The Next Step
After a trio of Big 10 opponents took the Irish to the wire in consecutive weeks, two of which faced double-digit deficits to Notre Dame during the contest, Coach Weis was asked about the '09 team's inability to put teams away…as well as its newfound ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
"You have to learn how to win close games," explained Weis of the team's consecutive fantastic finishes. "(The players) didn't put (the opponent) away but they learned in the last two weeks how to win close games. That's as critical as anything else.
"Last week was one of those games where it came down to the end," Weis continued, "So the lesson learned last week was winning a vital game on the road.
"Would you like to pull away from a team and win by three touchdowns? You betcha. But the last two weeks (contained) valuable lessons learned: one on defense (MSU) and then on offense (Purdue).
"We had to fight right to the end, but now we're starting to win those games. Now the next time this team's on the road in a close game we don't have to question whether we're going to win or not because we already have that experience to fall back on.
But what about winning the old-fashioned way? Burying a team when you have them down…
"I think you gain something from every game you play. What you didn't gain by failing to put Purdue away up 17-7 you gain with having to run a two-minute drive at the end to win a game. There's always something lost and something gained.
"When you really turn the corner – throw out extenuating circumstances – you try to pull away. That's the intent every week. You never want to be playing in a game when you're playing for the last minute. That may be good for TV but it's not good for programs that want to move forward."
How'd They Do That?
The current Irish roster has known nothing but decisive defeat at the hands of their (upcoming) sixth opponent this season, the USC Trojans. But this weekend's visitors dispatched of those might Men of Troy, 16-13, in a Week Three showdown in Seattle.
In other words, it's unlikely the Washington Huskies will sneak up on another favored opponent this Saturday in South Bend.
"I think it'll be really easy (to prepare the Irish players for the Huskies) especially with the attention-getter," said Weis of the Huskies shocking upset of the Trojans. "It's pretty easy with that attention getter."
Weis continued with an observation of the difference between the Huskies' defense (especially the D-Line) this season from 2008, a game in which the Irish ran roughshod over Washington in a 33-7 victory.
"They seem as a group to be playing hard…they're running around to the football. They're playing similar concepts to USC's defense but with Washington's players. You watch them run around and you can see these guys are starting to get it and they're playing hard…when you play hard it always gives you a chance for something good to happen."
Current Irish defensive line coach Randy Hart spent the last 20 seasons coaching the Huskies defensive line. Over that span, Hart guided both the best (1991) and third-worst (2008) rushing defenses in the nation.
All For One and One For All
If Irish fans and the team's head coach were to award a Most Improved Position trophy through four games, the landslide winner would be the team's much-maligned offensive line. Understandably, new running game coordinator and offensive line coach Frank Verducci is a popular topic among the media and once again, Weis was asked to pinpoint the change Verducci helped bring about up front.
"His mindset," Weis began, "is to challenge them individually, but to get them to play as a whole.
"It's an interesting approach that I've seen before, but it puts accountability on each of these players that (shows) it's not just how (one) plays but how the five of them play together."
Weis has noticed a change in the group's dynamic, even since September 5.
"The group of offensive linemen has definitely become more cohesive…they're playing together so much. There's been a little bit of Danny (Wenger) in there; a little bit of (Matt) Romine in there…but really those first five guys (the starters) are seeing most of the action and they're growing together."
Weis explained that this continuity was a key asset Saturday in West Lafayette and Verducci has played a huge role in helping to ease Weis' game-week preparations. .
"He's taken a lot of pressure off of me to allow us to separate, and then come together in terms of the game plan. Like last week, there was a lot of stuff we did in that game, and we had to use almost everything we had to have an opportunity to win that game.
"There are things we've done (blocking schemes) and we've been able to expand our packages based on what we're doing (that particular game week)…and going into this game (vs. Washington) there's a lot of stuff again – and it's not all the same. You can't get that (amount of work) done without assistant coaches that you rely on and trust."
Football History 101
You might have noticed the "new" offensive craze known as "The Wildcat," the formation/personnel grouping that's sweeping the NFL and its understudies in the college ranks. In a nutshell, the formation allows the team's top athlete (for Notre Dame, its been Armando Allen and Golden Tate) to take a direct shot-gun snap from center and either run, hand-off, or pass the ball to keep defenses honest.
The set has been, no pun intended, wildly effective from high school through the pro ranks, and the Irish began Wildcat preparations in earnest last spring.
"That was a staff project in the off-season," Weis stated. "We started putting that in last spring. We went through it in the summer time, but that was a staff project.
"He (Coach Verducci) was able to bring some of the ideas with the (Cleveland) Browns that they were doing with (Joshua) Cribbs that we incorporated, but we did a lot of study in the off-season from different teams that had this package to try to get something where we could take our players (and run those various plays).
The media peppered Weis with Wildcat queries throughout the press conference.
"If you're a running back you like it; if you're a wide receiver you like it," explained Weis of the Wildcat as a future recruiting tool. "If you're looking at skill positions and versatility, there's a lot it brings to the table when you look at those (recruits).
"Especially if you're a star skill-athlete where a lot of people look at you and say, ‘well he's an athlete; we don't know if he's a quarterback, a running back, or a receiver – well, (with the Wildcat) you have it all there in one package."
While its considered the game's latest craze, Weis furthered that the formation and thought process behind the Wildcat has been around since the dawn of the game.
