Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Notre Dame Football 2006
Issue 5: Beat Purdue!

Purdue Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

Halfback 24 Kory Sheets has had decent success against a mediocre schedule so far, averaging 15 carries and 80 yards a game. Sheets has 8 rushing touchdowns already, but 7 of those came against Indiana State and Miami University in the first two games of the season. Perhaps the key thing for Sheets, though, is that he is running behind an experienced line with five returning starters. Sheets' backup is 33 Jaycen Taylor, who is also doing rather well with 7 carries and 57 yards per game. WR 9 Dorien Bryant is the top athlete on this Purdue offense. He's carried the ball 7 times already this season, and is averaging 12.4 yards per carry. Quarterback 12 Curtis Painter likes to run as well, but he's been up-and-down. On 16 attempts he's picked up 60 yards, but he's also lost 31 yards on just 3 sacks. I'm no football expert, but I'm guessing he has decent but not remarkable running ability and below-average decision-making skills. Painter has scored 3 touchdowns with his legs, so he is at least a threat in the red zone. Purdue normally employs a 1 RB/3 WR/1 TE set, and only has one fullback listed on the roster - 44 Frank Halliburton, who has yet to touch the ball this season.
Compared to Drew Stanton and Jehuu Caulcrick last week, the Irish front seven may feel like they're about to face the scout squad in Painter and the 199-pound Sheets. That's no reason to take those two lightly, however. Since Purdue runs multi-receiver sets similar to MSU's, we're likely to see a lot of nickel out of the Irish once again. That means Maurice Crum and Travis Thomas will have to play well and make sure tackles. Each have led the team in tackles at least once this season, so hopefully they can handle the Boilermaker run game. With Painter and Bryant always being a threat to run, the defensive ends will have to stay disciplined and not lose contain. Victor Abiamiri and Chris Frome - who appears to have retaken the starter's role - are veterans, so that shouldn't be a problem.

ND Rush Offense vs. Purdue Rush Defense

Darius Walker continues to receive criticism for his lack of production. Maybe it's the talent of the opposing defenses, or the big early deficits, or the offensive line, or the playcalling, or Walker himself. This will be a good week to find out. Purdue is giving up 3.5 yards per carry - only slightly worse than what ND has seen all season - but they are also giving up 126 rushing yards per game. Miami U (a team having a down year) and the Ball State Fighting Football Cardinals (who are always having a down year) struggled against Purdue, but the mighty Indiana State and Minnesota ground attacks combined for almost 350 yards against the Boilers. After Walker, there are only more questions. Travis Thomas has only carried the ball 9 times in 4 games. Munir Prince isn't quite ready to run between the tackles. Asaph Schwapp likely won't be ready for this game, which leaves the fullback role to Ashley McConnell. James Aldrige may finally be ready to make his Notre Dame debut, but that's something we won't find out for sure until this Saturday.
As mentioned above, Purdue is giving up 126 rushing yards per game. The strong side of the D is anchored by SLB 32 Cliff Avril and DE 49 Anthony Spencer. The two have combined for 15 stops in the backfield, and sit second and third on the team in total tackles. 36 Dan Bick has taken over at middle linebacker and leads the team in tackles with 38.

Purdue Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

Curtis Painter is putting up numbers that Charlie Weis would be proud of... almost. Painter is completing 64% of his passes, averaging 20 of 30 for 285 yards per game. However, his touchdown-to-interception ratio sits at 8 to 5. Again, Dorien Bryant is the playmaker in this offense, and he's averaging close to 8 catches per game and 88 yards per game. He also has 3 receiving touchdowns. After Bryant is TE 28 Dustin Keller. Keller is averaging 4-5 catches and close to 90 yards per game. At 20 yards per catch, look for him on seam routes similar to the ones that have been giving John Carlson success. 1 Selwyn Lymon and 21 Greg Orton, Purdue's other two starting receivers, average 2-3 catches a game, as does RB Kory Sheets. Sheets is second on the team with two receiving touchdowns, so someone will have to keep an eye on him at all times.
Notre Dame's defense has shown that it can effectively shut down one big play receiver (when there's more than one, well, that's a different story). The guy to watch in this one is the tight end Keller. The Irish struggled against physical receiving tight ends last year, especially late in the season. How will they defend Keller? 6'4, 244 is too much for a cornerback. Will the experienced Maurice Crum be asked to cover him, or will the athletic Travis Thomas? Or will that responsibility go to a safety, leaving less deep help for the corners? The corners have had three great games and one terrible game so far. How will they fare this week against a team averaging 297 passing yards per game?

ND Pass Offense vs. Purdue Pass Defense

If the Pitt game wasn't Brady Quinn's breakout performance last year, the Purdue contest certainly was. Quinn's numbers are slowly creeping back towards the lofty 2005 standards. With another performance like the one in West Lafayette last season, Quinn will be back on track. Already his average game lines up like this: 23 of 40 for 272 yards, 3 TDs, and an interception. Jeff Samardzija has a similar story: if last year's Pitt game wasn't his breakout moment, the Purdue game was. (Remember that diving one-handed catch?) Like Quinn, Samardzija's 2006 numbers are starting to match the 2005 pace. The Shark leads the team with 23 catches and 4 touchdowns. He's averaging 5-6 catches and 68 yards per game. Rhema McKnight is right there, with 22 catches and 4 TDs. McKnight is averaging 78 yards per game. Darius Walker has tied Samardzija with 23 catches, but only has 140 receiving yards. John Carlson continues to impress by averaging 4 catches and 74 yards per game. After these four, there's a huge dropoff (David Grimes is next with 4 catches and 48 yards total), but for the most part the Irish have been able to survive with their top weapons.
Purdue is giving up 285 passing yards per game. Everyone has had success against the Boilers so far. Even Indiana State and Minnesota, who rushed for 350 yards against Purdue, combined to tack on 460 passing yards. Purdue has recorded 12 sacks on the year, led by Anthony Spencer with 5. The Spencer-Ryan Harris matchup will be an interesting one, and Spencer's talent could force John Carlson to stay in and block. Of course, Coach Weis could bring Marcus Freeman in to block while sending Carlson out. Or Spencer could choose to pick on the right tackle position. Behind Spencer, Cliff Avril and DT 71 Alex Magee have two sacks a piece. Purdue has recorded 6 interceptions, with one each from linebackers Avril, Dan Bick, and 59 Stanford Kegler, and 30 George Hall, and corner 34 Terrell Vinson. Purdue does have 15 pass breakups to Notre Dame's 9, but again I believe that is largely a subjective stat.

