Sunday, October 04, 2009

Odds & Sods: Chinese Democracy Edition | by Mike

I wish I could say that my failure to write anything about the last three games was do to something interesting, such as becoming a recluse, getting cornrows and attempting to fire all the other members of BGS and replace them with Buckethead and Tommy Stinson. The reality is far more mundane: weekends spent in the office and a wedding. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), the Washington game followed a now-familiar script - an almost equal amount of highlights (in this case, three goal line stands, Tate's 67- and 77-yard receptions, Clausen's command down the stretch, etc.) and lowlights (another huge play negated by holding, Clausen's backwards pass, the inexplicable double-reverse back to Clausen, a would-be touchdown pass bouncing off a receiver's facemask, etc.) - so I don't feel like I missed that much.

This is a call. In the fourth quarter, Notre Dame benefited from the now-standard misapplication of the replay rules. With 7:07 left in the fourth quarter, Husky running back Chris Polk ran for what was called on the field as a touchdown that would have given Washington a 31-22 lead. The replay official reversed the call, stating Polk was down just outside of the endzone. On the replay, it did look like Polk was down before crossing the goal line.

However, does this evidence meet the standard for overturning a play? On paper, no; in practice, yes. The NCAA rules state, "The replay official may reverse a ruling if and only if the video evidence convinces him beyond all doubt that the ruling was incorrect. Without such indisputable video evidence, the replay official must allow the ruling to stand" (emphasis added). I would have a very hard time saying that the video evidence established beyond all doubt that Polk was down prior to crossing the goal line, particularly when taking into account the parallax error that arises when the camera is not pointed directly down the goal line. However, the call was consistent with college officials' practice of disregarding the standard of review set forth in the rulebook. Every time an official say words to the effect that, "Replay confirms the call on the field" (a statement that has no meaning under the actual rules), that official is telling you that he doesn't understand the replay rules. Notre Dame has been burned numerous times by replay officials applying de novo review. I suppose such review was bound to help the Irish eventually.

The replay call inevitably leads into discussion of the make-up call that occurred shortly thereafter. Despite the reversal, Washington still had a first down inside the one. The following three plays:

W 1-G N01 Polk, Chris rush for loss of 1 yard to the ND2 (Johnson).
W 2-G N02 Locker, Jake pass incomplete to Goodwin, D.
W 3-G N02 Locker, Jake rush for no gain to the ND2 (Smith, Toryan; MULLEN).
On fourth down, Steve Sarkisian elected to kick a field goal. The kick was good, but UW would get another shot at a touchdown when an official called a personal foul on Ian Williams for "roughing the snapper." I will go to my grave 100% certain that this was a make-up call from an official who disagreed with the replay reversal. Williams was clearly trying to shoot the gap; he took no action that can be construed as roughing the snapper. Incidentally, this was only the fifth instance of a roughing the snapper call in Division I-A football that I could find. The others were: (1) against Notre Dame in the 2002 Stanford game, negating a Vontez Duff punt return for a touchdown and keeping alive the Stanford drive that produced the Cardinal's only points of the game, (2) during the 2003 Oregon State-Fresno State game, (3) to give Auburn a victory over LSU in 2004 and (4) during the 2006 Ohio State-Michigan game. One crisp Schrutebuck to each BGS reader who can find any other instances.

Despite getting a fresh set of downs at the one, Notre Dame's defense again held Washington out of the endzone, forcing another field goal, which leads into why I don't feel too bad for Washington on the reversal. Had the Huskies been able to get the ball into the endzone on any of their six additional chances, the replay would have worked in Washington's favor. The play on which Polk initially appeared to score occurred with 7:07 left in the game. The next eight plays burned over four minutes off the clock. Had the Huskies been able to punch it in on that last third down, they would have gotten the points and had the added benefit of using up over half of the time remaining in the game. If the Huskies had scored a touchdown on their subsequent opportunities, the reversal would actually have hurt Notre Dame.

