Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Future is Now

For Notre Dame fans, the expectations for this season were pretty simple: win enough games to put 2007 in the rearview mirror and be in position for a nice run in 2009. After seeing the way Notre Dame's younger players took apart Purdue yesterday, we Irish faithful may want to set our expectations a bit higher.
Yes, I know, the Purdue win, much like the loss to Michigan State, was "just one game", but it was the type of game that Notre Dame hadn't played in two seasons. More than that, it was a game where Notre Dame's ridiculously talented younger players were completely dominant and, in so being, showed that the darkest days of ND Nation may be behind us.
Make no mistake, this was a great win. While Purdue may not be a Top-25 team, they are a solid and experienced squad with talent. Anyone looking at Notre Dame's schedule in the preseason (or even a week ago), would have to have seen this game as a potential loss for a young Irish team. Far from that, it was, ultimately, a comfortable win.
So, having now had the chance to rewatch the game, here are my thoughts:

  • While it may not be thought of as such, the most important play of the day came in the first quarter. With Purdue leading 7-0, Desmond Tardy raced down the sideline seemingly on his way to a touchdown. At around the Notre Dame 10, Kyle McCarthy made a shoe-string tackle to keep him out of the endzone. Notre Dame's defense then managed to stop Purdue on three straight plays before the Boilermakers missed a 28-yard field goal. McCarthy's hustle kept Purdue from taking a 14-0 lead which would have been absolutely devastating so early on. A week after losing a tough game in East Lansing, going down by two touchdowns at home in the first quarter would have been very difficult for the Irish to overcome. This play gave Notre Dame a chance they desperately needed.
  • The second biggest play of the day was Robert Blanton's interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter. Shortly before, Notre Dame's offense had marched down the field only to come away with no points after Duval Kamara was cheated out of a touchdown by the refs (more on that later) and Brandon Walker missed a 31-yard field goal. Purdue had a 7-0 lead and were starting to move the ball once again. Blanton provided a spark by jumping the route, getting in front of Painter's pass and then weaving his way 47 yards to paydirt. This not only brought Notre Dame even with the Boilermakers, it gave them a shot in the arm that enabled them to get past their earlier red zone disappointment and get their heads back in the game. Blanton looked terrific all game. He's a solid tackler, good in pass coverage and brings an enthusiasm that is infectious.

  • Armando Allen got it done big time. AA rushed for 134 yards on 17 carries (7.8 YPC) and a touchdown. In addition, he had one reception for 9 yards and 4 kick returns for 105 yards (one of which he was very close to breaking before his own momentum got the best of him). In all, Allen had 247 all-purpose yards on the day. It's good to see Allen doing the kinds of things we'd all hoped he would when he came here. Much like Hughes was during the last two games of 2007, Allen is now the running back with the hot hand and I'd assume Stanford will see an awful lot of him next week.

  • Duval Kamara has had a rough start to the year. In addition to his issues catching the ball (he dropped another one against Purdue), he can now add being screwed by the refs to his list of early-season woes. I've now watched his second quarter "should have been a touchdown catch" about 15 times and it is clear that he had control of the ball and got his foot down prior to going out of bounds. The refs had no issue with reversing themselves on calls as they did so both on Tardy's touchdown and Golden Tate's 38-yard catch, so I can't imagine how they missed this one.
  • On a brighter receiving note, Michael Floyd just keeps getting better. He consistently makes good decisions, runs tremendous routes and puts himself in position to make catches. His 6 catch, 100 yard effort yesterday was, at times, breathtaking. He really kept the Notre Dame offense going on a number of occasions. I realize he's only four games into his ND career, but I feel confident saying he's the best freshman player for the Irish I've ever seen.

  • Yet another freshman who came up huge was Kyle Rudolph. Rudy managed 3 catches for 32 yards and his first collegiate touchdown on Saturday. More importantly, he blocked exceptionally well the entire day in helping the offense to 200 yards on the ground. If you want evidence of how good a blocker Rudolph can be, go back and watch him on Allen's touchdown run. He absolutely owned his man and enabled Allen to get past the line and into daylight. With all of the concern over the tight end position stemming from Ragone's injury, Yeatman's legal issues and, this week, Schmidt's migraines, Kyle Rudolph's performance against Purdue was a godsend and evidence that the position is in good hands.

