September 29, 2008

Here come the Irish (and Alabama)

WOW, what a difference a week makes. While Purdue is clearly a lower echelon team, the Irish took it to them and completely dominated this game. Are we turning the corner?? I think so.

Before we hit the Irish game up, let’s go around the college football world for a bit. First of all, while I had a feeling that Alabama would win that game Saturday, there was no way anyone could have seen the destruction that took place in Athens last night (well, maybe the Alabama strength coach). Their defensive line is absolutely incredible. It is amazing how quickly Saban has put together the LSU type lines at Alabama. Saban has brought to the SEC in the last ten years what Steve Spurrier brought to the SEC in the decade before. He has changed the way football is being played in the SEC. He has taken the speed and athleticism of SEC and added a power element that thrives on physical play and smashmouth football on the lines. Now, it seems like almost every team in the SEC is working with that blueprint (with one notable exception which we’ll get to a minute). Think about it – Georgia, Bama, Auburn (although they are messing with the spread now), LSU, Tennessee, Ole Miss, etc. All running smashmouth pro-style offense with physical defense.

Who better to execute that style than the Dean himself, Nick Saban?? When you think about it that way, it really isn’t surprising what Nick Saban is doing at Alabama. Bama has similar talent to LSU and Georgia and others, and now they have Saban bringing the trademark Saban intensity and dominant line play to the fold. Saban was so dialed in Saturday night it wasn’t even funny.

Bama looked NASTY last night. It looked like Georgia didn’t want to be on the field with them at times. Julio Jones is an absolute stud, and it looks like John Parker Wilson has discovered his inner Jay Barker. Bama is the best team in the country if you ask me. Someone grab that “Southern” belt from Gainesville and FedEx it to Tuscaloosa.

As for the “notable exception” to the new SEC blueprint, I had a chance to watch most of the Florida-Mississippi game yesterday, and I can honestly say that it was no fluke. Ole Miss won the line of scrimmage battle in this game, and they legitimately deserved to win. I have always been a believer in Urban Meyer, but they looked soft and out of sync yesterday. Their offense is completely reliant on Tebow and Percy Harvin to make individually great plays. Every play is some sort of effort to force the ball into Harvin's hands. They don’t have any type of interior running game, their line doesn’t block all that well in the running game or the passing game, and it seems like a book is forming on how to stop them. When they needed to impose their will on Ole Miss, they couldn’t do it. Florida doesn’t have a smashmouth gear at all. They had a couple bad turnovers and certainly weren’t “up” for that game, but it wasn’t a complete fluke game either. Should be interesting to see what happens at Florida this year. I'm not going to suggest that Florida isn't a good team, but I think there is mild cause for concern down in Gainesville.

Yesterday was also the first time I’ve had to watch Penn State play. It all starts up front with them too. They have good skill position players, but their running backs are plowing through huge holes. It seems like Penn State is good every few years, and it’s probably because they have a bunch of seniors on the o-line. They look like the class of the Big 10 so far, and I have no doubt that the PSU faithful will be pointing to that Oregon State result a whole bunch of times this year.

Week 5 Power Poll:

1) Alabama
2) LSU
3) Oklahoma
4) USC
5) Texas

While Oklahoma has admittedly been really dominant so far, I’m rewarding LSU for that win at Auburn and Alabama for the win at Georgia. OU hasn’t beaten anyone yet. If they start piling up some quality wins in the Big 12, I’ll reconsider this ranking. As for USC, I’m keeping them where they are because they still have one of the most impressive wins in the country through 4-5 games. They can easily be passed on this list because the Pac 10 is not going to give them a lot of chances for impressive wins from here on out.

The title game is setting up to be the Big 12 champ against the SEC champ. I can live with that.

On to the ND game:

Jimmy Clausen – While Clausen has generally played well all season, I think yesterday was his breakout game nationally. ND fans have seen the progress that Clausen has made since last year, but I think he is starting to turn some heads around the country now. I was getting text messages during the game from work buddies along the lines of “Wow, Clausen is going to be a pro” and “When did Clausen get this good?” He was firing on all cylinders Saturday. Making all the throws, directing traffic at the line of scrimmage, and even moving around in the pocket and going through his progressions.

