Jeremy, good thoughts on the game Saturday. I agree with you that Saturday was a step backward for the Irish after what appeared to be a breakthrough win over Michigan. We have a long way to go before we can start talking about being an elite team.
Before I get to the ND-MSU game, I wanted to toss in a few thoughts about that LSU-Auburn game. Maybe it was because it was the first SEC game I've watched all year, but the performances on the field in that game were jaw-dropping. Not only do they still have the great athleticism of the old SEC days, these teams are now just physically dominating along the lines, especially LSU. The teams of the SEC (we'll just include USC in that group) are playing a different sport than the rest of the college football world. It's incredible. LSU's front seven is absolutely ridiculous. They are bringing in waves of 8-9 defensive linemen, and every one of these guys would be the best player on our roster and probably the best player anywhere in the Midwest.
Here's my question for the ND fans. Even if we continue to mature and bring in these so-called top 5 recruiting classes, can we ever get to that level?? Like all ND fans, I've been following the recruiting and seeing us rack in these top 5 classes, but am I the only one who thinks that our talent level doesn't sniff what you see down at LSU or Auburn or Georgia or Florida?? I don't see one guy on our defensive roster outside of maybe Brian Smith (MAYBE) who would even be sniffing the field on any of those teams.
I don't care what the recruiting rankings are, we all have two eyeballs and can see that we don't have the big time players that other schools seem to have. How do they come up with these recruiting rankings anyway?? We are recruiting the 4.0 students, student body presidents, team captains, two parent family kids, and those kids probably get bumped up a bit in the recruiting rankings. EVERYONE ELSE is recruiting a different type of kid. The dirt poor linemen from rural Alabama, the inner city welfare kids, the Samoan islanders....guys who literally need football to have any future in life. We don't have even one of those kids on our entire roster, and I can't shake the feeling that those are the kids that we need to be big time. The hungry guys. We have GREAT all-around guys on our team who have a ton going for them in life and probably would be awesome to hang out with, but I'm not sure if that is really what would be best for our football team on the field. It's great for marketing and image, but not results. We have the talent to put together "nice" seasons like 2005 and 2006, but I don't see any Ricky Jean-Francois types on our roster.
LSU has kids from the Bayou who can't even read and would probably be dead or in prison if not for football. USC has these Samoan islander freaks that would be picking strawberries in the San Fernando Valley if it wasn't for football. If our kids don't make it in football, they go to law school or Wall Street. That's a good thing for our endowment fund and our US News ranking, but it is a problem for our football team. All I can think about was going out on Bourbon Street after the Sugar Bowl, and EVERY SINGLE GUY on LSU's team had the team issue clothes on out at the bars. EVERY GUY. Why?? I have no idea, but maybe it's because it's the only clothes they have. Our guys were wearing button downs, khakis, nice shoes. It's a great image for our team obviously, but our guys don't need football to dominate every part of their lives. That matters.
Anyway, the SEC is so far and away the best conference in America, it's not even funny. I don't care if the SEC champion has 2 losses this year. If the SEC champion isn't playing in the title game this year, it is not the title game. You cannot tell me that some Missouri-Penn State championship game would be legitimate if neither of those teams play anyone from the SEC. If you want to be considered the national champion, I think you have to go through the SEC.
Jeremy actually had an interesting idea for how to resolve the BCS and create a true national champion. What if college football used a championship belt system like they have in boxing?? Let's say you have three belts (one for the North, one for the South, and one for the West), and the only way for you to become the champion is to unify those belts and beat the other "titleholders." Instead of a playoff, the postseason could be a little round robin or something like that. That way, you can prevent the farce of a team winning a national title without playing anyone from the SEC. If you want to be the national champion, you have to take the "Southern" belt. I actually really like this idea maybe even more than a playoff (since a four team playoff could still leave out an SEC team in theory), and plus you would have the comedy of Ricky Jean-Francois coming out of the tunnel wearing a championship belt. Make it happen!!!
While we're here, I think I need to give credit where credit is due to Les Miles. At this point, there is no debate. He may come off like a bumpkin, but this guy is an outstanding head coach who gets his teams to play with incredible toughness and physicality. He is also maybe the gutsiest coach in college football today not named Pete Carroll. Does he have a ton of talent on his roster?? Absolutely, but talent alone does not win ballgames. He is now 8-3 against top 10 teams. That is remarkable. And they have won in some seriously hostile environments. While Saban laid the groundwork for that program, Miles has them rolling along. Based on how they play, I get the feeling that they must have some incredibly physical practices because they are easily the most physical team in the country. Their defense just explodes off the ball, and their offensive line mauls people. Color me impressed with LSU. If Jarrett Lee can come along a little bit, they are going to be really good this year. I used to hate Les Miles, but I'm actually coming around on him. The guy knows what he's doing, and they are fun to watch. I expect Verne and Gary to be making regular stops in Baton Rouge this year.