  • It was great seeing David Grimes getting involved and making some plays (4 catches, 65 yards, 1 touchdown). With the ascendance of the younger receivers, it's easy to overlook a guy like Grimes, but he is still an integral part of this offense and it was good to see him get some chances.
  • In a just world, people would be talking about Golden Tate as a Heisman candidate. The guy is just a wonder. He has speed, hands, balance, strength and smarts. He is a perfect package and just makes things happen. His touchdown catch was absolutely textbook, his 38 yarder (which, thankfully, replay upheld) was acrobatic and his downfield blocking was awesome. He is an absolute joy to watch and a nightmare for teams to defend.
  • Simply put, this was Jimmy's best day as Notre Dame quarterback. With 275 yards, 3 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 57% completion rate, he really looked like the player who earned so many accolades coming out of high school. While there were a few passes that were questionable (2 were nearly picked) , the majority of Clausen's decisions were rock solid. For the first time, I found myself thinking how much fun it's going to be watching a quarterback with this much talent play with these kind of skill-position guys.
  • Brian Smith seems to be involved with every play for the defense. I was shocked to see he only had five tackles on the game. I could have sworn it was easily twice that. The guy has a motor that never quits and is clearly the heir-apparent to Mo Crum as the leader of the defense.
  • I am still a bit concerned about the inability of the defense to reach the quarterback. While they did a much better job this week of applying pressure, they did not manage to sack Painter on any of his 55 pass attempts. In total, the Irish have one sack in 168 opponent attempts. Given the amount they blitz, this is just unacceptable and it is something that will need to change as the season moves forward if Notre Dame is to fulfill its potential.
  • Another concern in watching the defense is their continuing issues with making solid tackles. Painter's gaudy 359 passing yards were largely the result of his receivers getting YAC after short(er) completions. This is another area the Irish simply need to improve upon and, what's more, it's one they should be able to. Wrapping up and driving while making tackle are simple fundamentals. They are highly teachable and Notre Dame should be working on them overtime.
  • Notre Dame's kick coverage continues to be brilliant. Facing the NCAA's top return team, the Irish limited Purdue to an average starting position of their own 19-yard line (less than a touchback). That is very impressive and one of the little things (field position) that helps overall team success.
  • I can't tell you how happy I was to see Brandon Walker hit that 41-yard field goal. I truly think that Walker's issues were largely of the mental variety and nailing that had to be a big weight off his shoulders. Hopefully, it will be similar to a hitter in baseball breaking out of a slump with a single.
  • I am very, very happy that this is the last time the Irish will face the likes of Curtis Painter, Greg Orton, Desmond Tardy and Kory Sheets. The four of them have consistently given the Irish fits during their time in West Lafayette. I wish them all well and am not sad to see them go.
  • Ditto for Joe Tiller. Tiller's been a heckuva coach. While never having the most talented teams, he always got a tremendous amount out of his players (he was basically the anti-Lloyd Carr). It's hard to remember, but before he arrived, Notre Dame's game against Purdue was basically considered a "gimme" every year. Not so after Tiller showed up with his "basketball on grass" version of the spread. He was a great competitor and we wish him the best of luck in his retirement.
  • Isn't it remarkable how good a team can look when they're not constantly shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers and stupid penalties?
  • So, after a week in which 9 ranked teams went down (6 of them to unranked teams), including USC, Florida and Wisconsin, does anyone still want to comment on how bad Notre Dame looked against San Diego State?

A quarter of the way into this season and we've already matched our win total from 2007. That is cause for both relief and happiness. While the October slate provides a number of significant challenges for this team, they could not have hoped to be in better shape to face them. Later in the week, we'll take a look at the Stanford game but, for now, raise a glass, Irish fans, we're 3-1!!!!


OC Domer said...

Great recap BH!

Clay said...

I agree wholeheartedly, BH. I look forward to your write-ups every week. Keep them coming and GO IRISH!