Lessons Learned – Michigan State at Notre Dame

Week three of the 2009 season taught us that the defense is still a mess, Jimmy Clausen is a tough kid, the wildcat is here to stay, and that the offense can move the ball without Michael Floyd.  As always, this week’s Lesson Learned column takes a look at every we learned about the Irish this past weekend.

This week's Lessons Learned column takes a look at what we learned about the Notre Dame in their 33-30 win over Michigan State.

The defense is in need of some triage. The defense has been torched for 68 points the past two weeks and has given up methodical drives time and time again. The Notre Dame blitzes are just not effective enough right now. The pressure isn’t getting to the opposing quarterbacks and opposing quarterbacks are playing pitch and catch right now with the large cushion the defensive backs are giving. In the second Notre Dame played more press coverage and they were very effective doing so. When the Irish played more press coverage, the blitz was much more effective since Kirk Cousins didn’t have multiple receivers wide open with a 10 yard cushion. Jon Tenuta didn’t build a reputation as one of the game’s best defensive coordinators without earning that label. He hasn’t suddenly forgotten to coach so there should still be faith that Tenuta and Corwin Brown can get the defense back on track.

Jimmy Clausen is one of the best quarterbacks in the NCAA. Clausen showed a ton of heart on Saturday playing with a noticeable limp throughout the game. He’s been labeled “too Hollywood” at times in his career, but his performance Saturday was gritty and should silence any remaining critics. He came close to throwing his first interception of the season, but fortunately for the Irish and Clausen, the MSU defender couldn’t hold on. Clausen now has 9 touchdowns on the season while completing 62 of 91 passes (68.1%) for 951 yards. At his current pace, he’d challenge all of Brady Quinn’s single season records. Even after hurting his ankle/foot on Saturday, he was still deadly accurate and went over 300 yards for the fourth straight game.

The linebackers need to tackle better. Notre Dame’s top two tacklers are both safeties. Notre Dame’s top two linebackers, however, have combined for fewer tackles (25) than starting strong safety Kyle McCarthy has on his own. The linebackers are missing a ton of tackles right now forcing McCarthy to be the last line of defense more often than not. Notre Dame’s linebackers – Brian and Toryan Smith and Darius Fleming – are making some tackles for losses. The three have combined for 11.5 tackles for loss, but they need to play with better fundamentals and wrap up better so that their normal tackle totals start increasing as well.

The defensive backs need to come down with interceptions when they have the chance. Notre Dame defense backs dropped three interceptions before Kyle McCarthy came down with the game clincher. Darrin Walls could have easily had two picks and safety Ray Herring nearly clinched the game with an interception of his own a few plays before McCarthy. Herring, unfortunately, ended up tipping the ball to Michigan State’s Mark Dell who caught the pass for a critical third down. The Irish defensive backs should be the strength of the team so when the Irish pass rush does generate some pressure, the defensive backs have to make plays when they are there to be made. Corwin Brown seemed to be rotating his defensive backs quite liberally on Saturday with Jamoris Slaugher, Gary Gray, and Ray Herring seeing more action than normal. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Slaughter or Gray as the nickel back. Both seem to have sound coverage skills and are sounder tacklers than current nickel back Sergio Brown.

Kyle McCarthy is a playmaker. While some of his fellow defensive backs may not be coming up with big plays when they’ve had the opportunity to, McCarthy has made the most of his opportunities this season.  McCarthy registered another critical interception this weekend.  He now has three interceptions in three games this season.  The only other Notre Dame interception this season came from Robert Blanton on a hail mary at the end of the first half against Nevada.

The offense can move the ball without Michael Floyd. When Michael Floyd went out, the offense was still able to move the ball – unlike last season when the offense sputtered in the absence of Floyd. Michigan State didn’t really have much time to prepare for playing without Floyd on the field though so upcoming opponents will be able to prepare for the Irish knowing Floyd won’t be playing. Last year defenses doubled Golden Tate and tried to take him out of the game. Look for opposing defenses to take a similar approach until other receivers establish themselves.