Special Teams

Freshman 13 Chris Summers has converted 5 of 6 field goals for Purdue, with a long of 43 and a lone miss in the 40-49 yard range. Carl Gioia still sits at 2 of 4 since the Irish played Penn State.
JUCO transfer 11 Jared Armstrong punts for the Boilermakers. He's averaging 43.9 yards per punt with a long of 58 and 3 of 10 landing inside the 20. Geoff Price has a 47.7 yard average for the Irish, with a long of 62 and 5 of 22 punts inside the 20.
There should be no surprise that Dorien Bryant returns kicks for the Boilers. He's averaging 14 yards per return on 6 chances. Joining Bryant is Kory Sheets, who has a 32.6 yard average on 5 returns. Bobby Renkes averages 61.4 yards per kickoff for ND, with 5 out of 21 kicks going for touchbacks. Notre Dame is giving up 16 yards per return, meaning opponents on average start at their own 19.
David Grimes and George West continue to share kick return duties for the Irish. Grimes has 8 returns and is averaging 27.4 yards, while West is averaging 21.7 yards on 6 returns. Chris Summers is averaging 59 yards per kickoff for Purdue with 7 touchbacks and 1 kick out of bounds. It looks like the freshman is still a little erratic. Purdue is giving up 16.8 yards per kick return, giving opponents an average start at the 23.
Freshman CB 10 Royce Adams, who went the familiar St Ed's-to-Glenville route in high school, is Purdue's punt returner. He's averaging 7.8 yards per return on 6 tries. Notre Dame's punt coverage team is giving up a mediocre 11.5 yards per return. (I guess this is what they mean by a guy "outkicking his coverage." Then again, that doesn't seem like such a bad thing when the ball's going 50-60 yards downfield to begin with.)
Tom Zbikowski finally got the luxury of double coverage on both opposing gunners and promptly returned the ball 25 yards... and then lost a fumble. You can't win them all. Zbikowski's average is up to a respectable, but still human, 7.9 yards per return. Purdue is giving up a blah 9.9 yards per punt return, and has already surrendered a punt return TD.

Look for a big game from Walker, Samardzija, Frome, Crum, Zbikowski.

ND 38, Purdue 24: Sharing the love: Walker, Samardzija, McKnight, Carlson, Zbikowski, and one by Gioia for good measure.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Notre Dame 40, Michigan State 37

Quarterback: A 2-for-8 start had Irish fans thinking "here we go again." But then something clicked, and Brady looked like the Brady of old. (Maybe it was the sideline fight that had me informing the entire bar that "finally the Indians are showing signs of life!") Quinn ended up with 319 yards and 5 TDs. The fact that those five touchdowns aren't making everyone stop and say wow is a testament to the high expectations Quinn is facing this year. Perhaps after a few more weeks of this, he'll earn his due respect.

Running Back: It was another very quiet day for Darius Walker. Then again, when you spot the other team a 17 point lead, you can't afford to run too much. Plus, the numbers aren't as bad as they look. Walker only gained 47 yards, but it was off of only 11 carries. He wasn't stopped in the backfield once, and he ended averaging a respectable 4.3 yards per carry against a talented group of linebackers. Walker was stifled as a receiver, being held to 15 yards on 5 catches, but fortunately Quinn's other pass catching targets stepped up on Saturday.

Fullback: Asaph Schwapp is still injured and did not make the trip to East Lansing. His backup, Ashley McConnell, only got in on a handful of plays and did not touch the football.


Courtesy AP/Bob Brodbeck

Any criticism of Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight can stop now (or at least for another week). Samardzija put up numbers reminiscent of his 2005 campaign: 7 catches for 113 yards and 2 TDs. McKnight added 2 highlight reel TD grabs of his own, and totalled 4 catches for 70 yards overall.

Tight End: John Carlson once again got a chance to show off his raw athletic ability. He may not be Anthony Fasano, but he's at least this year's Jerome Collins - and probably equally as worthy of an NFL tryout. Carlson turned a nice catch in the seam into a determined 62-yard touchdown run. He finished with 4 catches and 121 yards on the day.
(Note to ESPN DreamJob winner Mike Hall: The next time you wonder why you're stuck on ESPNU, remember that this guy's name is John, not Josh. Also, don't listen to Bob Davie when he tries to claim that Ryan Harris started the fight by grabbing Matt Trannon's facemask. Also, that's probably the first time ever that Davie's recognized an ND player by face alone.)

O-Line: It was a win. No comment.

D-Line: This line may be undersized, but they're using that to their advantage as they fly around the field. Derek Landri was in on quite a few plays, including some at least 10-15 yards away from where the ball was snapped. He finished with 6 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and a sack. Chris Frome showed great athleticism in shutting down the option whenever it came to his side. He's back to full strength, and with this start, it looks like he's officially taken over the job from Ronald Talley. Trevor Laws looked like the high-motored Trevor Laws of old. When it still looked like everyone else may have been a little flat, Laws was plowing his way into the backfield. He finished with 7 tackles, 2 TFLs, and a sack. Victor Abiamiri was only able to bust through the line a few times, but he made one count with a sack.

Linebacker: Travis Thomas stepped up and took charge of the linebacking corps, leading the team with 8 tackles. Maurice Crum added 5 tackles of his own.

Safety: Chinedum Ndukwe and Tom Zbikowski each turned in decent performances; both finished with 7 tackles apiece.


