Thursday, October 6, 2011

Post-Palindrome Pursuit of Perfection

I haven't had much of an urge to mute the television while watching Notre Dame football lately. This is quite stunning. Normally there comes a point in every broadcast where the commentators get on my nerves so badly that I either start throwing pillows at the TV or make a violent lunge for the remote control. But except for a few minutes during the Pittsburgh game (when, among other things, I thought my head was going to implode), the last two weeks have been surprisingly pleasant. There were even moments when I felt the commentators enhanced my game-watching experience by talking about the actual FOOTBALL GAME instead of talking about the players' calves or the height of the stadium grass or the local eateries or...whatever....

Versus Pitt, the commentators made some quite keen observations regarding the Panthers' defensive scheme and its success in disguising coverages, which effectively screwed with Tommy Rees's head. It's difficult to feel grateful to Urban Meyer for anything, but the dude does in fact know what he's talking about, and I believe his presence on the crew influenced a lot of the actual football-related talk. I further appreciate that Urban hasn't yet been reduced to a driveling talking head (like Lee Corso, for instance--who, I maintain, loses his composure more frequently while announcing his pick for the game of the week than Brian Kelly does on the sidelines. But alas, that is another argument for another time).

And against Purdue...well, to be honest, I couldn't even tell you who was on the commentating crew for the Purdue game. It was such a joy to watch I stopped paying attention to everything except Cierre Wood's yardage total (and the lovely bottle of wine that accompanied my game-watching endeavors). It was a blissful game to watch, was it not? One thing I do remember the commentators saying, however, is "if the Irish keep playing like this, they should be perfect for the rest of the season." Or something to that effect, anyway.

The point is that we're goooood, and we finally look like we're good, and we had better keep playing like we're good, because if we do, we're gonna end up having the kind of BCS-worthy season everybody expected us to have in the first place.

Notre Dame 15, Pittsburgh 12

Pitt's Perplexing Perfidy

As mentioned, Pitt's defense was playing a sneaky little game of deception against still-cherubically-youthful (although-you-wouldn't-quite-know-it-from-his-record-as-a-starter) Tommy Rees, and unfortunately it was quite effective for most of the game. Taking Michael Floyd out of the equation and disguising the safety coverage was enough to flummox a young signal caller who has a tendency to lock in on his favorite target when the O-line seems to be crumbling around him.

Not that the O-line was exceedingly awful (let's face it, we've definitely seen worse), but Rees wasn't making the right reads or the best decisions in the pocket during the first half, and since there wasn't much the coaches could do to counteract Pitt's deviousness with the QB holding onto the ball too long , the O-line didn't have a lot to go on. To put it simply: we got out-schemed. But in the end, we did not get out-played.

Getting out-schemed still feels like a relatively new phenomenon for the Irish--at least compared to those five years of Weis at the helm being all Scheme-y McSchemerson. Even during that 3-9 year (when our O-line was busy giving up more sacks than a grocery store), we didn't get out-schemed so much as straight-up beat. Which wasn't exactly comforting, of course. But nevertheless, getting outmatched on the X's and 0's was never as much of a concern as, for example, watching our "bend-but-don't-break" style of defense turn into "bend, splinter, snap in two like Ron's wand in Chamber of Secrets and then be hastily bound back together with various bits of Spellotape defensive coordinators until you start emitting sparks of brilliance or belching up slugs." (Mostly, I'd say, we ended up belching lots of slugs).

Anyway. After getting out-schemed all over the place in the Navy game last year (and, erm, a wee bit in overtime against MSU), it's hard not to feel perturbed anytime an opponent takes the field with a scheme the Irish clearly were not expecting. Our defense has made enough strides that I'm starting to expect them to be able to adjust to just about anything, but our offense is obviously a work-in-progress. With all the fumbles so far this season, you could argue that we're still belching up slugs--but I think these are slugs of a slightly different nature.

