Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Late Tuesday Skunkbear Recap

I apologize for slacking these first two weeks of the season. I've attended both games in South Bend so it's made it tough to re-watch the games and get thoughts down on paper quickly while recovering from no sleep and gratuitous amounts of tailgating and Finnegans.

Fear not though, normalcy is about to return. The weekly regulars will something along these lines:

Monday: Dear Diary (it's back!)
Tuesday: Recap/Breakdown
Wed - Frid (in some order): Two Dudes, One Post...IBG...Bodogs are Barkin

There will be additional things each week--whether they be columns, videos, brief appearances by Bill, whatever--but from these point forward there will be at least five new pieces of literature each to get you through your work day.

Real quickly--before we turn our attention to Sparty--let's go over ten quick observations from the Michigan heartbreak.

1. An Evaluation of The Denard Robinson Wolverines

The guy is good. Out of every Notre Dame game I've ever been to he's the only player that has ever approached Reggie Bush's level of "oh crap, the ball is in his hands" fear in the stands. He torched us in every which way, proving that his arm is capable of being just as effective as his wheels. His little fake runs that led to passes were deadly. His actual runs were even deadlier.

One has to question whether his relatively slight frame (6-0, 195lbs) can handle the beating that comes with rushing 25+ times per game, but Denard is one of those gifted runners that has the unique ability to always avoid the direct hit. No matter how clean a shot it seems a linebacker or safety has he always wiggles and squirms to keep going forward to get that extra yard.

After seeing the game in person I still don't think Michigan is a very good team. For how amazing Robinson was his offense was still outscored 24-7 when Crist was in for Notre Dame and they were forced to punt 10 times over the course of the game. They're a one-trick pony--it just so happens their pony is Secretariat. It'll be very interesting to see how far he can take them. My guess is that it lands them back in a New Year's Day bowl...only it'll smell more like Bloomin' Onions than Roses.

2. Michael Floyd, Please Stand Up

It's been a nondescript and frustrating start to the season for #3. Through two games he has 10 catches for 148 yards and no touchdowns, which is miles behind last year's pace through two games (11 rec for 320yds and 4 TD's). He had a momentum shifting unforced fumble against Purdue and two key drops in the Michigan game. All-in-all he's pretty much been a non-factor against two teams that had secondaries ripe for the picking.

He was supposed to put up video game numbers in the spread offense and Kelly was hyping him as one of the best receivers he'd ever seen...so what happened?

My theory is that we're just doing a bad job of getting him involved early in the game. It seems that as the game progresses he almost gets too wound up when the ball finally comes his way. He was so anxious to get in the endzone against Purdue that he never secured the ball before fumbling. Against Michigan his two drops were catches he makes 90% of the time. When the game progresses and he's not involved the anxiousness only grows. When he finally gets his turn he tries to do too much and loses focus, leading to careless, unforced mistakes.

The best way to fix the problem is look at him early and often--whether it's screens, quick slants, whatever. Get him comfortable and in the flow of the game right out of the gate so he's not like "Jo-Jo the Indian Circus Boy with a Pretty New Pet" the first couple times Dayne looks his way. He's probably got the highest ceiling of any Irish receiver in history; BK needs to tap into that potential asap to get the offense moving the way it should.

3. The Legend of Great Dayne

This guy is the heart and soul of the team. When he didn't come out for the second offensive drive of the game you could literally feel the air get sucked out of the stadium as everyone simultaneously thought "OH $*&%.". When he came back out for the first drive of the second half it was like a switch was flipped on for the offense, defense, and fans alike. I've never seen a Notre Dame player who so energized EVERYONE, even the guys who weren't on his side of the ball.

He's far from a finished product, but he's farther along than I thought he'd be at this juncture. He still needs serious work on his deep ball (which tends to sail) and his accuracy as a whole must improve, but he's got a very good pocket presence and his wheels are perfectly suited for this offense. The fact that he stepped into the starting role just one season after Jimmy Clausen posted one of the most impressive campaigns you'll ever see at Notre Dame tends to make fans recognize his flaws more than a normal quarterback, but all in all he's shown a lot of promise through two weeks.

One thing I am very worried about though is whether he'll stay healthy. Forget the knee (I know, it's hard...but do it just for a split-second), last Saturday's eye/brain fiasco isn't the first time he's suffered head trauma. I seem to recall that his senior high school football season was cut short when he was concussed so badly that he was knocked out cold. Dayne is the face of the program right now and the Michigan game highlighted just how vital he is to every facet of Notre Dame's football season. If this becomes a reoccurring theme over the next few years then unfortunately the Irish's rise back to prominence may be set back way longer than any fan would care to admit.

4. QB Wasteland

For how well Charlie Weis stocked the talent cupboard across the board he left a surprisingly gaping hole at the quarterback position behind Dayne Crist. There wasn't a sense of urgency to take extra quarterbacks in the 2008 and 2009 cycles because the thought was Clausen and Crist essentially had the position on lockdown through 2012. It's tough to attract elite talent when the top of the positional depth chart is highlighted by two five-star mega-recruits like Jimmy and Dayne. Unfortunately, now we're seeing what happens when you only take two quarterbacks over a three years stretch.

(History lesson: This isn't the first time we've taken too few quarterbacks and were left in a bind when someone went down/transferred. When Arnaz Battle got injured in 2000 we had to start a former tight end--In Godsey We Trust--for two games since his back up Chris "Brother of G-Reg" Olsen transferred right before the season.)

When Dayne was forced to leave the game for a quarter and a half it revealed the wasteland sitting behind him in all its horror. Both Tommy Rees and Nate Montana were bad--there's no other way to slice it. Rees isn't even close to being ready to contribute on a major college football team--and it's debatable whether he ever will be--and Montana is a year removed from being a terrible third-string quarterback on a community college team.

