a field goal try, one that they promptly missed.

After that it was all ND for the most part. That McCarthy tackle just might have been a significant turning point this season and for that deserves special recognition.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Game Day! | by Pat

Go Irish! Beat Boilermakers!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Under the Big Top | by Jay

While fondly reflecting this morning on the electric brilliance of Quizz Rodgers, here are seven Purdue notes to ponder.

1. Purdue's record to date:

  • W 42-10 Northern Colorado
  • L 26-32 (16) Oregon (OT)
  • W 32-25 Central Michigan
Everyone knows that Purdue nearly lost to Central Michigan last week. But not everyone remembers that they also nearly beat Oregon. They jumped out to a 20-6 lead at the half, but let Oregon back in the game. Then they missed a game-winning field goal with :04 left on the clock, and lost the game in overtime.

2. Kory Sheet's rushing numbers are a little inflated. He's a good player, but his stat line has also benefited from two long plays.
  • Northern Colorado - 16 rushes-81 yards
  • Oregon - 29-180 *
  • CMU - 17-91 **
* Sheets went 80 yards in one play. Check out the video. At most, it should have been a 20-yard pick-up. The Oregon tacklers did an awful job. The extra 60 yards he picked up helped to make his day look better than it really was (under 4 ypc otherwise).

** With 1:00 minute left in the game against the Chippewas, Sheets had run 16 times for 45 yards. Then he busted a 46-yard TD to win the game. If CMU had not committed a face mask penalty on the ensuing kickoff, I'm not sure that Tiller could have, or would have, run the ball in that situation. Without that penalty that set up that run, his numbers look much more pedestrian.

Michael sez: "I'm not sure we have to have Harrison Smith in the game to stop the run; one of Sergio Brown's best strengths is his tackling. Another reason why I'd rather have Brown is, despite some struggles in coverage, he's still more adept at it than Harrison -- and especially Crum. Purdue's scheme really knows how to find match-ups to exploit. Now, they don't have Keller anymore, which will make things easier on us, and so long as we tackle well I think we can prevent Sheets from having a big game.

"I would like to see us play Ian Williams a tad more, even though he's technically just a second stringer in our personnel against spread offenses. It's not like we're sacrificing that much in the pass rush, which has been somewhat quiet anyway."

3. Until a minute left in the game, Central Michigan had out-gained Purdue 440 to 298. How did they do it? With a spread offense and a crazylegs, scrambling quarterback named Dan LeFevour. He threw it 44 times for 291 yards, but more impressively, he was also the leading rusher on the day, running 24 times for 148 yards.

Purdue's front four actually hurried him quite a bit on Saturday, but LeFevour has that one intangible that Jimmy Clausen will hopefully develop someday: escapability. Check out the game highlights: he turned a lot of near-sacks into positive yardage. We don't have that luxury: we don't run a spread, and we don't have a quarterback who can scramble like LeFevour. Let's hope our protection is up to snuff.

4. Coach T on the Irish pressure package:
Q. Notre Dame tends to blitz quite a bit, give you some different looks. Talk about the challenge of that, what they bring defensively in terms of pressure.

COACH TILLER: Yeah, they bring a lot of pressure. About the only thing I can say is having played the teams that we've gone against to date, it's helped us prepare for a team like Notre Dame, although we've seen pressure in all three games, a multiplicity of different looks. We'll probably see all three gamed wrapped into one in this game in terms of different looks.

It's not uncommon for Notre Dame to run a particular blitz maybe twice in the game. You don't see that blitz, but you continue to see pressure. I think they're a football team that wants to bring five-man pressure all the time. That means they're bringing somebody other than a front guy. Could be a linebacker or could be a secondary defender. You're never quite sure who that extra rusher is going to be.

It's truly a pressure defense. Like I said, you're going to see five guys coming all the time. They might have a lineman dropping into a zone pressure look and bring in two extra defenders, maybe a secondary guy and a linebacker. But is it going to come up your left side, right side, up the middle, where is it going to come. They like to confuse you with their style of play in terms of numbers of looks that you're going to see. Like I said, we'll probably see as many in this game as we've seen in the first three games combined.
It's good to see the respek coming from the Boilers' coach, but the Irish blitzing has yet to produce a slew of fact, we've gotten only one (1!) in three games, if you can believe that. Like Corwin said in his presser yesterday (a good one, if you can find it on the website), "When you go to a restaurant you want to eat steak. Hamburger is good, but you want to eat steak. And we've been eating a lot of hamburger."

5. Looking at the official Purdue depth chart for the ND game, there's been some moving around since the season began. Three-year starter Sean Sester still limited by back injury and not in the starting lineup at right tackle. Pre-season starting left tackle Zach Jones now starting at right tackle. Fifth-year senior career backup Garrett Miller now starting at left tackle. Multi-year starter at DT Alex Magee is now at DE. That's right, a 295-pound defensive end. Will he be squaring off against Kyle Rudolph?

Fifth-year senior Frank Doung, a former walk-on from Mishawaka's Penn High School, is now the starting SS. He's 5-8, 178. Here's a story about him.

Redshirt freshman Joe Holland was moved from safety to linebacker a month ago. Now he's starting at WLB while regular Jason Werner is recovering from back surgery. A 211-pound linebacker? Maybe it's better to send Rudolph into a lot of patterns, and let Holland and Anthony Heygood -- one of their best defenders -- chase him around the field.

6. Speaking of offensive strategy for the Irish, with Yeatman out, I expect us to ditch the two-TE sets and go with three wideouts most of the time. Stick to a short passing game like what we saw in the second half against MSU, and use the pass to set up those draws and delayed handoffs. Flex Rudolph out more; don't ask him to block guys like Magee; let him block DBs and LBs in space and run routes. Have four receivers out on every play (not counting the back). Have Clausen throw look passes when they load the middle, and hit the backs out of the backfield after our receivers clear out the underneath with vertical routes. Then pump-fake a look pass and hit a wide-open Golden Tate down the sideline. Ladies and gentlemen of the Notre Dame fan base, that's what I'd do. But what do I know? I'm just a caveman.

7. The Resistible Force versus the Movable Object: PU Defense rank: 103rd. ND Offense rank...


Thursday, September 25, 2008

SkyWriting: Statues and Subways Edition | by Pat

A bunch of news bits and pieces from the past few weeks to cover as we head into the Purdue game.

• I neglected to link photos from the Michigan State loss. If you're still interested, you can see them at, the South Bend Tribune, and the Detroit News.

• Speaking of pictures, the new statue honoring Coach Holtz was revealed before the Michigan game. Here is a photo of it courtesy of Irish Eyes. For those headed to the Purdue game this Saturday, make sure to swing by Gate D to see it. Also, here's video of Lou's speech at the unveiling.

• And when you are at the Purdue game, another gameday photo would be greatly appreciated. If folks just want to send pics in for every kickoff, that would be great. We'll probably need them for nearly every game this year.

• I finally got around to tabulating the BGS Pre-Season fan poll. The results are quite different from the adjectives being submitted in Jay's Moody post down below. I guess 16 yards rushing against the Spartans will do that to a fan base.

Here are the results. Plenty of optimism to go around, even if a few of those 12-0 submissions were jokes.

