Football season is at our doorstep, so we thought we'd get our roundtable crew on record with some thoughts and predictions as we head into the 2009 football season. If you want to join in and give us your thoughts, feel free to post your own predictions down below.
1) What is the most important game of the 2009 season??
Gut check reaction is to say NEVADA. Weis needs to get off to a good start to set the tone for the rest of the season. Nevada will be bringing a high-powered, gimmicky offense into South Bend over Labor Day weekend, and if the Irish aren’t careful, they could find themselves in a deep hole by halftime. There’s nothing the naysayers would like more than to see Weis and Co. fall flat on their faces in the opening battle of this most recent Return to Glory campaign.
But the answer to this question is USC, and the reasons extend beyond the mere impact on this year’s squad. Weis hasn’t been competitive against the Trojans since 2005 and if he intends to prove to the ND family that he can be the one to return the Irish to big-time college football, he’ll need to put up a good showing at the very least. Another 20+ point drubbing and the big guy will have an extremely tough time justifying his continued employment. Additionally, if reports from the recruiting experts are accurate, the weekend of October 17th could be the biggest recruiting weekend in Weis’ tenure. Many of the best prospects in the country are scheduled to be on campus to take in the game and to see what ND has to offer. Some of those visiting (e.g. Kyle Prater, Josh Shaw and even Seantrel Henderson) will likely have SC and ND in their final group of schools. If Weis can keep the game close into the 4th quarter, or even pull out a victory, the 2010 recruiting class could get a real shot in the arm.
The easy answer is to say USC because thanks to the pitiful schedule it’s the only marquee game. But honestly, I think the Nevada game will tell us a lot about the direction of the schedule. We should smoke Nevada. I know they have a good QB and made a bowl last year, but come on. I’d be willing to wager there isn’t a single player on their roster that ND looked at. This game should be like the Hawaii Bowl repeated where ND just blows them out of the water. There isn’t anyone on their roster capable of shutting down Clausen to Tate / Floyd. If it’s SDSU all over again, I will have serious doubts about how the rest of the season will turn out.
Mike: Week 2 at Michigan.
The Nevada game is obviously critical, but a victory over the Wolf Pack will guarantee Notre Dame nothing more than an avoidance of ignominy. Also, while there are other demons that Weis needs to exorcise, and soon, if he is going to succeed at Notre Dame (e.g., BC, USC), an early season loss to a Michigan team led by a true freshman QB could result in a complete tailspin. If Notre Dame can escape Ann Arbor with a victory in a game that I expect to be tightly contested, they may be well on their way to a big season. If not, you can pretty much start analyzing the relative merits of the possible replacement candidates.
I didn't really want to pick USC here because I think we have hurdles to cross before we start measuring ourselves against the Trojans, but who else would be the pick for this game?? Would any other team on this schedule be a meaningful or memorable victory??
Beating Michigan State and BC would be nice wins, but am I going to be dancing in the streets or puffing my chest at work about beating either of those teams?? Of course not. And normally I would pick Michigan as the "most important game" since it's the first big road test for this team, but Michigan is starting a true freshman this year and probably is still in transition. Beating Michigan this year isn't going to carry the weight that it normally does.
So that brings me to USC. The USC game is going to make or break our reputation in the college football world this year. And that's how it's been for the entire Weis era. Think back through his first four years of USC games:
2005 -- A game for the ages. A game that showed that ND still had the ability to compet with the USCs of the world. Symbolized the moment when ND arrived back on the national scene and became a major recruiting player again.
2006 - The Michigan game was probably the defining game of that season and the moment when everyone kind of started wondering about Weis, but the USC game was our chance to make amends for the UM game. And we got housed in that game. That was the game where it became obvious to me that we had a long way to go before becoming an elite program again.
2007 - Probably the low point of the Charlie Weis era. I've never seen us play worse, and the stadium was virtually empty by the middle of the 3rd quarter. Never seen anything like it. ND fans leaving en masse during the middle of the game. I don't think I've ever left before the end of the game in all the years I've been attending ND games, and yet it felt perfectly normal for some reason. A completely surreal day and one of the worst days in ND football history during the worst season in ND football history.
2008 - I guess you could say Syracuse was the defining game of the 2008 season, but USC was close. We looked like a high school team compared to them. If Weis had been fired the next day, it would not have been all that surprising.
As you can see, our performances in the USC game have steadily gotten worse through the years. I don't expect Weis to beat USC this year, but they are the measuring stick for this program. If we give them a good game and look like we belong on the same field, it would be a signal to me that this program can someday compete for championships again. And if we somehow shock the world and beat an undefeated USC team, that would be the biggest win for ND football since 1993.
The other thing is recruiting. There are a ton of prospects who are going to be at that game. Henderson, Barr, etc. If ND is undefeated and plays really well in an electric atmosphere, you gotta think Weis can get a couple of these guys to commit.
2) Who will be the MVP of the offense??
Jeremy: Michael Floyd
Jimmy Clausen is the easy answer. I fully expect him to make the leap this year, much like Brady Quinn did during his junior year in 2005. He’s got the tools, he’s got the talent surrounding him and he’s taken his knocks over the last two years.