My top 5 through week 3:
I'm in favor of starting the belt system now, so someone slap a belt on Pete Carroll and Urban Meyer. That "Southern" belt could change hands multiple times this year.
Let's get to the ND game:
Clausen - Not a whole lot to say about Jimmy Clausen that Jeremy has not already touched on. Clausen is really really good when he gets his feet set and has a place to go with the ball, but he gets himself into all kinds of trouble once he has to go through some progressions or improvise a little. I still think his issues are a product of youth, so hopefully he gets better with those reads as time goes along. There is a lot placed on his shoulders with this team, and he is essentially being asked to carry this team. How many other TRUE sophomore quarterbacks are in that position?? None. When you are putting everything in his hands, there are going to be some great plays and some shaky plays. That's just the nature of the beast. He throws that sideline out route as well as anyone in the country, but it would be nice to see him work the middle of the field to the tight end and maybe hit some crossing patterns. Hopefully he gets more comfortable in the pocket as the season goes along because those plays where he turns backwards for 6 yards and hurls it away at the first sign of a rush are killing us with intentional grounding penalties and near interceptions.
Hughes/Allen/the running game - While I will be the first to say that I am disappointed to see how finesse our o-line is in Weis' fourth year, I can live with the lack of a running game if we would just commit to some type of offense. Our offense has absolutely no identity. We seem to come out with a game plan, and then immediately scrap it when the going gets tough and start grab bagging out of the hurry up. We are now in the fourth year of the Weis offense, and I still have no idea what type of offense he wants to build here. He talks about wanting to run the ball, but it's obvious that our o-line hasn't worked on becoming a power running team that can play smashmouth. We will come out trying to run the ball, and it just leads to one stonewall run after another. There's no attempt at a misdirection run or anything to move the ball on the ground. It's almost like Weis decides in the middle of the 2nd quarter every game "well, we tried to run the ball, screw it, five wide!!"
It seems like almost every big game since 2006 Michigan has played out the same way. Completely inept for the first 25 or so minutes of the game on offense, and then we go to the hurry up at the end of the half and start moving the ball through the air. Then we do the same thing in the second half.
At this point, why not just come out in the 5 wides and see if we can jump on our opponent early through the air?? Would it really hurt to try it?? We have a top flight quarterback who can make all the throws, our receivers are as good as any young receivers in the country, and our o-line is built to pass block. Do I like that type of offense?? No, not particularly. Do I think we can beat USC or a big time SEC team with a one dimensional offense like that?? No, probably not because there is such a thin margin for error when you are always having to execute through the air and a good team will make us pay for being one-dimensional. But I do think it is our best way to move the football this year. At the very least, our guys at least seem to play with confidence when we run the Texas Tech no back hurry up passing offense. They seem to believe in it, and we do move the football down the field in that offense. I don't like the idea of becoming the Texas Tech of the Midwest more than anyone else, but I also don't want to see this team blow games that we should be winning.
Hopefully Robert Hughes and Cierre Wood are not reading this post because that offense obviously would not lead to a whole lot of carries for those guys. However, I think you have to play to your strengths. For all his bluster about the running game, Weis is most comfortable calling an offense that flings it around the field. He likes to call plays that set up one on one matchups for his receivers, and it actually has worked in stretches. If we committed to running it in practice and came out with that offense in the game, maybe we could really do some damage offensively.
Tight ends - Well, a unit that had been dormant through two games suddenly showed some life on Saturday. Definitely a good sign. Kyle Rudolph was open over the middle of the field quite a bit, and I would not be surprised to see us using that part of our offense again soon. The tight end over the middle was one of our bread and butter plays in the first couple years, so it would be nice to see Rudolph making some plays in the passing game. Not to make excuses for this team, but the tight end position is a perfect example of the extreme youth on this roster. Kyle Rudolph is a true freshmen who had no idea what he was doing in the first couple games, but now he is getting more comfortable and could be on his way to being a productive player as soon as this year.
