Well, that was fun.
Plenty to discuss from the game on Saturday, so let's hit up the rundown.
1) Clausen - Although the monsoon in the second half put a damper on his final stats, I thought Clausen played an outstanding game on Saturday. That bomb to Golden Tate was probably the best pass an ND QB has thrown in many years. You couldn't have put it in a better spot, and he hit him right in stride. Clausen is going to be a star at ND. I don't think there's any question about it. I'd go so far as to say that he is going to be better than Brady Quinn, and it's going to happen a lot sooner than I realized. While Brady was a great player, he never had the accuracy that Clausen has shown so far, especially on passes to the sideline. Every ball Clausen throws is right on the money. The deep ball, the out route to the sideline, the curls underneath. Clausen puts the ball where it needs to be. He still needs more experience with making his progressions, but he shows improvement every game.
One of his most underrated throws was that sideline pass to Golden Tate on 3rd down in the driving rain storm. He gunned that ball across the field, and Tate pulled it in. Great stuff.
By this time next year, Clausen is going to be viewed as one of the 2 or 3 best QBs in the country. Mark it down.
2) The running game/o-line - While there has been a lot of fuss about our running game, I actually think that we have run the ball fairly well so far. The o-line was opening up some nice holes on Saturday, and we picked up quite a few 8-10 yard runs over the course of the game. We don't have the home run capability in the running game, but I think it's coming. After rewatching the game on TIVO, there were a few moments where Aldridge or Hughes busted to the outside and very nearly broke off a huge run. Last year at this time, we were not capable of picking up a first down on the ground. This year, it seems like we picked up about half of our first downs with running plays.
Charlie Weis is who he is, and I'd rather play to his strengths than try to "pound it" just to prove a point. We are a passing team with a talented QB and talented WRs, and our running game is a change of pace at this point. That may change, but it's our identity as of September 13, 2008. We are showing signs that we might be able to develop an effective running game, but I'd rather use it in the way that we did against Michigan. Get the defense on their heels through the air, and then start running it to keep them guessing. We are not LSU or USC at this point. We can't pound the ball off tackle three straight times just to demoralize an opponent. While I would love to be able to do that, it's not who we are at this point, and I'd rather see the offense focus on its strengths.
The offensive line still has work to do, but it's clearly an improved unit. The holes that they were opening up on Saturday were not there last year, and we actually resemble a quality pass block unit this year. Zero sacks on Saturday, and no holding penalties. If you aren't killing drives with negative plays, you always have a chance to pick up first downs and keep the chains moving. I don't think the improvement is by any means finished either. This o-line might be hauling people by week 8 for all I know.
Golden Tate - WOW. Maybe it's a stretch after two games in his sophomore year, but is Golden Tate the most electrifying player we've had since the Rocket?? Where did this come from?? I really didn't expect much out of him this year other than some occasional flashes, but he has become our go-to-guy through two games. I haven't seen anyone with his knack for coming down with the ball in an Irish uniform in a long time. If it is going in his direction, it's a catch.
I absolutely love our wide receivers going forward. We actually have athletes who can blow by their man this year. Tate and Floyd get separation from defenders, and we haven't even seen Deion Walker yet. Michael Floyd has star written all over him. With Jimmy Clausen running the show and Dayne Crist coming on board, why would a receiver not be interested in ND??
D-line - Still the weak link of this defense without question, but there were some positives out of that unit on Saturday. Ian Williams got in there several times and made plays, and I thought Pat Kuntz played one of his best games in an Irish uniform. All I'm looking for out of our d-linemen is that they create a little havoc at the line of scrimmage, take on blockers, and blow up some plays. We have a long way to go, but the d-line showed a little life on Saturday. We made more plays behind the line of scrimmage in that game than we did at any time in the Minter/Baer era. It's a good sign if you ask me.
For the record, I'm well aware that McGuffie was frequently running through gaping holes, but some of that can be attributed to poor angles from the linebackers and strange blitz packages.
Brian Smith - Anyone who has spoken to me in the last two weeks knows that I have serious manlove for Brian Smith, but how could you not?? I think he's the best middle linebacker we've had in 20+ years. B. Smith is all over the place making tackles and plays behind the line of scrimmage. He made at least 3 or 4 "WOW, who was that?" tackles on Saturday where you saw someone knife into the backfield to drag a guy down and had to wait for him to get up to see what number it was. And he's only a sophomore!! The guy has played 14 games in his career, but he's already making plays that past middle linebackers never made at ND. I know he got bulled over by Kevin Grady going into the endzone, but that was more just a great effort by Grady than anything that Smith did.
He has a 2nd round NFL pick type college career written all over him, and that's a major step up from what we've had in the past. I couldn't be happier to have him at ND. When you consider that we never would have had him if Justin Trattou had signed, I feel like he is a gift to this program. He would have been one of those guys who went on to have an All-American career at Iowa and ND fans would have been wondering "why didn't we offer that guy?" for the next four years. We are lucky to have him.