Courtesy AP/Al Goldis

The Irish stuck to a nickel set against MSU's multi-receiver sets, and the corners stepped up when the game counted. Terrail Lambert, who looked simply awful last week, stepped up with the go-ahead Pick Six, and a second interception to end the game. He also threw in 5 tackles. Mike Richardson was again most effective blitzing and in run support, recording 2 of his 3 stops in the backfield. Leo Ferrine made his first appearance of the season and recorded a tackle.

Kicker: Carl Gioia made 4 of 5 extra points on the night. His one miss would have cut the MSU lead to 37-34, but he hooked the ball wide left in downpour conditions. He did convert his next attempt, putting the Irish up 40-37 following Lambert's interception return. Since Gioia's last make put the Irish up by a field goal, it was in fact more important to the final outcome than his earlier miss. Bobby Renkes "only" averaged 60 yards per kick in this one, but he did have 2 touchbacks. And, with 7 kicks, it's a wonder that his leg didn't fall off.

Punter: Like Renkes, Geoff Price had an off night, but who's complaining? Price averaged 43.3 yards on 7 punts, with a long of 54. He also graduated from the Nick Setta School for Kickers Who Can Tackle with a perfect form tackle on the Spartan return man.

Kick Returner: MSU obviously watched tape of George West's fumble last week, and they kicked it his way 3 times. West picked up 71 yards on those returns, with a long of 30. David Grimes got one return, which he took back 28 yards.

Punt Returner: Finally, both opposing gunners were covered, and Tom Zbikowski had a good return. Unfortunately, after his 25-yard run, he fumbled. The short field position gave MSU a touchdown. Still, the Spartans feared Zbikowski, as he did not get a chance to return any of their 6 other punts.

Special Teams: This week it wasn't #60 Casey Cullen rushing in on every special teams play buy #61 JJ Jansen, the long snapper. Still, Cullen had 1 tackle to Jansen's 0. Other than Zbikowski's one punt return, ND's special teams were average. The Irish averaged 24.8 yards per kick return while giving up 20 yards per kick return and 15 per punt return.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Notre Dame Football 2006
Issue 4: Michigan State

MSU Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

This year, Michigan State has shown that they love to stick to the ground game when it's going well. So far, it has gone gone well, to the tune of 41 rushes and 258 yards per game. That includes a 48 rush, 335 yard performance against Pitt last week. MSU returns many familiar faces on offense, starting with 23 Javon Ringer. On an offense that has been able to share the love fairly well, Ringer is the closest thing to a workhorse. He's averaging 15 carries and 119 yards per game, with 1 touchdown on the season. The guys to look out for in the red zone are QB 5 Drew Stanton and 260-pound short-yardage back 30 Jehuu Caulcrick. Both are averaging 10 carries a game, and both share the team lead with 3 rushing touchdowns. Stanton is averaging 64 rushing yards per game, sacks included, while Caulcrick is averaging 57. It doesn't look like the Spartans employ a fullback, unless Caulcrick or a tight end are called when the right situation presents itself. Redshirt freshman RB 20 AJ Jimmerson has seen mopup duty, carrying 13 times for 89 yards on the year. Split end 18 Terry Love carried for 5 yards on the team's lone end-around this season.
Notre Dame is giving up 132.3 yards per game on the ground this season, which could make this one interesting. The entire 11 will need more discipline than a purple belt in this game. The linebackers will have to contain Ringer and Stanton, cover the option well if it comes, and execute perfect form tackles to make up for the size disadvantage against Caulcrick. The safeties will have to stay within themselves and stick to their assignments when Stanton leaves the pocket. And the corners will have to stick to their men so the backers and safeties can do their own jobs.

ND Rush Offense vs. MSU Rush Defense

Notre Dame's run game was simply shut down last week. Even despite the need to play catch up last year against MSU, Darius Walker ended the game with 116 rushing yards. He will need a big game to get his stats back on track, as he's only gained 180 yards through the first three games this season. Notre Dame will also need to find a reliable backup and short-yardage option. Asaph Schwapp may be out again; can Ashley McConnell be trusted with the ball? Will we see more or less of Travis Thomas in the offensive backfield? Will quarterback Brady Quinn make the wise decisions that led to 11 scrambles for 59 yards, or the unwise decisions that led to 8 sacks for 62?
MSU has shut down the run this year, holding opponents to 79 yards per game, and 2.8 yards per rush. The numbers are actually eerily similar to those gained by the ND offense. On only 9 more total carries, the Irish are averaging 84 yards per game and 2.7 yards per rush. Is the MSU run defense that good? The Spartans do return linebackers 34 Kaleb Thornhil and 31 David Herron, and "Bandit" 27 SirDarean Adams. But it is the safeties and the linemen doing the dirty work. S 21 Otis Wiley leads the team in tackles (26) and tackles-for-loss (4). S 3 Nehemiah Warrick is right behind with 23 tackles and 1 TFL. Linemen 92 Clifton Ryan, 51 Ervin Baldwin, and 17 David Stanton have combined for 24 tackles, 8 for a loss.

MSU Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

Drew Stanton is back at the helm for the Spartans. Thanks to their success with the run game, Stanton hasn't had to rely too much on his arm. Still, he's been very effective. Stanton's average day so far consists of completing 18 or 19 of 27 pass attempts for 226 yards and 2 TDs. Stanton has some familiar faces at wide receiver, and he prefers throwing to his wideouts more than anyone else. 6'6 6 Matt Trannon, who has also tossed a 35-yard touchdown bomb of his own, is averaging 6 catches and 63 yards per game. 15 Kerry Reed is averaging 5 catches and 69 yards per game, while 32 Jerramy Scott is averaging 3 catches and 49 yards per game. While each of the receivers have hit double digits in the receptions column, no other Spartan else has more than 4 catches. The man with 4 is running back Javon Ringer, who is averaging 14 receiving yards per game. Trannon and Reed are tied for the team lead with 2 receiving TDs. Backup tailback AJ Jimmerson also has 2, so don't take your eyes off of him when he comes out of the backfield. TE 80 Kellen Davis is averaging just one catch a game. David Grimes' brother 4 Carl has made one reception on the season.
The Irish are holding opponents to a respectable 195 passing yards per game. Of course, one in every ten completions and one in every 17 attempts overall has gone for a touchdown. Again, the key to this game will be discipline. The corners must be able to cover their men well enough to let everyone else do their job. The entire secondary can't leave their men early just because Stanton is drifting out of the pocket. MSU runs a base 3-receiver set, so look for nickel from the Irish quite a bit, along with some dime. This means all eyes should be on Terrail Lambert. So far, he hasn't exactly become the Lou Gehrig to Leo Ferrine's Wally Pip at nickelback. Lambert, Ray Herring, Darrin Walls, and Raeshon McNeil will all be tested in this one.

