Sunday, September 07, 2008

Odds & Sods - Montezuma's Revenge Edition | by Mike

Miscellaneous thoughts on a game whose first fifty minutes were a repeat of 2007 followed by ten minutes where Notre Dame outgained the Aztecs by 146 to 5 yards.

What happened. Less than two weeks after promising the offense would "pound it," the Irish struggled to move the ball on the ground against what may turn out to be the weakest run defense Notre Dame has faced this decade. While Duke and Stanford's 2007 defenses were hardly worldbeaters, they were probably better than the San Diego State defense that gave up over 200 yards rushing to a 1-AA team. Yet, with largely the same personnel, Notre Dame's rushing offense was significantly less effective against SDSU than it had been against Duke and Stanford. In the final two games of 2007, the Irish running backs averaged 5.7 yard per carry against Duke and 5.1 against Stanford. Against SDSU, the Irish backs averaged a meager 3.4 yards per carry. Perhaps even more telling than the statistics was the play-calling. On each of their first three drives, the Irish offense faced a third-and-short situation (3rd and 2, 3rd and 3, then 3rd and 2 again). Each time, the call was a pass. It's hard to reconcile that play-calling with a commitment to "pounding" the ball.

Future foe scenarios. While the Irish may be able to defeat SDSU-caliber teams with a one-dimensional offense, I don't see how they can succeed against a defensive line as talented as Michigan's without forcing the defense to account for both the run and the pass. Additionally, the lack of some semblance of a running game against the Wolverines will hurt the defense as well as the offense. The attacking style of defense the Irish employ this year works much better with fresh legs. The Aztec offense enjoyed its greatest success during a stretch in the second half after the Irish turned the ball over on the first and second plays of consecutive drives and a special teams penalty kept an Aztec drive alive. As the defense tired, its effectiveness decreased dramatically. A credible running game, and the resulting time on the sidelines for the Irish defense, helps the defense avoid getting gassed. Tired defenders are more likely to blow their assignments or fail to keep contain, and these are the errors that Rich Rodriguez's offense is designed to exploit.

Carry the zero. While watching the game, I was struck by how the team seemed to be less than the sum of its parts. It was easier to pick out promising individual performances than I would have expected from such an ugly game. Even with the loss of Darrin Walls, the defense appears to have - at least - five solid defensive backs. We knew David Bruton would be good, but Kyle McCarthy and Sergio Brown were also impressive. With 14 tackles (10 solo), Kyle McCarthy is currently first in the nation in tackles per game. (A defensive back leading the nation in tacklers could be a bad thing. However, SDSU passed 59 times for only a 4.6 yards-per-attempt average, so this is probably more a result of McCarthy's solid tackling.) In addition to his blocked punt, Sergio Brown displayed solid cover skills. On the offensive side of the ball, Golden Tate made the plays we've been asking for since last year's Purdue game. Clausen was also impressive, with nice accuracy and a noticeably stronger arm than last year. Yet despite all these individual efforts, the Irish trailed SDSU in the fourth quarter. Part of this was due to turnovers and breakdowns in the kicking game, but I think the main takeaway is how such individual performances can be offset by a lack of production from the running game and defensive line.

All the young punks. Irish fans have been dying to see Michael Floyd in action since he and Dayne Crist hooked up in the Army All-American game to beat Michigan cornerback Boubacar Cissoko for a deep touchdown, and Floyd did not disappoint. The first reception of his college career was a 22-yard touchdown grab. Floyd became the first freshman ever to score the Irish's first touchdown of a season and is also the first freshman with a touchdown reception in the season opener. Kyle Rudolph got the start and tight end and had a 5-yard reception. While I think Rudolph will ultimately be a star at Notre Dame, he has a ways to go as a blocker (which is to be expected with a freshman tight end). I suspect Weis has visions of using Rudolph to attack the middle of the field against Michigan, but at this point I would be more confident with Will Yeatman as the starting tight end due to blocking concerns. Other freshmen to see the field were Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming and Braxston Cave.

Fire it up. No matter how ugly the game got, it was always a joy to see Mike Anello's play on special teams. I'm very glad he was awarded the scholarship he deserves.

Where is my mind? Duval Kamara has tons of ability, but until the level of his focus approaches the level of his ability it will be a bumpy ride. Clausen's first interception was the result of Kamara allowing the ball into his body, where it ricocheted off his pads and into the hands of the SDSU DB. On the second interception, Clausen may have made the wrong read, but Kamara has to recognize that the DB is about to intercept the pass and break up the play, even if that requires offensive pass interference. I hope that is attributable to yesterday's game being the first of the year and that Duval plays to his potential for the rest of the year.

Throw your flag up. The SDSU fumble has garnered a good deal of attention, but there were a number of controversial officiating calls. On SDSU's second possession, on 2nd and 15 from their own 39-yardline, Lindley took the snap and, standing on the 34-yard hash mark, turned and threw a pass to his running back. The ball sailed over the running back's head and landed on the 33 - a clear backwards lateral. Brian Smith alertly scooped up the ball and ran to the endzone. However, the official whistled the play dead, blowing the call and costing the Irish a touchdown. On the Robert Hughes fumble at the 3-yardline, I could live with the lack of a reversal. While it looked like Hughes' knee was down before the ball came out, I don't think the cameras caught a clear enough view to provide incontrovertable video evidence. More troubling were the missed false start on SDSU's first touchdown and the lack of review on the second interception. With respect to the latter, I think part of the blame falls on Weis for not challenging the play. Finally, the massive delay after the holding penalty near the end of the third quarter was simply comical.

Like spinning plates. You really have to dig deep to put a positive spin on the game. You can say that this was ND's first game against a team playing their second game, and teams make their biggest improvement between the first two games. You can say that the team was looking ahead to Michigan or that they wanted to hold things back so as not to show them to the Wolverines. You can say that the team just needed to learn how to win first. While there probably is a grain of truth in each of these, they simply don't explain what I saw yesterday.