Week three of the 2009 season taught us that the defense is still a mess, Jimmy Clausen is a tough kid, the wildcat is here to stay, and that the offense can move the ball without Michael Floyd. As always, this week’s Lesson Learned column takes a look at every we learned about the Irish this past weekend.
The defense is in need of some triage. The defense has been torched for 68 points the past two weeks and has given up methodical drives time and time again. The Notre Dame blitzes are just not effective enough right now. The pressure isn’t getting to the opposing quarterbacks and opposing quarterbacks are playing pitch and catch right now with the large cushion the defensive backs are giving. In the second Notre Dame played more press coverage and they were very effective doing so. When the Irish played more press coverage, the blitz was much more effective since Kirk Cousins didn’t have multiple receivers wide open with a 10 yard cushion. Jon Tenuta didn’t build a reputation as one of the game’s best defensive coordinators without earning that label. He hasn’t suddenly forgotten to coach so there should still be faith that Tenuta and Corwin Brown can get the defense back on track.
Jimmy Clausen is one of the best quarterbacks in the NCAA. Clausen showed a ton of heart on Saturday playing with a noticeable limp throughout the game. He’s been labeled “too Hollywood” at times in his career, but his performance Saturday was gritty and should silence any remaining critics. He came close to throwing his first interception of the season, but fortunately for the Irish and Clausen, the MSU defender couldn’t hold on. Clausen now has 9 touchdowns on the season while completing 62 of 91 passes (68.1%) for 951 yards. At his current pace, he’d challenge all of Brady Quinn’s single season records. Even after hurting his ankle/foot on Saturday, he was still deadly accurate and went over 300 yards for the fourth straight game.
The linebackers need to tackle better. Notre Dame’s top two tacklers are both safeties. Notre Dame’s top two linebackers, however, have combined for fewer tackles (25) than starting strong safety Kyle McCarthy has on his own. The linebackers are missing a ton of tackles right now forcing McCarthy to be the last line of defense more often than not. Notre Dame’s linebackers – Brian and Toryan Smith and Darius Fleming – are making some tackles for losses. The three have combined for 11.5 tackles for loss, but they need to play with better fundamentals and wrap up better so that their normal tackle totals start increasing as well.
The defensive backs need to come down with interceptions when they have the chance. Notre Dame defense backs dropped three interceptions before Kyle McCarthy came down with the game clincher. Darrin Walls could have easily had two picks and safety Ray Herring nearly clinched the game with an interception of his own a few plays before McCarthy. Herring, unfortunately, ended up tipping the ball to Michigan State’s Mark Dell who caught the pass for a critical third down. The Irish defensive backs should be the strength of the team so when the Irish pass rush does generate some pressure, the defensive backs have to make plays when they are there to be made. Corwin Brown seemed to be rotating his defensive backs quite liberally on Saturday with Jamoris Slaugher, Gary Gray, and Ray Herring seeing more action than normal. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Slaughter or Gray as the nickel back. Both seem to have sound coverage skills and are sounder tacklers than current nickel back Sergio Brown.
Kyle McCarthy is a playmaker. While some of his fellow defensive backs may not be coming up with big plays when they’ve had the opportunity to, McCarthy has made the most of his opportunities this season. McCarthy registered another critical interception this weekend. He now has three interceptions in three games this season. The only other Notre Dame interception this season came from Robert Blanton on a hail mary at the end of the first half against Nevada.
The offense can move the ball without Michael Floyd. When Michael Floyd went out, the offense was still able to move the ball – unlike last season when the offense sputtered in the absence of Floyd. Michigan State didn’t really have much time to prepare for playing without Floyd on the field though so upcoming opponents will be able to prepare for the Irish knowing Floyd won’t be playing. Last year defenses doubled Golden Tate and tried to take him out of the game. Look for opposing defenses to take a similar approach until other receivers establish themselves.
The offense will keep Notre Dame in every game. The offense kept fighting on Saturday and led Notre Dame on another fourth quarter comeback this weekend – this week the defense was able to prevent the opposing offense from doing the same. As long as Clausen is healthy, the offense will keep Notre Dame in every game. His accuracy has been pretty remarkable this year and even without the play making ability of Michael Floyd, he’ll be able to get the ball to his receivers if they are open.
Armando Allen is head and shoulders above the other running backs. Allen is such a complete back that it’s very easy to see why he was the starter from the get go this summer. After the first week I thought Jonas Gray might challenge Allen by the end of the season, but Gray’s pass blocking is still rather suspect and Michigan State really took advantage of that on Saturday. Allen is just as, if not more important to this offense than Floyd was before his injury. Allen’s given Notre Dame a reliable running game and is getting the tough yards he didn’t use to get. If he can start breaking some long runs on a regular basis, he’ll be well on his way to being a star in this offense. We learned on Saturday that he can pass the ball a little bit out of the wildcat too.
The Wildcat is here to stay. I didn’t like Notre Dame using the wildcat in the season opener. Maybe it was because every time we’ve seen Notre Dame use it in the past it hasn’t been to effective. After Notre Dame used it for two touchdowns in the redzone it’s kind of hard to argue with its usage though. With Floyd out, I expect to see Notre Dame use a lot more of the wildcat until someone slows it down. Notre Dame is going to need to keep defenses off balance so they can’t just key in on Golden Tate with Floyd out – using the wildcat is one way to do that.
Kyle Rudolph is going to be needed a lot the rest of the season. Rudolph had his first big game of the season on Saturday and this week the officials didn’t take away a long catch and run from him like they did against Michigan. Rudolph could end being one of the best receiving tight ends in the country by the end of the season (if he isn’t already) and is going to really need to step up his game with Michael Floyd. It’s very tough for college defenses to account for a dynamic tight end and a dynamic wide receiver so Notre Dame is going to need to work the ball to Rudolph over the middle more and more. It’s been open a couple times this season for big gains, but to this point Clausen and Rudolph haven’t been able to connect on it.
The Big 10 officials are horrible. Sorry, couldn’t resist.