Overall, the athleticism from our linebackers is a major upgrade. They are making more plays behind the line of scrimmage, and I like that we are taking the fight to the other team instead of sitting on our heels. While we gave up some big plays on Saturday, we made up for it with a number of plays behind the line of scrimmage. That type of mentality will pay big dividends down the road, especially when the talented freshmen start earning some more playing time. If we want to beat the great offenses, it will come from getting pressure on the QB and making plays behind the line of scrimmage. It appears that Tenuta understands those principles as well as anyone.
Safeties - I absolutely love our safeties this year. Couldn't be more excited about them. Safety is sort of an underrated position in college football. Whenever we have had really good safeties, we have had a good defense. The Gerome Sapp-Glenn Earl combo was the catalyst for our defense back in 2002, and some of the better Davie teams always had quality safeties. It appears that we have a pair of great safeties again this year. I haven't seen too many teams play this year, but David Bruton has to be as good as any safety in the country. He is EVERYWHERE on the field, and he's probably the second best gunner on punt coverage in the country (behind you know who).
While we knew that David Bruton was a stud based on how he played last year, the real revelation out of this unit has been Kyle McCarthy. WOW. That kid is a football player. I had sort of written him off until the end of last year, and now he has taken his game to a whole new level. I swear, I felt like I heard his name being announced on a tackle about every other play. When you think about the last few years of watching Zibby bite on every fake and constantly out of position, it is refreshing to see a safety who always seems to be in the right spot. Playing safety is all about being in the right spot on the field and making the play. McCarthy has those instincts. The days of Quentin Burrell and Zibby getting beat and constantly missing tackles appear to be over.
Mike FREAKING Anello - HOLY COW. Incredible. When we first started seeing Anello make tackles on special teams last year, it was hard not to get caught up in the story. Even though there were about ten people watching those Duke and Stanford games at the end of the year, you couldn't help but noticed Anello flying down the field and sticking his nose in there for the tackle on punt and kickoff coverage. Even with all that said, I NEVER would have expected the Mike Anello story to morph into full-fledged stardom. The guy is a legit special teams freak. He's the Steve Tasker of college football. He has absolutely no fear and perfect technique. How much longer before we get a glowing ESPN THE MAGAZINE feature on Anello with over-the-top Rudi Ruettiger comparisons?? I give it two more issues.
Honestly, through two games, Mike Anello is one of the top 5 MVPs of this team. No one on the team does their job better than Mike Anello. He's not a novelty act anymore.
Speaking of special teams, I'm pretty pleased with the special teams through two games. The return game is at least functional (although it would be nice to see us break a big one soon), and our coverage units are nothing short of outstanding so far. We haven't had a lot of field goal opportunities, but everything else in the special teams department is light years better. Somewhere Bob Davie is smiling.
It appears that Charlie Weis' visit down to Blacksburg this offseason to visit the Godfather of Special Teams is paying off. If you had a special teams problem, why would you not go to Blacksburg?? How does Frank Beamer know so much about special teams??
Crowd Atmosphere - What a crowd on Saturday! ELECTRIC. One of the best we've had in several years. You could tell that the crowd was jacked up from the very beginning, and the great start only added fuel to the fire. We NEEDED this game badly, and the fans knew how important this game was to the program. Emotion matters in college football, and I really believe that the crowd made a difference in this game. When the Michigan returner fumbled the kickoff that second time and we punched it into the end zone, the crowd was going ballistic. And even when it was pouring rain, the crowd still went crazy when Brian Smith picked up that fumble and took it to the house.
It didn't hurt that the 1988 National Championship team was in the house, and that Lou Holtz was on that sideline. Just seeing Lou out there was a great moment. I don't know what he said to the team, but it obviously worked. I'd be fine with bringing in Lou for every big game and handing him the responsibilities of the pregame pep talk. I don't think it would take much to talk him into it.
By the way, of all the chants that the ND students have done in the last 15 years, I think this new "CRANK ME UP" chant might be my favorite of them all. I was a little unsure about it after last week (mainly because I didn't know the story behind it and had no idea what they were saying), but now I'm officially on board and driving the bandwagon bus for the chant. The students and the players LOVE it, and it gets our guys fired up every time. If Jamoris Slaughter does nothing else in his ND career, at least he has brought in a great new chant for the fans. I hope that one stays in the rotation.
