Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Odds & Sods: J'accuse Edition | by Mike

Something's gone wrong again. In a certain way, the Syracuse game was similar to the Navy game - play a middling first half, build a lead in the third quarter and try not to let the game slip away in the fourth quarter. However, against Navy, the Irish didn't simply build a lead in the third quarter - they dominated. While the defense and punt units were dominant to start the third quarter, the offense repeatedly squandered the opportunities it was given to build an insurmountable lead. On the first drive of the third quarter, the defense held Syracuse to three-and-out and the Irish punt rush got a hand on the punt. After a tripping penalty against Syracuse, the Irish offense started its first drive of the second half on the Syracuse 23. A short series of tragicomic events later, and the Irish were looking at 2nd and 47 from their own 40 yardline. Forced to punt, the Irish pinned Syracuse at the Orange 14 yard line. Two incomplete passes and a sack later, Syracuse was forced to punt from their own 10 yard line. Another blocked punt gave the Irish offense the ball at the Syracuse 21. The offense moved the ball 13 yards and had to settle for a field goal attempt. A fumbled snap gave Brandon Walker no chance at converting the kick, and once again Notre Dame had no points to show for outstanding field position. On their next drive, with their worst field position so far that quarter, the offense was able to drive 68 yards for a touchdown and a ten-point lead. On the first play of the ensuing Syracuse possession Scott Smith forced a fumble, Toryan Smith picked it up, and after a nifty lateral to Gary Gray the offense started its next drive at the Syracuse 5. A touchdown here would have made it a three-score game with little more than a quarter to play. The drive resulted in a field goal. In the four games Notre Dame has lost since the Stanford game, devastating miscues early in the third quarter have shaped the second half.

  • Against UNC, the Irish led 17-6 at the half. On the first play of the second half, Clausen threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown that energized the North Carolina team and crowd.
  • Against Pitt, Notre Dame led 17-3 at the half. The Irish had out-gained the Panthers 227-61 at that point. Pitt got the ball first to start the half, and the Irish defense appeared to have held them to a three-and-out. Pitt would have had no reason to believe things would be any different in the second half. But a personal foul kept the drive alive, and with the new lease on life, the Panthers found the endzone and regained their confidence.
  • Against Boston College, the Irish trailed Boston College 10-0 at the half. BC got the ball to start the half and the Irish defense forced a three-and-out. However, the ensuing BC punt was fumbled, BC went on to score a touchdown, and Irish hopes were extinguished.
  • Against Syracuse, the Irish offense took its great field position after the punt block and committed two holding penalties and took a 17-yard sack. The drive was as bad as a drive that doesn't result in a turnover could be.
I certainly don't mean to blame Clausen for the UNC loss, Harrison Smith for the Pitt loss, etc. In both of those games, for example, the Irish still led after each those incidents and the offense simply had to hold serve for the remainder of the game to win. Instead, I cite these examples to raise a question: why did these mistakes - many the result of a lack of focus - occur shortly after halftime, after the coaching staff had an extended period to "coach up" their charges? Coincidence? Data mining? Or something more significant?

Time trap. In his first two years, I gave Weis high marks in his game management. For example, the Irish were able to win the 2006 UCLA game because they still had all three time outs left when they turned the ball over on downs to UCLA late in the fourth quarter. However, in the past two years, there have been a number of game and clock management decisions that have left me scratching my head. Pat covered the decision to go for it on 4th down with 2:30 left against Navy last week. This week, the Irish used their last timeout of the second half with 13:46 left in the fourth quarter. Given that one of the timeouts was lost on a challenge that presented the same issue that was decided in the receiver's favor against Navy, I can't argue with the challenge of the fade to Tate in the end zone. However, Notre Dame certainly could have used the other two timeouts late in the game.

This is a low. Last week, someone asked me which I thought was worse - Notre Dame's 3-9 season of 2007 or Michigan's 3-8 season of 2008. After my attempts to deflect such an unpleasant thought exercise were unsuccessful, I was forced to give the issue some consideration. Ultimately, the way I evaluate teams at the end of a season is by looking at whom they beat and to whom they lost. When you look at those two seasons, there aren't wins that really stand out, though Michigan's win over Minnesota is probably the best. When you look at the losses, every one of Notre Dame's losses in 2007 was to a team with a winning record. There's really nothing in Notre Dame's 2007 season that compares to Michigan's loss to Toledo in 2008. Toledo is a 3-8 MAC team whose coach was forced out. As bad as 2007 was for Notre Dame, it never got that bad. Of course, Notre Dame just lost to a 3-8 Big East team whose coach was forced out.