September 08, 2009

Around the Nation: ND cruises, Michigan surprises, the Big Ten in shambles, and College Gameday in Ann Arbor next weekend??

Some thoughts from an epic first weekend in college football.

10) Is it possible that Jack Swarbrick is working on the side as a prognosticator at Phil Steele's magazine? As we remember from the preseason, Swarbrick went out of his way to defend the ND schedule by predicting that the schedule would turn out to be much better than the pundits were saying.

I don't know if he really studied these teams or just made a wild guess, but he may end up being right. ND's opponents were fairly impressive in week one.

Purdue beats Toledo 52-31
Michigan beats Western Michigan 31-7
Pitt, BC and Michigan State cruise over I-AA teams
Stanford rocks Washington State on the road
Washington plays a very competitive game with LSU before losing 31-23.

Week one performances can sometimes be misleading, but I do think there are a few potential surprise teams starting to emerge. We'll get to the big surprise in a minute, but one team that impressed me this week was Washington. I thought they looked like a completely different team Saturday night against a very talented LSU team. Jake Locker is a very good quarterback, and Washington actually outgained LSU by a large margin.

Washington has a very tough schedule, but I could see them going to a bowl game this year. Great hire by the Huskies. To land a top notch young coach like Steve Sarkisian and also land Nick Holt from the same USC staff was a coup by Washington. I think they will replenish the UW talent level and get them back to playing pretty good football.

I had that Washington game written off as an afterthought, but that game might turn out to be a little tricky. They are not going to be an anchor on our schedule strength like they were last year. In fact, looking at their possible trajectory down the road as a team on the rise in the Pac 10, it might not be a horrible idea to explore the possibility of renewing this series in a few years if we're looking for a home and home. Washington has never shied away from playing a great nonconference schedule.

9) Perhaps the reports of Michigan's demise under Rich Rodriguez were grossly exaggerated. I will be the first to admit that I started to shovel some dirt on Rich Rodriguez's grave as recently as last week, and now I'm kicking myself for buying into the media reports that Michigan was in turmoil. Never underestimate the power of a team that is playing the "us against the world" card and using it as motivation.

Even though I was shocked to see the "Michigan 31 WMU 0" second quarter score flash up on the scoreboard at Notre Dame Stadium, it really isn't that surprising now that I think more about it. When I watched them last year, they weren't quite as bad as their record indicated. They ran the ball pretty well at times, and there would be some occasional flashes that made you think the Rich Rodriguez system would eventually work well in Ann Arbor. I remember saying multiple times while watching Michigan games last year that they were going to be very good in a year or two once they had the right personnel. And they were doing it with absolutely no production out of their quarterback (which is a huge part of Rodriguez's offense).

The biggest issue for Michigan last year was a lack of consistency and discipline. It seemed like they couldn't string together 3-4 plays in a row without shooting themselves in the foot or missing an assignment. If you are constantly turning it over or getting penalized, it's almost impossible to win football games.

How good are they?? I have no idea, and it's not like Western Michigan is some sort of stern test. We probably won't know until we see them in action on Saturday afternoon, but I expect them to present a fairly tough test for the Irish. Now that their offensive line has had a full year to work in the Rodriguez system, their running game might be one of the better running attacks we face this year.

I didn't get to watch any of the game, but the highlights of Tate Forcier's throws were fairly impressive. He's tiny, but he's fairly poised and throws a good ball. Michigan has some speed and some athletes that they can get the ball to in space.

Now I've also heard that they are still a little sloppy and rough around the edges with lots of penalties and bobbled balls and missed assignments. I definitely could see them laying some eggs as the season goes along due to their youth and inexperience. By no means is Rich Rodriguez out of the woods just yet with this Michigan program.

But as of right now, Michigan sounds like a very hungry program that is rallying around their coach. Say what you want about Rich Rodriguez, but his track record of quick turnarounds speaks for itself. They are going to be geared up for this ND-Michigan game, and we better be ready to match their intensity.

As an ND fan, I enjoy seeing Michigan lose as much as anyone, but college football is better when Michigan is good. The ND-Michigan game just went from a novelty game to a legitimately HUGE game. Both of these programs really really need this game, and both really want to make a statement early in the year. There is already a ton of hype for a game that was sort of an afterthought as recently as 3-4 days ago. Hopefully ND shows up and takes care of business on the road.

