Sunday, October 4, 2009

Random Thoughts: Washington Edition

So, see any good college games lately? Hopefully, by now the pulses of Irish fans have stopped racing and blood pressures have returned to safer levels. It's a criminal understatement to call Saturday's battle against Washington "a good game" - it was amazing. Seven lead changes, three goallines stands, an OT decided by a devastating hit on 4th and 19...what more could you ask for? Should it have been as close? Probably not, but it was and the Irish won. And, with that, here are this week's random thoughts:

What was good:

Jimmy Clausen: A few times during the first half, I wondered whether this was destined to be an off week for Jimmy. It's not that he was playing badly, per se, it's just that some of his decisions (the backward pass to Allen, inability to punch it in from the red zone) seemed to suggest maybe he wasn't at the top of his game. Of course, his final stat line read, 23-31, 422 yards, 2 TDs, 1 int (which was not his fault), which just goes to show how foolish it is to underestimate the awesome ability of James Clausen. 422 yards...are you kidding me?! That's the fifth best total in a game for any Irish QB ever. Then, when you consider how masterful Clausen looked in directing the final drive in regulation (yet again) and on his pass to Tate in OT, you can't help but be amazed. Five games into this season, there is absolutely no question that Jimmy Clausen is the finest QB in America. No player has been more important to his team, no QB has shown the same level of composure or, frankly, ability. That he is not being mentioned as the leading candidate for the Heisman at this point is a far greater indictment of the writers who make those decisions than it is of Clausen.

Golden Tate: As amazing as Jimmy was on Saturday, it's possible he didn't even have the best offensive performance on his own team. That's because Golden Tate went out and had 9 catches for 244 yards (the second best one game total for a receiver in Irish history), 1 TD (very nearly 2), plus an additional 31 yards rushing on the first play of the game for Notre Dame. All up, his 275 total yards are the fourth best one game total in Notre Dame history. Not bad for a guy who was the focus of the defense's attention most of the afternoon. So, how did he do it? Afterall, when Michael Floyd went down, there was concern that defenses would largely take the threat of Tate away. One thing I noticed was that Jimmy moved around in the pocket very well and fairly often. Doing this took took defenders out of their normal coverage just enough for Tate to slip into the seams that then opened up. Since all it takes is a little room for a guy like Golden Tate, this ended up really hurting Washington. Beyond that, though, is the fact that Tate is an absolutely brilliant athlete with amazing instinct and phenomenal ability. I said it last week, I'll repeat it again, just as Jimmy should be at the top of the Heisman list, Tate should be on it very prominently.

The Front Seven: While the tackling still leaves a lot to be desired (more on that later), any time a group can manage three goalline stands in a game, credit must be given. In the many years I've been a fan, I have absolutely never seen an Irish team do that...hell, I don't remember seeing any team do that. What's more amazing to me is that it was accomplished against a big, athletic QB and a running back having a career day. I have had my doubts about the heart of the defense a few times this season but, there is no questioning how much of themselves they put into their efforts near the goalline. That was positively incredible and deserves to go into the annals of Irish lore. On an individual basis, Te'o (10 tackles) looked awesome in his first start. The guy has a nose for the ball and finds his way to it all day long. Kerry Neal was also tremendous chipping in with seven, with two for loss, including a sack. Kyle McCarthy, of course, was the player we all expect him to be - 12 tackles and a bone-jarring hit (along with Harrison Smith) on D'Andre Goodwin of Washington that knocked the ball loose and ended the game. Others who made important contributions: Kapron Lewis-Moore 7 tackles, two for loss, one sack), Ethan Johnson (five tackles, two for loss, one sack, one forced fumble) and Brian Smith (seven tackles). Of course, any time you allow 30 points and 457 total yards, all is not well, but, in the final summary, there were a lot of things to like from this group on Saturday.

Nick Tausch: As excited as Irish fans are, and should be, about the many star performances on both offense and defense Saturday, the one that may have been the most critical was that of Tausch. 5-5 on field goals, 2-2 on extra points and on none was there a doubt as to the outcome. His kickoffs were ok, but the rest of his game was awesome. Notre Dame has a real weapon in Nick Tausch - a confident, accurate scoring machine. The fact that he will be with the program for three more seasons is a huge benefit. Over the last, say, five seasons, how many missed field goals have their been? How different would ND's record look if it had a kicker in whom the coaches had confidence (think Navy 2007 for one)? The importance of a good kicker cannot be overstated and Tausch is absolutely that.

