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It’s Made With Real Bits of Panther, Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh News and Notes

By · November 5th, 2008 · 1 Comment · 2,542 views
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It’s Made With Real Bits of Panther, Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh News and Notes

Before the season I predicted the Irish would be 8-4 with losses to Michigan State, Pittsburgh, USC, and one other game (North Carolina or Boston College) because of youth.

The Michigan State game is explicable. The Spartans matched up well against the Irish: an average-to-good defense with a potent rushing offense. The Notre Dame team intensity level and inept rushing attack wasn’t acceptable, but it is a feasible loss given the matchup problems.

Against North Carolina Notre Dame had a two-score lead, but gave the game away with a host of poorly timed turnovers. That can be chalked up to being a young team.

But Pittsburgh is much tougher to rationalize.

The Irish surrendered a two-touchdown lead at home to an average opponent playing a backup quarterback that threw three interceptions and had a very inefficient outing.

To be certain, there is no excuse for this loss. The Irish faithful deserve answers, but many are pointing to reasons that have been present throughout the 2008 season. It is no surprise the Irish can’t run the ball and don’t score touchdowns in the red zone or convert a high percentage of third downs. The poor running game is directly linked to the other two. It’s also no surprise that the defensive line is a weak unit that contributes to the inability to stop the run.

The reasons for the loss are more subtle. As discussed here, the Pittsburgh game was largely about two halves of football. Coaching adjustments, poor coaching decisions at the end of the game, and a lack of intensity in the second half were largely to blame for the loss. All three were deficient, and the responsibility is shared by players and coaches to different degrees.

It’s As If Adjustments Weren’t Even There

It appeared that the Irish offense was caught completely off guard in the second half. But the Panther defense didn’t appreciably change and offensive coordinator Mike Haywood’s approach to play calling was nearly identical to that of the first half.

Similar to the game against the Tar Heels, the Irish came out in the second half, spread the field, and frequently threw the ball. The difference from the first half wasn’t scheme, it was poor execution rooted in a lack of emotional play (more on this later). Additionally, the offensive staff didn’t relent or play “not to lose.” With the exception of the Michigan game, the Irish offense has not used heavy formations and a power running game to chew the clock.

Pittsburgh rushed three or four and dropped seven or eight into coverage for most of the day. This forces the offensive line to protect the quarterback for long periods of time and guards against big pass plays. For an offense that relies on the vertical passing game and features a poor rushing attack, this is a valid strategy. Additionally, it requires the Irish to consistently execute in order to move the ball, a considerable challenge for a young team.

Against this type of defense the apposite counterattack of a spread offense is to mix the run with a short passing game. Haywood did this for much of the game. The previous predictability of shotgun formations was replaced by draws and lead runs from running back Armando Allen. In the first half this worked extremely well. However, on nearly every drive one error resulted in the offense getting behind the down and distance.

This played right into the hands of the Panther defense. On many occasions Haywood was forced to max protect in an attempt to give quarterback Jimmy Clausen time to get the ball beyond the first down marker. With seven and eight defenders in coverage, there are precious few passing windows. The poor execution in the first half merely amplified in the second.

That said, Haywood did have problems adjusting to the Pittsburgh red zone defense. On a short field the dynamic down-field passing game isn’t an option. Additionally, spreading the field becomes less advantageous as opposing defenses are still able to put eight defenders in the box. With no effective running game, the Irish offensive weapon of choice has been the fade. The Panther defense took this away by giving safety help over the top.

When this happens the Irish miss head coach Charlie Weis’ play calling prowess. He is creative setting up the deep pass, thinking a few plays ahead, and going for the jugular at the perfect moment. Haywood is still too predictable and lacks the foresight and ingenuity in his play calling. Of course, with only one viable option at fullback and tight end it’s tough to use tighter formations to pound the ball at a defense that isn’t crowding the box.

The defense was a different story, but much of their demise in the second half was linked to the poor play of the offense.

It’s no coincidence that the best defensive performance of the 2008 season was against Washington and through the first two quarters of the Pittsburgh game, the time when the Irish controlled the ball. When the defensive line remains fresh they are respectable against the run. When they wear down, the result is different altogether.

In the first half Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh was determined to mix the run with the pass and keep the Irish defense off balance. In the second half Cavanaugh changed to calling predictable runs and playing to the strength of his offense. The game plan shifted from balance to running back LeSean McCoy.

Cavanaugh used a productive run and screen attack to get McCoy the ball. Additionally, Pittsburgh used the direct snap to McCoy in an effort to get him in open field. It wasn’t flashy, it wasn’t disguised, but it certainly was effective.

The Irish defense was slow to adjust. Despite Pittsburgh using the same formation, pre-snap motion, post snap fake, and play call every time the direct snap went to McCoy, it took a touchdown and over two drives of success before Notre Dame defensive coordinator Corwin Brown found a suitable solution to the Panther’s most effective offensive weapon.

Why Would You Do That?

On two occasions during the game Weis made egregious coaching errors. The first was near the end of regulation. The second was in the first overtime.

With 52 seconds left in regulation, the Irish called a timeout and subsequently called a running play to Allen that managed three yards on third and four. A second timeout was called with 40 seconds remaining. Given the previous play call and Weis’ proclivity for being risky, it seems logical that the decision to go for it on fourth down was made prior to Allen’s run.

Going for it on fourth down wasn’t a poor decision. The Irish aren’t built for overtime; offenses ranked last in red zone efficiency usually don’t fare well starting from the opponent’s 25 yard line. The problem is that the Irish are atrocious in scoring touchdowns once they enter the red zone. Too much reliance on big pass plays and a poor running attack forced Weis’ hand.

