Notre Dame, IN (UHND.com) – Notre Dame opened its season on Saturday against the Aztecs of San Diego State and perhaps the nicest thing that could be said about the Irish’s 21-13 victory was that at least it wasn’t a loss. Notre Dame, a 22 point favorite over the under manned and ailing Aztecs, stumbled out of the starting block to open the season and has Irish fans questioning just how improved they will be this season.
Charlie Weis, true to his vow to make the changes necessary to right the sinking ship that was the 2007 season, started off the 2008 campaign by deferring the ball to start the game – something he had previously only done once and things looked good for Notre Dame when the Irish offense took the field for the first time. That first drive, however, turned out to be a microcosm of the game.
Weis started Armando Allen at running back and Michael Haywood dialed in two Allen runs to start the game. The sophomore back gained eight yards on the runs leaving the Irish facing a third and two. Haywood called in a pass and Jimmy Clausen failed to connect with Duval Kamara for the first down. After gaining eight yards on the previous two plays while facing a San Diego State defensive line decimated by injuries, the Irish passed and ended up with a three and out on the first drive of the season.
The drive was very characteristic of the entire game – Notre Dame’s offense had trouble moving the ball on the ground and simply couldn’t take advantage of their decided advantages in size and speed.
Even when the Irish offense did move the ball, they were their own worst enemy. After driving the ball inside the five yard line early in the second quarter, Robert Hughes fumbled the ball on a second and goal run with the Aztecs recovering. The fumble was one of four Notre Dame turnovers on the day. Jimmy Clausen threw two interceptions and Armando Allen added a fumble of his own.
Turnovers weren’t the only costly mistakes for the Irish on Saturday. The Irish allowed San Diego State to sustain multiple drives with costly penalties at the worst times. At one point in the first half Maurice Crum committed pass interference and roughing the passer penalties on back to back third downs keeping the Aztec offense on the field – not exactly the kind of production you’d like from a fifth year senior and two time captain.
Despite the mental miscues though, the Notre Dame defense turned in a pretty outing considering it was their first time executing Jon Tenuta’s new defensive fronts and blitz schemes. The Aztecs gained 345 yards of offense on Saturday but for the most part, they couldn’t sustain offense. Their first scoring drive was set up by a blown coverage which resulted in a 43 yard completion to the one yard line and their second came after an offsides on 4th and 3 continued a stalled Aztec drive.
While the defense was solid, it was rather unspectacular. Tenuta’s new blitz schemes resulted in just one sack and at times took too long to develop. Part of the reason was a lack of pass rush from the defensive line – something many expected to be a problem this season. In fact, the most effective blitzers were Sergio Brown and Harrison Smith. Neither recorded a sack, but their pressure force Ryan Lindley to force a couple throws.
Still, the defense did force two turnovers – a Kerry Neal interception and a David Bruton fumble recover at the goal line. Bruton forced the fumble with a great hit just as San Diego State running back Brandon Sullivan was about to cross the goal line. That fumble turned out to be the difference in the game. Had the Aztecs put the ball I the end zone there, they would have been up two touchdowns on the Irish in the fourth quarter.
Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate would combine to lead the Irish down the field for the go ahead score after the Irish took over at the Aztec 20 following Bruton’s fumble. Tate, who showed marked improvement from a season ago, was hit in stride by Clausen on a 38 yard strike for the go ahead score with just under 10 minutes remaining in the game. On the day, Tate caught six passes for 93 yards – doubling his reception total from a season ago.
The story of the day, however, was the inability of the Irish offense to move the ball and put points on the board. Facing a defense which surrendered 29 points to a Division 1AA school, Notre Dame should have been able to march the ball up and down the field. Instead, it took the them almost an entire half before they adding any points on the board when Clausen hit freshman receiver Michael Floyd for a 22 yard touchdown at the end of the first half.
There were some positives to come out of this game. The Notre Dame offensive line did not allow a sack; Golden Tate showed that he is much more than a one route receiver; Armando Allen, despite his fumble, showed much more toughness running the ball; and the defense looked strong at times; but even the most optimistic Irish fan looking through the greenest tinted glasses has to be very concerned with the lack of execution and all of the mental and physical mistakes made by Notre Dame.
This was, after all, an opponent which lost to a Division 1AA school a week ago. This game should have been over, or close to it, by halftime. Instead the Irish found themselves trailing one of the few teams in the NCAA that were worse than themselves a year ago with less than 10 minutes to go – hardly the kind of “tune up” most fans were hoping for with three pretty good Big 10 teams on the schedule over the next three weeks.
Maybe Weis and the Irish were holding back for Michigan, but even if that were the case (which it very likely isn’t), that would not explain the turnovers and inability to run the ball on a smaller, injury plagued defense. More likely, the Irish are still a major work in process for whatever the reason.
One of the oldest sayings in football is that you improve the most between your first and second games. Well, in Notre Dame’s case they will have to hope for some massive improvements over the next six days before the Irish host Michigan next weekend.
One very important thng to keep in mind for Notre Dame fans is that things could be worse. At least it was a win because it was about 2 inches away from being a loss before Bruton’s foced fumble.