"Put. That Coffee. DOWN."
"Coffee's for closers, only."
The now infamous exchange between actors Alec Baldwin and Jack Lemmon in (the 1984 Pulitzer prize-winning play-turned-popular-movie) Glengarry Glen Ross features additional language too offensive for a family website. Equally offensive to legions of Irish fans was the team's fourth quarter execution in 2008.
To the point: "closing" was not the team's strong suit.
Opinions differ regarding the factors that contributed to Notre Dame's middling season, including a punchless offensive line; a leaky front seven; the coaching staff as a whole, and simply the execution of key players from game-to-game. You're likely to find a legitimate football argument (for either side). But one bottom-line statistic is hard to ignore, especially for a team that played in seven football games that featured a single-digit fourth quarter margin:
The Irish scored just two fourth quarter touchdowns after leaving East Lansing on September 20. More troubling, the Notre Dame running game produced one fourth quarter rushing score over its 13-game slate:
2008 Fourth Quarter Touchdowns
San Diego State: Two, both on touchdown passes from Jimmy Clausen, and both were crucial: the first a 38-yard go-route to Golden Tate to take a 14-13 lead with 9:43 remaining; the second a 6-yard pass to David Grimes for a slightly more comfortable (and final) margin at the 2:08 mark in the 21-13 win.
Michigan: One, a 35-yard fumble recovery touchdown on the first play of the final period by linebacker Brian Smith. In this case, the offense's conservative fourth quarter approach proved wise in wet conditions as the Irish rolled to a 35-17 victory.
Michigan State: One, a 26-yard fade pass from Clausen to Michael Floyd to cut the Spartans lead to 13-7 with 9:10 remaining. Later, trailing 16-7, the Irish penetrated Spartans territory with a first down at the MSU 23-yard line, but three incomplete passes led to a missed 41-yard field goal at the 5:50 mark, effectively ending ND's final chance at a comeback.
Purdue: Zero. The Irish kicked a 41-yard field goal with just over 10 minutes remaining for a 38-21 lead (and final). The Boilers never seriously challenged in their subsequent two possessions.
Stanford: Zero. Notre Dame entered the final period with the football and a 28-7 lead. The Irish produced a missed field goal, two punts, and a turnover on downs deep in Stanford territory while the Cardinal drove for two scores, cutting the lead to 28-21 with 3:23 remaining. The Irish defense responded with a four-and-out sequence to end Stanford's final threat.
UNC: Zero. Fourth quarter possessions for the Irish included an 8-play, 47-yard drive that ended on a failed fourth down conversion; a 9-play, 33-yard drive cut short by a Clausen 3rd and 11 interception; and 9-play, game-ending drive that began at the Notre Dame 18-yard line and ended with a fumble on a failed pitch attempt at the North Carolina 5-yard line with less than five seconds remaining.
Washington: One, a 3-yard run by James Aldridge at the 12:33 mark – a comfortable margin in the 33-7 victory vs. a winless team.
Pittsburgh: One, a 6-yard pass from Clausen to Tate at the 5:38 mark to give the Irish a 24-17 lead. The Notre Dame defense allowed an 8-play, 70-yard drive for the game-tying score with 2:22 remaining. The offense returned the ball to the Panthers in a less-than-prudent manner, electing to go for the first down at the 50-yardline on fourth and one. The failed Clausen sneak gave the ball back to the Panthers with 32 seconds remaining, but Irish free safety David Bruton forced overtime with an interception at the 27-yard line. Neither the Irish nor the Panthers managed a touchdown in eight combined overtime possessions.
Boston College: Zero. The Irish threw two interceptions and turned the ball over on downs in three fourth quarter possessions.
Navy: Zero. Notre Dame opened the final period with a field goal and subsequent 27-7 advantage. The Irish thought the game was in hand – the Midshipmen didn't get the memo – scoring 14 points and recovering two onsides kicks in a 1:09 span to turn a 27-7 laugher into a major scare, but eventual 27-21 Irish victory. Notre Dame fumbled and turned the ball over on downs (at the Navy 43) on its two other fourth quarter possessions.
Syracuse: Zero. The Irish fourth quarter possessions (three-and-out; a 10-play, 50-yard drive resulting in a missed 49-yard field goal; and final 5-play, 40-yard desperation drive and missed 54-yard kick) didn't help, but the ND defense allowed two touchdowns (and seven total first downs) in the fourth quarter en route to the stunning upset loss.
USC: Zero. A made field goal; a fumble; and a turnover on downs accounted for three meaningless fourth quarter possessions for the Irish.
Hawaii: Zero, though Coach Weis appropriately called off the dogs in a complete blowout.
Quick Thought:When your middle linebacker scores as many fourth-quarter touchdowns as does the entire set of your team's running backs...well, that's a problem.
The final tally shows eight games without a fourth quarter touchdown (including Hawaii in which an extra score was unnecessary) and nine games without an offensive touchdown in the final period.
