September 06, 2009
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Week 1 - Nevada)
I'm not sure that Irish fans could have drawn it up any better. Facing a respectable opponent with an explosive offense, Tenuta and the boys pitched a shutout while Clausen and Floyd provided the fireworks on offense. Most of the key parts looked great and many of the youngsters got some valuable PT.
But I must say, I walked out of the stadium with some serious twinges of doubt. The Irish definitely put the hammer down, but they squandered some good opportunities on offense and played a little sloppy on defense. Hearing some of the details of the Michigan victory probably didn't settle any of those concerns.
I started this column last year when there were often more negatives than positives to discuss. Hopefully this will become more difficult to write in 2009, and maybe I'll just have to change the name, but until then...
Lots of good to take away. Clausen was damn near perfect: 15-18, 315 yds, 4 TDs. The first play from scrimmage might have been one of the more pleasant surprises of the afternoon – play breaks down, and instead of trying to force a pass into a small window, or head for the sideline, Clausen stepped up in the pocket and tucked it for a nice 8 yard gain. Reports from practice indicated Clausen had improved his pocket presence and this play might have verified those stories. Dayne Crist’s ND debut included 2 completions, one of them to Deion Walker.
The running game wasn’t outstanding, but there were some encouraging signs. Allen led the charge with 72 yards, averaging 4.8 per carry. Jonas Gray continued to impress, including a 19-yard scamper toward the corner of the end zone that should have been a TD. Riddick showed some good athleticism in his debut, hopefully a sign of great things to come. Before his apparent shoulder injury, Aldridge ran and blocked well in limited duty.
Michael Floyd showed what happens when defenses try to roll safeties to deal with Rudolph and Tate. I’m not sure we can expect that Floyd will see much single coverage the rest of the year. Its still early in his career, obviously, but before its all said and done, he may give Tim Brown a run for his money as the best WR to play at ND. The first TD of the game was a beauty – an absolute bullet by Clausen and a great catch by Rudolph.
The debut of the Verducci-led offensive line was generally positive: Clausen didn’t face much pressure, and the one sack of the game by Nevada was definitely on Clausen. ND outgained Nevada on the ground (178 vs. 153) but only averaged 4.3 yards per carry. It was great to see guys like Wenger, Romine, Nuss, Dever, Cave, Golic, and Clelland get some time. With the departures of Duncan, Young and Olsen looming, exposing these guys to big-time college football is a necessity this year. Bobby Burger was a very pleasant surprise in the run game – at the TE position, at H-back and even lining up as a fullback at times.
Tough to be too critical after that performance, but as Notre Dame fans, we’re contractually obligated to expect the worst and find the negative in anything.
The run game was a bit of a mixed bag – although there were some good runs, there were also some missed opportunities in short yardage. ND averaged only 4.3 a carry, but Nevada was one of the better rush defenses in the country last year (probably because they were also one of the worst pass defenses in the country). 4.3 per carry is basically in line with earlier examples of Weis-led offenses (in 2005 and 2006), but it is clear that the Irish will need to run the ball more consistently to take the step to the next level.
As noted above, there were several rushing plays, particularly in short yardage, that failed miserably. We here at We Is are not in the business of calling out particular players for particular failures, but let’s just say the majority of blame for the majority of these negative running plays should be placed at the feet of a certain future All-American TE who needs to drastically improve his blocking if he plans to play on Sundays.
First shutout for ND since 2002. A great accomplishment to be sure, but also a sad reminder of general defensive ineptitude under the Weis regime. Although ND gave up some big chunks of yardage on Saturday, they stiffened whenever Nevada reached the red zone. They were also opportunistic, forcing 3 turnovers (although one was an INT at the end of the 1st half).
The defensive line was quiet, but received double-teams the majority of the day, allowing the linebackers and safeties to make most of the plays. Youngsters like Hafis and Cwynar got some experience and will hopefully work themselves into a rotation in short order.
Toryan Smith played well against the run, including a big stop on 4th down. His five tackles included a sack and 2 TFLs. Brian Smith also had a sack and 2 TFLs. Fleming was quiet from the strong side. Manti Te’o made his much-ballyhooed debut, throwing in a few bone-crushing hits for good measure.
