ND Football: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I definitely wanted my first post to be about ND football. Every day I go through various ND Football blogs and keeping up as much as I can with the Fighting Irish, so it made sense (in my head at least) to toss out my opinions as well. However, I wasn’t sure how to go about this post at first. I don’t want to be yet another person preaching ND doom and gloom in my first post, but I also don’t want to ignore the obvious problems the unranked 5-4 Irish have seen in the past two weeks.

So I figure the best way to go about this is do a general overview of what we have right in front of us. After 9 games, there is plenty of information that can allow us to see just exactly what this team is. As Lou Holtz said, “Things are not always as good as they seem and things are not always as bad as they seem.” So with that perspective in mind, I bring you ND Football: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good

Well first off, if you had said that the Irish would be currently be 5-4 at the start of the season, most likely you would be quite happy considering the horrid 3-9 showing last year. That is one of the things any ND fan can hold on to — this season is not nearly as bad as the last. ND should be able to beat both Navy and Syracuse (remember this is the “good” section, let me stay positive for a bit…), and then they travel to LA to very likely have USC beat us for the 7th straight time. This would leave the Irish at 7-5 and a lower tier bowl birth — a perfect spot to snap that God-forsaken bowl game losing streak. So worse case senario you are looking at a 7-6 Irish, and possibly a 8-5 team if they pull out a bowl win. You can slice the record and tear it apart any way you like but the simple fact is that we are winning games that we couldn’t last year and improvement is improvement.

Beyond the record though, we are seeing something for the first time in years: top-notch recruits that are turning into playmakers. And these guys aren’t just turning into playmakers, they are doing it as true freshmen and sophomores.

For the best examples of this, look no further than the WR duo of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. Tate, originally, a running back easily has some of the best hands on the team and simply has a knack for making big plays. He has the speed to be a deep threat and fights for the ball no matter where it is thrown.

And then you have Michael Floyd, a 6′ 3″ true freshman, that has probably the best potential for growth on the team. That’s saying a lot, considering he already is one of, if not the best offensive weapon on the field. I liken him to Maurice Stovall — a big target with good hands and a great jump ball/fade target. However, with Floyd you can take Stovall’s qualities and then add more speed and a better ability to make something happen after the catch. And again, this kid is only a freshmen. I can only imagine the kind of strength and experience he will be able to gain in a couple of offseasons — the number 3 is definitely in great hands with Floyd.

The talent doesn’t stop in these recent classes either. Weis has still managed to bring in, and still continues to bring in Blue Chip talent. For example, we have QB Dayne Christ now sitting on the sidelines with a red shirt and also have highly touted RB Cierre Wood coming to us next season.

There is no doubt the talent is definitely (and finally) coming into this program. The future definitely looks bright for the Irish and there is definitely a light at the end of the dark tunnel Bob Davie and Tyronne Willingham had made for us.

The Bad

Again to chanell Lou: “Watch out for the light at the end of the tunnel. It might be an oncoming train.” And the train has definitely hit the Irish this season.

Despite the noted improvement in the record, there is one slight problem. Try to guess the win-loss record of the Irish against winning teams this year. If you gave the Irish just one win, you would be dead wrong. The Irish are 0-4 against teams with a winning record. Ouch. You can’t exactly build a winning program if you can’t beat…well winning programs.

Yes beatining Michigan and Purdue was nice, but just take a look of the sad coniditions of those teams. And our other wins have come against a woeful San Diego State (that was beaten by Cal friggin’ Poly), Standford (our highest “quality” win — they are 5-5), and another team that Ty Willingham has driven square into the ground in Washington (who STILL hasn’t won a game).

While the record has improved, it is extremely disheartening to see us have zero wins against teams that actually matter. Without a doubt the end goal for anyone involved with ND is one thing, a national title, and you don’t get there consistently losing to teams that can actually play.

Despite the young talent, we are still defintiely suffering from inexperience. Clausen has some moments where everything seems to click, and then others were the wheels seem to just come flying off. It seems that if he throws one INT into double (or triple) coverage he is determined to make that same pass work later in the game for yet another INT. Saying Clausen forces the ball into small windows is a gross understatement. Which is funny, because this is a complete departure from last year when he seemed to be scared to take many risks at all. He still hasn’t seemed to find that happy medium yet and learn when it is a good time to throw those bombs and when it would be better to dump it off or throw it away.

Clausen is probably the best example of on the field inexperience, but that inexperience also exists on the sidelines. Consider this post from The Blue-Gray Sky:

The past few years that I have done the pre-season position previews, I’ve been valuing veteran players more and more, at times over more highly-recruited rookies. Every year we get excited about the shiny new toys out on the field, but for the most part it is the guys who have been around who keep getting the job done. Certainly there are exceptions, but in college football there isn’t much of a better teacher than experience. You make a mistake, you learn, you improve and move forward. Wash, rinse, repeat. And this isn’t a week-by-week process, but rather a season-by-season one.

And that brings me to this. Notre Dame has the following on the sidelines:

* A defensive coordinator in his second year as a defensive coordinator.

* An offensive coordinator in his first year as an offensive coordinator.

* A head coach in only his fourth season as a head coach.

