A little bit of a delay in posting this week thanks to the unwelcome advances of real life but, nonetheless, here we go:
- Ok, it wasn't pretty and it was too close for comfort but, at the end of the day, it was a win. This is more than just platitude. Notre Dame absolutely, positively needed a victory on Saturday; regardless of how it came about. The program needed it because of the losing streak at home to Michigan State but, more importantly, this team needed it to get past the Michigan loss. Consider the corollary to 2006. That year, Notre Dame came off a brutal, error-filled beatdown at home to Michigan to play at Michigan State. After playing horribly most of the game, the Irish finally got themselves together late, rallied and claimed a last minute victory over the Spartans. They would go on to win their next seven games, with only the classic battle against UCLA being a close affair. Would they have had similar success if they'd lost to Michigan State? Doubtful. Losing tough games, especially back-to-back, tends to wear on a team's psyche and makes it exponentially harder to win. Similarly, I'm not sure this team could have survived another loss; especially after losing Michael Floyd. Which brings us to...
- How big a loss to the offense is Michael Floyd? Consider the following stats: of Clausen's 62 completions in 2009, 13 (21%) were to Floyd. Of Clausen's 951 yards passing, 358 were to Floyd (38%). Finally, of Clausen's 9 TD passes, 5 (56%) were to Floyd. So, to put it another way, over 1/5 of Clausen's completions, 1/3 of his passing yards and 1/2 of his touchdowns are the result of Michael Floyd. Ouch.
- Hearing those statistics, one might be inclined to think this offense is doomed to the same type of failure they endured last year when Floyd was out. While I'm certain it will not be quite as productive as when #3 is available, I am also sure we will not see a drop-off as severe as that which took place last year. There are two reasons for this guarded optimism: 1) the running game, and 2) Jimmy Clausen. To me, the running game is still very much a work in progress, but it has made great strides in the offseason and has added a great deal of balance to the offense this year. After only three games, Armando Allen is not yet someone I'm ready to consider a consistent "go-to" player, but he has played tremendously well this season and is now a guy defenses have to account for and scheme around - that hasn't happened with an Irish back since Darius Walker left. In addition, I think the flashes of potential we've seen in guys like Jonas Gray and Theo Ridddick are very encouraging. The more important factor, though, is Clausen. Clausen has become a tremendously good, tremendously accurate college quarterback. As a result of that improvement in accuracy (and general decision making), Notre Dame will be better on offense. Take a look at what the Giants did Sunday night against Dallas. With one receiver down and two young, green receivers (Irish scourges Steve Smith and Mario Manningham) in the game, Eli Manning was able to be very productive (25-38, 330 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs)...and keep in mind, this was without a functional running game. The reason is that talented, experienced quarterbacks make good decisions and can, ultimately, make inexperienced receivers look good. I think Irish fans will see something similar in the weeks to come.
- And then there's the Wildcat. Yes, it was great on two touchdowns (one running, one throwing), but it was also a lousy call on Notre Dame's first drive of the second quarter, with Golden Tate going for a loss of a yard and the Irish suffering a loss of momentum(compounded by penalties on the next two plays and a sack on the third on which Clausen was injured). Can I blame all of that on the Wildcat? No, but it was unnecessary and the kind of "too cute", gimmicky call which, I was hoping, Charlie had gotten past reverting to this year.
- The officiating was, again, awful. Beyond the much-discussed Floyd non-TD catch (where, incidentally, the Big East got into the act of screwing the Irish - it was their crew in the booth), there was something else that stood out. Two plays occurring within minutes of one another highlight the problem. On the drive after Michigan State's flubbed punt return in the second quarter, Robert Blanton was called for a late hit out of bounds after inadvertently taking a guy down on a tackle that had started in the field of play. A short time later, after a nice Jonas Gray run to get inside Michigan State's 10-yard line, he was taken down out of bounds by Greg Jones of MSU in an almost identical manner to what Blanton had done earlier, and it happened right in front of an official -no call. Those examples are exactly the problem. It's not that any of the calls against Notre Dame (other than the Floyd catch) were wrong, it's that the officials refused to apply the same standards to both teams. While I prefer refs to take a more laissez-faire approach to things anyway, if they are going to be ticky-tack, at least be consistent to avoid the appearance of impropriety and charges that you are a biased douchenozzle.
- And now for the defense. While the d-line and linebackers have come in for a lot of criticism over the last few days, I actually don't think they're all that far away from being pretty solid units. In reviewing the tape, a lot of the problems tend to stem from technique rather than strategy. Oftentimes, guys were in the backfield, but either overpursued or just missed tackles. A big reason for the latter is that, with regularity, Notre Dame players still "catch" ball-carriers rather than hit them with a head of steam. You do that and you put yourself in a position to get run over, stiff-armed or otherwise avoided. Run to the guy with the ball, wrap-up and drive. Do those things and a lot of these problems solve themselves.
- As for the secondary, I thought the coverage was very spotty. Sure, they were often left on islands because of blitzes that didn't arrive, but they were also giving way too much cushion for a large part of the afternoon and, in other cases, they were where they needed to be, but failed to make the play (dropped interceptions were a particular problem....Darrin Walls, I'm looking in your direction). Those things need to improve quickly. With as much talent as the defensive backfield possesses, they should be a bigger help to the overall defensive effort than they've been thus far.