ND Pass Offense vs. MSU Pass Defense

If Brady Quinn wants to silence any doubters, now would be a great time to start. Quinn has been less than spectacular so far, but then again he's faced some tough competition. Quinn is averaging 24 of 40 passing for 256 yards, 2 TDs, and an interception per game. Like Stanton, he hasn't spread the ball out too much so far. Quinn's "Big Four" - guys with 10 or more catches - are Rhema McKnight (18 catches, 243 yards), Darius Walker (18, 125), Jeff Samardzija (16, 160), and John Carlson (13, 176). David Grimes did turn in 4 catches for 48 yards this week. Playing against his brother, perhaps Grimes will have some motivation to kick it up another notch this week. McKnight and Samardzija each have 2 receiving touchdowns, while Walker and Ashley McConnell have added one apiece.
MSU's pass defense is surrendering 221 passing yards per game. Their 5 sacks and 3 INTs aren't too impressive (that's the same number of sacks as ND, with only one more interception than the Irish). But, they have faired well in the "close enough" categories, recording 15 pass breakups and 11 quarterback hits. Then again, those numbers can be subjective, and it's possible the Spartans just have a generous scorekeeper. End Ervin Baldwin leads the team with 2 sacks, while tackle Clifton Ryan has 5 quarterback hits. Safety Otis Wiley has 4 pass breakups, while linebacker Kaleb Thornhill and CB Desmon Williams are right behind with 3. Wiley, Ryan, and tackle David Stanton have each added a sack, while Williams and linebackers David Herron and SirDarean Adams account for MSU's three picks.

Special Teams

Freshman 14 Brett "Bubbles" Swenson has converted 4 of 5 field goals this season, with his only miss coming from greater than 50 yards. Swenson's long is a 43-yarder. Carl Gioia has converted 2 of 4 for the Irish.
Perennial Ray Guy candidate 8 Brandon Fields has averaged 49.2 yards per punt this year, with a long of 63 (and at 6'6, 235 lbs, what's this guy doing at punter?). Not to be outdone, Geoff Price is averaging 49.8 yards with a long of 2 for the Irish.
Javon Ringer and Desmond Williams return kicks for the Irish. Ringer is averaging 21.2 yards on 4 returns, while Williams is averaging 18 yards on 2 returns. Bobby Renkes is averaging 62 yards per kickoff for the Irish, with 3 touchbacks. ND's kick coverage team is averaging 14.4 yards per return, giving opponents an average start at the 17.
David Grimes and George West have been Notre Dame's kick returners. Grimes has had a little more success than West, returning 7 kicks for an average of 27.3 yards. West is averaging 19.7 per return on 3 chances. 15 Todd Boleski is MSU's kickoff specialist. He's averaging 61.2 yards per kick with 6 touchbacks. Given MSU's 23.2 yards given up per return, opponents on average will start at the 27 yard line.
Terry Love returns kicks for the Spartans. He's picked up a measly 12 yards on 5 chances. ND is surrendering 11 yards per punt return.
Tom Zbikowski returns punts for the Irish, and he hasn't had much more luck than Love. Zbikowski is averaging 5.4 yards per return on 7 tries. On 3 tries, MSU opponents are averaging a whopping 1.25 yards per punt return.

Look for a big game from Quinn, Walker, Samardzija, and Crum.

ND 31, MSU 27: Walker, Samardzija, McKnight, and Zbikowski all find a way to take it to the house, and Gioia tacks one on for good measure.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Michigan 47, Notre Dame 21

Quarterback: "It's Brady Quinn's Heisman to lose." Surely there were some football pundits (and unfortunately Heisman voters as well) who were waiting for a Saturday like this - Quinn has a terrible day against a big-time opponent, while Adrian Peterson racks up 216 yards against another big time opponent. Well, the good news is that it's still early, and Oregon's run defense doesn't have a stellar reputation, and Quinn did still manage to throw for 234 yards and 3 TDs.
Now the bad news. Quinn looked like the Quinn of old: 50% completion rate, an equal number of TDs and interceptions, and 48 pass attempts in a loss. Things that were excusable over the past two weeks - overthrows and forced passes - are suddenly glaring errors. (And hey, I probably excused that behavior more than anyone.) Often on third and medium-to-long, Quinn would ignore his shorter options in favor of a low-percentage deep ball. I'm not sure if that was a result of playcalling, the Michigan defense, or Quinn trying to force the issue. (Give Michigan credit - for most of the game it looked like the Wolverines were using the 15 defenders PSU wishes they had last week.)
On a positive note, Evan Sharpley completed the first pass of his Notre Dame career late in the game.

Running Back: Darius Walker was shut down in this game. This could be due to the large lead Michigan built or, as mentioned above, Quinn's wanting to force the issue - if that was the case. Walker did actually lead the team with 7 receptions, but only gained 35 yards. On the ground, he was held to a dismal 25 yards on 10 carries. Meanwhile, we're continuing to learn that Munir Prince is not a between-the-tackles runner. (Not yet, at least.)

Fullback: On a brilliantly designed play, Jeff Samardzija dragged right from his position as left wideout, and fullback Ashley McConnell slipped into the space vacated by Samardzija for an easy touchdown catch. Other than that catch, we didn't hear from McConnell much, partly because of the multi-receiver sets used in the attempted comeback. Asaph Schwapp did not practice all week, and did not make it into the game. He was on the sidelines in uniform, however.