8) Speaking of the Big Ten, any hopes of the Big Ten getting its mojo back this year as a major football conference are effectively over after a horrific week one that further cemented the league's reputation as a joke on the national level. The only good story coming out of the Big Ten in week one was a Michigan team that was in a state of complete chaos as recently as a week ago.

Look at the carnage from week one:

--Iowa needs TWO blocked field goals to escape a DI-AA Northern Iowa team at home
--Minnesota goes to overtime to get past a Syracuse team that won two games last year and has a quarterback who played point guard for Coach K
--Illinois gets slaughtered by a Missouri team that was in a complete rebuild going into the year
--Indiana squeaks by Eastern Kentucky at home
--Navy very nearly shocks the world and ties the game in the fourth quarter against Ohio State in the Horseshoe

Not good. Not good at all. Where is this league going?? Is the Big Ten even going to be a major conference in ten years?? Right now, the vast majority of the teams are having trouble just getting by MAC and I-AA teams.

Could you imagine being an Iowa or Illinois fan right now?? Any momentum that they once had is completely deflated. Illinois especially. They went from a program on the rise to a program that might completely fall apart this year. It wouldn't shock me if Ron Zook is out at Illinois a lot sooner than we would have expected going into the year. At the end of the day, he's Ron Zook. There's a reason this guy didn't do anything at Florida.

As crazy as this sounds, is it possible that Rich Rodriguez is going to just blow by the rest of the Big Ten over the next couple years?? That went from being a preposterous statement a week ago to a potentially legitimate statement now. I've done a complete 180 on Michigan's future under Rich Rodriguez.

7) No one seems to be talking about this, so I figure that I'll throw it out there.

Should College Gameday reconsider the decision to go to Columbus this weekend and instead go three hours north to Ann Arbor for the ND-Michigan game?

Hear me out on this one. In terms of atmosphere, I think that the Michigan crowd is going to be a lot more jacked up for this ND-UM game than the OSU fans are about USC. Buckeye fans are legitimately depressed headed into this game. I've never seen OSU fans this down about their program. Almost everyone who talks about the USC game just sort of shakes their head and says "I think we're going to get killed this weekend" before trying to change the subject as quickly as possible. Buckeye fans are pretty beaten down from all the big game losses in recent years, and it's almost like they don't even want to get off the mat for this game against USC. The entire atmosphere surrounding Ohio State football right now is one of tension and unease.

Isn't that collective wariness about this game going to carry over into the pregame atmosphere?? If everyone is hanging their heads, isn't that going to show up on the set of College Gameday?? I think Buckeye fans are going to spend the day quietly drinking their beers almost as if they're waiting for an execution later that day.

The OSU-USC game just feels anticlimactic. We'll have more on this game later in the week, but I think everyone pretty much knows what is going to happen in this game. Tressel is going to play it close to the vest, USC is going to eventually make their move, and Ohio State won't be able to play catch up. By the middle of the third quarter, the game will be effectively over.

Contrast that with an ND-Michigan atmosphere that is going to be electric all day on Saturday. I don't necessarily think Michigan-ND will have national championship implications, but I'm expecting a great atmosphere from two fanbases that are really excited about their futures.

Some other sleeper/impressive teams from this weekend:

Arkansas -- Watch out for these guys in the SEC West this year. I could see them winning 7-8 games. Ryan Mallett--not a bad debut. 17 for 22 for 309 yards. Say what you want about Bobby Petrino, but the guy can flat out coach.

Cincinnati -- Maybe the most impressive performance of the entire weekend. I'm as high on Brian Kelly as anyone, but even I didn't think Cincy would just pick up right where they left off last year and be even better.

Do not sleep on the Bearcats this year. The way they looked yesterday, they have to be considered the favorite in the Big East this year. Tony Pike is starting to get some publicity as a possible first round NFL quarterback candidate. With his size and arm and ability to move around, he definitely fits the Aaron Rodgers prototype. And Mardy Gilyard is the best receiver in America that no one has heard of.

Miami (FL) -- WOW. Someone pour me a large bowl of crow. Nice opening game for Randy Shannon in Tallahassee. Jacory Harris might be one of the most exciting new stars in college football this year. Miami looked better last night than they have in several years, especially offensively. I thought they played really well in a tough environment.

