Wednesday, September 28, 2005

ND Football 2005

Issue 5: Purdue

Purdue Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

This isn't the Drew Brees/Kyle Orton "basketball on grass." (Or even Portland Trail Blazers basketball on grass, for that matter.) This Purdue team is getting it done on the ground - to the tune of 210 yards per game. The Boilermakers are lead by the three-headed attack of running backs Jerod Void, Kory Sheets, and Brandon Jones. Void is the best player in the rotation. On 36 carries, he has 240 yards in the positive direction, 6 in the negative, and 5 TDs. Not to far behind is Sheets, who on 32 carries is averaging 57.3 yards per game. With an 88-yard TD run and 23 yards in the negative direction, something tells me that Sheets is the flashy complement to Void's downhill running style. In addition to the three halfbacks, Purdue also features a QB that knows how to run. Brandon Kirsch has run 17 times for 108 yards in three games, not counting a scant two sacks. Look out for playmaker Dorien Bryant as well. The wide receiver has run 7 times for 49 yards in three games.
As I've said many times, Notre Dame can handle the run. Last year, though, they did have problems with mobile quarterbacks. However, that hasn't been the case yet this year. Not counting sacks, the Irish held Tyler Palko to 30 yards on 7 carries and Isaiah Stanback to 24 yards on 4 carries. Big leads do do wonders for your run defense, of course. Notre Dame's front seven will give up some rushing yards in this game. But, as long as the tackles are being made by Corey Mays and Brandon Hoyte, and not by safeties Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe, the defense should be able to keep Purdue's rushers at bay.

ND Rush Offense vs. Purdue Rush Defense

It's gotten to a point where a 100-yard rushing day by Darius Walker is basically the norm. Walker set a school record against Washington with his fourth straight 100 yard game. Walker has averaged 112 yards on 23 carries per game this season. After walker, ND's main running threat is Rashon Powers-Neal. In the three games he has been used, RPN has averaged 8 carries and 30 yards. He has also reached the end zone 4 times, two more than Walker. Quarterback Brady Quinn has been surprisingly mobile this year. Again not counting sacks, BQ has run 16 times for 100 yards.
Purdue has given up 337 yards on the ground this year. Hoo hoo. It's hard to get a good read on the Boilermaker run defense, however, as they gave up 9 yards to Arizona, then 301 to Minnesota. (Stats for Akron were not available, but my awesome powers of subtraction tell me that the Zips were only able to put up 27 yards against Purdue.) Darius Walker may not be Laurence Maroney, but the Irish offensive line is definitely better than a Pac-10 doormat's. Purdue has had 15 players combine for 23 stops in the backfield, which tells me their defense is very active. (Then again, what do I know?) Linebacker George Hall leads the team in tackles with 22, while defensive end Ray Edwards leads Purdue with 4.5 tackles for a loss. (Hopefully Edwards' uniform number 10 won't confuse Coach Charlie Weis too much.) Edwards, Stanford Keglar, and Bobby Iwuchukwu are said to make a formidable linebacking corps.

Purdue Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

New starter Brandon Kirsch isn't a Heisman candidate (now or before the season), but he's been doing just enough to complement the Purdue run game. Kirsch is averaging 213 yards passing per game, despite completing only 52% of his throws. He also has 4 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. As you can probably tell with a guy who completes only half of his passes, Purdue likes to throw the ball downfield. Three receivers have caught passes of 40 yards or longer, while two more have receptions of 30 yards or longer. As mentioned above, Dorien Bryant is the playmaker at the receiver position. Bryant has 18 receptions, twice as many as anyone else on the squad. He also has 247 yards, for an average of 82.3 yards per game. After Bryant, Kirch's main targets are his tight ends and 6'9 receiver Kyle Ingraham. Starting tight end Charles Davis is second on the team with 9 catches for 130 yards. He also has one touchdown catch. Ingraham has 8 catches for 133 yards, but surprisingly no touchdowns in the young season. Number two tight end Dustin Keller has only three catches, but two have been for touchdowns. So, look for the playaction in goal line sets. Also in goal line sets, look for Ingraham to (please) not be covered by a 5'8 defensive back. (Chinedum Ndukwe is the tallest starting DB at 6'2.)
Having played some good passing teams, and not having all the talent in the world at secondary, Notre Dame has survived with a "bend but don't break" philosophy (waa?) against the pass. Or should that be a "bend, but don't break often enough that the offense can't bail you out" philosophy? But, how much can you expect from a defense that doesn't have a good pass rusher on the defensive line and doesn't have a true free safety? Linebacker Brandon Hoyte leads the team in sacks with 4, while saftey Tom Zbikowski has two of Notre Dame's four interceptions. I'm no defensive coordinator, but I'm assuming the key to this game will be figuring out a way to shut down Dorien Bryant and pay attention to the tight ends without taking too many resources away from the run game. Of course, if it works, shutting down the run and forcing Kirsch and Bryant to beat them may be a decent strategy.

ND Pass Offense vs. Purdue Pass Defense

Brady Quinn has put up good numbers so far this year - 295 yards passing per game, 61.7% of his passes completed, 10 touchdowns, and only two interceptions. However, unlike the past two years, where Quinn has combined for almost 800 yards against Purdue, it may be better if BQ doesn't put up good numbers in this one. If Quinn doesn't put up big numbers, that normally means that ND has established the run well, and the Irish aren't playing from behind. If and when Quinn does go to the air, he'll have a few pretty good options. Jeff Samardzija has been Quinn's go-to guy this year. Samardzija has 21 catches, including 6 touchdowns, and is averaging 86.5 yards receiving per contest. Jeff has found the endzone in each game so far this season. Right on Samardzija's heels is tight end Anthony Fasano. Fasano is tied with Samadzija for the team lead in catches (21), and has 219 yards receiving this year. Fasano has been held without a touchdown this year, though. Out of the backfield, Darius Walker is averaging four catches per game. Receiver Mo Stovall is having the best season of his criticized career, with 15 catches, 254 yards, and a touchdown.
Purdue is giving up 305 yards passing per game, a number that includes 358 yards from Akron. A quick look at Tuesday's press conference reveals that that number is partially due to communication problems. I'll let you make of that what you want, but I'm pretty sure Coach Weis will be able to find something interesting in the game films. Purdue has gotten 9 sacks from nine different players. Defensive end Anthony Spencer leads the team with two. (Before your awesome powers of addition go off, may I point out that two players combined for a sack, and each were credited with half a sack.) Free safety Kyle Smith has two of Purdue's four interceptions. Purdue has only 10 pass breakups to Notre Dame's 22; unfortunately, I have no idea how to interpret that stat.

