Sunday, September 03, 2006

Notre Dame 14, Georgia Tech 10

Quarterback: When the game started, Brady Quinn was simply off. Anything thrown downfield wasn't coming within five yards of its intended mark. Maybe it was opening day jitters, or the pressure or complacency of Heisman hype, or just the pressure from the Yellow Jacket defense. Or, according to Charlie Weis, maybe it was coaching. As Quinn was struggling, Weis switched to simple screen passes to get his confidence up. Then, later in the game, Quinn was able to throw downfield when it counted. Past coaches may have kept Quinn throwing downfield come hell or high water. One thing lost may have Quinn's early "wildness," though: even though he was off, Quinn was sure to throw it in a place where either his guy was going to get it or no one was. There were at most one or two passes that even came close to being interceptions.
Speaking of coaching, the TV announcers made much of the fact that coach Chan Gailey put a headset on after Quinn's touchdown run, and that Tech's gameplan seemed to change. To me, it looks like GT abandoned their first half success in favor of last year's offense. Heck, the Jackets could have thrown a screen to Calvin Johnson on every play and marched right up and down the field. Did Gailey take over playcalling in the second half, costing his team the game? I will say this: if Charlie Weis had been the Georgia Tech head coach, Tech would have won that game easily (regardless of whether Weis would have move Reggie Ball to running back).

Running Back:

Courtesy AP/John Amis

This game was supposed to be Darius Walker's glorious homecoming. I'm still surprised that ABC failed to show Walker's family in the stands - unless you count a wide-angle shot of an ND section that included a green #3 jersey-clad Mr. Walker in the top right corner of the screen. Darius got off to a slow start, but finished with a typical Darius Walker day: 99 rushing yards, a touchdown, and four catches. Once Walker did get going, it seemed that he was picking up yards in larger chunks than usual. Maybe that's because he's healthy again, or maybe GT just got fatigued. It's only one game, so it's too early to tell if Walker will be more explosive than last year.
Late in the game, Walker was taken out to get some rest - perhaps an indication that fatigue was a factor on both sides of the ball. Needing an experienced runner that could hold onto the ball, Coach Weis gave the nod to Travis Thomas, who picked up 19 yards on 6 carries.

Fullback: Coach Weis showed faith in Asaph Schwapp as an offensive weapon. Schwapp was given the ball three times in short yardage situations, and each time he produced. On the other hand, though, Schwapp looked lost in pass blocking situations, often failing to pick up any blitzers.

Receiver: It's back to business for Rhema McKnight. His 8 catches ties a career high, and the 108 receiving yards is one of his personal best performances as well. Sure, there was a key drop and a disputed trap and hold, but not bad for a guy who hasn't played in a few months. Most importantly, McKnight made several key catches in traffic. These grabs helped give Quinn the confidence to turn the game around. (Likewise, once Quinn had confidence, he could zip passes into traffic more accurately, helping McKnight's confidence.) Jeff Samardzija added 6 catches for 74 yards. If that's the definition of a quiet day for Samardzija, I'll take it. Several of Samardzija's catches came on wide receiver screens - plays that last year went to Maurice Stovall and called for Stovall to run over a smaller defensive back. Samardzija showed that he could be just as physical as Stovall, which means Charlie Weis can rely on him to execute that play successfully down the road.
No other receivers caught passes in this game, and freshman running back Munir Prince did not see any touches either. But, given the circumstances, it is understandable that Brady Quinn would choose to rely on his proven veteran options.

Tight End: With the loss of Anthony Fasano, one had to wonder how much of an offensive weapon the tight end position would be this year. With 4 catches for 36 yards, John Carlson proved that Charlie Weis' offense is tight end-friendly as long as there's a halfway competent athlete playing that position. Carlson's catch off of a tip proved that he's more than a halfway competent athlete. Marcus Freeman added a catch of his own for 10 yards, his first reception since 2004. What's interesting is the variety of ways in which the tight end was used in this game. Both Carlson and Freeman saw a lot of time on the field to aid in blitz pickup. The five combined catches also showed that this offense never underestimates the value of the short, reliable pass, especially in the face of a blitz. Carlson and Freeman were also split out wide several times, and for several reasons. Forcing the base defense to react by spreading out or staying put, Brady Quinn could easier choose between a pass and a run. Also while split wide, the tight ends could block on the quick receiver screens. At least once, Carlson and/or Freeman were placed on the outside with McKnight or Samardzija in the slot. If they we lucky, the Irish would have caught GT with a cornerback on the tight end and a linebacker on the receiver. If GT chose to put the linebacker wide on the tight end and the corner in close, that opened up room for the run. What's my point? Just by being on the field, John Carlson and Marcus Freeman give the Irish offense a variety of options this year.

O-Line: If there's a preferred way to start your career as an offensive lineman, it certainly isn't on the road, as a tackle, against a defensive known for its complex blitz schemes. That's the task Sam Young faced, however, and he struggled at the start. Of course, the rest of the Irish line struggled as well, as penalties mounted and Brady Quinn was constantly knocked down or sacked. The turning point for the line came on Quinn's QB sneak touchdown. Center John Sullivan and right guard Bob Morton powered their men three yards deep into the end zone, giving Quinn a relatively easy path to the score. From that point on, the pressure and the penalties seemed to come far less frequently. A prime example of the new attitude on the line came in the form of Morton's veteran leadership. On a key third down in Yellow Jacket territory, Morton and Sam Young walked to the line hand in hand. With the crowd noise, Young would have trouble hearing the snap count, but Morton, right next to the center, wouldn't. With a simple squeeze of the hand, Morton could tell Young exactly when the ball was snapped. This may have been a directive from the coaching staff, but it still is what you want to see from your veteran players, especially considering how much an offense's success relies on the teamwork of its line.

