STATE COLLEGE, PA (UHND.com) – For the second week in a row, the Irish offense sputtered and stumbled over itself en route to putting just three points on the scoreboard. A conservative game plan, developed to protect a freshman quarterback, contributed to the offensive futility as well, but penalties, a lack of execution, and overall sloppy play were the main causes for Notre Dame’s offensive struggles against the Nitanny Lions during Saturday night’s 31-10 loss in Happy Valley.
The first play from scrimmage Saturday night started with a five yard illegal procedure penalty which put the Irish in a first and 15 situation. It would be a sign of things to come. The Irish racked up penalties at a pace almost as prolific as the pace last year’s offense racked up points. Fourteen Notre Dame penalties for 97 yards helped stymie an Irish offense which gained just 144 yards of total offense.
The illegal procedure on the first drive was overcome and the Irish moved the ball fairly well that drive, but the drive would end in a missed field goal from 50 yards out.
The next time the Irish offense stepped on the field, they had been spotted a 7-0 lead thanks to Darrin Walls’s interception return for a touchdown. They had also been given outstanding field position by the defense after Joe Brockington recovered an Austin Scott fumble at the Penn State 35 yard line, but for the second time in a row, the drive would start with an illegal procedure penalty.
After Travis Thomas rushed for just two yards on first down the Irish faced a second an long. On 2nd and 13, the Irish were in an obvious passing down and with a true freshman under center, Penn State sent the blitz. The result? A sack for a loss of 12 yards and for all intents and purposes, the end of a very promising drive and the waste of a golden opportunity to go up two scores.
Had the Irish been able to even kick a field goal in that situation, they would have had a two possession lead and the 110,000+ fans in Beaver Stadium would have been awfully quiet. Morelli’s interception had quieted the crowd quite a bit and an additional score that early would have given Notre Dame all the momentum in the world.
Instead, the Irish started off the drive with a penalty and then a sack two plays later.
Fast forward to the third Irish offensive possession. After Morrice Richardson sacked Morelli for a loss of 13, the Irish were looking at excellent field position with Penn State punting from their own 27 yard line. On the ensuing punt, Travis Thomas was flagged for a personal foul after apparently punching Penn State’s Jerome Hayes while he and Mike Ragone had Hayes on the ground.
Notre Dame was going to start that drive at their own 44 yard, but because of the penalty the offense was pushed back to the 29 yard line.
The Irish’s self inflicted wounds, however did not stop there on that drive. On first down, Weis called a beautifully designed fake to Asaph Schwapp with a pitch out to James Aldridge. Clausen pitched it cleanly to Aldridge, but Notre Dame’s sophomore half back dropped the pitch and had to fall on it. Aldridge had a whole lot of green and very little white in front of him if he could have secured the pitch.
Aldridge’s miscue put the Irish in a 2nd and 13 at the 26 yard line and two players later, the Irish were punting once again. Geoff Price’s punt sailed 46 yards into the waiting hands of Derrick Williams would left a few Irish defenders looking pretty foolish on his way to a 78 yard return for a touchdown to tie the game.
The rest, as they say, is history.
We can sit here and dissect and criticize Weis’s gameplan or argue about some questionable penalties later in the game all we want, but this game was won and lost right here in these first three offensive possessions.
The Notre Dame offense had the ball inside the Penn State 40 yard line twice in the first quarter but failed to advance the ball past the 35 both times. The Irish defense forced two turnovers, scored a touchdown of its own, and held Penn State to just 22 yards of offense on their first three drives and all Notre Dame had to show for it was a 7-7 game.
Had the Irish be able to just converted their trips into Penn State territory into at least field goals, they would have jumped out to a 13-0 lead and would have given a struggling offense the kind of shot in the arm that just may have gotten them going for the rest of the game. Instead, penalties, poor blocking, and a lack of composure resulted in a tie game with 110,000+ fans going absolutely ballistic.
After Williams’s punt return, the Irish offense rattled off four straight three and outs while the Penn State offense started to get its legs under it.
Before the first half ended, the Irish offense would again squander a golden opportunity. With 22 seconds remaining, Penn State got the ball at their own 37 yard line and tried to add to their 14-7 lead. On the first play of the drive, however, Tom Zbikowski forced a Morelli fumble which Trevor Laws recovered at the Penn State 44 yard line.
Notre Dame called a timeout to set up the play Weis wanted and coming out the timeout the Irish offense managed to get flagged for a delay of game. From the 44, Notre Dame could have at least tried to set up a field with a decent gain. The delay pushed them back another 5 yards which may not seem like a lot, but with the rebuilt Irish offensive line the time needed to block for the receivers to run an additional five yards is like an eternity.
The ensuing play resulted in a seven yard gain to the Penn State 42 yard line. Had that seven yards taken the Irish to the 37 as it would have without the penalty, Notre Dame could have at least attempted a field goal. Nate Whitaker showed on his missed 50 yard field goal that he has the leg to kick from that distance. Whether or not he has the accuracy to make a kick from that far out is another question all together, but the point is that the delay of game penalty cost the Irish a chance at the field goal.
The second half wasn’t much better for the Irish. Some of the lowlights included an illegal procedure penalty after a delay of game and a holding penalty that negated a 43 yard pass to Golden Tate.
The penalties and mental errors Notre Dame committed are the kinds of plays that a young team just can’t overcome when facing a quality opponent like Penn State especially when playing in an environment like Beaver Stadium with 110,000+ screaming fans.
If the Irish can cut down on these types of unnecessary negative plays and play more disciplined this weekend, the offense should at least have a chance to move the ball and put some points on the board against a Michigan defense which has allowed 73 points in its first two games. Last week is last week so the Irish can’t dwell on their mistakes, but if they can learn from them and keep themselves from repeating the same type of self inflicting wounds they made against Penn State, maybe, just maybe the offense could start to establish itself.