To all the national critics who have been calling Jimmy Clausen overrated (even though he is a sophomore), you are kidding yourself if you still aren’t ready to admit that he is a great talent. He is the real deal, and any opinion otherwise is just bitterness.

This team is now Clausen’s team, and he is emerging as a big time leader. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Clausen has the ability to be an all-time great at ND and surpass all the records that Brady Quinn set a few years ago. He is starting to put up the gaudy numbers that we used to see in 2005 and 2006. How about this line of succession for the quarterback position at Notre Dame??

Brady Quinn – 2003-2006
Jimmy Clausen – 2007-2010
Dayne Crist – 2011-2012

That’s USC type stuff going forward. And the great news is that Dayne Crist will be a junior when he takes over the position, so we won’t have as many growing pains like we did when Clausen started as a freshman. This position is set for the next five years. That’s a pretty good feeling. The Weis offense needs top notch play at the QB position, and that’s a pretty good group right there.

Running back/o-line – Well, I think we found ourselves a running back (and an offensive line for that matter). Going into this game, it seems like the running back position started getting a little more attention from fans as a possible problem with the running game. I actually thought there was something to that, but part of it was that we hadn’t really found the right scheme for our running backs. I think we finally have found something in the running game with this one back offense with Armando Allen. He ran really hard yesterday and actually broke some tackles. Easily the best game of his career, and the line was setting up the blocks that he needs to succeed. I really like what Allen was doing yesterday in the running game. Maybe the game is finally slowing down for him, and he is realizing that he can rip off some big runs if he hits the hole and keeps churning. Allen has earned the right to be the feature back in this offense, and he does a lot of the things that the one back offense is trying to accomplish. Plus, he has nice hands out of the backfield.

How great was it to run the football in that 2nd and 3rd quarter?? We just demoralized them with the ground game. If you can run the football, you take control of the game. We saw it in the Alabama game yesterday and the Oregon State game on Thursday, and it seems true all over college football. Once we started running the ball for 8-10 yards a pop against Purdue, I felt myself relaxing. We were in complete control of the game and totally in rhythm. It was the first time I’ve felt like that during an ND football game in a long time. It’s just a nice feeling to be able to churn out yards on the ground.

We are probably always going to be a “pass to set up the run” type team, and that really doesn’t bother me at all. The key is that we show the capability of running the ball and getting into a rhythm on the ground. When we have the ground game going, the Weis offense can be a thing of beauty.

As for the other running backs, I thought James Aldridge ran really hard yesterday. Honestly, he looked better than Hughes did yesterday. I’ve been a fan of Hughes, but he’s been dancing a little too much the last couple games. He has the body and feet to be a load, but he’s gotta hit the hole.

A.F.R.O.S. – America’s Finest Receivers on Saturday are back in a big way at ND. Somewhere Malcolm Johnson is smiling. Are we sure that some 10 year NFL vet isn’t sneaking into that #3 ND jersey on Saturdays?? WOW. Michael Floyd is 18 years old, but he looks like someone who has been playing on Sundays for years. So smooth and polished, and does all the things that the great receivers do: Great balance on the sideline, catches everything with his hands, goes up and catches the ball at the highest point, adjusts to the ball in the air, uses his body to get position, and always seems to be going forward after making a catch. Crazy to think how good he will become over the next couple years, especially as we incorporate more of the Weis passing game with these guys and start getting him more looks over the middle.

As for Golden Tate, how about that incredible catch on the sideline on the bomb play?? What an amazing catch.

I’ll go ahead and say it. Notre Dame has the best young wide receivers in the country. Both those guys will be playing in the NFL someday. If anyone is reading this blog from another school, I would love to hear some other duos better than Floyd and Tate. I find it hard to believe. For the record, yes I watched Julio Jones last night, and yes he looks like the next Terrell Owens.

I said it last week, and I’ll say it again today. If you were a receiver prospect, why would ND not be on your short list?? You get to play with really good QBs, and you are going to get a ton of balls thrown your way. Floyd and Tate are going to put up ridiculous stats this year.

