Copyright by Global Electronic Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com®
October 14, 2001
Beating West Virginia Isn't The Answer
By F. Richard Ciccone
For The IrishEyes.Com NewsService
The record is getting better but the team isn't.
On a day when Notre Dame finally found a defense it could run against, one that missed tackles as often as it made them, the Irish barely found a way to keep Bob Davie's sterling October mark safe for another week.
As in their initial win of the season against Pitt, Notre Dame again needed the other team to play badly. Pitt gave Notre Dame the ball four times. West Virginia turned it over to stop itself from scoring the touchdown that would have given the Mountaineers their first victory ever against Notre Dame.
But in recent years that is nothing new. People who once would have not been acceptable scrimmage foes are now formidable and increasingly triumphant opponents.
The loyalists can take hope in Carlyle Holiday's running but the scrambling Jarious Jackson wannabe isn't the ticket for Notre Dame to once again travel college football's glory road. At least not in this offense.
Don't even think that the 345 rushing yards the Irish rolled up on Saturday represented some newly discovered unstoppable force. This was West Virginia, who entered the game ranked 113th in rushing defense and, probably, regressed during it.
Yes, Holiday is strong and moves to an opening better than any other Irish back but the game plan has now become more one dimensional than when Matt Lovecchio was struggling the first two weeks.
Watching the Irish reminds one of another terrible Notre Dame coach, Joe Kuharich, who once suspended quarterback Daryle Lamonica for telling reporters that Kuharich knew only four plays: "Run left, run right, run up the middle and punt."
Lamonica thought he might able to throw the ball a little but Kuharich didn't think much of his passing ability. This was the same Daryle Lamonica who became the "Mad Bomber" of the Oakland Raiders, engaged in the legendary Heidi game shootout with Joe Namath and threw for dozens of touchdowns in the NFL when someone finally let him throw the ball.
Bob Davie likes to run right, run left and run inside.
With the emergence of Holiday, Davie has now taken another mystery away from opponents. Holiday ran the ball 19 times on Saturday, about one-fourth of the offense. Any defensive coordinator who decides to stop Holiday immediately eliminates 25 to 35 per cent of Notre Dame's offense and what's left isn't worth worrying about.
Davie did tease everyone a little. On the Irish' second possession he called a pass on first down for the first time in 2001, or so it seems.
Holiday's slant throw fell five yards in front of Javin Hunter. Then Davie called a shovel pass, a flanker reverse and a pass to his fullback. It was as though he wanted to let his critics know that Notre Dame did have some of those plays in the game plan.
He absolutely stunned the football world with an onside kick-off that worked. That was midway in the first quarter and that was the end of razzle dazzle. It was back to dull. Holiday ran left and right and up the middle and it was a good thing he and Tony Fisher and Julius Jones racked up 345 yards because the defense, which was supposed to be the heart of this team, needs a bypass.
Avon Coburn ran for more than 100 yards by himself in the first half, almost exclusively running a draw play from a spread offense that Notre Dame couldn't seem to understand. It didn't matter when one of the defensive front figured it out because Coburn always bounced off the first tackler and often the second and third.
There were different folks in the secondary this week but there was nothing different about the pass defense. The Irish's best hope on an opponent's pass play is that the quarterback doesn't get the ball anywhere near the receiver which happily happened often in the last two games.
One of the reasons Irish pass defenders are often the victims of the yellow flag is that they play so far off the receivers they can't possibly get in front of them so they have no choice but to fling themselves on the guy's back. And it would seem impossible; given how much space they give their opponents, that they would ever be beaten deep. But this plucky band of defenders can do it.
The defense still seems to be learning and the season is half over according to the schedule. For anyone who had hopes of watching an exciting, competitive team, it was over when they tossed the coin at Nebraska.
It won't be long before the apologists talk about the talent gap and how the Irish have to choose athletes with high academic capabilities.
If they are so smart why do they get penalized for things that most disciplined high school teams stop doing after a few games? Why do fifth year linemen miss the snap count?
The inane penalty for celebrating in the end zone has to be forgiven. Coaches from Ara Parseghian to Lou Holtz never allowed their players to do any of dancing or shouting that most of the Floridas do all the time. They urged their players, "Act like you've been there before." That would sound silly if Davie said it.
Until Pitt and West Virginia appeared the Irish were leading Division I-A in scoring inepitude despite whatever other aptitudes they may have.
Next week is the umpteenth renewal of what once was billed as college football's greatest intersectional rivalry. It's 2-3 Notre Dame against 2-4 Southern Cal which showed signs of coming to life with a 48-17 spanking Saturday of Arizona State. But neither team is going anywhere this year.
The Trojans might use this game to spur them toward late season respectability. For Notre Dame, there's always Navy.
(F. Richard Ciccone, Notre Dame '61, is a former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and an author whose most recent work is Royko: A Life In Print. He is a regular contributor to IrishEyes.)