5) Two quick NFL thoughts:

--Could the Raiders possibly be any more clueless as to how to run an NFL organization?? You gave up a 2011 first round pick for a one year run with a 30 year old Richard Seymour?? Is there any doubt that Seymour is going to stink or get hurt now that he's a Raider?? You don't trade 1st round picks (which will probably be a top 5 pick considering how inept the Raiders are) for defensive linemen over 30 who are probably headed for the downside of their career. You especially don't do it when you don't even know that the guy will resign with you in 2010.

This move is indefensible. If Al Davis did this move because he thinks the Raiders can compete this year, then he really should be put into a mental institution. The Raiders are like the Isiaah Thomas Knicks, but they can't fire their GM because he owns the team.

Raiders fans, I feel your pain. As a Bengals fan, I know what it's like to have an incompetent organization.

As people have said on multiple occasions, New England is playing chess where everyone else is playing checkers. To get a future top 5 pick for a guy they were probably going to cut or let go after next year is ridiculous.

--Then there's the Cleveland Browns and Eric Mangini. Mangini refuses to announce who the starter at quarterback will be for their opener against the Vikings.

While I understand why he is doing it to force the Vikings to prepare for Quinn and Anderson, this whole stunt reeks of Charlie Weis refusing to name a starter before the 2007 season. I think there is something to be said for naming your guy and letting your fans rally around him. If the fans don't know who the starter is going to be, they can't get excited.

Just name Brady Quinn as the starter already. He's been the best player in the preseason, and he's never had a chance to be a full time starter. You know what Derek Anderson can do. He can give you some good moments but also too many inaccurate passes and backbreaking interceptions. He'll get you to 4-12 this year.

If you name Brady as the starter now, the fans will rally around him. They'll all go out and buy Brady Quinn jerseys (if they don't own one already) and get behind him. I think he'll be the starter on Sunday, but Mangini should say it now. The psychological edge of having the town rally around your guy is bigger than any schematic edge of making the Vikes prepare for two qbs.

If Mangini names Anderson as the starter, he might as well just announce his own firing as well in two years. That would be a huge mistake.

Some highlight quotes of the weekend:

"When has a guy named Theo ever let anyone down?? You've got Theodore Roosevelt, Theo Huxtable, and now Theo Riddick. That's the Mt. Rushmore of Theos."
--Matt with his assessment of the Theo Riddick era

"The Coors Cutter is flying off the shelves in Provo."
--Matt on the big BYU win

Good times! Oh and with the exciting Manti Te'o debut, I had to throw this in there as well:

I could watch that ten times a day. Dierdorf has never been better. He's positively giddy. WHAT A SHOT!

3) Speaking of announcers, how about Brian Griese doing the color at the Cincinnati-Rutgers game?? He sounds EXACTLY like his dad!! It's uncanny. I just figured it was his dad calling the game, and then they showed Brian up in the booth. I had no idea he had turned into an announcer.

He did a nice job too. Could be a rising star in the announcing world.

2) As for the Irish, there's not a lot that I can add that hasn't already been said by Jeremy or anyone else out there, but I think the big thing I took away from the game is that we finally did what good teams do. We played an inferior team and ran them off the field. That is what good teams do. There are certainly things that you can nitpick, but the larger picture is that the team played a really good game on Saturday. We came out determined and focused, and that's half the battle in college football. Weis had us ready to play on Saturday. There was no question about it.

Does it mean this team is a lock to play in a BCS bowl game?? No, I won't go that far, but I'm not really interested in projecting at this point. Now that the season has started, let's take them one game at a time. In terms of week one, I think the team did everything we could have hoped for and more. An outstanding effort and a dominating performance.

Some things I liked:

1) An aggressive offensive game plan -- I like that we came out of the gate with an aggressive game plan. Get the ball to our playmakers, and come out firing. We went to five wide receivers several times on that first drive. I know there are folks who were disappointed that we are still a team that relies on the pass for most of our big plays, but I've come to terms with what we are in the Charlie Weis era. He is what he is. He prefers the passing game, and that's what we do best. We opened the game with five wides on several plays on that first drive, and we did most of our damage through the air. The 3rd and 16 touchdown to Rudolph, the bomb to Floyd, the Floyd WR screen that went for a touchdown.

Our best players are Clausen, Floyd, Rudolph, and Tate. Do whatever you can to get the ball in their hands.