The sound of settling. Freshman kicker Nick Tausch tied the school record with five field goals in one game. (Nick Setta also hit five field goals against Maryland in 2002.) Obviously, every one of Tausch's kicks proved to be critical and it is great to have such a reliable kicker - particularly one who will be around for over three more years. However, the Irish offense's ineffectiveness in the red zone nearly cost them the game. Sarkisian has done wonders with the Huskies, leading them to a victory over Southern Cal and a close loss to LSU in which UW outgained the Tigers 478-321, but I have to think that a team less than one year removed from an 0-12 season would have folded had the score been 21-7 instead of 9-7. The Irish squandered their opportunities to blow the game open. Settling for field goals was frustrating for two additional reasons. First, Washington's run defense prior to the game was - to put it mildly - unimposing. Second, given Notre Dame's struggles with kickoff coverage this year, a field goal is likely to be followed by excellent field position for the opponent. Giving the opponent a short path (or in the Michigan game, a direct path) to a touchdown following three points does not strike me as a winning strategy. That said, the kickoff coverage did come through on the most important kickoff of the game, forcing the Huskies to start their final drive of regulation at their own 11.

Stand. The season is over a third over, and the defensive coaches are still figuring out how best to fit their pieces together. Yet despite all the areas for improvement, the defense did something incredible - three goal line stands in one game. In the third quarter, Washington had second and goal from the four. Locker rushed for three yards but was kept out of the endzone. On the following two attempts from the one, the defense stoned the Huskies. I didn't know that the defense had it in them, but they topped themselves in the fourth quarter. Due to the roughing the snapper penalty, the Huskies had two firsts-and-goal from the one, only to come away with three points. The goal line stands might be the best example of a true team effort this year. No one took a play off. Again and again, Ethan Johnson submarined forward with surprising quickness. Kerry Neal, Toryan Smith and Paddy Mullen all made stops. Rewatch these series and pay attention to who was on the field; the mix of starters and backups is interesting.

Add it up. The game featured a surprising number of outstanding individual performances for an overtime game against a team that was 0-12 one year ago. Golden Tate had 275 yards of total offense, more than the entire Georgia offense managed on the same day. Tate ran for 31 yards on a reverse and had 244 yards receiving that included a 77-yard reception and a 67-yard touchdown reception (amazingly, only the third-longest touchdown catch of Tate's career). Clausen made two mistakes on the day (the backwards pass and throwing to a covered Rudolph in the endzone rather than checking down to Tate for a first down), but still put together a performance that would be the envy of almost every other college quarterback - 23-31 for 422 yards and a 203.38 rating. Tausch turned in one of the better performances by an Irish kicker. Robert Hughes made the most of Allen's absence, turning in solid performances running, receiving and blocking. And in his first start, Manti Te'o recorded 10 tackles. Yet despite these individual efforts and the team efforts on the goal line, the game was still a nailbiter. The end result still seems to be less than the sum of the parts.

The way we get by. The bye week comes at a fortuitous time, giving Clausen, Allen, et al. time to rest and get healthy. With two weeks before the Southern Cal game, I'm sure Weis is tempted to spend the time implementing gadget plays or exotic schemes to use against the Trojans. My hope is that at least one of the two weeks is spent on the exact opposite - focusing entirely on fundamentals. Outside of the goal line stands, tackling was horrible. Washington must have had 100 yards after first contact. The Irish may have been able to overcome poor tackling, poor punt and kick coverage and M.O.E. errors against the past three opponents, but that won't be the case against the Trojans.

I'll fight. The game featured a number of disappointments. I have questions about both in-game decisions and preparation. While those issues will likely occupy my thoughts in the coming days, for now I am content to focus on the effort of the players. The constant message board refrain of ND fans is that Irish players don't show enough heart and fight. After keeping UW out of the endzone and in fighting their own way across the goal line, this complaint will have to take a rest.