What a game. Pittsburgh had no answer for Charlie Weis' offense, and the Fighting Irish pounded the Panthers. Notre Dame didn't punt the ball until the 4th quarter, when they had already put in their second string offense.
I could go on and on about the wonders of Charlie's offense, but I'll just make a couple of quick (for me) notes on the game.
Notre Dame has a Top Five offense.
Charlie Weis put on a clinic this week at Pitt. Aside from an early mistake by Brady Quinn, which I'm willing to chalk up to first game jitters, Notre Dame scored touchdowns on 6 of their first 7 drives. They made Wannestedt, a "defensive guru," look silly. And, Notre Dame's first team never had to punt.
First of all, as much as I obsess about football, even I had trouble keeping up with Weis' playcalling. He was calling plays in the first quarter that led to successful plays in the third quarter. He was about five steps ahead of Wanny, and if he hadn't pulled his first string, he would never have punted. An example of Weis' playcalling:
In the first two drives, Weis called two screens, and Brady checked down into two more (one of which was their first touchdown) before Pittsburgh was able to catch on. Also, Weis consistently called runs to the right side, in which Walker would inevitably beat the linebackers to the corner.
Late in the first quarter, Weis, having seen Pitt's tendency to watch for screens to Walker and shade to the right side, called a play which had a fake to Walker to the right (sucking in some of the defense), then a fake reverse to Rhema McKnight (which fooled nobody on the D). Quinn looked at Walker in the flat to the right side of the field, which caused the ENTIRE Pitt defense to collapse towards that side. Then Quinn quickly tossed the ball to Rhema in the flat to the opposite side of the field, where Rhema caught it in the flat, with nobody within 10 yards of him. Twenty yards later, the corner on the left side brought him down.
Weis knew before the play started that this would happen, and this is the beauty of his system. He has so many plays in his playbook, nicknamed The Phonebook by his players, that he has a play for literally every defensive tendency. He sees a weakness, and he exploits it. He was able to explain the paybook to his players in a way that allowed him to implement it in one offseason, whereas Ty Willie was given a long leash by the media (3 years) in implementing his. (more on this later)
It is this kind of playcalling that took the Patriots to the Superbowl, and wil lead the Irish back to the top of the college football world.
The best thing about the Irish offense is the number of weapons they have at their disposal. At wide receiver, they have McKnight, Stovall, Samardzija, and Shelton. At running back, they have Walker, Thomas, and Powers-Neal. At tight end, they have Fasano and Carlson. They have a stud quarterback, and (their secret weapon) a true freshman at fullback with Asaph Schwapp (where Powers-Neal has also played). That is 11 players on offense that would start at their position on any other team. Not to mention players such as Justin Hoskins, David Wolke, D.J. Hord, and David Grimes which will be starting caliber players by the end of the year. And don't even get me started on the incoming freshmen.
The key play of the game was ND's first score, in which Nd ran a called screen ot Darius Walker. The play itself wouldn't have been spectacular, except that Charlie's coaching reared its beautiful head. A great block by a lineman and Walker outrunning H.B. Blades would have given ND a 20 yard gain, but for the fact that Fasano, Samardzija, McKnight, and Stovall all formed a convoy for Walker, blocking downfield. They turned a good gain into a game-breaking touchdown, and showed the world the discipline and depth of a Weis offense, as his play called for that type of downfield blocking, it wasn't a fluke.
The wonderful thing about Weis is that he has put in an offense where every single playmaker on the team is a threat to move the ball on every single play. These guys have the capability to put up 40 points on EVERY SINGLE TEAM THEY PLAY THIS YEAR.
Notre Dame has a solid defense, which will improve as the season progresses.
The only time during this game in which I had a moment of doubt was Pitt's first possession. That possession, which culminated in a 40-something yard pass to Greg Lee, which put Pitt up 7-0, wwas the result of excellent execution by Pitt (a legitimate top 25 team). On that play, Lee beat Mike Richardson, our #1 corner, and Tom Zbikowski, our stud safety. Speedster Ambrose Wooden (who made several BIG plays in the game) was also a couple of steps late in helping out. Lee beat all three defenders to score the long TD, and I had flashbacks to the secondary from last year, where time and time again our d-backs got burned.
In reviewing this play, I realized that this was simply great execution by the Panthers. The great play action by Palko caused Zbikowski to step up to defend the run. Lee juked Richardson into believing he was running a fly pattern, when he actually cut to a post, leaving Richardson out of position. The ball was thrown perfectly, and Wooden couldn't break from his receiver until the ball was thrown. The result: touchdown.
As the game progressed, however, the defense settled down. The secondary started to trust the front seven to take care of the run (Pitt ran for barely 100 yards as a team, and many of those were after ND put up 42 points), and were able to sit back and take care of business.
If there was any weakness in our defense, it was our pass rush. Late in the game, our line was able to get some sacks, but early on Palko had all day. Part of this was Palko's ability to evade the rush, but we need more aggrssive rushing. Perhaps, after reviewing film, Minter will run a few more blitzes early on.
The key defensive play on defense was Hoyte blasting Palko with a textbook tackle, helmet on the ball, with 11:26 remaining in the second, causing him to fumble (which was reviewed and ruled not a fumble), and hurting Palko's hand. this is the kind of play which makes a mobile quarterback like Palko think twice about running the ball, and hurts his hand, which affects his play for the rest of the day.
Whether this defense is capable of controlling (not stopping) the defenses of Michigan, Purdue, Southern Cal, and Tennessee remains to be seen, but I am confident in their ability to improve over the course of the season. Also, I feel pretty good about our offense's ability to make up for mistakes by our defense.
