Thursday, December 22, 2005

Interview with Matt Barker of Buckeye Sports Blitz

I used one of my blog connections (one of a whopping two, that is) to set up an interview session with Matthew Barker of Ohio State blog Buckeye Sports Blitz. The conversation ranged far and wide, from the Illinois basketball media guide to Cleveland Indians pitching prospects. But, we also discussed the upcoming Notre Dame-Ohio State matchup in the Fiesta Bowl. To view his take on the meeting, click here. For my version, read on.

Matt: Who was your top choice to succeed Tyrone Willingham as head coach of Notre Dame?
Kanka: When the news first broke, most people assumed that Urban Meyer was a forgone conclusion, And, if you look around hard enough on my site, you'll see that I was definitely on the bandwagon.
Matt: I think he was everyone's choice at several places.
Kanka: Right, he was a popular choice. But, again, as a former assistant... and with being named after a line of popes, ND was very hopeful.
He loved Notre Dame (or so it seemed). Plus he was a former assistant there. And it seemed hard to question the success he was having.
Matt: Plus knowing the area from being head coach at Bowling Green.
Kanka: Good call. Ohio has traditionally provided Notre Dame with its fair share of recruits, and it seemed like Meyer could only help in that area.

Matt: So where was Weis in your grand sceme of things?
Kanka: His name really didn't start popping up until after Meyer went to Florida.
Matt: Would you say he was second?
Kanka: In the very beginning, no. In fact, if you check out Blue Gray Sky from that time, they graded him a "C" for his lack of head coaching experience.
Shanahan, Stoops, and Mariucci were the other names being thrown out there.
A few fans "in the know" (not me, by the way) starting saying, "Hey, you know how the Pats are doing really well? Well, their Offensive Coordinator is an ND guy, and he's supposed to be a genius."
[Note to the BGS guys: I only call you out on that "C" grade because I'm very happy that you were wrong. I'm sure you'll agree with me.]
Matt: Yes, I think I noted earlier that his only head coaching expericence came at the high school level, and that was for just one year
Kanka: True, true
Matt: Though it's a far cry from Chris Spielman lobbying for the OSU job when he had ZERO coaching experience, head or assistant.
Kanka: Good point. In the end, it actually came down to Weis and another alum who had moved up to Offensive Coordinator in the NFL. (Tom Clements)

Matt: Would you think the biggest selling point about Weis was that he was a Notre Dame guy?
Kanka: That definitely weighed in heavily, at least in the eyes of the alumni. But you can also extend the label "Notre Dame guy" to include his overall attitude about winning at Notre Dame. Meyer, Willingham, and Davie all had variations of the same philosophy - if you want to win, lower the academic standards, or learn to be happy with 6-5. Weis said, "Heck with it, we're going to be a highly competitive team anyways."

Matt: What were you expectations heading into this season?
Kanka: My expectations? Looking at the schedule, I almost immediately ruled out the "big 3" - Michigan, USC, and Tennessee. Then, considering recent results, I planned for an unexpected/"letdown" loss to someone like a Pitt, MSU, or Purdue. So, I was hoping for 8-3, but would have settled for 7-4.

Matt: At the beginning of the season, Notre Dame went to Heinz Field and beat Pittsburgh, who was ranked 23rd rather handily, then went up to Ann Arbor and beat Michigan who was ranked 3rd at that time. What were you thinking then?
Kanka: Well, I'm sure you'll agree that preseason rankings don't mean much. But, the Michigan win was a great emotional high. That may have been the point where I knew we could at least hang in every game, if not have a good chance to win all of them. That may not sound like much, but it was a big step up from recent years.

Matt: What was going through your head when you heard that in Bobcats...beat Pittsburgh in overtime?
Kanka: I couldn't believe how badly Coach Wannstedt was misusing his talent. I saw it during the ND/Pitt game, but that was definitely a low point for them. They had a great passing team, and all he wanted to do was run.
I was also happy that we had a head coach smart enough to use what he had, instead of forcing square pegs into round holes
Matt: Well I saw that Pitt/OU game and his kids looked lost.
Kanka: I don't know what the discipline is like on that team, and I don't want to speculate too much. But, HB Blades (Pitt LB) was a loose cannon in the ND game, and I think Tyler Palko was already frustrated with the new offense by the Ohio game.
Matt: No fire, no emotion. I don't know if it was because of their opponent.
Kanka: That's another side of a good coach - he's got to be able to get his players up for the cupcake games as well, instead of letting them play down to the lower level.