Special Teams

Purdue kicker Ben Jones has only attempted one field goal this year, but he made it from 47 yards. He is also 16 for 16 on extra points. For the Irish, DJ Fitzpatrick has made 6 of 7, which includes hitting one of two from 48 yards.
Sophomore punter Dave Brytus has a mediocre 37.5 yard average on 20 punts. He has put seven kicks inside the 20 and induced 12 fair catches, however. (Then again, short kicks will tend to induce fair catches, so maybe that's the plan.) On the other side, Fitzpatrick has punted 17 times for an average of 41.2 yards and a long of 60.
On kick returns, once again Dorien Bryant is the playmaker. Bryant has five returns for 93 yards, with an average of 18.6 and a long of 33. Carl Gioia and DJ Fitzpatrick have split kickoff duties this season. They're both averaging about 55 yards per kick, which starts their opponents on the 10 yard line. From there, Notre Dame's coverage teams are giving up 18 yards per return.
Justin Hoskins and Brandon Harris have been ND's primary kick returners this year. However, after a 31 yard return in the Washington game, David Grimes may see more time as a deep man on kicks. To this point, Hoskins has averaged 23 yards per return and Harris 18. Dave Brytus has averaged 60 yards per kickoff. That is an average start of the 5 yard line, but 9 of Brytus' 17 kickoffs have been touchbacks. The Boilermaker kick coverage team has been below average this year, surrendering 29 yards per return.
Reserve wide receiver Brian Hare is Purdue's primary punt returner. He hasn't done much, though. Hare has returned 6 punts for 19 yards, with a long of 6. Notre Dame's punt coverage team has been downright stifling, giving up a mere 4.7 yards per return.
Tom Zbikowsi has been the Irish punt returner this season. He has returned 6 kicks 95 yars, with a long of 25. Purdue's punt coverage team has been outstanding so far, giving up 5 yards on 4 returns.

Look for a big game from Samardzija, Walker, the O-Line, Ambrose Wooden, Corey Mays

ND 34, Purdue 30: Samardzija, Fasano, RPN, one by the defense, and two by DJ.

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Monday, September 26, 2005

Quick Hits

Sunday, September 25, 2005

ND 36, Washington 17

Quarterback: It's hard to find negatives when your quarterback completes 68% of his passes for 327 yards and no interceptions. That's exactly what Brady Quinn did on Saturday, as he picked apart the Husky secondary. Quinn also got the deep passing game on track, completing a 52-yard touchdown pass to a streaking Jeff Samardzija.

Running Back: Washington's front seven was able to stop Darius Walker in the backfield a few times, but in the end Walker was just too much. Notre Dame's starting halfback ended his day with 128 yards and a touchdown in just over three quarters of work. Walker's 128 yards were a personal best, and his fourth straight 100 yard game is a new school record. Walker was replaced by Travis Thomas. Those who remember Thomas' problems with fumblitis early last season were no doubt happy to see him almost singlehandedly march down the field for 52 yards and a touchdown. Thomas was sure to secure the football every step of the way. After Thomas' score, Jeff "Don't Call Me John" Jenkins picked up 4 yards on 3 carries.

Fullback: Rashon Powers-Neal returned to his familiar spot at starting fullback this week. Lined up at fullback and halfback, Powers-Neal rushed 9 times for 30 yards and also caught 4 passes for 28 yards.


Courtesy AP/John Froschauer

Three players on the Irish offense had "stat sheet stuffer" days. Quinn and Walker were the first two. Predictably, Jeff Samardzija was the third. Samardzija, highly praised but not highly used by Ty Willingham, picked up 164 yards in the air, including the aforementioned 52-yard TD bomb. Oh yeah, he also was credited with a breakup on a Washington Hail Mary pass. Maurice Stovall contributed 34 yards on 3 catches at the other receiver position.

Tight End: It was another day at the office for Anthony Fasano, as he picked up 66 yards on 6 catches. John Carlson added once catch for 15 yards.

O-Line: It wasn't a perfect day for the offensive line - Washington did make 8 stops in the backfield, and there was a short period of time when Darius Walker couldn't get anything going. But, you can't argue with the final results - 560 total yards of offense. The only sack of the day came when Jeff Samardzija couldn't find anyone open on a flanker reverse pass. Little is known about Bob Morton's ankle injury, but Charlie Weis said that Morton may have been available to return if the game had still been in doubt.

D-Line: It was another relatively quiet day for the Irish defensive line. Victor Abiamiri and Derek Landri had two of the team's three sacks.

Linebacker: Eight tackles, 3 for a loss, and one sack. Like Fasano's performance, it was just another day at the office for Brandon Hoyte. Corey Mays added a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Safety: You may or may not have noticed, but Chinedum Ndukwe had a big game on Saturday. The safety had seven tackles, including one in the backfield. Ndukwe also forced and recovered a fumble.

Cornerback: Ambrose Wooden led the team in tackles for the second time this year. I'm not sure that that's a good thing. I am sure, however, that his drive-killing end zone interception was one of the major turning points of the game.

Kicker: There was a fourth Notre Dame player with a stat sheet stuffer game, and it was kicker DJ Fitzpatrick. Despite a blocked extra point, Fitzpatrick still ended the day with 11 points. DJ made field goals from 25, 39, and 25 yards.

Punter: Being your team's kicker AND punter is easy when you only have to punt once per game. Still, Fitzpatrick's lone punt went only 33 yards.

Kick Returner: There was only one kick return by an Irish player in this game. David Grimes went 31 yards on that return.

Punt Returner: Tom Zbikowski had two punt returns in this game, one for 5 yards and one for 26.

