But there are a few topics on which my opinion is planted firmly on the fence. I see both sides of the argument (game-film evidence varied from week-to-week in the maddening season of '08). I admittedly can't decide if a few relevant discussion topics fall into the category of reasonable assumptions or hopeful leaps of faith.
Since we all love a good Irish football argument, I decided to have one…with myself.
Internal Argument No. 1: The Notre Dame Screen Game Won't ImproveThe first screen play of the Weis regime resulted in a 51-yard touchdown catch-and-run by tailback Darius Walker. There were linemen sprinting downfield to blow-up defenders and both receivers (McKnight and Stovall) escorted Walker into the end zone with superb downfield blocks.
Walker made a nice two-year living in the Weis screen game – rarely as explosive as that first foray, but it was generally an effective way to preserve drives, slow the pass rush, and keep defenses off balance. Lineman such as Ryan Harris, Mark LeVoir, Dan Stevenson, et al seemed comfortable in space and sure of their assignments on each play.
On the other hand, there was also an unfortunate occurrence known as "2007" which was highlighted by poor footwork and curious choices by the linemen, openly-missed blocks (including the first block – the crucial block – the block seemingly every other team could execute) and lack of patience by the running backs in minor traffic. But there was a (acceptable) excuse attached in 2007 – the screen game had no chance to succeed when there was no threat of anything else downfield throughout the contest.
2007 isn't the issue. It was an aberration; a perfect storm and comedy of errors offensively. A relevant issue to this season, however, was the continued failure (until the Hawaii game) of the Irish screen attack last year. The initial key block was a bit more consistent, but the extra block – the springing block that would showcase the breakaway speed of Armando Allen or downhill power of Robert Hughes – was still noticeably absent during most contests. Across the board, Irish offensive linemen struggled in space to square up and take on defenders. And both Allen and Hughes gained the minimum available yardage the majority of the time.
We can attempt to project success because the returning linemen boast 100 starts, continuity, a new approach, etc., etc. But the same players that have performed at a sub par level over the last two seasons will be involved in Weis' essential screen game this year as well. Irish fans are jumping to conclusions if they believe there will be significant improvement.
Counterpoint: First-Down Success Will Pave the WayThe first-down possibilities for the 2009 offense are intriguing: Golden Tate, Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph threatening the defense regardless of field position. Duval Kamara adding a physical presence, allowing Tate of Floyd motion and varied pre-snap looks. An offensive threat will now man the fullback position. And two experienced, game-tested running backs alternately attacking the defense for four quarters. The Irish offense should be able to attack down-field (a reasonable assumption); it should be able to move the chains with Clausen's arm connecting with Rudolph's imposing presence, Floyd's impending greatness; and Tate's sure hands on a full-speed slant.
While a revamped running game and/or tweaked scheme on screen plays would provide immediate improvement, neither is a factor Irish fans can count on (before seeing the product on the field this fall). It is, however, reasonable to assume better first-down success from a seasoned group of skill players. The focus of the Irish screen game will no longer be to mitigate the damage of the previous play(s). It will no longer be the offense's default weapon of choice with the myriad options available in '09. It will, in fact, resemble the screen attack from 2005 – a change of pace to the constant will keep defense's guessing and slow the pass rush of opposing defensive linemen.
Internal Argument #2: The Irish Won't Snap Two Losing Streaks in ‘09We'll leave the third losing streak, courtesy of the west coast, for another day.
The Irish haven't beaten Boston College since 2000 (28-16 on Senior Day). Three Irish coaching staffs and two (now a 3rd Eagles' regime) have presided over this six-game run of futility. In fact, BC has beaten the Irish in 9 of the teams' last 15 meetings. The streak is, depending on your view of the Irish program, either ridiculous or an accurate indicator (or I suppose, both).
But before Irish fans can guarantee yet again that "There's no way BC beats us this year," another streak must first be snapped in South Bend.
Of course "South Bend" has been the issue vs. this otherwise nondescript Big 10 foe from East Lansing. Michigan State, remarkably, has not lost a game at Notre Dame Stadium since Kevin McDougal shredded Sparty, 36-14 in 1993. Six appearances by four different MSU coaches against three separate Irish coaching regimes... all six contests have resulted in victories by the South Bend Spartans.
Notre Dame fans old enough to remember the Lou Holtz, Gerry Faust, and Dan Devine eras saw the Irish finish a combined 23-5 vs. these same two programs.
The Irish haven't beaten both nemeses in the same season since 1992, when Rick Mirer and the Irish destroyed the lesser programs by a combined score of 106-38. Yet every season, Irish fans are certain that the streaks are a thing of the past. Until Notre Dame defeats both of these programs that traditionally finish outside of or on the cusp of the nation's Top 25, there'll be no significant improvement for our suddenly inconsistent program in South Bend.
Counterpoint: The Time is NowYes, the title of the counterpoint could be construed as "fan-speak" (it is, after all, an internal argument). But aside from the terrible (almost laughable) slotting of the BC game – just seven days after USC visits – the pieces are in place for the 2009 Irish to finish 2-0 vs. these recent foils.
Michigan State will again bring a physical attack to South Bend – one that churned out 200-plus yards rushing vs. the Irish in '08…and was then held below 100 rushing yards by five of its next nine opponents. One that averaged 3.3 yards per carry last season (exactly the same as Notre Dame).
Likewise, the Spartans front seven held the Irish to 16 yards rushing in last year's early-season meeting…that same MSU defense allowed seven of its next nine opponents between 135 and 281 yards on the ground, finishing with a 4.1 average allowed per carry on the season (the exact same as Notre Dame).
We're told the Spartans have been too physical for the Irish. While that's largely been true in the September matchups between the two, the theory hasn't held up over each season's ensuing two months. Michigan State deserves credit for each of its six consecutive wins in South Bend over the last 15 seasons. They've fielded better, worse, and similar teams than did the Irish during that stretch. But past results don't predict future success. The Irish roster is better prepared for an early season battle than a Michigan State squad that lost Javon Ringer and Otis Wiley...the two stars of last year's win. Notre Dame will be better than Michigan State on September 19, 2009. Ask any State fan…game day is the only day that matters.
Which brings us to the annual annoyance from the northeast: Boston College, frankly, was a better football team than Notre Dame in four of the six seasons that comprise this streak (2001, 2003, and 2007, and 2008). The additional reality that the Eagles generally rise to the occasion vs. Notre Dame while the Irish play with a curious malaise isn't something I can explain away for the upcoming season (again, facing the Eagles after the season's toughest opponent is cruel – though not unusual – punishment).
But on October 24, 2009, the Irish will host a team that embarrassed them one year prior. Not because the Eagles taunted or ran up the score on the Irish. No, BC simply beat ND by outhitting them and subsequently realizing their own scattershot offense needed to do nothing but possess the football and punt it back to an Irish offense that couldn't have scored the necessary 17 points had the end zone been located on the BC 20.
I'm not certain the Irish football team is capable of great things in 2009. I'm not sure the coaching staff won't have a few curious quarters that ultimately doom the players nor am I sure the players are sound enough up front to challenge a BCS level opponent. But I am certain that the Irish offense you saw in Chestnut Hill last November will in no way resemble the product on the field this fall. BC will (again) be better in November than they show in September. That should finally be the case for this Notre Dame team as well. The offense will feed off the defense, ending this ignominious streak at six.
I'll always be wary of BC (1993 and 2002 have scarred me for life), but history won't repeat itself when the Eagles come to town in 2009.
Look for more Reasonable Assumptions, Leaps of Faith, and a few Internal Arguments through the end of July.