Michigan - Since we're discussing the game on Saturday, I figured that I would toss in a few thoughts about Michigan. Overall, I was actually quite impressed with Michigan, and it only confirms my opinion that they are going to be a bear in a few years when Rodriguez gets the players that he needs to run that offense. I thought they did a lot of things really well, especially on offense. Rodriguez has a great understanding of how to attack a defense and how to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers in space (with blockers in front of him). Once they get the personnel that Rodriguez needs to run that offense in the way that he likes, they are going to be able to put up points in a hurry. They will probably occasionally struggle with turnovers due to the high risk/high reward nature of the offense, but they are also going to have stretches where they look virtually unstoppable.
With the type of athletes that Michigan can bring in (especially compared to a place like West Virginia) and the number of high school offenses that are now running the spread, they could become the school to go to if you are looking to play in that type of offense. Is it an offense for pro style NFL caliber QBs and WRs?? No, but that's not who they are going to be offensively. It's certainly not your father's Michigan, but it looks like it could be very explosive and capable of moving the ball down the field in a hurry. They are going to be attractive to athletic QBs, really fast RBs, athletic linemen, and multi-faceted wide receivers. The future versions of guys like Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin and Steve Slaton are going to be the types of players who want to play in that offense. It really doesn't matter what type of offense you run as long as it's an offense that you know how to execute really well. Rodriguez is the dean of the spread, and it appears that they are on their way to running that offense really well someday.
Anyway, I could be totally wrong (and would encourage any dissent in the comments section in case I'm missing something) but if I was a Michigan fan, I'd actually be encouraged about their performance on Saturday. Once you get past all the mistakes and turnovers and look at their drives, they did a lot of things well. If they give him time to build his program into the WVU model, they are going to be a force in the Big 10 and nationally. In many ways, the Big 10 needed a Rich Rodriguez influence to come along to shake up the league and bring in some fresh ideas. Rodriguez is an innovative offensive mind, and his spread offense is something that the Big 10 should have embraced years ago. The offense is actually a great fit for the Big 10 because it makes teams play faster and emphasizes scheme over raw talent. If you can execute that offense to perfection, it makes up for talent deficiencies.
As far as personnel goes, I don't care what anyone says or what position he plays. Sam McGuffie is a football player. I was admittedly skeptical of him (especially when you consider that he's WHITE!), but I was really impressed with him on Saturday. Considering that he was in only the third game of his college career, I would say that he's a heckuva player. It seemed like everyone in our section was borderline celebrating when they took him out of the game, and I had fear every time he touched the ball. He is a perfect player in that spread offense because they can get him the ball in space in so many different ways, and he has the speed, balance, toughness, moves, and creativity to make things happen. He is the type of player that Michigan is going to be looking at for this offense. I think he could be susceptible to injury, but he is very effective.
While he is not the ideal player for that offense, Steven Threet was better than I thought he'd be. He is a heads-up player, and he throws a better ball than I expected. He made a lot of really nice throws on Saturday when you consider the weather. I think that he will eventually get beaten out by whoever Rodriguez brings in to be the spread guru, but they can win games with him.
Michigan's defense was not as good as I thought it would be on Saturday, and we pretty much neutralized their vaunted d-line. They hardly got to the QB at all, and we ran the ball on them fairly effectively. Could be something to keep an eye on since Rodriguez has brought in new defensive ideas.
It will probably take a few years since they need to find a quarterback who can present the dual threat of the run and pass for that offense to really click, but I think Michigan is on the rise. I think that they are going to steadily improve as the year goes on, and I think that they will be really good in a couple years. Honestly, if Terrelle Pryor had committed to them last February, they could have really had something going by the end of this year.
Charlie Weis - Of all the people who I was happy for after the big win, I think I felt happiest for Charlie. He has taken a lot of heat from ND fans (myself included) over the last 20 months or so, and the media has been especially rough on Charlie. The players wanted to win this game for Charlie, and he got the job done. It was great to see the team play well on Saturday, and I'm hoping that we have finally turned the corner.
When you look at the future of this program, remember this. We are starting a true sophomore at QB, two true sophs at RB, two true sophs and a true freshmen at WR, and several true freshmen and sophs on defense. We have only scratched the surface of the potential of this team over the next few years. This team on September 13, 2008 is probably as bad as it's going to be over the next 3-5 years, which is pretty awesome to think about. All the people who have been more than willing to write Charlie's obituary kept saying that he couldn't win with his own players. Well, he just won a big one on Saturday, and I think he's about to win a whole lot more of them in the next few years.
This Saturday is a huge game for the Irish in East Lansing. I know there is a possibility of a letdown (the 1998 42-3 halftime debacle springs to mind), but we've also had some great moments up there in the past. It seems like the MSU game up there is often a springboard for a good season. With the schedule we have in the first half of the season, if we get a win up there, look out.
It's going to be a very tough game, but I'm headed up there this weekend hoping that we can make a statement and walk out of Spartan Stadium with a victory. We are a young team gaining confidence every week, and a win in a hostile environment to get to 3-0 would be a huge message to the college football world that the Irish are back.