The game by game predictions were just as optimistic save the Southern Cal game, which is hardly a surprise, and the Michigan State game, which is a bit surprising given the confidence in the other games.

As for the fan choice for breakout freshman, Michael Floyd was the no-surprise choice with 48% of the vote. Rounding out the Top 5 were Kyle Rudolph (32%), Ethan Johnson (5%), Robert Blanton (3%), and a tie between Dayne Crist and Braxston Cave (2%).

• A few new ND related sites to mention. First off is The Subway Alumni Show, a fun video blog with a new episode each week. I'll link this week's show, but I recommend visiting their site as well. If they can make the show interesting after a loss, you know it's good stuff. Check out the Michigan week show for some tailgating fun.

• Another well-designed site is Fr. Lange's Gym, a homage to Notre Dame legend, Father Bernard Lange. Long before the Gug or JACC, Fr. Lange introduced many ND men to weight lifting in his gym located in Brownson Hall. Check the site for some fantastic photos and stories of a priest who's ND story is unique in every way. Consider this passage from the 1987 Notre Dame Magazine.

Rev. Bernard H. B. Lange, C.S.C., the legendary “strongman-priest,” was a contemporary and friend of Knute Rockne. Like Rockne he had a galvanizing effect on those students fortunate enough to come under his tutelage. But where Rockne led through wit and charm, Lange was a Prussian field marshall, motivating his lifters with a combination of fear and Teutonic discipline, tempered by love for “his boys.” More than anything, he was a hero to those of us who worked out in his quaint gym behind the Golden Dome.

His reputation as a non-conformist and superman dates to his years in Notre Dame Preparatory School. It was probably born the day he climbed to the top of the Golden Dome, wrapped his right arm around Our Lady, and waved to his awestruck classmates on the ground far below. The police were summoned, and he led them on a frantic chase through St. Ed’s Hall and down to St. Mary’s Lake, where he made good his escape by swimming under the ice to the far shore, where he broke from the lake headfirst and disappeared into the woods.
• Finally, while Classic Ground is the site to hit if you're looking for an ND fan who knows his art, I enjoyed the MSPaint Like a Champion Today blog linked in a recent BGS comment section. There isn't much there yet, but hopefully more is added throughout the season.

Irish Insights had a note on recent transfer Richard Jackson. When Jackson left Notre Dame, playing time was thought by many to be the main reason. Turns out it was something much more close to home.

"I was really homesick at Notre Dame," he said. "I had a lot of reasons I needed to be at home. My daughter is 16 months old, and I was missing out on a lot with her. Every time I got home, she would have learned something new that I didn't get to see. It took her awhile to get used to me being around. I didn't want her to go four or five years only seeing me three or four times a year. I want to be around her right now so that she knows, 'That's my dad, and he's going to be with me every day.' "

He also wanted to be closer to his grandfather, who helped raised him and is battling cancer.

"My granddad isn't doing so well, and I didn't want to miss this chance to be around him," Jackson said.
• I've seen a few questions about finding ND games on the radio and realized I forgot to update the ND Football radio link on the sidebar. It's fixed now and goes to the ISP page linking all of the ND Football radio affiliates.

Moody | by Jay

I'm a little stressed out these days. I'm not sure if it's because of the economy woes, the election, or the latest trial for the Juice, but I'm nervous and anxious and I can't seem to focus.

Part of it has to be the haphazard state of Irish football. Here we are, already a quarter of the way through the season. The Charlie Weis era -- if he stays for the full 10 years -- is just about a third over. We're about to square off against Purdue, a team which really shouldn't be giving me these palpitations. And yet here I sit, my mind racing, worrying about Kory Sheets and basketball on grass and the Boilers' pass rush. Four years in, I shouldn't be feeling this way, right? Not about Purdue, right?

Am I alone? I devised a little mood ring survey to find out. (Results, as they roll in, right here.)

Update: I did a tag cloud on the results, and moodiness ensued.

ambivalent anxious apathetic apprehensive average bumfuzzled cautious concerned confused depressed disappointed frustrated hesitant hopeful impatient improving indifferent lamp meh nervous optimistic patient pensive perplexed pissed resigned scared skeptical tentative trepidation uncertain uneasy unfulfilled unsatisfied unsettled unsure upbeat waiting worried

Statistically Speaking: Michigan State | by Pat

It Came From the Game Notes

• Notre Dame has not surrendered a single punt return longer than 10 yards or a kickoff return longer than 25 yards.

• Freshman WR Michael Floyd recorded seven receptions last week against Michigan State. It was not only the most catches for an Irish player in a single game since Jeff Samardzija in the 2007 Sugar Bowl against LSU, but also the most ever for a Notre Dame rookie.

• The 16 rushing yards against Michigan State were the fifth-fewest in the Weis era.

• Maurice Crum, Jr. has 260 career tackles, needing just 35 tackles to enter Notre Dame’s top-10 list for career tackles.

Battle for First Down

I'm still feeling my way through this metric. Perhaps it won't really prove very illustrative of anything on its own, or perhaps I just need to be more patient with it. This week's results were not what I expected.

Against the run, ND held 12 of MSU's 20 1st down run attempts (not counting the final kneel down) to 2 yards or fewer. That's good for a win rate of 60%, the highest of the season. That's not exactly what you'd expect given the fact Javon Ringer topped the 200 yard mark and seemingly barreled ahead for a decent gain on nearly every run. And yet there it is. Even more notable is that ND "won" the final 7 straight 1st downs.The fact that MSU had the lead and was running the ball on first down exclusively played into this, but it's still impressive given how much the defense had been on the field by that point.

Perhaps against the run there are only "very good" win rates (over 80%?), or very bad ones, and everything else is sort of meaningless. Last week I wrote that a Win Rate of over 50% against the run was probably very good. I'm now thinking that is way too low for the cutoff of "very good."

Against the pass, ND also notched its highest mark of the season with a Win Rate of 57%. It was a low sample size though as MSU only passed 7 times though on 1st down. The boom or bust effect was definitely seen here as MSU only completed 3 passes on 1st down out of the 7 attempts, but they went for 4, 16, and 28 yards.

Ultimately, I think these numbers might be best used not as a indicator themselves, but as a comparison to the performance of last year's defense or other previous defenses. As some class homework, why don't people take a game box score from last year and figure out the 1st Down Win Rates against the run and pass? It shouldn't take more than a few minutes for each game. Remember, a win is 2 yards or fewer, 3 yards is a draw, 4 or more is a loss. Here are the box scores with the play-by-play data. Just add up the numbers and post your results as a comment. (Hurray for crowd-sourcing!)

Here are the numbers to date this season.

Gimme M.O.E.

This is an interesting week because the results highlight the need to always keep stats and metrics in context. ND's M.O.E. result for the week was 12%. It might seem abnormally low given how poorly the Irish performed, but that's why it's important to remember that this particular metric deals with offensive mistakes rather than efficiency. A 50 yard run and a 1 yard run are the same thing to this particular metric.

The ND offense couldn't get the running game going at all, but for the third straight game kept the self-inflicted mistakes to a relative minimum.

