Sunday, September 24, 2006

Good thing I have a healthy heart

It got a workout last night. After an awful first quarter in all facets of the game, almost perfectly echoing last week, ND decided to pull itself together and salvage its season (mentally and objectively) by staging a great comeback in the pounding rain of East Lansing. And there was much rejoicing.

I don't want to go through things I liked and things I didn't this week, but maybe just make a few observations and highlight some of the key plays in the game.

- In games like this, the main number that is always at the front of my mind is turnover margin. In the second half, we were playing well enough to stage a comeback, but the nature of the game is such that it's almost impossible to win with a margin of -2 or more on turnovers (even -1 makes it much harder). I felt the defense needed to create a turnover for us to close the gap created by spotting MSU 14 points in the first half. It certainly seemed possible, because it was hard to understand in that kind of sheeting rain how we could have five or six fumbles (though only one lost) while MSU looked unfazed by the rain the entire game. We had to be able to capitalize on this at some point, right? Well, the turnaround did happen, although ultimately it wasn't attributable to the weather. When Ndukwe stepped up to the line with about six minutes to go in the fourth, spotting the option carry, I was concerned MSU would check out of the play and go to the left side he'd stepped off, but Ndukwe saw the play correctly and made a great strip, exactly the kind of play we needed to finally turn the game in our favor. The safety blitz on the following series pressuring Stanton to create the second turnover (that fantastic INT and runback by Lambert) clinched it on the scoreboard, of course - but as importantly it got that turnover margin back to even. At even turnovers, neutralizing MSU's advantage from our errors, I believed we absolutely had the players to win. It was sweet.

A few key plays in the making of the comeback:

- The first TD pass to McKnight in the second quarter was invaluable in helping Quinn start to regain confidence. It was a good pass, but a better reception by McKnight. As a first down play, we would have had more chances to advance the ball on that drive if either QB or receiver didn't make the play, but when it did work, the effect was, I think, critical. That's because there are two sides to the coin, right - it's not all about the quarterback, but also how well he's working with his receivers. Weis pointed out in his press conference today that sometimes passes look bad not because there was a bad throw, but because the receiver has run the wrong route to the wrong spot. So a combination of those plays and plays where Quinn is just flat missing open guys or taking the complete wrong angle on an out pass, means that it can be hard to get in sync. Making that first strong touchdown connection really helped Quinn to start to get back in a rhythm, putting a better touch on his passes (minus the stupid INT on the next drive) and leading to all the receivers stepping it up a notch on subsequent drives.

- On the second TD drive, the conversion on 4th-and-1 was perfectly played. Quinn did a great job selling the handoff and hiding the ball, waiting for two seconds, then making a good pass to Carlson - who made a solid reception despite getting hit pretty hard on the play. It not only kept the drive alive but was also important in Quinn getting to recover from the INT he'd just thrown.

- Moving to the third quarter and the third touchdown, Quinn demonstrated some of the good vision he showed more consistently last year when (as I recall) he spotted a blitz, checked out of the called play, and calmly hit Carlson for the 62-yard score. Nice decision-making.

- 3rd-and-42?? Could have been 3rd-and-52 if we'd accepted another holding call - wow. Nice on Landri for his tackling and making a key sack of Stanton to push MSU back. This fourth-quarter drive by MSU had started at the Notre Dame 42. If Michigan State hadn't imploded and the Irish defense hadn't stepped up big, MSU could have really driven to put the game away on this drive. Instead, they backed up half the field, punted, and then our offense quickly went 80 yards for the next score.

- Sometimes you need a little luck. I think it was on this, the fourth touchdown drive, that one of Quinn's passes bounced off Walker's hands up and back in the air - causing millions of simultaneous heart attacks around the country as we all flashed back to the interception off Carlson's hands last week - but this pass bounced . . . to Carlson. Behind Walker, he lasered in on the ball, grabbed it with assurance, and not only saved the play but got a first down. (This might have been earlier in the game - I can't remember if it was here or in the first half, but the effect was the same regardless.) Whew.

Terrail Lambert's awesome efforts at the end of the game (in concert with the rest of the D) finally won it for us, and what a finish. Did everyone else catch Weis exhorting the D before the last play? Someone linked to it on NDNation as posted on YouTube. You think he was excited much? Ha.

I'm sure media people will try to minimize this win - see how Notre Dame struggled against an unranked team, they shouldn't have needed to work that hard, MSU wasn't really very good. Well, comments like that ignore the recent history of these teams and this series. As Bob Davie helpfully reminded us last night, for instance, he lost to Michigan State four years in row in his tenure. (Yep. I was there for all four. Thanks, Bob.) No matter how much MSU stumbles every year, they always get up for us, and they've had our number for years. Oh yes, this was a meaningful win. There is still a lot to work on - a win can't erase our problems with slow starts, poor third-down conversion rates, intermittent problems defending the run, or recent propensity to fumble on kickoffs. Weis is also concerned that the offense has yet to find its personality. But this team turned a major mental corner with this game, when it could have given up and died, and the end result is we're 3-1 after the toughest part of our schedule until November. Go Irish.