Special Teams: Notre Dame's coverage teams were once again solid, giving up an average of 15 yards on 5 combined returns.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

ND Football 2005

Issue 4: Washington

Washington Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

For a PAC-10 team, Washington does have a decent run game. Running back Louis Rankin gets the bulk of the carries, about 19 per game, and is averaging 88.3 yards on the ground. Washington's other main running threat is quarterback Isaiah Stanback, who tucks-and-runs six or seven times a game, to the tune of 23.3 yards per contest. The only other runner with a significant number of carries is fullback James Sims. Sims' 14 carries for 28 yards looks downright gaudy for a blocking back in Ty Willingham's system.
Notre Dame has given up an average of 126 rushing yards per game, while the Huskies have gained 129.7 per. So, look for 125-130 yards from Washington runners this Saturday, right? Not so fast my friend. As baseball statheads will tell you, three games is too small a sample set. The Irish gave up just over 100 yards each to Pitt and and Michigan, then over 160 to MSU. Washington gained only 68 yards on the ground against Cal, but came back with 192 against Idaho. Notre Dame's defense has been stout against the run over the past few years. Their strength is once again their linebackers. Even if one has to spy Isaiah Stanback, there are still two qualified backers left to go after the play. Brandon Hoyte is the team's leading tackler with 29 stops, including 8 tackles for a loss. He's joined by Corey Mays and Maurice Crum, who each have 17 tackles this season.

ND Rush Offense vs. Washington Rush Defense

Notre Dame's workhorse this season has been Darius Walker. Fullback/halfback Rashon Powers-Neal is the team's second-leading rusher, who gained 60 yards his first two games. Powers-Neal didn't get a single carry against MSU, but there was a reason for that. Coach Charlie Weis concluded that he would need two halfbacks more than two fullbacks, so he moved Asaph Schwapp to the starting fullback spot with the intent of keeping RPN rested and ready when Walker needed a breather. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. Wisely, Weis has not revealed his plans for RPN this weekend.
Washington limited Idaho to 4 rushing yards last Saturday, and their average yards against is still 167 per game. (Also, Idaho did get 56 positive rushing yards while losing 52 to sacks.) Of course, Air Force will always put up big yards on the ground, and Cal has been known as a good running team as of late. Washington can get in the backfield, as nine players have made stops for a loss. Their leading tackler is linebacker Evan Benjamin with 24 tackles.

Washington Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

Isaiah Stanback took the starting quarterback job from Casey Paus, and Stanback runs what can only be described as a typical Ty Willingham offense. The quarterback averages 229 yards passing per game, and he has already hit 11 different receivers. Sonny Shackelford has been the primary target, with 12 catches for 199 yards thus far. Shackelford is joined at wide receiver by Anthony Russo and Craig Chambers, who have combined for 14 catches and 215 yards. Russo is the possesion receiver, with 9 catches for 86 yards, while Champers is the big play guy, with 5 catches for 129 yards and a TD. Washington's other target is 6-3, 280 lb. freshman Johnie Kirton, a tight end/H-back. Kirton has 8 receptions for 103 yards this season.
Notre Dame's pass defense did well in their first two games, aided by Dave Wannstedt's stubborn favorance of the run game and the Wolverine receivers' case of the dropsies. Things came back to bite them against MSU, as they surrendered 327 yards to Drew Stanton et al. ND has been criticized for its inexperience in the secondary and lack of a pass rush, both before and during the season. It will be interesting to see what defensive coordinator Rick Minter calls. If they stay in the base 4-3 against three receiver sets, will they spy the QB, and who will that spy be. I would assume that the Irish will try to stop the pass and force Washington to run. Then again, I'm just a guy sitting in front of his computer who's never played football, and Minter actually gets paid to think about these things.

ND Pass Offense vs. Washington Pass Defense

Overrated and overhyped? That's what some people, friend and foe, are calling Brady Quinn. Quinn has thrown for 854 yards, 9 TDs, and only 2 INTs. But, he's "only" 70 for 117, including 33 for 60 against MSU. Also, before the MSU game at least, Quinn was criticized for not throwing the deep ball. Of course, as a wise man once said, "you play to win the game," and if dump offs get the job done, why not stick to them? Quinn's leading receiver now is Anthony Fasano with 15 catches. Fasano, however, is questionable for Saturday with a shoulder injury. Also out is receiver Rhema McKnight, who at least has been upgraded to day-to-day. In their absence, Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall will have to continue to step up. Samardzija has been Quinn's Mr. Touchdown - 5 of his 13 catches have been for six points. Stovall, meanwhile, is coming off a huge 8 catch, 176 yard performance. However, two receivers can't do the job alone. Darius Walker ties Samardzija with 13 catches on the year, and Quinn will hope that his running back will continue to be a reliable dump-off option. Also needing to step up are receivers Matt Shelton and David Grimes and tight end John Carlson.
Washington's pass defense has been decent, giving up 223 yards per game. Remember, though, that that average includes games against Air Force and Idaho. The man to look out for is defensive tackle Manase Hopoi. The 290 pound defensive tackle has four of his team's 10 sacks. Notre Dame's interior line will have to stop Hopoi on pass plays, or Brady Quinn will have to effectively roll away from the pressure up the middle. Of course, Hopoi's pass pressure will hopefully be a moot point if ND can establish the run.

Special Teams

Washington kicker Evan Knudson is 4 for 5 in field goals, with a long of 46 yards. His Irish counterpart, DJ Fitzpatrick, is 3 for 4 with a long of 48.
The Huskies are likely very happy to have such a good punter in Sean Douglas. Douglas has punted 15 times, with an average of 44.5 yards, a long of 58, and 5 kicks inside the 20. For the Irish, Fitzpatrick has 16 punts with an average of 41.8 yards and a long of 60.
Washington's kick returners, cornerbacks Roy Lewis and Matt Fountaine, each have an average of 21 yards per return. Lewis has the long return for the Huskies at 38 yards. ND kickoff specialist Carl Gioia is averaging 55.8 yards per kick, putting the ball at about the 10 yard line each time. From there, the Irish are giving up 18.5 yards per return.
Notre Dame's kick return duties are shared by Justin Hoskins and Brandon Harris. Hoskins is averaging 23 yards on 4 returns, while Harris is averaging 17.7 yards on 3 returns. Evan Knudson averages 64.3 yards per kickoff. That's an average starting position of the 0.7 yard lines, and in fact 6 of his 14 kicks have been touchbacks. From there, the Washington coverage teams surrender 22.6 yards per return.
Receiver Anthony Russo has been the primary punt returner for the Huskies, with 5 returns for 14 yards. Insert your own Willingham special teams joke here. Notre Dame is yielding a stifling 4.1 yards per punt return.
Safety Tom Zbikowski has been Notre Dame's punt returner this year. On 4 returns, he's averaged 16 yards, with a long of 23. Washington, meanwhile, is giving up a regular 8 yards per punt return.