D-Line: It seemed like a relatively quiet day for the Irish line, and for all intents and purposes, it was. The unit recorded 9 of the team's 50 tackles, led by Trevor Laws' 3, but all were made downfield. Considering the success the Yellow Jackets had with the run early on, these numbers make sense. Notre Dame did get some pressure on Reggie Ball late in the game, thanks partially to hometown defensive end Morrice Richardson, but the line wasn't able to down Ball in the backfield.

Linebacker: Thanks to early ineffectiveness by the linebackers, Notre Dame used their nickel package for most of the game. Maurice Crum did have a decent debut in his new position. Crum had six tackles, including the team's lone sack (with help from Mo Richardson's pressure) and another backfield stop. Hopefully, Crum's 2006 will mirror Corey Mayes' 2005, where Mayes slowly developed until he was regularly putting up double-digit tackle totals each game. Travis Thomas also made a decent debut at his new position, flying around the field and hitting hard. He had four tackles, two coming for a loss. Sadly, the linebackers didn't fare much better than the line as a unit. Not counting special team stops by Nick Borseti and Joe Brockington, Crum and Thomas' combined 10 tackles were the only stops by any Irish linebacker.


Courtesy AP/Ric Feld

If one position excelled on Saturday, it was the safeties. Tom Zbikowski led the team with 8 tackles. He seemed determined not to let anyone get by him. It was because of this attitude that he didn't miss a single tackle (or, if he did, I didn't see it). Chinedum Ndukwe's play was also much improved, especially with the Fiesta Bowl still fresh in everyone's mind (especially Brent Musburger's). Ndukwe's jarring hit on Calvin Johnson (above) was a key point in the game. Even despite some playaction out of the spread option, Zbikowski and Ndukwe never let anyone get past them, with or without the ball.
(By the way, did you know that Notre Dame played in the Fiesta Bowl last year? And that Tom Zbikowski is a boxer? And that Reggie Ball is only 5'8? Musburger and Bob Davie mentioned each fact twice within a span of three plays. Not that you're entirely surprised by that.)

Cornerback: It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't expected to be. The corners essentially lined up to try covering Calvin Johnson. The first to try was Ambrose Wooden. After a few missed tackles, it almost looked like he was taken out of the game completely. Next up was Mike Richardson, who was unfairly left out on an island trying to cover Johnson on a jump ball TD. The final contestant was freshman Darrin Walls. Welcome to college, kid. Surprisingly, Johnson only had one catch in the second half, when Walls was left in single coverage. Also surprisingly, but in a pleasant way, was the fact that Walls made the tackle. After that catch, Johnson didn't see the ball again. Shades of Larry Fitzgerald a few years ago. Calvin Johnson is one of the best receivers in the game, so one can't be too upset with the secondary's performance in this game. Kudos go to the coaching staff for calling for the smothering of Johnson - and to the players for executing.

Kicker: Two years ago, Bobby Renkes kicked like everyone else on the Notre Dame team - he could get it to the 10 yard line regularly, and a "great" kick was one that made it down to the five. Well, Renkes really learned how to kick during the past two years. Of his three kickoffs, two made the end zone, and one of those was downed for a touchback. Renkes' shortest kick made it to the one yard line. That's the kind of leg power the Irish have been desperately lacking for several years.
Carl Gioia's day wasn't nearly as good. He did convert both extra point attempts, but the fact that PAT conversions merit special mention tells you something about the rest of his performance. Gioia hooked attempts from 42 and 36 yards wide left in his second appearance as ND's starting field goal kicker. Many speculated that Notre Dame's kicking game could cost them a game this season, and that propecy almost came true on day one. Field goal tries will be watched with much scrutiny for the rest of the season, regardless of whether Gioia continues in that position.
(Note to ESPN: I know that the kicks weren't great, but that wasn't sophomore wide receiver Kris Patterson out there kicking. When writing up statistics, please realize that in college more than one person may wear the same number (in this case, 45).)

Punter: This fall, senior punter Geoff Price worked with alumnus Hunter Smith in an attempt to solve the inconsistency problems that have kept him on the bench for his entire college career. Apparently, the Most Accurate Holder in History is also a pretty good teacher, despite not knowing what a Sooner is. Price averaged 50.4 yards on 5 kicks, including a long of 61 on his first try.

Kick Returner: Freshman early entrant George West was the first Irish player to touch the football this season, and took advantage of a mediocre Tech coverage team by moving the ball 33 yards upfield. Later, David Grimes topped him with a 46-yard return. Not every team will be as sloppy as Georgia Tech, but it's still a promising start for both young players.

Punt Returner: Maybe the coaching staff has a little too much faith in Tom Zbikowski's ability to break tackles. Normally the team set up to return a punt will assign two people each to cover the punt team's "gunners." Notre Dame had GT's gunners in single coverage each time, and one has to wonder if that limited Zbikowski's performance. Zbikowski returned 4 punts for 30 yards, which is a fairly average total. His long was 17 yards.

Special Teams: Special teams ace Casey Cullen seemed to be everywhere on kick and punt coverage - a fact which not lost on his head coach. Still, he was only credited with one tackle. As mentioned above, the Irish did very well on kick returns, but were only average on punt returns. They also put up rather average numbers on kick and punt coverage, surrendering 17.5 yards per kick return and 8.0 yards per punt return. Georgia Tech's return game was less than stellar last year, and it was made a point of emphasis by the Jackets' coaching staff this offseason. What does that tell us about ND's performance? Very little. We'll just have to wait and see how things play out next week.