I haven't felt that much confidence in the offense in a long time. It seemed like we could score whenever we wanted. We even got to the point where we were happy to see the Nevada punt get called down on the one yard line because we wanted to see ND go 99 yards for a touchdown. And then we did it.

And for all the belly aching about the running game, I thought we ran the ball pretty well on Saturday. The misdirection pitch to Armando Allen was the most unique running play we've had in years under Weis, and I thought we were much more efficient in getting 6-7 yards instead of constantly getting jammed up at the line of scrimmage.

Golden Tate -- Obviously, Michael Floyd was the star of the game, but I wanted to give a special shout out to Golden Tate for his outstanding blocking on Saturday. I went back and watched the game on TIVO, and Tate's block on that Floyd screen made the play. Just an incredible team play by Tate that sprung a touchdown.

Floyd is maybe the best receiver ever to put on an ND uniform, but Golden Tate is pretty special too. He will be heard from many times this season, and I expect to see him have a few monster games himself.

3) Very few penalties/mistakes -- A sign of a well-coached team is a team that doesn't shoot itself in the foot with dumb penalties and mistakes. Only three penalties for 35 yards for the Irish, and a couple of those were debatable.

Everything on Saturday was crisper than we've seen in the past. No special teams breakdowns, no dumb penalties, no fumbles, and no offensive line breakdowns. It was great. If we keep that up, this team is going to be very good this year.

4) Clausen -- Great game for Jimmy C on Saturday. I think we take him for granted to some degree. Look at some of the passes he threw on Saturday. There are not a lot of guys in college football who can make those throws. If you give him time to throw, he's going to put up huge numbers. Now we gotta make sure we keep him upright against the big boys coming up on the schedule.

5) Jonas Gray -- I like Armando Allen, but I really like Jonas Gray. Gray has some power. He breaks tackles, and he runs with some explosion. Allen is fine, but he doesn't break any tackles.

I like having a running back who can power through arm tackles and wear a team down. Gray would wear down a defense if you gave him the ball 20 times a game. He doesn't go down at the first contact and can punish the defense. When Armando Allen gets hit, he goes down. The only guy getting punished when Armando runs the ball is Armando.

I'll throw out a nickname for Jonas Gray. The Closer. He could be the guy who comes in when you need to finish off a drive or a big 3rd/4th down conversion or a game in the 4th quarter. You bring in Jonas Gray, and he closes a game out.

Some things that I'm still a little worried about:

1) Stopping the run -- Gotta tighten up that run defense. Michigan and Michigan State can run the football. We need to be prepared to beat them at the point of attack. Seemed like the safeties had to make too many tackles in the running game.

2) Can we duplicate Nevada/Hawaii against better competition?? -- I think we've proven that we are infinitely better than the WAC teams with small linemen and shaky secondaries. Those teams can't handle us, and our strengths have matched up with their weaknesses.

Now the big question with this team is whether we can take that model and bring it to the field against teams with better talent and bigger linemen. Games are still won up front. We won't have the huge size advantage against Michigan and MSU that we have had against Nevada and Hawaii. Now it comes down to technique and toughness in the trenches. We have to win the battle up front against these teams. If we can do it and run the football and stop the run and keep their pass rush off, we will be fine. If our lines get overwhelmed and Clausen is under fire, we're in trouble. Clausen isn't the type of guy who will escape pressure and make plays on the run. The passing game will not work if Clausen doesn't have time to throw.

I don't expect ND to ever become a power football team, but we also can't afford to be overwhelmed by power teams. Michigan and MSU are probably going to come right at us and challenge our toughness. We gotta be up to the task.

I think this team can do what it takes up front, but we'll find out more on Saturday.

3) The Wildcat --- Ugh. I can't stand our Wildcat formation. Has this thing ever worked for us?? We don't have the personnel to do it. Armando Allen isn't decisive or explosive, and you need both qualities to be an effective Wildcat guy. If you get the ball in the Wildcat, it's gotta be one cut and go. Allen tiptoes up to the line, and the thing gets snuffed out. Plus, we do a horrible job of setting it up. If I was ND, I would wait until the last second to set up the Wildcat formation. I would have Clausen line up in the shotgun and then have him shift to receiver with Allen sliding over to take the snap right before we snap it. It creates a little more surprise. We come right out of the huddle with it, and the other team just zeroes in on Allen.