Michigan State on the other hand played their run-heavy, conservative offense to a very low M.O.E. of 6%. Their biggest mistakes were dropped passes. Without those they would have had a nearly flawless offensive game. Most of the quantifiable mistakes used in his metric are tied to the passing game (sacks, interceptions, dropped passes) so it does make sense that teams that rely on the run have lower M.O.E. scores.

Here is the season to-date M.O.E. chart.

Season Long Running Averages.

It's still a bit early to put too much emphasis on these numbers, but we're getting close to the point where extremely low rankings will be hard to salvage for the season. Here are the numbers.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bang the Drum Slowly | by Jay

Coach Tiller: I got a...I a got a couple of things I need to talk about...

Boilermaker Pete: Yeah?

JT: Yeah...I guess me and your grandma...I mean, Brock Spack...I guess we're going away.

BP: (sniffles) Where to?

JT: Well, that's not important. What's important is when we get where we're going, we won't be sick, we won't get any older...and we won't ever die.

BP: You're going to Penn State?

JT: (softly)

BP: Will I be able to visit you and grandma?

JT: No...and we wouldn't be able to visit you either...and that kinda bothers me.

BP: I'd never see you again? (crying) When are you going?

JT: Soon, my boy...soon. And you know where? Well you wouldn't believe it if I told ya... (Looks skyward) I wonder if they'll have fishin' holes there. Well there's some things they won't have...they won't have Golden Girls and they won't have train whistles...and they won't have big head mascots like you, my boy...and I...

BP: What, pops?

JT: I'm gonna miss 'em.

They hug, an awkward hug...tears roll down Pete's big plastic cheeks...and he sobs...

JT: (Wipes his eyes) Okay, now. Cast it out there...

House Party | by Pat

It's been in the news the past few days that freshman Mike Golic, Jr. and junior Will Yeatman were among the 37 students arrested over the weekend for underage drinking at a house party that was raided by Indiana's Excise Police force. Yeatman's inclusion was especially noteworthy as, in addition to being charged with underage consumption, he was also tagged with false informing and resisting arrest. After his January arrest for OWI and reckless driving, Yeatman has been on a year-long probation that would have seen the OWI wiped from his record had he stayed out of trouble. That is in jeopardy now, depending on the actions of the St. Joseph county court.

Charlie addressed the incident and Yeatman's future yesterday at his normal Tuesday press conference.

I want to make a note of regards to events this past weekend. I'm still in the process of gathering information, but until further notice, I've decided to hold Will Yeatman from competition until his matter is resolved. Any other action as it relates to team rules, including the situation with Mike Golic will be handled by me.

From a team standpoint, both Will and Mike will be at practice. But, Will, I'm not going to let him compete until we have -- unless we have resolution. I won't let him compete this Saturday unless we have resolution on this matter.

It's not likely there will be any type of resolution that would see Yeatman back in action for the Purdue game and his status for the rest of the season has to be in doubt at this point.

That leaves freshman Kyle Rudolph and freshman Joseph Fauria as the two healthy scholarship tight ends on the roster. Charlie discussed the possibility of Fauria seeing the field this Saturday.
COACH WEIS: I'd say the depth chart has changed. I think the obvious guy that comes to the forefront right off the bat is (Joseph) Fauria. You know, he's a guy who, you know, there's a good chance he was going to go through the year and not play this year. Well there's a good chance that won't happen. As a matter of fact, today instead of practicing on the scout team he'll be practicing up with the big boys. Because you have to have your contingency plans in place just in case.

Q. Is he the only contingency plan or do you have others as well lined up?

COACH WEIS: We have other contingency plans, yes. That's a fair question. And the answer is yes. But the names I can't give you on those. But we do have them
Obviously Luke Schmidt, who has been labeled as a "move TE"/H-Back to this point will see more TE type responsibilities in the coming weeks. The past few years Charlie has also used extra offensive linemen as tight ends and that is most likely the plan again. Former left tackle Paul Duncan and backup right tackle Taylor Dever come to mind as two possible candidates to line up as blocking tight ends when ND wants to use a bigger personnel grouping. But that's not really an every down type of solution so it will be interesting to see how the offense adapts to the suddenly rail-thin TE depth chart. There is one guy I wouldn't mind seeing out there at tight end, but I don't think that is going to work.

Getting back to Kyle Rudolph for a second, he's been getting closer and closer to finally catching a touchdown pass the past few games. Purdue might be his best chance as they have been rather generous towards opposing tight ends so far this season. In two of Purdue's first three games, opposing tight ends have led their team in receiving. Granted Oregon's Ed Dickson and Northern Colorado's Ryan Chelsa are veteran players and intergral parts of their team's offense, but they did catch caught 7 passes for 93 yards and 9 passes for 99 yards against the Boilermakers, respectively. If Rudolph has struggled while staying in to block, perhaps we'll see him test the Purdue defense on Saturday and give the linebackers and safeties something else to worry about in addition to Tate, Floyd, and the rest of the receivers.

Update: A quick note from Irish Insights that a new walk-on tight end was spotted at practice yesterday. Bobby Burger played defensive end at Dayton before transferring to Notre Dame. Now he's the newest walk-on tight end for the Fighting Irish joining Paul Kuppich and Kevin Brooks (who is also the starting long snapper). This isn't really news that will have much impact, but it's nice to have a few additional bodies at practice should Yeatman's suspension grow from playing in games to practice as well. It's also kind of cool that Burger is a legacy walk-on. His dad, Bob Burger, was a walk-on turned scholarship starting offensive lineman who recently was named to the Academic All-American Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Stabled | by Jay

Jeff had the good news, relatively speaking: if we'd had fewer major, game-changing mistakes, we would have had a much better chance of beating the Spartans. I don't think Michael Floyd dropping a fumble in the red zone, or James Aldridge false starting, turning a 1st and goal into a 2nd and 20, or Jimmy Clausen staring down Duval Kamara and inviting Otis Wiley to eat his lunch are particularly systemic problems. It's sloppy football, to be sure, but these are fixable things.

No, the bad news -- the elephant in the room -- is the utter lack of a running attack after three games. Various pundits of the Notre Dame cognoscenti have weighed in since Saturday with a whole host of reasons, excuses, and finger-pointing; it's the crummy play design, some, it's the lack of strength of the linemen...they're getting pushed around. Wrong: the backs don't hit the holes fast enough. See, we're too predictable, and we tip our hand to the defense. No, the holes are there -- our running backs just lack vision. You're all wrong: the sequencing of plays is the real culprit.

I've watched (and rewatched) the running plays from this year, and I can't pinpoint the exact reason for our lack of production. I suspect if it were an easy fix, we'd all be talking about the same thing. That said, we did manage to pick up a couple of contributing factors in reviewing the Michigan State game. At the end of this post I'll include the video of all the runs against the Spartans, and while you're watching, consider these two bullet points:

1. Michigan State shifted and stunted us like crazy. You might not remember -- I certainly didn't -- but last year, the Irish rushing attack was actually fairly productive against Michigan State. Aldridge and Hughes both averaged over 5.5 yards per carry against the Spartans, and Aldridge even ripped off a 43-yard gallop. What made the Spartan run defense so much better this year? For starters, there were a couple of personnel changes, with Brandon Long going back in as a starter and transfer Trevor Anderson, a former all Big East selection from Cincinnati, settling in at defensive end. But even more than the new blood, a revamped scheme played a big part in stopping the Irish. If you look at the big runs from last year, you'll see a 4-man line and linebackers playing behind them. But watch the video below: you're going to see State shift the line on almost every play before the snap, and bring an extra defender to the line of scrimmage. This five-man front was not heavily used in their game against Cal earlier in the year, and I wonder if we had scouted it extensively enough. In any case, zone blocking a five-man line as opposed to a four-man line means less opportunity for blockers to double and move to the next level, so what you end up with are more 1-on-1 battles. Which brings me to...