Duval Kamara – A couple thoughts on Duval Kamara while we’re here. Before I discuss Duval, the thought that keeps popping into my mind is that the sudden decline of Duval Kamara is EXACTLY why recruiting and stocking talent are so important in college football. He has essentially been passed up on the depth chart by better players because Weis has been working so hard on the recruiting trail. During the dark days of Notre Dame football in the Willingham era, Kamara would be starting this year and probably giving us the maddeningly inconsistent play that we’ve seen from him this year. If Kamara was starting for this team while Floyd was starting his freshmen year at USC or Illinois or wherever, we’d probably be 2-2 right now. However, instead of mailing it in at the wide receiver position once he lined up Kamara (which would have been a Willingham move), Weis kept recruiting and eventually landed an even better prospect in Michael Floyd. Competition breeds excellence. And we haven’t even seen Deion Walker yet. By all accounts, Walker is going to be another big time weapon in this offense down the road.

For all you national writers who have been killing ND and Weis for the last year or so, that is EXACTLY the reason why ND fans have been patient with Weis. He has been steadily stockpiling talent at ND the likes of which we haven’t seen at the school for 15 years, and we are only starting to see that talent come to fruition now. We now have legitimate competitions for starting spots at every position on the field, and it is raising the overall play of the team. The days of a guy starting just because he’s the only guy at the position are over at ND. If you want to start at ND, you are going to have to beat out 3-4 guys on the depth chart. The man who deserves credit for bringing in so much depth is Charlie Weis.

As far as Duval Kamara goes, I don’t want to sound like I am giving up on him at all. I still remember the guy who splashed onto the scene last year, and it is clear that he has a lot of natural ability. I was actually glad to see Weis trying to get him the ball yesterday, especially in the fourth quarter. Weis knows that he needs to keep working with Kamara, and that hopefully the light bulb will eventually go on for this guy. He’s only a true sophomore and still developing his skills. I think he’s lost some confidence, but he also just needs to work on his fundamentals – catching it with his hands, using his body to make plays, and running better routes. Hopefully he can keep working on his game and start becoming a productive player for this team.

Tight Ends – Kyle Rudolph!! Sabol, if you’re reading this blog, that’s why I picked him up this week for my fantasy team. I just had a feeling that Rudolph was about to break out and become a bigger part of this offense. He was running wide open down the field all day against Michigan State, and now it looks like he is getting more and more comfortable within this offense. Let’s be honest, the tight end position was a huge part of this offense in 2005 and 2006. It seemed like we used to hit that seam route down the field at least once or twice a game, and then Fasano/Carlson would find ways to get open underneath to convert 3rd downs. How great was it to see our bread and butter short yardage pop pass to the tight end yesterday?? That play ALWAYS worked in the early Weis years, and it was great to see it coming out of the woodwork yesterday.

Great day for Rudolph. We’ve been recruiting the best tight ends in the country for a few years, so it was only a matter of time before that aspect of the Weis offense came back to life.

Comparisons to 2005 – While watching the game yesterday, it was hard not to start thinking back to 2005 when this offense was really clicking. Running the ball out of the one back offense, wide receivers making plays down the field, QB making all the throws, and the tight end finding seams in the middle of the field.

That is the Weis offense in a nutshell, and he proved in 2005 that you can put a lot of points on the board with that type of offense. The Weis offense has not changed. He just needed the players to run it again, and those players are starting to emerge.

Just thinking about some comparisons between that 2005 team and the current team:

Clausen – Brady Quinn - No need to compare the two for now, but let’s just say Clausen is more than capable of handling that role

Armando Allen – Darius Walker – Darius was just about the most underrated ND player ever, and we saw last year how much we missed having a running back like Darius who knew when to hit the hole and did all the little things. Darius didn’t really even need coaching. He basically had the natural instincts for the running back position as soon as he walked on campus. It took him a little while to arrive, but Armando Allen has the ability to be Darius Walker with more top end speed and explosiveness. We are now seeing that he could be the perfect player for the Weis offense. He catches the ball out of the backfield, he is hitting the hole with authority, and he’s even breaking tackles.

Floyd –Tate - Stovall-Shark -- You can mix and match these guys, but the bottom line is that we now have 2 go-to receivers who are going to put up Stovall-Shark type numbers in this offense. They can go long, they can get stuff over the middle, they block, and they are both competitors. And when Deion Walker takes that 4.4 40 to the field next year as the designated “burner”, this offense could really be something.

