Thursday, October 18, 2007

Rushing Offense Woes

A little over halfway through the season, I was wondering whether our rushing woes are due to the caliber of opponent defenses, or a function of our own ineptitude, or both.

I was surprised when I saw the cumulative rankings (our losses in bold, win in italics):

1 Boston College
5 Southern California
9 Penn St.
11 Georgia Tech
24 Michigan St.
37 Michigan
52 Purdue
62 Air Force
73 Duke
75 Stanford
88 Navy

This pretty much confirms what I suspected, that our schedule has as much to do with our lack of success running the ball as our youth and inexperience. We've played the top rushing defense, 3 of the top ten, 4 of the top 12, and 5 of the top 25. Every team has been in the top half of the rankings. And this week, we face another top 5 rushing defense in USC.

I think that we will continue to struggle running the ball, but we were able to squeak out a win against one of those vaunted rush defenses despite our struggles.

And if anyone out there still doubts our ability to win the last four games on ou schedule, consider the fact that they can't stuff the run like our first 8 opponents, which should bring some balance to our offense. And this ranking list supports my previous contention that we should have beaten Purdue soundly, and our first half performance in that game was atrocious.

I'm not mentioning this to excuse our performance thus far, but to provide hope that we can win the last four games by establishing the running game early.

Which means that we have a good shot of going to a bowl game with a win this weekend.

Southern Cal vs. Notre Dame Preview

University of Southern Calfornia
Trojans (5-1)

Ranking: BCS #14, AP #13 Coaches #9
Head Coach: Pete "The Poodle" Carroll
Coaching Record: 69-13, 7th season
Last Year: 11-2 (7-2 Pac-10)
Last Week: Beat Arizona, 20-13


University of Notre Dame
Fighting Irish (1-6)

Head Coach: Charlie Weis
Coaching Record: 20-12, 3rd season
Last Year: 10-3, Lost to Louisiana State in Allstate Sugar Bowl (#17 AP / #19 Coaches postseason ranking)
Last Week: Lost to #4 Boston College, 27-14

Location: Notre Dame Stadium (aka The House That Rock Built)
Date and Time: October 20, 2007 3:43 p.m.
Series Record: Notre Dame leads 42-31-5

Notre Dame Quarterback and Receivers vs. Southern Cal Secondary
Notre Dame is starting their third quarterback this season, as Junior Evan Sharpley got the nod over Freshman Jimmy Clausen on the heels of his second comeback leading performance of the season against Boston College.
The hope out of South Bend is that Sharpley will continue to show the poise and confidence that he showed in relief, and will finally give Coach Weis the confidence to open up the passing offense. However, we don't know if Sharpley will show up all game like he did when the pressure was on with a big lead to overcome.
Southern Cal has a very good secondary, but they haven't picked off a lot of balls. Their pass efficiency defense is one of the best in the country, and that makes this a tough challenge for Sharpley in his first start. However, they give up about 200 yards per game through the air, so there is some hope that we can move the ball in the passing game, especially if the Coach finally opens up some intermediate and deep routes early in the game.
Edge: Draw

Notre Dame Running Backs and Tight Ends vs. Southern Cal Linebackers
Notre Dame's rushing offense continues to sputter this late in the season, and I haven't seen anything that gives me confidence.
Southern Cal is loaded at linebacker, althought they have been banged up. Maualuga has a hip pointer, and is a game-time decision (although it doesn't look like he will play at this point). Brian Cushing has been practicing, and it looks like he will go, but his injury may slow him down a bit. Either way, this matchup looks to favor the Trojans.
Edge: Southern Cal

Notre Dame Offensive Line vs. Southern Cal Defensive Line
Southern Cal hasn't put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and Notre Dame's blitz pickup has been steadily improving over the last three games, so Sharpley should have some time to throw. However, the big hosses in front are very good at shutting down the run, spearheading one of the nation's best rushing defenses.
Edge: Draw

Notre Dame Defensive Line vs. Southern Cal Offensive Line
Laws and Kunz are beasts, and the Southern Cal O-line is shallow and pretty banged up. Hopefully, this will present an opportunity for the D-line to disrupt the Trojan's powerful running game. I expect the Irish to once again win the battle in the trenches, but the question is whether it will be enough to slow them down.
Edge: Notre Dame

Notre Dame Linebackers vs. Southern Cal Running Backs and Tight Ends
Any other team in the country, faced with the number of injuries to the running backs that Southern Cal has faced, would be struggling to run the ball. However, SC is so deep at the postion that it hasn't hurt their production that much, with them averaging almost 200 yards a game on the ground.
Hopefully, Mo Crum will be back from injury and able to play at 100%. It is because of this question mark and our history of struggling against the run that I'm giving the nod to SC here. However, if Mo Crum can show up like he did against UCLA, this could change.
Watch out for Fred Davis, the USC Tight End, who creates some matchup problems over the middle. Also, they have a fullback in Stanley Havili who has soft hands and can create some problems for us in the flat.
Edge: Southern Cal

