I’ve had a hard time writing about sports lately. The nation’s woes have made symbolic tribal warfare seem less magnificent. (Does the phrase “they watched their ships at Piraeus burn to the hulls” mean anything to anyone?)
Still, it’s a new world everywhere, not just among the packs and sects of great ones, and Charlie Weis is the head coach of Notre Dame football. What do we make of that?
More specifically, are the Irish going to win this year? And are they going to win strongly after that?
To answer these questions, let’s look at the pieces — offense, defense, and special teams — one at a time.
As a person, Weis has a take-no-prisoners attitude that, in time, will translate to the whole team. In the long run, watch out.
And unlike Pete Carroll, Charlie Weis will never have to worry about losing his offensive coordinator; the one in his head will always be with him.
In the long run, Notre Dame/Charlie Weis will be on top for as long as he coaches there. Take it to the bank. This isn’t one of your “unknown unknowns”.
In the short run (this year), that killer instinct will live in his play-calling, and threaten every opponent on the schedule. It will also live in the performances of many key players — Tommy Z, Ryan H, Maurice S (yes, him), plus others I haven’t named (er, initialed). So sez I, Rocky K.
If the O-line gels (go, John Latina), the offense will be strong this year, with nothing but upside beyond. More in a later episode — watch this space.
Rick Minter is a far-above-average defensive coordinator with head coaching experience. Lou Holtz used him to replace Gary Darnell in 1992, with excellent results. Darnell had — what’s the opposite of “master-minded”? — mini-minded the Irish to two consecutive 73rd place finished in total defense in 1990-91. (That, as much as anything, is why Holtz didn’t achieve more National Championships with those great 1988-1992 teams.)
Minter immediately installed a top-25 defense. His first year (1992), the Irish were 32nd in total defense, and the year after that, 20th. Nice work.
This time round, day one on the job, I don’t think he’s better than he was — a top-25 guy. Walking out of Cincinnati (his last head-coach posting), he hadn’t yet morphed into Joe Yonto et al. (Yonto and crew master-minded the great Parseghian defenses. Look up the 1966 team; you’ll be shocked. Total points scored against them all year — less than a touchdown per game.)
And Minter is not yet Barry Alvarez, Holtz’s defensive coordinator before Darnell. In 1988, Alvarez was 13th in total defense; in 1989, he was 14th. Then Wisconsin got him.
But after last year’s double-run-defense (the Irish defended the run beautifully against every play thrown at them — run or pass), a top-25 total defense will do just fine, thank you very much.
But Wait, There’s More
But there’s a wild card here, defense fans, that’s already started to kick Minter up a notch. He won’t stand still for long. There’s an ace up his sleeve he didn’t have before — Charlie Weis.
Re-read the title of this essay. It comes from this comment by Weis regarding the evolution of Rick Minter’s current defense. Weis said:
I know from going against the [current ND] defense, they present some problems. […] And then there are times I go to Rick and say if you do that, I’m gonna do this, and you’re gonna have a problem.
What that does, it lets the defensive coaches know how an offensive mind is going to approach a tactic that they’re doing. [Minter’s defense] is doing a lot more now than they were in the spring.
In other words, the highly intelligent Minter has just enrolled in the Charlie Weis Academy of Why That Won’t Work. Minter is learning defense from one of the best offensive minds in the game. Look for Minter to better his best at this posting.
Now if we could just get back to that Shane Walton-led, Gerome Sapp-field marshalled scoring defense! (Sapp — now there’s a coach if ever one was born.)
Bob Davie did a great job on special teams in 2000, and Willingham’s first-year (Davie-inherited) S-teams were extraordinary as well.
Will the Irish teams return to that level of play? They should get close. Special teams play requires good schemes, good execution, and good athletes. Just what playing the other two sides of the ball requires. (Hmm, a three-sided ball…)
Weis won’t do half a job, and he’s tooling up the special teams as we speak. I’d be surprised if the results weren’t a significant improvement over last year.
What To Expect Over Time
In the long run, I’d look for Weis-coached Irish teams to play top-five ball, four years out of five, and compete for the National Championship at least half the time. In other words, a Parseghian string of teams.
What To Expect This Year
This year could show us a Holtz first-team heartbreak — loss after achingly close loss, 6-5 or even 5-6. (There — that covers that prognosticational base!)
But I think the teams on this year’s schedule are in for a surprise — a nice surprise if you’re Irish (or play one on your living room couch).
Offensive genius (yes, he’s a real one). Killer instinct (seen that in a while?). Hungry players minus those pesky impedance-inducing malcontents (ask your engineering friends about impedance). That’s one powerful combo.
My First Prediction
Game by game, here’s how I see the season, the non-Holtz-first-year one that goes well:
- Pitt teeters, then falls.
Michigan gets surprised. Whether they fall or not depends on the ND defense (go, Bill Lewis).
Michigan State falls.
Washington falls hard. (Not because of Willingham; because they’re weak, and the weak ones lose to Weis.)
Purdue falls. (My first upset call. Their strength this year is defense. Welcome to Weis country. Strength against strength, ND wins.)
USC sweats bullets, but I don’t think Minter can hold them this year. Enjoy it, Pete. This year, you keep up with us. Next year … not so much.
BYU falls hard. (It will be fun watching Weis deal with Mendenhall’s unconventional defense — the one that so befuddled Kent Baer in last year’s “easy” opener.)
Tennessee falls. (My second upset call. Weis has two weeks to prepare, and by the eighth game, the team is much more seasoned. A good game to watch, but watch out Vols. This may not be your year.)
Last three games — done and gone. Navy, Syracuse, Stanford, all limp home. Stanford has the best chance of the three. But if this is not a first-year heartbreak season for ND, the kids on these three teams are already out of their league. (And if this is a first-year heartbreaker, even Navy, never an easy win, may have a chance.)
That puts us 9-2 or 8-3, allowing for slop in the progno (as the street French might say).
Not bad. But what if Michigan falls?
My Second Prediction
This one’s for the gold. What if Michigan falls in Game 2, and Weis’s team shows up on October 15 for the USC game — with a 5-0 record, two weeks to prepare, a green-swayed home crowd, and a benchful of believers. Now it gets interesting.
I already think that, in the good (non-Holtz) first-year scenario, USC has its work cut out for it. In this scenario, with ND at 5-0, USC really has its work cut out for it.
And should ND upset USC (there’s one for the books!), the Irish are now 7-0 going into Tennessee –
– again at home, again with two weeks to prepare. Hmm.
At 5-0 going into USC week, ND is a Sports Illustrated cover. 7-0 going into Tennessee week is a Top 5 rating. Now Weis is playing for all the marbles — familiar territory. Hmm indeed!
Check my comment above about malcontented players. I think there’s a real story there, for some enterprising Jamie Olsen, cub reporter for a great midwestern college daily.
Last year, it was widely rumored (among those reporters, natch, who don’t report what they know — shades of the national press) that some ND players who hosted recruiting visits engaged in inverse-recruiting; they sent out “don’t come hither” messages.
The past is the past, always, and mainstream reporters never touch the really good stories. But maybe there’s a cub reporter on, say, the Observer, with a good set of huevos (internal or external) and a desire for a career in actual journalism…
The Bottom Line
Gonna be fun, fans, whichever way it goes. You’re watching the birth of a great one; enjoy.
And if we’re really lucky, this year’s Irish might even keep our minds off those pesky Piraeus flames, licking the first hulls in the harbor as we speak. Bread and circuses, just can’t get enough.
(c) Rock Kanutski
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