But I’m gonna go with Michael Floyd. Golden Tate has established himself as a bonafide deep threat, requiring double teams when running those devastating go routes. Floyd should be free to run wild all over the middle of the field and take a run at every single-season receiving record on the books.
Matt: Jimmy Clausen.
If ND is going to have the kind of season that I think most fans are expecting, it’s going to have to be with the arm of Clausen. The parallels between the development of Clausen and Brady Quinn are eerily similar. Brady made ‘the leap’ his junior year, and I firmly believe Jimmy is ready to do the same.
Sure, there is going to have to be a playmaking RB emerge (Armando Allen has a career long run of 21 yards. That is hard to believe), the line is going to have to improve (all indications are they have) and Kyle Rudolph will undoubtedly make a run at the Mackey, but it all comes back to Clausen. MVP.
Mike: Jimmy Clausen.
With an experienced QB and one of the nation’s finest receiving corps, all signs point to an aerial assault for the Irish offense this year. In my offseason commentary, I opined that “with a veteran OL that improved considerably at pass blocking last year after the 2007 debacle, as well as an awesome array of weapons at WR and TE, Clausen should throw for 30 TDs, 10 or fewer INTs, 8.5 yards per attempt and 3500 yards.” Assuming that this prediction comes to fruition, Clausen will be a dark horse Heisman candidate and the team MVP on offense. Obviously, the receivers will put up big numbers under this scenario, but, as usual, the QB gets the praise when the offense is clicking.
Honorable Mention: Michael Floyd
Doug: Jimmy Clausen
If you're a little skeptical on Jimmy Clausen, I can understand where you're coming from. I've had my doubts about him at times. Clausen was very up and down in 2008. In the last four games of the season, he had 8 INTs and only 2 TDs. Granted, Clausen was banged up in the second half of the year, but that's football. Clausen has to prove that he can hang tough for 12 games and a bowl game.
But as we look ahead to the 2009 season, I'm bullish on Jimmy Clausen this year for several reasons. Here's why:
1) Offseason workouts --- If you look at some of the recent practice videos of Clausen, he is noticeably bigger this year. He's probably added 15-20 pounds to his frame.
Are those 15-20 pounds going to allow him take some 275 pound defensive linemen head on to get a first down?? No, but it was never designed for that. Those extra pounds are for one reason and one reason only: CONFIDENCE. I think Clausen is going to feel much more confident this year with his bigger body. Instead of running away from the pocket at the first sign of trouble, he might hang in there an extra second or two and find an open receiver. Maybe he'll feel more comfortable tucking the ball under his arm and running for a first down if no one's open. And who knows, maybe he even shakes off a d-linemen a couple times a year and scrambles to keep a play alive. That stuff can make the difference between winning and losing a game. Instead of having to punt, suddenly you picked up a huge first down. Brady Quinn did that a lot in his career. That can be demoralizing for an opposing defense.
In college football, your quarterback has to be willing to make a play when things break down. Thus far, Clausen has shied away from the heavy rush and hasn't really shown much improvisation. He has always had the arm strength, but now he has added some strength to his body to go with it. I think it will pay off big time.
Clausen will never be a big bulking Brady Quinn type who gets in the weight room and throws up rep after rep on the squat machine. But you don't need to be like that to be a quarterback. As an aside, I wonder sometimes if Brady Quinn lifts TOO MUCH. Is there really any need for him to be that bulked up to play quarterback?? I know it's a physical game, but quarterback is the most finesse position on the field. If anything, you want more flexibility than pure bulk.
2) Experience --
Clausen's body has matured, but the main ingredient for his success this year should come from the fact that he is now in his 3rd year in this program and his 3rd year as a starter. I read a great blurb in Weis' press conference on quarterback play that couldn't have been more dead on when you're talking about a young quarterback. In fact, it was the most insightful thing I've heard Weis say about football in five years of listening too him (for as much as he talks, rarely do I ever learn anything about football when I listen to him). Here's his quote:
“When less-experienced quarterbacks get pressure, they usually flush out to the side of their throwing arm,” Weis said. “Every right-handed quarterback would flush out to the right.
“But (the more-experienced) dropback quarterbacks — the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world — what they do is shuffle in the pocket and find that window. It might be six inches. It might be three feet. But he’s done a real good job of finding that window instead of just bailing out when pressure comes his way.”
I completely agree with Weis here and definitely am encouraged that he picked up on that. If you go back and watch Jimmy Clausen, his biggest issue has been sliding out of the pocket to the right sideline every time he faced any pressure. That is a KILLER. Clausen would drift toward the sideline and have no one open because all the receivers were bunched up on the sideline. Usually, he ended up just throwing it away. The standard response you'd see on NDNation was "well, at least he's not throwing it back over the middle for interceptions," but that was missing the point. He never should have drifted to the sideline in the first place.