Did the Irish offense (as a unit) ultimately fail in the fourth quarter because its running game couldn't produce, or because the coaching staff lost faith in the ground attack as games progressed? Recognizing the vastly different circumstances of the 13 games, here's a quick breakdown of Irish fourth quarter rushing statistics:
- San Diego State: 12 carries for 38 yards
- Michigan: 11 carries for 28 yards
- Michigan State: 1 meaningless carry for 7 yards (and a sack earlier in the period)
- Purdue: 14 carries for 50 yards
- Stanford: 10 carries for 36 yards
- North Carolina: 9 carries for 27 yards (plus a sack of Clausen)
- Washington: 15 carries for 95 yards and an Aldridge Touchdown – the only Irish fourth quarter rushing touchdown of the season.
- Pittsburgh: 18 carries for 56 yards (plus a key 3rd down sack of Clausen) in the fourth quarter and the game's four overtimes.
- Boston College: 9 carries for 40 yards
- Navy: 15 for 41 yards (plus a fumble and a failed 4th down conversion just beyond midfield)
- Syracuse: 4 carries for 14 yards (plus a late 3rd down sack of Clausen)
- USC: 9 carries for 48 yards (plus a sack of Clausen and a fumble)
- Hawaii: 6 carries for 19 yards (plus a meaningless sack and several QB kneel downs)
Observations: Michigan State is an outlier game – the Irish fought their way back into the contest throwing the football in empty (no running back) sets and continued to attack in that manner, playing from behind the entire second half. The coaching staff showed confidence in the running game vs. San Diego State (a game that was close for the entire fourth quarter); Michigan (to salt away a blowout); Purdue (ditto); Stanford (hanging on for dear life); Washington (with strong results); and Navy (with troubling results). Any fourth quarter Hawaii stats are meaningless for both sides of the football.
Against Boston College, the Irish simply couldn't run the ball and played from behind (either 10 or 17 points) for the entire second half. The team's rushing attempts on both 3rd and 4th and short were summarily dismissed by the much more physical Eagles front seven. And against USC, the Irish would have needed to field 14 offensive players to consistently run the football.
Three games that deserve further examination:
- North Carolina: The Irish attacked through the air with relative success (ND opened the game with 18 consecutive Clausen passes or QB runs) the entire first half for a 17-9 advantage. When the Tar Heels drew closer and finally pulled ahead, the ND running game (including check-down dump passes to halfback Armando Allen) couldn't consistently produce, and the Irish managed just two first downs in seven 3rd/4th down attempts in the deciding final period. To be fair, 9 of ND's 18 first offensive calls in the fourth quarter were running plays (then the offense obviously passed for the entire final series). The Irish never established a running game vs. the Tar Heels...but they didn't abandon it, either.
- Pittsburgh: Six carries for 20 yards contributed to a 12-play, 75-yard drive and the team's final fourth quarter score of the year – one that gave the Irish a 24-17 advantage(after leading 17-3 at the half). The Irish attempted to run the ball late and in each of the four overtimes but were simply unsuccessful. Again, confidence in the running game wasn't an issue – execution was.
- Syracuse: Over the course of the game, the Irish ran the ball 28 times for 41 yards vs. the nation's 101st ranked rushing defense. The fourth quarter consisted of four rushing attempts (for 14 yards). Call it a lack of confidence if you must, but as Benjamin Franklin pointed out (not during an NBC broadcast): the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
A reasonable argument can be made that the lack of an established running attack over the course of a game/season played a role in late-game failures. But it's also reasonable to surmise that bottom line execution rather than coaching confidence and/or a conscious effort to run the football was the deciding factor that stymied the late-game Irish offense. (Simply: a few long runs certainly would have changed the play-calling and approach.)
Halftime Adjustments – The Third Quarter
Third-Down Conversions: Notre Dame converted just 3 of 17 3rd down attempts in six losses during the third quarter; 5 of 17 in six wins (with no 3rd down attempts vs. Navy).
Fourth-Down Conversions: The Irish offense finished 4 for 4 on fourth-down conversions during the 3rd Quarter in wins over Purdue, Stanford, and Washington; but 1 for 3 in losses to Pittsburgh, BC, and Syracuse.
The Inconsistent Final Quarter
Third-Down Conversions: The Irish were 9 for 28 in the fourth quarter on 3rd down conversions in the team's seven wins; 13 for 26 in the losses, a stat skewed by a three comfortable margins of victory by the opponent. The Irish were 1 for 5 in 3rd down conversion attempts in four overtime periods vs. Pittsburgh.
Fourth-Down Conversions: The Notre Dame offense was 2 for 7 on 4th down conversion attempts in the fourth period during six wins (no attempts vs. Hawaii) and 1 for 7 in six losses.
A 2009 season that features twelve Saturdays with red zone touchdowns rather than field goals; a team that protects the football while creating turnovers; and a stout, quality run defense would make consistent fourth quarter execution less of an issue for the Irish this fall. But a few long fourth quarter drives that culminate with bruising touchdown carries by Irish running backs wouldn't hurt, either.