"Really not much different than the single wing," explained Weis, comparing the Wildcat to one of the game's original ground attacks. "People want to talk about football history; you want to talk about a complete 360…this is really a version of the single-wing. That's what it's turned into: ‘snap it to the guy and go.'"
As for the long-term future of the offensive set?
"I don't think it's going to go away anytime soon and I think defenses have already zeroed in on how they're going to play it," Weis offered.
"The reason why I don't think it's going to go away is it allows you to play ‘even/up' football. Now usually you're ‘minus one' in football meaning you have a quarterback so therefore they have 11 defenders and you have 10 guys, because one guy has to hand the ball off.
"But what this does is it gives you one-for-one, because someone has to cover the quarterback when he detaches from the backfield."
On a related note, I saw Kalamazoo Loy Norrix (Michigan) run a version of the Wildcat when I covered high school football shortly after graduation in 1997.
The team's "Wildcat?" Future Michigan State star and NFL running back T.J. Duckett.
You Don't Say?As the site's beat writer, I won't often delve into recruiting, but yesterday's session with Weis included a popular topic of conversation on this and other Irish football sites.
"Some of the things these players say to you (the recruiting analysts) and what they say to me might not necessarily be the same thing," Weis explained. "That's the best way for me to say it. I have a very strong view of what a commitment is and all of these players (prospective recruits) clearly understand what this stance is."
Weis was, of course, pressed on his viewpoint when a verbal commitment decides to take official visits to other schools during the recruitment process.
"I know the person in particular we're getting at," Weis admitted. "The communication between us has been very good. Let's just leave it at that."
Apropos of nothing, highly-touted Irish verbal commitment Chris Martin will take his planned official visit to South Bend for the USC/Notre Dame contest on October 17.
Stay Out of the Middle
An off-season IrishEyes study and subsequent follow-up last week of Coach Weis (and Jimmy Clausen's) seeming aversion to the middle of the field in the passing game has become an increasingly popular topic in the media as the Irish exit September. (To see our breakdown of Michael Floyd's inside vs. outside reception chart last season, check out The Total Package. And for Saturday's Target Practice, which offered a breakdown of the field's under-utilized soft middle as well. Coach Weis explained why ND often looks to the perimeter for its passing targets.
"In this game (Purdue) they started playing a lot of Two Tampa where they dropped the middle linebacker deep into that zone. You don't throw the ball vs. Two Tampa in the middle of the field," Weis proclaimed.
"All though it's called "Two" there really is the (middle linebacker) who is dropping which makes it a 3-deep zone without the corners getting width, because those corners are actually safeties.
"There are areas you attack Two Tampa but the middle is not one of them."
What about attacking the middle of the field in general?
"We've thrown plenty of in-cuts this year, that's definitely the middle of the field," Weis offered. "In-cuts are one way you high-low the middle of the field. You run a check down; you run an in-cut behind it, and then you throw behind the middle linebacker. But when the middle linebacker drops you don't throw to the middle of the field."
Though I've only tracked passes thrown, not every route run by an Irish receiver, ‘back, or tight end (Weis' reference above), Notre Dame has attempted 136 passes this season (including penalized plays). 26 of those were thrown inside the hash marks, or to a player that crossed the field.
Are You Hurt? Or Are You Injured?
Weis began Tuesday's meeting with the press with a status update on his star quarterback and halfback.
"Jimmy's back. Armando's back. We're ready to go."
Good news aside, one has to wonder if it would be easier for Weis if he didn't disclose injury reports to the media.
"The answer is it would be easier not to say anything," Weis admitted. "I try with you guys as best as can – as most of you are regulars here all the time – I try as best I can to tell you as truthfully as I can, without giving away what we're gong to do to the opponent."
Unlike NFL head coaches, Weis is not obligated to be forthright with the media regarding the injury status of his players.
Jake the Snake
If this is your first exposure the Washington Huskies this season, there's but one name you must learn prior to tuning in or walking through the Stadium gate on Saturday: Jake Locker
"He's a very good athlete," Weis responded when asked of his assessment of the Huskies multi-talented quarterback who missed last year's contest with the Irish due to injury.
"They used to feature the read-option (offense) with the spread, but you can see that he's settled in nicely into the old ‘USC' system that they have now. I think he's a heck of a player."
First-year Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian joined the team after spending seven of the last eight football seasons at USC as the team's QB coach and/or Offensive Coordinator.
"Jake's value is probably going to continue to rise," Weis continued, "because you have to remember: this kid is going from one system, to an injury (thumb), to another system.
"From the pro angle they're (watching that transformation) and that's only going to up his stock and up his value."
Locker rushed for 986 yards as a freshman quarterback while throwing for 2,062 more. After missing eight games last season due to a thumb injury, the elusive signal-caller has played a more controlled game as a pocket passer in '09, throwing for 1,001 yards while still possessing the threat as a runner when the pass pattern breaks down.
Guess Who's Back…Back Again…
The press conference (fittingly) ended with a question posed to Weis from the Washington press regarding former Notre Dame and Washington head coach Tyrone Willingham, and his acumen as a recruiter (as both schools enjoyed early success following Willingham firings).
"I wouldn't say anything derogatory about any coach that's been at Notre Dame or Washington," said Weis. "If you want me to talk about Coach Sarkisian and the job he's doing I have no problem with that."
I'll set the odds at 3-1 that this marks the last reference to Coach Willingham at a Notre Dame press conference