Turning This Thing Around

Most informed Irish fans expected to hit a bump or two like this in the road, but the smart money was that they'd come early last year. When N.D. started by tearing off eight straight wins it seemed as though we wouldn't have to go through any growing pains. Three wins and five losses for the next eight games have left many wondering.

There are several factors at work here. One is a schedule that has put us a week behind all of our opponents thus far. With practice time being so closely regulated, the fact that each of our three opponents have been a game up on the Irish and, equally importantly, a week further along in terms precious practice time. Undoubtedly, this has contributed to the spotty play thus far.

Certainly the M.S.U. game was close enough that it could have been won. Purdue this week will be the first time all year that we have played a team that is even with us in games played.

The last time N.D. suffered through a 3-game stanza to open the season where it was behind in terms of games played was in 2001, when N.D. opened with a dismal 0-3 record including maulings at the hands of Nebraska and Texas A&M. Once N.D. caught up in terms of games played, the Irish were 5-3 for the rest of year and all three of the losses were close games to bowl teams. In 2002, however, the Irish played every team toe-to-toe: Maryland in its opener, Purdue in its second game and Michigan in its third, and won all three of them.

Unfortunately, the schedule for next year sets up the same way, with us opening on September 11 against a Michigan team that will have played already. If the Athletic Department is serious about playing competitive football all efforts must be made to try to move one of the later-season games to September 4, a permissible date. Purdue seems like a logical candidate because the Boilermakers have an open date on September 4 and they were bitten by the same bug losing their opener this year to a Bowling Green team that had already played. Stanford, another frequent late-starter, may be a good candidate as well.

As far as the weak offensive play this year, certainly this is not all Carlyle Holiday's fault. Probably Holiday deserves to be carried out of the stadium on the shoulders of N.D. fans for the contributions that he has made to the program and the grit and determination that he has shown. Cheering Brady Quinn is fine, but the smattering of "boos" that one hears for Holiday are absolutely inexcusable.

Still, with his confidence gauge hovering near "empty," Holiday needs to sit. I recalled last week that in 2002, when forced to take a week off due to injury, his play improved dramatically when he returned. With a chance to see the game unfold from a different perspective he started to see the field better and turned in some very impressive performances down the stretch last year.

This year, however, has been a disaster for this quality young man. He has been on the field for one offensive touchdown (the T.D. strike to McKnight late in the W.S.U. game), but he has given up two defensive scores directly from his hands (the W.S.U. fumble and the M.S.U. interception). Holiday, who threw only five interceptions last year, has thrown five already this year. Last year he averaged 7.0 yards per pass attempt, in 2001 he averaged 5.6 per attempt, this year he's averaging a meager 4.2 per attempt.

Quinn, right now, gives N.D. the best chance to move the ball. In limited action thus far, N.D. has averaged about 4.9 yards per play with Quinn at Q.B. but only 3.3 with Holiday at the controls.

Last year N.D. averaged 4.7 yards per play for the season. Quinn, though playing only about 17% of the snaps thus far, has been on the field for two of N.D.'s three T.D. drives. The primary reason is that Quinn is roughly 1.5 seconds faster getting rid of the ball on average.

Consider that in 73 passing attempts Holiday has been sacked 11 times while in 27 passing attempts Quinn has been sacked just once, and it's no lack of mobility on Holiday's part that is contributing to this stark difference. Nor is it just differences in defenses. M.S.U blitzed Quinn several times but his relatively faster delivery actually started to make blitzes something of a gamble against him rather than the obvious strategy that they are against Holiday.

Brady Quinn will make mistakes. All quarterbacks do and freshmen are particularly vulnerable in this regard. In a perfect world, Quinn would not have to play this year. Obviously, it's not a perfect world.

A couple of optimistic thoughts. Willingham has been through this before and has turned seasons around. In his second year at Stanford, the Cardinal was 2-5 through 7 games and averaging a horrible 12 points per game.

Stanford caught fire, however, and averaged 32 points per game for the rest of the season in winning the last five games of the season including a 38-0 pasting of M.S.U. in the Sun Bowl.

In 2000, Stanford had another apparently weak offense that averaged only 16 ppg for the first half of the season but then averaged 32 ppg for the second half. N.D. has turned in some memorable seasons from holes this deep.

In 1978, the Irish were 1-2 and averaging exactly 8.0 ppg and finished 9-3 (the only loss being the controversial affair in Los Angeles) and winning the Chicken Soup Cotton Bowl.

A rebound like that would be chicken soup for Notre Dame souls.

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