Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Charlie Weis: A First Quarter Assessment

This year I said I would form my opinion on Charlie Weis and whether or not he was going to be the coach to lead Notre Dame back to where we belong. Through three games it’s time to make some early assessments. First, we'll look at the positives.

1. He has proven that he IS the offensive genius we thought he was.

Let's just throw out the beatdown of Nevada. Against Michigan we put up 500 yards of offense and 34 points (100+ yards called back on penalties, some of them--namely the hold Rudolph's run--questionable to say the least). We also engineered two beautiful drives in a hostile environment when the game depended on it. That represented significant progress from the last two years. Against Michigan State we once again put up over 30 points, 400+ yards of offense, and put together another drive to take a lead with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. He finally has significant talent in place and he's utilizing it extremely well--the playcalling has been great and he's had defenses on their heels from start to finish.

2. The transformation of Jimmy Clausen

Jimmy Clausen has turned into what could be the best quarterback in Notre Dame's history. Some people may loft accusations of hyperbole, but he's so in control it's unbelievable. He's averaging over 300 yards a game and has thrown two balls that could have even been CLOSE to being intercepted--and one was because Golden Tate broke off his route when he wasn't supposed to. That's thanks to Charlie Weis's tutelage. There's no denying the effect he has on quarterbacks after seeing this and looking at how he took Brady Quinn from mediocre to 1st round pick.

3. He's learning to adapt and it's paid off--especially on the O-Line

The most important newcomer for Notre Dame this year wasn't Manti Te'o--it was Frank Verducci. The improvement along the offensive line has been staggering. There have been two sacks allowed and both were allowed by Jonas Gray. Not one has been credited as a sack allowed to an offensive lineman. We've converted more 3rd/4th and shorts on the ground this year than we did the last two years COMBINED. A lot of coaches are stubborn and refuse to turn over their staff--which played a significant role in Willingham getting canned when he did--and he has proven he's willing to do that.

Now it's time for the negatives and the huge question marks yet to be answered

1. We continue to lose games to teams with lesser talent

I think we got screw in the Michigan game by the referees. I still don't think that's an excuse--we were CLEARLY the better team on the field and it's ridiculous to think we couldn't find a way to win that game in spite of the odds. Every successful coach at Notre Dame has taken care of business against the teams we should beat. The ones that lose to the Air Forces (Faust), BCs (Willingham), and Purdues (Davie) of the world are the ones that are kicked to the curve. It's not good that we've lost to all three of those schools I just listed--plus NAVY--under Charlie.

2. We are incredibly sloppy and undisciplined

This plays into the first thing and is far and away the most alarming thing. Two straight games with at least 9 penalties. Some of the holding calls in the Michigan game were questionable, but there's no debating the legitimacy of a call when you hit someone outside the field of play. Absolutely inexcusable. The Armando celebration penalty was questionable, but you need to be more disciplined and learn from history (we got screwed for the same exact thing in 1999 in the Big House on a Bobby Brown celebration penalty). This sloppiness and lack of discipline absolutely falls on the coach. If this isn't corrected then the ceiling for Notre Dame will be 9-3 year in and year out.

3. Our defense--specifically our d-line is atrocious

Now this is where a gray area appears. How much blame does Charlie take on for this? We allegedly have one of the best defensive coordinators in the country in Jon Tenuta. Weis has totally turned the reigns on that side of the ball over to him and Corwin Brown and really that's not that uncommon--even among succesful coaches. Steve Spurrier didn't even know his defensive players' names in the 90's when he was dominating at Florida, Joe Gibbs essentially had the same approach when he was coaching the Redskins in the 80's. There's a very obvious problem after three games and Charlie has a responsiblity to step in and dictate a different gameplan (because Tenuta has one and it's blitz every down in every situation). In his press conference this week he alluded to doing this so I'll be curious to see what the changes are. As of right now though I'm willing to give him a pass on this--if only because the side of the ball he's in charge of has been a well-oiled scoring machine.

4. Our special teams has been an embarrassment

This goes right back to #2. Coverage comes down to discipline and we've been terrible at it. One of the most underreported things from the first two games was how terrible our punting was in the clutch. Maust unleashed a 20-yard dud in the Big House when we NEEDED to pin them, then did the same exact thing in the 4th quarter against Michigan State (he just got bailed out by a block in the back). The little things win or lose games. Special teams might be the biggest of the "little things" and we get a big fat F for our performance thus far. Charlie needs to address this immediately, whether it's get different guys on the coverage units or get Ben Turk in the game for Maust. Special teams were more to blame for the loss to Michigan than the refs were.

5. We've never won the big one

First of all, let's not mistake the Michigan game for a big one (that loss falls under category 1). As it has been pointed out about a billion times by a hundred different analysts—who all think they're the first person to say it and clever for thinking it up—Charlie Weis's signature win is a loss to Southern Cal. In my mind our season and Charlie's regime comes down to the Southern Cal game this year. There comes a point where you need to slay the dragon and I think the time is either this year or never (under Charlie). They've proven they're vulnerable, they have a rebuilt defense, and their offense is far from the explosive juggernaut that rolled into town the last time we had a program defining game with them in 2005. There will be a ton of recruits in town for that game--the result will tell them the direction of the program. I think ultimately it will tell us too.

The knee-jerk reaction of many people on message boards has been hit the ejection button. I look around the coaching landscape and I just don't see many realistic options that would be an upgrade over Charlie right now. Some cry for Brian Kelly but are we really willing to go through the turmoil that's sure to follow a firing and risk losing the relatively strong foundation we’ve built for Brian Kelly? The only realistic option I'd be excited about is Jon Gruden, but even then there are some questions.

I really think that the verdict on the Charlie Weis Era will be delivered on October 17, 2009 and I'm willing to withhold judgment until then. I’m pulling for him hard, but I'm still on the fence. The way he wins me over is by doing the jig with me at the 50 yard line when the clock hits zero that day. Hopefully see you there Coach.


  1. Why does everyone forget that Weis beat #3 Michigan in the Big House in his second game in 2005? Yeah Michigan finished 7-5, but Notre Dame is the only team that ever gets the "Oh it only matters if they were ranked when the season ended, not when they played the game" treatment.

  2. Because Michigan ended the year ranked #29 and had a terrible season so beating a "#3" team in September means shit.