I understand that these guys are going out there and trying their best--and believe me, I'm probably pulling for them only slightly less than their parents are--but I cringe thinking about them being on the field. The ceiling for this team lowers from a 10 wins to 6 wins when they're leading the offense. Montana should never take the field for any D-I program (let alone Notre Dame), but he seems like our (*gulp*) best option since Tommy Rees apparently is still shell-shocked and freshmen Luke Massa and Andrew Hendrix have been placed off-limits.

Long term it's for the best that Kelly redshirts Massa and Hendrix...but it certainly deviates from his mantra that he's on a five-minute rebuilding plan, not a five year one, because trotting Montana and Rees on to the field gives the team a 0% chance of reaching its potential.

5. Points at the end of the half

I said it then and I'll say it now: take the points. I love being aggressive and going for 4th down conversions. But Nate Montana--not Dayne Crist--was our quarterback and my faith in him completing a pass for a touchdown is somewhere around my faith that two years ago Luke Zeller was going to post-up instead of camp out by the three point line (in other words, as close to zero as humanly possible).

When the deluge of texts finally came through before the end of the half it appeared clear that Crist was going to come back for the third quarter. If Kelly knew this then there's no way he even should've thought about risking coming away empty handed. Like most Irish fans have pointed out, had Notre Dame kicked the field goal then David Ruffer would have had a shot to win the game on the final drive. I'm not ready to say that absolutely would have happened, largely because Michigan's defense wouldn't have been so cream-puff soft in allowing ND to march over midfield had they only needed three instead of six to win the game, but you can't help but think about it.

No coach is perfect and I still have all the faith in the world in Kelly--as every Irish fan should. But this was his first major screw-up in my opinion and it cost us in the end.

6. Punting 101

This was a constant theme last year: someone tell me why we can't find an athletic kid on campus who can consistently punt a football 40-45 yards? I bet Carl Anderson could've done it. Hell, does Carl Ackermann have any eligibility left? He could probably do it too.

After an allegedly promising spring, Ben Turk is back to unleashing mediocre-to-bad punts when we need a boomer to shift field position. Perhaps he established a bit of a rhythm after having to kick eight times against the Wolverines (admittedly, he did get better as the game went on), but the shankopotamus has already reared its ugly head too many times this season (average vs Purdue: 31.7...WOOF). This is a very subtle problem that's slipping through the cracks since there are other much bigger ones to worry about, but Turk MUST find a way to be more consistent or it's going to cost us big at some point.

7. Key Stat: Turnovers

Notre Dame had three (including the first one that abruptly changed the entire direction of the game), Michigan had none (oh how I wish Ethan Johnson could've recovered that Te'o forced fumble...). Very rarely does a team survive a slaughter like this in the turnover battle.

Is it a testament to how badly we would've beaten Michigan had Crist not been knocked out? Does the fact that Michigan only beat us by three despite having a quarterback with 500+ yards of total offense, committing three less turnovers, and having the opportunity to face two high school level quarterbacks for almost an entire half say that the Skunkbears are frauds?

8. Random Thought from the Stands

I swear Kyle Rudolph's 95 yard jaunt was in slow motion. When he caught it around the 50 we immediately started dog-piling and jumping up and down...and when we looked up he STILL wasn't over the goal line. It was one of the biggest student section mega-rages I've seen in ND Stadium--right up there with the Zibby punt return against Southern Cal in '05 and the Samardzija touchdown against UCLA in '06.

It's a travesty that it'll be underappreciated in Irish fans' eyes since we ultimately lost the game. That could've been the spark needed for a 1964 Remix. Excuse me while I break a 2x4 over my forehead.

9. The Arrival of an Offensive Line

I thought the offensive line did a fantastic job almost all day. Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin is one of the toughest guys the interior line will face all year. They bottled him up, especially after Dayne came back in the second half. On the 95-yard pass to Rudolph, Dayne had all the time in the world to deliver because the line was absolutely stonewalling the defenders.

I feared that Kelly was bluffing a bit when he said he thought he was dealing with an elite offensive line, that perhaps it was a psychological ploy to pump up their confidence. Thankfully he wasn't kidding. The three big question marks (Zach Martin, Taylor Dever, and Braxston Cave) have all performed admirably. In pass protection they're doing a great job keeping Dayne upright and not committing those drive-killing penalties that plagued our offense last year. In the run game they're more real estate for Armando to play with than anything he's seen over the course of his previous three years.

To date this unit may be my most pleasant surprise. Let's hope it stays that way and doesn't flame out like last year's unit did (zero sacks allowed through two games, 2.5 per contest over the last ten...approximately 239 holding penalties as well).

10. Armando Allen

Armando is killing it this year, realizing part of the potential people knew was hiding somewhere during his first three seasons. He is fast, has a subtle and effective wiggle, and doing a great job distinguishing when he should be a finesse back and when he should finish a run with power.

Sometimes he runs so hard it's almost to a fault. His legs churn so violently that sometimes in the middle of runs he'll just get himself off balance because his lower and upper bodies get out of sync. It happened on the kickoff he took the house against Hawaii in the '08 Hawaii Bowl and it still happens a fair amount. My guess is that aspect of his technique won't be ironed out over the course of this sesaon--which means the 75 yard highlight reel bursts will still elude him--but that won't stop him from being a very productive as he has been the first few weeks.

The key will be Armando finding a way to stay healthy. Last year he started to get banged up every time he approached and went over the 20 carry threshold. Despite all the hype surrounding Cierre Wood, the offense is more effective with Allen out there.

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