2. We lost too many of those one-on-one battles. In the video below, you'll see Kyle Rudolph unable to hold the point of attack; Dan Wenger getting pushed back into the play; multiple players getting stood up; and in many cases, unblocked defenders making easy tackles.

Here are all the runs against Michigan State (except for a couple of late ones after we'd already gone pass-happy).

How to get better? There's no easy answer here. We obviously can't run reverses and draws all day long. Even if we ripped up the playbook, outfitted the running backs with guided missile systems, and signed the ghost of Joe Moore to replace John Latina, we're still going to face these same two challenges: recognizing a shift or a stunt, and winning the individual battles. If we can't do either of those things, then it's going to be a long year on the ground for the Irish.

Late update: Charlie was asked about the run game woes in today's presser. His answer made me chuckle in its simplicity. Want to run the ball better? Move the line of scrimmage.

Q. You mentioned the other day that the running game looked better in practice. It hasn't translated on the field. Just looking back at the opponents you've played, against Michigan which is one of the best run defenses, you guys did better than the other opponents. But against the other teams you've done worse. Is it a matter of consistency or have you been able to put a finger on why?

COACH CHARLIE WEIS: I think fundamental -- it's a matter of fundamentally playing sound. I think against Michigan, you know, for example look at that game. I think they didn't figure we were going to even try to run the ball. So when they don't think you are going to try to run the ball and you are calling almost the exact same plays okay but they're working because they're worrying more about stopping the pass. You know this week I give credit to Michigan State because they came into the game saying we're going play our front seven and our two safeties and you are going to have to throw the ball to beat us, and they got the best of us in that exchange right there. Some people talk about an eight-man front, that's closer to a nine-man front. But still it comes down to even if you don't block the safeties, even if you are just blocking the front seven, it still comes down to moving the line of scrimmage. As you watch the game as the line of scrimmage doesn't move in the defense's direction then usually something good is not going to end up happening. And that happened too many times in this past game.

Q. Is one of the possible solutions try to go to more misdirection to keep teams off balance or do you just have to wait until your line can start moving back?

COACH CHARLIE WEIS: We ran misdirection in that game. It's just that I think you need to move the line of scrimmage. You know, I hate to make it be so simple sometimes, but you got to move the line of scrimmage. Because when the line of scrimmage starts moving that way, you know, usually something good is going to end up happening.

Six Pickin' | by Jay

Pick Six is updated! At long last.

It's a Mistake | by Jeff

Three games into the 2008 season, we are starting to get answers to some of our preseason questions. Has the team improved from last season? Absolutely. Is the team as good as it needs to be? No way. Is it exceeding expectations? Well, that depends on your expectations.

There seems to be a lot of hand-wringing over the loss to Michigan State, but the fact is that the Irish are 2-1. Repeat that three more times, and the team is 8-4 with a likely trip to the Gator Bowl. While 8-4 would be a disappointment for championship caliber teams, this year's Irish squad was never expected to go all the way. Picking up 5 games in the win column over last season would show definite improvement, and would set the team up for a very good year in '09.

Last season, the team riddled itself with hundreds of small mistakes (sacks, penalties, drops, missed assignments, etc.), which compounded into a season to forget. These smaller miscues can sometimes be overcome or discounted with a subsequent great play (see: Golden Tate's 22-yard rescue on 3rd and 17 against Michigan State). But this season, the games thus far seem to be hinging on larger, game-changing mistakes, as is typical of most football teams when playing close-to-evenly matched opponents.

Major mistakes either directly cost the team points or create a substantial field position advantage for the opponent. A good candidate list for these major mistakes are drive-ending plays that do not improve field position: turnovers, missed field goals, and failed fourth down conversions.

Pat has been following the team's progress at eliminating mistakes overall (via MOE) by the '08 Irish, and despite the results last Saturday, the team is playing much better this year. The minor mistakes (sacks, penalties, missed assignments, etc.) seem to have been addressed well in the offseason, which means that major mistakes are now determining the outcomes:

Turnovers4th Downs MissedMissed FG
by NDby Oppby NDby Oppby NDby Opp
San Diego State421110-3
Michigan State311020-5

Probably the best omen for this young season was ND losing the mistake battle to San Diego State (-3) and still winning the game. During both the 18-point win over Michigan and 16-point loss to Michigan State, the winning team made five fewer major mistakes than the loser, so it is difficult to really assess how well the Irish are playing at this point. We certainly aren't good enough to repeatedly shoot ourselves in the foot against average competition and still win, but we can win with an extraordinary number of miscues by the competition (which is how we beat UCLA last season - a +8 difference in errors, led by 7 turnovers).

So the message for this Irish team is one we've heard over and over: eliminate mistakes. We are at least slightly better than the next six opponents on our schedule, but not good enough to overcome big mistakes. How many we commit will go a long way to determining the outcome for this season.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Odds & Sods: Pool Deck Edition | by Mike

Thoughts from Saturday's game (besides how much I miss John L. Smith at MSU):

Up against the wall. One of the reasons I predicted an MSU victory in our season predictions, was that I expected Dantonio would have the patience, and Ringer and his blockers would have the ability, to wear down the Irish front seven. For fifty-five minutes, the Irish defense held up fairly well against the Spartans' persistent running game. Justin Brown played well, including making a great play on a 3rd-and-1 run. They even had an impressive goal-line stand in the fourth quarter, when MSU had first-and-goal from the two-yard-line and the defense stuffed Ringer on three consecutive carries. Ringer had gained 124 yards at that point, but those 124 yards came on 32 carries. That hardly qualifies as shutting down Ringer. However, his quarterback entered the game completing less than 50% of his passes and would go on to complete less than 50% of his passes in the game. Given Hoyer's struggles, one would have hoped that simply keeping Ringer from running wild would be enough to allow the offense to win the game. Unfortunately, the offense failed to hold up its end of the bargain, and following the missed field goal with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, a deflated defense allowed Ringer to rip off 77 yards on seven carries. While the game was in doubt, the defense played well. I wonder if they would have held up better if the offense had been able to put more points on the board.

Running just to stand still. The Irish rushed for 16 yards, and it's possible that the statistics actually understate the ineffectiveness of the Notre Dame ground game. Taking out Golden Tate's reverse, the sacks and Clausen's carries, the Irish running backs rushed for 30 yards on 15 carries, or 2.0 yards per carry (Aldridge - 3.2, Hughes - 1.8, Allen - 1.3). Against MSU last year, the same three running backs rushed for 150 yards on 27 carries, or 5.6 yards per carry (Aldridge - 5.8, Hughes - 5.5, Allen - 4.3). I am positively baffled by the inability to approach even 2007 levels of rushing.

