While the final result of this week's game may not have been all that surprising, Irish fans have to feel disappointed with the overall effort. Its difficult to expect a young team to play well on the road against a good team like MSU, but ND was clearly dominated in every aspect of this game. Much of the goodwill earned from the big win over Michigan was quickly dashed by Javon Ringer and Sparty. Unfortunately, it appears this may be the story of 2008 - two steps forward, one step back. But anyone watching that game yesterday knows that the Irish are very, very far from being "back."
Some very good and promising individual performances:
Clausen looked good at times, running the two-minute offense fairly effectively. He continues to throw the quick and even the deep out to the sideline very well, and mixed in some nice deep balls once again. As will be noted below, the TE and the middle of the field made a reappearance in the passing game, which bodes well for the future.
Kyle Rudolph - welcome to the offense. 2 nice catches, including a beautiful 18-yarder over the middle. Hopefully Clausen will continue to look his way as that pattern has almost always been open in the Weis offense.
Floyd has become the best receiver on the team. 7 catches, 86 yards, including a highlight reel TD in the 4th quarter to keep the Irish in the game. The amount of talent in this year's NCAA freshman WR class is amazing - Julio Jones are AJ Green are becoming SEC household names. Floyd isn't far behind and already looks like he's Clausen's favorite target 3 games into his 1st year.
Golden Tate had another impressive game - 5 catches for 83 yards and a nice end-around for the longest rush of the day. MSU had clearly marked him and kicked away all day long.
When you're a young team playing on the road against a solid team, the key is to avoid turnovers and make sure to put points on the board at every opportunity. ND failed miserably in this aspect of the game. The Irish were on the MSU 24 for the first turnover (Clausen's INT in the end zone) and very clearly squandered a likely scoring opportunity. The second turnover (and Clausen's 2nd INT) gave MSU a short field and led to the first TD of the game. The final turnover (Floyd's fumble)occurred on the MSU 14, again squandering a golden opportunity. The Irish had two other good scoring opportunities that resulted in missed FGs. Those are killer turnovers and killer missed opportunities. Although the Irish were definitely dominated in most aspects of this game, had they turned a few of those opportunities into scores, it could have been a much different game.
Clausen is still going through some growing pains - he's erratic at times and hasn't yet figured out how to deal with the pressure. He stepped up nicely in the face of the rush late in the 4th quarter, but for much of the game looked very awkward when MSU brought some heat. The first INT looked like a bad choice - throwing into double coverage in the end zone. The second INT may have been on Kamara. The fact that Duval didn't get back on the field until the end of the game would lead me to think that Kamara didn't interpret the comeback route and didn't adequately fight for the ball. If ND is unable to get any production out of Kamara, it could be a long year.
Doug made a great point during the game this weekend - right now our offense consists of a bunch of guys making individual plays. To use a (perhaps) poor hoops example, ND has turned into the Van Gundy era Knicks - throwing the ball into the post and hoping Spree or Houston could make a play. There really isn't much flow to the offense at all. Its one-dimensional right now with the goal seeming to be get the ball into Tate or Floyd's hands and have them see if they can beat the opposition's defensive backs. This could be successful against the San Diego St's and Navy's of the world, but as ND showed yesterday, even an upper-tier Big Ten team can keep the Irish under wraps.
This one should be obvious to anyone with a pulse. The complete and utter lack of a running game has to be the most disappointing part of the season thus far. In their preseason previews, BGS ranked MSU's defensive line as the 7th best on our schedule, having replaced several starters from last year's team. The two longest runs of the day came on an end around by Tate and a draw on 3rd and very, very long. The rest was an abomination.
I understand that the Weis offensive mentality basically uses the running game as window dressing, but at this point, the offense can only move the ball by going to a 5-wide shotgun look. We've become a poor man's version of Texas Tech, counting on short passing to move the ball down the field and often requiring penalties and help from the opposition to get into scoring position. We're back to 2006 - very little margin for error and often having to convert a 3rd and long to keep possession. Just really doesn't bode well for the rest of the year.