Look for a big game from Walker, Samardzija, Zbikowski

ND 34, Washington 20: The backs get one on the ground and one in the air, plus receptions by Samadzija and Stovall, and two by DJ.

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MSU 44, ND 41

Quarterback: On a positive note, Brady Quinn had 487 yards passing on Saturday. On a negative note, Brady Quinn had 487 yards passing on Saturday. Quinn put his name near the top of the record book with his 60 pass attempts (Terry Hanratty, 63, 1967), 33 completions (Joe Theisman, 33, 1970), and 487 yards (Theisman, 526, 1970). But, you'd rather see Darius Walker put his name in the record book, as that would have been an indication that the Irish were able to establish the run.

Running Back: Walker did end up with 116 yards, but most of those came after MSU dropped into a soft zone in the second half. Walker was held to under 50 yards in the first half, often stifling him at the line. He was also held to 24 yards on 5 receptions, as the Spartans seemed to have the dump-offs and screens scouted very well. Rashon Powers-Neal was listed as the second-string halfback for this game, but he ended up without a carry.

Fullback: With RPN at halfback, Asaph Schwapp made his debut at starting fullback. It was a debut he'd rather forget, however. Schwapp rushed 5 times for -1 yards, and lost a key fumble on the goal line.

Receiver: I've been told to tell you that Mo Stovall is a god, but I have never been one to push my religion on others. Despite a mistake here and there, including a hold that nullified a Walker TD run and a few drops, Stovall did have a great game. Stovall ended with 8 catches for 176 yards and 1 TD. He came in with much hype, and was criticized heavily for not living up to it. However, for one game, he lived up to most of that hype, asserting himself as a reliable option on third and long, and by finally becoming a deep threat who can catch the jump ball. This could be seen as a breakout game for Stovall, but the pessimist in me says he'll be back to his old ways. I sincerely hope I'm wrong, though. Meanwhile, Jeff Samardzija continued to be a fantasy stud with 96 yards and 3 TDs, while Matt Shelton had 6 catches for 87 yards. In Rhema McKnight's absence, freshman David Grimes made his first collegiate reception for 11 yards.

Tight End: Anthony Fasano had another Anthony Fasano-like day, 7 receptions for 93 yards.

O-Line: This may have been the first bad game by the line. But, considering how they've been playing, that's not too much of a put-down. As stated above, Walker did have trouble running between the tackles in the first half. Also, Brady Quinn was sacked three times and hurried several more times.

D-Line: Once again, the defensive line was heavily criticized for their lack of a pass rush. The team was only able to sack quarterback Drew Stanton once, and that sack came from cornerback Mike Richardson. Victor Abiamiri had seven tackles, including two for a loss. But, other than that, the line didn't do much. It was interesting to note that, when going to a nickel set, the Irish removed defensive end Chris Frome in order to keep all three linebackers on the field.

Linebacker: As stated above, all three linebackers remained on the field for nickel sets. This makes sense, as this position is supposed to be the strong point of this defense. Once again, Brandon Hoyte led the team in tackles, with Maurice Crum and Corey Mays hot on his heels.

Safety: Again, again, the Irish are really playing two strong safeties with no free safeties. There's not much positive you can say about the secondary when the opposing quarterback throws for 327 yards and 3 TDs.

Cornerback: See above. I don't want to think about it any more.

Kicker: DJ Fitzpatrick did all you could ask of him. He made from 48 yards, which I believe is a new career high, before missing from the same distance. When the game was tight, he also took over kickoff duties, and he made a 44 yarder in overtime.

Punter: DJ had an average day punting. He averaged 40 yards on 4 punts, with a long of 50.

Kick Returner: It was another average day for Notre Dame's kick returners, as Justin Hoskins and Brandon Harris combined for 86 yards on 4 returns. Unfortunately, at the school of Tim Brown, Rocket Ismail, and Julius Jones, the fans expect a lot more than "average."

Punt Returner: Tom Zbikowski returned two punts for a total of 22 yards.

Special Teams: Notre Dame's coverage teams got good work in, and they gave up nothing big. MSU averaged 20.8 yards on 6 kick returns and 2.0 yards on 3 punt returns.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

ND Football 2005

Issue 3: MSU

MSU Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

A new year and a new offense for the Spartans. Despite running multiple-receiver sets, Michigan State is still averaging 276 yards per game on the ground. The three-headed attack is led by Jehuu Caulcrick, Javon Ringer, and Jason Teague. Teague, the starter, is questionable with a suspension for misdemeanor assault. If he and his 89 yards from week one don't play, Caulcrick's 114.5 YPG and Ringer's 74.5 should be able to amply cover. MSU's primary formation calls for three receivers and a tight end, so there is no fullback. Quarterback Drew Stanton is always a running threat, despite only picking up 3 yards on the ground next week.
Notre Dame can handle the run in its base 4-3, but how will it do in its nickel and dime formations. This week may be the first showcase of the Apache position. Will linebacker Maurice Crum stay in to guard against the run, covering a wide receiver when necessary? Or will the Irish employ the nickel, in the hopes that the front four and the very good Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays are enough against Stanton and the Spartan backs?

ND Rush Offense vs. MSU Rush Defense

Darius Walker has once again been a model of consistency, with games of 100 and 104 yards so far. As one source mentioned, Walker has yet to break the big one, but he gets as much as he can out of each single run. Behind him (or, should I say in front of him), Rashon Powers-Neal has been used effectively when lining up at both fullback and halfback. RPM has averaged 30 yards per game thus far.
Michigan State's run defense has yet to see a true test in Kent State and Hawaii. That hasn't stopped them from getting in the backfield, though. The Spartans have already picked up 13 tackles for a loss en route to a 68.5 YPG average against them. MSU's answer to the Apache linebacker is the "Bandit," SirDarean Adams (seriously, do MSU recruit solely based on unusual first names?). Adams leads the team with 16 tackles and 3 backfield stops. Representative of their recent opponents' lack of run games, linebacker Kaleb Thornhill and DE Michael Bazemore are the only non-defensive back among the team's top 8 tacklers.

