Lessons Learned – Notre Dame at Purdue

This week’s Lessons Learned column comes a bit late, but here are my final thoughts on Notre Dame’s win over Purdue.

UHND's weekly Lessons Learned column takes a look at what we learned about the Fighting Irish in week 4.

Clausen has a ton of heart. Needless to say, Clausen showed a lot of heart on Saturday and really put his name into the Heisman race with his performance. His stats were modest (he only played 2 quarters) and he did throw his first interception of the season, but he came off the bench and led a last minute touchdown drive capped off with a 4th and goal touchdown pass. While we might not have envisioned Clausen making drives that to win games against teams like Purdue, that is precisely the kind of drive we all figured would become common place with Clausen. So far this year it has been. Saturday was the third straight game in which Clausen lead a 4th quarter scoring drive to take the lead. Clausen has become, by far, the unquestioned leader of this team and the team rallies around him. If he continues to play like he’s been, he’ll be in the Heisman race all season.

Nick Tausch is showing why he won the kicking duties by a wide margin. After seeing Tausch kick for four weeks, I’m willing to say this his first miss of the year was just nerves since he’s 5 for 5 on field goals since and has looked good doing so. Tausch is improving on his kickoffs and boomed the final kickoff into the end zone on Saturday. I don’t remember the last time a kickoff reached the end zone for Notre Dame at a critical juncture like that so it was very nice to see Tausch get that much leg into it. Given Notre Dame’s recent history with place kicking, it will be a couple weeks of similar results before most Notre Dame fans feel comfortable on all field goals, but the early returns on this freshman kicker are looking very promising.

Notre Dame is still in search of a second (and third) wide receiver. Given the time needed to implement the Dayne Crist package with Clausen banged up, it’s easy to see why another receiver might not have stepped up just yet, but the Irish need to find a second and third receiver in a hurry with Washington this weekend and USC in two weeks. Duval Kamara was the second wide receiver for most of the game, but ended up dropping two easy catches and getting called for two illegal formation penalties – that can’t happen for this offense to keep moving. Shaq Evans, Deion Walker, and John Goodman all saw the field, but none really established themselves. I would have liked to see how open Evans was on the interception before Clausen had to double clutch with the ball getting hit though. Robby Parris came up with the clutch catch of the game with a 15 yarder on 3rd and 14. Parris might not have the speed to create separation from elite corners, but I think we’ll see a lot of him as a third receiver out of the slot. I would imagine Evans, Walker, and Goodman will get more chances this weekend.

Manti Te’o needs to play more. Manti Te’o recorded his first career sack on Purdue’s final last ditch drive and needs to play more. I think the staff would have liked to bring him along slower so that he isn’t forced to learn on the fly, but Toryan Smith’s limitations in pass coverage were really exploited by Purdue. Weis said on Sunday that the staff met and decided that Te’o needs to see the field more even if it means living with the mistakes that are bound to happen with a true freshman linebacker. Weis didn’t say where Te’o would line up though. Conventional wisdom might be to slide Brian Smith over to the middle with Te’o playing the weak side, but Smith has struggled in the middle and Te’o eventual future is as a middle linebacker. If you are going to play him and live with the mistakes, I say play him where his future lies.

Tackling is still an issue. It’s a little troubling how many missed tackles there have been this season since tackling was not nearly as big of an issue the past few seasons as it’s been this year. On Purdue’s first touchdown, three Notre Dame defenders missed the tackle and a fourth was taken for a ride for the final few yards. With the bye week coming up next weekend, I hope the staff uses some of the time to work on fundamentals.

Less was more when it came to blitzing. Notre Dame played more cover-2 defense and sent a lot fewer blitzes and the pass rush was actually improved. Notre Dame did a decent job generating pressure with just the front four at times and the defense played better because of it. The Irish defense had Purdue pretty much bottled up until the fourth quarter when Purdue marched down the field twice. Notre Dame recorded two sacks which sadly matched a season high. With a mobile quarterback coming into town this weekend in Jake Locker, I would think we’ll see a similar approach since Locker can really hurt you with his legs if you don’t get him with the blitz.

Running back depth looked much better this week. The depth behind Armando Allen looked a little iffy as weeks 2 and 3, but with Allen on the shelf last weekend Robert Hughes really stepped up. Hughes ran as hard and as effectively as we’ve seen him with 68 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown. His numbers dipped in the second half when Purdue keyed on the run after it became clear that Notre Dame wasn’t going to pass much with Dayne Crist in. Theo Riddick took his only carry 24 and looked very quick in the process. Jonas Gray struggled running the ball with just 18 yards on 9 carries, but was an effective weapon out of the backfield. As a team, Notre Dame ran for 167 yards with its starting running back on the bench.

