Monday, October 01, 2007

Odds & Sods: Where Aesthetics Go To Die Edition | by Mike

Something's Gone Wrong Again. The second half saw the most cohesive play of the season by the Irish, but the self-inflicted wounds that have characterized the 2007 were still too much to overcome. The Irish's edge in total yardage was not enough to overcome costly penalties and poor play on third down and special teams. Six of Purdue's first downs came on penalties. The Irish defense allowed Purdue to convert a 3rd-and-29 that looked eerily similar to Miami's 3rd-and-43 conversion in 1989, letting the receiver run unimpeded down the near sideline. The Irish lost five points in the kicking game. An Irish special teams miscue forced the Irish offense to start a drive at the 1-yardline, while the kick coverage unit allowed Purdue to start the game's decisive drive on the 41-yardline. Purdue's superior execution in these phases were outcome-determinative.

Rough Gem. Jay already touched on the impact of freshman Golden Tate, but Tate's performance is worthy of additional comment. When Tate made his spectacular grab on a 43-yard pass play against PSU that was ultimately negated by a holding penalty, I couldn't help but recall the following quote from the preseason:

"I've still got to work on my footwork and my hands are just OK, but I'm willing to work and I feel like I'm going to be all right."
At the time of the PSU game, that quote left me wondering whether Tate was simply lucky on that play or whether he could consistently make plays like that. After his performance against Purdue, I think it's safe to say that Golden's hands are more than "just OK." The onus is now on Charlie Weis, Mike Haywood and Rob Ianello to find ways to increase Tate's opportunities and role in the offense.

Big Empty. During ESPN's broadcast of the game, one of the more curious explanations for Notre Dame's struggles was offered. Viewers were told that if Charlie Weis had played the backups more in previous years, the Irish would be doing better now. But who were these backups that were not being played? It's true that there are not many juniors and seniors that entered the season with significant experience, but that is simply because there aren't that many members of these classes to begin with. The senior class includes a total of two offensive players - Junior Jabbie and Darrin Bragg. The entire senior class consists of just seven players at this point. While the numbers are far greater in the freshman and sophomore classes, it should be obvious why there aren't many from these classes who entered the season with extensive playing time. Eighteen of the sophomores saw game action in 2006 as freshmen, but very few freshmen arrive on campus with the physical development necessary to see as much playing time as Sam Young did. Several freshmen have made their presence known this year, including Jimmy Clausen, Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Mike Ragone, Duval Kamara, Golden Tate, Ian Williams, Kerry Neal and Brian Smith. Yet Weis could not have played these guys last year, as they were not on the team last year. Thus in many cases the players most likely to provide a spark are also the players least familiar with the playbook and most likely to make freshman mistakes. Brian Smith kept two Purdue drives alive with penalties on third downs, but he also put the pressure on Curtis Painter that led to Zbikowski's interception. The table below shows the contributions to total yardage and touchdowns broken down by class year. The limited number of upperclassmen on the roster is reflected in the limited production of the junior and senior classes.
     Total Yds    TDs
920 3 (Hughes, Kamara, Tate)
So 573 1 (Walls)
Jr 119 0
Sr 57 0
5th 188 2 (Thomas, Carlson)
It's fair to find fault with Weis & Co. for failing at times to sufficiently simplify things in light of the youth of this year's team, but playing backups more in the previous two years would not have changed the youth of the 2007 squad.

Fighting In A Sack. Clausen and Sharpley enjoyed far more time in the pocket against Purdue than against any other opponent so far this season. Part of this was due to improved play by the offensive line, but the other part of the explanation lies in Purdue's gameplan and personnel. Purdue did not blitz as often as previous opponents, and no one in Purdue's front seven has the pass rushing ability of Philip Wheeler, Dan Connor, Sean Lee, Shawn Crable or Jonal Saint-Dic. UCLA's Bruce Davis is a 5th-year senior who recorded 12.5 sacks last year. Facing Davis will tell us a good deal about how much Notre Dame's pass protection has actually improved.