MSU Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

An Urban Meyer-like spread attack has gotten returning starter Drew Stanton> off to a good start at quarterback. Stanton is averaging just under 300 passing yards per game, albeit against the likes of Kent (not a) State and Hawaii. Stanton has a trio of receivers putting up great numbers so far. In two games, Kyle Brown, Jerramy Scott, and Terry Love have combined for 31 catches and 452 yards. Brown and Scott appear to be the go-to guys, each with 10+ catches, while Love and Matt Trannon look to be the deep threats. All in all, Staton has hit 12 different targets, but most of his passes will be going to the four wide receivers.
Notre Dame, not thought to have a good pass defense this year (or for the pass 3+ years), has limited opponents to 221.5 passing yards per game in 2005. Granted, those numbers have come from two supposedly good passing offenses who greatly underperformed against the Irish. Michigan State's multiple receiver sets will test the Irish secondary, especially non-starters like Leo Ferrine, David Bruton, LaBrose Hedgemon, and Terrail Lambert. I'm just speculating here, but I wouldn't be surprised if Anthony Vernaglia got some playing time in this one as well. To aid the secondary, the pass rush will have to step up. So far, the team's sack leader has been Brandon Hoyte with 3. If the line can be effective with just a four man rush, with the occassional blitz from Hoyte and Corey Mays thrown in, Notre Dame should be able to (relatively) contain the Spartan passing attack. Of course, the blitzes will have to be chosen wisely, or else Tom Zbikowski will have a busy day going after running backs on draw plays.

ND Pass Offense vs. MSU Pass Defense

Notre Dame's pass offense to this point may not be exciting, but it is effective. Brady Quinn has completed 37 of his 57 pass attempts for 367 yards. Not counting Darius Walker's 51 yard TD run on a screen pass, Quinn's longest pass play has been for 27 yards. Walker and TE Anthony Fasano have been Quinn's favorite targets so far, with 8 catches each. Next is receiver Jeff Samardzija, who has 7 catches and has caught two of Quinn's four touchdowns. Samardzija also leads the team in yards per game with 43. A big weapon missing this Saturday will be Rhema McKnight, who left the Michigan game with a knee injury. McKnight is not lost for the entire season, but he definitely won't be ready for the Michigan State game. Starting in McKnights place will be speedster Matt Shelton, who has only one catch in limited action so far this year. However, it will likely be Samardzija who will step up in Rhema's absence.
Despite the relatively weak competition, Michigan State has given up some yardage in the air. 268.5 yards per game, to be exact. Their "big play" numbers aren't too impressive, either. Kaleb Thornhill and cornerback Ashton Watson have the team's only two interceptions, while five players have contributed one sack a piece.

Special Teams

Michigan State's placekicker is junior John Goss, who has no field goal attempts in 2005 or 2004. He is perfect on PAT's in 8 attempts, however. For the Irish, returning placekicker DJ Fitzpatrick has made his lone field goal attempt, coming from 43 yards.
John Goss handles the punting duties for the Spartans, and I'm frankly surprised that he's been used 5 times already this year. Fields has an average of 44.4 yards and a long of 67. Fitzpatrick has punted 12 times for the Irish in 2005, with an average of 42.3 yards and a long of 60.
The MSU kick returners for Saturday are listed as Demond Williams and SirDarean Adams. However, only Williams, Jerramy Scott, and Jaren Hayes have had returns so far this year. Each has had one - Williams' was for 14 yards, Scott's for 11, and Hayes' for 23. ND kickoff specialist (aka "Make sure DJ's leg doesn't fall off specialist") Carl Gioia is averaging 55.5 yards per kick, giving opponents a start around the 10 yard line. From there, the Irish are giving up 16.9 yards per kick return.
Justin Hoskins and Brandon Harris are ND's kick returners. Hoskins has returned two kicks for 24 yards each, while Harris has had one return for 11 yards. MSU's kickoff specialist is Brandon Fields averages 63.5 yards per kick. That means that, when Fields' kicks don't reach the end zone (as 6 of 14 have this year), they make it to about the two yard line. From there, the Spartans have given up an average average of 21.5 yards per return.
Kyle Brown has primarily handled punt returns for the Spartans, although fellow receivers Terry "Don't Call me Spoony" Love and Carl Grimes have also seen action. Brown has been the main threat, picking up 63 yards on 3 returns, including a long of 46. ND's punt coverage team has been stifling so far this year, giving up only 5.2 yards per return.
ND's punt return duties will again be handled by a rotation of David Grimes and Tom Zbikowski. Zbikowski is the only player to actually have a return this year. He's had two, in fact, one for 19 yards and one for 23. Michigan State, meanwhile, is very good on punt coverage as well, giving up only 6.3 yards per return.

Look for a big game from Walker, Samardzija, Mays, Zbikowski, Fitzpatrick

ND 27, MSU 20: Walker and RPN on the ground, Shelton in the air, and two kicks by DJ (one set up by a turnover) will be just too much for the Spartans.

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Monday, September 12, 2005

The Weekend in Review

NFL Kickoff Edition

NCAA Football

Ohio 16, Pitt 10: For the second week in a row, Pitt basically didn't show up. An example of this is Blades - instead of being the tough leader, he's turning into a crybaby. Wannstedt is being stubborn - trying to force the run game instead of utilizing the talent he has (Palko and Lee). Meanwhile, the word on the street is that some Pitt fans are already turning on Wanny.

Texas 25, tOSU 22: For some reason, I actually had trouble watching this one. Oh yeah, I remember why now: Brent Musberger playing the role of the "drunk 'that guy'" to the Ohio State linbackers' "girl who's kinda hot but not as much as the drunk guy thinks she is." "Senator" Jim Tressel (is he called Senator because he's so corrupt)would have been second-guessed for the rest of the season about putting in Justin Zwick for what was going to be the winning two-minute drill until Zwick fumbled. But, with a chance for redemption at the one, Troy Smith took a safety. Two drives, two plays. A question for you football experts in the audience: in the NFL, the saying is that the goal line "extends around the world." That is, if a player leaps from in bounds and crosses the goal line with his body and the ball entirely out of bounds, it's still a good touchdown. However, in this game, the announcers kept saying that the Texas running back "didn't get the ball inside the pylon." The play was reviewed and determined not to be a touchdown, so apparently the NFL and college rules are different.

