Brady Quinn started off a little shaky in the first quarter, missing both Jeff Samardzija and John Carlson on gimme touchdowns on the same drive before the Irish settled for a field goal. Penn State hit Brady early and he started off a little erratic. He completed six of his first seven passes, but then completed just four of his next 10. Quinn would, however, get things rolling in the second quarter with two touchdown passes – one a piece to Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight. He would add a third to Darius Walker in the fourth quarter to make the score 41-3.
For the game, Quinn completed 25 of 36 passes for 287 yards and avoided turning the ball over for the second week in a row. He looked much more comfortable throwing the ball from the second quarter on than he had for the first five quarters of the season and managed the game perfectly in the late second quarter when the Irish scored two touchdowns in the final six minutes. And the scary part? I don’t think we’ve seen Quinn play nearly his best yet this year.
Darius Walker was excellent as a receiver out of the backfield, but did not have his best day running the ball. The Penn State defense did a good job clogging running lanes, but Walker also looked tentative at times and missed some holes he normally would have hit. At times, he appeared to bounce around a bit too much instead of just hitting the hole. As a receiver, however, very little could be found wrong with his performance. Walker hauled in seven passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. Walker also has really helped in picking up blitzes this year and looks vastly improved in that department this year.
Travis Thomas notched his first touchdown run of the year with a tough one yard run in the fourth quarter. We also got our first glimpse of Munir Prince with the ball in his hands in the fourth quarter. He didn’t have much to work with but he showed some moves when he made a defender miss in the backfield in limited action.
Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight both found the end zone for the first time this year in the second quarter. Samardzija finished with six catches for 56 yards with McKnight adding five for 59. Both receivers were pretty solid. They caught the ball well, did ok with the ball after the catch, and blocked really well. Rhema especially is showing to be a very solid blocker this year much the way Maurice Stovall did last year.
The one area where the Irish receivers have really yet to establish themselves is in the vertical passing game. Most of the completed passes have been on short routes or when the receivers have were stationary. At times on Saturday it looked like the Irish receivers were running tentative routes, waiting to see what the defense was doing which gave the defense time to react.
Outside of McKnight and Samardzija however, the Irish failed to establish any sort of third receiver. David Grimes was banged up which elevated Chase Anastacio to the 3rd spot. Anastacio had one drop on the first drive of the game and did not record a catch. Establishing a third wide receiver, especially with McKnight and Samardzija leaving after this year, has to be one of the top priorities for the offense as the season progresses.
John Carlson is really establishing himself as a vertical threat in the passing game. Carlson caught everything thrown his way and showed some real speed for a tight end. With the offense struggling to establish a third receiver, Carlson has stepped up and nearly had his first career 100 yard receiving game, finishing just short with 98 yards on six catches.
Carlson might not be the blocker that Anthony Fasano was, yet, but he is showing to be more than capable of replacing Fasano’s absence in the passing game. Marcus Freeman only caught one pass, but it did go for a first down. Freeman, however, was flagged for holding inside the 20 on the Irish’s first drive of the game. The Irish used a three tight end set a lot with freshman Will Yeatman getting the snaps as the third tight end.
Last week the line looked confused with what Georgia Tech was throwing at them in the first half but rebounded in the second half. This week, the line had a bit of trouble in the first quarter, but really picked up the blitz well from there out giving Quinn plenty of time to pass most of the day.
The line had some issues with run blocking though. Darius Walker found little run to run at times and was most effective on draws. When the Irish tried to run it at Penn State, the Lions were up to the task most of the day and more than held their own against the Notre Dame line. John Latina, the Notre Dame offensive line coach, was seen lecturing his players this week after more false start and holding penalties that came at some of the worst times.
With Michigan coming in next week the line will need a much better showing as the running game and controlling the time of possession battle will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the game.
Victor Abiamiri was much more of a force this week. The senior defensive end registered his first sack of the season and could have had a couple more if the officials would have actually called holding on Penn State from time to time. Abiamiri got some good pressure on Morelli throughout the game after not being much of a disturbance last week.
The rest of the defense line was fairly solid. Nothing really spectacular. The line as whole, however, did a good job of getting their hands up and blocking a couple passes. What was nice to see was Weis using multiple defensive tackles throughout the game with backups Pat Kuntz and Travis Leitko both getting some good playing time. Freshman Morrice Richardson also saw a good amount of time at end on passing downs and was quick off the line again this week.
Notre Dame’s linebackers were eaten alive at times by the Penn State defense. Junior Maurice Crum led the team with 14 tackles, but he got swallowed up on a bunch of running plays along with the rest of the Irish linebackers. Travis Thomas had a nice stop on the Morelli fumbled option, but other than that, he was not much of a factor on defense. Thomas has trouble shedding blocks in the running game at times.
The third linebacker spot remains to be an area of concern. The Irish played a lot of nickel again this week which was predicated in part by Penn State having to play catchup but also probably has something to do with the ineffectiveness of the strong side linebacker spot. Freshman Toryan Smith saw some action near the goal line and his progress is something to watch as the season progresses.
On paper the Irish secondary looked great, but when I watched the game a second time off my DVR, I saw a lot of Penn State receivers running open. Derrick Williams had a number of opportunities where he got past the Irish defense, but he and Morelli could not connect. There were a couple of instances though when Williams blew past the Irish corners (Terraill Lambert and Mike Richardson). Amrbose Wooden had an up and down game. Wooden had a couple of “oley” instances where he whiffed on tackles like a matador but then also had a couple of solid open field stops. Wooden looked great in coverage though.
The Irish safeties made up for the shortcomings of the Irish corners though with some stellar performances from Tommy Zbikowski and Chinedum N’Dukwe. Saturday may have been the best game Chinedum N’Dukwe has played for the Irish. He was everywhere. He had a pick, a sack, and provided some deep coverage on a number of plays. He looks much faster this year with the weight loss, but can still deliver big time hits. Meanwhile, his running mate at safety, Tommy Zbikowski, had an excellent game. He delivered a number of big hits, saved a touchdown in the first quarter, and scored a touchdown on Morelli’s fumbled option.
Carl Gioa responded to his opening night clunker with a perfect outing Saturday. Gioa connected on two field goals, both from 35 yard out, and hit all five extra points. On kickoffs, Bobby Renkes was a little inconsistent in the first half, but was booming the ball in the second half. Punter Geoff Price showed off his strong leg with a 63 yard punt (in the air) as well as two punts inside the 20.
Kick coverage was outstanding, bottling up the dangerous Derrick Williams all day long. The only negative in the special teams department was Zbikowski’s fumbled punt. Luckily freshman Raeshon McNeil’s hustle play saved the day for the Irish on that play.
Charlie Weis attacked the strength of Penn State defense early which seemed to confuse the Lions. Brady Quinn hit tight end John Carlson early and often and worked the middlie of the field against the vaunted Penn State linebackers. Weis also used the no huddle to keep Penn State from subbing in and out their various linebacker packages they use to mask the inexperience of their defensive line.
I think Weis’ gameplan this week was excellent. The Irish moved the ball up and down the field in the first half (despite getting just 6 points on the first three drives) and it seemed like Penn State was not exactly ready for what the Irish were doing.
Defensively, Rick Minter had his guys in position to make plays. The deep passing game still has me a bit concerned, however, because a more experienced quarterback will make the Irish pay the price for blown coverage at some point.