The offense will keep Notre Dame in every game. The offense kept fighting on Saturday and led Notre Dame on another fourth quarter comeback this weekend – this week the defense was able to prevent the opposing offense from doing the same. As long as Clausen is healthy, the offense will keep Notre Dame in every game. His accuracy has been pretty remarkable this year and even without the play making ability of Michael Floyd, he’ll be able to get the ball to his receivers if they are open.

Armando Allen is head and shoulders above the other running backs. Allen is such a complete back that it’s very easy to see why he was the starter from the get go this summer. After the first week I thought Jonas Gray might challenge Allen by the end of the season, but Gray’s pass blocking is still rather suspect and Michigan State really took advantage of that on Saturday. Allen is just as, if not more important to this offense than Floyd was before his injury. Allen’s given Notre Dame a reliable running game and is getting the tough yards he didn’t use to get. If he can start breaking some long runs on a regular basis, he’ll be well on his way to being a star in this offense. We learned on Saturday that he can pass the ball a little bit out of the wildcat too.

The Wildcat is here to stay. I didn’t like Notre Dame using the wildcat in the season opener. Maybe it was because every time we’ve seen Notre Dame use it in the past it hasn’t been to effective. After Notre Dame used it for two touchdowns in the redzone it’s kind of hard to argue with its usage though. With Floyd out, I expect to see Notre Dame use a lot more of the wildcat until someone slows it down. Notre Dame is going to need to keep defenses off balance so they can’t just key in on Golden Tate with Floyd out – using the wildcat is one way to do that.

Kyle Rudolph is going to be needed a lot the rest of the season. Rudolph had his first big game of the season on Saturday and this week the officials didn’t take away a long catch and run from him like they did against Michigan. Rudolph could end being one of the best receiving tight ends in the country by the end of the season (if he isn’t already) and is going to really need to step up his game with Michael Floyd. It’s very tough for college defenses to account for a dynamic tight end and a dynamic wide receiver so Notre Dame is going to need to work the ball to Rudolph over the middle more and more. It’s been open a couple times this season for big gains, but to this point Clausen and Rudolph haven’t been able to connect on it.

The Big 10 officials are horrible. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

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  1. I do not understand why no one is up in arms about the onside kick call? The rule is clear that a ball much be KICKED and REMAIN past 10 yards to be recovered.

    No Team A player may touch a free-kicked ball until after:

    1. It touches a Team B player (Exception: Rules 6-1-4 and 6-5-1-b);

    2. It breaks the plane of and remains beyond Team B’s restraining line (Exception: Rule 6-4-1) (A.R. 2-11-2:I) or

    3. It touches any player, the ground, an official or anything beyond Team B’s restraining line.

    Thereafter, all players of Team A become eligible to touch, recover or catch the kick.

    1. On the onside kick, did the ball actually touch a MSU player or did it just kick back across the 40? I missed this play on TV and it is very difficult to tell what happened on the online videos. If it didn’t touch anyone, I agree – terrible officiating once again by the Big10 officials.

    2. The problem is right there in the rule you posted #2 & #3 are subject to conflict with each other depending on who is reading them. #3 says “until after it touches THE GROUND beyond team B’s restraining line”…
      …Which it did…

  2. Hey, don’t forget the Taush 47 yard field goal. When was the last time we had a PK with that sort of range. Could come in handy in the next few weeks.

  3. I know this is extreme, but I think we should be making noises about having one less Big Ten team scheduled in the next few years i.e., dropping them from our schedule. Which one? Take your pick. Just the threat of not having ND game revenue should scare the pants off them and make them start reforming the reffing. With things like Michigan players playing dirty and throwing punches and bad calls, we would be totally justified.