Our coaches are a lot of things, but they don't really strike me as schemers. I am completely okay with this, because as we have learned (both from the Weis years and from watching Pitt's defense on Jonas Gray's 79-yd touchdown run), schemes don't mean very much if you can't execute. And I'd much rather have a team that can execute and finish the game than a team that looks all fancy losing. (This is not to say you can't have good teams with scheme. You've just got to have the rock-solid foundation of We're Gonna Kick Your Ass No Matter What built underneath it first.) As it happens, so would Coach Kelly: "For me it's really about winning games and making certain that we do that. I'd rather do that and be out coached and win ugly and do all those things but at the end of the day win the football game. Beauty points, style points I'm not really interested in those things."

But sometimes I do wonder whether our coaching staff's general lack of perfidy makes it more difficult for them to prepare the team for their opponents' attempts at trickery. I'm going to guess the coaches would say "no" to that, and I guess I see their point. If you've got all the fundamentals of a good team in place, your players should be able to make game-time adjustments. Their mental game should be tough enough for them to learn how to read the field over the course of the game and deal with what comes along accordingly. As Kelly put it this week, looking forward to the Air Force game, "Certainly we have to play the way we play. We cannot become so out of character in stopping the option that we forget about the things that we teach every day. That is playing physical, flying to the football, great tackling. I think you've got to be careful because sometimes option, you get this sense of, Hey, it's option. But we have to do what we do."

Experience is, I think, the biggest factor in being able to make these kinds of game-time adjustments, and that helps to explain why Rees struggled so much in the first half. "There were some new looks for him that he had not seen before that we had to adjust," Coach Kelly said. "And after Tommy sees it, he gets much more comfortable."

Rees's comfort level took much longer to emerge in the Pittsburgh game than we would have liked--but it emerged, and that's what counts. Of course there's still the worry that Rees sticks too much with one target, once he's found one that works; he had four passes to tight end Tyler Eifert on the game-winning drive. But hey, a win is a win is a win, and if Eifert is the guy open in the endzone for the two-point conversion, by all means throw to him. It doesn't matter if it's the seventeenth time in a row--if it works, then it isn't stupid, right?

Furthermore (and on a slightly different tack), we finally (FINALLY?!) seem to have enough of our sh*t together that the sheer level of talent on our squad is to be making a difference in close games. Case in point: JONAS GRAY. (See? Even the commentator says so.)

That's the longest rush by a Notre Dame player since the year 2000. This could be kind of depressing, but mostly I think it's just exciting. We know the level of talent on our squad is higher than the level of talent on most of the squads we've been losing to the past few years. But talent (much like scheming) can't win games all by itself unless there's a system in place that allows the talent to flourish. So let's keep flourishing, shall we? FLOURISH!!!

Petite Pause

So I need to move on to the Purdue game now (before I stay up past my bedtime), but I feel like I'm neglecting the defense a little bit. if it weren't for the D, we certainly would not have won the Pittsburgh game. They kept us afloat after two turnovers (off which Pitt only scored 3 points), and sacked Tino Sunseri twice during Pitt's final possession of the game to push the Panthers back to a 4th-and-26 and stuff any chance of them pulling off a last-minute miracle surge for the win.

They did a lot more than that, of course, and they've been doing so on a pretty consistent basis since the end of last season. For example (to pull some tidbits from the ND postgame notes), the defense has allowed one offensive touchdown or less in 7 of the last 9 games. They've also only allowed 2 rushing touchdowns in the last 9 games, and only one rushing touchdown so far this year (best in the FBS).

The Irish defense has surrendered 100 yards on the ground just four times over the last 9 games, limiting opponents to an average of 91.3 yards per game and 2.9 yards per rush. No team has rushed for more than 135 yards (it took Army, a triple option attack, 43 carries to reach that mark).

Lastly, Purdue only had forty-four rushing yards against the Irish. Forty of those yards were racked up on Purdue's final drive of the game, against ND's second- and third-string defense.

So other than I LOVE YOU DEFENSE, PLEASE CONTINUE KICKING ASS, there's really not much else to say.

Notre Dame 38, Purdue 10

P'owning Purdue

So you know how sometimes the first play or drive of a game is just a fluke, and after that the game sort of settles down and turns into more of an even matchup? Like in the Pittsburgh game, when Michael Floyd bobbled the ball, then caught it, then ran through a defender for a first down, and it looked like it was going to be totally awesome but then Floyd basically didn't catch the ball for the entire rest of the game.