That's the biggest key for Clausen this year. Not every play is going to be a perfect 5 step drop and a guy is open. Protection is going to break down. Can he stay in the pocket, shuffle around a bit, and wait for something to open up?? If he can do that, he'll have an opportunity to make a ton of big plays with this group of talented wide receivers. If he turns away from the pocket or drifts to the sideline, the offense will sputter and we'll miss out on those big improvised plays that you see out of guys like Roethlisberger where he keeps the play alive and suddenly Hines Ward breaks free.
One thing that we know for sure from the first four years of the Charlie Weis era is that his offense requires the quarterback to be a playmaker. He can talk about running the ball all he wants, but let's be honest. We aren't going to be getting any homeruns out of this running game. This offense is what it is. It is a very quarterback-oriented offense that requires the quarterback to make multiple reads, find different guys, move around in the pocket, and make plays down the field. The quarterback in this offense isn't running your typical college offense where he throws a couple five yard square outs and a bomb. There is a lot on Clausen's shoulders. If Clausen is up to the task, this offense will be much better.
I think Clausen has a chance to be the Colt McCoy of 2009. Colt McCoy was off the radar last year a little bit (a 3rd round fantasy pick....absurd in hindsight), but you could see the signs that he might explode last year. Third year as a starter, added weight to his body, more confident, more in control of the team and the "Texas Nation." Sound familiar?
3) Who will be the defensive MVP?
Jeremy: Kyle McCarthy
Lots of good choices here. It looks like Ethan Johnson will be starting the season primarily on the interior of the defensive line. If prospects such as Hafis Williams, Sean Cwynar, Brandon Newman, Paddy Mullen and even freshman Tyler Stockton can prove their worth in the middle and allow Johnson to move to the outside, he could be a wildly disruptive force. Until he can get out there, I’m afraid his effectiveness will be limited somewhat.
Given the strength of the secondary, it seems like a no-brainer that the MVP would come from that group. Any one of that group could certainly be in the discussion. This might be a bit of a cop-out since he led the Irish in tackles last year, but I’ll choose Kyle McCarthy. I’m very interested to see how he and Harrison Smith operate in the safety spots this year. Given Smith’s propensity for blitzing, I would expect McCarthy to have plenty of opportunities to lead the team in tackles again.
Matt: Ethan Johnson.
This is kind of a longshot pick, and if I was wagering I’d probably pick one of the favorites, who I assume the majority of fans would say would be McCarthy or Brian Smith. But someone is going to have to step up on the d line, and I was really excited with what Ethan Johnson did last year as a freshman. Plus I love that he rocks the single digit uniform number. He’s bulked up and moved inside, and I really think that he is going to anchor the defensive line.
Mike: Kyle McCarthy.
In addition to his usual steady play, Kyle McCarthy should thrive in this aggressive defense led by Jon Tenuta. I look for the studious McCarthy to replicate his solid tackling (although hopefully the linebackers will make more tackles) and increase his interception totals by virtue of an enhanced pass rush. Moreover, I believe that McCarthy will have a little more freedom to play the role of ball hawk because the ND cornerbacks possess the ability to cover receivers without safety help. Look for a huge year for the defensive captain.
Honorable Mention: Brian Smith
Doug: Darrin Walls
I sort of hope I'm wrong on this one because I'd really love to see Ethan Johnson or Ian Williams or someone in that front seven named as our defensive MVP. This defense will be defined by the defensive line play.
But I'm going with Walls here because I think he's our best all around defensive player. Walls is a shutdown corner, and I think he'll have an outstanding year. After walking out of the spring game, the only thing I knew for sure about this team was that our secondary would be one of the best in the nation. Robert Blanton is going to be a standout as well.
I'm not one to pick a corner as the defensive player of the year, but Walls is an elite player. He's got the speed, he'll break up passes, and he's just a tremendous athlete. I don't think many teams are going to want to challenge him this year.
4) Who is your pick for the most improved player?
Jeremy: Toryan Smith
Many pundits, particularly those of the pro-Irish persuasion, have pointed out the many similarities between this team and Weis’ first in 2005. One of the most pleasant surprises from the season was the rock-solid play from Corey Mayes at MLB. After toiling in relative anonymity for much of his college career, Mayes was given the starting nod out of the gate in ’05 and flourished, particularly against the run.
Similarly, reports out of camp indicate that Toryan Smith is going to get the chance to play the Mayes role this year. In his first extended playing time in the second half of 2008, Smith was effective in disrupting the opposition’s running game. Although Manti Te’o’s presence may squeeze Smith out of a starting role, I’d like to hope that Smith can provide the kind of solid play against the run that Mayes gave the Irish in 2005.
Matt: Trevor Robinson.
He was already pretty good last year as a freshman, but I really believe that he is going to be our best lineman this year in full time duty. In all of the practice reports from the beat writers, they go out of their way to mention how big he is, how dominant he looks, and how nasty he’s been playing. While you have to go South and West to get your speed guys, I have no problem with Weis just patrolling the Midwest and picking off big old cornfed lineman.
Others I considered were Armando Allen, Kyle Rudolph, Harrison Smith, Toryan Smith.
Mike: Steve Filer.