Virginia Tech 45, Duke 0: Why cut into the ND-Michigan game to show highlights from this game? Why is Marcus Vick a player of the week candidate for throwing 3 TDs against Duke?

Iowa State 23, Iowa 3: So, uh, wow. Iowa QB Drew Tate left this game early after suffering a possible concussion when making a tackle following one of his interceptions. Does the outcome of this game somehow vault Tate to the top of the Heisman list?

Georgia 17, South Carolina 15: If Iowa-Iowa State was Exhibit A in the case against preseason rankings, was this game Exhibit B? Sure, the Gamecocks are playing on a new-coach high under Steve Spurrier, but does a Georgia team that lost some big stars really deserve to start #9?

FSU 62, The Citadel 10: Hey, isn't that Sack Lodge playing linebacker for the Seminoles?

Oklahoma 31, Tulsa 15: Oklahoma lucks out in the polls this week. Since the pollsters don't actually watch the game, they'll likely glance over the fact that Tulsa was winning 9-7, then was a missed two-point conversion from tying it at 17 all before a last-second interception return on a despiration drive turned a 24-15 OU lead into a 31-15 win.


Bengals 27, Browns 13: A win's a win, and a loss is a loss, but this one wasn't all negative for the Browns. Trent Dilfer, despite two interceptions, looked like a competent and composed NFL quarterback. Reuben Droughns ran hard out of the backfield and as a kick returner. He had 78 yards on 12 carries; if this game hadn't been a relative shootout, he would have easily gone over 100. Frisman Jackson, who to this point was known more for his throwing ability (the former quarterback was used several times for Hail Mary passes) and for wearing Bernie Kosar's #19. But, with Kellen Winslow and Aaron Shea not playing, and with Steve Heiden going down during the game, the Browns ran thin on options at tight end. Now wearing #88, the 6-3 Jackson stepped in as a third receiver for most of the second half, and he became a reliable option for Dilfer, catching 8 passes for 128 yards and Cleveland's lone TD. Even Jeff Faine pitched in with a catch on this one. A ball intended for Antonio Bryant bounced of the referee's head where it was caught by Faine. Instead of taking the illegal touching penalty, the Bengals let Faine's loss of 1 stand. The final positive came from kicker Phil Dawson. A case of the "yips" came soon after his field goal streak ended last year, and the yips continued into training camp. However, Dawson made a 29-yard field goal to open the scoring, and later made a 35-yard extra point following a personal foul. Now, the negatives. Well, compared to the last few years, giving up 129 yards to Rudi Johnson is neither an improvement or a decline. However, in not wanting to give up the deep ball, the Browns pass defense, albeit thin at cornerback due to injuries, turned Carson Palmer into Peyton Manning. Palmer dinked and dunked his way to 280 yards on 26/34 passing. Finally, penalties were an issue for the Browns, to the tune of 7 for 56 yards.

Patriots 30, Raiders 20: Caught the first half of this one with F-Bomb and some Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale. New England's defense wasn't perfect, but something tells me that Bill Belichick will be able to may them play "good enough" all year to get the win.

Lions 17, Packers 3: When you look at the weapons the Lions have on offense, you realize that all they need is a halfway decent line to succeed. Apparently, that line is halfway decent. Meanwhile, is Detroit's secondary that good, or is Green Bay just a bad team this year? (Or, is my grandpa right - do the Packers just show up when they need to?) I dare say that if the Browns have a good game in Green Bay next week, it's a very winnable game for them.

Falcons, Eagles: (About to kickoff at the time of this writing.) Holy cow, we've got a major Charlie Foxtrot on our hands!


Indians 12, Twins 4: I was lucky enough to have club seats for this Sunday night game. The only thing better than scoring 10 runs in the first two innings (chasing not one but two starters - Carlos Silva and Joe Mays from the game) against the hated Twins was the "anything you can do, I can do better" way in which the Tribe offense did it. The book on Silva was obviously to jump on him early in the at bat and the Indians did just that. Grady Sizemore led off with a triple, followed by Coco Crisp with a double. Soon after, Victor Martinez homered just over a leaping Lew Ford in center. On any other night, the spotlight would have been on Crisp, who finished 4 for 5 with doubles in each of his first two at bats. But not on this night. This night belonged to Grady Sizemore. By the time the second inning was over, Sizemore had already completed the two toughest phases of the cycle, with a triple and a homer. He ended his night 3 for 4 with a walk, three runs, and three RBI. To cap things off, he made a spectacular leaping, tumbling catch against the wall in the eighth, causing cheers of "Grady! Grady!" to rise from the best crowd Jacobs Field had seen in months. (In an attempt to draw good numbers for ESPN2, all tickets except club seats were $5.) Cliff Lee, acquired along with Sizemore in the Bartolo Colon deal, had Cleveland fans saying, "Bartolo who?" as he improved his record to 16-4.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

ND 17, Michigan 10

Quarterback: You don't have to be perfect for a whole game, as long as you can be perfect (or near perfect) for a few key drives. At times, Brady Quinn looked shaky, often throwing behind his intended receiver. But twice Quinn was near perfect, leading scoring drives of 76 and 73 yards, each capped off with a 5-yard touchdown pass. In the end, Quinn did complete 63% of his passes (19 for 30). He hasn't completed many (if any) deep balls this season, but to this point he hasn't had to.

Running Back: Another year, another workhorse-like performance against Michigan for Darius Walker. Walker may have found Michigan's run defense to be a bit stouter than Pitt's, but the only halfback that Charlie Weis used on Saturday was still able to turn 26 carries into 104 yards. Walker was credited with one fumble, but that came on a botched exchange from Quinn; it's arguable who was at fault there. (In the end, it was a moot point, as the Irish defense was able to force a turnover on downs at their own five yard line.) Darius Walker also led the team in catches with 5 for 22 yards.

Fullback: It was not as glamorous a day for Rashon Powers-Neal, but he was still able to pick up 19 yards on 6 carries. Asaph Schwapp joined in with 2 carries for 8 yards.


Courtesy AP/The Detroit News (Steve Perez)

Rhema McKnight began his day with a 5-yard touchdown reception, and ended it with what appears to be a twisted knee. Results from a halftime MRI will reveal the extent of his injury. When McKnight went down, in stepped Jeff Samardzija with 4 catches for a team-leading 52 yards. Included in those four catches was Samardzija's own 5-yard TD reception, this one off a deflection from a Wolverine linebacker. Maurice Stovall added two catches for 17 yards, and Matt Shelton caught his first pass of the year, a 4-yarder.

