Monday, September 05, 2005

ND 42, Pitt 21

Quarterback: On the first couple of drives, Brady Quinn had three options:
1) Throw a screen and/or check down to Darius Walker in the flat. This was highly effective early on, but any Notre Dame fan knows that an offensive cannot survive on screen passes alone.
2) Run. Quinn seemed to have a newfound knack for knowing just where and when to run. You also have to admire his toughness in taking hits head-on… until you realize how much of the season rides on his health.
3) Force a pass downfield. Quinn had time, he just didn’t have anyone open early on. When he couldn’t run, he tried to force a pass. When this led to the interception that ended an early drive, it looked like the Irish were in for a difficult contest.
But then – gasp – the coaching staff made adjustments! From the second quarter on, Quinn was able to fire strikes downfield at will to wide open receivers like Anthony Fasano, Rhema McKnight, and Jeff Samardzija.
David Wolke got in during “garbage time” to more or less practice his snaps and handoffs, but he did also have a nice 22-yard downfield run on a broken play.

Running Back:

Courtesy AP/Keith Srakocic
The Pitt fans in my section (section 511, row KK, seat 10 – second to the last row in the upper deck, visitor’s side, 40 yard line – just in case you were curious) bemoaned the fact that early on, Notre Dame’s entire offense was runs by or dump passes to Darius Walker. “Well,” I wanted to say, “it’s working, isn’t it?” Walker ended up with an even 100 rushing yards and 52 receiving yards (51 on a screen pass that opened Notre Dame’s scoring). I was simply amazed by his speed around the corner. I was also impressed by the maturity Walker showed (perhaps a byproduct of the coaching) in waiting for his blocks to develop when necessary. I was also a fan of Charlie Weis’ strategy of using the running back as a Marshall Faulk or Curtis Martin-style all-around threat, both running and receiving. Now, I don’t expect Walker to have a 1000/1000 season (rushing yards/receiving yards), but just having that threat available adds a whole new dimension to the offense. Also, I do realize that Walker won’t go blazing around the corners against a good run defense, but it was fun to watch for one week.
Travis Thomas, known that year as “that running back that always fumbles,” held onto the ball for 8 carries, picking up 40 yards. A performance like that can only boost Thomas’ confidence. As Thomas is Walker’s main backup, that confidence boost is very important to this team.

Fullback: The way Quinn, Walker, and Rashon Powers-Neal were running the ball, I had to check a few times to see if Lou Holtz was on the sidlelines. I won’t say Quinn’s running ability is anywhere near Tony Rice’s, but having two people in the backfield (Walker and RPN) who can consistently pick up five, six, eight, ten yards on the ground each play is only a positive thing for this offense. Some may remember the “Return to Glory” season when RPN was Ryan Grant’s backup at running back. (Some may argue that RPN was a better back, but that’s a column for another time.) Powers-Neal selflessly moved to fullback after that season, and he saw few carries during the Ty Willingham era. RPN lined up at tailback behind Asaph Schwapp in short yardage and goal line situations, and he ended the day with three rushing touchdowns. I’m starting to sense a theme here: be diverse, and don’t be afraid to use all the weapons you have available.

Receiver: It was the little things the Irish receivers did that helped win this ballgame. Blocking by the receivers, both on Quinn’s scrambles and Walker’s touchdown reception, was just as important as the 8 catches this unit had.
To the casual observer, Rhema McKnight - supposedly one of the playmakers in this offense – had a quiet night. Three catches for 51 yards, most of those coming when he faked an end around and found himself wide open in the flat. But, that doesn’t mean he didn’t make plays. McKnight is known as the best blocking receiver on this team. On a night where running and screens were enough to win, effective blocking is the best thing you can ask of your best receiver.
If you look at David Wells or Bob Wickman, you quickly come to the conclusion that baseball pitchers just aren’t athletes. Not so. Jeff Samardzija, who moonlights as Notre Dame’s #3 starter, once again showed why he’s also the #3 receiver. After a freshman year where it looked like he would develop into Brady Quinn’s favorite, most dependable target, Samardzija was quiet (or quieted?) in 2004. He came back strong to start the 2005 season by pulling in three catches. One of those catches was a diving touchdown grab that was so nice, the replay booth had to see it twice just to believe it.
Maurice Stovall had an up-and-down game for the Irish. In his defense, though, the “ups” are finally starting to outnumber the “downs.” One of Stovall’s two catches came on a screen, where he proceeded to walk right over a cornerback in Gary Godsey-esque style. That seems to be the most effective use of Stovall’s speed – no 5’10”, 160 pound cornerback can out-grapple his 6’5” frame in the open field. Unfortunately, Weis called Stovall’s number again on a screen on the very next play, and this one bounced off his shoulder pads as he started to turn upfield too quickly. Maurice Stovall will continue to be a story to watch this season.

