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Acceptable Or Not?
By F. Richard Ciccone
For The IrishEyes.Com NewsService
Someone should explain to Bob Davie that 9-2 is acceptable-- but not outstanding, and 6-5 is not acceptable at all.
Davie is mesmerized by the combination of elements that last year won him a spot in a BCS bowl which, in retrospect, Notre Dame didn't belong in or deserve. Those elements were a favorable schedule, a good deal of fortune and a risk adverse offense that set records for the fewest turnovers since Walter Camp decided that when one team drops the ball the other can pick it up.
Davie has shown absolutely no imagination on offense since he took over the head coaching job and almost all his successes have been a blend of defense, special teams, a few outstanding individual performances and a weaker opponent. Davie has yet to beat anyone better than his team and too often has lost to those who weren't. Saturday was another example of the latter. And soon it's time again to question whether Notre Dame has the talent to continue playing quality schools who somehow can win even when their quality may not be as good as Notre Dame's.
Two plays late in the first half Saturday illustrated the difference between whether the talent is there or whether Davie has the ability to get the best out of it.
The first was when the Irish had pinned Michigan State deep in its own territory and the Spartans threw the ball deep where Clifford Jefferson, outsized and outmanned, drew an interference call. Jefferson is the latest in a long line of smurf cornerbacks whose mere presence in the Irish secondary make opposing offensive coordinators dream up all sorts of deep pass plays even if their quarterbacks are erratic and the receivers clumsy. Sooner or later, you can beat Notre Dame deep.
There was a time that the Irish routinely appeared in the Top 10 and the list of their defensive backs who went on to play in the NFL was the chief reason; Jeff Burris, Todd Lyght, Shawn Wooden, Bobby Taylor, etc. They were mostly tall and tough. Then came the era of Allen Rossum, tough, fast but not very big.
The second play was when Matt LoVecchio scrambled to toss a wounded duck pass that managed to get close enough for Javin Hunter to make a one-handed catch for the only touchdown of a dreary afternoon. That play didn't signify that either LoVecchio or Hunter are at the talent level one sees when the various Floridas play, but it did indicate that if the coach lets the players have a chance to do something good they might.
But Davie is clearly of the opinion that Julius Jones and Tony Fisher can run for thousands of yards each game and if they clutch the ball firmly there will be no turnovers and maybe, just maybe, Notre Dame can be a fantastic 8-3. Notre Dame can't win over all with a game plan that everyone in the country knows can be stopped with an eight-man line. Notre Dame can't win over anyone who is capable of scoring three or four times a game because the offense is geared to score only when the other team makes a mistake.
This, sadly, has been the story since Davie's tenure began. He has committed to an option offense that most schools have sent the way of the wishbone. Oklahoma, the school that invented the option, won its first national title in years last season with a quarterback who threw the ball everywhere and no one was calling its quarterback the next Joe Montana.
If LoVecchio can't throw the ball 40 yards downfield, let Carlyle Holiday do it, or Jared Clark. More importantly, how dangerous is it to throw on first down? Maybe not 40 yards to the post, but six yards to a back. Notre Dame threw twice on first down all day Saturday. One was LoVecchio's make-up pitch to Hunter and the other was a short toss to the fullback that picked up 17 yards.
It is not only the deep pass that Davie abhors, it is any pass. He still believes Woody Hayes was right when he said that three things happen on a pass and two of them are bad. Davie ought to throw away Woody's memoirs and watch Florida play.
And it isn't only the lack of the forward pass—which someone ought to remind Davie was invented by a guy named Rockne—it's the same brooding game plan that has given Irish fans angina attacks for five years. Wasn't Kevin Rogers going to open up the offense? What happened to those screens and draws and reverses and multiple formations that occasionally might confuse a defense? Are LoVecchio and Co. so limited the most innovative thing they can do is jitterbug along the line and pitch it to Tony Fisher?
The most innovative thing Notre Dame did Saturday was also the dumbest. The fake field goal when everyone knew it was coming. Kicking the field goal would have been the right thing. Even the call itself is indicative of where Davie's head is. Almost every other team would throw off the fake, Notre Dame runs up the middle.
Davie is convinced success lies in running inside. Perhaps he believes his offensive line will only get better with a continued rushing scheme. That's what happened last year, especially in the Southern Cal game when the Irish dominated the clock and game in the second half. But Davie, trapped in the past, may still believe Southern Cal is a great powerhouse when for 20 years it has been one of the dwindling number of beatables on the Irish schedule.
Davie's one dimensional offense may prevail over USC, Pitt or West Virginia and Navy and maybe Boston College and Stanford. Well, that's 6-5 anyway.
(F. Richard Ciccone, Notre Dame '61, is an author and former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune whose most recent book is "Royko, A Life in Print." He is a contributor to IrishEyes.)