Tight End: Anthony Fasano didn't have a flashy game, but he was reliable as a true tight end should be. Fasano had 4 catches for 18 yards.

O-Line: The line gave Darius Walker another 100-yard rushing game. As a team, Notre Dame surrendered three sacks. However, two came from cornerback Leon Hall, and one of those came when Hall rushed from the blind side, undetected by Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija, the slot receiver assigned to pass block on that play.

D-Line: When the #3 team in the nation goes 0 for 3 in red zone chances, that speaks volumes for your defense as a whole. But, when that #3 team is stopped twice on quarterback sneaks from the one, that speaks volumes for your defensive line. (Granted, the second stop was due to a fumbled snap, but it's still an accomplishment.) The line didn't record many tackles in this game - Ronald Talley led the unit with two, Derek Landri had a stop for a loss, and Brian Beidatsch had the line's lone sack. But the line did do an outstanding job of getting their hands up to knock down Chad Henne's passes. Five linemen each knocked down a pass, including Talley, Landri, Chris Frome, Trevor Laws, and Victor Abiamiri.

Linebacker: Notre Dame's linebacking corps looked like it was taking a big loss coming into this year. Only three players on 2004's team had decent playing experience, and two of those players graduated. The only returning starter, Brandon Hoyte, was great against the run but supposedly weak against pass coverage. However, something happened this offseason - Hoyte developed into a complete player. BHoyte had 12 tackles, a sack, and a textbook pass breakup against Michigan. Another pleasant surprise has been 5th year senior Corey Mays. Mays, who has been primarily a special teamer his whole career, played like he was a four year starter on Saturday, contributing with 8 tackles and 2 pass breakups. Also getting in on the act was Maurice Crum with 5 tackles and a forced fumble.


If there was an award for "Unit of the Week," it would definitely go to the Irish safeties for the Michigan game. The picture of Tom Zbikowski says it all - he's lost some of the gold paint off his helmet, and traded it in for some blood and blue helmet paint. Both Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe had takeaways on the one yard line that broke the hearts of Michigan fans. Zbikowski ended a 14-play Michigan drive by stepping in front of tight end Tyler Ecker for an interception in the third quarter. As if finding a million dollar needle in a haystack, Ndukwe alertly reached into a goal line pileup to retrieve the football after Chad Henne fumbled the snap on a quarterback sneak. Granted, the safety play wasn't perfect - Michigan scored their lone touchdown when Zbikowski bit on a short route, leaving receiver Mario Manningha open on a deep post - but their heads up momentum swinging turnovers helped the Irish win this game.

Cornerback: Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. There were countless times when Chad Henne had a receiver open on a deep route, only to watch that receiver drop the ball. But, then again, it wasn't only luck that kept the Wolverine passing game in a relative state of check. Star receiver Jason Avant was incredibly quiet for most of the game, being held to "only" 5 catches and "only" 90 yards. Henne's only reliable option for most of the game was tight end Tyler Ecker, who ended up with 7 catches for 74 yards. So, although they had some help, a big round of applause is still due to defensive coordinator Rick Minter, defensive backs coach Bill Lewis, and the trio of Ambrose Wooden (5 tackles), Mike Richardson (5), and nickel back Leo Ferrine (1).

Kicker: DJ Fitzpatrick had only one field goal opportunity, but it was a big one. Fitzpatrick's 43-yard attempt at first looked like it had plenty of distance but was headed wide right. Then, the ball bit hard down and to the left like a Fergie Jenkins slider, barely tucking itself inside the crossbar and right upright. It was a key score for the Irish, giving them a two-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter.

Punter: Another week, another chance for Fitzpatrick to show that he deserves to be the scholarship punter on a top 25 team. DJ had 9 punts in this game, averaging 41.2 yards per. His long was a 60-yard bomb that drove Steve Breaston back inside the 20.

Kick Returner: On ND's lone kick return opportunity, Justin Hoskins returned the ball 24 yards.

Punt Returner: Notre Dame was only able to return one of Michigan's eight punts. Tom Zbikowski took the ball 19 yards on his lone opportunity.

Special Teams: It was as if Notre Dame's coverage teams had Brad Nessler's audio feed in their helmets. Every time Nessler warned that "this could be the time Breaston breaks one," the Irish special teams stepped up. Steve Breaston returned 6 punts and 2 kickoffs for a total of only 61 yards. Breaston's longs were a 15 yard punt return and a 20 yard kick return. Grant Mason also returned two kicks, for 23 and 19 yards.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

ND Football 2005

Issue 2: Michigan

Michigan Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

Michael Hart burst onto the scene in 2004, scoring 9 touchdowns and averaging 121.2 yards per game on the ground. Last week against Northern Illinois, he picked up right where he left off, gaining 117 yards and one touchdown on 27 carries. Freshman Kevin Grady is Hart's primary backup. Grady had a respectable debut against NIU, picking up 42 yards on 9 carries. Three other running backs saw token carries last week, but oddly enough no one listed on the roster as a fullback touched the ball. That of course doesn't rule out a tailback lining up as Hart's blocking back. But, it will be interesting to watch on Saturday if the fullback simply isn't a weapon in Lloyd Carr's offense, or if the Wolverines were pulling punches in an attempt to keep the tape reviewers Irish off guard. A quick look at Michigan's 2004 stats indicates that the former may be the case here.
Notre Dame's defense in recent years has been known as a hard-hitting group of run stoppers. Against Pitt last week, they didn't disappoint. The Irish surrendered 103 yards on the ground against the Panthers, with 55 of those yards coming on one play. Notre Dame's run defense is lead by senior linebacker Brandon Hoyte, who was in the backfield for a stop 5 times (ok, 4.5 times) last week.