Rudolph – Fasano – Throw in Fauria next year and maybe Ragone, and that position is going to be unbelievable. No surprises there. We have been recruiting like crazy at the tight end position for a few years now.

Can you believe how young this team is?? We are starting a true sophomore at QB, a true sophomore at running back, a true freshman at WR, a true sophomore at WR, and a true freshman at tight tend. That is remarkably young.

The heroes of 2005 are re-emerging in 2008. While guys like the Shark and “The Paisan” and Darius will always be favorites of mine, the current crop has the potential to be even better.

While the 2005 team was not a championship level team by any means, we did have a championship level offense that year. The problem with that team was that we had literally no defense. If we could produce a championship level defense to go with that offense, we could be really scary.

Defensive line – It’s still our weakest unit by far, but I wanted to focus on one guy in particular as a bright spot. ETHAN JOHNSON. WOW. That guy is a different-looking player than what we have had at ND in quite a few years. His size alone is impressive. He is a big dude. EJ exploded through the line a few times yesterday. Totally changes the face of our defense. When we get to the point where we have d-linemen blowing up the man across the ball and getting in the face of the QB, our defense is going to really take off. It is the missing piece with this defense. We get very little penetration from our front 3. If you watched Alabama last night, they were getting to Stafford with just their three down linemen. When they started bringing extra people, it was like a jailbreak.

Again, Ethan Johnson – TRUE FRESHMAN. It is absolutely incredible how young this team is. It would be nice to see 4-5 more Ethan Johnsons on that d-line. That is what you see down at Alabama and LSU and USC. That is where we need to get if we want to have a championship level defense. You win on defense at the line of scrimmage. When we were getting pressure on Painter, he was making bad throws. As Jeremy pointed out, Pat Haden mentioned that several times during the telecast. When he had time, he picked us apart.

I really am not that worried about all the yards that Painter put up. I expected him to throw for a lot of yards, but the defense clamped down in the red zone. That is where you make your mark against Purdue, and we did what we needed to do.

I like where this defense is headed. We know what the big need is for this defense. Bigger and better d-lineman and more depth. Our scheme is good, we attack well, and our back seven is good. We just need to dominate the line of scrimmage now.

Linebackers – Another typical game for Brian Smith: All over the field, hustling everywhere, blowing up plays in the backfield, getting to the QB. Not much that can be said about him that hasn’t already been said.

This week’s linebacker post is mainly going to be about Harrison Smith. He did actually have a really nice fourth quarter and started making some plays, but I can’t shake the feeling that he is the weak link in the linebacking corps. I just don’t think he’s a linebacker. He’s just not big enough, and it seems like he is out of position quite a bit. I like the idea of getting our best players on the field, but I just don’t see it with Harrison Smith. Everyone raves about this guy’s ability, but I haven’t seen him make a “WOW” play yet. Maybe it’s just a temporary move and he’s headed back to safety next year. If so, I can understand why they want to get him on the field somewhere. But I can’t see him as a starting linebacker for this team over the next three years when there are young guns like Darius Fleming and Filer itching to get on the field. Watching those guys out there, they just have the look (much like Ethan Johnson). They’re big and fast, and that’s what we need at linebacker.

Corners – D__ks in the Dirt!!! Robert “Montgomery” Blanton. This kid is going to be a big time star. TRUE FRESHMAN. I felt like I said those two magical words about 30 times yesterday. I agree with Pat Haden about the Shane Walton comparison for Blanton. He has a lot of moxie for a freshman.

How about these corners?? McNeil, Gray, Blanton. And that’s another ridiculously young group. There are some future pros in that group. When was the last time we could say that about ND cornerbacks??

Safeties – Death, taxes, and another great day for Kyle McCarthy and David Bruton. Nothing else needs to be said.

Special Teams – I’ll address the placekicking situation below, but let’s quickly run through other some key moments.

Anello – As always, he’s the first guy down the field ready to make a play. He has radar for the return guy.

Armando Allen – Signs of life in the kickoff return game. It seems like Armando is on the verge of breaking one for big yardage.

Then again, after watching that Georgia punt returner rip off one of the fastest punt return touchdowns I’ve ever seen, I do realize that we have a long way to go in that department before we can get to that level.