Yeah--the Purdue game was not like that. The Purdue game was exactly how it looked, right from the very first play from scrimmage when Gary Gray intercepted the ball, the offense took over, and in two more plays and ten seconds of game time we had our first touchdown of the day.

And it was awesome.

The Irish have racked up over 500 yards of total offense in three of their games so far this season, but thanks to turnovers and inexplicable fourth-quarter defensive breakdowns, Purdue is the only one of those games that we've actually won. This statistic is not so exceptionally awesome, of course, but after last week's win I find it hard to complain. Man was it nice to sit back and watch the Irish steamroll over an opponent they were supposed to steamroll. We had a lot of help from Purdue's defense, of course, and the ridiculous number of penalties they incurred (Purdue had 13 on the day for 118 yards; probably 9 of those were defensive), but for once we also had a lot of help from ourselves.

For example, we didn't turn the ball over. Not once. We fumbled twice, sure, but we held onto it, and that's the important thing.

We also had the best run game we've had in years--possibly decades . We racked up some pretty good yards on the ground when Julius Jones or Darius Walker were around, but I can't think of the last time we had two running backs combine for nearly 300 yards. (Anybody? Anybody?) Cierre Wood had 191 net yards on the day (at a ridonkulous 9.6 yards per carry), and Jonas Gray finished with a career-high mark of 94. Wood's numbers are the best in a single game by an Irish running back since Julius Jones ran for 218 yards vs. Stanford in 2003 and Darius Walker averaged 10.2 yards per carry vs. Air Force in 2006.

We only had to punt twice the entire game--and one of those was at the very end when we had our second- and third- team offense on the field. Which basically means there was only one drive during the entire game in which Tommy Rees failed to lead the offense into scoring territory.

Sometimes looking at the drive charts can be very telling. For games like this, my personal favorite is the "How Lost" column, which for Notre Dame against Purdue looked like this:

Missed FG
Missed FG
End of half

End of half

Obviously the most perplexing things here are the two missed field goals, which still seem like an anomaly for a kicker who made 23 in a row last year. I'm starting to think there's something funny going on with the kicking unit out there. I find it hard to believe there's something wrong with Ruffer's head or his toes; it seems more likely that the three-man dream team from last year (long snapper, place holder, and kicker) got shaken up somehow, and perhaps lack of cohesion in the new unit is what's causing all the trouble. (LACES OUT, DAN.) I don't know for sure, of course; I haven't investigated enough to discover if we actually have a new snapper or place holder for this year. (If you happen to be a bit savvier on this topic, by all means comment.) Ruffer did make the last field goal, though, so that's something, isn't it? Hopefully the start of another streak....

As mentioned, Purdue's defense did seem to help us out quite a bit when we had the ball (and they didn't do nearly as well covering Floyd as Pittsburgh did), but even so, I thought Rees had quite a nice game following the rough week at Pitt. Three different receivers (Floyd, Tyler Eifert, and TJ Jones) caught touchdown passes, and Rees was 60% passing for 254 yards, which is respectable. Not spectacular, but respectable (and plenty good enough if you're also racking up 300 yards on the ground). If we can maintain the balance between the run game and the passing game and hold on to the freaking ball, then I completely agree with the commentators from the Purdue game: we should win the rest of the games on our schedule. There's absolutely no reason we can't compete with Stanford--we just have to fix our own mistakes. Which we're doing, little by little. The game against USC should be very telling. (But we've got two weeks to prepare and it's a night game in Notre Dame Stadium. I think we're gonna beat them again.)

So...3-2. Not exactly where we hoped we'd be at this point in the season, perhaps, but still all right. Back above .500. And we're getting better. We're even approaching the vicinity of becoming relevant. If the rest of the teams on our schedule don't watch out, we might actually end up in the rankings again.

I'm looking forward to it.

And hey--after the whomping Pitt put on South Florida last week, that win is looking better and better all the time, eh? Eh? Eh???

Sorry for the delay and the lackluster ranting this week--I'll try to do better next week. And in the meantime...


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