That is all for now.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Maryland Steele

RedState reports the latest polling in Maryland showing that Republican Senate candidate Michael Steele has a slight edge over Democrat Ben Cardin, and as importantly, he is currently getting about 33% of black voters and 22% of Democrats. Peeling off supporters from these constituencies is absolutely critical to Steele making headway in this strongly Democratic state, and I think it would be great if he's the one to replace Sarbanes.

Of course, Steele has no chance whatsoever in my county. When I went to vote in the primary elections last week (even though the Republican ballot was a pretty small one here), I waited for 20 minutes in line behind three women both commiserating grimly about how terrible President Bush is and also psychoanalyzing the kinds of people who actually liked the man. Oddly enough, they didn't tag my psychological profile very well, but I'm glad it made them feel better as they contemplated who in their right minds might actually have voted for Bush. I can't fault them too much for still thinking about the last election, though, as I confess I had thought about wearing my "Buckeyes for Bush" shirt to the polling place. It wouldn't have violated campaigning restrictions since I wasn't in Ohio and Bush wasn't on the ballot, and it might have been amusing. Then again, it might have gotten me killed from the laser death glares of everyone around me. Oh well. Steele won the Republican primary in a landslide, as expected, and I do hope he can keep up his momentum statewide. He's a strong candidate. And he even likes puppies.

Gameday jitters

Two weeks after saying that it felt like it might finally be time to get over the perennial apprehension of the Davieham years, since now we were really achieving consistency, Weis's team laid an egg and brought all of that rushing back. Weis himself said he was only "stirred, not shaken," but I think it's hard for fans so little removed from the last few years to brush things off that easily. That is to say, I'm apprehensive about tonight's game against Michigan State, since this was one of our losses last year and Drew Stanton poses a lot of challenges. On the other hand, Brady Quinn threw for 487 yards and 5 touchdowns against this defense last year, so if there's any game for the offense to explode again, this could be it. A key adjustment I think would be important this week for that to happen would be for Weis to call a few more designed roll-out plays or Quinn to step out on his own if the pressure in the pocket looks like last week against Michigan. Eliminate turnovers, and we already have a solid chance in this game. We're good enough to beat the Spartans - it's just a matter of execution.

Jay at BGS sums up the possibilities for the team as a whole here:

This team had more hype and more preseason attention than just about any Irish squad in recent memory, and that over-inflated balloon was rudely popped by the Wolverines. Not to get all Freud on you, but it seems to me this team can go one of two ways: they can curl up in a ball and write off the season, or they can process the beatdown, and use it as a springboard. We'll find out which direction they're heading tomorrow night.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Things fall apart

While I was more than a little ticked all weekend and it took me about 24 hours even to be able to read anything written online (and then only Charlie's press conference) my being upset is not the reason I haven't posted on the Michigan game. (Ahem.) I spent the weekend in Chicago, and watched the game in a random sports bar in Oak Park. The bar had the weirdest music I've ever heard, for a place which did have plasma TVs and an otherwise good setup: 70s light rock, e.g., the Carpenters. Huh? I had to leave the bar for awhile anyway, though, to wander around and not watch the game, so the elevator music was just an irritating cap to one of the most upsetting games I've watched in years. I am much calmer now, but I am helping on a few deals which are supposed to close this week so I've been at the office a lot since I got back. However, a trip to New York (to help on another deal closing soon) got pushed back until next week, so I will have time to blog later tonight. And perhaps discuss how, though ND still apparently does have a well-functioning two-minute offense, the team got kicked around all over the field last Saturday. We're not as bad as all that -- we're not usually a five-turnover team, and no one can win minus that many in the turnover margin -- but this "perfect storm," as some commenters have called it, of Michigan charging out of the gate and playing almost perfectly, while all facets of our game chose to break down at the exact same time, still exposed several weaknesses. I'm not really so mad at the defense, since they did a decent job with the exception of a few blown coverages. They were hampered by our usually-consistent offense reverting to 2004 form and going three-and-out all first half, something I really thought we'd gotten past. Even if the defense gave up 34 points, last year's offense (heck, last week's) would have been able to score more than that on an average day. The offense really needs to snap out of it and beat up on Michigan State.