Despite having immense talent, Filer struggled to grasp the defensive scheme in his freshman year, thereby preventing him from becoming a major contributor. With another year in the system and the ability to play Mike linebacker, Sam linebacker and defensive end on passing downs, the coaching staff should be able to put Filer in a position to succeed this year. Filer’s overall production, from a pure statistics standpoint, may be hindered by a crowded depth chart at LB, but he will make his presence felt in 2009.
Doug: Kyle Rudolph (offense) and Ethan Johnson (defense)
Offense: Kyle Rudolph
No brainer here for me. If you've seen any pictures or videos of Rudolph, he looks like a different person. That offseason weight program has really helped him out. Rudolph is going to be very dangerous as the safety outlet for Clausen in this offense. If he can become a better run blocker, he'll be one of the best tight ends in the nation.
Defense: Ethan Johnson
It's hard for me to even say "most improved" about Ethan Johnson because I expect him to emerge as one of our best players this year. We expected big things from Ethan Johnson when he arrived, and he is delivering on those expectations.
Should be interesting to see where he ends up getting the majority of his snaps. He's really better suited as a 4-3 DE in the Anthony Weaver mold, but right now he's playing defensive tackle. He could be a devastating force inside with penetration and tackles for loss, but he's not really your typical "take up two blockers and hold your ground" DT. Then again, maybe Tenuta did some research on this and decided that he would rather have a quicker DT who could knife in there and make big plays behind the line. I'm excited to see what Ethan Johnson brings to the table this year.
Honorable Mention: Harrison Smith
God bless Harry Smith for taking one for the team and playing linebacker last year, but I'm happy to see him back at safety. Think about this linebacking group from last year. Our starters were Brian Smith, Maurice Crum, and Harrison Smith. Yikes. No wonder teams ran the ball all over us last year. We were undersized everywhere.
Great to see Harrison Smith settling back in at safety. Should be a smooth transition from David Bruton to Harrison Smith.
5) What do you think are the 2-3 biggest keys to the 2009 season?
1) Offensive Line Play – The line drastically improved its pass protection from 07-08, but the running game was still abysmal last year, particularly in short yardage situations. I do know that some of the deficiencies can be attributed to the lack of a solid backup TE last year. The loss of Yeatman seemed to have quite the negative impact on formations and execution. Hopefully Ragone, Burger and maybe even Eifert can provide the necessary depth to help open up the run game. Behind one of the most veteran O-lines in the country, there’s no excuse for a lack of running game. Clausen and his receivers make up one of the more potent aerial attacks in the country. But if the offense is too one-dimensional, the Irish won’t stand much of a chance, even against a watered-down schedule.
2) Defensive Line Play – In 2005 and 2006, ND was very vulnerable to the big play due to a weak secondary. In the last two years, run defense has been a problem. In order for the Irish to take a step forward defensively, the line will have to be much more stout against the run. Unfortunately, ND remains fairly green up front, with only Ian Williams returning with significant experience. Ethan Johnson is expected to become a superstar, but starting out on the interior may stunt his development somewhat. The remainder of the line prospects are either extremely young (Newman, Cwynar, KLM) or largely a disappointment in their ND careers (Richardson, Mullen, Wade). Several members of the line will need to take large steps forward in order to make this unit better.
3) Close Out Games Strong – During several games last year, the Irish failed to finish strong. ND opened the 2nd half of the UNC game with a comfortable lead and the ball, only to see the lead quickly evaporate due to turnovers and sloppy play. Similar story in the Pitt and Syracuse games. Certainly some of these issues can be marked down to inexperience and the relative youth of last year’s team. Youth can no longer be used as an excuse. Finishing those 3 games in a strong fashion would have made the 2008 season look much, much different, and perhaps Charlie Weis wouldn’t be so worried about his job status.
1) Establish an Identity – I think Doug has trademarked the phrase “Grab-bagged offense,” but it’s true. That’s what we’ve seen from Weis repeatedly. Let’s establish an identity. If we can beat people passing the ball similar to the aerial attack when we had Quinn to Stovall, Shark and Carlson, then fine, let’s be that team. Then you can use Armando as the Darius Walker type who can run it 20 times and catch 5 balls a game. I just have a problem when one series you come out throwing, then the next series here comes Robert Hughes in the game to plod into the middle of the line, then maybe next we’ll try the Wildcat, and if that doesn’t work then we’ll go back to throwing. No. You’ve had all spring and fall camp to form the identity of the offense. Mike Haywood isn’t here to be the sacrificial lamb anymore. If Charlie determines that teams are not going to be able to stop a Clausen, Tate, Floyd, Rudolph combo, then fine, go with it. But enough of the countless times it seems like the gameplan changes from series to series.
2) D-Line – There is that stat floating around out there that every BCS champion has had a Top 25 ranked defense by season’s end. Lou Holtz aside, I don’t think any Irish fan is expecting a National Championship run this season, but a BCS bowl is certainly possible, and to get there the D line is going to have to hold up. Let’s face it, there are A LOT of question marks. I wouldn’t know KLM if he walked into my apartment right now, Ethan Johnson has to prove he can hold up on the inside, is Kerry Neal the next Justin Tuck or just a linebacker moonlighting at end because that’s the only option on the roster, can Tyler Stockton provide 10-15 meaningful snaps a game in relief.