Confusion set in and the Irish were forced to call their second consecutive timeout. That a second timeout was needed is an inexcusable coaching error, reminiscent of Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie. Even though a first down and spiked ball would have stopped the clock, relying on being able to successfully execute a field goal with an inconsistent kicker and with no timeouts is a risky move.

However, attempting to convert the first down with no timeouts was even more asinine. Running the football for a first down was advantageous for Pittsburgh. The Irish were in a heavy formation, unable to quickly substitute back into a spread personnel grouping, so the clock would have run even if the offense had managed to pick up the first down on the ground.

Pittsburgh was likely prepared for the play action pass. In the very least, they were sure to guard against it. For the Irish offense to attempt it with no timeouts was an unforgivable coaching error. Giving Pittsburgh the ball back at midfield with a good kicker meant the game was one play away from giving the Panthers a chance to win.

The second coaching error came as the Irish offense faced second and goal from the Panther three yard line. Three rushes by Allen gained 22 yards for the Irish offense, giving them two plays to gain three more yards and win the game.

Despite running back James Aldridge’s recent strong running performances and a short field where a spread offense is least effective, Haywood decided stick with a three receiver personnel grouping. At that point in the game it would have been more prudent to give Aldridge two carries—or maybe even three—to win the game.

The Game Is 60 Minutes Fellas

If the Purdue and Stanford games weren’t enough evidence, the loss to the Tar Heels should have been. The Irish offense went into cruise in the second half, lethargy set in, and inept execution was to show for it.

The responsibility for the emotional psyche of the team falls on the shoulders of Weis. Whatever Weis said at halftime certainly wasn’t enough to overcome the apathy of his offense in the second half. However, if a 3-9 season chock-full with multiple beatdowns isn’t enough to motivate a team to play with pride and have a killer instinct, I’m not sure how much a coach can do.

The lack of intensity showed up most in the play of the offensive line. While the Irish front five didn’t play with an abundance of emotion in the first half, it was far from the absence of physical play exhibited in the second. The front five on offense for the Irish were merely going through the motions.

Pittsburgh wasn’t able to generate significant pressure on Clausen in the first half with three or four pass rushers, but the second half produced multiple breakdowns in pass protection, mostly in the form of lost one-on-one battles.

Partially to blame is Notre Dame’s offensive operation. The no-huddle offense run by Haywood over the majority of the recent games leads to cerebral play. It is difficult for the players to get into a rhythm when the time between plays is devoted to getting formations and play calls correct in a somewhat hurried manner.

Also partially to blame is the Irish offensive identity. Spreading teams out and running the occasional draw or zone-stretch play is hardly indicative of physical football. The finesse-based offense doesn’t allow the linemen to fire off the ball and hit the opposite defender.

But the lack of physicality along the Irish offensive front in the second half transcended offensive scheme. Similar to the Michigan State game, the Panther defenders simply wanted it more.

The “nasty” attitude Weis promised needs to show up on the offensive line. Weis and offensive line coach John Latina need to find a way to instill passion in their players and develop a more physical unit that has a killer instinct. Part of the culpability may lie in the relative youth and inexperience of the unit. While this is a more palatable excuse for those hoping to not blame the coaching staff, in the end responsibility is irrelevant.

Tying It All Together

In many ways the 2008 season is a microcosm of Weis’ entire career at Notre Dame: win the games he should, be competitive in games against average teams, and lose to the better teams on the schedule. This is not exactly the mark of a great coach.

With few exceptions, good coaches win the games they should, average coaches lose a few they should win, and great coaches win a few they shouldn’t. Great recruiters increase the number of games the team should win on paper. Weis has proven to be a great recruiter, but he is looking more like an average coach.

The “nastiness” he promised upon his arrival in South Bend is being undermined by a finesse-based offense and absence of a power running game. His players do not consistently play with emotion, despite it being a primary focus in the off-season. Finally, the “schematic advantage” has been surrendered by handing off play calling duties to Haywood.

Presumably, 2009 is the defining year for Weis’ tenure; when the lack of numbers in the upper classes and poor talent excuses run out. Up to this point Irish fans have seen glimpses of what he is capable of, albeit capped by lack of talent and depth in 2005 and 2006 and handicapped by youth in 2007 and 2008.

But there is mounting evidence that Weis may not be the man for the job. He has proven incapable of successfully navigating the psyche of his team on multiple occasions, has yet to establish an effective running game during his tenure, and the improvement from 2007 to 2008 is overstated.

The 2007 season shouldn’t have been as bad as it was. Coaching decisions exacerbated weaknesses of the team and resulted in a 3-9 record. One can make the argument—and it isn’t even a tough one—that the Irish should have won five or six games. Coupled with a 2008 schedule that is considerably more manageable and you have the recipe for marginal improvement. Even the apparent offensive growth is masked by underlying deficiencies in fundamental areas.

Weis’ failure isn’t a viable option for the Irish, the team and program needs consistency right now. He is an alumnus, he understands the school and its mission, he is a tireless worker capable of change, and he is a good person who’s off the field activities speak volumes about his character. It isn’t his fault his predecessors have given the Irish fan-base little patience.

These are the reasons Irish fans must hold out hope. The trend of the team is upward, despite setbacks like this game. As such, this Irish fan hopes the remaining problems of the Irish are eliminated between now and 2009.

Furthermore

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