Charlie Weis came up with a good game plan. Weis still makes some very questionable in-game decisions (see the 4th and 10), but he did come up with a very good gameplan that took Purdue by surprise. The Purdue defense was on its heels in the second quarter when the Irish ran the ball out of multiple formations for back to back scores. Purdue eventually adjusted, but considering Weis had to come up with a gameplan that didn’t include his starting quarterback, running back, and top wide receiver all in one week I think he did a pretty good job.

Dayne Crist looks like he’s going to be very good. Crist was played well considering this was his first stint of real playing time. He did have one throw I’m sure he’d love to have back though. Crist over threw what turned out to be a wide open Golden Tate early in the 4th quarter for what would have been an easy touchdown. Those type of throws will become a lot easier as Crist gets more and more playing time. With some more seasoning Crist looks like he has all of the tools to be a very good quarterback for the Irish. I just wish Weis would have let him throw the ball more since Purdue really keyed on the run in the third quarter.

Darius Fleming is developing nicely. Fleming had a little bit of a rough start to the season, but had by far his best game of the year against Purdue. He recorded three tackles for loss, including a sack. Fleming is taking to playing the linebacker position well after playing a lot of defensive end against the spread teams. Fleming definitely came to play on Saturday though and was a big reason why the Irish defense held Ralph Bolden in check.

Kapron Lewis-Moore has started to develop as well. “KLM” had a rough start to the season. Considering he went from not playing a single down as a freshman to being a starting defensive end in one off-season it was expected that he’d have some growing pains. Lewis-Moore took a nice step forward on Saturday though. His stats weren’t overly impressive. He totaled just four tackles. He was a force in bottling up the Purdue running game though and his four tackles were nice plays where he fought off a block to make a tackle. Add this to the big time hustle play he made against Michigan State to force a fumble and it’s easy to see why he made the leap he did this off-season. There will no doubt be some more growing pains along the way, but it looks like he is progressing nicely and with 3 seasons of eligibility left after 2009 there’s definitely some reason to be excited about his future.

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  1. to IrishSlappy’s point about the DB’s:

    I was also very down on the defensive backs early on. Coming into this season i was really excited about our DB’s (gray, walls, mcneil, blanton) but wasn’t seeing any results. I see two problems that are contributing:

    1. As mentioned above, our blitz just isn’t getting there with any consistency, especially late in the game when we have looked very heavy footed (probably fatigue from the constant blitzing). That leaves the DB’s out to dry, especially when you miss a sack and give the QB even more time to move in the pocket and wait for a receiver to come open.
    2. Maybe this will change this week (i pray it does) but watch our DB’s on 3rd and anywhere from 4-8 yards. Tenuta is calling very relaxed coverages rather than pressing, creating some contact off the line of scrimmage and disrupting short timing routes. We are giving the receivers a 6-8 yd cushion and allowing them to run there little slants and outs with no disruption and gaining 1st down after 1st down on 3rd and medium/long situations. It drives me nutts. Keep an eye on it this week to see if we start closing the gap on obvious passing 3rd downs. If so, i think you’ll see the number of 3rd down conversions reduced drammatically.

    Anybody else notice what i’m noticing? please comment.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for acknowledging the continued outstanding gameplaning by Weis. I can say that it is an absolute pleasure to watch this offense (especially before the injuries). I’ve seen far too many blame Weis for all of our problems this year, but the fact is that we have a top-15 offense (top 10 w/ Floyd). The defense is where the problems lie. We are 94th in total defense, including 111 in passing defense. there is your problem, Irish nation. Weis is doing what we brought him here to do: recruiting and scoring the football. ND doesn’t bring in Charlie Weis to create a junior version of the Steel Curtain.

    Tenuta has got to stop the constant blitzing. I cringe and close one eye when i see us bring 2 or 3 blitzers and get stood up at the line of scrimmage, knowing that a 10-15 yard completion is ensuing 8 out of 10 times. We blitz too much inside, maybe we need to work the edges more and make the tailback pick up a linebacker cutting the corner rather than cause a logjam in the middle.

    ND is not going to be a BCS contender until the spread between the offensive and defensive results begin to narrow. The O is there, the talent is there, and the defense just flat out has to get better. The encouraging thing is that we have a new DL coach and a new defensive scheme. So this defense is a work in progress, meaning it should continue to improve throughout the season.

    “Offense wins games, defense wins Championships.”

  3. All great points guys! I’m addicted to this forum.

    The biggest disappointment I’ve had this season has been our secondary. These guys all got their seasoning last year and were supposed to come into the season ready to shut down opposing passing games. Every cornerback has regressed this season. They need to pick it up this week or locker is going to pick them apart.