Michael Floyd - Good god, a star is born. My gut feeling before this game was that Michael Floyd was about to become a household name in the very near future, but I did not expect him to break out like that just yet. Floyd is going to be a superstar in this offense. There is no one in the Big 10 or Big East (which comprises most of our schedule in upcoming years) who can guard him one on one. Floyd is such a smooth player and already looks like a guy who has the polish of a junior or senior. Very excited about Michael Floyd. His performance on Saturday confirms what we already knew. He is going to be a great player at ND.
Golden Tate/other receivers - It wouldn't be a 2008 ND game without mentioning the remarkable transformation of Golden Tate. While MSU made a concerted effort to try to shut him down and kick away from him, Tate still made his mark on this game with that incredible catch in traffic on the floater from Clausen (that easily could have been picked off), a great run on a reverse, and that remarkable effort to break tackles and convert that long 3rd down play late in the game. Tate is a warrior, and we need more guys like him. He refuses to be denied out there, and I love that attitude.
Where was David Grimes in this game?? Was he hurt?? I didn't see him out there much. Robbie Parris is a very underwhelming player if you ask me. The only play we run for him now is that bubble screen, which hasn't worked yet this year. I don't know what to expect out of Parris. He doesn't make any plays.
As for Duval Kamara, I think he is officially on the bench at this point. While the first interception was not his fault (not a good decision by Clausen to throw into double coverage like that), I think the second one might have been on him. Kamara didn't fight to get open, and let his man beat him to the ball. It was especially disheartening because Michael Floyd probably would have found a way to catch that ball.
Defensive line - Did anyone else notice that every big run Javon Ringer had on Saturday seemed to be to the left side of the line?? I'm not going to say too much, but I will note that John Ryan is our right defensive end. I think it's time to put Ethan Johnson in there as our starting right defensive end. We actually have been using him down on the goal line, and he is a pretty effective runstuffer. Why not put this guy in during other situations?? He is clearly a more talented player than John Ryan. The best players need to be on the field. I don't think it will be long before Ethan Johnson is starting over Ryan.
As for the rest of the d-line, I actually thought we played ok up front. Ringer had some big runs, but we also stopped him quite a few times. The only way to get better up front is to start mixing in those freshmen more and more. I don't think we will ever have LSU's personnel up front, but we can certainly get much better.
Linebackers - Brian Freaking Smith. WOW. Another great ballgame for this guy. What I like about Brian Smith is that he makes most of his big plays behind the line of scrimmage. He's not a Lauranaitis type who makes all his plays after the ballcarrier is 5 yards down the field. Smith has a knack for knifing into the backfield and blowing up a play. He has the athleticism to get to the sideline and cut off the running lanes against anyone. Couldn't be more excited about #58's future. He has a chance to be an all-time great at ND.
As for the rest of the linebackers, maybe I am in the minority, but I'm not in love with the idea of Harrison Smith as a linebacker. I think the guy has some ability, but he is too small to be a great linebacker. I just don't see it with this guy. I'd rather move him back to safety and groom him to take over for David Bruton after next year. I've watched him get beat in pass coverage, and he doesn't have the size to explode into the pile and mix it up at the line of scrimmage.
Corners - I agree wholeheartedly with Jeremy about Terrail Lambert. Every time MSU needed a big 3rd down conversion, they threw at Lambert. He is not a good cover guy, and I really think we need to explore a change at that position to get Gary Gray in there. Gray has more "material" than Lambert. It's a simple fact. Lambert plays hard and is actually decent in run support, but he is the last of the old ND corner recruits and doesn't have the abilities to be a lockdown corner. Gray, McNeil, and even Blanton have more raw talent than Lambert, and I'd like to see all those guys on the field together more.
Safeties - Another great day for Kyle McCarthy. It seemed like he was all over the field again, and I think he's the frontrunner for the most improved player award on the defense.
Overall, I thought the defense played pretty well. We still need to get better up front, but I think we are more fundamentally sound and also more aggressive. Those two attributes will eventually pay off.
Special Teams - Nothing more to say that hasn't been said, but it really does amaze me that we can't find a good kicker. You would think ND would be to the kicker what USC is to quarterbacks. We are made for a good kicker. White guys, good students, Catholic schools. How do not have some plucky little guy who grew up belting kicks for some state championship team in the Midwest and now is living out the dream at ND?? Just seems like ND fits the demographic to be Kicker U, and yet we've had a bad placekicking team for about 12 out of the last 14 years.
Same goes for kickoffs. We watched the MSU kicker boom a kickoff through the uprights on Saturday. THROUGH IT!! Our kickers are barely getting it to the 10. Just a killer in the field position game. Michigan freaking State has a better kicking game than us. How is that possible??