Receiver: If there was one bright spot in this game, it was the emergence of David Grimes as another option in the passing game. Michigan did a great job of blanketing ND's other options, and Grimes responded with his first 4 catches and 48 yards of the season. Rhema McKnight wasn't completely "shut down," as he did finish with 5 catches, 76 yards, and a touchdown. Unfortunately, it would have taken a Stovallian effort (like Mo's against MSU last year) to keep this one close. McKnight appears to be evolving into Quinn's favorite receiver as all the attention continues to be paid to Samardzija. Samardzija did finish with 4 catches for 30 yards and a TD. Undoubtedly there are those who were waiting for an excuse to send Samardzija's stock plunging as well, and they may have found it.
Speaking of McKnight and Stovall, McKnight was once again called for holding on a receiver screen. Going into the NFL draft, Stovall was graded low on blocking skills, with the explanation that he held far too often. What's the truth? Are the receivers being taught to hold? Are they so good that everyone assumes it's holding just because they maintain the block so long? It may be a little of both. Or, it may be neither.

Tight End: One could say that the pass that deflected off of John Carlson's hands and went back for a Wolverines touchdown set the tone for the game. It was clear that Carlson didn't get his hands up quick enough. I'm assuming he wasn't prepared, but please correct me if it was Quinn's fault for throwing too soon. That being said, Carlson's tip would have been forgotten if the Irish had taken the lead soon afterwards, or if they would have won in the end. Carlson did finish with 3 catches for 42 yards.


Courtesy Bill Frakes/SI

Again, mistakes forgiven in the first two games are now glaringly apparent. The Irish were held to all of 4 rushing yards. Brady Quinn was sacked only 3 times, but he was hit all day. One of those hits to Quinn's throwing arm resulted in an interception. Bob Morton still looks like he's worried more about helping Sam Young than paying attention to his own assignment. I'll say this as well: Offensive linemen should only attract attention from fans and announcers when they're putting defenders on their backsides. John Sullivan drew my attention many times, and it wasn't because of his pancake blocks.

D-Line: The line finally put up a decent performance. But that's partially due to the number of times Mike Hart was able to run the ball (31), which is in turn due to Michigan's lead. Trevor Laws was second on the team with 10 tackles and recorded a sack. Victor Abiamiri was supposed to have a field day against Michigan's right tackle. Abiamiri did have 9 tackles, 2.5 TFL, and 2 quarterback hits. But quarterback hits aren't quarterback sacks; Abiamiri had 0 of those. (That may just be sour grapes from me.) Looking at the numbers, Ronald Talley was more useful in this game than Chris Frome. Talley had 7 tackles to Frome's 0. For as many passes of Chad Henne's that Notre Dame knocked down last year, they only had one this year. That came from Derek Landri, who added 6 tackles.

Linebacker: The linebacking corps is sill a work in progress. Do they need abstract ideas like "tenacity," "leadership," and a "dominating presence"? Or do they just need to start making plays? Maurice Crum had 6 tackles, which is great in a supporting role, but not so much as the leader of this unit. Travis Thomas' work in progress turned in another decent performance with 3 tackles, including a sack. Mitchell Thomas continued to struggle. He had 3 tackles, but all were assists.

Safety: Chinedum Ndukwe did a bit of everything in this game. He led the team with 11 tackles, had a key interception on a great read, and aided on a stop in the backfield. But his day wasn't perfect. Mario Manningham's first touchdown, the one where Ambrose Wooden bit on the out and up, Ndukwe also blew coverage. Ndukwe was back deep on that side of the field, but completely ignored Manningham as the receiver ran by. Unfortunately, on the one TV replay that I noticed this, I didn't see if Ndukwe was reacting to another receiver on a short route or simply had a mental lapse. Tom Zbikowski turned in another day at the office with 8 tackles.


Courtesy John Biever/SI

Wooden did bite on the out of Manningham's out-and-up touchdown. Was he inspired by Ndukwe's interception to make his own big play? Wooden's failure to make both the big play and the disciplined play is reminiscent of Mike Goolsby's attempted strip in the 2004 Pitt game. Again, discipline was the key, and Wooden didn't show it. In nickel packages, Manningham was Terrail Lambert's responsibility. Lambert ended up turning in more Michigan poster shots as tackles (2). Was that the fault of Lamber, or Michigan's playcalling, or ND's? Or was it Chad Henne? Last year, Notre Dame beat Michigan largely because Henne couldn't connect on wide open deep balls. This year he did, and it was the difference. Wooden had 2 tackles, while Mike Richardson added 3 tackles, one for a loss, and a pass breakup.

Kicker: Carl Gioia did not get a field goal attempt in this game. Bobby Renkes wasn't kicking as deep as he has been. It would have helped to know how the wind was blowing. But, like most current announcers, Tom Hammond and Pat Haden neglected to give their viewers pertinent information.

Punter: Geoff Price had another great day at the office. Unfortunately, he reported for duty 7 times on Saturday. Price averaged 51.9 yards per kick, with a long of 59.

Kick Returner: David Grimes and George West looked lost on kick returns. As the sophomore, Grimes should have taken leadership. The 175-pound West, meanwhile, learned that he can't stiffarm D1 fullbacks.

Punt Returner: Michigan did a great job of kicking away from Tom Zbikowski. In his lone return attempt, Zbikowski was held to 4 yards.

