Trailing 24-19 with 6:43 remaining in the quarter, Armando Allen slipped a tackle and scooted over left tackle for a few extra yards. Burger, who had stumbled on the slick turf, stood upright as the play concluded.
Less than a second later, the former walk-on transfer was absolutely crushed by a borderline legal, undoubtedly unnecessary helmet to chin-area shot by Huskies safety Victor Aiyewa.
(Aiyewa was the same Washington defender that delivered a concussive shot to linebacker Anthony McDonald on the game's opening kickoff and, according to former head coach Charlie Weis, also targeted Irish kicker Nick Tausch for an away-from-the-action hit later in the contest.)
Burger, as you'd expect from a lead-blocking fullback, popped up after the shot and remained on the field for a 3rd and 1 conversion attempt. He was promptly called for a false start (the only legitimate penalty against Burger at that point in the season) and his season began its downward turn thereafter.
The official diagnosis was a neck injury. Following a bye week, Burger played sparingly vs. USC, returned vs. Boston College, then sat out consecutive games vs. Washington State and Navy.
For the first five games of 2009, Notre Dame had a legitimate running attack. Led by Armando Allen and the occasional solid quarter from Robert Hughes, the Irish had managed 777 yards on 173 carries – over 4.49 yards per pop – a total that augmented one of the nation's best passing attacks.
Following Burger's injury, Notre Dame's running game produced the following totals in the season's final seven games:
- USC: 31 carries for 82 yards
- BC: 37 carries for 106 yards
- Washington State: 48 carries for 255 yards
- Navy: 20 carries for 60 yards
- Pittsburgh: 25 carries for 60 yards
- UConn: 35 carries for 123 yards
- Stanford: 25 carries for 107 yards
With the exception of the matchup with the lowly Washington State Cougars and a run defense on par with the worst in college football, Notre Dame never again approached its early season level of execution in the running game.
Burger returned for the season's final three contests, though in more of a traditional second tight end role (due to the absence of injured starter Kyle Rudolph following the Navy game). He earned his first career start at Pittsburgh but never regained his pre-injury form as the team's chief lead blocker.
(According to my game-film notes, Burger missed 0 total blocks vs. Nevada, Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue. Following the injury, he failed to execute four with at least one missed assignment in games vs. BC, Pittsburgh, and Connecticut.)
Months removed from injury, Burger appeared healthy and back to his former physical self in the spring, consistently appearing as part of the team's short-yardage packages in media practice viewings.
Burger's Season OutlookLess talented as a pass catcher or runner than tight end teammates Kyle Rudolph, Mike Ragone, and Tyler Eifert, Burger carved out a niche in the thankless but essential role of lead-blocker for the previous regime.
Though he'll see less overall playing time from scrimmage in 2010 due to head coach Brian Kelly's spread offense, Burger will likely resume that role, especially in goal line and short-yardage situations as one of two fullbacks (Robert Hughes).
Kelly referred to Burger as a "role player" the morning of the team's first spring practice. It's a role that suits him well as the pre-injury Burger ranked as the best lead-blocker in the program since (at least) fullback Tom Lopienski in 2000-02.
Burger has the foot speed to seek out his assigned defender in space, shows good hand placement inside opponents' pads, and has the discipline to keep his feet (finishing blocks) to drive would-be-tacklers out of the play.
In the first half of '09, Burger tracked both linebackers and safeties in his assigned gap, and either delivered a blow or executed the correct seal block at the proper angle – a far more reliable method than that of the "kill-shot" attempt often employed by his predecessors during the Weis era.
Look for physical, regularly-executed short-yard assignments by the unsung blocker in 2010. After all, it's the only way he knows how to play the game:
"I try to be versatile," Burger stated when I asked about his cross-training at fullback last August. "My goal is to get on the field whenever I can and try to help the team. I know all the positions, so I'm just going to go out there and block somebody and help the team win."
Burger's Best Moments of 2009:
- Purdue: Consecutive lead blocks on Notre Dame's first touchdown drive to take a 10-7 lead. The first was an example of Burger's ability to find and attack defender's in space as he took out middle linebacker Chris Carlino, paving a way for a 7-yard gain by Robert Hughes. Later in the drive, Burger shot through the right B Gap to take out SS Dwight Mclean, allowing Robert Hughes a lane for the 2-yard touchdown.
Burger appeared as an Offset-I fullback for 11 plays vs. the Boilermakers and recorded his only reception of the season (in two opportunities), catching a short pass in the flat, running through an arm tackle and converting the 3rd and 6 situation into 9 yards and an Irish first down.
- Washington: Three separate, bruising lead blocks vs. Washington middle linebacker Donald Butler: two resulted gains of 13 and 14-yards by Hughes, the other a 21-yard scamper by Armando Allen. The Irish later ran behind a Burger lead block for game-winning score (Hughes) in overtime.
- Touchdown Paver: Burger executed the lead block on Hughes' touchdown run vs. the Trojans to tie the contest at 7-7 early. He also sealed a Nevada defender in space to allow Allen two yards to the outside on 3rd and 2 deep in Notre Dame territory (one play later, Michael Floyd scored on an 88-yard touchdown pass from Jimmy Clausen).
Burger's Moments to Forget in 2009:
- Washington: After taking a vicious shot near the pile at the tail end of the play, Burger remains in the game but is whistled for a false start on a successful 3rd-and-1 QB sneak. Following a sack of Clausen on the repeated 3rd Down, the Irish are forced to punt, trailing 24-19.
- Boston College: Burger whiffed in space for the first time (according to my notes) in the 2009 season, badly missing Eagles freshman LB Luke Kuechly resulting in a 3-yard loss. (Kuechly, incidentally, played better in the contest vs. the Irish than any linebacker Notre Dame faced last season.) Burger appeared to re-injure his neck on a standard blocking attempt earlier in the contest, dropping immediately to the ground when he met linebacker Alexander DiSanzo on the edge.
- Connecticut: Two missed blocks on the same drive, the latter occurring on 1st and G at the 7-yard line and the Irish eventually settled for a field goal. Burger also employed a (successful) cut block in space vs. the Huskies: relevant as it was the only time I saw him go low for a block all season, and a clear sign he was still troubled by the neck injury.
Bobby Burger's 2009 Playing Time: 53:36 plus 83 special teams appearances.