Tight End: Anthony Fasano didn’t become a factor until after the aforementioned playcalling adjustments. He did still end up as the team’s leading receiver, with four catches and 42 yards.
But, as with the receivers, it was the downfield blocking that was this unit’s key contribution to the game. Each time Quinn made a break downfield, there was always a jersey number that started with 8 making that key block to turn a 1 yard gain into a 9 yard gain.

O-Line: Everyone I’ve talked to or read has simply raved about the way the experience Irish offensive line simply pushed around Pitt all night. Well, everyone except the Pittsburgh newspapers, but they just blamed Walt Harris for a perceived inability to recruit large linemen. I’d tend to agree with the argument that it was our line’s ability, and not Pitt’s line’s inability, that led to 502 yards of offense and not a single sack. Production and experience on the line has always been cyclical, of course, and this is just an up year. But, even with an experienced line, you have to get them to produce. And produce they did on Saturday.

D-Line: You’d expect a young line, especially one without a good pass rush, to give up a good chunk of rushing yardage to a quarterback like Tyler Palko. For a while, the line didn’t do much against the run, or the pass. Then, the floodgates opened to the tune of five sacks. Palko’s final rushing stats: 7 in the positive direction for 30 yards, 5 in the negative direction for 39 yards. Total: 12 “rushes” (including the sacks, of course), -9 yards. Coach Weis was happy with the line’s effort, so I am too.
For the record, Victor Abiamiri and Chris Frome each had a sack from the end position, and Abiamiri led all Irish linemen with 6 tackles.

Linebacker: If I didn’t know Brandon Hoyte to be an otherwise kind and gentle person, I’d be calling him a manbeast right now. Once just a hard-hitting runstopper, BHoyte is developing into a complete player. Hoyte terrorized the Panther backfield to the tune of 4.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks. He also had a key play towards the end of the first half that probably went largely unnoticed. Pitt was facing a third and goal. A receiver went in motion to the left, and due to miscommunication, Hoyte had to run out and cover him. BHoyte, whose supposed to be weak at best in pass coverage, followed the receiver step-for-step into the endzone, forcing Palko to dump the ball off to tight end Erik Gill at the 6. Gill was smothered, and Pitt had to settle for a field goal.
Maurice Crum, Jr. and Corey Mays performed admirably in their first starts. Crum had 5 tackles, while Mays had 3 tackles, including 1.5 for loss and 1 sack.


Courtesy AP/Keith Srakocic
Two things indicated that both Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe fall more into the strong safety category than the free safety category. First, on the negative side, both managed to get burned on a 39-yard playaction touchdown pass to Greg Lee on Pitt’s opening possession. On the positive side, these two just know how to hit hard. Zbikowski led all DBs with 8 tackles, many of which abruptly ended what looked to be a long running play for Pitt. He also had the team’s lone interception on Tyler Palko’s half-ending Hail Mary. In Ndukwe’s debut as a starter, he had 3 tackles, broke up a pass, and recovered a fumble.

Cornerback: It’s obvious that pass defense is still the weakness of this team. Many Pitt fans openly wondered why then Dave Wannstedt didn’t go to the air more, especially considering Notre Dame’s stout run defense and the success Pitt had in the air on their opening drive. For whatever reason, Tyler Palko and the Panthers were “held” to 220 yards passing. Cornerback Ambrose Wooden led all Irish defenders with 12 tackles.

Kicker: DJ Fitzpatrick was 6-for-6 on extra points, and Carl Gioia kept the ball in bounds. That’s all you could ask of either of them.

Punter: It’s usually a good thing when your punter isn’t needed for your first seven possessions. That was the case for the Irish on Saturday, as their first seven possessions resulted in 1 interception and 6 TDs. When DJ finally did come in to punt, he put up typically solid numbers: 45.7 yards per punt, a long of 54, and 1 of 3 inside the 20.

Kick Returner: There weren’t many kicks for the Irish to return. Justin Hoskins had a decent return of 24 yards, while Brandon Harris had 1 for 11 yards.

Punt Returner: Tom Zbikowski only saw one returnable punt, and he took it 23 yards. That’s a good number on a punt return.

Special Teams: Marcus Furman of Pitt had some decent returns, but a key stop always kept him from breaking it. He ended up with 80 return yards on 4 kickoff returns. None of DJ’s 3 punts were returned.