The secondary is in place, I don’t really have too many concerns with the linebackers, especially with Te’o developing every day, but you can’t win games if the opponents are getting 5 yards a pop on the ground. You know teams like Michigan State and Pitt are going to pound it, and it will be up to the line to step up.
1. Establish a real running game. In four years on the job, Charlie Weis has yet to prove that he can develop an above-average rushing offense. With a talent edge in virtually every game, ND should be able to pound teams into submission rather than relying on “schematics” and clever play calling. Simply put, there are too many highly touted recruits in the offensive backfield and along the offensive line to allow for such a putrid running production. Without a consistent running game, we will be relying solely upon the vagaries of the passing game, which will guarantee several upset losses along the way (more on this later).
2. Stop the run. ND improved in run defense from 2007 to 2008, but we are a long way from where we need to be against the run. In multiple games last year, most notably of which were the UNC and Pitt games, the Irish defensive line failed to hold up against the run, thus allowing the opposing offense to control the clock and wear down the defense. With a surplus of talent at linebacker and possibly its strongest secondary in 15 years, the only question mark for ND will be its young defensive line. If ND’s defense can hold their own against the run, particularly on first and second down, they will force their opponents into obvious passing situations against a loaded secondary and a blitz-happy defensive coordinator, which is a recipe for major success on defense.
3. Attitude. This is connected to #1 and #2, but ND has been consistently pushed around by less talented opponents throughout Weis’s tenure. The most glaring area of this passiveness is the offensive line, which has underachieved for four years despite being loaded with elite level recruits. Weis’s decision to hire Frank Verducci and Randy Hart is encouraging, but I am convinced that the problems in line play run deeper than poor fundamentals and technique. Maybe Weis just can’t relate to college players and maybe his finesse approach to offense (i.e., “take what they give you,” focus on outfoxing the defense) is antithetical to a mean disposition, but the reasons are not important. The only thing that matters is that this team needs to play with a pit bull attitude and a swagger that we haven’t seen since the Holtz era or the disappointing losses will continue.
1) Stop the run -- When you have an offensive-minded head coach, there's always going to be a lot of focus on how the offense is looking. But for me personally, I'm more interested in the defense. You win championships and dominate games with your defense. Watch Florida play defense. It's truly an amazing thing to watch them. They are RELENTLESS and don't give you an inch. USC is the same way for the most part.
A great defense can make an offense look good. Tebow's great, but look at how many times he starts a drive at the 40 yard line and beyond. His defense and special teams are putting him in great shape. Not a lot of 10 play, 85 yard drives needed for the Gators.
When it comes to the Irish defense in 2009, I'm looking for one thing and one thing only: STOP THE RUN. If you can't stop the run, your defense is nothing. Our defense was better last year, but the defense came up small when it really mattered. When we really needed to develop a backbone against the Cuse or UNC or USC or Michigan State or Pitt, we came up small. Syracuse ran for 170 yards against our defense. Syracuse! Michigan State ran for 204. USC ran for 5.3 yards a carry against us and completely manhandled our defensive line. They could have run for 300 yards if they had wanted to.
If teams are running on you, it's a sign that you're soft. As a long time Bengal fan who has watched Bengal teams that were soft against the run for as long as I can remember, there's nothing more demoralizing to your defense than getting the ball shoved down your throat by a more physical team. Even worse, when you start to bring your safeties up to try to help with run support, you get killed with the play action pass. For proof of that, look at the ND-USC games of the last three years.
We'll know the ND defense is back when the safeties aren't making all the tackles. The front seven is the key to this team getting back to an elite level in my opinion. If guys like Ethan Johnson and Hafis Williams and KLM and Ian Williams and Brandon Newman can hold their own at the point of attack against a good team like USC or an SEC team in a bowl game, then we might be on our way.
The good news is that Weis made the decision to go back to the 4-3 defense, which should help with the run defense. He grab-bagged with that 3-4 experiment, and I'm glad he has come back around to the 4-3. The 4-3 is much better-suited for college defensive linemen who are still learning the position and would rather just shoot through gaps than try to take up a bunch of blockers.
I also like what we're building on the defensive line. Think about all the big bodies we have now: Hafis Williams, Ian Williams, Tyler Stockton, Brandon Newman, Ethan Johnson, Sean Cwynar, Kapron Lewis-Moore. When was the last time we had that much bulk up front?? Coach Hart has a ton of options for a rotation.
Plus, how can you not like Randy Hart?? This guy is a football coach. I wish he had been here for the last 10 years. He's tough, enthusiastic, and he wants his linemen to be physical. Coach Hart understands that football is a game won by individual battles. It is not a chess match. It's a war.
2) Finish strong down the stretch --
What do Navy, Air Force, and Syracuse all have in common?? They all have beaten us IN NOVEMBER in the last two seasons. Are you kidding me?? It's bad enough to lose to those teams, but to lose to them at the end of the year makes it even worse.
