Notre Dame amassed 117 net rushing yards on the day. They lost 32 yards on four sacks (still last in the country with 27 total), but they did show definite signs of life in the running game. From my seat, most of those yards came from behind Sam Young and Mike Turkovich, so they Irish do look like a team who has something to build upon. The Irish actually looked dominating up front on their four-play, 80-yard drive to answer a Michigan State score after the Spartans went up 17-7. What was more exciting was to see the team actually respond when they knew they had to score to stay in the game.
To me, this was a very important step in fixing this problem. For the Irish to fix their offense, I believe they're going to have to get a solid running game going.
James Aldridge and Robert Hughes showed why they were very highly rated coming out of high school, and with the combination of those two backs, sprinkled in with the speed of Armando Allen, the Irish do have some players who can make some plays on offense.
My question is why did it take four games into the season to try to showcase this? Every ND fan in the country knows that running back talent is at a peak high right now at Notre Dame. Head coach Charlie Weis always speaks of putting his best players in a position to make plays. Well, he finally did on Saturday and they responded. Hopefully we'll see more of that in the future.
I do want to tip my hat to the offensive linemen for the way they played on Saturday. No, it wasn't pretty, but they definitely showed they wanted to play on Saturday. It's a work in progress, but I felt this unit showed the most fire and responded the best to "back to training camp." They were the one unit who probably had the most room for improvement, but they did respond….progress.
When Michigan State went up 17-7 on the Irish things looked bleak for Notre Dame. But the Irish offense responded with a dominating four-play, 80-yard drive filled with passion, emotion and physical play.
Inspired by the drive the Irish defense stuffed Javon Ringer for no gain on first down, and for just two yards on second down in the ensuing drive. An incomplete Michigan State pass gave the ball right back to the Irish with loads of momentum and the possibility to make a statement.
Weis decided to throw out of his own end zone on first down on Notre Dame's first snap of their possession….incomplete pass. The Irish picked up four yards on second down, five yards on third down and fell one yard short of getting a first down and gaining even more confidence and momentum.
After the most impressive drive of the entire season, where the offensive linemen are finally taking it to another team up front, ND throws a pass on first down from their own end zone. The knock on Weis is that he's too impatient with the run. You decide.
The Notre Dame special teams are abysmal. Notre Dame is currently 111th in kickoff return defense. They are ranked No. 80 in punt return defense. The Irish have recruited more four-star players than Georgia Tech, Penn State and Michigan State over the past three years, yet somehow ND isn't athletic enough to get down the field and tackle someone? At least athletic enough to do it better than 50 percent of the teams in the country can do it? There's no excuse for this.
The Irish are ranked No. 81 in kickoff returns. How can that be possible? They certainly have plenty of practice at in games if not in practice. Again, all these four-star athletes and ND can't set up a solid blocking scheme to break one of Notre Dame's playmakers?
Notre Dame has only had six total punt returns on the year for a total of 72 yards. Take out Tom Zbikowksi's 47-yard punt return against Penn State and the Irish are averaging just five yards per punt return (which would put them ranked No. 102). Notre Dame didn't even field a single punt yesterday. Not one punt. It's not that Zbikowski can't create some magic, but when 5 guys are standing there waiting to kill him the second he touches the football, he simply has to fair catch and the Irish gain nothing on the punt return. Obviously there is a flaw in the setup of punt return when your return man can't field a single punt in a game, and you've only fielded six total in four games. By the way, Michigan State field four punts for 28 yards.
How bad is special teams play affecting the Irish? Michigan State began their drives on Saturday at their 2 (ND then got a fumble and scored), their 33 (TD), their 37, ND's 45 (TD), ND 14 (FG), Their 38, 50, ND's 45 (TD), 49, 33 (TD), ND's 46, 23, 37, 46.
12 of their 14 drives started at their own 33-yard line or better. Seven of their drives started at their 45-yard line or in better field position.
Notre Dame started their drives at their 32, State 9 (TD), 27, 9, 21, 20 (TD), 5, 20, 24, 20, 30, 20, 20-yard line.
You're not going to win many games when you give the opposition a short field, and yourself the long field.
Weis has said numerous times that the quickest way to get better as a team is on special teams. Hopefully he'll take his own advice and get this fixed quickly. The Irish have been bad for so long on special teams. I have to wonder if it can be fixed during the season.
I could comment on a lot of things, and I will when I break down the game later today, but to me these are the things that I saw on Saturday that I believe impacted the game. I was very encouraged to see Notre Dame come out and play some physical football. I believe Weis is doing the right thing by practicing again today to try to right this ship. There were a lot of positives that I saw on Saturday, but as I mentioned before, there's too much to fix to solve all the problems in just one week of practice.
The extra days of practice will pay off, and I do believe you'll see this team getting better and better because of it. If I'm Weis, I'd focus on the run and special teams, because I don't believe the Irish can beat very many teams until he fixes these two problems. I believe Weis also must stay committed to the run when calling plays, but I think you'll see that as well.
It may be painful to watch, but I do trust you'll see this team start to finally develop an identity and toughness. Unfortunately, it will be too late to save this season.