The decision to use four-wide-receiver sets in the second half made sense in the context of the game given the futility of the Irish rushing attack against the Spartans. However, the game also demonstrated the downside to such an offense. The Irish offense can pick up yardage with this offense, but will have difficulty translating such yardage into points. And the point of the game, obviously, is to score points, not accumulate total yardage. The reasons the Irish will have difficulty generating points from the four- and five-wide sets are the consistency and quick-decision making such formations demands from the quarterback and receivers and Notre Dame's youth at these positions. When a defense brings pressure against these sets, the quarterback and receivers need to recognize where the pressure is coming from and adjust their routes and reads accordingly - and do so quickly. With David Grimes out due to injury, Clausen and four of his five receiving options were all underclassmen. The odds that one of these underclassmen will make a drive-killing mistake - or that someone else will make a mistake (e.g., a penalty) that they can't overcome - over the course of an extended drive are bad. Running plays don't put the same degree of mental pressure on young players and a balanced offense is thus less prone to drive-ending errors.

Gold lion. Golden Tate once again demonstrated impressive versatility in a game short on offensive highlights. He took a reverse 24 yards, hauled in a 30-yard pass and performed a miracle on 3rd and 18. I also loved his awareness and toughness on a bad Clausen pass, knocking down a pass that two defenders had a shot at intercepting.

Videotape. I could not understand Weis using a challenge on Michigan State's second touchdown, which touched one of my pet peeves with replay reviews. When officials correctly apply the rules, it is almost impossible to overturn a close goal-line play. The parallax errors that arise from the placement of most cameras largely ensure that the available video evidence won't produce anything "indisputable." An off-axis camera can't compete with an attentive official near the action when it comes to the question of whether the plane of the goal-line was broken. Additionally, it was still conceivable at that time that the Irish would need that timeout.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Friday, September 19, 2008

Photo Op | by Jay

Unfortunately none of the BGS staffers are going to be at the game tomorrow. Can one of you intrepid photogs going to the game snap a kickoff picture for us with your fancy camera phone, and email it to the BGS account ( for the gameday post? We'd be much obliged!

Through the Ringer | by Jay

Tomorrow's forecast for East Lansing: partly cloudy, 78 degrees, with a 100% chance of Javon Ringer. His stats are tremendous: third in the nation in rushing (166 yards per game), averaging 4.79 yards per carry, and reigning as the national scoring leader (for all positions) with 9, count 'em 9 touchdowns in three games. All in all, very impressive.

But let's take a look at Sparty's opposition. One of these things is not like the other.

  • L 31-38 vs Cal (2-1)
  • W 42-10 vs Eastern Michigan (1-2, sole win over Indiana State)
  • W 17-0 vs Florida Atlantic (1-2, sole win over UAB)
Furthermore, let's look at Ringer's production in each game:

Javon Ringer, 2008
vs Cal
27 813.00
vs Eastern Michigan
34 1353.97
vs Florida Atlantic
43 2826.55

That game against Cal sticks out like a sore thumb: Ringer racked up most of his yards against two terrible opponents, while the third, halfway decent one more or less corralled him.

But let's temper our enthusiasm for the moment, and ride the seesaw back down. Ringer's been a Spartan fixture going back to 2005, and looking at his career production he's put up 5.85 yards per carry. Moreover, against Notre Dame over the past three years he's rushed 44 times for 244 yards (5.55 ypc). To take the Cal game out of context and say, "Hell, we can stop him just like they did" would be a poor assumption.

Ringer is obviously the key to Sparty's offense, which is more of a traditional, power running scheme, as opposed to the two spread variations we've seen in the first two games. As we finally face a more traditional offense, this should be a great test of our new 'stop the run first' defensive mentality. Ringer plays big on first down (5.85 yards per carry). Something has to give. And going from Charlie's presser, it sounds like we're moving some defensive pieces around for this game (which might actually start to resemble the preseason depth chart). Big-bodied Ian Williams will play more in the middle, with Kuntz shifting over. We'll probably see some more Harrison Smith (and perhaps Scott Smith), and less Sergio Brown in the (so far) ubiquitous nickel.

Michigan State hasn't demonstrated a competent passing attack so far this year. QB Brian Hoyer has thrown only 1 touchdown and 2 INTs with a 44% completion rate. Against Cal he chucked it 48 times (completing just 20) in a game where they trailed the entire way, but he only threw it 12 times in the EMU blowout and 15 against FAU (in a monsoon). A few articles mentioned some egregious drops by State receivers, and that might help explain Hoyer's crummy completion numbers, but I think it's safe to say the Sparty passing game isn't terribly powerful at this point. If beefing up on the run starts to work, and we can win the battle of first down to force them into more passing -- again, more of a dropback scheme rather than spread passing -- will we start to notch some more sacks?

A few more various and sundry notes...

• Michigan State has fast linebackers, and slow-developing plays aren't likely to be effective against them. Greg Jones in particular is impressive. He's basically their Brian Smith, a sophomore playmaker that they move all over.

• Michigan had good corners but weak safeties. MSU is the other way around. What to do? Will we attack them through the air? Will we see more out routes, and more of the tight end in the passing game? The Spartan safeties have shown themselves to be very aggressive against the run. FAU obviously scouted this, and nearly scored on a wide-open flea flicker (if the QB had thrown it just a bit further, it was an easy six.) Maybe Charlie and Haywood will gift-wrap something similarly devious for State.

• Michael caught part of the MSU-FAU game, and notes that State will rush Ringer mostly up the gut, but also off tackle, and around the end. There's a toss play that features pulling guards -- a strategy that gave us all kinds of fits last year (especially against Georgia Tech). Tomorrow could really tell us a lot about how (and if) our defense has improved.

• Finally, and not to be overlooked: State is always a tough road environment, but because it is an afternoon game instead of at night (as many of our recent games at East Lansing have been) the crowd should be less inebriated, and therefore decidedly less hostile. I swear '06 was one of the most virulently anti-ND crowds I've ever witnessed, largely due to the fact that kickoff wasn't until 8pm and everyone was absolutely hammered. When the rains came, the mood got even pissier.

But we all know what happened in the end. 2006 Michigan State will always be one of the most remarkable games I've ever witnessed.

Wolverine Whoopass | by Jay

I'd just like to conclude this fantastic week by saying that it's nice to be on the other end of a Michigan beat down for a change. The last time we won by such a large margin was way back in 1987 (and only once before that, in 1943). Only three times has Notre Dame beaten Michigan by such a large score, and Charlie and his 2008 team own one of them.

In many ways, Saturday was the mirror image of the game in 2006, a 47-21 immolation that featured lousy turnovers, short scoring fields, and long bombs for touchdowns. In the first quarter that year, Michigan scored on an interception that caromed off of Carlson's hands, a 70-yard bomb to Manningham who beat the Irish coverage, and a 4-play drive from the 27 set up by a fumbled kickoff. Sound familiar? And yet, no excuses were made; not by us, anyway. As Pat said at the time: That one was rough. Notre Dame lost that game in all phases -- offense, defense, special teams, and coaching...It's going to be a long night for ND fans after this, the biggest loss in the fledgling Charlie Weis era.

