It has been rightly pointed out that no N.D. team has ever lost that badly to a Michigan team and that no Davie-coached team was ever shut out that badly. All of this is true, but it's poor reasoning to draw from that the conclusion that somehow the program has regressed below the 1997-2001 era.
Programs, of course, are measured in wins and losses and not by single games. Let's consider how each of the last 6 N.D. coaches has fared in his first 15 games and compare that with what the program did in the 15 games prior to his tenure.
AraPrior 15: 6-9
First 15: 13-2
DevinePrior 15: 13-2
First 15: 11-4
FaustPrior 15: 10-4-1
First 15: 9-6
HoltzPrior 15: 8-7
First 15: 8-7
DaviePrior 15: 11-4
First 15: 8-7
WillinghamPrior 15: 8-7
First 15: 11-4
In an absolute sense, Willingham's opening 15 games rank second (in a tie with Devine) only to Ara's opening 13-2. Moreover, this 11-4 has not come against a soft schedule. Howell, for example, ranks N.D.'s schedule in 2002 at .724, which made it the 13th most difficult schedule in the country that year and fairly typical of N.D. schedules since 1990.
Add into the mix that Washington State pummeled a 2-0 Colorado team at Colorado and that Michigan is obviously on its way to a fine season and that leaves a group of 15 games that have been against very difficult competition. Consider that last year N.D. played Maryland, Purdue, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Air Force, Florida State, Boston College, U.S.C. and North Carolina State, all of which finished above .500. Add to the mix that Washington State and Michigan seem nearly certain to both finish above .500 this year and that makes 11 of the 15 games against winning teams.
Moreover, it's the direction that's more interesting. Even through 15 games, Holtz was just starting to make headway. His 8-7 did come against insanely difficult competition (Howell makes Holtz's first season schedule strength to be .785, though Faust's final 5-6 campaign against a schedule that Howell rates at .896: the hardest in the country). Interestingly, Holtz's 15th game was a bitterly disappointing road loss to Pittsburgh in which the only bright spot was the play of Holtz's first true recruit at the quarterback position: Tony Rice. Rice, because of injury to the season starter Terry Andrysiak, started from there on out.
It's here as well that the comparisons to Davie completely fall apart. Davie took over a program in reasonably good shape having won 11 of its last 15 games and turned it into a mediocre group that was only one game over .500 for his first 15. Willingham, however, inherited a group that was a mediocre 8-7 and then won 11 of his first 15. Thus Willingham has made a 3-game improvement that is the opposite of Davie's 3-game negative impact.
Now, none of this is to suggest that we're free from problems. The Michigan loss is extremely worrisome, particular as a short-term matter and the chances for a successful season this year. The good news, I suppose, is that Willingham experienced a loss like this to Texas in 1999 (losing 69-17 in Austin) and turned it around into Stanford's only Rose Bowl campaign in the last 3 decades. Things got immediately better with a 54-17 win over Washington State, a 50-22 win over Arizona and a 42-32 win over UCLA in the next three weeks. A little of that tonic would do us all good.
Now, in case anyone is interested, here are a few suggestions on how N.D. can improve:
1. Give the ball to Julius Jones more often. N.D. averages 5.2 yards when Jones carries the ball and 3.2 yards per play when it does anything else (run or throw). Jones, however, has carried on only 22 of N.D.'s 128 plays. In fact, an offense consisting only of alternating runs by Grant and Jones would be far preferable to matters thus far. Grant and Jones together have 49 carries for 232 yards, for a perfectly respectable 4.7 per carry between them.
When N.D. does something other than hand the ball to Grant or Jones, N.D. averages only 2.8 per play. Thus, though handoffs to Grant and Jones account for only about 38% of the plays, they represent well over half the offensive production thus far. The fact that Jones managed to slog his way through the Michigan defense for over 4 per carry should be some indication that N.D. can run the ball against just about anyone if so inclined.
2. Blitz more. N.D. is giving up a very poor 8.3 per pass this year as opposed to 5.8 per pass last year. In an effort to protect the cornerback opposite Duff, N.D. has gone to more zone, more nickel and dime packages and fewer blitzes. The result, however, is that we've done very little to disrupt opposing passing games (3 sacks in two games), generated only one interception and allowed opponents to convert almost half of their 3rd downs.
The risk of blitzing and going man-to-man on the outside is that we'll give up some big plays. But, I'd rather give up some 60-yard passes than having the defense get gassed being out on the field for drives of almost 11 minutes (one Michigan drive took over 10 minutes off the clock).
The lack of blitzing and the softer coverages have also made us more vulnerable to 7 and 8-yard runs, particularly by Michigan. Expecting the defensive line to take on a offensive line of Michigan's quality all day, by itself, is unrealistic.
3. Punt the ball out of bounds or higher. Setta has a strong leg, but he's consistently kicking low rifle shots that leave us open to huge returns. If Setta can't do it, then get Price or someone on the field who can.
4. Sit Holiday for at least one game. I offer this one reluctantly, and anyone who has read my material knows that I've been a supporter of Holiday's. No matter what, he'll always be one of my favorite N.D. players because his grit and toughness. But, the attempted marriage between Diedrick's offense and Holiday is becoming a nightmare.
Diedrick has, I think, tried to adapt the passing game some to fit Holiday's strengths and weaknesses. Holiday's biggest weakness, however, has been decision-making and timely delivery of the ball. The results against Michigan were comical, however.
Late in the game, N.D. was in max protect and sending only two receivers out against 7 or 8 Michigan defensive backs. In attempting to simplify matters, Diedrick has made the offense so utterly predictable that it is apparently among the easiest for which to devise a defensive gameplan. In doing so, moreover, Holiday's biggest strength (his arm strength and ability to throw the deep ball) has been completely negated.
Quinn will probably struggle some but it'll be easier to evaluate him if he plays some consistently and early enough in games. Quinn at least presents enough of a throwing risk that it may cause defenses to back off some for fear of having him pass over the top. The further back W.S.U. played on defense was the series Quinn was in the game and, unsurprisingly, the running game worked.
Holiday, it must be recalled, played much better last year after sitting out the Stanford game due to injury. He's clearly pressing and a little respite may be just what the doctor ordered. N.D. may also become somewhat more difficult to prepare for if Holiday plays situationally, rather than every down.