On Paper, Notre Dame Should Finish at Least 10-2Is the 2009 Irish schedule manageable? Yes. But it's not necessarily an easily navigable slate for a team that's produced 10 wins in its last 25 outings.
Notre Dame's 12-game roll call of opponents does not contain an unwinnable game in the bunch (as detailed in yesterday's column). But you can certainly expect anywhere from six to nine relatively close games (games that are decided by the events of the fourth quarter). Charlie Weis' record in such contests stands at 11-10 over his four-year Irish career, including a 3-4 mark last season (wins over SD State, Stanford, and Navy; losses vs. MSU, UNC, Pitt, and Syracuse ).
An 11-10 mark in close games is neither overly impressive or poor. In fact, it's most likely near the national average of coaches that remain gainfully employed…which illustrates my point: close games can go either way. The greater number of close games a team plays, the better chance it has of losing. Four close games will generally ensure that at least one will result in a loss. Seven or eight likely leads to two (or three) defeats. Suddenly a 12-game season teeters on the brink of mediocrity. If I told you the Irish would blow out four teams, lose one game somewhat handily, and then have a battle on their hands in the seven remaining contests, what would you predict as the team's final record? 10-2 would be a stretch. 11-1 would be implausible. (As Lou Holtz's squad proved in his final season – 1996 – there's a fine line between eight and nine victories.)
The current Irish roster is still learning how to win and that could be an issue in several fourth quarters this season.
Notre Dame Can Hold a LeadIn 2008, Notre Dame held a two-score/second-half lead in nine of its 13 games. It lost three (UNC, Pittsburgh, Syracuse); closed the door with authority in four contests (Michigan, Purdue, Washington, and Hawaii) and left the door wide open for a miracle comeback in two others (Stanford and Navy).
A successful team doesn't put five of its nine two-score/second-half leads in jeopardy. The culprits were plentiful: the lack of a running game; curious play-calling; terrible decisions at quarterback; mistakes on defense; missed field goals; poor special teams execution; missed blocks, missed holes and touchdown passes that sailed long as well as catchable balls that fell to the earth…you name it, the sin was committed in '08.
I'm of the belief that a team with just one major loss to its offense, and one that returns (arguably) 13 of its 18 best defensive players (plus reinforcements) is a squad that will correct the mistakes of its past. But that's undoubtedly a leap of faith as well.
The Irish Will Suddenly Succeed on 3rd or 4th and ShortArmando Allen converted two of his five 3rd-or 4th-and-short-yardage attempts last year. James Aldridge is 15-26 on 3rd down and 3-6 on 4th down in similar situations over the last two seasons. Robert Hughes has converted just seven for 19 in his third (and fourth down) short-yardage runs. (Allen, incidentally, was tremendous on second-and-short last season, converting on 13 of his 17 second-and-short runs, but that's a down and distance that heavily favors the offense).
Third and short (two yards or fewer) is a down and distance test every offense faces in multiple crunch time situations. Conversions keep drives alive and lead to points while unsuccessful runs lead to punts and (too many) fourth down conversion attempts. But Notre Dame's trio of running backs is a collective 27-56 converting third or fourth and short situations over the last two seasons (the running backs remain the same for '09 as do five of the seven offensive linemen involved in that span).
Aldridge, the team's most successful running back in these situations, followed behind a lead block from departed FB Asaph Schwapp in roughly 85% of his conversion attempts, but the senior will primarily run from the FB spot this fall.
Its easy to blame the Irish offensive line's relative youth (I can't get onboard with this excuse but I've also never coached an offensive line), or the since-deposed running game scheme for the team's recent short-yardage shortcomings. But a portion of the blame has to fall a young set of tight ends more advanced in the passing game than at the point of attack, and of course, on the ball carriers themselves (as well as lead blockers at FB or a TE in motion). As an aside, the powerful Brady Quinn was a conversion machine in the aforementioned situations, and his incredible success rate is unlikely to be duplicated in the Jimmy Clausen era.
It takes anywhere from eight to 11 offensive players working as a unit to consistently succeed in short-yardage situations and the Irish offense hasn't had that execution since the end of the 2005 season (Darius Walker was 10-26 on 3rd/4th-and-short attempts in 2006). The same players that have failed to keep drives alive in the past must learn to succeed in 2009.
Off-Season Momentum Matters in the FallThe Hawaii Bowl win was fun, wasn't it? Clausen playing a perfect (if not for dropped passes) first half…the Irish defense blitzing and wreaking havoc for the 50 game minutes that mattered…Golden Tate channeling, well, Golden Tate.
The convincing win was a huge relief for the program if for no other reason than it snapped the ridiculous nine-game, 15-season bowl losing streak. It certainly didn't hurt recruiting (the Irish picked up the recruiting equivalent of gold and silver due partly to their trip to the Islands) and the win gave fans what we want to believe is a preview of the '09 football team.
At some point, every struggling program turns the corner. The 1986 squad, Lou Holtz's first Irish team, can point to the miracle comeback and game-winning field goal at USC in November of that year as a springboard to the winning ways of the '87 season (an 8-1 start). The Willingham era had a couple in '02 (take your pick between the Michigan or Michigan State wins of September); and the first segment of the Weis era can point to the first half of the regime's first game, an offensive clinic at Pittsburgh.
The second segment of the Weis era might have received its springboard with the blowout in Honolulu. A record-setting, feel-good team effort that allowed everyone affiliated or fond of the program to hold his/her head high entering Spring Practice.
But there's one catch: That game will mean nothing on September 5 and should mean nothing to the players and staff in early August.
Rather than analyzing every team that won a bowl game and adding up the collective winning percentage the following season to prove my point, I'll simply use one example that should speak to this audience.
In 1987, a young Irish team took an 8-1 record and No. 7 national ranking to State College, Pennsylvania. Final score: Penn State 21 Notre Dame 20. The now 8-2 Irish traveled to Miami with a two-year score to settle (the 58-7 annihilation that ended the Faust era). Final score: Miami 24 Notre Dame 0. Finishing the regular season with conseuctive losses, the 8-3 Irish accepted a Cotton Bowl bid, flew to Dallas, and were deflowered by Texas A&M: 35-10.
To review: The Heisman Trophy Winner graduated; Notre Dame dropped its last three games by an aggregate score of 80-30; and the Irish opened the 1988 season (against No. 3 ranked Michigan) with an Offensive Line that featured a combined TEN starts (six of which belonged to Tim Grunhard…that's four first-time starters on the front five).
That decided lack of "Momentum" resulted in a 12-0 season, a National Title, and a 23-game winning streak.
The peformance against Hawaii no longer matters.
Irish 101 will continue to feature both Reasonable Assumptions and Leaps of Faith throughout June and July