Walking out of the stadium last Saturday, I experienced the palpable feeling of a large primate being gently lifted from me. That team in 2006 had legitimate national championship expectations, and quickly dashed them against the rocks; this year, most fans, I think, simply wanted to see improvement, however modest. After the Michigan game, I think we can check that one off. Perhaps it's time to recalibrate our metrics for this young season. Onwards to East Lansing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Statistically Speaking: Michigan | by Pat

It Came From the Game Notes

• All five Irish touchdowns in the 35-17 rout of Michigan were scored by sophomores.

• Notre Dame recorded only three passing plays of 38 yards or longer all last season. The Irish, more specifically sophomore WR Golden Tate, has already registered three in the first two games.

• After giving up a school and NCAA record 58 sacks a year ago, Notre Dame has not
allowed a single sack over its first two games. The Irish had not gone consecutive
games without yielding a sack since 2003.

• A total of 29 different states are represented on the Irish roster. Among Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division IA), only Army has more states represented on its 2008 roster.

Most States Represented
Army – 35, plus American Samoa
Notre Dame – 29
Navy – 27
Nebraska – 25
Air Force – 25
Stanford – 24, plus two foreign countries
Northwestern – 23
Michigan – 21, plus Canada
West Virginia – 21
Colorado – 20
The Battle For First Down

After reading through the comments from last week, I decided to make a small change. I now consider a win, loss, or draw for 1st downs. A win is when the offense gets 2 or fewer yards on 1st down. A draw is 3 yards, and a loss is 4 or more yards. This doesn't change the Win Rate metric at all from last week as it still take a play of 2 or fewer yards to yield a defensive "win", but it does add a bit more context.

Michigan had 32 first down plays. They were the opposite of the pass-happy Aztecs as the Wolverines ran on 25 of those first downs and passed on only 7 of them.

Against the run, the ND defense won 14 downs compared to 9 losses and 2 draws for a Win Rate of 56%.

Against the pass, ND defense won only 2 downs and lost 5 for a Win Rate of 29%.

There are far too few data points to start drawing steadfast conclusions about what Win Rate against the run and pass would be considered "good" or "bad". But my gut feeling tells me that a win rate of over 50% against the run on first down is very good. Hopefully over the course of the season we'll be able to get a better feel for these numbers.

I set up yet another google document spreadsheet to track the season long Win Rates. Enjoy.

Gimme M.O.E.

The Irish offense continued to play largely mistake free as the M.O.E. numbers from the Michigan game add up to a low 8%. That is the 7th lowest M.O.E. score for the Irish offense in the 39 game Weis era. No sacks, no offensive penalties, and no lost fumbles were the main reason for the low score. ND also ran the fewest number of plays while Charlie has been coach. Remember, the idea is to come in under 12%.

Michigan on the other hand made mistakes across the board with penalties, fumbles, dropped passes, and interceptions to arrive at a 15% M.O.E. score. This doesn't include the fumble on the kickoff return as that was not an offensive play.

Season Long Running Stats

Dig through all the numbers and rankings here. It's still way too early, but the special team numbers are looking better.

Notes from a Win | by Michael

During the 35-17 win over Michigan, I spied the following...

1. The much-maligned Asaph Schwapp deserves a Gatorade shower.

The Irish are using a fullback in the running game more than they ever did when the offense was dominant in '05 and '06. Perhaps it's because Schwapp has blossomed into a more consistent blocker, whether it's leading the halfback through a hole or when he engages a defensive end on a zone run. Against San Diego State we ran the ball 11 times for 46 yards with Schwapp on the field. On Saturday, we saw similar production. While 13 runs for 49 yards in normal situations yielded a slightly lower per carry average, Michigan's run defense had been stout heading into the contest. Furthermore, Schwapp's blocking enabled the Irish to punch the ball in not just once, but twice in goal line situations. Lastly, the Irish had great success running the ball from an off-set I-formation; the Irish ran eight times and racked up 40 yards from that look, as Schwapp pushed around some more defenders.

2. "Bombs away."

The vertical passing game against San Diego State wasn't an anomaly. Several times the Irish threw over the top of Michigan's corners, two of the better corners we'll face until the game in the Coliseum. From the post-game press conference, Charlie Weis suggested that if it wasn't a 21-0 game so quickly, the Irish would have continued their aerial assault. The first two weeks of game film are going to have serious implications for Irish opponents. From here on out, opposing safeties will have to respect the big play capability of the Irish receiving corps. Rarely should the offense see eight defenders in the box. If the Irish can run the ball well and force defenses to commit that extra defender, then Mike Haywood can call plays like the max protect play action pass from a run-heavy personnel grouping and formation that Jay discussed on Monday.

3. "We're going to pound it."

The Irish consistently won the short yardage battles against a good run defense. When was the last time they could brag about that?

  • 1st & Goal from UM 2 - 2 yard TD run
  • 2nd & 1 from UM 16 - 7 yard run
  • 1st & Goal from UM 1 - 1 yard TD run
  • 2nd & 3 from ND 36 - 13 yard run
  • 3rd & 1 from ND 16 - 3 yard run
  • 3rd & 1 from ND 20 - 1 yard sneak
Although they converted their first six opportunities, they did fail on two subsequent short yardage plays and two fourth down pass attempts. But by that point the game was over. Most encouraging was Notre Dame's ability to pick up the tough yardage when they needed to do it. Over the last few years, too often the offensive line seemed to get stoned at the point of attack, and a back would have nowhere to go. As such, the offense has had to resort to trickery too often around the goal line, whether it be the play action passes to Jeff Samardzija, a direct snap to Darius Walker out of the shotgun, or when times are truly desperate, an ill-advised roll-out pass on first and goal. Although Weis will never abandon his inclination to outsmart an opponent at the goal line (witness the unnecessary play action passes to Kyle Rudolph and Mike Floyd in the endzone), it seems clear from the Michigan game playcalling that the coaching staff believes they have the big uglies and backs to convert short yardage and goal line situations.

4. Wake me up, before you go go...

The wham trap run saw its return to the offense. It wasn't as effective as other runs, but it averaged over three yards per play against a talented Michigan front four, and it allowed the Irish to be a little more creative with how they attempted to pound the defense. Will Yeatman would motion toward the middle of the formation as the "move TE," and Clausen would hike it. Then Yeatman would take on the unblocked defensive end away from him. The back would try to hit the hole between Yeatman and the offensive tackle. The five times the play was called was actually the most since the Navy game in '05, when six were called. The play was also used five times against Tennessee that year, but since then it's been a ghost in the gameplan. If we're willing to run it that many times against a stronger defense, I think we'll see it more often in upcoming games against weaker opponents. We could also likely see a variation where the unblocked defender is a defensive tackle, not an end.

It's also worth noting that against San Diego State the offense ran a bootleg play action pass from a similar formation. While we didn't run it against Michigan, opponents may see a little of each in the weeks ahead, which should only make each complementary piece that much more effective.