Michigan State - Since we're discussing the game, I wanted to say a couple things about Michigan State. First of all, I like what Mark Dantonio is doing there. He came to that school, and immediately tried to establish an identity. They decided to hang their hat on a sound running game with good blocking up front, an attacking defense, and good special teams. While they are still a work in progress to some degree, they at least have a foundation that they can build upon.
Ringer is obviously a special player, and I thought their o-line played fairly well. It sounds like their o-line is just as young as ours, so that could be a real good unit over the next couple years. Their receivers were pretty athletic, but you could tell that they don't have a lot of experience. They had some bad drops.
As for Hoyer, I thought he played pretty poorly against us. He missed a lot of open receivers, and it doesn't seem like the fans have a whole lot of confidence in him. Hoyer has been an ok placeholder for MSU, but it sounds like the fans are ready to embrace the Oklahoma transfer or someone else within that program.
Their schedule is actually fairly favorable this year, so they may be able to sneak out 8-9 wins this year. I think they will be 6-1 with the Buckeyes coming into town. Could be interesting. I think they have a shot to finish anywhere from 3-5 in the Big 10 this year, which would be a good year for them.
The scary part about MSU is that they are probably just scratching the surface of their potential as a program under Dantonio. They have a highly regarded transfer QB coming in from Oklahoma, they've brought in a couple good RB recruits, and their o-line is actually fairly young. I think the future is fairly bright in East Lansing.
East Lansing/Spartan Stadium - Nothing but good things to say about the experience up in East Lansing this weekend. It is a first class university in a good college town with good fans and a good stadium. Their student section was rocking most of the day, and the crowd was pretty fired up with the "Whiteout" planned for the game. MSU's band is pretty darn good (although not as good as the incredible outfit that Dr. Kenneth Dye continues to put together year after year), and some of their songs are still ringing in my head.
While I have expressed interest in occasionally taking a break from MSU and Purdue, I'm revising my stance just a bit. I think MSU should be a permanent fixture on the schedule. It's a good little rivalry, they almost always have a competitive team, and we have had a history of great games with them. MSU has the potential to be one of the 3-4 best programs in the Big 10, and any win over them is always respectable.
On the other hand, a break with Purdue is long overdue. Purdue is barely staying afloat as a program, and I think they are in for some real hard times after Tiller leaves. At best, they are the 6th or 7th best program in the Big 10. Purdue just doesn't have the access to talent that you need. They are getting the 3rd tier players in the state of Indiana, which isn't even that great for high school football in the first place. If we are looking to move/drop one of those Big 10 teams, I would be all for dropping Purdue and using their spot for a decent home and home with an SEC/ACC team like Clemson or South Carolina or Arkansas. Heck, even Ole Miss would be more intriguing than Purdue.
Charlie Weis - Predictably, Weis is taking a lot of heat for this loss, and I think some of it is warranted. We clearly have a lot more talent than Michigan State, but our talent is still a long way from forming into a championship team. As Jeremy noted, our offense consists of Clausen firing and our receivers making great individual plays. There is no method to our offense. The only time we move the ball is when we go into helter skelter desperation mode. That is probably not a long term model for success unless we commit to making that our actual offense.
Michigan State is a nice team, but hardly a great team by any stretch. While I had that game down as a loss before the season, it turned out that it was a winnable game. They are a slightly above average team with a deeply flawed QB and a defense that Cal torched in week one, and yet they completely dominated us up front, and outplayed us in all three phases of the game.
Our special teams are better, but still not at a championship level. Our defense is better, but MSU and Michigan have gashed us for yards. Can't even imagine what a really good offense would do to us.
What are we building toward?? Are we headed toward championship level play over the next couple years or is our ceiling as a program going to be a lot like the 2006 type teams that can put up big stats against Purdue but gets blown out by the big boys?? I really am not sure at this point. I guess we'll find out over the next few years.
The good news for Weis is that the young talent we have on this roster appears to be outstanding in some areas (WR, TE, corner, QB), and the players are playing hard for him. This team does not give up, and I like the swagger of the younger players. I am not giving up on Weis by any stretch, and I hope we continue to improve over the course of the season. With the schedule we have, there are still a ton of winnable games. Heck, every one of these games until USC is a winnable game.
Are we capable of someday being in the same class as LSU?? Not sure, but we sure as heck have better players than just about everyone on our schedules coming up the next few years. While I am not a fan of playing a weak schedule, there are certainly plenty of opportunities to win a bunch of games.
Our goal as a program should be to at least capture the "Northern" belt in the next couple years, and then we'll see what happens from there.