Sunday morning observations on the Irish after their season-saving Saturday afternoon in South Bend.
If Irish fans and media have learned anything at the season's quarter-point it's a reminder to respect those that proved themselves on the field. For months we were told that the 2009 Irish secondary would featured the best group of defensive backs at the school in more than a decade (comparing this group through three games to the 2002 playmaking unit led by Shane Walton and Vontez Duff is ludicrous). I fueled this speculation by jumping on the bandwagon that the group's depth rivaled that of the 1993 unit led by Bobby Taylor and Jeff Burris.
It made for nice copy, unfortunately that copy hasn't translated to on-field success as numerous breakdowns, too-soft coverage and poor ball skills have greatly contributed to one Irish defeat and nearly served up another as Michigan State marched 62 yards in 10 plays against the Irish secondary, and were an air-mailed, sure touchdown toss away from taking a four point lead over the home team with just over one minute remaining.
The ND secondary unwillingly built an instructional "How Not-To" video on the game's final drive, an effort marred by mistakes in a leaky zone; terrible tackling; concentration errors, a dropped interception (that resulted in a first down catch) and a broken coverage/miscommunication on the aforementioned air-mailed end zone offering that should have resulted in the go-ahead score (Cousins could have pooch-punted a touchdown to freshman Larry Capers who had casually slipped behind confused Irish defensive backs Robert Blanton and Harrison Smith without the aid of a single fake in his pass pattern).
Irish Co-Defensive Coordinator Corwin Brown substituted liberally at CB this week, playing both sophomore Jamoris Slaughter and Gary Gray along with regulars Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton, and Raeshon McNeil. Each was removed for an in-game error or coverage mistake(s) over the course of the contest.
When I casually mentioned in Friday's preview that "The Spartans will throw for at a least 300 yards…" I realized later that I failed to fully explain the prediction. Now I don't think I have to.
Of course it should be noted that while the DB unit has struggled, the team's best defensive player, the defense's leader, its Game Three savior, and squad's leading tackler and (to date) only consistent playmaker is SS Kyle McCarthy. The 5th-year senior saved the Irish from overtime (at best) or another back-to-the-end zone final minute finish with his third interception of the season, catching Cousin's ill-advised throw at the Irish 4-yard line to end the Spartans threat.
"I knew the quarterback was under pressure," said McCarthy of his heroics. "Darius Fleming had a great pass rush on him; the quarterback didn't read me and…we (the secondary) like the term ‘don't miss the lay-up' and luckily I did not."
McCarthy finished the contest with 9 tackles and two passes defended in addition to his pick, not to mention yardage-saving stops.
The Real Rudy
Its unlikely he'll ever be the subject of a tear-jerker sports flick for the ages, but Irish sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph (referred to affectionately as "Rudy" by his head coach) has emerged as one of the nation's top tight ends just 16 games into his college career.
Rudolph finished with a career-best six receptions for 95 yards (also a career-high total), numbers that include a key 13-yard crossing route to give the Irish a first down at the Michigan State 47-yard line on a drive that would eventually provide the deciding points for the Irish.
Rudolph was targeted for seven passes (not including penalized plays) and was often set off the line as an inside slot receiver in head coach Charlie Weis preferred (and most successful) formation of the afternoon, the 5-WR set with no running back
A Fulfilling Empty Look
Notre Dame's first two possessions were highlighted by nine plays, seven Clausen passes (and completions) and two touchdowns. Eight of those nine snaps featured a 5-WR "empty" set, as Clausen marched the Irish offense down field with a no huddle attack, completing passes to four different receivers for 121 yards and a touchdown (Michael Floyd) while setting up another (a direct snap to "Wildcat" QB Armando Allen in which Allen loped into the end zone for an easy 13-yard score).
"We started out the game in no-huddle and spread them out and there was a very easy explanation for that," said Weis of his early-game strategy.
"For the four years I've been here we started off slow against them every time, just playing normal football. When we have rallied, we've rallied spreading them out. So I just figured we'd take the opposite tack and spread ‘em out early."
Notre Dame's first 12 plays (including the Wildcat TD) employed this no-huddle, spread look: the offense accumulated 157 yards, did not face a 3rd down, and scored 13 points as the quarter came to a close.