5. The defensive coaching staff needs to remove the bullseye from Sergio Brown's jersey.

Teams are picking on Sergio, and it started against San Diego State. Not only did he give up a touchdown on a corner route, but they ran the same play later in the game. Sergio was beaten again, though this time David Bruton rescued him from ignominy. Michigan saw that and attacked him multiple times. Brown allowed a 33-yard completion to freshman wide-out Martavious Odoms and then was called for an obvious pass interference penalty on the same drive; ironically, it was Sergio who, a few plays later, scooped up the fumble that ended Michigan's bid to make it a 28-24 game. Either the coaching staff should put Brown in better situations for him to be successful, or they should find someone to replace him in the nickel package until his ball skills improve. Hopefully, it's the former, because he seems to have a nose for the football.

I didn't spy the following...

A freshman offensive lineman replacing a starter and getting manhandled by a veteran Michigan defensive line. Trevor Robinson played the entire second half at guard and held up very well. It's a good thing for Chris Stewart that his injury isn't serious -- he should be back in the starting lineup on Saturday. Otherwise his nickname might have changed from Mr. Plow to Mr. Pipp.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Max Protect | by Jay

There are a lot of encouraging improvements for the Irish so far this year, but perhaps none more so than the "sacks given up" tally after two games: NONE. The terrific effort against a talented Wolverine pass rush (second in the nation in sacks coming into the game) was augmented by a conservative, "safety first" approach; when you're going to throw deep to Golden Tate for a touchdown, it helps to have a couple of extra guys blocking:

Late update: Here's the video of the entire play.

Michigan Photo and Video Galleries | by Pat

Plenty of great photos from the wet and wild win over the Wolverines at, Michigan's official football site, the Detroit News, the South Bend Tribune, Getty Images, the Detroit Free Press, the Ann Arbor News, and Irish Eyes (via Andy A.)

Shot of the week: I'm going with the one to the right of Hughes from the Detroit News. There are also a few good ones in the Ann Arbor news photo set including a helmet-less Eric Olsen scowling at a downed Michigan player.

If you have any photos you took at the game, feel free to link to your album in the comment section.

As for video, there are highlights of the youtube and NBC variety already popping up. NBC also has the full-game, commercial free replay up. Normally I link these in the BGS News Feed on the right sidebar, but they aren't showing up on their RSS feed for some reason. Either way, here are the direct links to the 1st Quarter, 2nd Quarter, 3rd Quarter, and 4th Quarter. NBC also has video up of the post-game interviews with Golden Tate and Jimmy Clausen, and Charlie's post-game presser. Also, make sure to check out this sideline video from the game. Great stuff.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Odds & Sods - Bringing '88 Back Edition | by Mike

On a day when Lou Holtz and the 1988 National Champions were brought back to campus to be honored, the 2008 team offered a tribute of their own with a fun win over Michigan.

Saw red. Michigan's two early turnovers were obviously huge plays. Equally important, however, was the Irish offense's ability to turn those turnovers into touchdowns rather than field goal attempts. Against Utah and Miami (Ohio), Michigan's defense was quite strong in the red zone. In seven trips to the Michigan red zone, the Utes and the Redhawks combined for just two touchdowns. Utah's veteran offense frequently sputtered when the Wolverines only had to defend a short field, and the Utes needed four field goals from Louie Sakoda to win the game. Getting touchdowns against the previously stout Michigan defense on these possessions was an important confidence boost for the whole team and set the tone for the rest of the game. The Irish would also produce a touchdown on their trip to the Michigan red zone in the second quarter.

Protect ya neck. Michigan's defense entered the game with a talented defensive line and sitting second in the nation in sacks. So many people were expecting Michigan's defense to get to Clausen that a number of game previews went so far as to predict the number of sacks Michigan would get. I recall seeing predictions as high as nine sacks. Yet the Irish offense did not give up a single sack. The quick start meant that Notre Dame would not spend much of the game in obvious passing situations, but this is still an impressive statistic. The offensive line, tight end, running backs and Clausen have all come under fire for the number of sacks given up in 2007, so it's only fair to recognize their excellent performance yesterday.

What's Golden. Golden Tate was the most dangerous player on the field Saturday, hauling in four passes for 127 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown pass from Clausen that did most of its damage through the air and a 60-yard slant that including 50 yards after the catch. However Tate's most impressive performances of the day may have come as a kick returner. Michigan went with the squib kick on their kickoffs, and a couple such kicks took some pretty bad bounces right before getting to Tate. Tate displayed great hands, latching on to each kick and denying the Wolverines the opportunity at a momentum-swinging fumble.

This boy is exhausted. I mentioned last week how I was concerned that short offensive possessions against Michigan would lead to a tired defense that was more susceptible to Rodriguez's offense. That was the case in the first half, but not for the reasons I expected. Notre Dame's first drive covered 11 yards in 50 seconds, the second covered 14 yards in 52 seconds, and the third covered 63 yards in 15 seconds. As a result, first quarter time of possession was in Michigan's favor by 11:21 to 3:39. Even the first drive of the second quarter that covered 87 yards only lasted 3:06. Since all of these drives ended in touchdowns, I can't complain. However, the defense did look tired in the first half, and Michigan broke a number of tackles during this time. I still think the Irish offense will need to develop a ball-control offense to help the defense during those games where they aren't scoring touchdowns in rapid succession.

High price, small reward. The total yardage stats certainly don't look pretty, at least until you consider the game context. With the torrential rains arriving in time for the second half, the Irish coaches appear to have concluded at halftime that the only way Michigan could win would be with big plays from their defense and special teams. If the Michigan offense was forced to march the length of the field, the Irish coaches were confident the defense could get a stop on downs or create a turnover before the Wolverines crossed the goal line. Accordingly, the Irish offense went into a shell in the second half (aside from the decision to come out five wide, which mercifully lasted only one play). While I obviously would have preferred the offense to string together a few more first downs in the second half, I was happy that the Irish offensive coaches proved that they are not in fact constitutionally incapable of conservative playcalling. In certain circumstances (e.g., a double-digit lead in terrible weather against an ineffective offense), the correct answer actually is what Lloyd Carr would do. Meanwhile, the Michigan offense was forced to take risks - risks that would generate yardage, but also kill drives before they could put points on the board.

Get it together. It may seem churlish to complain after yesterday's win, but we saw a few areas yesterday that need improvement. Allowing Michigan to run the successful fake punt while up 21-0 in the first quarter was disappointing - particularly since it gave the Michigan players a needed confidence boost - and the blame falls on the coaches. Fortunately, this weakness in punt coverage did not emerge in a game where it could have affected the outcome. It was also disappointing that despite frequent blitzes, the Irish offense was unable to record a sack. Finally, I had hoped the defensive line would be able to control Michigan's patchwork offensive line. Michigan's starting left tackle was out for the game. The Wolverines starting center was David Molk, who came to Notre Dame's summer camp as a high school prospect but failed to garner a scholarship offer. The SDSU and UM offensive lines will likely prove to be two of the weaker OLs the Irish face all season, so this is cause for some concern. (Although it should be noted that Rich Rodriguez has more scholarship upperclassmen offensive linemen available than ND had in 2007.)