Special Teams: I've berated Notre Dame's punt return formation all year. Specifically, ND was single-teaming the opposing gunners. This week they chose to double-team one of the two gunners. Well, guess what? Each time, the single-teamed gunner was right there when the ball got downfield. On a positive note, Casey Cullen was once again a special teams monster. This week his effort showed in the stat sheet, as he recorded 4 tackles.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Notre Dame Football 2006
Issue 3: Michigan

Michigan Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

Running back 20 Mike Hart gets used so much, the common thought is that Michigan has a very run-centered offense. Last year, Michigan ran 499 times and passed 409 times. So far this year the numbers are skewed, with the Wolverines running 101 times and passing 43 times. But then you look at the numbers closely. Twenty-six rushes have come from Hart's backups, and one could presume that most of those came in "garbage time." Twelve have come from quarterbacks, either on sacks or possible scrambles. Four have gone to receivers. Isolating Hart's carries (50), and assuming that quarterback run attempts were designed pass plays, and you see that the playcalling comes out right around 50-50, both percentage-wise and attempt-wise. Hart has averaged 25 carries and 131 yards a game so far, and has added three touchdowns. Last year he averaged 19 carries and 83 yards per game. His 2006 totals may come close to his 2005 totals when all is said and done, but look for the Michigan offense to test ND's run defense in this one. Hart's primary backups are 3 Kevin Grady and 4 Brandon Minor. Grady is averaging 9 carries and 38 yards per game, and has scored twice. The freshman Minor has averaged 5 carries and 30 yards per game so far. The Wolverines have yet to see a carry from a fullback, but receivers 15 Steve Breaston and 86 Mario Manningham have each carried the ball twice this season. Breaston has had much more success, with 39 rushing yards to Manningham's 3. Quarterback 7 Chad Henne has scrambled 8 times for 35 positive yards.
Notre Dame's defense is giving up 138.5 rushing yards per game. That number combined with Hart's 2006 success may be a reason for concern. However, one could argue that in the past two games ND was conceding the run to shut down the pass. Arguing, of course, does nothing to affect the outcome of the game. To shut down the run, Notre Dame will need a solid performance from its entire linebacking corps. MLB Maurice Crum had a breakout game last week with 14 tackles. WLB Travis Thomas has shown flashes of athleticism and toughness on his way to 6 tackles. The play of SLB Mitchell Thomas and Anthony Vernaglia has been criticized so far, especially since Notre Dame has had most of their defensive success after substituting a nickel defensive back for this position. Michigan's offense may not call for as much nickel this week, and in that case Mitchell Thomas and Veraglia will need to be ready to step up.

ND Rush Offense vs. Michigan Rush Defense

The key thing about Darius Walker is not how he is used, but that he is used effectively. Two weeks ago. Walker ran for 99 yards against Georgia Tech. Last week, facing a great front 7, Walker was used as a receiver, making 7 catches. Darius Walker first broke out against Michigan two years ago, and he'll look to repeat his success against the Wolverines this year. Travis Thomas has emerged as Walker's primary backup, even though he he's only averaging 4 or 5 carries a game. In an important game such as this, one would expect to see the experienced Thomas play in the place of freshman Munir Prince. Fullback Asaph Schwapp, expected to be ready to play this Saturday, is averaging 2 carries a game. Quarterback Brady Quinn has scrambled 10 times for 58 positive yards so far.
Michigan's run defense is giving up only 29 yards per game. Take away sacks, and that number increases to 71 yards per game. Before you point out that these numbers have come against the likes of Vanderbilt and Central Michigan, bear in mind that in past years trends and averages established in "cupcake" games tended to carry on into the rest of the season, or at least into the Notre Dame game. What does that horrible run-on sentence mean? Michigan's impressive numbers against the run aren't entirely a product of their competion. The Wolverines have some talent of their own. This team has already made 19 stops in the backfield, including 5 each from ends 91 Rondell Biggs and 56 LaMarr Woodley. Biggs and Woodley are tied for second on the team with 8 tackles, while the team leader is once again middle linebacker 45 David Harris with 10. Harris has "only" two tackles for a loss so far.

Michigan Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

Chad Henne is back for another try as Michigan's quarterback. Henne has been effectively mediocre so far, with an average game consisting of 10 completions out of 20 attempts for 124 yards and a TD. These numbers are down from last year's, when Henne averaged 19 of 32 for 211 yards and 2 TDs. Of course, this is Henne's first year without a star receiver, after Braylon Edwards left in 2004 and Jason Avant did the same in 2005. Steve Breaston has always been more of an athlete than a polished receiver, and Mario Manningham is still just raw talent. The pair are combining to average 6 catches per game, up from 4 per game last year. Breaston is averaging 47 yards receiving per game this, an increase of about 20 yards per over last year. Manningham is averaging 36 yards per game, a number consistent with his 2005 totals. Mike Hart has made 3 catches this year, but with very little to show for it (13 yards). Receivers 85 Carson Butler and 16 Adrian Arrington have combined for 5 catches, with Butler compiling 26 receiving yards and Arrington 12. Tight end 89 Tyler Ecker has made a total of 2 catches for 22 yards; those were his per-game totals last season.
It will be interesting to see how Notre Dame defends the pass in this game. Of course they will have to pay attention to the run. Neither Breaston or Manningham are elite receivers, but both have the ability to beat you deep. Last year's Irish win was aided by Henne and his receivers being consistently unable to complete the deep passes. He's a year older and wiser now, as are safeties Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe. This will be the next big test to see whether Zbikowski and Ndukwe have learned how to handle play action fakes. Speaking of Henne, much has been made of his low release point. DT Trevor Laws knocked down a pass last week, and he's the shortest of all the Irish defensive linemen by two inches. The Irish line knocked down several Henne passes last year, and they're likely to knock down a few more this year. Another key matchup when Henne drops back to pass is DE Victor Abiamiri against Michigan RT 72 Rueben Riley. Abiamiri has been a force in the backfield when not being double teamed, and Riley is said to be having trouble adjusting to the right tackle position.