Which brings us to what seems to be a long-standing problem that isn't going away. Our offensive line is stock full of 4-star guys with impressive offer lists, but they can't mvoe anybody. Our running plays seem to be slow developing and not opening any holes at all against teams with subpar run defenses. I know plenty of Irish fans would love to see the 250+ yards rushing a game that was prevalent throughout the Holtz regime, but let's be honest here - Joe Moore isn't walking through that door. Some have thrown out Glen Mason's name as a Tenuta-type band-aid for the run game and offensive line. I have no idea what's wrong with this aspect of the team - the talent is clearly there, the coach (Latina) is a guy with a history of success at other locations and even some experience with Moore and Holtz. But the bottom line is this - ND can never return to the top of the college football game without a rushing offense. If Weis wants to use the pass to set up the run, fine. But abandoning the run game completely, especially when guys like Hughes are back there (and guys like Wood and Riddick on the way) cannot be an option.
Some big plays and stops behind the line kept the Irish in the game until the 4th quarter. The 2 stops in the red zone were impressive and gave the offense a chance to answer. A few of the young'uns got some crunch-time PT in big spots - including Robert Blanton. This experience will be invaluable as Weis will definitely float or drown over the next few years on the shoulders of this freshman class.
MSU seemingly had one play in their passing playbook. But it worked almost every time. ND could not take away the slant and Sparty converted some back-breaking 3rd downs to keep the chains moving. Hoyer wasn't particularly impressive, but his WRs didn't help him either. By my count, there were at least 3 clear drops by MSU receivers that would have converted 1st downs and resulted in large gains.
Another game, another QB standing upright for the entire game. The blitzing again failed to hit home, and Hoyer wasn't really significantly pressured. The 4-man rush was almost laughable. Hoyer could have had a freakin cup of tea in the backfield without a gold helmet touching him.
With the amount of good young talent kicking around the secondary right now, I'm having a tough time seeing the justification for Lambert's continued playing time.
Javon Ringer - 39 rushes, 201 yards, 2 TDs. Everyone in Spartan Stadium knew what was coming and ND couldn't stop it. Take away the 60-yarder late in the 4th quarter and the stats don't look so ugly. But MSU clearly controlled the line of scrimmage, and ND was left fairly helpless.
This brings us to another long-standing problem. The elite teams and defenses in college football (see: USC, LSU) have monster run-stuffing DTs all over the roster that they can rotate in and out to keep everyone fresh. ND just doesn't have these guys right now. Ian Williams looks promising, and this year's freshman class includes several guys who will likely be making contributions in the future - Brandon Newman, Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams. Kapron Lewis-Moore could be put in this group as well. One more will be joining the fold in the '09 class (Tyler Stockton from NJ). The likelihood of another recruit from the '09 class on the D-line appears unlikely at this time. The chances that all of these guys make immediate and significant contributions to the run defense next year seems unlikely. Its tough to envision this aspect of the defense getting much better in the near future.
I got nothin.
After ND scored in the 4th quarter, Burkhardt's kick barely reached the 15, and a fortunate arm tackle was the only thing standing in the way of a huge return for Sparty. MSU still had the ball on their 40 yard line, and the ensuing drive that led to an MSU field goal took away much of ND's momentum and made it a 2-score game again. The fact that Notre Dame is unable to find anyone who can consistently kick the ball even TO the goaline really speaks volumes about the state of ND football right now. Weis should hold open tryouts and invite anyone on campus to tryout to see if there's someone on campus that can get the ball to the end zone.
I know kicking 40+ yard field goals is no easy feat. But ND's FG kicking game is downright miserable. ND has not had a reliable option at kicker since Nick Setta had his mysterious injury in 2003 that kept him out for the last half of the season. Next year Nick Tausch will be coming to campus, making him the 3rd scholarship kicker on the team. We here at We Is are not in the business of calling out or demeaning individual players too often, but this is simply unacceptable.
It was all ugly. And should this "laptop" issue start making the rounds, I'm quite frightened of the potential response from Weis. I can't see any situation in which he handles that well.
OFFENSE - MICHAEL FLOYD. The fumble notwithstanding, he had a great day and was the best player on the field.
DEFENSE - BRIAN SMITH. Had some very disruptive plays in the MSU backfield. McCarthy and Harrison Smith played pretty well also.
SPECIAL TEAMS - PASS. Ugh.
SHORT TERM: Weis and Haywood open 5-wide from the gun next week and attempt fewer than 10 rushes in the first half.
LONG TERM: Michael Floyd breaks every major receiving record at ND.