Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Quick fixes

Somehow (well, not "somehow" - they do this all the time), EDSBS managed to get it exactly right with regards to the can't-look-away-it's-so-bad San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl tonight:

What to watch for: A methodical TCU attack hogs the ball, scores on long, heart-rending drives. A gimpy Wolfe has run his legs dead after a 1,900 yard season, and goes nowhere against TCU’s superbly coached defense. NIU’s backup Dan Nicholson earns a miserable postgame bender by getting sacked a few times, throwing a few picks, and trying to hurl the Huskies back into the game singlehandedly in what could be an excruciating third quarter to watch.

Which you will, you desperate sick person, you, since it’s been sixteen days or so since football-related content last lashed your eyeballs. Damn you, sweet Poinsettia Bowl!!! Your poisonous leaves still taste sweet to our starved tongue! This might actually reveal the sick logic behind the name, after all: it’s bad, it’ll make you sick (allegedly!), but when starving you’ll down it like Doritos.

That's pretty much exactly what happened ... after being in college football withdrawal for a couple of weeks, I had to watch. Yikes. Bring on more bowl games ... we need more satisfying meals than this!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Post-mortem

I haven't been reading much analysis of the game last Saturday, just thinking. And thinking some more. So, for what it's worth, and belatedly, here's a few of the thoughts:

- Haven't we been here before? Yes and no. Yes, the score in the loss to Southern Cal looked uncomfortably like the score in the losses to Ohio State and Michigan. This seems to indicate that we just aren't capable of playing on the same level as the most elite teams so far. But on the other hand, you can pull any number of stats to show that we aren't that far off from any of these teams. Charlie Weis was quoted as saying "stats are for losers" last Saturday night, but if you're not using them as a consolation prize, they can tell you useful information. For instance, as magnified as it sometimes seems in retrospect, the margin in the OSU game was only two scores, and it was within 7 in the fourth quarter until we gave up the last big play in the final minutes. We gave up a hideous number of yards in that game, but on the other hand, Michigan (supposedly much more elite than us, with a much higher ranked defense) also gave up over 500 yards to the Buckeye offense last week.

Looking at our Michigan game this year, we had 5 turnovers -- a far from ordinary event with us, which thereby makes a real comparison of the two teams more difficult. We did move the ball on their defense, and absent the turnovers (which led directly to 14 points and indirectly to more), the teams were more probably closely matched than it appeared. That game was probably the worst of the four being discussed here. We just laid an egg.

But now come to the USC games -- last year we came within one second of beating SC, and this year, while we clearly didn't have the cover defense, we kept a slight edge on time of possession, a plus turnover margin, and dead even number of yards (404). In other words, USC was certainly beatable by us. Where the real difference comes in, I suppose, and I think others have probably pointed this out, is that we had to play a perfect game (read: no stupid penalties, no dropped balls, no missed opportunities off turnovers) to win, while SC had a higher margin for error. That's where the talent differential starts to come in, and in this you just have to shake your head in admiration of OSU and USC, in particular -- losing seven or more starters on defense this year, OSU actually improved; losing two Heisman winners on offense and several people to injury this season, USC plugged in a new quarterback and various assorted offensive backs, and continued to cruise. We can't do that yet.

In all of these games, we lost outright -- no doubt. Badly, in the two games this year. I don't feel good about any of them -- just pointing out that the statistical gap isn't as big as it might sometimes appear. There's clearly still a level we need to catch up to, where we've always got great backups ready to go at multiple positions, but at some point we will. Looking at both sides of the ball individually . . .

- So we're 10th in the BCS now, which sounds about right to me, and has sounded right most of the year. As discussed, we're evidently not a top-five team overall, and primarily because we're not a top-five, or even top-twenty, defense. So, thoughts on the defense: Right now, it seems as though the talent differential is just too big when we run up against a truly elite program. We make average opposing quarterbacks look great, and good wide receivers look like Heisman candidates. (See, e.g., Manningham and Jarrett.) A lot of this, as better analyzed elsewhere by people who understand the positional breakdowns better, is just because recruiting suffered so fatally under Ty. Apparently we have something like 5 juniors on the team right now who will play next year. Total! Travis Thomas did a nice job stepping up this year at LB, but he was a running back until this spring. Zbikowski and Ndukwe both play incredibly hard, but they aren't the kind of instinctive safeties that the best teams have. Lambert has improved tremendously since he first came on, and played pretty well overall, but our corners just haven't been able to clamp down on some of the top WR's we come up against. And while I'm always happy to watch Abiamiri, Crum, and Landri play hard, we usually don't generate the kind of pass rush - or strike any kind of the fear into opposing offenses - that the elite teams are able to. Seeing us lined up against the SC offense, I wouldn't be that concerned if I was an SC fan. Seeing the SC defense on the line against us, I was always afraid Brady was going to get squashed. Which leads to the next thoughts.

- Are we a top-five offense? Except for our offensive line, I'd say we're much closer here than defensively - we do have the high-quality players here that can make us competitive with anyone in the country. Under Weis, Brady Quinn has developed pro skills and shown tremendous ability under pressure. This kid can direct comebacks, manage drives, scramble if needed, make smart decisions, check down, be accurate, minimize mistakes, and be tough enough to get right back up after every hit (of which there are many). He's set dozens of records at ND, and despite the fact he won't have a national championship or the Heisman, he has been an incredible Irish quarterback and should have few problems in the NFL. We've also had a good continuation in Carlson, our blocking/receiving tight end, from Fasano last year; improved blocking and receiving from Darius Walker, who while not the biggest RB out there has through his tough play given the offense more options; and pretty impressive receivers. McKnight might have been a slight step down from Stovall last year, but he played well pretty much all year and came down with some great catches. And Samardzija is Samardzija. These guys have all shown they can score on anyone (although not quite at will, like the higher-ranked teams we're comparing to), including top defenses, by marathon drives or quick strikes. The main recurring issue, unfortunately, has been an offensive line that didn't improve as much as it could have this year. It was inconsistent in generating the kind of push off the line that would have let us establish a reliable running game, and it couldn't match up against even lesser defensive lines. How many times did Quinn get sacked this year - 28? Close to that. He ended up in the dirt more times than that, too. It's going to take some time to build up the line again - Sam Young will surely continue to develop over time - too late for Quinn & Co., unfortunately, but even so this group still helped land us at 10-2.

- But the "top five" thoughts are just general musings - we don't belong there right now. Particular to Saturday's game, what a total disappointment. What a terrible time for our great receivers to start dropping balls, for the o-line to let stupid penalties kill our drives (like the opening one), for us to fail to capitalize on the hugely fortunate second-quarter turnovers, and for the defense to really let the game get away from us, particularly with regard to Jarrett. I think Sunday Morning Quarterback predicted before the game last week that if we were going to win, one important thing would have to be, as it has been all season, conversion of our fourth down attempts (pursuant to the "death by paper cuts" strategy). When we missed a few of these early in the game - particularly due to flat-out dropped passes -I had a sour feeling as to the ultimate outcome of the game. I really thought we'd come out sharper for this one, and that opening completion to Rhema seemed so promising - but we made too many mistakes, and got outplayed by a strong team. I thought Quinn played a strong, tough game, and it's a shame he will never have beaten SC. Disappointing night.

But in the end, we are 10-2. It may not be good enough for Charlie (I'll watch his press conference later today), and it is a disappointment to the extent that I do think we were capable of finishing 11-1, but could you even imagine being here two years ago? This is a great group of guys, and a team to make Irish faithful proud in many ways. I'll take it (and a BCS bowl, please).