Posted: September 23rd, 2011 | by: Steve In Iowa
Categories: IBG, Irish
This is Steve in Iowa here, along with the inimitable Blog Davie giving it the old cover-2 on this week’s IBG. Special shout-out to Whiskey for formulating such thought provoking queries. (Your humble bloggers’ heads hurt, thanks, Whiskey, I’ll take a double). And with the pleasantries out of the way can I just say how much I’m going to miss the ‘Stache in this series? I always had a soft spot for ol’ Wanny and anything that threatens to move Pitt from such a consistent level of mediocrity makes me feel ill at ease.
(1) For the first time this season, Notre Dame was outgained in yardage by its opponent. Some have expressed concern that Notre Dame maybe doesn’t beat State without a kick return for a touchdown and an 82-yard interception return. Still, Notre Dame won for the first time this season. What does this win say about this team? Did we see progress on Saturday?
Blog Davie: Beating Sparty at the very least says this team isn’t going to curl up in a ball and die. We knew that from last year. It was an impressive win over a very good team that has been
a thorn in our side a 24-inch saw-toothed bayonet in the abdomen for too long. ND showed progress in some areas (D line consistently pressured Cousins) but continued to struggle in others (punt return unit). The plus side is I’ve got a feeling that this team is very close to “getting it.” The really glaring problems should be correctable and that bodes well for the rest of the season.
(2) What three facets of our game do you focus on in practice this week if you’re Brian Kelly?
Steve in Iowa: This is going to tie in pretty heavily with what Blog Davie has to say on grading the position units so I’ll try not to step on his toes too much here, oh? Too late? Sorry. So here is a two-fer on the first one, 1) Special teams play across the board has to get better, especially punting. The only thing that makes me more nervous than when we send someone out to field punts, is when we send out Ben Turk to make punts. There was some definite improvement against Sparty, but it will take some demonstrated consistency to win back Steve’s confidence. 2) Finding the ball in coverage–I don’t know why this seems to be such a weak spot for ND, but if our DBs could just “find man, find ball” with more consistency it would help avoid catastrophe. 3) Not committing stupid penalties–again, some improvement last week, but the first three games were marred by terrible lapses in judgment. The good news is that most of these things are correctable. So let’s get to work coaching staff!
(3) Grade the coaching staff and position groups through three games.
Blog Davie: I’m grading the coaches and position groups from highest to lowest.
Offesive Line/Coach Warinner A-
The offensive line has been the best and most consistent position group so far this season. The line has paved the way for a more productive and efficient running game. Through three games ND’s yards per carry are over a 1/2 yard better than last season (3.98 ypc to 4.56 ypc). The line has also provided excellent protection for Tommy Turnover, allowing only three sacks this season. I would give this position group and coach Ed Warinner an A, but they still have issues with lining up and converting third-and-short when the other team knows a run is coming.
Defensive Line/Coach Elston B+
While the sack and tackle for loss numbers won’t wow anyone, it’s clear that the defensive line is owning opposing offensive lines thus far. With the defensive line controlling the line of scrimmage, opponents are averaging less that 3 yards per carry. The only rushing touchdown allowed was the fluke goal line fumble recovery by Velcro.
Wide Receiver/Coach Alford B
Michael Floyd alone deserves an A+, but his counterparts have been mediocre to this point. Someone other than Floyd has to step up their game. TJ Jones has been steadily improving with a touchdown each of the last two games. But my man Theo Riddick has been nonexistent outside of a pair of TD grabs against Michigan. Everyone has been saying Riddick is primed to break out, but when? What about someone hungry on the 2-deep? Playing time is there for the taking gentlemen.
Tight Ends/Coach Denbrock B
Like the receivers this group has one really special guy in Eifert. The rest of the unit has been pretty much OK, but now the injuries are starting to take a toll with senior Mike Ragone going down. There are openings for the underclassmen to make some noise here, which is not unprecedented in the storied history of ND TEs.
Running Backs/Coach Hinton B
Cierre Wood is legit. He’s running with patience, vision, and even some power. If he can get a couple of “big chunk” runs of 20+ yards every game, ND will have a bonafide superstar. Jonas Gray has also played well as the change-of-pace back. He’s hitting the hole with more authority and has appeared to recover nicely from the fumble in the USF game.
Linebackers/Coach Diaco B-
The 3-4 defense is designed to funnel plays to the linebackers, but the linebackers have been somewhat quite statistically. Of the top five tacklers on the team, the only linebacker is Manti. And even his numbers are down this year with only 26 stops in three games. Although playing two spread teams (one that completely abandoned the run) required the outside backers to cover and play contain, there needs to be more production from this unit moving forward. Overall, this unit appears vulnerable against the pass, but is pretty solid against the run. My hope is that Darius Fleming goes off in the coming weeks.
Quarterbacks/Coaches Kelly and Molnar B-
Tommy Rees is what he is. He’s going to keep the chains moving with short to mid range passing, and he’s going to make you scratch your head with a turnover or two a game. He still has relatively limited game experience, but the coaching staff has to work with him to limit the turnovers to the extent possible.
Defensive Backs/Coaches Cooks and Martin C
Throw out the Michigan game and these guys would be in the B to B+ range. While they have been gashed on jump balls this year (particularly Gary Gray), they acquitted themselves nicely last week, despite surrendering over 300 yards. Gray had 10 tackles, Smith had 4 pass breakups, and Blanton did everything with 6 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups, and a crucial pick. If the defensive line can continue to pressure opposing passers, these stat lines will only get better.