Matt: Ok, the next week was Michigan State.
Kanka: I was there, don't remind me.
Matt: What happened there? 21 points ahead at one time, correct?
Kanka: MSU was, right. There was an interception returned for a TD somewhere in there.
Matt: SirDarean Adams. Quinn threw 60 times.
Kanka: Which is normally a sign that things aren't going so well - when Quinn throws that much.
Matt: Yeah, behind by a good margin. So would you say that since that game the defense has played better?
Kanka: For the most part, yes. The corners are the most improved players on the defense. But, the team can still be exploited by throwing deep early and often. The Stanford game is an example of that.
Specifically, we basically have two strong safeties playing out there (Zbikowski and Ndukwe), both love to stop the run, so they're very vulnerable to play action.
Matt: Would you say that speed is a concern on the outside?
Kanka: Again, yes and no. CB Ambrose Wooden is probably the fastest guy on the team. But, he normally employs a "let the guy catch it, then make the sure takle" approach. S Tom Zbikowski is also up there speed wise.

Matt: If you were the defensive coordinator, what would you make sure you team improved upon - the D's biggest weakness?
Kanka: I'd find a free safety. As I said above, we're basically playing two run-stopping strong safeties, with Zbikowski disguised as a strong safety. If we could get a safety that's a sure bet over the top, the corners could take a few more risks as far as batting down balls. And, of course, we wouldn't have to worry as much about being beat deep. But, I have a positive feeling about the future of the defense. There's a good amount of young talent on the team.

Matt: What aspect did Weis bring to Notre Dame, tangible or not, that turned around 6-6 team from year ago?
Kanka: Well, the first thing is the attitude. Not settling for 6-5 just because of whatever admissions restrictions. Second is his ability as a teacher. Ron Powlus is a special assistant to the team, and he made a comment to the effect that he would have been great if someone had explained things to him as easily as Weis explained things to Brady Quinn. Finally, he hired good assistants. Goes back to that old saying, "If you're smart, hire smart people who disagree with you" in a way. If he had a weakness, he hired an assistant to cover for that
Matt: He seems, from at least where I am at, that he is very personable, and probably easy to to, etc. Would that be right on track?
Kanka: I would say so. He's still got an element of being the hard football coach, but I think you can tell that that's just an exterior.
In his initial interview after being hired, he was asked questions about his student days, and he gave answers that made him sound like "one of the guys."
Matt: The reason why I asked is that Willingham seemed to be the opposite.
Kanka: That was yet another knock on Willingham.
Ty seemed like a nice person for the 3 seconds that I met him, but he definitely didn't appear that way on the sidelines. And one could assume he was the same way at practices.

Matt: Who do you think will be the biggest key in the Fiesta Bowl for Notre Dame?
Kanka: I think, simply, it will come down to a comfortable Brady Quinn, which ties together a few of your questions.
Matt: I stated in my email earlier that I thought Darius Walker was, just from the simple fact that if he can gain some yardage on the ground to keep OSU off balance.
Kanka: The two times this year ND faced great run defenses - Tenn and BYU (go figure), the offense went 4 or 5 wide and used short passes that Coach Weis equates to runs. If the line can give Quinn time, and if Quinn can remain accurate, ND will be fine on offense
Matt: That would benefit Notre Dame.
Kanka: But yes, it will come to a point where ND will have to do something on the ground, and that will fall on Walker's shoulders.
Of course, OSU knows what Weis did against Tenn and BYU, so Weis may come out with something completely different

Matt: Walker had 62 yards on 15 carries against Tennessee.
Kanka: Most of those came after ND had the lead. Unless I'm confusing myself with the BYU game, Notre Dame attempted at most 1 or 2 runs during their first few offensive series.
Matt: He had 17 yards in the BYU game on 7 carries.
Kanka: Right. That was the game where Weis was asked at halftime if he was going to start running the ball, and Weis looked at the reporter (NBC's Lewis Johnson) like he had two heads. If it's not working, why keep trying it?

