5 Things I Don’t Want to See in 2009

At the beginning of the week, I took a look at five things I’d like to see out the Irish in 2009.  Today I took a look at five things I’ve seen from the Irish the past few seasons I rather not see again in 2009.

1. Double digit leads blown in the 2nd half

Had Notre Dame simply held on to all of their double digit second half leads in 2008, the Fighting Irish would have finished the regular season 9-3 instead of 6-6. Notre Dame held double digit leads in the second half against North Carolina, Pitt, and Syracuse yet they did not win a single one of those games. Against North Carolina, turnovers killed the Irish in the second. Penalties helped doom the Irish in regulation against Pitt before they eventually fell to the Panthers in overtime after missing a very makeable field goal. In the Syracuse game, the Irish offense simply stalled when they tried to run the football in the 4th quarter.

Jimmy Clausen will have to drastically cut down on his interception total in 2009 for the Irish offense to really soar. (Photo - Icon SMI)

There were plenty of reasons for the Irish failing to close out these games. Lack of focus, an inability to run the football with any sort of consistency, turnovers, play calling, and Charlie Weis’s coaching philosophy all played a role in Notre Dame’s struggles in these games.

One of the final holdover philosophies from Weis’s days in the NFL is his aversion to running up the score. In the NFL, a 14 point lead with less than 10 minutes to go in fourth quarter is generally pretty safe. In the college game, this is definitely not the case. Still, more often than not, the Irish offense has gone into vanilla mode in the fourth quarters of games when Notre Dame has a comfortable lead. Aside from the games in which Notre Dame blew double digit leads, contests with both Navy and Stanford got much closer than they should have been last season because the Irish went ultra conservative in the fourth quarters. Weis needs to ditch this philosophy and keep his foot on the gas whenever possible.

Aside from Weis’s coaching philosophies, Notre Dame’s lack of a running game played a major role in each of the three losses. When Notre Dame went into conservative mode, they didn’t have the running game to close those games out and ended up losing at least three games they should have won.

2. Opposing defensive linemen blowing Notre Dame offensive linemen off the line like BJ Raji did in 2008

You couldn’t watch any NFL Draft coverage on Boston College’s BJ Raji this spring without seeing him completely blow up Eric Olsen in last year’s game in Boston. Olsen was playing hurt so this wasn’t entirely his fault, but the lack of depth behind Olsen and the rest of the offensive line forced Weis into playing a banged up starter instead of inserting a backup who he and the coaching staff apparently deemed not ready.

Frank Verducci appears to be working out very well as the new offensive line coach thus far, but aside from improving the technique and skills of the starters, Verducci will also need to get the backups ready so that we don’t have to see an opposing player like Raji blow up the Irish offensive line like that again. Weis has mentioned that Notre Dame finally has a three deep full of scholarship players along the offensive line this year, but it still remains to be seen if the starters, let alone the backups are ready to start pushing opposing defensive lines back.

3. Nearly as many turnovers

As a freshman, Jimmy Clausen did a great job protecting the football. He threw just 6 interceptions in 245 attempts in 2007. That’s just one interception every 40.8 pass attempts. In 2008, Clausen’s interception rate jumped up to one every 25.9 pass attempts with 17 picks in 440 attempts including an ugly 4 interception game against Boston College. While Clausen took many steps forward in 2008, this is one area where he definitely took a step back.

Charlie Weis has said during training camp that he fully expects Clausen to cut down on his interceptions and improve his touchdown to interception rate this season. If Clausen can do this, the Notre Dame offense should be able to easily improve on their scouring output this season and won’t put the defense in tough situations nearly as often as they did a year ago.

Towards the middle of last season, opposing defenses knew they could get pressure on Notre Dame without blitzing. They would then drop seven and eight men into coverage while still getting some pressure on Clausen. As a result, Clausen was forcing the ball into tight coverage and his interception total skyrocketed. In the five game span from North Carolina through Navy, Clausen threw nine of his interceptions while tossing just six touchdowns in that span. Notre Dame went 2-3 in these games, but could have, and probably should have went at worst 4-1.

4. Notre Dame Passing on 3rd/4th and Short Yardage situations

Notre Dame’s inability to run the football the past few seasons has forced Notre Dame to throw the ball on short yardage 3rd and 4th downs much more often than anyone would probably like. Look back at the 2007 UCLA game. Notre Dame got the ball at the UCLA one yard line after a fumble recovery and ran a play action pass on first down that resulted in a sack. Three plays later Notre Dame kicked a field goal. The offense was given a gift by the defense, but couldn’t gain the one yard it needed for a touchdown.