    As far as Teo is concerned, he looks like he may be such a beast they should play him both ways. That kid just lays wood. I nominate him to be the new starting fullback.

    Unfortunately I think we are going to lose Teo for two years to his mormon mission after this season.

    Go Irish!

  4. This team is talented and has some depth, but what I’m really seeing is a team that is learning how to win. A lot of people are talking about the Purdue timeout at the end as the reason ND won, and while it helped, the offense still had to make a play. Last years team was shell-shocked when they lost the lead in the 4th quarter, but this team is getting the job done on offense.

    The defense is starting to make some adjustments as well, so I am encouraged where the team is right now, because last year ND was losing these games.

    Also, Jimmy Clausen is the real deal. This kid is impressive this year and I can only imagine what he is going to be like next year. I think he is going to shatter Brady’s records if he stays healthy.

  5. My Two Cents:
    I would put Manti T’eo as the Mike…put B. Smith as the Will and of course D. Fleming at the SAM.

    I would start Gary Gray at LCB…and in the nickle package. I think I have seen enough of Sergio Brown getting burned.

    I would move E Johnson to DE and go with I. Williams at NT and H. Williams at DT- and KLM at other DE.

    To me this gives strength between the tackles to allow our LB’s to make plays and contain Locker.

  6. I was watching a Weis interview and he made note of Riddick’s block on the Tate TD. He also said that Crist had a huge block on that play too. I went back and watched the replay again, and Crist really did throw a seriously solid block to seal off the end. Just wanted to give the kid some credit.

  7. Teo needs to play in the MIDDLE. T smith missed at least 5 tackles last week, B Smihdoesnt make plays from the middle. Teo is our biggest and strongest and needs to playin the middle.

  8. We need Manti T’eo to play a ton this week, mainly to spy on Jake Locker. Locker will be by far the best QB we have faced this season and the fact that he can make plays on his feet we need T’eo to make tackles on this guy. he is the fastest, hardest hitting TACKLER on this defense put him in.

  9. Golden Fricken Tate.

    This kid is my hero. Seriously, he had 112 yards of offense. 57 Receiving, 55 Rushing on 14 touches (5 catch, 9 run). He lined up at tailback and ran the wildcat. All while receiving some extra special attention from the opposing D. He reminds me of Travis Thomas in his willingness to do WHATEVER he can to help our team. Except Thomas helped us by playing Defense. Tate helped us by picking up some slack at a different position within the offense. For a kid who took a while to learn the Irish offensive system his freshman year, he sure seems to be demonstrating a mastery of it in his junior year. I hear next week we’re going to ask him to Punt (kidding).

    Also, I think the majority of the points made in this column clearly demonstrate why I personally am still in CW’s court. This team is starting to perform, and doing so in spite of injuries. The offense is a force (especially our O-line) and the defense is improving.

    I really think as this year progresses the Defense is going to come together very nicely. Tenuta and Brown are finding the sweet-spot of coverage schemes and blitz packages to create big time pressure. The players are developing and realizing that they don’t have to make a huge play on every down, but if they cover their responsibilities/gaps the good plays will come on more downs and the bad plays will start to go away.

    I also look at our roster and I still think we’re a young team. Next year we will still have a large number of returning starters, and our improvements in depth are going to really pay off. I look at the next 3-4 years of Irish football, including this one, and I can’t but see the path we’re heading towards and get excited. Our Offense is in place and is just going to continue to develop and improve. And our defensive coaching staff is a seriously talented group of guys with some seriously talented players to work with. I think we will see them improve vastly as this year progresses (especially as Teo plays more) and I think we will see the positive direction we’re headed in.

  10. we lucked out coming back for that one,why they called a time out that allowed us to win the game,that’s 3 games in a row that the back has come out of the back field wide open

  11. I couldn’t agree more about Te’o needing to play more. I don’t know why he’s only in for a select few plays because when he is in there, he’s in on the play. Granted, I’m not at the practices, so I don’t know how Te’o is progressing, but when he’s on the field everyone knows it. He needs to be in there A LOT more and I also think if he will ultimately be our MLB then play him at Mike. I’d rather have a faster, stronger, more talented player at Mike, who may make a few mistakes than worrying how bad Toryan might get beat on the next play. Manti Te’o is clearly a beast and we need make use of his talent.

  12. nobody mentions that the starting fullback was out too. essentially, that means no “I” formations since Hughes was needed at tailback. i’m guessing paskorz has not impressed or hasn’t developed enough to warrant playing time.

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