Matt: Do you think that Notre Dame has enough defensively to stop the Buckeyes?
Kanka: The teams that have been most effective against Notre Dame have been the ones who can throw the deep ball at will. I'm not sure if Troy Smith can do that. I imagine that ND will try to focus on the run and force Smith to pass. If ND can keep outside contain, they'll be respectable. Of course, they have young defensive ends, so I'm not sure. Drew Stanton was the only other mobile QB Notre Dame faced this year (not counting Navy), and he had a decent day overall. I'm fairly confident, but Notre Dame will have to score some points as well.

Kanka: What were your expectations for Ohio State coming into this season, record-wise and otherwise?
Matt: Well, I think that every year, especially after the 2002 season, that you expect to be Big Ten and National Champions.
I would of never thought that before the 2002 season but once that has been accomplished then that's your expectation every year following
And how realistic was it for this year? Very, considering that OSU was just maybe a few plays away from playing in the Rose Bowl

Kanka: It's been established that Charlie Weis is an offensive guy. For those not familiar with him, what is Jim Tressel's speciality?
Matt: Well, it's called Tresselball. It's all about field position, defense and special teams. Letting his opponent make the mistake deep inside their own territory and capitalizing on that.
Kanka: And time management - I've seen him start working the play clock with 10 minutes left in the 3rd quarter.
Matt: Yeah, that too. Did a real good job with that in the final seven minutes of the Michigan game.

Kanka: Along those lines, what's the offensive philosophy this year? balanced, run until you have to throw, option, screens...
Matt: Well, what I think is happening is that Tressel and his offensive coaches have gradually opened the playbook.
With Smith suspended the first game, then split timee with Zwick against Texas, then taking over for good the third game against San Diego State, it had to be gradual. But the confidence seems to build each week. And he's getting better and smarter as each game passes.
Kanka: You can certainly see that from the game scores - 40+ points in games 7-10, after an average of about 27 beforehand... say what you want about the opposing defense.

Kanka: Who would you say is the key offensive weapon in this game? I'm guessing Smith?
Matt: No, I think it's Pittman. I guess I am old-school. Big Ten football, and the running game. He's another player that has gotten better as the season went along. Last year, I thought his size and durability were a big question mark, and I had my doubts. But he is turning into a very good running back.
Kanka: A good choice. Although Notre Dame's run defense isn't as impressive as OSU's statistically, it is still ND's strong point. So, like Walker, Pittman will likely have to have a good game for his team to succeed
Matt: Exactly, so you are not one-dimensional. But playcalling helps too - passing on first down, draw plays, misdirection, keep everyone guessing.

Kanka: If you were Charlie Weis, how would you gameplan against the Ohio State Defense?
Matt: I think with OSU's team speed, you have to be quick. Short slants, screens - you want to get the ball outside, into your playmakers. But you are probably not going to have a lot of time. Spread the field. Make them go sideline to sideline.
Kanka: That is very similar to what ND did against Tennessee and BYU, so I guess we may end up seeing that again.
Matt: I think utilizing the running back in the passing game is important: wheel routes, those short dump off five yeard down field.

Kanka: Weis likes to run one-on-one WR screens, where the WR is expected to run past or over the CB for a few yards (he calls these "run substitutes"). But I'm not sure if those will be as effective against larger DBs.
Matt: Yeah, and you have Whitner and Salley manning the middle too. Guys who can hit and cover.

Kanka: How do Ohio State's linebackers do in pass coverage?
Matt: I think they do extremely well. The one question is: will Bobby Carpenter play? I havent heard, but I doubt it. And if he does who effective would he be?

Kanka: How does Carpenter's absence change things? I've heard high praise for a freshman safety/linebacker that could take his place.
Matt: Yeah, this kid is going to be a good one someday too. James Laurinaitis. 6-3, 231.
Kanka: There's another guy. More of a safety that "hits like a linebacker." I think he plays in nickel coverage?
Matt: Brandon Mitchell plays in nickel. 6-3, 205.

Kanka: Well Matt, I'm afraid I have to cut this short. But first, how about a prediction for the game?
Matt: I am guessing right now 31-21 OSU.

There you have it. If you have even less of a life than Matt or me, feel free to ask me about the "director's cut" edition of this interview. As for my prediction? As of right now, I'm thinking something in the 34-27 range in favor of ND.