The other thing is that we don't have a power offensive line. The Wildcat needs a line that can just man up and drive a team off the ball to create open holes. The defense knows you're running the ball, so you better be able to win those individual battles. Like USC's line. They could run the Wildcat with McKnight and that line. They just blow you off the ball even when you know the run is coming.

With our offense, we don't operate as well without the element of surprise. If teams know we are running it, we don't move the pile. We snap the ball to Armando, the line collapses, and he has nowhere to run.

Charlie, you called a good game on Saturday, but stick to what we do well. Clausen and the receivers with the possible threat of the run. If the teams don't have to worry about the pass against us, our offense isn't as dangerous.

That Wildcat call almost took us out of our first drive. No need to run that formation ever again.

1) Week One Power Poll:

3) Alabama
2) USC
1) Florida

I only went with three teams in the power poll this week because those are the only three teams that I can definitively classify as elite teams in my mind right now. Florida because they're Florida and don't have to prove anything to me. USC because of their talent level and Pete Carroll. And Alabama because of what I saw out of them on Saturday against Virginia Tech. They just churned Va Tech into the ground in that game. By the fourth quarter, Bama was running through VT like they were paper mache. Complete domination in the second half. If they had played another quarter, Bama would have scored three touchdowns. It was a classic Nick Saban, physical SEC style of performance, and I love watching that type of football. With their defense and running game, Bama will be formidable. I have absolutely no doubt that Nick Saban will win a national championship at Alabama at some point. They will be trading SEC titles for many years to come with Florida.


Craig said...

If you still think Allen doesn't break tackles, watch him shed two would-be tacklers on the run that got called back for the hold on Wenger. A shoe-string tackle kept that from going to the house, and I believe the only reason the shoe-string tackle got Allen is because he was still coming off of shaking another tackle.

Gray ran well on Saturday, but if you go back and look a little more closely at his runs, I think you'll find he missed some holes on some of the runs that were stuffed for minimal gain. In contrast, it looked like when Allen lost yardage, it was because there wasn't any yardage to be had due to blocking breakdowns.

Craig said...

And another thing, regarding OL power. Our OL definitely had its moments on Saturday. To take one notable example, look at the first running play on the day. It wound up going for five yards (I think if Rudolph had played it differently, it would have picked up at least ten), and our OL had blown Nevada five yards downfield at the point of attack.

Doug said...

Craig, good posts. I will have to take a closer look at those plays.

Overall, I agree with you that the running game and line play were much better. It was definitely the best our line has looked in years, and I do think we were more assertive up front.

But I want to see how we do against a defense with similar size and talent levels. Throughout the Weis era, I've seen our line dominate up front against the Navys and Purdues and Nevadas and Hawaiis of the world that have small, two star type linemen. We've proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can push those teams around with relative ease.

Now we gotta do it against a team like Michigan State or Michigan or USC that have big, physical linemen.

I do think we can hold our own against those teams, but we haven't done it yet.

As for Armando Allen, I thought he played a good game on Saturday, but I still can't shake that feeling that he goes down on the first contact. Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of things about him. He catches it well, he blocks well, he gets to the hole. He has a lot of qualities that I like.

But then I watch a guy like Mark Ingram from Alabama, and I foam at the mouth for a guy like that who can just explode into the line and wear down a defense. A wrecking ball. Ingram was spectacular on Saturday night. That's the type of guy I'm used to seeing at Notre Dame, and Armando Allen isn't that guy.

For the Weis offense, I recognize that Allen is probably the best fit right now, but I am encouraged that Jonas Gray could emerge as a power back some time this year.

Craig said...

Sure, we certainly didn't prove anything definitively on Saturday. If we can do the same sorts of things against Michigan, that will be one step forward, and the real tests will be Michigan State, USC, and Pitt.

I'll be keeping an eye on Allen going forward. I was a little surprised to see him running through contact on the play I cited, because his rep is indeed that he goes down easily, and he doesn't break as many big runs as you would expect for someone as fast as he's reputed to be.

Jeremy said...

I agree that the ceilings of guys like Gray, Wood, Riddick or even maybe Hughes could be higher than Armando's. But I think its clear that Allen gives the Irish the most consistent production from that position, both running and receiving.