Notre Dame needs more discipline on the field, penalties hurt them in this game.
Of course, Charlie Weis will not be happy with todays performance, because any good coach is never happy (unless they win 140-0, with no penalties, negative yards for the opponents, and touchdowns on every offensive play, with no penalties, and perfect special teams coverage). The worst aspect of ND's performance tonight was the number of penalties they committed. While analysts are willing to overlook many first game penalties, I am sure that Weis won't have the same level of forgiveness. There were late hit, holding, substitution (which are REALLY going to piss him off), interference, false start, and offsides penalties. Charlie is going to spend the week drilling discipline into this team. Notre Dame committed 10 penalties for 94 yards. Take out those penalties, and ND would likely have scored another 7-10 points (490 total yards = 42 points, 580 yards = 50? 60?).
I am somewhere in between the media and where Charlie sits. First off, I still believe that the Big East officials were strongly biased in last year's game (which I can ony thank them for, because it led to Ty's departure, but I digress). In today's game, there were few penalties that I had problems with, and overall, I feel the officiating was relatively fair. However, against a top 5 team like Michigan, we can't afford to give up 100 yards in penalties. We need to be not just productive, but also clean and efficient. We will be playing in a hostile environment against a quality opponent. Charlie will have this team playing textbook football next week (although you may not be able to tell if we have Big Ten officials).
Special teams is the weakest part of this team, but they didn't really need much.
The opening kickoff was returned to the 27, which isn't bad, but he managed to skip past our first wave, and were it not a good tackle by Ambrose Wooden, he could have broken it. We returned the first Pitt kickoff to the 22, which is OK, but not great. The next kickoff was returned by Pitt to the 24, again a failure (anything past the 20 is a failure) although the coverage was more disciplined. The subsequent kickoff was out of bounds. After our second score, we kicked the ball straight up (I'm still not sure what we were thinking), resulting in the Panthers getting the ball on the 36.
Our special teams' best play was after our third score. The Panthers returned the ball to the 19, fumbling the football, which ND recovered. Scout team linebacker Casey Cullen forced the fumble, and Chinedum Ndukwe reovered it. They had disciplined coverage as well as good technique and awareness. That play is the ideal kick return situation.
Moments later, however, ND had to kick again after our 4th score, and Furman again evaded our first wave and returned the ball to the 40. After our fifth score, the kick was short, and fair caught at the 24. The final kickoff after our 6th score was (finally) a touchback. This coverage made me happy, because only moments after the ball skipped into the end zone, the coverage was there.
Our kickoff coverage rated average, but the special teams needs to progress to the point where the returner almost never gets past the first wave. (I'd be able to deal with once per game)
Aside from kick returns, the team was decent on punt coverage.
I didn't get to see Grimes return a punt, but Tom Zbikowski showed me something on his first return. This immediately followed the hit by Hoyte on Palko, and he put on a show. He took the punt at the 12, and had decent vision to get up to the 29 before he hit someone. And he say hit someone instead of getting hit, because he laid a lick on a Pitt defender, laying him out, before dragging the pile to the 34. This kid has heart and a whole lot of balls.
If there were any weakness in ND's game, it would be the special teams, but they did nothing to give up an adavantage in the game, and in fact gave ND a short field early in the game when they needed it most.
Notre Dame will win at least 9 games this year.
To this point, I have guardedly predicted a 9-win season for the Irish, but now I am guaranteeing a 9-win season for the Irish. Don't be surprised to see the Irish in the National Championship hunt this year. Here is my optimistic view of the rest of the season:
They will win next week against Michigan, largely due to a weak Wolverine defense, although it will be close. ND 38, Michigan 28 Pessimist: ND 38, Michigan 35
Then, they will crush Michigan State at home, with a rabid home crowd (much louder than anything during the Davieham era, hearkening back to '92-93 Holtz). ND 28, MSU 10
They will make short work of Ty and the Huskies, putting up in excess of 50 points (70, anyone?). ND 63, Ty Willie 3
Their final challenge will be at Purdue, where Charlie will use the revenge factor to motivate the team. I think that this could be a dangerous game for the Irish, as Purdue's passing game will test the secondary. This could be our first loss of the season, but I am confident in ND's offense. Optimist: ND 35, Purdue 31 (overtime) Pessimist: Purdue 35, ND 31 (overtime)
Then, we have two weeks at home to prepare for the USC juggernaught. They have to play ASU and AZ back-to-back in warm weather before coming to town. ND's chilly temps, efficient offense, and two weeks of preparation shock the world. If that isn't enough, this is a Notre Dame loss. Optimistic prediction: ND 31, USC 28 Pessimist: USC 45, ND 38
The Irish will have no challenge from BYU at home, but they will have a bit of a letdown after the previous week's emotion, leading to some scary moments for Irish fans. ND 21, BYU 10
Then, the Irish get another week to prepare for a Tennessee team that I doubt will be undefeated by this time. They struggled with a UAB team, and the Irish preparation will result in: Optimist: ND 38, Tenn 24 Pessimist: ND 28, Tennessee 31 (last minute field goal)
The rest of the schedule is a cake walk.
ND 35, Syracuse 10
ND 45, Stanford 14
It's not out of the realm of possibility for the Irish to go undefeated. I'm going to stick with my 9-2 predicition, though. Three out of the four top teams is too much for an undefeated season.
That's enough for now. I'll certainly have more to post later.