October 05, 2008
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly - Week 5 (Stanford)
I've sat here for about 20 minutes, and I'm still not sure how to open this post-mortem. ND looked great at times yesterday, but the outcome was definitely still in doubt late in the 4th quarter, at home, against a middling Pac-10 team. There are probably more positives than negatives to be taken away from yesterday's game, but I continue to fight the nagging voice in the back of my mind that says we're still not that great. Should someone want to contradict that feeling, they could point to the fact that ND was leading 28-7, and driving in Stanford territory to open the 4th quarter, and that ND was never really seriously in trouble. Maybe so, but I expected ND to really blow the doors off Stanford this week. We continue to take steps forward in the passing game, but again took steps back in the trenches - neither line played very well which doesn't bode well for some of the upcoming road challenges the Irish will face.
The development of Jimmy Clausen is really fun to watch. 29-40, 347 yards, 3 TDs. Are there 10 college QBs out there better than him right now? Weis was especially happy with a few of his check-downs to Allen yesterday, especially the throw that led to the first TD. He's looking more comfortable and confident in the pocket and continued to impress with some of his throws on the run. I'm always a bit leery of attempting the roll the pocket with Clausen, but that aspect of his game has been a pleasant surprise thus far.
The WR and TE corps gets better every week. Several career highs in catches and yardage yesterday:
Michael Floyd - 5 catches, 115 yards, 1 TD
Kyle Rudolph - 5 catches, 70 yards, 1 TD
Armando Allen - 7 catches, 66 yards, 1 TD
David Grimes - 7 catches, 60 yards
Probably the most satisfying thing about the improving passing game is the return to the middle of the field. Rudolph, Grimes and Allen all provided big plays across the middle, allowing the Irish to get away from the heavy reliance on the fade/jump ball to the outside. Defenses are clearly focusing on Golden Tate, often rotating a safety to cover his side of the field, leaving Floyd and the middle open for big gains.
The offensive line held up against the constant Stanford blitzing. The Cardinal brought 6 and even 7 men quite often, and the Irish only gave up one sack on the day. Keeping Jimmy upright has definitely become a point of emphasis, and they've made tremendous strides from the dark days of 2007 in this respect.
Second game in a row - no turnovers. It sounds so simplistic and obvious, but taking care of the ball is really going to make the difference between a successful season and a disappointing one. The Irish simply can't afford to make mistakes on offense.
Watching the game live, I got the feeling that Haywood went into his shell a bit in the second half. I'm not exactly sure this was the case, but in any event, ND had countless opportunities to really step on Stanford's throat and failed to take advantage. A few examples:
After the McCarthy INT, ND had the ball on the STAN 38 with just under 3 minutes to go in the 1st half, up 21-7. Two passes to Allen brought ND inside the red zone, but the Irish couldn't come away with any points.
ND gets the ball to open the second half, commits a penalty (one of Clausen's phantom "offsides" calls?), and two well-thrown balls result in drops by Tate and Floyd that would have given the Irish first downs. Both would have been difficult plays, but with what we've come to expect out of those two, those should have been catches.
Harrison Smith's fake punt at the end of the 3rd quarter gives the Irish 1st down at the Stanford 44 to open the 4th quarter. Following a nice 3rd down conversion to Grimes to take the ball to the Cardinal 34, the Irish again come away with no points, giving Stanford new life.
Speaking of 3rd down conversions, the Irish were 4-14 on 3rd down. 2 of those misses resulted in first downs on the next play, but that percentage needs to get better.
On the injury front, several key figures appeared to be hobbled at some point during the game. Clausen went down hard and got up with a bit of a limp. This didn't seem to effect him too much the rest of the way. Allen appeared to be in some pain on the sideline and didn't return for the final possession. Eric Olsen left the game in the 1st half, but returned for the 2nd. Perhaps most importantly, Mike Turkovich had to be helped off the field with an apparent leg injury in the 2nd half and didn't return. He was replaced by another youngster, sophomore Matt Romine, the much ballyhooed but often injured recruit from Oklahoma.
Turk's injury could be potentially devastating - he was quietly having a great year protecting Clausen's blind side and was consistently one of the better run blockers on the line as well. Many Irish fans were hoping Romine would be able to take over the LT job this year, but his own injury problems have limited his ability to get on the field. If Romine and/or Paul Duncan are unable to step up should Turkovich miss significant time, Clausen could be in for a frightening second half of the season.
Stanford's porous pass defense ensured that the Irish would be most successful through the air yesterday, and Haywood and Weis planned adequately in that regard. However, once again, almost any attempt to run the ball resulted in very minimal gains as Stanford's D-line consistently beat ND's big uglies to the point of attack. The Cardinal often stacked the box against the run, but ND's O-line was getting very little push in the run game all day long. Especially frustrating were the several 3rd/4th and short situations. Lousy spots from the Pac-10 refs didn't help matters, but its pretty sad that ND can't get two yards on the ground when it really needs to.
At this point, its difficult to see the effort against Purdue as anything other than an aberration. ND has been consistently mediocre in the run game against SDSU, MSU and SU, and barely functional against Michigan. While I understand that Weis' offensive philosophy will always favor the passing game, ND will have to be able to effectively mix in the run to return to the upper echelons of college football.