Notre Dame Secondary vs. Southern Cal Quarterbacks and Receivers
This is the big matchup in this game, once again. Booty is trying to get back on the field, despite a broken finger on his throwing hand. Sanchez is waiting in the wings if Booty can't be productive, but his inexperience limits the offense somewhat.
If Booty isn't 100%, this matchup should go to the Irish, although they are facing the biggest receiving corps of the year so far, and will struggle to defend against jump balls with leadng receiver 6'5" Patrick Turner and 6'4" David Ausberry. With Fred Davis also standing at 6'4", we are going to need a solid pass rush to stay competitive in this game.
All of that said, the Irish secondary has continued to be solid against the pass, ranking in or near the top 25 in both total pass defense and pass efficiency defense. This will be interesting to watch, as this is the most talented receiving corps we've faced.
The big question here is whether Booty can be effectve as a passer with a broken finger. If not, the Irish should win this matchup going away.
Edge: Draw

Notre Dame Coaches vs. Southern Cal Coaches
Although Coach Weis out-coached Pete Carroll in their first meeting in 2005, over the span of their careers as head coaches, Carrol has proven to be by far the more consistent coach across the board, leading Div I-A in winning percentage.
Carroll is struggling a bit this year, with a loss to Stanford and struggling last week against a bad Arizona squad. While I'm giving this edge to SC, this game presents an opportunity for Coach Weis to salvage the season and silence some of his critics, by placing this team in a position to battle for a bowl game down the stretch of this disappointing season.
I know that Weis wants this one more than any of the others, although he'll never say so to the media.
Edge: Southern Cal

Quarterback and Receivers vs. Secondary: Edge Draw
Running Backs and Tight Ends vs. Linebackers: Edge Southern Cal
Offensive Line vs. Defensive Line: Edge Draw
Defensive Line vs. Offensive Line: Edge Notre Dame
Linebackers vs. Running Backs and Tight Ends: Edge Southern Cal
Secondary vs. Quarterbacks and Receivers: Edge Draw
Coaches vs. Coaches: Edge Southern Cal

Analysis and Prediction

This is the granddaddy of them all, the greatest rivalry in college football.

It's become cliche, but it is often true that when these two teams meet, you can throw out the records.

Notre Dame wants to win this game for respect. Respect for their coach, and respect for the rebuilding they have done to this point in the season.

With only one loss, Southern Cal is still thinking national championship, although their confidence is shaken.

With the lone exception of Ty's blowout loss to the Trojans four years ago, the Trojans do not come into Notre Dame Stadium and beat up on the Irish. Here is a list of the last 10 games played in Notre Dame Stadium:
2005: SC 34-31
2003 (Ty): SC 45-14
2001: ND 27-16
1999: ND 25-24
1997: SC 20-17
1995: ND 38-10
1993: ND 31-13
1991: ND 24-20
1989: ND 28-24
1987: ND 26-15
Therefore, despite this being a down season for Notre Dame, I expect a competitive battle in Notre Dame Stadium. There is no atmosphere in sports that compares with gameday between Notre Dame and USC in South Bend. It is quite simply magical.

Thus, despite the fact that the matchups appear to favor the Trojans, I simply refuse to allow myself to believe that we will lose this game. It means too much to the players and coaches for them not to come out and play the game of their lives on Saturday morning.

I'm hoping that a couple years from now, when we are celebrating our 12th national championship, I'll be able to say that I was in Notre Dame Stadium for the turning point in this program, when the Irish started something special that woke up the echoes, not just for a fleeting week or two, but for good.

This week could serve as the foundation for the building of a dynasty. It's that important.

Notre Dame 24
Southern Cal 20
Final - Overtime

Monday, October 15, 2007

Boston College Postmortem

"They are who we thought they were!"
Dennis Green's immortal quote has never been more apropos than this week. I felt good about our chances against Boston College, largely because we matched up well with them schematically. Let's review the matchups from my preview, and see how close I was:

ND QB's & WR's vs. BC Secondary:
I gave the edge to: Notre Dame
The edge in the game was: First half - BC, Second half - Notre Dame
Jimmy Clausen was inneffective against the BC defense through the first three fifths of the game, throwing for only 60 yards and 2 interceptions. He never tested the BC secondary, instead continuing the annoying dink-and-dunk offense from the rest of the season.
However, once JC was pulled in favor of Sharpley, we began attacking the BC secondary, and gashed 'em pretty good for the last part of the game, throwing for 147 yards and 2 TDs (although one of the TDs was called back on a phantom holding call).
Sharpley clearly is more comfortable with the intermediate and long passing game, allowing the Irish to stretch the field.
I really like Clausen, but he can't seem to pull the trigger down the field, and he should be benched until that problem is resolved. Sharpley has proven that he deserves the chance to start, as he gives us a better chance of winning now.