I better get to work.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Select NFL thoughts

1: I know Chicago fans are happy for so many reasons about today's blanking of the Packers. I'll agree it's nice to see the improvement on this team, but I'm just happy Green Bay lost. Bob Costas said on the Sunday Night pregame show that highlights of the game might be "hard to see, because everybody loves Brett Favre" -- but no, no. Not everybody loves Brett Favre, Bob, and some of us have been holding grudges. So, go Bears!

2: I told myself I didn't care much about the Niners anymore, but I did catch the end of their game against the Cardinals and couldn't help it -- I was definitely pulling for them. Vernon Davis had a mixed, but overall still promising, debut, and Alex Smith seems improved on accuracy. A few offensive linemen were knocked out early, though, which is probably going to hurt.

3: Peyton seems to be getting the better of Eli so far, and it's a good game, but the focus on the brothers has been really overdone.

4: I think the Washington-Dallas game next week will be good.

The 84-second offense

Two things stuck out for me on yesterday's 41-17 win over Penn State. The first was the great, methodical nature of our offense. We used to have three-and-outs regularly; we used to never have any confidence we could move the ball in clutch (or heck, even regular) situations, starting deep in our own territory. Now, when the offense walks out, I believe they'll be able to do something. So do they, which is probably the difference. SMQ summarizes:

Witness, though, the maddening surgical precision of Notre Dame's offense and Manchurian Candidate Brady Quinn on the Irish's eight offensive possessions in the first three quarters . . . Ignore the one-play, "Fumble Return Touchdown," and you have eight possessions of at least six plays, and an average of just a little over five yards per play. More than half of the six Notre Dame scoring drives featured a fourth down conversion, including a tricky draw off a fake screen action and a 44-yard run up the gut on a fake punt. This is not even remotely dominance; this is an infuriating death by approximately 71 paper cuts of various degrees.

I think it's fantastic. When ND got the ball back on the ND 31 with 1:24 to go in the first half, the score 13-0, it quickly became clear we didn't need a full two minutes to run a two-minute drill. Seven plays, a couple of runs, five completions, working the sidelines -- and a line to Rhema McKnight in the back of the end zone. Boom.

The second thing I took particular note of was the team's preparation. In his halftime interview, Charlie Weis described the McKnight touchdown -- with Samardzija double-covered and McKnight finding the opening -- in these words (paraphrase): "We figured they'd show one of two coverages, and we got what we were looking for." That alone suggests some pretty good scouting. Of course, the rest of the game also demonstrated Charlie's outstanding preparation for whatever Penn State was going to try. The game plan went just about as well as it could possibly have gone.

A few other things to like about this game:

-John Carlson. I love offenses that make good use of tight ends, but after Anthony Fasano left for the NFL last year, there was a bit of a question how well Carlson would be able to fill his shoes. Yesterday he proved to be an excellent option for Quinn, as he had even more receiving yards than Samardzija and McKnight, including a few key receptions for first downs on the first drive alone. Quinn actually spread the ball around quite a bit yesterday, with at least five passes to each of four different receivers, but only two of those were the wide receivers, with the others being Walker (RB) and Carlson. As defenders key in on Samardzija and McKnight, it's great to have options.

-Continued good showing from special teams. Overall, good tackling, continued strong punts (including one for 62 yards) from Geoff Price, and this time, two made FGs by Gioia. The first one only sneaked through the uprights, but I think that helped calm Gioia down so the second kick was more sure. Hopefully he has put last week's misses out of mind. We didn't have many chances for returns yesterday, and Zbikowski had one fumble that fortunately wasn't lost, but overall it's nice to have this unit looking so solid.

-Defense. On Penn State's first drive, when Tony Hunt broke for a big run, Zbikowski took a great angle, accelerated, and slammed Hunt out of bounds inside the Notre Dame 20, saving the play. PSU subsequently turned the ball over on downs (I think after a botched snap on their field goal attempt). The defense made stops like that several times last year, validating the never-say-quit approach to tackling even after big plays, but it was gratifying to see that attitude is continuing this year. Zibby also looked great picking up Morelli's fumble for a touchdown. Ndukwe and Crum had some good tackles, Wooden seems much improved in this area over last year, Abiamiri had a sack, and while Penn State did get more yards than we did, the score was the best indicator of how the defense played all game.

I do have to note one bizarro quote that almost had me choking on my tortilla chips -- when the perpetually wacky-looking Tom Hammond pointed out a shot of "Brady Quinn the heartthrob." Um. Thanks, but maybe Hammond should eschew sharing observations like that with the rest of us. Anyway, to end with a nice Weis quote from a game that was a lot of fun to watch: "I guess we're not a fluke after all."

