Sunday, September 10, 2006

Notre Dame 41, Penn State 17

Quarterback: If Brady Quinn was ever really "off track" to start the season, he got back on in the second quarter. Quinn finished 25 of 36 for 287 yards and 3 TDs. The important thing through all of this is that Quinn rarely risked turning the ball over. There was one pass that should have been intercepted, but that was it. There may have been other times where it looked like he was forcing the ball into a tight space. But when your receiver makes the catch, it's called "threading the needle" and not "forcing it." Quinn seemingly also refuses to simply throw the ball away. He was sacked three times and scrambled 5 times, both numbers slightly higher than usual. But, as with the Georgia Tech game, Quinn never just chucked a pass into the first row when no one was open. The passes may have seemed like overthrows, but Quinn was putting the ball in a place where the defender had no shot, but perhaps his receivers still did. Late in the game, Evan Sharpley made his Notre Dame debut. Sharpley was unable to find an open receiver on the lone passing play called for him, and instead scrambled for 2 yards.

Running Back: Darius Walker understandably had a tough time running against Penn State's talented linebackers, gaining only 56 yards on 20 carries. So, he found other ways to contribute. Walker led the team with 7 receptions, totalling 72 yards and a touchdown. Travis Thomas was rewarded for his 43-yard run on a fake punt with two chances to finish the job. Thomas was stuffed on 2nd and Goal from the 1, but converted on 4th and Goal. Late in the game, Munir Prince was given his first chances to showcase his talent. With the defense expecting the run, Prince went for -2 yards and no gain.

Fullback: According to Coach Charlie Weis, Asaph Schwapp's left knee "locked up" during the third quarter. Schwapp could have re-entered the game in the fourth quarter, but there was no reason to with the game well in hand. Schwapp did have one carry for 2 yards. Seeing his first action of the season, Ashley McConnell also had a carry for 2.

Receiver: It was back to work for Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight, as both caught their first touchdowns of the year. Samardzija had 6 catches for 56 yards, and McKnight 5 for 59. No other receivers had catches, although Chase Anastasio did have a few balls thrown his way. Anastasio may not show up in the box score for receptions, but he did have several nice downfield blocks. Freshmen Richard Jackson and Robby Parris made their Notre Dame debuts late in the game.

Tight End:

Someone's draft stock just rose significantly. John Carlson owned the seams and PSU's All American outside linebackers in this game. As mentioned above, Brady Quinn arguably didn't get on track until Quarter 6 of this season. The man who got him on track was Carlson, who fought off man coverage from Paul Pozluszny et al. for 6 catches and 98 yards, most coming in the first half. Marcus Freeman added a catch for two yards, and freshman Will Yeatman and Konrad Reuland made appearances.

O-Line: The line gave up three sacks. Not counting Thomas' run on the fake punt, the Irish gained only 67 yards on the ground, with 32 of those yards coming on quarterback scrambles. Then again, Brady Quinn did have time to attempt 36 passes. A few more lineman saw playing time this week, even before the game was out of reach. Eric Olsen made his Notre Dame debut, and Dan Chervanick, Paul Duncan, Michael Turkovich, and Brian Mattes also saw playing time.

D-Line: The defensive linemen didn't put up big numbers this week, but they still managed to contribute. Trevor Laws, the biggest man on the line, seemed to be all over the field. Maybe that was part of a zone blitz scheme. He had only two tackles, but was credited with a pass breakup. Ronald Talley did not record a tackle, but he did recover a fumble. Talley's playing time was limited by the play of Chris Frome, who led all Irish linemen with 4 tackles. Like their teammates on the offensive line, Travis Leitko and Pat Kuntz worked their way into the game even before it was a blowout, and the combined for 5 tackles. Victor Abiamiri had only two tackles, but one was a sack. Derek Landri added 3 tackles. Freshman John Ryan, a teammate of Robby Paris at St Ignatius in Cleveland, made his first appearance in an Irish uniform and also recorded his first tackle.

Linebacker: I expected that Maurice Crum would have a season similar to the one Corey Mays had last year: a quiet start that slowly developed to the point where he was getting double-digit tackles. Well, it looks like Crum developed a little faster than Mays did, as the former had 14 tackles in this game. Three of those tackles were for loss, and Crum added a hit that forced a fumble. Mitchell Thomas also showed improvement with 5 tackles. The front seven didn't do a very good job of stopping the run, surrendering 74 yards and a 6.2 average to Tony Hunt, and failing to stop him in the backfield. So, there is still room for improvement, especially with Mike Hart coming to town next week.

Safety: Penn State has three talented receivers, plus several talented athletes, so it wasn't unusual to see multiple wide receiver sets. To counter this, Notre Dame used several variations of the nickel set. One was the traditional set, with cornerback Terrail Lambert replacing a linebacker. But there was another formation that, if I saw it correctly, was a bit more interesting. Backup strong safety Ray Herring would come in to replace a linebacker, and would play deep along side Chinedum Ndukwe. Then, starting strong safety Tom Zbikowski would come up in run support, almost in an Apache Linebacker role. This formation appeared to be quite effective. Of course, maybe I was just imagining things and Herring was just giving Ndukwe a breather. Other times, Ndukwe would come up to blitz with Zbikowski dropping back. Zbikowski did have a very good game, finishing second on the team with 7 tackles. He also forced a fumble and returned another fumble for a TD. Big wins and Zbikowski touchdowns have basically become synonymous at this point. Ndukwe added 6 tackles of his own, a sack, an interception, and a pass breakup. Not a bad day at the office for either player. Herring and Kyle McCarthy combined for 6 tackles, 4 by Herring.

Cornerback: Ambrose Wooden and Mike Richardson are back to their old ways, showing up high on the least of team tackles. Wooden had 6 and Richardson 5. But we may be able to forgive them this week, as several of those tackles were in the open field on end runs, and each did contribute a pass breakup.

Kicker: Mr. and Mrs. Gioia are the happiest parents in Valparasio, IN, right now, as Carl converted a pair of 35-yard field goals on Saturday. (Well, the Samardzijas do have all of that baseball signing bonus money, and Valpo's basketball coach does have a son in the NBA, but I still bet the Gioias are much prouder of their son this week.) Gioia's kicks were met with loud ovations from the home crowd. He followed them up with 5 extra points and a masterful squib kick at the end of the first half. Bobby Renkes did another solid job, booming 7 kickoffs for an average of 62.1 yards, including 2 touchbacks. He no doubt spent some time in the whirlpool after the game.

Punter: Geoff Price topped last week's performance with a 62-yard punt, a yard longer than his personal best. His other two punts were merely mortal, dropping his average for the week to 44 yards per. Still, two punts landed inside the 20, with the third going out of bounds at the 23.

Kick Returner: Darrin Walls made his debut at kick returner, but did not get a touch. George West took the lone returnable Penn State kick and ran 13 yards.

Punt Returner: Tom Zbikowski is still being handcuffed by opposing gunners being left in single coverage. This week he had a one yard return (that was fumbled) and a 3-yard return.

Special Teams:

The big play was Travis Thomas' run on the fake punt. A great deal of credit goes to the snapper and right guard on that play, who absolutely blew open a hole for him up the middle. Casey Cullen was again right around every single special teams play, although he did not actually record a tackle on the day. Overall, the coverage teams held Penn State to a solid 6 yards per punt return and a very good 13.2 yards per kickoff return.