Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Random Thoughts: Purdue Edition

In a week where the nation's #4, #5, #6, #9, #18, #22 and #24 teams all lost and, in every case but #9 Miami, to non-Top 25 teams; maybe it's not surprising that Notre Dame had to struggle to pull out a win over Purdue. Throughout a large swath of college football last Saturday, Davids were rising up to topple Goliaths. Thankfully, in West Lafayette, Goliath fought back.
Still, the question remains - is Notre Dame lucky or good? To be honest, much like The Biscuit over at Her Loyal Sons, I have no idea. I'm not sure I've ever been this confused as to what type of an Irish team I'm watching. Like so many others, I'm happy with beating Purdue but, other than getting halfway to bowl-eligibility, I really don't know what it means in the grand scheme. So, with that backdrop of bewilderment, I offer the following random thoughts from Saturday:

  • Jimmy Clausen: I recognize that it's been stated to the point of cliche, but the kid's a winner, a leader and just a tough dude. For all the crap Jimmy has gotten from the punditocracy of college football, he now deserves to be recognized for the many positives he brings his team and for the performances he's had. Many have commented on the poise and lack of panic on the part of Notre Dame, even when they fell behind late in the game. I noticed it as well, and I think Clausen's a big reason. The guy gives you a chance to win just by being in the game and there's a confidence he projects that his teammates seem to feed off of. To me, the game-winning drive against Purdue on Saturday ranks right up there with Brady Quinn's last minute pass to Jeff Samardzija to beat UCLA in 2006 in the annals of great finishes in Irish history. Terrific stuff.
  • Charlie Weis: Is there a more maddening coach in college football than Charlie Weis? Given the limitations in personnel with which he was dealing, Weis drew up a really nice game plan. Mixing and matching Crist and Clausen, drawing up some great running schemes and just generally confusing Purdue's defense was Weis at his best. Of course, he wouldn't be Charlie without a bone-headed decision. I am, of course, talking about the pass on 4th and 10. For the love of God, why are you not punting there? Given Maust's inability to punt the ball long, you're probably looking at pinning Purdue deep in their territory. At the very least, you put them at their 20 with 80 yards to go. Let's face it, it's not like ND's offense was lighting it up and tossing the ball all over the yard to that point. This is exactly the kind of "too cute" play-calling I referred to a few weeks ago. Charlie seems to think that, by virtue of the fact that he's called it, it's a brilliant play. How often does that work out, Chuckles? I suppose that, after 5 seasons, this isn't going to change. If Weis remains Notre Dame's head coach, fans are just going to have to get used to these types of brain farts happening at least once a game.
  • Golden Tate: While we Irish fans have legitimately felt that Jimmy Clausen ought to be given more Heisman consideration, how about Golden Tate? In addition to being one of the most dangerous wide receivers in the country, Tate showed on Saturday that he's a threat out of the backfield as well. With Michael Floyd shelved for the season, Tate is clearly going to be a much bigger part of the offense whether catching the ball, running the ball or just drawing defensive attention away from other players. While the numbers may not yet put him into the rarified category of Heisman contender, Golden Tate's versatitilty may just force that conversation to take place by season's end.

  • The Running Game: Allow me to preface my praise by saying, the rushing yards put up by the Irish (167) came against a defense ranked 102nd in the country against the run. With that out of the way, it was still a good performance. We finally got a chance to see three things which need to continue if ND is to have anywhere near the type of success that fans expect/hope for this year - 1) the success of multiple running backs, 2) the offensive line won the battle in the trenches and 3) the running plays dialed up were, by and large, very good. If all three of these factors hold up and, in fact, improve, the loss of Michael Floyd will not be nearly as devastating to the offense as originally feared.

  • The Defense: A small step forward, to be sure. The improvements against the run that were made in the second half against MSU seemed to carry over to this game. In particular, Darius Fleming and Kapron Lewis-Moore looked like much different/better players this week. Stopping a runner as prolific as Ralph Bolden was a big accomplishment for this defense and, hopefully, something it can build off of as the season moves forward. On the other hand, the porous pass defense continues its sieve-like ways. How the hell does Joey Elliot go for 289 yards in the air?! What's more, go back and watch the tape of that game - how many passes were on the money that his receivers dropped (it's a bunch, incidentally). For me, this game featured two quintessential examples of how poorly the secondary has played this year with Aaron Valentin's 36-yard TD catch in the 1st and Jaycen Taylor's 38-yard TD catch in the 4th quarter. On Valentin's TD, the weak attempts at tackling would have been considered bad if they had been made by a freshman team in high school. At this level, they're inexcusable. On Taylor's, coverage was completely blown and no one was even remotely near him, including stalwart Kyle McCarthy. These have been, by far, the unit's biggest problems. Tackling is atrocious and coverage is just bad. With this much talent and as good a secondary coach as Corwin Brown, I have no idea why this continues to be a problem week in and week out.

  • Nick Tausch: It's obviously still early in both the season and Tausch's career at Notre Dame, but it's looking more and more like this kid's going to be a great one. He is an increasingly reliable placekicker and his kickoffs seem to be improving as well. This is a weapon that Notre Dame really hasn't had in some time and, if Tausch can manage to become something akin to this generation's Craig Hentrich, the Irish will be a much better team for it.
  • The Officiating: I am not going to dwell on this subject too intensely, but I do want to add the following: in two games with Big Ten officials this year, Notre Dame had 20 penalties for 174 yards. This week, with a Big East crew, they had 6 for 41 yards, or 4 penalties and 46 yards less than the average of the two previous games. Sure, some of this could have been players being more conscientous but, having watched all three games, I can't help thinking that the officiating was just as big a factor. Add in the bogus interception call in the Indiana/Michigan game this past weekend and I think it's fair to say the Big Ten leaves a lot to be desired with the officials it's hired.

Now we come to the Washington game. During the offseason, this looked like it would fall into the category of 'easy win' but, then the season began and Washington nearly upset LSU (who, while I think overrated, is a Top 5 team) and did knock off USC. Even with the beating they absorbed at the hands of Stanford this past week, the Huskies are dangerous and represent a tough challenge for Notre Dame. The big questions on which this game will hinge: 1) was Washington's loss this week a let-down post-USC or representative of who they truly are as a team, 2) can Notre Dame's offense shut down a Jake Locker-led offense, and 3) what can the Irish offense do against a bad Husky rushing defense (106th nationally) and fairly decent pass defense (41st nationally)? I'll have more to say on that later in the week. For now, I'm just going to sit back and enjoy one of the oddest 3-1 starts I can ever remember watching.

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