ND Rush Offense vs. Michigan Rush Defense

Notre Dame's running game ran over, around, and through Pitt last week. Darius Walker, whose 2004 debut will remembered for a long time by both Notre Dame and Michigan fans, started the season on a fine note with exactly 100 rushing yards. Fullback Rashon Powers-Neal, who also lined up at tailback on short yardage and goal line situations, turned 8 carries into 41 yards and 3 touchdowns, earning him the first ever KankaNation Horse Trailer award. Even quarterback Brady Quinn got in on the act, choosing his spots to the tune of 5 rushes for 49 yards. Walker's primary backup, if you don't count Powers-Neal, is Travis Thomas, who picked up 40 yards in a mop-up role against the Panthers. Overall, the running backs and the offensive line were completely dominant in the ground game against the Panthers.
On most days of the week, a Big Ten run defense is much better than a Big East run defense. Will Notre Dame pick up 275 yards on the ground this week like they did last week? To quote a certain computer engineering professor at ND, "Probably not." However, the U of M Blogosphere (see below) is still worried about what Walker, Charlie Weis, and an experienced Irish o-line can accomplish on the ground this week. Word on the 'net is that run defense is one of the weaknesses of this year's Wolverine squad. The 211 rushing yards given up to mid-major NIU support that thesis. If Michigan wants to stop Walker et al. (and I'm assuming they do, since winning football games is a good thing), they'll have to rely on another big game from linebackers Chris Graham and Scott McClintock. Graham and McClintock combined for 19 tackles to lead the Wolverines against Northern Illinois. In addition, Graham made 2 of Michigan's 4 tackles in the backfield.

Michigan Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

Chad Henne, yet another sophomore starting (and starring) in this offense, passed for 2743 yards, 25 TDs, and 12 interceptions last year, very good for a freshman in a big-time program. I'm also told he looks good in yellow spandex pants, but I was never a good judge of that sort of stuff. Like Hart, Henne picked up where he left off to start the 2005 season, completing 20 of 31 passes for 227 yards, 2 TDs, and no interceptions. There's no question who Henne's primary target is: senior receiver Jason Avant. Avant is said to have amazing hands, and he proved it last week with 9 catches for 127 yards. Michigan's #2 receiver, Steve Breaston, is off to a shaky start in 2005, catching only 2 passes in week one. Michigan's tight end is Tim Massaquoi. He, Breaston, and the backs will be catching any passes that don't go Avant's way.
As good as Notre Dame's has been over the past few years, there pass defense has left a little to be desired (or a lot to be desired, if it's a late-season game with Heisman implications). A supposedly nonexistent pass rush had a good day against Pittsburgh, as four players combined for five sacks. Brandon Hoyte, who is showing flashes of becoming a complete player, led the team with two sacks. Safety Tom Zbikowski had the team's lone interception.

ND Pass Offense vs. Michigan Pass Defense

A perfectionist would say that Brady Quinn got off to a rough start against Pitt - his only options early on were to run or dump the ball of to Walker. When he did go downfield, he had time, but it was forced (this includes his lone interception). But then, adjustments were made, and Quinn was able to hit the "usual suspects" downfield. Quinn spread the ball very evenly: one receiver had 4 catches (tight end Anthony Fasano), three had 3 (Walker, Rhema McKnight, and Jeff Samardzija), two had 2 (Maurice Stovall, who I'm told wasn't at fault for that dropped screen pass, and John Carlson), and one with 1 (RPN). Look for Quinn, and perhaps more importantly Charlie Weis, to again attempt to use all available weapons effectively.
The Huskies of NIU gained 200 yards on 17-25 passing last week. This comes a year after Michigan gave up about 200 yards per game in the air in 2004, a very respectable number. The Wolverines only managed one sack, by linebacker LaMarr Woodley, and had one interception by cornerback Grant Mason. Michigan's coaching staff claimed they were running a simplistic defense to avoid tipping their hands to ND. Is that the case, or are they trying to hide a weak pass rush? (I'm not implying anything - I honestly don't know, and that's why I'm asking.) If there isn't a pass rush, will Charlie Weis be able to slowly pick apart the Wolverine pass coverage? Besides the way the Irish secondary deals with Avant and Massaquoi, the way Brady Quinn and Company react to a good pass defense will be the matchup of the game.

Special Teams

Michigan returns Garrett Rivas as their placekicker. After converting 19-24 field goals in 2004, Rivas missed from 48 and made from 38 and 23 against NIU. Rivas' long in 2004 was 47 yards. Kicking again for ND is DJ Fitzpatrick, who did not have a field goal attempt last week, but who did go 11-15 with a long of 47 in 2004.
Michigan has a new punter in 2005 in Ross Ryan. Ryan had one punt against NIU for 41 yards. That punt landed inside the 20. DJ Fitzpatrick, once he was finally needed against Pitt, had three punts, averaging 45.7 yards with a long of 54.
The Wolverines had three kickoff returns last week: Breaston went 17 yards, Grant Mason 16, and backup WR Adrian Arrington 15. ND kickoff specialist Carl Gioia averaged 52.1 yards per kick, meaning that the opposing team caught the ball just inside the 15 each time. Once Pitt did receive the ball, they returned it an average of 17.5 yards, a respectable but not great number.
Backups Justin Hoskins and Brandon Harris handled kick return duties for the Irish. Hoskins' lone return netted 24 yards, while Harris' gained 11. Garrett Rivas (assuming he's the kickoff guy) has a boot when it comes to kickoffs. Five out of seven kicks against Norther Illinois were touchbacks. When there was a return, it was for about 16 yards.
Michigan did not have a punt return last week, but I will assume those duties will once again go to Steve Breaston. Breaston averaged 12.2 yards per return and had 1 return TD in 2004. Making things all the more intriguing is the fact that Notre Dame did not yield a punt return last week. In 2004, they gave up 8.2 yards per return.
Notre Dame's lone punt return opportunity against Pitt came to Tom Zbikowski, who turned it into a 23 yard gain. NIU's lone return last week netted 1 yard again Michigan's punt coverage team.

Look for a big game from Fasano, RPN, Samardzija, the O-Line, Hoyte, and the ends (Victor Abiamiri and Chris Frome)

ND 30, Michigan 24: Walker and RPN on the ground, Fasano in the air, and 3 by DJ.

Michigan Blogs

Blue Notes
Football Insiders (also a great NFL site and former home of the TMQ)
Straight Bangin'
iBlog for Cookies
Rob in Madtown
Big House Football
Motown Sports Revival
Blah Me to Death
Blue Cats and Red Sox
The Blog that Yost Built
SportsLog Michigan
ArborBlogs Sports
Dangerous Logic
Fanblogs Michigan

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.