Charlie Weis: For all the complaints I have with Charlie Weis as head coach, I must give him credit for calling a very good game against the Huskies. There were none of the head-scratching calls which had been happening weekly and he largely called plays that exploited the weaknesses of the defense. When an offense puts up 530 total yards and 37 points, it's a good bet that the guy calling the offensive plays is doing something right. True, the red zone offense was a little spotty but, I think that's as much a function of the team as a whole still trying to find a replacement for Michael Floyd in those situations. If 6'5 Duval Kamara would remember how to catch, this problem would be solved but, without that, it will be an issue until someone else steps up. Kyle Rudolph has certainly looked the part with two big 4th quarter touchdown catches the last two weeks, but I'd expect the level of attention he'll be getting from defenses to also go up exponentially. Whether or not Charlie can develop a third option (beyond Tate and Rudolph) in the red zone will, ultimately, determine the fate of the team's offensive production but, this Saturday, he did a nice job.

Robert Hughes: For the second week in a row, Hughes ran like a man possessed. Hughes ran 8 times for 70 yards - an astounding 8.8 ypc. More than that, though, he bailed the Irish out when they needed it most. Be it moving them out of lousy field position or his run to get the Irish their two-point conversion (one of the guttiest I've seen in a long time), Hughes was a beast. Until a week ago, I assumed Hughes had become a forgotten man in the Irish offense. Now, he's one of the most indispensable parts. I've always really liked Hughes. Not only is he a big and powerful runner, but his resolve in coming back to the team in the wake of his brother's murder a few seasons ago was both touching and inspiring. Of all the players on this team, Hughes may be the one for whom I'm happiest. He continues to bounce back from difficulty to prove he's both an incredibly resilient athlete and person.

The Offensive Line: Yes, Clausen was sacked three times, but there's so much more to the story than that. First off, in spite of sacks (and frankly, at least one was Jimmy falling down untouched), the line kept Clausen upright long enough to throw for over 400 yards and, ultimately, Irish runners did pick up 159 yards on the ground while averaging over 5 ypc, minus sacks (29 carries, 159 yards, 5.5 per). What does not show up on the stat sheet, however, is that this unit, like their defensive counterparts, were at their best when they most needed to be. When push came to shove and the game was in the balance, the o-line opened holes and kept Jimmy upright. With each passing week, this is a group that is gaining in confidence and, so it would seem, results. I have no idea what Frank Verducci is doing that his predecessor, John Latina, did not, but I hope he keeps it up.
Notre Dame Fans: Here's to you, Irish faithful. So many times, Notre Dame Stadium seems not to live up to its potential as home field advantage for ND, but that was not the case Saturday. The fans were loud, ornery and involved. On a few occasions, it was clear Locker was really struggling in making calls to his team. I was pleasantly reminded of the 1988 Michigan game where Wolverine QB, Michael Taylor was totally disrupted by the home crowd. Sure, it wasn't quite that loud, but it was a good start. To paraphrase Lou Holtz after the 1988 Miami game, this was a win for the Notre Dame spirit. While the stakes may not have been as high as 21 years ago, the fan's passion nearly was...and that's saying quite a lot.

What, um, sucked:

