Spearheaded by a brutal, dominating defense, augmented by an opportunistic offense, Notre Dame moved to 3-0 against gritty Michigan State. The Irish, moving up in class, were able to handle business against those sturdy Spartans. In any emotional game, the first task is to weather the early storm. The Spartan were ready and were prickly during the first quarter. But their power never got the better of our power, and our superiority wore them down. Still, the Spartans fought and scrapped in a manner worthy of the legacy of their nickname. They had to try to beat us physically, as their passing attack is still rebuilding after the departure of last year’s veterans.
There were two litmus tests for this game that were offered last week, one input driven and the other output oriented. The Irish held LeVeon Bell to 77 yards and 19 rushing attempts, well meeting the 20 carry/100 yard standard listed last week. This pushed Dantonio and his offense out of their comfort zone, resulting in 45 Spartan pass attempts. On the output test, the Irish were comfortably in control as the fourh quarter began. The better team was winning and controlling the action.
On offense, we saw more movement of the quarterback, the first glimpses of draws and screens, the deep ball (Hi, Chris Brown, even though it was incomplete we see that you can “take the top off the defense”) and the two back sets.
We saw one other thing Saturday in East Lansing. It was the end of an era, too long in its vibrance, when teams thought you could beat the Irish by pounding us on the ground and being intimidating up front with superior size, power, quickness and aggression. Not any more. It’s different now. We have vulnerabilities but not THAT vulnerability.
Prettiest play of the game: Worthy of including in film study for clinics, the oft-maligned Dan Fox, with about a minute left in the first quarter, latched onto Bell as he circled out of the backfield, stayed with him and batted the ball away. Slow linebackers? Can’t cover out of the backfield? Are you talking to me???????
As usual, our defense was ferocious led by the nastiness of the front seven. This unit has not merely size but they play with some darkness in their hearts. This is the best ground and pound offense we will face until Stanford brings their herd of moose to South Bend on Oct. 13th. If you don’t believe me, ask Lane Kiffin.
The Irish walked off 3-0. That has not happened in a decade. A DECADE!!
How good are the Irish?
Wood’s return was more than a blessing, strengthening two positions, RB and the slot. Riddick is now facile in both roles, and that will help down the road.
Golson and the Irish passing attack are like the dance of the seven veils. We can see more of the flesh of the Irish passing attack each Saturday. This week it was the two back sets, long ball, flares and screens and more pocket movement.
By the time the team leaves for Norman in October for the season’s 8th game, the seven veils will have been dropped, and all will have been revealed.
Let’s rate the Irish units according to our four tier standard: BCS Bowl level,New Year’s Day bowl level, bowl level, and Stay Home!
BCS Bowl level
TE’s: led by America’s best tight end, Tyler Eifert, and with game ready studs like Niklas and Koyack, this unit is the cornerstone of the offense. And now, they all block, with vigor. Especially Niklas. Seriously, have you even noticed the absence of Alex Welch?
Front Seven: three NFL prospects, huge and powerful, start it off upfront. Stephon Tuitt is the most terrifying sight in South Bend since Fat Eddie was blissfully doling out towels at the Rock. The linebackers, quietly, have matured, added depth and been coached up. The LBS have a lot of minutes played in their careers.
You want to talk depth? Our second string front seven is Hounshell, Schwenke/Springman, Day, Spond/Okwara, Calabrese, Grace/Moore and Ishaq freakin’ Williams. Second string. Better than half the first string front 7’s in the no longer eponymous Big X. Admittedly, pass rush is not their strong suit and there are quicker front sevens. But foes underestimate our front seven at their peril.
New Year’s Day Bowl Level
OL: effective veterans who are tough, fine run blockers and who can protect Golson. This ranking is provisional, because after Purdue, they still have some splainin’ to do. But the OL is seriously depth-challenged, with only Heggie having earned minutes before this year. Recall the impact from Cave’s injury last year. This OL is even more vulnerable to loss of a starter. The second string, however, is getting some game experience. They need more minutes. This unit could move up a notch by mid season.
RBS: depth, speed, agility, ability to catch the ball. We haven’t seen this much functional depth with high skill level since the Holtz teams of the early 90’s. Let’s see how Wood performs for a couple of games. And let’s see the next iteration of the multiple back set. But this unit may be movin’ on up.
Bowl Game level
QBS: Golson is still an embryo. So far he has adhered, materially, to Rule #1 “Do no harm.” One mistake a game, the interception against Navy, the fumble against Purdue. He has pleasantly surprised with his pocket discipline and more than surprised with his command presence. Sometimes he shows his hoop DNA and looks like a floor general. He has miles to go with recognition, audibles and progressions, but the train has left the station. And he is a “viable” embryo.
He has given us glimpses of the “It” play, college football’s most dangerous (long pass to Niklas against Purdue the bomb to Goodman on Saturday). When the pocket breaks down, he can scramble, and not just run for yardage, which is good, but look downfield, reset and complete the pass, which is great. This technique is the bete noire of defensive coordinators.
There are two key differences in quarterbacking and its coaching which distinguish this year from ’10 and ’11. First, Molnar is no longer a DMZ, buffering Kelly from the QBS. Second, so far, we have not had to pop the clutch to shift from Dayne Christ, either because of injury or implosion-real or imagined.
And, riddle me this: Does any other D-1 school have a back-up quarterback who has won 12 games, 9 of them against BCS conference teams? Appreciate Rees, he’s earned it. Two words: Pat Dillingham.