ND created some huge turnovers in the 1st half to grab the momentum of the game away from the Cardinal. Bruton's INT erased an opportunity for SU to put 3 on the board, and Kuntz's INT stopped another likely scoring chance. McCarthy's INT gave ND the ball back in Cardinal territory with time left on the clock in the 1st half to effectively put the game away. Unfortunately, the offense couldn't capitalize.
The pressure finally hit home as the Irish recorded 4 sacks (+1 on a grounding penalty). Darius Fleming got it started with a big play on 3rd down in the 2nd quarter. Kuntz had two and Brian Smith added another.
Weis has consistently talked about his emphasis on "winning" the 3rd quarter and the Irish defense played a big part in doing so yesterday. Stanford was held to -3 total yards and no first downs as ND tacked on another score to go up 28-7.
As will be noted below, the run defense really wasn't great, but a combination of questionable playcalling by Harbaugh and some good plays up front resulted in only 54 Cardinal rushing yards after the 1st quarter. ND wasn't winning the war up front in the 2nd half on defense, but they did enough to throw Stanford off their game.
After a nice punt by Maust and good coverage by the ND special teams, Stanford was pinned back on their own 5 yard line, down 7-0 late in the 1st quarter. The Irish defense allowed Stanford to drive 95 yards in 14 plays for a touchdown. 12 of the 14 plays came on the ground, a sad effort from the Irish front 7. Which leads us to...
The run defense is really, really bad. Stanford ran for 107 yards in the 1st quarter alone. The two primary ball-carriers for Stanford each averaged over 6 yards a carry. The sacks kept the overall rushing total from being too embarassing, but watching that game gave me the feeling that Stanford could have played Ringer-Ball with Gerhart and Kimble and ND would have been powerless to stop it. Stanford went away from the run game for most of the rest of the game, which was fairly unexplicable.
ND really isn't getting much in the way of big contributions from the front 7 against the run right now. Michigan, MSU and Stanford all had great success running the ball. ND still has to face several teams that are very adept at grinding it out on the ground - Pitt, Navy and USC (at times) come immediately to mind. I just can't see this getting much better over the course of the year. Its interesting to note that this has been the area where Weis is weakest on the recruiting trail. DT/DE and LB have been real needs for some time, and its not clear whether the talent is there to make positive strides in the future. At LB, the bodies are there, and there's more help on the way. If Weis can land Jelani Jenkins and/or Manti Te'o, LB could be a position of strength in the future. But the defensive line especially needs to become an area of focus in the next few classes.
Nice day from Eric Maust - two punts pinning Stanford inside their own 5 yard line.
Poor coverage/bad tackling led to a 28 yard punt return by Stanford in the 4th quarter and good field position at the ND 36, ultimately resulting in the TD that closed the gap to 7. Really the first coverage lapse I can recall all season.
Practice reports indicate the any sort of FG kicking battle is always handily won by Brandon Walker. He's routinely placed in "pressure" situations, forcing him to convert kicks to avoid running wind sprints, and apparently converts quite often. The 41-yard kick against Purdue last week was well executed and right down the pipe. At this point, it has to be something mental. Some have equated it the "yips" in golf. Maybe so. But at this point, there's no reason for ND to attempt any FG longer than 40 yards.
Nice gameplan from Haywood and Weis to take advantage of Stanford's swiss cheese pass defense. Tough to tell how much effect the ND defense had on Stanford's playcalling and inability to do much in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, but Brown and Tenuta made some nice adjustments and generally held the Cardinal in check until the 4th quarter.
Some questionable playcalling in the 4th quarter - as noted above, it almost seemed like ND was playing "keep away" at times.
The defensive coaches simply must find a way to slow down the opposition's running game. I know there are deficiencies in personnel in the front 7, but Tenuta's defenses at Ga Tech were never chock full of stud recruits and huge run-stuffers. Run defense and the defensive line were clearly the weak points of the team going into the season. They haven't gotten much better.
OFFENSE: JIMMY CLAUSEN. Fantastic performance from Clausen, albeit against a lousy pass defense.
DEFENSE: PAT KUNTZ. I was reluctant to award a Buckeye to any member of that front 7, but Kuntz came up big with two sacks, an INT and the fumble recovery on the last play of the game. Kyle McCarthy was also very good, with the pick and his usual sure tackling.
SPECIAL TEAMS: ERIC MAUST. Quiet day for the STs, other than the missed FGs, of course. Two punts inside the 5 gets Maust his second Buckeye of the year.
I have an extremely bad feeling about this game in Chapel Hill. I know UNC has been fortunate the last two weeks in that their opposition has handed them a bevy of turnovers, but they sport a functional offense with some great talent at WR and RB (damn you Greg Little), and one of the better pass defenses ND will see all year. The UNC faithful are going to be out in force - this is easily the biggest game in Chapel Hill since the Mack Brown era (2000 vs. FSU?). Clausen takes a few licks and throws a few picks and the Irish (unfortunately) lose this one big. I just don't think they're quite ready to take that big step and win a road game against a decent opponent.
Should Clausen decide to hang around all 4 years, and remain upright in doing so, he breaks all of Brady Quinn's passing records, and leads the Irish to two bowl victories, at least one coming in a BCS bowl.