A wet, ugly duckling of a game, a pigskin Elephant Man, initially repulsive, grotesque and difficult to look at. Then it revealed itself: noble, virtuous, elegant, classically beautiful.
The Irish offense overcame career worst efforts from Golic, Golson and Niklas, yet never quit. The strength of the three bad wolves was the overcoming Irish Pack. Golic, simply, chokes under pressure, whether physical or mental. It is what it is. Golson can not be trusted with ball security when he runs the football. It is what it is. Niklas, the Golden Child, was outmanned, outtechniqued and outsavvied by Ben Gardner and Chase Thomas, the best pair of defenders the Irish will confront in the regular season. (Rest assured, you will not see that happen to Niklas again in his college career.)
After a self-inflicted wound put the Notre Dame team behind for the first time all year, in the game’s 24th minute, the offense responded in expected Notre Dame style, then generating, arguably, 5 extended drives.
The Irish Defense, somehow, elevated its game. Remember, Shaw had to resort to scheme, the cleverly unbalanced lines, to generate enough offense to yield two scrawny field goals. While we could not overpower Stanford, for the first time in three years they could not overpower us. Those days are gone, and will not return so long as Longo “tamquam leo rugiens,” “like a roaring lion” patrols Guglielmo, its bars, its pins and its plates.
The goalline stand, evocative of a bygone era, was epic. In this New Age of spread offenses, goal line fades and fantasy football, Stanford and Notre Dame went at it in the ancient ritual. Four tries from the Four, Stanford’s best against Notre Dame’s best. Irish win, 20-13 (OT).
Notre Dame, for the second time this season snapped a three-game losing streak against a team that was a 2011 BCS Bowl participant. First it was Michigan, and now Stanford.
Rees, college football’s Mariano Rivera, chalked up his third of the season. Tommy Rees, urban legend!
HOW GOOD ARE THE IRISH?
For the first time, we will rate the overall offensive and defensive units.
BCS BOWL GAME LEVEL
Notre Dame defense.
There are two primary ways to evaluate a unit’s performance: The “Eye test” and the “By the numbers” test. Either way, the Notre Dame defense is at the very top echelon in college football.
The Front seven, simply, is magnificent. All seven starters, EVEN MANTI, have played better than expectations this year. The hackneyed, and frequently misapplied, phrase “pushing the edge of the envelope” aptly describes what Te’o is doing. This unit is deep. Players like Calabrese, Day, Williams, Councell, Grace and others are chomping at the bit to get more reps, but the starters make it difficult for Diaco to rest them for even short bursts. There is no team on our regular season schedule that can just line up and run the ball at us. NONE.
They are not the greatest pass rushers of all time, but they collapse the pocket after a couple of seconds, and they tackle marvelously. And our linebacking crew, maligned in previous year’s, play pass coverage better than most had anticipated.
There is a concept in employee development called “assignments with stretch.” This involves taking a relatively inexperienced employee or group and assigning them to do something in which their reach exceeds their grasp, ergo the “stretch.” And there is the technique of mentoring, in which the expert coaches and nurtures the journeyman. Whichever is going on, the young secondary, with three first time starters, and two surprise starters in Farley and Russell, is being brought along and slowly catching up to the level of play of the front seven. There are miles to go before they, we, or Elliott and Cooks, can sleep, but after six outings, will have difficulty with our defense. Cf. South Carolina, Ohio State.
Oregon, okay, they’re sui generis, not a TYPE. No one else has Chip Kelly coaching an offense with that pace and a threesome of Barner, Huff and the Black Mamba, Thomas. Their speed and elusiveness is remarkable. The terrifying thing is they can each confront a perfectly positioned defender who is a sound tackler and run past or juke past him, leaving him in the prone position. Mariota gets a lot of ink but it is the three headed monster of Barner, Huff and Thomas that makes the Ducks quack.
West Virginia-veteran, accurate quarterback, swift elusivie receivers with good hands, and a quick strike attack that releases the ball before pass rushers knock Geno Smith down. They pass first, run later, but Holgorsen has been balancing the pass run combo since his days in Stillwater. Not a lot of D to see in Morgantown, but our focus here is narrowed to our own potential defensive challenges.
USC-even last year, with the veteran secondary, Diaco had to unload the box to handle their receivers, and SC was able to run the ball. SC has the best skill players, on balance, in America. Their TES, never discussed, are no worse than third in the nation behind us and Stanford. Barkley is Barkley, and Lee, Woods, potentially joined by Algohlor (he has more receptions than our three frosh WRS combined) and Farmer are in the conversation for the most dangerous group of all time. Kiffin, giving that devil his due, is clever enough, to pass early to force Diaco to unload the box and mix more runs in later on. This is the best GROUP of WRs we will have faced.
What’s the point? Well, the defense has to improve, and no matter how much they improve, in order to reach the next echelon the team (which we will rate after Oct. 27th) needs to be able to COUNT ON points from the offense against tough opponents.
Nevertheless, even while not perfect, they are our guys. Visualize yourself in a foxhole, look around at the eleven faces on defense who join you. These few, these happy few, this band of brothers. I’ll take my chances with these guys, even under hostile fire…..
BOWL GAME LEVEL
Notre Dame offense.
Oh, sure we all want them to be at New Year’s Day Bowl Level, but relax, it is only the Ides of October. So far, they have had two fine outings, and four outings where they struggled. But yesterday, there was a lot of good mixed in with the junk, unlike Purdue and Michigan. They came alive, though still making errors, after the Stanford touchdown.
Right now, there is talent across the lineup; but other than the RBs and TEs, there is not the reliable, count on me, weekly excellence which the front seven provides. They are tortoising their way through the schedule, and the best may be yet to come. Let’s monitor the next two games.