Heroes. A week ago, I mentioned how much fun Mike Anello was to watch on special teams. Against Michigan, his special teams play elevated him to full-blown folk hero status. Anello's fellow gunner David Bruton had a great game as well. The play of Anello and Bruton demonstrates the error of attributing the fumbled kickoff solely to a Michigan error. It's not that rare to see a kick returner bobble the ball before salvaging a decent return. The difference with Saturday's play was that Anello came flying into the play so quickly. When a team's gunners close on the ball as quickly as Anello and Bruton do, you can expect some big plays over the course of a season. Bruton also had quite the game at his safety spot, forcing another fumble, intercepting a pass and recording 15 tackles.

Back in the game. After coming in for criticism last week, Duval Kamara had a nice touchdown catch on ND's second drive. As mentioned above, getting seven points off of the early Michigan turnovers was key and Kamara helped make it happen. Another target of scrutiny, Asaph Schwapp, also played well.

The soph parade. Being thrust into the action as freshmen last year paid dividends for the sophomore class on Saturday, as all 35 Irish points were scored by sophomores. Robert Hughes had two touchdown runs, Jimmy Clausen completed touchdown passes to Duval Kamara and Golden Tate, Brian Smith had the fumble return, and Brandon Walker added the extra point to all five touchdowns.

Wearing and tearing. I expect Michigan State to provide a tough match-up next week. The Spartans have a great running back in Javon Ringer, and coach Mark Dantonio has the patience to give the ball to Ringer over and over and over again. There's no doubt about Dantonio's commitment to pounding the ball. Pay attention to whether the Irish DL can hold up against the Spartan running attack, particularly on the right side behind Roland Martin, or whether MSU will be able to wear down the Irish.

Fool in the rain. After the game, Michigan safety Steve Brown proudly proclaimed his membership in the Michael Taylor Memorial The Better Team Lost Club, declaring:

"We don't have our heads down because we know who the better team was," defensive back Steve Brown said, referring to Michigan. "They beat us today. It happens, but in our hearts we know we're the better team."
Is there a class at Michigan on this? Do they designate a guy in the locker room to say this after every loss? Where else would a three-score margin be considered the better team losing?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Game Day! | by Pat

Go Irish! Beat Wolverines!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

the Left Stuff | by Michael

In this corner, the prize fighter: six hundred sixty-seven pounds of elite high school talent in its third year at Notre Dame. Two behemoths whose fall camp play inspired Charlie Weis to utter those fateful words: "We're going to pound it."

And in the other, Glass Joe: an inferior San Diego State defensive line that had allowed 250 yards or more on the ground in its last five games. That includes 263 in an embarrassing 29-27 loss to Cal Poly (which rushed for only 173 yards in a 30-28 loss to Montana last Saturday). Prior to the game in South Bend, the Aztecs had shuffled their line-up in the wake of injuries, and had even moved undersized linebackers to the front four.

The prizefighter went straight for the chin on three of its first four running plays, with Irish halfbacks running behind the right side tandem of 337-lb right tackle Sam Young and 330-lb right guard Chris Stewart. Those three runs picked up 4, 11, and 2 yards, plus a first down. And if a freshman tight end had properly sealed off the backside DE, that third play would have picked up at least five or six yards. Unfortunately, both drives stalled because of failed third down passes. Although fans were left wondering why Mike Haywood called pass plays on third and short, it seemed that this semi-commitment to running the ball behind Stewart and Young would continue to yield benefits.

Inexplicably, the next ten runs all went to the left. On those, the Irish picked up just 35 yards. Then a draw to the right that the running back cut to the left, followed by another run to the left side for three yards. In the first 42 offensive plays of the game, the Irish "pounded" to the right just four times out of 16 runs. Puzzling.

Then the Aztecs scored to make it 13-7. Would falling behind finally force the braintrust to shift gears back to its apparent strength? The answer appeared to be yes. Consider the subsequent drives:

  • On their next possession, the Irish ran a toss to the left on 1st down, followed by a run to the right. A huge hole was opened, and Armando Allen showed the speed that many fans have been waiting for. He picked up 14 yards, but he also fumbled when he took a big hit.
  • The Irish got the ball back, and after a first down pass, the very next play was another run to the right (Robert Hughes for 5). Unfortunately, that drive ended on a botched play call where there was no lead blocker for Hughes, who lost four yards on 3rd and 1.
  • The next time the Irish regained possession, David Bruton had just recovered an Aztec fumble in the end zone. Now desperate to play catch-up, the offense abandoned the run entirely as Jimmy Clausen quickly led the offense eighty yards to pay dirt in just over two minutes. During that entire drive, the Irish ran plays from their 2-minute drill series.
  • Finally, the last two drives exemplified the "pound it" mentality that Irish fans have been hoping to see. With possession of the ball and a 14-13 lead, Notre Dame rushed 7 times in 11 plays -- thrice behind Stewart and Young -- and capped off the drive with a score. And on the final drive to ice the game, Hughes and Allen ran it four of four times, 3 to the right, picking up a first down and running out the clock.
The final rushing statistics illustrate why many fans were increasingly frustrated by the play calling as the game wore on:
  • RIGHT - 12 carries, 62 yards, 5.2 ypc
  • LEFT - 19 carries, 56 yards, 2.9 ypc
  • MIDDLE - 1 carry, -4 yards
So the question to ask: why would the coaching staff tie the right hand of the prizefighter behind his back like this?

Perhaps Jon Tenuta can help explain. One of JT's primary tenets is that a defense should "make [the other team] try to beat you with the hard stuff, not the easy stuff" (or make them left-handed, as he likes to say). In other words, the defensive game plan always focuses on taking away an opponents' best running plays. An offense doesn't want to be forced to run its fourth and fifth best running plays, but good defenses game plan to take away the ones they run best. And Michigan, with its vaunted run-stoppers, were next on the docket.

So perhaps all the running left was by design: if we can beat SDSU with the left hand, why show the big right hook to Michigan at all? Until we fell behind in the third quarter, we really didn't need to exploit the right side. Did Weis want to give Michigan, which has been absolutely dominant against the run, lots of looks at the left side of the run game, knowing full well that the right side is the true strength?

That's what I'm wondering. I don't know why else we would consciously run 10 times in a row to the left when you know the right side is more productive. It's crazy, isn't it?

We didn't start running to the right until we needed to. And when we did, it lacked the creativity normally associated with a Weis offense. We didn't run a toss right, only to the left. We didn't run a stretch play to the right until the second half. Even though SDSU was overplaying the run all night, we called only one misdirection play until late in the game, despite the fact that Hughes had turned some of these counter plays into his biggest gains last year. We ran seven different types of runs to the left before we even repeated one. On the other hand, we only ran a couple of different runs to the right. Is Haywood really that dense?

If you're ND and you know you have more talent than SDSU, wouldn't you want to hide some stuff? The plan backfired because of all our turnovers, but c'mon, doesn't this strike you as deviously Weisean, in a way? I'm reminded of what Sherlock Holmes would always say to Watson: Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. It's nearly impossible that Haywood would be so clueless that he would call 10 in a row to the left without realizing it...and it's nearly impossible that he would not run on any of those third-and-shorts...isn't it?

Well, at least one person shares my suspicions...