ND Pass Offense vs. Michigan Pass Defense

Brady Quinn's numbers this season may not be as flashy as his 2005 totals, but if you look closely they're just as good. Quinn is "only" averaging 267 passing yards per game, but he is completing 65% of his passes (average of 24 completions on 37 attempts per game) and has yet to throw a pick against 3 TD passes. Quinn has done a great job of finding the open man, and as a result four players have between 10 and 13 catches this year. Rhema McKnight is leading the way with 13 catches and 167 yards. Jeff Samardzija is right behind with 12 catches for 130 yards. Samardzija's numbers may be down from last year, but the link above gives you a good indication why. Darius Walker is right behind Samardzija with 11 catches for 90 yards. Each of these players have caught a touchdown. Not to be outdone, tight end John Carlson has opened eyes with 10 catches for 134 yards. Number 2 tight end Marcus Freeman is the only other Irish player to catch a pass this year; he has 2 for 12 yards. Quinn may not be throwing to as many different receivers this year, but he has still managed to keep the attack balanced.
As mentioned above, Michigan's defensive ends have been in opponents' backfields all season. Not only have they combined for 10 tackles for a loss, but 7 of those TFL's are sacks. The team has 10 total sacks, with one each coming from S 22 Jamar Adams, CB 29 Leon Hall, and S Ryan Mundy. This tells even a person of mediocre football knowledge like me that Michigan likes to blitz their DBs. Brady Quinn had trouble against the blitz in the Georgia Tech game, so it will be interesting to see how much pressure the Wolverines put on him, and how he handles it. Adams and Hall have combined for 5 pass breakups, which tells me that they are both gifted athletes. The only interception so far by Michigan has been by backup linebacker 51 Max Pollock.

Special Teams

38 Garrett Rivas returns for his fourth season as Michigan's field goal kicker. He has converted 4 of 5 field goal attempts; his only unsuccessful attempt was a block from the 40-49 yard range. His long on the season is 48 yards, one yard longer than his best from 2005, when he converted 19 of 26 field goals. Notre Dame's Carl Gioia bounced back to even out his record on field goal attempts this year. He's now made two from 35 yards out after missing from 42 and 36.
The Wolverines use the two-headed punting combination of 41 Zultan Mesko and 3 Ross Ryan. Mesko has a booming leg, averaging 44.4 yards per with a long of 54. Ryan appears to be Michigan's attempt at a coffin corner guy. He's averaging only 36.5 yards per punt, with one touchback and one inside the 20. For the Irish, Geoff Price continues to be a pleasant surprise, now averaging 48 yards per punt with a long of 62 and 3 of 8 kicks landing inside the 20.
Steve Breaston is Michigan's primary kick returner. He's averaging 20 yards per return after 3 tries this season. CB 25 Johnny Sears and WR 17 Carl Tabb have each been given one chance to return a kick. Sears went for 22 yards while Tabb for 19. In 2005, Breaston averaged 28 yards per return, including a 92-yard touchdown, and Tabb added 30 yards per return, so look out for both. Bobby Renkes has been the second pleasant surprise on the Irish kicking unit. The kickoff specialist is averaging 63 yards per kick, with 3 of 10 kicks going for touchbacks. Add in the ND coverage team's average of 14.2 yards given up per return, and the average starts for opponents is the 16. Not bad at all.
David Grimes, George West, and Darrin Walls have all lined up deep to return kicks for the Irish. Grimes has returned one kick for 46 yards, while West has returned two kicks and covered that same distance. Walls has yet to field a kickoff this season. Punter Ross Ryan also kicks off for the Wolverines. He averages 60 yards per kick, with 2 touchbacks. Michigan is giving up 25 yards per kick return, allowing their opponents to start around the 30 yard line.
In what should come as no surprise, Steve Breaston returns punts for the Wolverines as well. He's averaging 5.5 yards on 4 attempts this year, after averaging 12.3 yards on 29 returns in 2005. Notre Dame is giving up a respectable 7.2 yards per punt return.
Tom Zbikowski has been bottled up as a punt returner so far. On 6 returns, he's averaging 5.7 yards per return. Michigan's punt coverage team is holding opponents to a very good 5 yard return average.

Look for a big game from Walker, McKnight, Carlson, Abiamiri, and both Thomases.

ND 25, Michigan 20: Just because ND/Michigan games always seem to end with scores like this.

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.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Notre Dame Football 2006
Issue 2: Penn State

Penn St Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

Penn State only put up 282 yards of total offense in their 34-16 victory over the boys from AK Rowdy last week. That number is a little misleading, though, as 6 of 13 PSU drives started 40 yards away from the end zone or closer. Senior tailback Tony Hunt had a tough day, picking up just 36 yards on 14 carries. That may just be an indication that Akron was focused on stopping the run, hoping new quarterback Anthony Morelli would make some mistakes in the passing game. Hunt averaged 14.5 carries and 87 yards per game last year, so don't write him off yardage-wise just yet. Also, don't be surprised if he gets more carries than 14, now that quarterback Michael Robinson is gone. Fullback Matt Hahn rushed 3 times for 9 yards against the Zips, after carrying the ball two times all of last year. And don't rule out some tomfoolery by the Nittany Lions. Receiver Derrick Williams ran 3 times (although those could have been laterals), safety Jason Ganter had 2 (paging Tom Zbikowski0, and DB/return man AJ Wallace picked up 42 yards on his lone carry. One man you probably won't see carrying the football upfield is the quarterback Morelli. Morelli didn't have any rushing attempts against Akron, and likely won't start running in his first home start.
Both Hunt and Hahn are listed at 230 pounds, meaning they have a weight advantage over Maurice Crum and Travis Thomas. Trevor Laws will need to use his size to be a force on the inside, and Victor Abiamiri and Chris Frome will have to step it up from the outide. Whoever is at the Sam linebacker will have to help Crum and Thomas, and the entire front seven will have to make smart, sure tackles all day long.

ND Rush Offense vs. Penn St Rush Defense

Games of near 100 yards rushing are becoming commonplace for Darius Walker. Walker may not create very many flasy runs, but when used effectively he will reliably create 2nd- or 3rd-and-short situations, which are essential in keeping drives going. The backup situation should be interesting this week. Wear and tear from Penn State's physical backs could keep Travis Thomas (6 carries, 19 yards last week) on the bench when the Irish offense is out on the field. If that is the case, who will spell Walker? Fullback Asaph Schwapp did carry the ball 3 times for 13 yards. Munir Prince did see playing time last week, but did not have any touches. Will he continue being a decorative centerpiece, or will he be given a chance to show off his much-hyped speed? Not counting sacks, quarterback Brady Quinn scrambled 5 times for 28 yards last week. Quinn's throwing may have been erratic against Georgia Tech, but there has never been a time when Quinn incorrectly chose tucking and running over throwing the ball away.
Penn State's defensive line is as inexperienced as their linbacking corps is experienced. Because of this, the Lions will occasionally sub in an extra linebacker for a lineman (or even two linebackers for two linemen). It will be up to Brady Quinn and the Notre Dame offensive line to effectively read PSU's defense and react accordingly. Penn State's defense is led by outside linebacker Paul Posluszny. Dan Connor, the other outside linebacker, benefited from the attention paid to Posluszny last week, as Connor led the team with 10 tackles. Between these two, Ryan Harris, Sam Young, John Carlson, and Marcus Freeman will have a busy day.