From Symphony to Slop
Notre Dame's perfect (minus a botched PAT) first quarter gave way to the impressive 15 game minutes of football of the young season for a veteran Irish team and its coaching staff.
Four penalties, including two personal fouls (one was a poor call) gave the Spartans a much needed 45 yards and led to State's first score: a "dial-up-the-new-guy" special as sophomore CB Jamoris Slaughter, subbing for classmate Robert Blanton after Blanton had been whistled for the first personal foul, was completely fooled by a halfback pass touchdown to his coverage assignment, Spartans WR Blair White. The bit of hand-picked trickery was followed brilliantly by an onsides kick vs. a woefully unprepared right side of the Irish return unit.
Over the course of the second quarter, the Irish gained 61 yards while yielding 211; had an obvious touchdown nullified by an official's on-field judgment (allowable) and verified in the replay booth (looking through green-and-white colored glasses), lost its star wide receiver to (reportedly) a broken clavicle, fumbled a snap on 3rd and goal, had its quarterback injured, were completely fooled by an onsides kick and halfback pass, and saw it's 10-point lead turn to a one-point disadvantage entering the half time break.
Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
The early word that Irish sublime sophomore Michael Floyd suffered a broken collarbone (on his "non-touchdown" no less) cast a pall over the press box and, when the receiver showed up sans pads on the Irish sideline for the second half, over the crowd of Irish faithful.
It's painfully obvious Notre Dame's 2009 success lies in the ability of its offense, most notably its explosive passing attack, to outscore opponents until the Irish defense finds itself.
Without Michael Floyd, the Irish offense goes from unstoppable to dangerous. Its Dynamic Duo becomes a struggling (but ultimately still productive and highly competitive) solo artist; and a young group of receivers for which Irish fans have openly opined over the last three weeks (and months) is forced to pick up considerable slack.
"Enjoy tonight with your family and friends," said Golden Tate when asked about the team's near-future approach without its touchdown-making star. "But come tomorrow, come ready to play. I talked to some of the guys on the team and said look: ‘You're about to get a chance now, and we need you. During practice you need to work hard to gain Jimmy's trust,'" and I think we're capable.
"Obviously we need Michael, we'd like to have Mike - he's one of the best receivers in the nation. But I think we have a chance to still be special."
The Irish certainly have depth behind Floyd (and a potentially dominant tight end to step into the spotlight as the team's secondary option), but its three most explosive backup receivers (John Goodman, Deion Walker, and Shaquelle Evans) have combined for three career receptions while upperclassmen Robby Parris and Duval Kamara were ideally suited for their roles as the Dynamic Duo's supporting cast. None of the five can replace Floyd. It's up to the quintet and the Irish coaching staff to minimize the drop-off over the next two weeks as the Irish head into the early October Bye.
For two seasons, Armando Allen appeared to fall at first contact. We heard rumors of explosive speed; open-field prowess, and an electrifying runner that could not be stopped in the open-field.
Then Allen face college football players and the result was a below-average running back, one who hit the hole hard but was incapable of the big play and unlikely to make more than one tackler miss (or run through a set of arms) as he operated behind a porous offensive line.
What a difference a year makes. Armando Allen the junior runs hard. He runs with vision and purpose behind an offensive line that enjoys blocking for the patient veteran runner. Generously listed at 5'10" 203-pounds, he excels in blitz pickup, has reliable hands, and will fight for the remaining 20 percent of yardage gained this season.
He may not finish his Irish career with more than three long runs (currently working on zero), but he's the team's unsung star and the straw that stirs the drink for what was on pace (prior to Floyd's injury) to be the best offense of the Weis era.
Allen posted back-to-back 100-plus yard rushing efforts for the first time in his 28-game Irish career and added his first career touchdown "pass" a four-yard shot-put to senior Robby Parris from the Wildcat formation.
The junior offered this post-game gem when asked about his role on the play:
"I was kind of looking at Robby (Parris) to see if he gets free and also Jimmy (Clausen was split wide) too. He was actually open.
"They ran a weak corner blitz and he came to the sideline and said ‘I was open' and I told him I have to go to my first read." It was the 11th touchdown Allen has accounted for in his Irish career. The junior needs only a punt return score to complete the offensive set (rushing, receiving, kick return, passing, punt return scores).
62-91, 951 yards, 9 TD 0 INT
Jimmy Clausen is the best pure passer in college football.