The scariest part of the Weis era is that his teams really haven't gotten better as the season has gone along. In fact, we've generally gotten worse. I think that comes back to the "soft" reputation. Almost like those Miami Dolphin teams in the 90s that would start out 7-1 every year and then end up 9-7. As the season went along, they wore down and fell apart. That's what we've done as well. The weather changed, bodies started wearing down, the turf got messy, and we collapsed. We didn't even remotely show up ready to play at USC last year. It was as if the team had mentally packed it in and quit on the coach.
Good coaches have their teams peaking at the end of the year. I would like to see us close the year playing our best football of the season. We finish with Washington State, Navy, Pitt, UConn, and Stanford. Our goal should be to win all of those games convincingly.
3) Special Teams! --
I don't think I could do an ND preview without mentioning special teams at once. Say it with me. SPECIAL TEAMS! SPECIAL TEAMS! SPECIAL TEAMS! If there's one thing I've learned from Robert Montgomery Davie, it's that special teams are YUUUUUGE in college football. If you have great special teams, it's just another way you can win a ballgame.
Special teams=field position. We saw it with our outstanding punt coverage units last year. When the returner caught the ball, he was going down within three steps. Anello and Bruton were two of the best I've ever seen at the "gunner" position.
When you are starting every drive at the 40-50 yard line and your opponent is starting every drive inside the 20, you are going to be in great position to win the game. A lot of that comes from your special teams, especially at home. If we have MSU backed up inside their own 20 every drive, the crowd is going to be bringing it to get in their head and hopefully force a turnover.
Plus, there's the big play factor from your special teams. Think about that Zbibkowski punt return against SC or the Getherall punt return against Nebraska. Just monster plays that completely changed the game.
If I was Weis, I would tell my team before week one that our goal is to have the best special teams unit in the nation. Literally, the best. That should be our goal. With our recruiting the last couple years, we should have a ton of hungry young guys looking to make a difference in special teams.
6)) What is your prediction for ND's record in 2009??
Consider me drunk on Kool Aid. I expect Clausen to lead a 2005-type resurgence of the offense, including an improved running game, thanks to TE depth and the influence of the new coaches (Verducci and Alford). I expect the secondary to be one of the best in the nation. I expect the LB’s, including freshman sensation Manti Te’o, to be greatly improved both in the running and passing games. I expect the defensive line to undergo serious growing pains, but pull it together and establish a solid rotation by mid-season.
I’m not willing to make a prediction as to exactly how the season goes, but I’m thinking 10-3 is the final record. Whether this comes from a 10-2 season and a BCS loss, or a 9-3 season and a Gator Bowl, I’m still not quite sure.
Matt: 9-3, Gator Bowl.
Charlie’s motto this spring has been “prove it,” as in let’s finally see on the field what has been talked about since the Hawaii Bowl. And that’s pretty much where I am now with this program. Every year there have been glowing reports about how Player X is developing and Freshman Y is ready to contribute and Captain Z is ready to be the leader of the team. But let’s face it, every year of the Charlie Weis era has ended in disappointment.
Is the talent there to make a BCS run? With this schedule, probably. BC, Pitt, Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State all appear to be in various stages of rebuilding / reloading. At Stanford could be tricky as the last game. They might as well play that UConn game at the local cemetery – the atmospheres will be similar. And of course USC is penciled in as a loss given how completely and utterly inept ND was last year. That was the most embarrassing loss I can remember. So for a team to look so pathetic one year and suddenly be ready to make a BCS run, well, the only thing I can say is prove it.
Mike: 8-4. Gator Bowl.
There are many reasons to drink the Kool Aid in 2009, including the following: (1) almost every position is flush with top-flight athletes, (2) the early returns for the new coaches have been positive and (3) the team possesses more talent than every team on the schedule except for USC, which faces the challenge of winning at South Bend with an inexperienced quarterback. Unfortunately, I believe that ND will be doomed by the same problems that persisted throughout Weis’s tenure; i.e., failure to run the ball and stop the run. Specifically, ND’s inability to develop a consistent ground attack will force the offense to place an undue reliance on the passing game, which will be explosive at times but occasionally prone to failure. I expect Clausen, despite having a great overall season, to have one or two poor games along the way, leading to several disappointing losses.
More importantly, Weis has failed to deliver on his promise to deliver a “nasty” team. In Weis’s four years under the Dome, the Irish have been Charmin soft in the trenches and mentally fragile, so there is no reason to believe that 2009 will be any different. As much as it pains me to type this, I believe that we will lose to Michigan State, USC, Pittsburgh and (shudder) either BC or Michigan, which will lead to Weis’s ouster.
Doug: 11-1; BCS Bowl (loss)
At first, I planned to say 9 wins and the Gator Bowl. Then I started thinking 10 wins is where I see this team. But now that I think about it, why shouldn't this team win 11 games this year?? Is there any reason that we couldn't do it??
If there was ever a year to win 11+ games, this season would be it. Look at all the experience this team has and compare it to the other teams on the schedule. Third year quarterback, third year running back, two elite receivers, a tight end coming into his own, experienced line, experienced secondary, talented players in the front seven.