Let’s start here: they were, UNTIL YESTERDAY, playing smart football. Maybe the rain, maybe the foe, maybe more aberration than not.
Consider the Knucklehead Index, which measures turnovers and penalties. In 2011, after six games, the Irish had thrown 7 interceptions, lost 8 fumbles and committed 45 penalties for 425 yards.
So far this year it is 3 interceptions, 4 lost fumbles and 36 penalties for 267 yards. Knucklehead plays have decreased from 60 to 43, a nearly 30% decline, even after Saturday. That is improvement. The turnovers have gone from 15 to 7, a 50% decline. Penalty yards have been slashed by 37%. Notre Dame, until Saturday, had begun to play in a manner commensurate with its ACT/SAT scores.
Right now, the offensive aggregate -EQUALLY WEIGHTING ALL SIX 2012 PERFORMANCES- is somewhat less than the sum of the parts. We have not been able to establish a power running game against the stouter defenses. And this is on the entirety of the offense. Remember, Kelly has said that Golson is not yet capable of being equipped with the ability to audible from a pass play to a run play, a severely limiting constraint. Wood’s absence has been an issue, and only now is Atkinson settling in.
The only receiver we have that commands extra attention, sometimes the double team, is Eifert. None of our wide receivers, as yet, is a severe challenge for a first rate cornerback, none is a great separator. It is scheme and steadiness that get them open. There are three potential, arguably likely, gamebreakers in Daniels, Brown and Neal. They are just not quite there yet. But our receivers catch the ball, especially late in the game.
The quarterback is still in the early phases of OJT. And he is a different breed of quarterback. There is no one game phase at which he is spectacular, but there is no one game phase at which he is terrifying (to us). He runs adequately, albeit with a MASSIVE ball security issue. About 3-8 planned runs a game is just about right. He DOES NOT have the physique for double digit carries. And his ball discipline issues while running are more likely to surface. Golson’s arm is strong enough, and accurate enough for the short to intermediate passing game. He is WAY above average in his ability to scramble, reset and then keep his eyes downfield to hit the wide receiver. He is very good at throwing the ball away, safely, to avoid sacks. (remember, you have to pro forma his passing percentage because he throws so many away) He has good command and field presence, which vaporizes once he tucks and runs (the basketball point guard analogy keeps drawing one). He has yet to be successful on the deep ball.
Right now, our defense can carry the offense on a bad day. The reverse can not be said. We have played six very solid teams. But the two very best teams on our schedule, are yet to come, and we should have a formidable bowl opponent.
With a young QB and receivers, you expect the coaches to be able to generate improved offense as the year unfolds. Can this offense finish October as strongly as it has begun it? If so, a rating level increase may be justified. And remember, there are 6 weeks left in the regular season, and then 5 weeks between SC and a bowl game.
Next week, we’ll return to the individual unit rankings and add a feature about a potential pivot player.
RANKING NOTRE DAME AND ITS OPPONENTS.
(1) OU – breathing more easily after they beat Texas on Saturday. Another victory by Stoops over America’s most overpaid coach. He’s 10-5 against Big Money Brown. By JC (Metoyer), by transfer (Saunders), by recruiting frosh (Neal) and by poaching Penn State’s preserve (Brown) now have a strong cadre at WR.
(2) USC – may have righted the ship. But they are difficult to read. Their game against Oregon is huge. Could be 10-1 or 9-3 when we play them.
(3) Notre Dame – unbeaten, but with challenges ahead. We now know what the defense can do, the onus is on the offense. Only unbeaten team on this list, in case you forgot.
(4) Michigan – as last year, Mattison quietly assembling a strong defense. Saturday’s game against Michigan State might WIND UP with the winner in the catbird seat for the Big X, er 11, or TWELVE’s BCS bid.
(5) Stanford – have not won a game in regulation since upsetting SC, but they are tough as nails. Still have to face Oregon, a tough matchup for the Cardinal.
(6) MSU – Sparty not spectacular, but steady. Denard is winless against them. Can he finish 1-3?
(7) Canes – only ACC loss is to North Carolina, and a win against VA Tech will probably get them to the ACC championship game. Play ‘Noles this Saturday. Golden has brought them a long way in his second year.
(8) Cougars – sound defense, but not much offense.
(9) Purdue – colors are black and Gold. Just like a leopard. No coincidence. Same Purdue leopard, same spotty performance.
CAUTION: ENTERING THE NO-BOWL ZONE
(10) Panthers – have played competitively since the first 6 quarters of the season, but still has the toughest Big East foes ahead
(11) Eagles – before last Saturday, the Eagles had yield more rushing ypg than Miami. Who knew?
(12) Deacons – despite three early wins, probably not a bowl team
(13) Navy - can they get healthy against weak second half schedule?
WHAT WILL WE EXPECT TO SEE ON SATURDAY
A TRAP SANDWICH GAME
This is the kind of spot that drives coaches both nuts and into coachspeak. Cf. Holtz “The University of Navy (sic) scares me to death.” The players are humans and robots, and try as the coaches might, these frail humans can not help (can YOU?) looking ahead to Norman.
Bo Schembechler, as tough a son of a gun as Barberton ever produced, was fond of saying that you can not get a team all the way up more than twice a year. Bo. The converse of that is that each team generally has a couple of mulligans each year, when they play below their competence. It is what it is.
All that’s needed on Saturday is a win. Forget about style points. Sure, a rout would provide the second and third teamers much needed and much deserved playing time. But a conservative game plan against an inferior opponent should work.
(1) Low risk plays on offense, letting our defense take control of the game. Limit Golson’s runs and instruct him to fall down or go out of bounds. The Cougar defense is sound, and just letting our ground game take over in the fourth quarter may work.