Coaching – How about Weis showing some emotion on the sideline yesterday after the Grimes touchdown?? That was awesome. It seemed like he was a) fired up that the play worked b) fired up about an incredible pass from Clausen c) fired up that this team and program had finally gotten the monkey off our back and started resembling the offense that he has envisioned. Even better was the moment at the end of the game when Corwin Brown was lighting into Pat Kuntz on the sideline. Love that type of emotion from the coaches.

Another positive to note from the coaching staff is that Weis mentioned during the postgame interview that the team had been working on fundamentals all week. Good to see. Not sure if that was the reason that the run game was much improved, but it can't hurt to stress the fundamentals.

The Grimes touchdown was a Les Miles-esque call on fourth down by Weis/Haywood. Very gutsy, and it was a backbreaker for Purdue. I loved the idea of going for the jugular there.

Two things that I also wanted to focus on that I loved from Charlie Weis yesterday.

1) Showing some faith in Brandon Walker – If you were watching the game on tv, Charlie Weis said in his halftime interview that he had confidence in Brandon Walker to kick a field goal and that he wouldn’t hesitate to send him back out there. I loved that comment. That’s what you should say as a head coach, and I thought the decision to give Brandon Walker another shot in the fourth quarter was a great move to show some faith in Walker. He needs to rebuild his confidence, and it was nice to see him hit that field goal.

2) Duval Kamara – The easiest thing for Charlie Weis to do yesterday would have been to give up on Duval Kamara after dropping that ball over the middle on 3rd down. As a fan, I was ready to throw in the towel on the Duval Kamara era right there. But Weis really showed me something yesterday when he stuck with Kamara. He will earn the respect of his players by doing that. They want Duval to live up to his potential and succeed, and Weis sent a message yesterday that he believes in Kamara by trying to get him the ball in the fourth quarter to keep his head in the game.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been VERY hard on Charlie Weis since the 2006 Michigan game. I’ve questioned him quite a few times and have wondered allowed why we appeared to be regressing during his tenure and why we didn’t seem to resemble the “hard-working, intelligent, NASTY” football team that he had promised to deliver.

Yesterday was the first time in a long time that I really felt good about the Charlie Weis era. He has always had a vision for this program, and it is finally starting to pay off.

1) Great recruiting to build depth and competition – As we are already seeing, there are talented true freshman and sophomores who are getting on the field and making major contributions. Guys like Ethan Johnson and Michael Floyd and Robert Blanton are better players than some of the veteran guys like John Ryan and Robbie Parris and Terrail Lambert. The first thing that Weis did when he came to ND was lay the groundwork for ND to become a recruiting monster, and the results are starting to show on the field. He is setting up this program to be really really good for a long time with the types of players he is bringing in. Recruiting is the life blood of any program, but it usually takes 3-4 years for those early efforts to start showing on the field.

To all the national critics who said Weis couldn’t win with his own players, where are they now?? Weis is starting to win with his own players, and his players appear to be better than the players he started with at ND.

2) Pro style offense built around the QB – As we have seen, Weis like this type of offense, and he now has the tools and depth to run it the way he wants to. As we have seen time and time again, success in college football is about talent and execution. It doesn’t matter what system you run as long as you do it well. Weis has recruited players that are comfortable in his pro style offense, and he knows this offense.

3) Athletes, athletes, athletes on defense – If you went back and looked at the athletes that we had on defense in 2005 and 2006 and then looked at the athletes we have now, there is absolutely no comparison. Guys like Blanton and Brian Smith and Ethan Johnson and Raeshon McNeil are just better talents than the Ambrose Woodens of the world.

Purdue – Just wanted to throw in a couple thoughts on Purdue. I actually thought Painter played really well yesterday. When he has time, he can find open receivers. They have a good QB, a good running back, and good WRs. The rest of that team is MAC level from the line play all the way to the defensive coaching.

By the way, how great is it that the new Purdue coach, Danny Hope, has a moustache?? That is just Purdue football in a nutshell. I was dying of laughter when they showed that split screen of Tiller and Hope both with those bold staches just out there for the world to see. Great stuff.