The secondary was quietly competent, with the safeties leading the way as usual. The corners played fairly soft, likely to keep Nevada from breaking any big plays. It was great to see #2 back out there. Throwing the likes of Gary Gray and Jamoris Slaughter into the mix, I can’t imagine there’s a better set of CBs in college football this year.
Concern #1 for the 2009 seasons reared its ugly head early and often – the Irish had difficulty stopping the run. The stats weren’t terrible, and Nevada returned just about every relevant part of one of the best rushing offenses in the country, so perhaps this is overly critical. But I imagine that this problem isn’t going away anytime soon and may cost the Irish a critical game at some point, perhaps even next weekend.
I know that Nevada keyed on the DTs, and that Tenuta’s defenses historically allow the opposition to flow to the LBs, but the big boys were ominously silent. The ends were also pretty quiet, particularly Kerry Neal, who started but disappeared for much of the game, giving way to John Ryan for much of the game. The Irish are definitely going to require much more production from the defensive line if they are to move to the ranks of the elite.
My big concern is that one of our best playmakers on defense, Ethan Johnson, is going to become mired in double teams if forced to remain inside. Should Cwynar and Hafis prove dependable enough in the middle to allow Johnson to move to the outside, I believe the line could become a strength rather than a liability. Certainly something to keep an eye on.
The LBs played well for the most part, but again, Tenuta’s constant blitzing failed to make a huge impact on the game, and often resulted in gaping holes for Nevada to run through. Darius Fleming needs to become more involved.
There were quite a few missed tackles throughout the game, including some opportunities for big plays in the backfield. Kaepernick is certainly an elusive QB, and we can chalk some of this up to 1st game-itis, but this needs to improve also.
Once again, the ND kick coverage teams were fantastic. Great to see Mike Anello back out there doing his thing.
Nick Tausch - welcome to big time college football my friend. Watching the kid between halves, he appears to have a real nice, accurate leg. I'm looking forward to his first FG attempt.
The kickoffs were better, but still a bit disquieting. Tausch reached the goalline (almost twice from what I can recall), but the rest were somewhat erratic. But that's the only beef I've got.
I can't imagine it was too difficult to gameplan for this matchup - ND's strengths played right into Nevada's weaknesses. But Weis definitely has to get some credit for the success. The passing game ran like a well-oiled machine and Verducci's running game absolutely showed improvement.
Tenuta was agressive as always and I'm sure no one is more excited than him about shutting out the vaunted Pistol offense.
A popular criticism of the Weis offense is that he tries to get too “cute” at times, and go away from what’s working. A prime example of this came in the 1st half with the Irish up 21-0. Weis brings Crist out to open the drive and he throws a TE screen to Rudolph for a minimal gain. After a short run, ND faces 3rd and 5 from their own 24. Weis calls a run play that results in a loss of 4 yards. A mild attempt at trickeration, followed by a real head-scratcher on 3rd down. Prime example of Weis being unable to get out of his own way.
The secondary played very soft for much of the game. I’m not sure I understand the thought behind playing soft when you’ve got some of the best CBs in the country, but Tenuta has certainly been doing this coordinating thing for a while so I suppose I’ll have to trust him. I would like to see some more jamming and tight man coverage though.
They get a pass this time. But I'm watching.
Offense - MICHAEL FLOYD. Honorable mention to Clausen and the offensive line.
Defense - TORYAN SMITH. Great to see him make some big plays. I'm really rooting for him to grab the MLB spot by the horns and give ND the run-stopping guy in the middle that's been missing the last few years. Kyle McCarthy gets an honorable mention nod.
Special Teams - NICK TAUSCH. Enjoy that nut fella. You'll be under the microscope for the next 4 years.
All in all, I’m really not sure whether the shutout had more to do with anything ND did, or the glut of mistakes made by Nevada. Lots of drops, silly turnovers, etc. Nevada played very sloppy and its difficult to determine how much impact the Irish had on their sloppiness.
Anyhow, onward and upward. And a very interesting matchup in Ann Arbor. Quite frankly, the Wolverines terrify me. If you held a gun to my head right now, I'd seriously consider picking them to win on Saturday. This series has seen plenty of seasons derailed by the underdog.