The Defense: I realize I may seem to be a hypocrite for saying they were at once something that was good and that sucked, but this was an exceptionally schizophrenic group on Saturday. Take a look at the goalline stands - yes, it was amazing that the Irish stopped Washington on those three occasions, but one has to consider that it's this same defense that allowed Washington to get to the goalline in the first place. It's not as though the Huskies just stumbled upon it or a dopplelganger defense invited them there, Irish defenders flailed, blew assignments and missed tackles up and down the field for a huge part of the game. How bad were they at times? Washington came into the game with the nation's 94th ranked rushing offense and gained 176 yards on the ground, including Chris Polk's first 100-yard game. That's pretty bad. A better job was done by the secondary (finally!) in containing Jake Locker. Yes, he had 281 yards passing, but that's eight less than unheralded Joey Elliot had the previous week. Locker is a big-time QB who is capable of single-handedly taking a game into his hands and he wasn't able to do so, finishing with just a 55% completion rate (Jimmy's, conversely, was 74%). Still, things need to get better quickly in order for Notre Dame to have any hope of being a BCS team this season. Notre Dame's defense was particularly awful at the end of the half (allowing Washington a field goal to go ahead) and the end of the game (allowing the game-tying field goal). Also, while the Huskies were a relatively average 7-17 (41%) on 3rd down conversions, those seven always seemed to come at the worst time. The Irish really need to do a better job getting off the field when they've held up the offense for two downs. Eventually, the shortcomings of this defense are going to put the offense in a position from which they can't come back. Let's hope that Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown can find the right formula with their players prior to that happening.
Red Zone Offense*: Feel free to launch the charges of hypocrite yet again. In fairness, though, I'm listing this one with an asterisk. Undoubtedly, Notre Dame did a poor job in the red zone Saturday, including a 1st and goal from the one where they were forced to settle for a field goal. In spite of that, however, I do believe this is an area where we'll see significant improvement in coming games. Michael Floyd, a huge target/diversion in the red zone, went out against Michigan State. Then, against Purdue, Jimmy Clausen only played about half the game. So, basically, this was the first game since Floyd's injury where the starting offense was available to try and figure out life inside the 20 without him. They struggled mightily for a large part of the game, but between the final drive and OT, they improved tremendously. So long as that momentum or mojo or whatever keeps going, I think they'll be fine going forward. Still, it sucked pretty hard Saturday.

Tackling: This was so painfully bad throughout most of the game that I'm actually listing it as a separate category from the defense. Go back and watch the tape of that game. How many times on both run and pass plays did the Irish blow, not one, but multiple tackles? I have no idea who is teaching these guys that the shoulder is a tackling implement, but it is not. Yes, I know all about the last play of the game, it doesn't absolve the billion and one missed shoulder tackles from earlier. The goalline stands were nice, too, but I wouldn't suggest they're a strategy the Irish should count on all season. Furthermore, if you can get your hands on a ball-carrier, you must find a way to bring him down. Arm tackling is not acceptable, you must actually hit someone. This is not accomplished by standing there and catching them. You need to be in motion and moving towards them. I know I'm a broken record on this topic, but it doesn't go away and there seems to be no urgency in making corrections. If players continue utilizing the same failed techniques each week, I can only assume the coaches are not showing them how to do things properly or else they're being totally ignored. Were I Tenuta or Brown, I might think about implementing a "you miss a tackle, you run until you vomit" approach. It might get the players attention a little bit better than the current system of, "you miss a tackle, try the same thing again and, when it fails, keep doing it."
Playing Down to the Competition: Really, this has been the problem all season. Notre Dame has not yet played a team who they are not vastly superior to in terms of talent (including Michigan). Unfortunately, for some reason, rather than coming out and dominating these teams (except Nevada), the Irish seem to play to their level. Forget how much better teams might be than we thought in the preseason - can you honestly point to a team the Irish could not/should not have dominated (definining that concept as winning by two or more touchdowns)? I sure as hell can't. Now, maybe that means they'll play "up to" USC and find a way to win, as they're also more experienced than the Trojans. Still, it's a disconcerting trend and one that the Irish need to move past. The season is far too long to expect last-minute victories each week. Eventually, the law of averages catches up with you and flips the script. Much like tackling and improving the offense in the red zone, in order to have the type of season so many thought possible, Notre Dame needs to develop a killer instinct. Right now, what I'm seeing is a largely passive team that gets fired up when it's back is to the wall. It shouldn't take that, though. The Irish need to believe they're the superior team and then go out and prove to what extent. It needs to be viewed as a personal affront that any team should deign to challenge them. Get pissed and get nasty. Stop being the cat pawing at the mouse...kill the fucking thing already!
All in all, a great win. I do believe this is a game that ought to have been won more comfortably, but I'm still delighted with another 'W.' Just in terms of sheer gameplay, this was one of the best Notre Dame games I've seen in years. While I normally think the writers of College Football are a bunch of anti-Notre Dame crap weasels, writer Aaron Calhoun did a really nice job summarizing how terrific a game this was for college football fans.
Now, it's a much-deserved week off for all of us - players, coaches and fans. After the high drama of the last four weeks, it couldn't come at a better time.

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