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Commission this

So the new John Williams-composed football theme for NBC is not as good as MNF or Fox's (usually my favorite music, show, and coverage), but it's definitely an improvement over CBS's (wimpy) and NBC's (blah) usual sports themes. It sounds like Star Wars, which of course I don't mind at all. And compared to the travesty that is NBC's electric-guitar-riff Notre Dame football theme, well . . . why couldn't they get John Williams to play our fight song?

But I can't focus on that gripe now. It's football season, it's opening night in the NFL, it's in HD, and I just made popcorn. Nice.

Oh, yes: for some good previews of the Penn State game, check out Kanka and Michael at Blue-Gray Sky.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Saturday night gut check

I don't think anyone expected a defensive struggle in Saturday's Georgia Tech game, but that's what we got at 14-10. Since it's one we would certainly have lost in the Davieham era, there were a lot of positive things to take from the game. On the other hand, even though we knew the game would be tougher than the patsy lineups of OSU-Northern Illinois or UT-North Texas, I don't think our offense should have struggled as much as it did; there are a lot of things that need to be worked on as we look towards Penn State. I'll start with things I liked:

- Special teams. Senior Geoff Price boomed his punts and did a nice job backing up the Tech offense in the first half, in particular, when we couldn't get the offense moving. George West and David Grimes showed great speed in taking advantage of better kickoff return blocking, and even though the offense didn't take advantage of the great returns at first, the improvement was definitely an encouraging sign.

- Defensive adjustments. While Calvin Johnson did his damage in the first half, particularly in one ill-advised single coverage matchup with freshman DB Darrin Walls, the defense adjusted well enough that Tech didn't score at all in the second half, and (I believe) didn't convert a single third down after halftime (and only 2 of 10 the whole game). Charlie Weis also pointed out in his Sunday press conference that Walls was on the field a lot more than that one play, but the only one we saw was where he got beat; otherwise, he had a pretty solid game. I loved Ndukwe's noisy hit on Johnson across the middle, popping the ball out and ensuring that Reggie Ball didn't try any throws to that part of the field anymore. Travis Thomas had a decent start to his defensive career, and Crum had one nice sack of Ball in the second half helping stop a drive.

- McKnight's return and Walker's toughness. I said a few weeks ago that I was curious how Rhema McKnight would fare on his return from last year's injury, since with the dominating performance by Stovall and Samardzija last year it was hard to remember how strong McKnight had really been. Answer: except for one drop, McKnight looked great. Welcome back! Darius Walker also looked in great shape. Once we started using the running game more in the second half, he really exploded and was a large part of the reason we started functioning again offensively.

- 80-yard drives and clock management. What helped prove this game was won, not merely eked out, was the impressive ball control on display from the offense. I was pleased to see that this team still knows how to move the ball methodically, with a pair of 14-play scoring drives. ND had the ball for 18 minutes in the second half, and 10 in the fourth quarter.

Things I didn't:

- Penalties. In his Sunday press conference, Charlie called the mental errors "unbelieveable." I can't remember the last time ND had so many drive-killing penalties called in one game, but for awhile in the first half, every time we'd start to get something going, we'd move backwards. Even given one or two phantom calls, the sloppiness was surprising. I'm sure Weis will be focusing on this in particular this week.

- The way our lines got pushed around, and the spotty protection for Quinn. I understand "zone blitz" is harder to defend against, but in the first half in particular Quinn was knocked around too much for comfort (the fans' or his). I saw a few missed blocks in particular -- when we we backed up to the end zone in the first half and Quinn had to dump the ball, Carlson completely missed a blitzing Tech defender. I didn't know why we couldn't start doing more slants or other quick passes sooner in the game so Quinn didn't have to hold on to the ball so long and take losses, but I guess the Tech coverage was pretty good, too. On the other hand, there were enough flashes of the great offense of last year that, after some discussion with the experts (my fiance), I've been persuaded that every other team that doesn't run zone blitz, and so can't sustain it even as long as Tech did, won't be able to disrupt our offense as much as Tech did at first. I'm glad we got to see Samardzija and McKnight each make a few of the impressive, acrobatic catches we loved last year.

- The kicking game. Ouch, ouch, ouch. I feel bad for Carl Gioia, but he just makes me cringe every time he comes out now. I just hope none of our games this year come down to field goals.

Charlie said next week's home opener pep rally is going to be held in the stadium like last year's for USC, so I think he's looking forward to whipping the guys into better shape for Penn State. Several people have pointed out that there were a lot of offensive formations that we didn't see at all on Saturday, so there should be a lot more to come. I think with this first game marked down as a W, we're off to a decent start. Whew.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Game day!

Got ready over the past week by watching Nevin O'Donnell's game highlight videos from last year and then the 1989 championship game last night. BGS has a wiki page of other video clips through the years. This morning there has been much playing of the fight song. Can you wait until eight o'clock?? Go Irish!