Think about all the NFL talent on this team. Jimmy Clausen...first rounder. Michael Floyd...first rounder. Golden Tate...first day draft pick. Kyle Rudolph...probably one of the first 2-3 TEs drafted in 2012. Sam Young...first day pick. Trevor Robinson...first day pick.
Ethan Johnson...potential first-second rounder. Brian Smith...first day pick. Walls....2nd round type pick. Blanton...big time talent. Te'o....Maualuga type talent.
This team has some players!! Look around at this schedule in comparison. Michigan has a freshman QB and inexperienced skill players and a defense that has no identity yet. MSU is starting an all new backfield. BC is in a complete rebuild. Pitt lost their best player and has no QB answers. And Nevada has MAC talent. There's no one on this schedule that has as many key returning players as we do.
I also think these guys are hungry. Weis has been saying that this team is the most close knit team he's had at ND. These guys were winners in high school, and I don't think they want to go through another year like last year. That has to hurt your pride, and it sounds like they have really circled the wagons and have something to prove in 2009.
USC is the only team that I still think has a noticeable talent edge on us. I expect SC to be as good as ever this year once they settle in at QB. Their o-line is going to maul people, and their defense is still as fast and talented as ever. Throw in "Footrace" McKnight and those receivers, and you have a motherlode of talent at USC. Plus, they have the best big game coach in the country.
That brings me to the ND coaching staff. Talent alone is not going to win you games. I've been as hard on Weis as anyone for his constant grab-bagging and lack of identity for this team, but he may be finally catching on to this head coaching thing. I think this team and this coaching staff has worked the kinks out. We got rid of some bad assistant coaches who probably should have been let go a couple years ago, and now we actually have an identity on offense and defense. We have a passing offense that mixes in the run, and we play the 4-3 defense with aggressive blitzing. That's who we are, and I'm fine with it. Texas has won plenty of games with both of those identities. We can do the same.
We now have an experienced defensive coordinator in Jon Tenuta who really knows what he's doing and knows how to build a defense. We have a d-line coach who has been one of the best in the game for years and knows how to develop players. We have a new o-line coach who has received favorable reviews from Iowa fans. When Weis first arrived, we were trotting out guys like Minter and Latina and Jappy Oliver in those positions. Notice that none of them has really latched on to any big time programs since they've been let go.
The Weis learning curve has been steep and painful, but it appears that he is finally figuring out what he wants this program to be. He has done an outstanding job building this roster, and now he has to win with it.
So I'm going with 11-1 and a loss in a BCS bowl to some top 5 team that we'll inevitably get matched up against. Do I think we're a top 5 team this year?? Good god no. Not at all. I think we would go like 7-5/8-4 in the SEC. But last time I checked, there are no SEC teams on this schedule, and the second best team we play is a Michigan State team that lost by 31 to Penn State and by 38 to Ohio State last year. NO ONE should be afraid of Michigan State, especially at home.
I walked out of the spring game saying that this team will be similar to the 2006 team. We'll probably have a couple close calls, but I think this team will beat the teams it should beat and lose to the teams that are better than us (USC and the BCS bowl team). All in all, a very good season that will set up for a potentially even better season in 2010 when just about everyone is back.
P.S. I'm fully prepared to be heading into the 4th quarter losing 23-21 to Nevada. Just though I'd note that.
7) What record does Weis need to have to save his job?
This is a tough question for me. If Weis somehow goes 8-4 in the regular season, but has a fluky loss or two because of an injury or a tough break, I’m willing to give him another season. As has already been documented on many occasions in this space, Weis isn’t doing any great damage to the program right now, and another job search could be disastrous. I frankly don’t trust this administration to run a successful search and find someone who could do any better.
I really can’t foresee any situation in which ND loses more than 4 games this year. Call me what you will, but there’s just too much talent on this team to fall apart. Even if Clausen goes down with an injury (knocking on a huge-ass piece of wood), Crist and Sharpley provide some of the best QB depth in the country.
I am afraid that anything less than 9-3 will have many screaming for Weis’ head. 9-3 might not even be enough. And ND can’t afford another (off)season of discontent.
Matt: 8 wins
Good question. I think the answers are different if I was running the show and the current regime. Honestly, I think he needs 8 wins to save his job, but it really should be more like 9 or 10. If ND went 8-4 this year, that would mean losses to USC, and let’s say Michigan State, at Pitt, at Stanford. That would be completely unacceptable in my opinion. What would have been the point of the season? What would be the win that Weis hangs his hat on? BC? Navy? Michigan?
Really, I think the whole job evaluation has to go further than wins or losses. It’s one thing to lose games. But if the USC game this year is a repeat of last year, can anyone with a straight face point to progress being made. Same thing with wins. If we are squeaking by Navy and Nevada, yeah, they are wins, but aren’t we at the point in Year 5 of Charlie Weis that it should be reasonable to be destroying teams like that?