  4. It’s Monday and I’m still disgusted….and we won. Defense? We have none.I’m uncertain if they just don’t get the assignments or have so little heart. If Brian Smith is going to be a leader he needs to stop dancing around after a tackle like a seventh grader and getting in his team mates ear. Push for more aggressive play and be an example. The special teams? Onside kick and an extra point almost cost the game. Offense? Sam Young needs to sit if he gets anymore stupid penalty’s. Where’s the fullback?

  5. Clay you are right on the money about the Officiating. I was saying all weekend it is time for Notre Dame to create our own Independent Conference Officiating Crew that takes care of all Independent Games ie Army, Navy, etc. Let’s get our own officials. Until we do Michigan Boosters/Gamblers will have a say in all of our big games where we have to use their officials. Taking that Floyd TD away was proof enough for me. We should be 3-0!!!! GO IRISH BEAT PURDUE!!

  6. Great wrap up.

    I think that since almost none of the blitzes are getting pressure/sacks, the LB’s and DB’s being used to blitz should be dropped into coverage more often, with the corners being allowed to play more press coverage, which our corners seemed to do well. Obviously I’m no Jon Tenuta. I’m just an idiot Monday morning QB, but it also seems that rotating guys in on the DL–which I’ve been calling for–worked. Even if Cwynar and H. Williams aren’t as good as our other D-Linemen, it has to be a pain in the ass for an O-Lineman to play against a fresh set of legs half way through the game. I also think that letting the tackles (I. Williams, H. Williams and Cwynar) play tackle and the ends (Johnson and KLM) play end will put more beef on the line and help out our run D.

    You’re 100% correct about our LB’s. Our alleged best defensive player, Brian Smith, has been a non factor the last two weeks. He needs to quit talking about it and start being about it. T. Smith doesn’t wrap up. Our backers need to show us something or ride the pine while someone else gets a chance.

    What can you say about the Big Ten refs? Floyd took two steps in the endzone and another one or two steps out of bounds before losing/giving up the football. How is that not a TD? Also, that ticky tack personal foul against Blanton? Are you kidding me? Like Jesus said, “that’s some bush league bull[expletive deleted].” Just off the top of my head, I remember MSU doing worse to Jonas Gray, with no call at all.

    Adam, in response to your comment, I think now is the time for Swarbrick to step up and earn his money. We hired Swarbrick because we thought that the guy that brought so much to Indianapolis would be the strong, fearless figure that ND needs at the AD position. If we wanted to lay down and let the Big Ten and the rest of colleged football screw us, we could have kept Kevin White and saved a few bucks. Weis can’t fix the obvious officiating bias from the sideline. Swarbrick needs to get in somebody’s ear about this BS.

  7. You would think the B11 would be embarrassed to allow this awful officiating to occur on national TV. Apparently not. The head B11 ref for the ND-MSU game facially resembled Mr. Magoo. Great PR B11.
    It will be interesting to see in future games, now that there are no more bumbling B11 refs officiating ND games, how this impacted, at times, the momentum of the ND offense. Maybe instead of bumbling, gambling should be inserted.

  8. Jimmy Clausen is the freakin man! We finally have a leader on this team! He displayed his leadership by playing with an injured foot throughout the rest of the game only to lead his team to the game winning touchdown. I loved the fact that he got up in that linebackers face and pushed him after he was being taunted after taking a sack. That shows that his mindset is that he and the team aren’t going to take any crap because we are Notre Dame. Everything that I thought was in the air still about Clausen being a leader is now gone. This guy is the leader and one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. I have never in my lifetime seen a more accurate passer than Clausen, college or pro. Your the man Jimmy!

  9. The comments were right on the money, especially the last one about the big ten officials!!! Unless you are a Notre Dame fan, you can never understand how absolutely atrocious officiating is at the Irish. The big ten is the worst! It cost us the Michigan game and nearly the State game! I really wish the elite at Notre Dame would come up with a solution to this ongoing problem!

      1. yeah, that TD run by Allen that was called back did not affect the game at all! It only would have won it for us. Open your eyes and quit drinking before games!

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