If I was Danny Hope, I would fire Brock Spack immediately and completely overhaul the recruiting program at Purdue. Other than a few skill positions, they have mid-major talent on that team. And their defensive schemes are so unimaginative it’s not even funny. They rarely brought pressure in that game. They certainly lack talent, but they also have a bland defensive scheme. Purdue is going to be really bad next year and possibly for a few years.

Announcing – Finally, I just wanted to say that I really enjoy Tom Hammond and Pat Haden. I don’t care what anyone says. I like both those guys, and I am tired of hearing all the grumbling about them. There isn’t a classier color analyst in the business than Pat Haden, and he is ALWAYS complimentary of the Irish and our players. He was raving about Jimmy Clausen yesterday.

Tom and Pat, you have a fan in me.

Outlook – I think ND has turned the corner as a team and as a program. It has been a dark year and half or so for ND football, but that light at the end of the tunnel that we’ve been waiting patiently for is now starting to show. This is still a very young team that may well stumble again at some point this year, but the pieces are in place. We have the skill guys to fit the Weis offense, and we are building up talent and depth on the defensive side of the ball.

Don’t want to get ahead of myself, but it’s not all that farfetched to think that this team can be 10-1 heading to USC. If we play like we did yesterday against Purdue, we can beat any of those teams on the schedule. The UNC game will obviously be huge, Pitt is probably the toughest home game left, and BC is always a tough game. Will we have a let down and possibly drop 1 or 2 of those games?? Possibly, but those three games are all winnable though.

Should we be ranked?? I see that we didn’t even get a vote in the AP poll. I know the respect is going to take awhile for this team, but we are 3-1 with wins over Michigan and Purdue. Not incredible or anything but certainly could be a lot worse. If we beat Stanford next week, I think we have a great shot at being on the cusp of the top 25 headed to Chapel Hill.

Great win for the Irish yesterday. Purdue was not a very good team overall with a terrible defense, but the good news is that we destroyed them like a good Notre Dame team should do. We easily could have put up 50+ points in that game if we had kept throwing down the field, but Weis called off the dogs in the 4th quarter (and I don’t have any problem with Weis doing that either). We pretty much did whatever we wanted against Purdue. We ran it, our WRs made plays, and our o-line blew them off the ball. That is what I expected to see in Weis’ fourth year. We should never lose to Purdue, and the good teams out there in the Big 10 (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State) go into the Purdue game looking to blow Purdue out of the building. I hope that is where we are headed.

2009 and 2010 are starting to look really bright. Here come the Irish.


kevin said...

Couldn't agree more on almost all accounts. My only nitpick is with the secondary letting Purdue players tip-toe the sidelines for big plays. Not sure if it was the corners' fault or Bruton's (who appeared to have taken some bad angles). Without ever having played football, I would guess that the sideline corner's number one priority is to get outside and force the runner back into the field. If that's the case, Bruton's angles might have not been so bad. I'd estimate Purdue had about 60-70 sideline yards that could have been prevented by fundamentals. Overall, though, another solid day.

Jeremy said...

Very thorough as always Counselor. Well done.

Two things I'd like to see in the next two games that will lead me to believe we've turned the corner for good:

1. Come out and kick Stanford in the teeth. Harbaugh is a good coach, and there's some talent floating around on that roster, but they aren't any better than Purdue. Continue to improve and pull away in the 2nd half. This game shouldn't really be close if they're making the strides we're expecting.

2. Find a way to win the UNC game on the road. I don't care how ugly it is, and I don't care what the score is. If this team can come away from Chapel Hill with a road win over a quality opponent it will do wonders for their confidence in the 2nd half of the season.

A loss at UNC certainly won't lead me back to the cliff, but a victory puts me square in the driver's seat of the Weis bandwagon.

Dan said...

I agree with everything you and Jeremy said here. A couple comments.

1. I agree with the Harrison Smith analysis as of yet, which is too bad, because he looks like he could potentially be a great safety. He's just stuck in the depth chart. However, he did have one "wow" play. Go back and watch Blanton's interception return. Smith has this crazy flip over the o-lineman type block that is crazy.

2. As for Kevin's comment - I think a lot of those sideline yards were given up by Lambert. Hopefully, as Gray and Blanton see more playtime, those plays will decrease.

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