Play calling is part of the blame here, but the personnel and capabilities of the offense directly that play calling as well. Back in 2005 and 2006 Notre Dame ran successful play action passes in similar situations because opposing defenses respected the Irish rushing attack. Brady Quinn converted big fourth downs against both UCLA and Michigan State in 2006 with play action passes to John Carlson. That hasn’t been the case the past couple seasons because opposing defenses don’t rush the Notre Dame ground game.

In most games this season, the Notre Dame offense line will possess a big size advantage over the opposing defensive line. There’s no reason that they shouldn’t be able to line up against any opponent save USC and convert third and fourth downs on the ground. If they can do this early in the season it’ll force the defenses to respect the ground game and the play action pass can once again become a dangerous weapon in these situations.

5. Notre Dame linebackers getting thrown around against the run

Notre Dame has not had big linebackers over the last few seasons. A lack of depth and talent forced the Irish to get creative with their linebacking corps ever since 2006 when Travis Thomas was converted to a linebacker and spent the ’06 campaign trying to take on opposing guards and tight ends while weighing in under 220 lbs. Last season it was Harrison Smith who played most of the season out of position as an undersized linebacker. Part of Notre Dame’s struggles defending the run have come from having undersized and undermanned linebackers.

In 2009 Notre Dame will feature a set of linebackers that’s bigger and faster than any unit the Irish have had since Charlie Weis arrived in 2005. Brian Smith and likely starter Manti Te’o will both play at 240+ lbs while all of the candidates for the strong side linebacker spot all weigh in as 235+ lbs.

Hopefully the increase in size and athleticism will mean less instances of Notre Dame linebackers getting thrown around and engulfed by opposing blockers. With the talent Notre Dame has in the secondary, opposing offenses are definitely going to be looking to run the ball at the Irish until they prove they can consistently stop them; and the linebackers are going to have shoulder a large part of the burden.

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  1. On the assumption that the Irish Squad get their act together this year, I have one thing I do not want to see. USC indicted before the season’s end. I don’t think they will be unless ratings for USC deteriorate and the NCAA figure Pete’s given them all the $$$ they want and it’s on to Urban land. I do suspect this is Carroll’s last year and that USC will be found guilty. Personally, the one thing that isn’t being looked into and bother’s me the most is that sexual harassment incidents between Carroll’s assistant coaches and various women.
    But with all that, I want to see the Irish beat the Trojans by 10 or more with a brutalizing defense. What I don’t want is for USC to have an excuse. Imagine if the truth had come out on time and Bush wasn’t there to push Leinert.

  2. MMA83….That’s exactly where I feel our main problem with the O-Line was, they just looked so confused. Hopefully Verducci and Weis tone down their responsibilities and just get back to hittin’ people. But more importantly, hitting the right person. I never want summer to go but man could August end already. Go Irish!!!!

  3. In regards to the Navy game, he also put in a back-up freshmen running back who fumbled on a drive that would have put the game away. And I think I recall going for it and not making it on 4th and 3 from Navy’s 43. They had no passing game and we give them field position. Geez, now I’m angry again.

  4. For me, it starts with a dominating O-line. If we cannot control the line…tired of seeing our O-line manhandled and confused on blocking assignments.

  5. the Navy game was almost the worst loss of a 2nd Half lead – Weis actually put in the backup QB … only to have Navy with a chance to win on the final drive.

    Injuries to Clausen or E.Johnson would be devasting to BCS hopes.

  6. I don’t ever want to see us get a turnover on an opponent’s one yard line, and fail to punch the ball in on four downs. I realize that was 2007, but the running game wasn’t much better in ’08.

    I also don’t ever want to witness another game where we get our first first down at the end of the third quarter. I hope our guys come out with a chip on their shoulder this year. They have a lot to prove.

  7. With how miserable we’ve run the football on 3rd and 4th and short, if that continues, I’d rather see the pass. Every time I saw 34 (Aldridge) and 44 (Schwapp) jogging into the game on 3rd or 4th and 1, I wanted to scream. Everyone in the stadium knew what was going to happen (handoff to Aldridge), including the defense, and it worked something like 1 percent of the time. Time after time after time they came in and we ran the same play and we got stuffed almost every time, usually for a loss. Please, no more predictable playcalling! And if we’re going to run the ball on 3rd or 4th and 1, we should be able to make it more than 50 percent of the time. Of course, this goes back to the o-line…

  8. Great point on #4. I couldn’t believe how we came out against SDSU last year and threw 3 straight times on 3rd and 2. It blew my mind. And they weren’t even play action passes where we forced the defense to even consider a run.

    Your talk of the play action passing game makes me think about the revamped way that gameplans will be put together this year. With Verducci picking the running plays and Weis picking complementary play action passing plays, even if the run game doesn’t improve (which it needs to, and should), there should be a better play action passing game.

    At least you’d hope so…

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