There's a Hole in the Bucket
Irish Co-Defensive Coordinator Jon Tenuta flatly told the gathered ND Media Wednesday night that he had seen every option known to mankind.
To borrow a phrase from the embattled defensive play caller: "obviously" his defensive personnel hadn't, and those three decades of accomplished defensive knowledge were not appropriately imparted to the flailing collection of Irish tacklers whose swiveled heads limited the players natural ability to "play fast" on Saturday. The Irish were too often two steps too late to deter Navy's hard-nosed trio of Ricky Dobbs, Vince Murray, and Alexander Teich who emerged as the unlikely best players on the field for one memorable Saturday clinic in South Bend.
Navy imposed its will, both on the edge when needed, and up front and through the heart of the Irish defense throughout the contest.
"They probably saw a weakness in our defense and they probably knew what scheme we were going to come out in," offered Ian Williams.
One noteworthy weakness on display Saturday was mental discipline, a burden to be shared by the defensive staff and players. Another was a disturbing and surprising lack of fundamentals by a defense that had improved vs. the run over the last six weeks (Navy joined Washington as one of two opponents since bus ride home from Ann Arbor to surpass its average rushing yards total vs. Notre Dame).
Missed tackles exacerbated the myriad missed assignments and allowed Navy to possess the ball for 32:19 to just 27:41 for the Irish, marking only the second game this season (Washington) in which the Irish failed to control the football longer than did their opponents.
Throw for Show…
The numbers, with one exception, suggest a banner day for any offense: A school-record 37 completions in 51 attempts; 452 yards; two touchdowns vs. one interception. A a tandem of star receivers who both totaled more than 130 yards through the air. No punts.
Of course, 20 rushes totaling 60 yards can offset a lot of pretty passes between the field's 10-yard lines.
As IrishEyes examined in a two-part series in July, Charlie Weis' team would certainly throw for show, but might not be sound enough to run for BCS dough.
Notre Dame's most consistent, reliable, physical runner is Armando Allen, who was not available yesterday due to an ankle injury. The Irish backfield received a jolt from one of Allen's backups, freshman Theo Riddick, who showed great quickness through the initial hole on gains of 7, 18, and 2 yards (to set up 1st and Goal) before going to the sidelines in favor of Robert Hughes: the choice du jour in close.
Hughes was stuffed twice: victimized by a Navy defense that frankly whipped the Irish line, tight ends, and receivers attempting to create space for Hughes, who looked nothing like the runner Irish fans have (re)embraced over the last month (though seven sporadic carries played a part in his lack of production).
Why the elusive and hard-charging, game-confident Riddick was deemed a lesser option once the ball neared the goal I have no idea. Regardless, the freshman should be a weapon for the program over the next month and three seasons.
That Empty Feeling
After his offense failed to score on four journeys inside the Navy 20-yard line, Weis was asked if his team lacked identity in the red zone.
"There were different problems in different situations," Weis observed. "For example we got the ball down close and we had (2nd and 4) and we got an illegal formation with both receivers off the ball. All of a sudden you lose some yardage, now you're trying a fade, a quick-out or a scheme play when you're running over the top right there instead of just running the ball again. We were intending to try to run it in at that time and it just didn't work out on that play."
The Irish offense doesn't lack an identity in the red zone: a lack of toughness, discipline, patience, focus, and direction is Notre Dame's red zone identity, a potent mixture able to derail an otherwise unstoppable offense.
Weis gave much-deserved credit to the Midshipmen in his post-game press conference. When a team grinds out 348 rushing yards at six yards a pop, it's no fluke.
"Let's not diminish or sleight Navy in any way. They deserve a lot of credit for how they played and for winning this game."
The tired excuse that a game means more to an Irish opponent than it does to the home team itself masks the ugly truth: Despite progress over the last three seasons, months and recent weeks, Notre Dame rarely out-hits or out hustles its opponent over the course of a contest. This 2009 group possesses true grit and heart to never give up, but there's no reason it should have been back in a scrambling, 4th Quarter scenario against Navy in South Bend.
The Irish are a talented group and the coaching staff possesses enviable, proven technical knowledge of the game, but there remains an occasional disconnect on game day, especially against programs perceived as inferior.
"They played the game the right way," Weis correctly concluded. "And we kind of spit-the-bit (in terms of) red zone production."
It's no surprise that a Notre Dame team lost to an opponent whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
Reduced to Spoilers
From BCS hopefuls entering a prime-time proving ground game in Pittsburgh to Gator Bowl suitors and season/staff salvage missionaries: that's the switch that was flipped due to Saturday's head-shaking effort vs. Navy.
"Right now that's the only thing you are chasing," Weis observed of the upcoming matchup in Heinz Field. "You can't worry about 2-3 games down the line."
Both observations are spot on: the Irish can easily save the season over the next seven days, beginning with five days of focused practice and a nationally-televised evening of execution under the lights in the Steel City Saturday.
The win probably wouldn't put the Irish back among the nation's top 25, but a ranking below the now meaningless BCS-mandated Top 14 is irrelevant. With a win, a 7-3 Irish team would come home to face a solid, but eminently beatable UConn group before facing a stiff test in Palo Alto vs. a much more physical Stanford team.
"You're going into Pittsburgh, Saturday night, national television," Weis explained when asked what he told his team post-game. "(Pittsburgh is) riding high; in contention for the Big East championship; in contention for a major bowl. They're all ready to go. Sell-out crowd, standing room only…we're supposed to be sacrificial lambs rolling into town. We don't intend to be that."
But an Irish win Saturday is not plausible if Weis and his staff can't guide a shaken, disappointed and likely frustrated team out of its post-Navy rut. Failing that coach-driven change, the Irish will sit at an unacceptable 6-4 mark with a team full of future first day draft picks and 2009 college football award contenders on its roster.
Weis referenced the possible "Dog and Pony show" that awaits the Irish in what he offered would be the "…largest (college) crowd in Heinz Field history."
"We're going in there with the intent of spoiling it," Weis concluded.
Whether the 2009 Notre Dame football team should be in a position of "spoiler" to Pittsburgh is debatable. But if the seven-point underdog Irish can't pull out a win, the scene Weis described in the Steel City will be nothing compared to the true Dog and Pony show that will await Weis and the program after Thanksgiving Weekend.
Note: Due to a hectic previously scheduled travel day, the play-by-play offensive and defensive recaps that normally appear on Monday and Tuesday will appear later in the week as we shift our publishing focus to the Pittsburgh contest.