Tuesday, November 28, 2006

End Game | by Jay

I rewatched the rest of the game last night with the Tivo remote in hand, a dictaphone, and a clipboard, deconstructing the debacle like a detective from CSI: Coliseum. Southern Cal is a talented team, sure, but as in the Michigan game, it seemed like we shot ourselves in the foot quite a bit. Thus I wanted to look at all the missed opportunities, tally 'em up and see where the drives broke down for us.

Right off the bat, something is different: Zbikowski shows up for the kickoff return. I'm mystified, but then Charlie mentioned in his interview yesterday he wanted to get a bunch of starters involved in special teams, to have "all hands on deck", which was a rallying cry in the week leading up to Southern Cal. I guess we're pulling out all the stops; everything but the green jerseys. (Zibby actually ends up doing a pretty good job on KO return.)

What went wrong?
What went right?
ND Drive 1. Terrific catch by McKnight down the left sideline to start the game, a 38-yard pass. The field looks patchy, and Samardzija slips twice on two more plays, once on a swing pass and another on route downfield. (Maybe SC should have grown the grass a little bit to prevent injuries?) ND stalls out at 4th & 9 on the SC 29. If we had a more reliable kicking game, I think we would try the FG (a 46-yarder) here, but instead we go for it. Morton gets blown off the ball by a defensive lineman and Brady has to scramble and improvise, overthrowing McKnight in the end zone.
Samardzija slips twice; bad blocking/good pressure by SC on 4th down.


SC Drive 1. Southern Cal immediately goes to the air. Booty hits Gable for a long pass, and converts two more third downs on passes down the middle to Turner and the TE Davis. The middle coverage (or lack thereof) looks wide open. It's first and goal on the 9, and Booty hits Jarrett on a lob over the middle. The coverage seems to be there; it seems like Ndukwe had a play on the ball, but gets outrebounded by the taller Jarrett. Poor coverage over the middle; athletic play by Jarrett.


ND Drive 2. The sequence is Walker run for 5 yards, incomplete pass, incomplete pass. On the last incomplete, McKnight simply drops an inside slant that would have converted. We're forced to punt, and the coverage is terrible: there's nobody down the right side and Reed goes 43 yards to the ND 26 before Price forces him out of bounds. McKnight drops a third down conversion.


SC Drive 2. From the ND 26, Booty hits Steve Smith over the middle (again) who comes down right in front of the goal line. Two plays later Jarrett makes his second TD grab, another jump ball with Richardson right on him. Terrible punt coverage results in short field for SC; two terrific grabs by Smith & Jarrett.


ND Drive 3. Starting at our own 20, Quinn finds Freeman for a first down, then again for a first down, then Walker breaks a run for another first down. We're moving the ball well and Freeman looks to be comfortable filling Carlson's shoes. On second and 10 from the SC 34, McKnight drops a touchdown pass at the back of the end zone that goes through his hands. Next play, Samardzija makes a leaping grab down to the SC 9, setting up first and goal. Sequence goes: rollout right, throw it away; pass to McKnight on an in-and-out route, where Terrell Thomas makes one of the best recoveries and pass knockdowns I've ever seen; Quinn looks for Freeman over the middle but misfires and overthrows him. Gioia kicks the FG.
McKnight drops a TD; Terrell Thomas makes a great play in the end zone to bat away another TD; Quinn overthrows Freeman. Another failure to convert.
We're finally on the board. Gioia hits his kick.

SC Drive 3. Starts off with a short kickoff by ND and no discernible coverage downfield; SC returns to the SC 41. SC starts running the ball; this drive will feature 7 rushes and two passes. Gable gets a first down on a burst through a tackle; Abiamiri should have taken him down but he slipped out. On the next play, Jarrett beats man coverage by Richardson; gets him all turned around and bumfuzzled -- 25 yards down to the ND 19. On the plus side, it looks like we adjusted coverages to compensate for the wide-open middle on the previous two drives, switching to a man-under zone here with Richardson assigned to Jarrett. No matter; Jarrett just beats him on a move and turns him right around.

SC rushes a few times, then there's a key play here on 4th & 1: a fake quarterback sneak by Booty with a pitchout to Gable who beats Zibby around the side for 9 yards and nearly a TD. Watch Zibby bite on the dive fake -- Booty sells it pretty well -- and Zibby can't recover, missing an open-field tackle (and committing a facemask to boot). Booty sneaks it in for the TD.
Missed tackle by Abiamiri; Richardson can't keep up with Jarrett on the fake; Zibby bites on the fake sneak and fails to tackle on 4th & 1.


ND Drive 4. Zibby returns the kick again, out to the ND 21. After a Walker run, Quinn tries to force one to Samardzija, but Dallas Sartz bats down the pass on the inside slant -- great coverage. On third and seven, BQ drops back to pass, finds no one, and takes off on a 60-yard scamper down to the 17, breaking a couple of tackles along the way. Tremendous run by Quinn.

