Searching for Craig Hentrich
When Irish head coach Charlie Weis spoke Tuesday about the "Dog and Pony Show" that likely awaited his team in Heinz field this weekend, he likely wasn't referring to his punting unit.
Horror show would be a more apt description. The Irish defense, an already fragile unit, was felled by self-induced poor field position last night as senior punter Eric Maust squeezed off five punts totaling just 126 yards, a 24.8 average per kick.
What in the wide, wide world of Hunter Smith is going on around here?
Maust's first offering, a (barely) allowable 33-yarder from just over midfield to the Pittsburgh 15-yard line was followed by punts of 35 (landing near midfield); 19 (a head-shaking offering after a dropped snap that merely moved the pigskin from outside one 40-yard marker to the other); a laughable-if-it-didn't-hurt-so-much 17-yard kick to the Pittsburgh 20, and finally, a 20-yard unintentional pooch to the Pittsburgh 45.
Has anyone seen Joey Hilbold lately?
The Irish did not punt last week, and had previously totaled averages of 33.2 yards (WSU) and 32.7 (BC) over prior contests as neither Maust nor freshman Ben Turk (who did not make the trip, though luckily Notre Dame had three snappers not including its three game-tested centers in attendance) has proved capable of holding onto (no pun intended) the punting job.
Throw in a blocked extra point and roughing the punter call on the Irish (that resulted in three points for the Panthers) and Brian Polian's special teams unit produced an unmitigated disaster Saturday, at least until Golden Tate took over with a punt return score (the first at the school since October 2006).
I'm not sure if "Accountability" will remain as the theme-of-the-week for Connecticut, but campus tryouts (Paging Mr. Jarrell, Mr. Adrian Jarrell) for a third punting option should begin in earnest Monday morning.
Question: How Many Domers Does it Take to Tackle Ray Graham?
Football teams that tackle well are often described by their defensive coaches as a group that "flies to the ball" and "feeds off each other…when one guy makes a play, everyone wants to make a play." Consequently, in a Wednesday interview with the defensive coaching staff earlier this season, I asked if the football adage worked both ways: could poor tackling become contagious as well?
The notion was of course dismissed in favor of a renewed emphasis on fundamentals, technique, and extra time devoted to hitting/tackling in practice. I‘m all for logic over tired sports cliché, but seven weeks and countless missed tackles later, Panthers freshman running back Ray Graham navigated through and around a half-interested Irish defense on a 52-yard highlight reel scamper to the Notre Dame 2-yard line, setting up his own touchdown plunge one play later .
The run, which had a chance to be stopped deep in the Panthers backfield, served as a microcosm of the defense's season and a slap-in-the-face of this week‘s three-season-too-late theme of accountability, as no less than eight Irish defenders remained on the field for the Panthers forthcoming freshman highlight run: a 50-yard scamper/cutback/sprint by Dion Lewis in which the first-year superstar undressed the Irish defense en route to the end zone. (Apparently they offer Blitz Pick-Up 101 at Pittsburgh, because their freshmen have no trouble grasping their own 34-point-per-game playbook to get on the field at the tender age of 18).
(Answer to the subhead question above: I don't know, but it's more than 11...)
Just Compete, Baby
Nine receptions totaling 113 yards; an 18-yard touchdown catch-and-run to draw his team within shouting distance; an 87-yard punt return touchdown to put the 65,000-plus on full alert with just over seven minutes remaining. The feats listed above add up to a tremendous individual effort to be sure, but you'd expect nothing less from Notre Dame's incredible junior wide receiver/punt returner, Golden Tate.
Tate leads the nation with seven 100-yard receiving efforts through 10 contests. He's tied for second on Notre Dame's all time list with 22 touchdown receptions; sits alone in second on the school's single-season receiving list with 1,172 yards this year, and is tied for first in program history with 13 career 100-yard Saturdays.
Yet the Irish continue to struggle around him.
Tate was asked why it seems as if he's often the only guy coming through with explosive plays.
"I wanted to make it count on the field," Tate began. "I go out and play every game like it's my last. I can only speak for myself."
After Week Two in Ann Arbor, I predicted Tate's continual post-play antics and perceived trash talk would cost the Irish in the form of a crucial personal foul penalty in a close game. But the only thing Tate's play has cost the Irish this season is a possible chance to see him perform at this incredible level for another season in South Bend.
Along with Jimmy Clausen, Tate has carried the Irish on the field over the last six weeks and was one of three players (Clausen and Kyle McCarthy the others) to graciously greet the assembled media after another disheartening loss. The junior ranks as the most consistent playmaker at the school since the halcyon Holtz days…a competitor that commands respect from opposing coordinators and one that is routinely sought by the defenders assigned to slow him after the final whistle has blown.
Tate's tempting pro prospects continue to multiply, but the Notre Dame program needs Golden Tate in South Bend next season. Selfishly, Irish fans and the media that cover the team need him there as well.
There are many ways to win football games. Unfortunately for Weis' Irish, a heavy dose of work for his two top receivers is rarely one of them.
Junior Golden Tate and sophomore Michael Floyd have topped the 100-yard receiving mark in tandem in three separate contests this season: Michigan, Navy, and Pittsburgh as well as once in 2008 (Pittsburgh). Each game ended in an Irish defeat.
Notre Dame is 4-4 under Weis when two of its targets gained 100 yards through the air and have not won since 2006 in that scenario, when Jeff Samardzija and John Carlson turned the trick in a 40-37 comeback win over Michigan State in East Lansing.
Saturday, Pittsburgh's less-heralded offense out-gained the Irish by 80 yards (429 to 349) and held a decisive 193 to 66 rushing advantage.
Notre Dame remains famously undefeated in the Weis era (20-0) when rushing for more yards than their opponent, including a 5-0 mark this season.
In 2008, the Irish won five of their first seven contests before dropping four of five in November en route to a 6-6 regular season finish.
One year later, a promising 6-2 start has again encountered a downward November spiral, with the Irish sputtering to an 0-2 start this month with two contests remaining.
And though statistics in a vacuum rarely offer a clear picture, it is once again a troubling rushing comparison that encapsulates the program's struggles:
- Notre Dame has been out-rushed by its last seven November opponents by an astounding 1,554 to 648-yard margin. Charlie Weis is 11-9 in the season's final month as the Irish head man.
Ignore it, Maybe it Will Go Away…
In keeping with his (understandable) theme of deflecting big picture questions, Coach Weis turned to his latest, greatest task: rallying his downtrodden troops for Senior Day festivities and a battle with another Big East foe, the Connecticut Huskies.
At 4-5, UConn has not won since the tragic murder of cornerback Jasper Howard, dropping three games (West Virginia, Rutgers, and Cincinnati) by a total of 10 points.
With his future in doubt, Weis will continue to dedicate himself to the task at hand.
"I'm shortsighted. I think the most important thing right now is to get this team to rebound for the last two games and in particular just focus on the one game. That's the way we do business and that's exactly what we're going to do.
"You only can play the next game," he continued. "You can't worry about the game you just played and you can't worry about the game two games away. You only can focus on one game and that's the one you're going to dial up next.
"That's the way any good football team approaches football."
Now Hiring: Language Tutor
If the 2009 Irish football season has taught me anything its that I don't have the slightest idea what the following words mean:
Indisputable. Video. Evidence.
Any help on the matter would be greatly appreciated.