Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Odds & Sods: Songs of the Day Edition | by Mike

Ready, able. What most will remember from Saturday's game is that the offense had three plays from the Southern Cal four at the end of the game, but couldn't get the ball across the goal line. While unable to capitalize on this opportunity, the offense did not lose the game. The Irish put up the best offensive performance against Southern Cal this year - by far. Southern Cal had not conceded a single passing touchdown in any of their first five games, and no opponent had scored more than one touchdown against the Trojans. In the second half, Jimmy Clausen threw two touchdown passes to Golden Tate and rushed for another. The Irish scored as many points against Southern Cal as Ohio State, Cal, Washington State and San Jose State combined. All this was accomplished without Michael Floyd (or Shaq Evans). Clausen performed admirably in the face of the Southern Cal pass rush, Golden Tate made spectacular catches (including two touchdowns in the face of shots from Taylor Mays), Robby Parris consistently made himself available to a scrambling Clausen and Armando Allen ran well between the tackles. The offensive line had its problems with the Trojan pass rush, allowing five sacks and often allowing Southern Cal to get pressure when rushing three or four. However, there aren't many college linemen that wouldn't struggle with Everson Griffen, and the line did give Clausen enough time to complete critical drive-sustaining passes.

The Irish special teams also played well. Aside from Nick Tausch's field goal kicking, special teams had been a disappointment this season. In previous games, special teams breakdowns (allowing a touchdown on a kickoff return, surrendering an onside kick, poor kickoff and punt coverage, etc.) kept opponents in the game despite Notre Dame's considerable offensive production. Going into the game, I was worried about the big plays Southern Cal's athletes would produce when presented with the characteristic special teams lapses. Aside from the blocked extra point and the penalty on Jordan Cowart for interfering with receiving a punt following a late fair-catch signal from Damian Williams, the Irish special teams rose to the occasion. The fake field goal that set up the first touchdown was glorious. The switch to David Ruffer on kickoffs was effective. Although Ruffer didn't get the distance that Tausch did, he appeared to have better hangtime on his kicks. While the Trojan kick returners were fielding the kicks farther upfield, they were also met by the coverage team before they could get a head of steam. Now that the special teams have shown how they can play, they need to continue this level of play.

Half right. Heading into the game, I was concerned about Notre Dame's ability to stop the Southern Cal rushing attack. In his position previews, Pat judged Southern Cal's running backs and offensive line as the best of this year's opponents. Former five-star prospects Joe McKnight (Rivals's #2 prospect in his class, regardless of position) and Allen Bradford (Rivals's #9 prospect in his clas, regardless of position) would be running behind former five-star prospects Kris O'Dowd, Jeff Byers (Scout's #1 prospect in his class, regardless of position) and Tyron Smith. The Irish defense held Southern Cal to 121 yards rushing on 33 carries for a 3.7 ypc average (or 139 yards on 30 carries and a 4.6 ypc average if you take out sacks). While the numbers with sacks removed are not great, it's tough to complain about them given Southern Cal's weapons and the youth in the Irish defensive front seven. If you had told me before the game that these would be SC's rushing numbers, I would certainly have taken them against a Clausen-led offense.

While the run defense got the job done, the pass defense was ugly. Freshman Matt Barkley threw for 380 yards on 29 attempts. The defense gave up 20 yards per completion and 13.1 yards per attempt. For comparison, these numbers are not far off from Clausen's crazy numbers against Nevada (21 yards per completion and 17.5 yards per attempt). Selling out to stop the Trojan running game (e.g., the two long completions to Anthony McCoy on 3rd and 1) can explain some of these numbers.

Yet other plays reminded me of two recurring themes with this year's pass defense, patterns that we have seen even when the opponent's rushing offense paled in comparison to Southern Cal's. Opposing offenses have responded to Notre Dame's blitz-heavy defenses by turning to their tight ends and by spreading the Irish defense out. Anthony McCoy joined Michigan's Kevin Koger, Michigan State's Brian Linthicum and Washington's Kavario Middleton as tight ends who had one of their more productive outings against the Irish.

Opponents have also spread the Irish defense out to prevent the defense from disguising their (many) blitzes. When he was with the Patriots, Weis liked to use "empty sets" (i.e., five wide - though not necessarily five wide receivers, often splitting out RBs and TEs). Weis explained that he liked these sets because it made it easier for the quarterback to pick out blitzes. Weis has not used empty sets as frequently at Notre Dame. I would guess this is because empty sets allow the defense to send an unblocked blitzer, so even if the quarterback recognizes the blitz and gets the ball out of his hand quickly he is still likely to get hit. But when nothing else was working against MSU in 2008, Weis broke out the empty sets to help the relatively inexperienced Clausen identify the Spartan blitzers. Whatever the reason for Weis's decreased use of empty sets, my point is that Weis recognizes the difficulty in blitzing against spread formations. Yet when Southern Cal lined up with trips left in the third quarter, Sergio Brown, one of the three defensive backs covering the three Trojan receivers on the left, showed that he was blitzing prior to the snap. Barkley recognized that only two defensive backs were left to cover three receivers and Damian Williams had an easy 41-yard touchdown. (Incidentally, the Falcons scored a similar touchdown against the Bears the following night. The Falcons lined up with trips rights. The Bears left two defensive backs to recover the three receivers and had Nick Roach show blitz before the snap, intending for Roach to bail out into coverage at the snap. But Roach couldn't get back in time and Roddy White scored a 40-yard touchdown when the Falcons had their own 3-receiver/2-defensive-back mismatch.) I would like to see the Irish defense play spread formations straight-up more often. This was the way to beat the Drew Brees-led Purdue teams, which carved up blitzing defenses but struggled against defenses that played solid assignment football. Perhaps the coaches felt Southern Cal was simply too talented to sit back and play straight up. This may have been the correct decision against the Trojans, but it will be interesting to watch how often the defense blitzes against spread formations over the remainder of the season.

Time trap. Once again, the Boston College game falls at a time when the Irish are ripe for a letdown. For the last two-and-a-half weeks, all Irish fans have been able to think about is Southern Cal. ND message boards remain fixated on the game, with little discussion of the BC game. On the other hand, I am told that when ESPN's Gameday broadcast from Boston a few weeks ago for the BC-Florida State game, BC students spent their time on camera engaging in anti-ND and anti-Weis chants. If the teams' psyches mirrors those of their respective fanbases, the Irish will come out in a post-rivalry game malaise and BC will come out like the game is their Super Bowl. This has certainly been the case in the past. Since 1993, the Boston College game has been the game immediately before or after a much bigger matchup - Florida State, Southern Cal or Tennessee - eight times (in one year, the BC game was sandwiched between games against Southern Cal and Tennessee; in another, between Southern Cal and Florida State). In those eight games, Notre Dame is 2-6 against BC. In the five years where the schedule has not left the Irish ripe for a letdown or looking past the Eagles, Notre Dame is 3-2 against Boston College. It's up to the Irish seniors and Jimmy Clausen to make sure that their teammates don't come out flat and at least approximate the intensity Boston College brings to this game. Notre Dame's performance on Saturday will tell us a lot about the leadership abilities of the upperclassmen.