The last thing that I’ll be looking for besides wins is just the general attitude and atmosphere around the team. I know that this is a really tough thing to gauge, but didn’t it look like last year by the end of the season the players would rather go get a root canal than here Weis yell at them one more time. It was uninspired football to say the least. We should come out of the tunnel every game with the mindset that we are better than our opponent. No more playing nice with Navy or laying a turd sandwich against Syracuse (UConn this year is the potential ’08 ‘Cuse game). Beat Navy 56-3 and knock their starting QB out of the game while you’re at it. Don’t fight USC pregame – fight them on the damn field. If it takes Corwin Brown getting a concussion every week from headbutting the whole defense during pregame, fine. But with the schedule set up like it is, USC at home, the experienced players back at key positions, and Charlie coaching for his life, I would like to think that the results we see on the field this year will be different than the past two years.
Mike: 9-3 (most likely).
If Weis wins nine games, it will likely be sufficient for him to retain his job. Certainly, nine wins with a victory over USC would be particularly helpful for Weis in his quest to placate Irish denizens, although this would also mean that there were three losses to inferior opponents. If I were AD, however, there would be a ten win minimum for Weis, given our relative talent level vis-à-vis our opponents and Weis’s substandard body of work over the preceding four years. Of course, if I were AD, Weis would have been fired last December, so it’s pretty clear that my expectations are not aligned with Jack Swarbrick’s expectations.
Doug: 9 wins
Before I get to what ND's criteria would probably be, I'll go with my personal criteria. Because I think you have to take the bowl game into consideration, it's tough for me to really say a specific win-loss record. So I'll go with total wins (including the bowl game):
13 wins -- Start collecting donations for that "Touchdown Charlie" statue on campus
12 wins -- Ara/Lou territory - 12 wins means either a win over USC and undefeated regular season or an 11 win season and a BCS bowl win (presumably over an elite team). That's one heckuva season and all questions about Weis should cease at that point. If Weis wins 12 games this year, he's got the chops to eventually deliver a national championship someday.
11 wins -- The John Cooper track -- An 11 win season would be more than enough to get the critics off Weis' back and probably would be a huge boost to recruiting, but it would be interesting to see what the losses were. 11 wins could mean a 10 win season and a BCS bowl win, but it could also mean 11 regular season wins and a BCS bowl loss. In other words, the John Cooper special. Beat everyone on the schedule except for your archrival and your bowl opponent. Definitely a quality season, but leaves a little bit of a sour taste. Either way, Weis wins 11 games, and he's not going anywhere for awhile. Deservedly so.
10 wins -- 2006 redux -- Here's where you start entering those cloudy areas. 10 wins on the year means either he's gone 9-3 and won the Gator Bowl or 10-2 and loses a BCS bowl. Still a good year and certainly good enough year for Weis to safely enter 2010 (which really is going to be THE YEAR in terms of talent and experience). But I think there would be some grumbling about either of those scenarios. 9-3 means two regular season losses besides USC, and 10-3 feels a lot like 2006 where we had double digit victory totals but got housed in all the big games we played. As someone who sat in the stands at the Superdome for that 41-14 debacle against LSU, it's hard to feel too good about your program if you get waxed in your bowl game.
But let's get real, you cannot fire your head coach after a 10 win season. That's absurd. If Weis wins 10 games this year, he should not be in any sort of jeopardy AT ALL. I think there would be some questions about his ceiling as the head coach at ND, but he deserves to remain employed.
9 wins -- Bob Davie country -- Ok, now you're talking about either an 8-4 regular season with a Gator Bowl win or a 9-3 season with a bowl loss. Now, I know there a lot of programs that would be thrilled with those results, but Notre Dame?? 9 wins against this schedule and then losing to someone like Georgia Tech in a bowl game?? Or god forbid, 8 wins in the regular season, which would mean losses to Pitt, MSU, and BC or something along those lines?? If Weis can't prove that he can consistently beat the BCs and MSUs of the world by year five, then why would we have any reason to believe that he could ever make this program competitive again with the big boys??
Personally, if I was in charge, I'd probably not fire Weis if he wins 9 games next year. 9-3 regular season would be enough to bring him back in 2010, but a bowl loss would be tough to swallow against some mid-level ACC team. If that happened, there would be zero momentum heading into 2010.
The more troubling scenario for me would be an 8-4 regular season. I think I'd keep him if he won the bowl game, but he might not make it to the bowl game to save his job. I could be talked into giving him the boot the day after the regular season ended if the team looked sloppy and needed some miracle finishes just to get to 8 wins.
8 wins -- Gone. If this team goes 8-4 and loses a bowl game, Weis is gone the next day in my book. As noted above, I'm not sure I'd even let him get to the bowl game.
Anything less than that is not worth discussing. And if he only wins 5-6 games, he goes down as one of the worst coaches in ND history.
Now, what do I think Swarbrick's expectations are?? Well, I think Weis comes back in 2010 if he can win 8 regular season games. That's the bar in my opinion. ND doesn't want to pay that buyout, and they can spin it as an "improvement."
It's not a fun discussion to have, but it is something that has to be in play until we see this team on the field in 2009. I hope that we aren't even discussing things related to Weis' future or other coaching candidates at any point during this season.
Alma Matters: Graduation
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