Penn St Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

The word most associated with quarterback Anthony Morelli is "accurate" (unless you're an ESPN Token Southern Color Commentator (TM), in which case the word most associated with Morelli is "ACKurit"). Morelli completed 16 of 32 passes in his first start, for 206 yards and 3 TDs. The completion percentage isn't great, but it was his first collegiate start. It's hard to draw run/pass trends for Penn State based on what we have so far. Last year's numbers are a wash, as Robinson was such a great running QB. Last week's numbers are a wash, as Akron could have been playing the run all day, or they could have had a lousy pass defense. However, Morelli will be making his first start in hostile territory this weekend, so we may see more conservative playcalling, at least at the beginning of the game. Morelli already appears to have a favorite receiver, wideout Jordan Norwood. Norwood had 7 catches for 61 yards and a TD last week. Other wide receivers Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, Chris Bell, and Terrell Golden added a total of 7 catches for 127 yards and 2 TDs (by Williams and Butler). Halfback Tony Hunt was the only other player to catch a pass. He in fact had 2 receptions for 18 yards.
Notre Dame's defense fared surprisingly well last week, giving up only 140 yards to Georgia Tech. Safeties Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe combined for 13 tackles. Both defined their position as the last line of defense well - Zbikowski with his "you're not getting away from me" tackles, and Ndukwe with a game changing hit on Calvin Johnson. The corners may have been suspect, but there are signs of home. Freshman Darrin Walls covered Johnson, arguably the most talented wideout in college, step for step down the sidelines. And just because the tight end wasn't used last week, that doesn't mean he won't be used this week. Of course, if the defense blitzes and hides coverage schemes well, the secondary's job will be fairly easy: just wait back for Morelli to make a mistake, and then go and get it! (And when they get it, that's when they go on offense. And that's when they go get 'em....)

ND Pass Offense vs. Penn St Pass Defense

Brady Quinn looked shaky against the Yellow Jackets blitz schemes, completing only 23 of 38 passes for 246 yards. Of course, as Coach Charlie Weis points out, without drops that number rises to 29 of 38, which isn't too bad. Wide receiver Rhema McKnight led the way with 8 catches and 108 yards. With the solid performance by McKnight, Jeff Samardzija could afford to have an off night - only 6 catches for 74 yards, and no TDs (said the author, tongue planted firmly in cheek). John Carlson proved that he can and will be used as a receiver, as he pulled in 4 balls for 36 yards. Marcus Freeman also added his first reception since 2004. In what was again a typical performance, Darius Walker had 4 catches.
This will be the best cat-and-mouse game of the contest Saturday. Like their defensive line, Penn State's secondary is also very green. As mentioned above, the Lions use a number of combinations with their linebackers, with anywhere between 3 and 4 (or perhaps even 2 and 5) on the field at one time. How will Penn State react when Notre Dame goes four or five wide? Will they pull their best defenders off of the field in favor of more DBs, or will they let Conner and Posluszny take their chances with Munir Prince and David Grimes? Irregardless of what formation Penn State puts on the field, will Brady Quinn know when to pass and when to hand off, and will he have enough time to do so? Does putting Posluszny on a slot receiver effectively shut down the quick screen? Will Pat Haden make an idiotic and borderline offensive remark when Posluszny lines up on Samardzija in the slot? (Probably.) Will Schwapp be able to pick up a blitzing linebacker? Will he see more carries against a "smaller" front seven? Will we see more runs from 4-wide and passes from "jumbo" sets? It should be fun to watch.

Special Teams

Kevin Kelly is returning at placekicker for the Nittany Lions. He made one from 39 and another from 42 after converting 16 of 23 attempts last year. For the Irish, Carl Gioia missed two tries from almost those exact same distances.
Like Kelly, Jeremy Kapinos will return as Penn State's punter. Coming off of a year where he averaged 41.3 yards per, Kapinos was only able to manage an average of 34.5 yards and a long of 39 against Akron. Conversely, Irish punter Geoff Price had no trouble kicking the ball deep. He averaged 50.4 yards on 5 punts, with a long of 61.
AJ Wallace showed some flash as a kick returner for the Lions, picking up 95 total yards on two runbacks. Derrick Williams added one return of 19 yards, 2 yards below his 2005 average. Notre Dame kickoff specialist Bobby Renkes showed a much improved leg, averaging 64.7 yards on 3 kicks with one touchback. Averaging in the 17.5 yards per return given up by ND coverage teams gave Georgia Tech an average start just inside the 20. Then again, GT isn't known for spectacular special teams play.
George West must have been born early. Not only did he start school a semester early, but he also was the first Notre Dame player to touch the ball this season, returning the opening kickoff 33 yards. Not to be outdone, David Grimes added a 46 yard return. Kevin Kelly averaged 60.7 yards on his 7 kickoffs last week, with one touchback and one ball out of bounds. Lions coverage teams gave up 18 yards per return, which means the average Akron start was around the 22.
Derrick Williams is also the PSU punt returner. In three tries against the Zips he gained 44 yards, for an average of 14.7 yards. Notre Dame gave up an average of 8 yards on 3 punt returns last week.
Tom Zbikowski was effectively shut down as a punt returner last week, picking up only 30 yards on 4 tries. Conversely, Penn State only had to punt once last week, and they held that return to 1 yard.

Look for a big game from McKnight, Grimes, Prince, Laws, Mitchell Thomas, and Morrice Richardson.

ND 31, Penn St 24: One each by Samardzija, Grimes, Walker, and the defense, plus Gioia nails a chip shot.

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.