Special Teams/Coach Elston D-
I was on record saying that I would be shocked if the return game wasn’t one of the biggest areas of improvement for ND. Unfortunately, the special teams unit has been a dumpster fire. If not for GAIII’s 89 yard kickoff return for a TD and some decent rugby punting against Sparty, I would give the entire special teams and Coach Elston an F. The Irish simply need to find a way to generate some yardage in the punt return game (oh hell, just safely field the punt) and get 40+ yards consistently when punting. Losing too much hidden yardage is killing this team.
(4) The season is 25% complete. If you’re Brian Kelly, what is your mantra for the second quarter of the season?
Steve in Iowa: Sit with me in the lotus position. Now, close your eyes and breathe in the good air. Yes, very good. Now expel the bad air. Concentrate and repeat after me, “Ohmmm… Ohmmm… I will secure the football… I WILL secure the football… I WILL secure the football… I WILL SECURE THE FOOTBALL!” You’re not concentrating Rees! [WHACK!] Don’t mind this stick, if your focus is on the stick it won’t be on taking care of the football! Just keep concentrating, “Ohmmm…. I will secure the football… I will secure the football…”
(5) On Pittsburgh. Did Iowa wrest control of the game from Pitt, as was Iowa’s custom last season. Or did Pitt just implode?
Blog Davie: As the IBG’s resident Iowa grad, I will try to keep any bias out of the response to this question. Iowa’s comeback was the result of two factors: (1) Ken O’Keefe (Iowa’s offensive coordinator for those of you who know nothing about the Hawkeyes) finally scrapping his game plan with the team down 21 with three minutes to go in the third quarter; and (2) Pitt making a number of coaching/mental mistakes.
Coming into the game, the Hawkeyes were fairly conservative offensively with 76 rushing attempts to 55 passes. The problem with their conservative approach is twofold: (1) Iowa has solid receivers/TE’s and (2) the run game has been pretty pedestrian (Coker averaging less than 4 yards per carry). Although Iowa tried to attack Pitt’s weak secondary during the first three quarters by favoring the pass (roughly 30 passes to 20 runs), Pitt’s run defense held the Hawkeyes to less than 2.5 yards per carry. As a result, Pitt did a nice job of bending but not breaking. With three minutes to go, Iowa had no choice but to abandon the run game entirely and attack Pitt down the seams. The result: James Vandenberg torched the Pitt secondary to the tune of 399 yards and 3 touchdowns.
On the flip side, Pitt did their best to give the game to Iowa. Todd Graham explained in his press conference that there were a number of miscommunications that led to blown coverages. He stated that there were no less than “12 critical errors by the pass defense in the fourth quarter.” Graham concluded that the defense will have to be simplified moving forward.
There was also some questionable play calling. Despite Ray Graham’s early success running against the Hawkeyes, Todd Graham elected to have Tino Sunseri throw deep on third-and-three at the Iowa 36. After an incompletion, the Hawkeyes held on fourth and marched down and scored. From that point on, all the momentum was with the Iowa.
(a) Do any of Pitt’s players or matchups concern you?
Sure. Ray Graham is averaging nearly 140 yards rushing per game and already has 6 rushing touchdowns. Graham has also proved valuable to Tino Sunseri in the passing game, hauling in 13 catches for another 86 yards. If ND can contain Graham, Pitt should have some difficulty moving the ball against the Irish. While I think ND can control the line of scrimmage, look for Pitt to turn up the tempo to prevent the Irish D from subbing D lineman to keep them fresh.
Another player to watch out for is wide receiver Devin Street. Street is 6-4 and has solid speed. He’s quickly becoming Sunseri’s favorite target with 15 grabs for 236 yards and a touchdown. With his size, Pitt may try to throw him some fade passes in the redzone.
Finally, Max Gruder is a playmaker on defense. While he won’t wow you with any measurables, he leads the Panthers in tackles with 27 and has a nose for the football.
(b) How does ND vs. Pitt play out this weekend?
I’ll say Irish by two touchdowns.
(6) With three games in the books, this season is one-quarter done. It’s probably no stretch to assume that football writers also enjoy history, and specifically military history. Compare Notre Dame’s one-fourth of a season to a one-fourth complete war. Is it World War I–i.e. are we’re stuck in a war of attrition, with many, many losses still to come? Is it Grenada–have we already seen the worst, with only relatively smooth sailing to come? Don’t feel limited to 20th century warfare. For that matter, no need to limit it to military history–policital, legal, and philosophical warfare is also acceptable.
Steve in Iowa: I don’t claim to be a military historian, but this question poses an interesting–if slightly strained analogy– since a football season is versus twelve completely different opponents each with radically different sets of leaders, assets, resources, etc. Also, who do we cast ND as? I think we can rule out the dominant, conqueror Imperial types, so no Ghenghis Khan’s, Alexanders, or Napoleon’s for us. But are we really the underdog, freedom fighters in each contest either? Hardly, though what I miss most about Holtz was how he got the boys to buy into the underdog mentality each and every week, something young Skip does prolly pretty good.
I guess if I was forced to pick some war as analogous to our season, it would be the Civil War with ND cast of course as the Union. We’ve been outfoxed in the first few battles by craftier, more motivated, but lesser opponents, and a dissatisfied Lincoln-Kelly has changed his generals Crist-Rees midstream. Some better results have come from this shakeup but what lies in store from here on out? While I’d like to see a metaphorical Sherman’s march to the Sea (in this case to the Pacific ending with the destruction of Stanford) I don’t think that’s terribly likely.
Yeah, that’s a pretty lame answer. Tuff.