Opening Impressions

Could you have picked a better way to open the season and the Tyrone Willingham era? Sure it wasn't perfect, but how many of us honestly believed that a 22-point victory was on the horizon? The Irish came to play last night, plain and simple. They listened to the criticism of having no speed, athletes or playmakers hurled their way in the off-season without saying a word. Instead they bottled it all up and proved skeptics wrong where it counts – on the field.

So in between my occasional outburst of excitement and obligatory clapping at each Shane Walton interception, I figured I would take the time to record some of my first impressions – both good and bad – of this Irish team.

*I said that if this O-line blocked and gave Carlyle Holiday enough time to make decisions, his breakout game was on the way. Despite what Gary Danielson and Brent Musburger said, I didn't think that the offensive line was overly dominating, but they more than got the job done. The combination of play-calling and offensive line play gave Holiday the opportunity to prove he's a capable quarterback, and my guess is he made a lot of people look rather stupid (hi Trev Alberts). Carlyle was excellent on the quick underneath routes and slants and showed precision the few times he went deep to Omar Jenkins. 226 passing yards is one hell of a debut for Holiday considering this was his first in-game action under the new offense.

*Is there a cornerback duo in all of college football that you would consider taking over Notre Dame's tandem of Shane Walton and Vontez Duff? I can only come up with a few that I even consider in the same league. Both men were dazzling last night. Shane Walton did it all; three interceptions, stopping the option on fourth down, laying down hits the few times his receiver did catch the ball. The only reason Duff's performance doesn't look as superb is because of how magnificent Walton was. Duff made one of the best defensive plays of the night on a pass to Jafar Williams that he would have had the pick on had Williams not shoved him. And on special teams? Here's a suggestion to punters on ND's schedule: try not to kick to Vontez, because chances are he'll be coming right back at you.

*You have to love the attitude of this defense. They're good, damn good, and they know it. Not only do they know it, they seem to be on a mission to make the entire football world aware of it. Now don't get me wrong, I don't like it when guys hotdog around the field and make fools out of themselves. What I do like is a defense with a swagger, a strut that says "we're going to make plays and their isn't a thing that your offense can do about it." I love it when Shane Walton and Vontez Duff dust each other off after spectacular plays. It pumps me up to see the entire defense converge on Cedric Hilliard after he lays down a big hit. This defense is playing like a determined force, but they are also making sure that they enjoy themselves.

*We have playmakers at receiver. Arnaz Battle is one of the better all-around athletes I've seen and he seems to have found his niche at wide receiver. I know that it's early, but judging from last night, Battle doesn't drop routine passes. When Carlyle calls his number, he catches the football, and once he gets it he runs like the wind. Battle is a threat to bust one long and consistent enough to catch short throws – a dangerous combination. Omar Jenkins really surprised me. Coming into the game I knew that Arnaz Battle would be solid but I was worried about the Irish developing a second receiver. I'm not fretting anymore. Omar has secured his spot as a deep play threat and sure-handed possession receiver.

*Like I touched on earlier, I didn't think that the offensive line was dominating but they did what they had to do. Holiday was sacked three times, but considering the all-out blitzes that Maryland seemed prone to call that isn't too bad. Big props to center Jeff Faine for the job he did in handling All-American linebacker E.J. Henderson. Henderson was nonexistent in the second half, due mainly to Faine coming off the line and keeping him occupied. Few in the country could have done a better job on a player of Henderson's caliber, so kudos to Jeff.

*I was surprised at Notre Dame's inability to establish a solid running attack, but I honestly believe that had a lot to do with Maryland's front seven. They returned the majority of the front that allowed under 100 yards rushing per game last season, and they loved to shoot their linebackers toward the inside. Since we don't have a superstar lining up at tailback, I support the decision of the staff to handle the position by committee. Ryan Grant seems to have the most promise of the group though, and he began to plug away at the Terrapins in the second half.

*Nick Setta is a stud. There's no other way to put it: he's a stud. The man is money from 50-yards and in. It has to be encouraging to the offense to know that if they get the ball to the 30-yard line there is a guarantee of at least three points. I couldn't believe it when Coach Willingham sent Setta out to try from 56 yards on Notre Dame's first drive. But when Setta came back and made the first of his five field goals on the night from 51 yards, I understood why Willingham had such faith in him.

*The 22-0 victory was nice, but the Irish offense has to start punching it in for touchdowns in the red zone. They moved the ball rather easily against the Maryland defense until it came time to put it in the end zone. There didn't seem to be an exact cause for why they couldn't score touchdowns, and I don't claim to have one. All I am saying, and what Coach Willingham made clear in his half-time and post-game comments, is that you have to take advantage of those opportunities, especially in games that will be much closer.

*The false start penalties were a bit frustrating to watch, and they were the only real negative that I could find, but I would say chalk some (not all) of those up to it being the opening game of the season. This offensive line still has a lot of room for improvement, and minimizing the penalties is an area to work on. Things like this usually work themselves out as the season progresses.

Last night's game was by no means flawless, and it isn't yet time to proclaim Notre Dame as the powerhouse it once was. But if you're a Fighting Irish football fan and the performance by this team last night didn't get your heart racing, then something is critically wrong with you. Yes it's only one game, but the players deserve recognition for how they played against a nationally ranked Maryland Terrapin team. Congrats to Coach Willingham on a successful debut and the job he did preparing this football team. Even more importantly, congratulations to the players. They went out and played football the way it's supposed to be played at Notre Dame – the winning way.

Send all questions and comments to Dave Hicks - goodfelladh@yahoo.com


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