We are no longer there.
If Golson continues with just incremental improvement, this unit should move up later in Autumn.
WRS: Assets are TJ Jones, Toma, Daniels, Goodman and football’s most toxic asset-potential. There have been initial pixels filling in the WR picture from Neal, Ferguson and Smith. Again, incremental improvement (being coached up)is the key requirement. You’d like to have 4 WRs with 25 or more catches for the year. Right now, that’s a reach.
Take solace in this: in 2014, Golson-or Kiel- will be throwing to TEs Niklas, Koyack, Welch and Heuerman, and WRS Daniels, Neal, Brown, Ferguson, Onwualu, Robinson and Fuller. Hmmmmm….
Secondary: Yikes!. Kelly has to be positive, encouraging, enabling. That is his job. But this is where the Irish will be attacked. Sure, there is athletic ability with the starting corners, but they thirst for time and experience. Beyond them? A black hole. Remember we have yet to play against a good, veteran quarterback with good, veteran receivers.
This unit impacts the entire team. Our vaunted front seven will not reap “coverage sacks,” a staple of great all-around defenses. The front seven’s ability to stuff the run could become a mere poisoned pawn. Diaco will have to tilt his schemes to protect the secondary. He admitted so even before Lo Wood’s reluctant Achilles.
Offensively, Kelly, Martin want to be patient with Golson and the young colts at WR. But he will need to be nudged out along the risk/reward arc to be able to outscore opponents, if needed.
Keiverae Russell, when all is said and done, may be the pivotal player in determining Notre Dame’s success this season. He’s got a little cockiness, and that ain’t bad. You can tame a wild duck but you can’t “wild” a tame duck.
It is what it is.
And it’s why we have coaches.
Hey, nobody said it would be easy.
But this unit has shown sparks. It can move up with continued improvement at the corners.
Irish and opponent rankings:
OU: an odd schedule, only playing three times in the month of September. To stay here, they have to handle K-State on Saturday night.
USC: One of many 2-1 teams in America, second best record in LA! Stanford sort of beat them up, 202-26 rushing edge. Does SC have a championship level defense?
Stanford: Still tough, lead with defense and running, but Nunes is at least adequate, and the Cardinal can throw the ball, even Luck-lessly.
Michigan: still dangerous, though the 2012 edition will be weaker than 2011 or 2013. Don’t look at Denard’s deficiencies, remember his strengths. Your scar tissue will tell you.
Notre Dame: relax, gun to our head, they are ranked higher. But we must accept that Michigan and Stanford have each beaten our Irish thrice consecutively. It all sorts out by the Ides of October.
Michigan State: tough, great d, but lack impact players to be explosive offensively, especially in passing game. Leading with Bell will be a tough road against OSU and Michigan.
Miami: Golden holding team together until the scandals are past and his agenda is installed.
BYU: The University of Our Founder had 55 wives @Provo was, as last year, exposed by Utah. Let’s see how they perform against Boise.
Purdue: an intriguing team in a weakened conference. By 2014, it will be the Big 2 and the Little 10. You can guess the Two.
BC: always gritty, Spaz’ defense is coming along. Bent a lot but didn’t break against Northwestern.
Wake: FSU is several levels above Wake, but as North Carolina found out, Grobe will steal a few.
Pitt: different team since halftime of the Cincy game. Have some top tier athletes, actually one less than Tino Sunseri thinks they have.
Navy: served up PSU’s first win. Is AFA the favorite for the Commander in Chief’s Trophy?
What will we learn this Saturday?
Most of football’s hackneyed mantras are both untrue and insipid. The chatter often is “this is a must-win game.” The rule is that this is just not true. The Saturday against Michigan is the exception, which proves the rule. It will validate the player’s efforts since the FSU game, efforts in the weight room, spring practice, summer work and all of August and September. The four games will have been well worth the candle. A huge fork in the road for not just the team, but the program. Saturday precedes the off week and a win Saturday will fertilize and irrigate the teaching soil for the next two weeks.
Denard Robinson is 3-0 against the Irish. There is something offensive, nearly profane, about the thought that he might become the first QB to go 4-0 against Notre Dame.
(1) Mattison will have observed what of Dantonio’s shtick worked, what didn’t, and what Mattison will try that Golson hasn’t seen. Remember, since last seen on Nd’s sideline, Mattison has toiled for Florida and as DC for the Baltimore Ravens.
(2) Last year, Diaco’s game plan was conservative, sitting back, with a priority of containing Robinson’s runs and making him beat us with his arm. Risk versus reward. And at the end of the third quarter, the rewards were in the Irish barn, with the score ND 24 Michigan 7. But then that outlaw, risk, arrived, Michigan hung 28 on the Irish, and the glistening golden Irish eyes turned a dull Gray. With a tougher front seven, and less experienced corners, you’d expect Diaco to play similarly, but will he? And will cackling maize colored chickens come home to roost on our secondary?
(3) Last year, our offense hung 513 yards and 28 first downs against the Michigan defense. Remember, last year, the Blue won games on offense, not defense. Will we control clock?
(4) So far, Michigan has not won a big road game in the Hoke tenure. Will this be the first?
Seen on a sign at Fayetteville’s First Baptist Church in 1965:
“Football is only a game
Spiritual things are eternal.
Nevertheless, beat Texas!”
Well, you know the drill.
“NEVERTHELESS BEAT MICHIGAN”
Spirituality can wait until Sunday.