It's Monday and (hopefully) like the team, I'm fresh as a daisy after the bye week and ready to hit the ground running for Utah week. Let's kick things off with a little IBG. This week the boys at Clashmore Mike have put together the questions. Head over there for all the different answers from all the different blogs.
1. Notre Dame is currently 4-5 with three games left in the season. First, are you surprised by the wins and losses so far? And second, given how the Irish have played, what is a realistic expectation for the remainder of the season?
Yes, I am incredibly surprised not only by the losses (Tulsa and Navy...really!?!?!) but the manner in which they occurred. I thought that Brian Kelly would provide a serious coaching upgrade and that his prowess on the sideline would end the days of being outcoached and outperformed by lesser talented squads. That hasn't happened. There's only one of our five losses that came at the hands of a clearly better and more talented team--Stanford, who I think is a Top 5 squad. The other four can all be laid at the feet of Coach Kelly:
Michigan - No backup plan for when Crist went down...that's inexcusable considering the fact that he was coming off a major knee injury.
Michigan State - The Irish were caught flat-footed on the game's ultimate play, a damn trick play on a field goal.
Navy - The most embarrassing loss in 25 years. We were completely dominated by the Naval Academy.
Tulsa - Made an ill-fated choice to pass instead of put the game on David Ruffer's golden right foot.
This season has been a colossal disappointment and a complete and utter failure no matter how you slice it--and I believe it's largely on Brian Kelly. I'm not ready to call for his head and I still believe he's capable of righting the ship (though he's shown little-to-nothing this year to support that faith), but you have to call a spade a spade: this season is a disaster.
The reasonable expectation going forward is beating Army in Yankee Stadium, putting up a fight against Utah, and a big, fat, embarrassing loss at the hands of Lane Kiffin. I would like nothing more than to be totally proven wrong.
2. A little report card in the spirit of the bye week. What player or position unit has been the biggest surprise of the year and what player/position unit has been the biggest disappointment?
Biggest Surprise: It's tough to pick an entire unit that's consistently improved and surpassed expectations over the course of the season, but I'll hang my hat on the Kicking Game. Who would've thought that David Ruffer would transform into arguably the best kicker in the country? Combine that with the fact that Ben Turk has turned it around after repeated threats of bodily harm from the coach and members of the fan base and you've got your most pleasant surprise.
Biggest Disappointment: This is tough because if you look at each individual unit there isn't one that's blatantly underperforming like the secondary did last year. If I had to choose one it'd probably be the quarterback position just because I expected to see much more progress out of Dayne Crist over the course of the season. He came out of the gate much hotter than I thought he would, but he never progressed and unfortunately seemed to actually regress over his last couple games. Now his season is over thanks to another devastating knee injury which casts a cloud of doubt over the position--and perhaps over his career at ND in general. A solid quarterback is a necessity In order for the spread offense to reach its potential. The fact that Dayne didn't prove he's that guy over the course of the first 8+ games is a major disappointment.
3. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco caught plenty of flack after the debacle against Navy, and rightly so. But his unit bounced back with arguably their best performance of the year against a prolific Tulsa offense. So which version is the real Diaco? Is it the one that had no answer for Navy? Or is it the one that had his troops prepared against Tulsa (and most other Irish opponents)?
It lies somewhere in between. If you remove the Navy game then I'd give Diaco pretty good reviews for season one...but that was such a flagrant atrocity that it cannot and should not be overlooked and discounted. Diaco is a young guy who is in only his second year as a defensive coordinator. Notre Dame is the toughest place on the planet to "learn on the job" so he needs to be a sponge, learn from his mistakes, and work his butt off to correct them.
The Navy game was a complete embarrassment and his interview after the game where he essentially admitted he put all his eggs in one basket without a backup plan was shocking and alarming to say the least. He's going to have a second crack at the triple option (and maybe, gulp, the veer) against Army so that will provide a good litmus test for how well he adjusts over time.
The giant question mark that will still remain though is whether Diaco is capable of identifying what in-game adjustments must be made quicker and implementing them before it's too late. There have been a couple times when Brian Kelly has said something to the effect of "they're showing us something we didn't see on tape and that's why we can't stop them," which staggers me. Some may point to that as a clear sign he's in over his head. I'm not ready to go that far, but it's certainly something that makes me uneasy.
Diaco has shown some flashes of being a good coordinator and the defense has been much improved even if the statistics don't necessarily scream that. But he's got a long way to go to receive a resounding vote of confidence and like the team he needs to show consistent and rapid improvement to win back a fan base that all but fired him in East Rutherford, NJ.
4. Off the heels of a near miss against Air Force, Utah was undressed by TCU in their first "real" test of the season. Are the Utes pretenders and does Notre Dame have a shot at winning Saturday? What will be the key matchup next week in South Bend?
Utah is the biggest pretender of the year in college football and honestly that was crystal clear in week one against Pitt (another gigantic fraud with unrealistic preseason hype). I was hoping that the Utes wouldn't be exposed before they came to South Bend but unfortunately the Horned Frogs ruined that dream. Notre Dame absolutely has a shot at winning this Saturday. Hell, Vegas has posted an ultimate sucker line for the game (Utah -4) and the general public has already begun pounding the Utes--a good sign for Irish fans.
Does that mean I think they'll win? No. The injuries on both sides of the ball for Notre Dame will be too much to overcome and I think that Kyle Whittingham can come up with a pretty simple defensive gamplan that will smother a one-dimensional Irish offense led by a quarterback who can't throw downfield.
The key matchup is going to be Tommy Rees against the Utah secondary. My hunch is that they're going to be ultra-aggressive and press our receivers, daring Rees to beat them with the long ball. If Rees can find a way to get Michael Floyd the ball down the field and loosen things up at the line then the Irish will have a fighting chance. If not then I could see this turning into an ugly game along the lines of like 24-10 for the bad guys.