Deep Breath

Now, before we start hearing anguished cries about the need to replace the 2002 Home Depot Coach of the Year, and the 2002 Sporting News Sportsman of the year (that's L. Tyrone Willingham for those of you who have been following along) as being unworthy of leading Notre Dame's football program, it's time for a deep breath.

But again the objective view may help here. Notre Dame has played only top 25 teams. Let's assume that the college universe were reduced to those 25 teams and Notre Dame. Going 1-3 against that group would not be taken as evidence that Notre Dame didn't belong there. Surely, it would indicate that N.D. belongs in the bottom half of this group, but there would also probably be several 0-4 teams in the bunch.

Let's look at the defense. The defense allowed 19 points to W.S.U. (remember 7 came on a fumble return) a season low for W.S.U. (W.S.U. scored 25 in its opener, but all on offense). The defense held M.S.U. to 15 points (7 on an interception return) another season-low (M.S.U. scored 20 on Iowa, but all on offense). The week after Purdue toasted Arizona for 59 points, the defense held Purdue to 23 points (many of those set up by turnovers) the second-lowest total of their year (the Boilermakers had 16 points and many more yards defeating Wake Forest 16-10).

Realistically, therefore, there isn't much to complain about the defense's performance, except in the Michigan debacle. Moreover, the more aggressive defensive strategy of frequent blitzing that was advocated in this column (though omahadomer is confident that the coaches came up with this without the benefit of his input), held Purdue to 2 of 15 on 3rd down conversions. Third down conversions had been something of an Achilles heel for the Irish defense until last week.

OK. Another deep breath. Let's talk about the offense. First, the young offense has faced only experienced defenses on top 25 teams. W.S.U. returned 9 starters from its Rose Bowl team (and forced 9 turnovers and 2 blocked punts in a rout at undefeated Oregon). Michigan returned most of its team and is realistically better on the defensive side of the ball. M.S.U.'s defense held Iowa and its vaunted power-running game to 10 points. Purdue returned 9 starters from what was statistically the Big 10's best defense last year.

Take Iowa against Michigan State. Iowa's offense came into the game averaging over 5 yards per carry and 200 yards per game. Against MSU, however, the Hawkeyes were limited to 39 carries for 107 yards (a meager 2.7 per carry). N.D. ran for an eerily similar 100 yards on 37 carries (2.7 per carry). So fire Ferentz! He has no idea how to develop an offensive line or a running game! Sorry; I got carried away for a second.

Another step back. Suppose that you read in a pre-season magazine that a team would play 5 new starters on the offensive line, a true freshman QB and have 4 of the 5 top receivers be freshman or sophomores, have a walk-on splitting time at fullback and it would face only top 25 teams who return most of their defenses from last year. What would you project for that squad's first 4 games? I'd project 0-4 and that it wouldn't score many points. Well, we're 1-3 and we haven't scored many points.

Of course, there's work to do, or this season will be a lost cause in terms of making a bowl game. The schedule doesn't ease up at all so N.D. is going to have to play better.

The offense showed much more life with Brady Quinn at quarterback. The kid is absolutely fearless. Hoisting that ball and throwing it 59 times into the Big 10's best defense was enough evidence, but bobbing and weaving and avoiding any sacks until late and running for 25 yards (bringing his total yardage for the game to 322 for the game) all in his first start should be just about enough to earn anyone his stripes.

A few more suggestions thrown into the ether. N.D. needs to spread the field and go to one-back sets more often. I think the long-term solution is to develop an offensive line that can block for a power-running game, but there's no sense pretending that the current line can do that. They can, however, block for a passing game that spreads the field.

Here's an experiment. We'll exempt plucky walk-on Josh Schmidt from this. Close your eyes and think of all the passes this year that have been thrown at N.D. runningbacks Jones, Grant, Wilson and Powers-Neal. OK, now — how many have been caught? Four. Two by Powers-Neal; two by Grant, and for a grand total of 14 yards. Schmidt has caught 3 for 26 yards (making him by far the biggest threat coming out of the backfield) and Jeff Jenkins has caught one pass for 7 yards.

The fact of the matter is that in most circumstances, N.D. is better off adding an extra tight end (Clark with 9 catches for 90 yards or Fasano with 2 for 34, for example) or another wide receiver (all of whom have at least a dozen receptions at this point). N.D.'s talented tailbacks may also find more space to run without 8 in the box and the safeties and linebackers worried about something other than gap responsibility on the run.

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