A couple of runs and a pass and we've got another first down, converting on a draw to Walker up the middle. On first and goal, Walker gets pegged on a dive and coughs up the ball (he also got shaken up on the play, but would return). SC recovers.
Walker fumbles in the red zone.
BQ ate up most of the field on his long run; we converted again and were poised to score.

SC Drive 4. Terrific defensive stand by the Irish; we force a three-and-out on three incomplete passes intended for Smith and Jarrett. SC punts.

But Steve Quinn jumps in there and blocks it! Irish ball on the SC 7.

Excellent pass coverage; blocked punt.
Blocked Punt

ND Drive 5. First and goal. First play, a thread-the-needle bullet to Freeman in the end zone.

I feel like we're back in this thing.

Perfect throw by BQ and good hands by Freeman.

SC Drive 5. A line drive kickoff bounces around and SC ends up at the 19. On the first play, Booty tries to hit Jarrett down the middle again, but this time Richardson reads it perfectly and picks it off. Beautiful play. Rich runs step for step and turns right into the pass. ND finally takes away the middle (for a while, anyway).

Now I really feel like we're back in it.

Awesome INT by Richardson.

ND Drive 6. Ball on the ND 48. We run a trick play, something we haven't ever seen before. Grimes lines up at running back, takes the handoff from BQ and then immediately looks to pass the ball to McKnight who's streaking down the left sideline. Rhema's covered, so Grimes tucks and runs for two yards. This play was a bust because Grimes didn't sell the run, and the CB covering McKnight never dropped off.

A pass to Samardzija makes it 3rd & 1, and then disaster strikes. First, the Irish attempt an identical fake-sneak-it-and-pitch that Booty and Gable ran with such aplomb a few drives earlier. When ND runs it, however, Sartz never bites on the sneak and wraps up Walker for a loss with a clean, open field tackle. (Zibby, take a note). On fourth and 1, BQ finds McKnight open on a slant and puts the ball on the money -- and Rhema drops it. Again.

That's one catch, three drops by Rhema so far: a nice catch to open the game, then a dropped third down conversion, a dropped TD, and a dropped fourth down conversion.
Grimes trick play goes nowhere; fake sneak & pitch fails miserably to convert 3rd and 1; Rhema drops another catch on 4th down.


SC Drive 6. Another great stop by the Irish defense. First, Crum drops Gable for a 8-yard loss, then Trevor Laws (!) gets his first interception of his career, dropping into coverage, putting a paw on a ball over the middle and hauling it in.

Superb tackle by Crum; Laws makes a helluva interception.

ND Drive 7. It's our ball on the SC 36. At this point there's about 3:30 left in the half; plenty of time to punch it in. What happens? We run a draw that goes nowhere; Brady has to scramble out of bounds on a pass when the blocking breaks down; BQ fires one over the head of McKnight on a bad pass.

It's 4th & 4 on the 32. As in the opening drive, here's another situation where we might have kicked a FG to get within 8 points (if we had a decent kicker). Instead we have to go for it, and we don't just try for the first down, we go for all the marbles. BQ tries to hit Samardzija on a fade to the right corner of the end zone, but it's way too long. That's three times we go for it on fourth, and three times we miss.
BQ throws two uncatchable passes; lack of a kicker forces another 4th-down try. Questionable decision to go for the end zone when all we need is 4 yards.


SC Drive 7. 2:19 left, and Southern Cal decides to turtle until the half. Three runs by Gable go nowhere and Southern Cal has to punt.


ND Drive 8. 22 seconds left, ball on the ND 27. Quinn hits Freeman for a nice first down pass, but the clock runs out and that's the half.


Let's take a station break here. At the half, it's an 11-point game: 21-10 Southern Cal. The offense has sputtered, failing on three 4th down conversions, and McKnight is the first-half goat with three crucial drops. On defense, after getting out-hustled, out-jumped, and out-maneuvered by Jarrett, the D has salvaged itself with a middle adjustment and two interceptions. Unfortunately the offense couldn't capitalize on the turnovers, especially with the short field after the Laws interception. The special teams are a mixed bag: we gave up a big return that set up a Trojan TD, but we also blocked a punt deep in SC territory that led to seven points.

Stats at the half:
                  ND        SC
Total Yds 218 149
3rd-Down 5 of 10 2 of 5
4th-Down 0 of 3 1 of 1
We had the ball 7 times (discarding the short possession right before the half) and came away with 10 points. That's terrible. Yet despite the inefficiency on offense and the TD passes given up on defense, we're still very much in it, and the defensive adjustments have to be encouraging: the Trojans have failed to score on their last four possessions. Too bad it all goes to hell in the second half.

(One quick PSA during the half: I'd like to take this opportunity to say that Brent Musburger was an exceptional doofus in the booth for this game, even by his usual standards of doofusness. See you after the break.)