Jeremy, good summary of the game, and your thoughts pretty much echo my feelings about the game yesterday. Tried to get my post in the comments section of your post, but apparently it was too long or something.
It's funny how watching a game live and then rewatching the game on TIVO can bring different perspectives. I walked out of ND Stadium feeling like we had played awful against an awful opponent, that we were genuinely lucky to win, and that we really are only marginally better than we were last year.
After rewatching the game on TIVO, I did see some building blocks that we can work with heading into week 2.
Clausen - Hard not to be pleased with the effort of Jimmy Clausen yesterday. He is such an accurate passer when he makes a quick drop and gets rid of it. Honestly, I would feel comfortable saying Clausen is a more accurate passer than Brady Quinn on those quick timing routes. He's not as athletic and doesn't have Brady's improvisational skills on the run at this point, but he is radar when it comes to throwing the football. I wasn't sure what happened on those two picks, but the tv video made it clear that Kamara dropped that ball over the middle. All in all, for a true sophomore, Clausen is doing about as well as could be expected. There aren't many true sophs out there with his range of throws. At some point, he is going to be more comfortable in the pocket and getting through his progressions, so he is only going to get better over the course of the next three years. I feel good about the QB position.
Running backs - I am not in love with Armando Allen as a feature running back, but he actually played better than I thought he did. He gets to the hole effectively and generally runs hard. It would be nice to see him break through some tackles and rip off some bigger runs though. There were small white linebackers dragging him down yesterday. A guy with Allen's talent should be exploding through the arm tackles from teams like SDSU. Again, this is San Diego State. A team that had SEVEN defensive linemen out of the game and lost to a D-IAA team last week, and we couldn't rip off some 20+ yard runs yesterday?? Really??
Robert Hughes/the running game - I love Robert Hughes and still do even though he didn't have his best game yesterday. Hughes is a ball buster, and he's the kind of guy who would be thriving at a place like Wisconsin. Unfortunately, our offense just can't seem to run the ball at all. Why are we not able to run the football?? Why do we never run the ball to the right side?? We have 700 pounds of beef on that right side, but we spent the whole game running left and getting stonewalled. Eric Olsen whiffed several times on blocks on the left side, and we just don't get much push at all. What have we been working on all offseason??
How many times has this sequence come up in the last 13 games??
1 and 10 - 4 yard run by Allen - dragged down just as he looks like he could break through and get 8 or 9
2 and 6 - 4 yard sideline pass to Grimes or Yeatman
3 and 2 - Hughes stuffed for no gain or Clausen forced to pass and has to throw it away
That is just a killer, and it seems to happen 4-5 times a game. We'll have two effective plays and can't convert on 3rd and short.
The other problem is that it's difficult to always be in these 3rd and short situations. In college football, you can't make these 17 play-75 yard drives work. We move at a glacial pace down the field. You need big plays in college football. Long 10-15 yard runs, long passes, big reverses...stuff like that. It's pretty obvious that our running game is not going to deliver big plays or any type of consistency in moving the ball down the field at a more rapid pace, and it probably will be the case all year. If that's the case, why not just turn Clausen loose and run the hurry up offense with 4 wides?? The only time our offense actually looks good is when we go into the hurry up and spread it out with 4 wides and get our receivers crossing over the middle. I don't think that's the best way to run an offense long term in college football if you want to win a championship because it makes you one-dimensional and often leaves your defense out to dry, but it's the only thing that we seem to do well on offense these days. When we go to the no huddle, we play with a sense of urgency and confidence. Everything else in our offensive package looks shaky at best.
At some point, you have to build around your strengths. The only time the Weis offense has ever had any success has been with the Brady Quinn hurry up type offense with an emphasis on the passing game. The strength of this team is Jimmy Clausen and the big play capabilities down the field of Tate, Floyd, and (maybe) Kamara. It might lead to teams pinning their ears back and taking shots at Clausen, but it's certainly better than the non-offense that we've been running for the last 13 games. Are there legitimate questions as to why we have to revert back to the 2006 Quinn offense (which admittedly was spotty) when we have all these huge o-linemen and supposedly talented backs?? Absolutely, but I also want to win football games this year.
At the very least, we have to use the pass to set up the run. We can't establish a running game on it own, so why beat ourselves up trying to do it now?? We had the whole offseason to make it happen and it's still not happening. That fact in itself is concerning, but let's not kill the season by doing something that we can't do. It's not your system. It's your execution. We execute the Weis pass first offense fairly well, so let's go with it.