ND RB's & TE's vs. BC Linebackers:
I gave the edge to: Boston College
The edge in the game was: Boston College
I knew that we wouldn't be able to run against this front seven, and I didn't think we should have spent a lot of time trying. Instead, we ran the ball 21 times for an atrocious 27 yards (1.3 per rush). This attempt to run the ball cost us drives - look at the drive that started wth 5:36 left in the first quarter:
PASS - 6 yards!
RUSH - 1 yard.
RUSH - 2 yards.
Now compare that to Sharpley's first drive:
PASS - incomplete
PASS - incomplete
PASS - 28 yards!
PASS - incomplete
PASS - 2 yards. ROUGHING THE PASSER - 15 yards!
PASS - 15 yards!
PASS - 19 yards! TOUCHDOWN!
When we started chucking the ball all over the field with Sharpley and abandoned the run, we did have some success. There are a lot of things wrong with our running game, which I'm going to attempt to go over later this week.

ND O-line vs. BC D-lne:
I gave the edge to: Notre Dame
The edge in the game was: Notre Dame
"Fredo's defensive line isn't that scary, compared to the other teams we've played. Indeed, only Purdue's pass rush is weaker than Fredo's. They don't have a lot of sacks or tackles for loss, considering the caliber of opponent they've played. They are good run stuffers, but we don't need to run the ball this week."
Well, they stuffed the run pretty good, but they struggled with creating pressure most of the game. They had trouble getting pressure on the QB all day, getting only 2 sacks. The QB's had enough time to throw, which was what I predicted. I didn't think we'd run the ball as much as we did, but I admitted that they were good run stuffers.

BC QB's & WR's vs. ND Secondary:
I gave the edge to: Notre Dame
The edge in the game was: Draw
Boston College came in averaging 310 yards per game, 2.5 TDs per game, and 0.833 interceptions per game. Boston College finished the game with 291 yards passing, 2 TDs, and 1 intercepton (returned for a TD).
Boston College was just shy of their averages for the game, but the Irish secondary did get points off of one of Ryan's errant passes.
Overall, this matchup was a draw, where many people thought that BC would have a decided edge with their vaunted Heisman contender. Ryan is good, but not Heisman material.

BC RB's & TE's vs. ND Linebackers:
I gave the edge to: Boston College (barely)
The edge in the game went to: Boston College
I said going in that Boston College would be forced to run the ball by our secondary. While that didn't happen, they still managed to gash us in the run game, in particular on the very first drive. They finished the game with 168 total rushing yards (right between the 185 we've been giving up, but more than the 145 they've been averaging). More importantly, our inability to hold Boston College on third down in the first drive, instead giving up a 52 yard romp and setting up their first touchdown, robbed us of momentum early in the game.

BC O-line vs. ND D-lne:
I gave the edge to: Notre Dame
The edge in the game was: Boston College
This is the only matchup where I completely whiffed.
The defensive line played well, but could not get any kind of consistent pressure on the quarterback. Also, this is why I think we lost this game. We couldn't knock Ryan off of his rhythm, and he got his yards through the air, despite a valiant effort by our secondary. Even when we did get pressure, Ryan did an excellent job of getting rid of the ball at the last second, without drawing a single intentional grounding flag (although I felt he deserved a couple).

Coaches vs. Coaches
I gave the edge to: Notre Dame
The edge in the game was: Draw
Jagodznski had an effective game plan that ended up winning the game, but the Eagles looked pretty sloppy all game, and were gift wrapped many of their points off of our miscues. They didn't appear to be a well-coached ball club.
Weis' team had a decent game plan, but have still been plagued by untmely mental and physical breakdowns, which cost us the game. (See Coach Weis' six plays that changed the game) These are coaching errors, and they cost us a chance at victory over a top 5 ranked team.
In the end, both teams looked like they were poorly coached, and therefore I'm calling this one a draw.

My prediction for the game was a 24-21 victory for the Irish. We lost, 27-14.
This young team is still too prone to mistakes to play a complete game, but had we eliminated just two mistakes - take your pick of Clausen's first interception, the phantom holding call, or Price kneeing the ball on the punt, and the final score could just have likely been 21-17, or 28-27 in favor of the Irish. Granted, changing any of those plays may not have changed the result of the game, but the Irish were clearly in the game with only minutes left in the 4th quarter.
I've gotten some flak from commenters about my predictions about winning this game, and been called everything but delusional. However, I wasn't as far off as many people seemed to think.


Biggest problem: Offense. Again. Clausen couldn't move the ball. The running backs couldn't move the ball. If not for Robby Parris, we would have had very little to hang our hats on.

Player of the game: Robby Parris. With no running game, and an ineffective QB for 3/5 of the game, the young receiver still managed to rack up 4 catches for 94 yards and a touchdown, not to mention the 12-yard touchdown he was robbed of by the refs.

Scapegoat of the game: Jimmy Clausen. 60 yards, no touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Compared to his backup, he looked just awful.

Positive stat of the game: Honestly, the stat line just isn't that good. Even Sharpley's performance was hardly awe inspiring, if effective. Price averaged 42.2 yards per punt, but he also had the miscue, downing the ball on a low snap.

Negative stat of the game: Notre Dame: 27 rushing yards BC: 186 rushing yards