Putting aside every other issue for the moment (and there are plenty), Notre Dame should never ever again find itself in a position where the top three coaches for the football team have so little experience at their current position. Notre Dame football is not a place for on-the-job training.

People can debate all of the other issues back and forth all they want, but I firmly believe that experience is invaluable and irreplaceable. It all starts there.

Now I haven’t yet fully hopped off the Weis bandwagon yet, but a great point is made here. We have a head coach that is still trying to transition from being a NFL offensive coordinator coaching professionals to a college Head Coach coaching kids. We also have an offensive coordinator taking the helm for the first time, although now that experiment seems to be over with Weis saying he will make the play calls against Navy. Someone, somewhere along the line has to have the know-how of what to do and when to do it. It is becoming abundantly clear that the players aren’t the only ones going through a learning curve.

I do have some confidence that Weis is going to figure it out; however, knowing that this kind of inexperience is on the coaching staff is a definite worry. Recent history has not been kind to coaches trying to “figure it out” at ND and I’m sure the whole staff realizes that.

The Ugly

Alternate Title: ND vs. BC this past Saturday and a rant on that mess. If you want to have one standing example of the issues that we currently face watch that game again (if you can stomach it — I sure can’t). That game had it all, loss of composure and poor decisions by Clausen, horrible play calling from the staff, untimely breakdowns on defense, and some of the worst special teams I’ve ever seen.

First let’s start with Clausen. His INTs were all results of bad decisions. The first one (the pick-six), was the result of Clausen trying to fit the ball in a very small window and not seeing the whole coverage. Clausen made only a half correct read. He saw that he needed to throw the ball high to have a chance to hit Rudolph on the play; however, he failed to either see the safety lurking behind his target or realize that the pass would be an easy pick if it sailed on him just a little. In short, he made the decision to make a pass with a tiny margin of error and the result was catastrophic.

He seemed to completely lose it as the game went on. He forced the ball into double and triple coverage, leading to more picks. He visably started to lose his cool on the field as well. This is supposed to be the leader of the offense and I sure as hell didn’t see an ounce of leadership from him as the game went on. The wheels came off of him and I didn’t see another player try to fill that void.

Moving on, I really want to figure out just what in the hell goes through the minds of the coaching staff when we continue to call passing plays on 3rd and short as well as 4th and short like they did against Pitt. What happened to the quick QB sneaks that we used to run with Brady? Do we really not think Alderidge can’t bang out a yard? And more importantly, do they really think we are fooling anyone anymore since we do this all the time now?

The best example was one of the 3rd and 1’s late in the game…in which Clausen took a shot at the endzone. That pass was clearly his first read. This means either one of two things: 1) That was the play called, 2) Clausen audibled to it. I’m leaning towards #1 since Clausen did not see his ass chewed out returning to the sidelines. How is that play called in this situation? The game was still (somewhat) close and there was no need to take that kind of risk. Get the first down, and keep the drive going.

And then the breakdowns on defense…well let’s be more specific here…the breakdowns in coverage that keep occurring from Terrail Lambert. Now, I like this guy. He’s from my old dorm, he made huge plays against Michigan State two years ago; however, it is becoming quite clear that he gets burned in coverage and gets burned often. It is like everytime I see a huge or clutch pass play from the opposition I see a #20 jersey two steps behind it. On BC’s last TD of the game, Lambert never even looked to find the ball.

One interesting note with him is that he didn’t play a single down during the overtime against Pitt from what I saw. There were no reports of him being hurt at all either. So basically we have the coaching staff making the call that he wasn’t good enough to be in such a clutch situation (and incidentally, that is the best defense I’ve seen the Irish play), but yet he is good enough to start? Something isn’t quite computing here.

Special teams — where to even begin? Brandon Walker, thankfully, doesn’t even seem to be a large issue (although he didn’t exactly get any chances against BC). But yet we still find ways to completely botch the other elements of special teams in the punt game.

Golden Tate, whom I love, and know is a great playmaker needs to never be allowed to return a punt again this season. I’m all for finding ways to get the ball into his hands, but put someone else back on punts. He doesn’t know when to fair catch as most times he gets the ball he is met with a helmet to the kisser, and then that culminates to him focusing too much on the other players around him and muffs a punt leading to yet another ND turnover. Put him back on kickoffs, but leave him out of punts. If we want to be serious about him returning, let’s make him #1 in Spring ball so he can learn how to do it. We have enough people learning as they go, let’s not increase that number when we don’t need to.

Eric Maust also seemed to forget how to punt during the BC game. He takes far too long to actually get the punt off, leading to a blocked punt and he also shanked a couple of his six punts leading to a horrid 36.5 yard average. Charlie Weis always says he is huge on special teams yet we keep losing the battle here. In such a close game, field position is invaluable. You can’t beat good teams or pull of upsets when your opponent is always on your side of the field and you are pinned to your own endzone at the start of every drive.

Clearly, there are several issues that the Irish need to work on. The future might be bright talent wise, but we definitely need to see some of the present problems fixed or ND will continue to find themselves hitting a wall.

Either way, Go Irish! Beat Midshipmen! Let’s start another streak and turn this ship around.