Golden Tate - Probably the most improved player on the roster. It's remarkable how much better he looked yesterday. This guy is just a football player. He fights for the ball like no receiver we've had in a long time. You could literally throw it anywhere in a 10 yard vicinity, and he is going to do everything possible to come up with it. I am really excited about Golden Tate, and he absolutely needs to start next week. He is going to be a much better version of Rhema McKnight in the Weis offense.
Kamara - I agree with Jeremy on Kamara, and I would put myself down as concerned about him as well. Letting that ball bounce off his pads was a backbreaking play and completely changed the field position game (which we were controlling at that point). Not sure what the story was on the fade pass. Did Clausen throw it up too early or did Kamara just not get his head turned around and make a play on the ball? Kamara has the talent to be a star, but those plays were killers. I think he needs to come off the bench next week. Floyd was running good routes and getting open. Get Floyd the ball on some slants and fades and see what he can do. That's the bread and butter for that split end position in the Weis offense. If you can't execute those plays, you can't be effective in the Weis offense.
Tight ends - Should be interesting to see what happens at tight end this year since it's clear that we are not as strong at that position as we have been in the last three years with Fasano and Carlson. Those guys were real weapons in the Weis offense. How many times did we hit Carlson or Fasano over the middle on a big 3rd down or even 4th down play?? Seemed to happen all the time. I can't see us getting that type of productivity this year out of that position (although Rudoloph will have his moments I think), so we're going to need to replace it through other things.
Secondary - I thought the secondary played very well yesterday for the most part. Probably the strongest unit on the team in all honesty. Sergio Brown...WOW. Looks like he could be a star. He was all over the field making plays, and he appears to be our blitz guy out of the secondary. Kyle McCarthy also played really well, McNeil looked good, and Bruton is an absolute beast. Terrail Lambert doesn't do anything for me, and he still gets picked on at times. Did Gary Gray get much time yesterday?? Didn't notice him out there.
Front seven - I like the aggressive scheme, but they were picking up a good chunk of our blitzes even when we brought 6-7 guys. Our d-line still is not very good. Every time they tried to run the ball, they were able to do it. I would imagine that Michigan is going to try all kinds of stuff on the ground against us. We gotta come up ready to hit on defense and stonewall that running game. The good thing heading into the Michigan game is that Threet appears to be awful, so he might throw some picks if we are trying to bring pressure. A good QB will pick us apart though if we don't start getting more pressure with our blitzes.
I actually feel pretty good about this defense heading forward, especially Brian Smith and some of our other linebackers. We're short on personnel up front, but we have all kinds of young d-linemen coming up through the system. Our linebackers are aggressive and attacking, and our secondary is light years better than it was in the early Weis/late Willingham era.
I think we'll learn more about this defense at Michigan State. Should be a good test.
Special teams - Gotta love Mike Anello. He is the best special teams tackler we've had in 15 years. The guy has perfect fundamentals, and he just gets in there and makes the tackle. I love everything about him. All heart.
The punt return game has always been pretty good under Weis, and it looked good yesterday even without Zibby out there. Armando could break one this year.
Jeremy, couldn't agree more about the kickoffs. I have no idea why we can't find a kicker who can get it to the endzone. It's inexcusable to let a team field the ball at the 15 and get a full steam going. That's just asking for them to start at the 40.
Death, taxes, and a bad field goal unit. It never ceases to amaze me why we can't find a reliable kicker. You would think we would have the #1 kicker in the country every year.
Conclusion: All in all, I'm relieved that we won and willing to consider the possibility that this team just needed to shake out the rust and get some confidence. At our core, we are still a VERY young team, and we are still going through some growing pains. We make a lot of youth mistakes (dumb penalties, turnovers, fumbles at the worst possible moments), and those will go down over time. There are some things to be encouraged about. Clausen's progress, Tate's emergence, the secondary, and the punt coverage unit are things we can build on.
We are still shaky up front, and that will probably come back to haunt us over the course of this season. I'm certainly downgrading my expectations but hardly giving up on the season. I agree that we need to play much better to have a good season, so hopefully it starts in week two. If we were playing a quality veteran team next week, I'd be putting us down for a double digit type loss. Luckily, Michigan is maybe as bad as we are, and Threet could be a turnover machine in Notre Dame Stadium. I expect them to try to keep the score down, throw it very little, run it every way they can, and hope they can get some turnovers. If we want to beat them, we gotta eliminate the dumb mistakes, man up to stop their running game, force some turnovers, and get some big plays. I'm already looking forward to it. It would be great to get to 2-0.