Sinking the Midshipmen, Notre Dame vs. Navy News and Notes
The story for the Irish this year is completeness, as in playing a complete game. The pieces are present—a dynamic vertical passing threat, a recently developed dependable kicking game and solid defense, excellent special teams coverage units, and talent at nearly every skill position—to be a good team, but Notre Dame has yet to put it all together.
I’m not talking about an elite team, depth issues on the defensive front four and an anemic running game prevent this team from being great. But the Irish could easily be 8-2 or 9-1 at this point in the season.
At some point during games the Irish revert backwards, and everything doesn’t go right. Special team blunders, a lack of effort and/or uninspired play, no semblance of a running game, regression in quarterback play, or a multitude of inexplicable turnovers all seem to occur with remarkably inconvenient timing.
Nearly every loss this year has seen one or more of these things prevent the Irish from winning the game. This translates to wasted potential, not playing 60 minutes of solid football, and an inability to shut an opponent down. The most popularly suggested culprit is youth manifested in undisciplined, unfocused, and fundamentally unsound play. In reality, coaching is at least partially to blame.
It’s Your Forte, Stick With It
Even the most casual observer had to see the difference between offensive coordinator Michael Haywood and head coach Charlie Weis calling the plays. Though mostly determined by the opponent, Weis did what Haywood rarely has this season; he found something that worked and stuck with it. His prowess as a play caller should not be underestimated and it is clear, even after one game, that more supervision of the play selection is needed for the remainder of the year.
Against a defense dropping seven or eight defenders into coverage Weis dialed-up the apposite counter-punch, an inside running attack and screen passing game. Navy was powerless to stop the Irish running back triumvirate who rolled over the Midshipmen to the tune of 4.5 yards per carry.
Only two things jump-out as problematic about the Irish offensive play calling from Saturday.
The direct snap to Golden Tate was a poor play call for two reasons.
First, the Irish came out in the formation to surprise the Midshipmen. After Navy called a timeout it was clear they would be prepared for it. Moreover, the down-and-distance was perfect for a slant route to Tate, something only a handful of teams have stopped all year.
Second, this is exactly the type of play selection that exacerbated the problems of the 2007 Irish squad. It is too gimmicky and entirely indicative of Weis’ play calling weakness, too much brain and not enough brawn.
These types of wrinkles in the offense are exactly what need to be avoided. It is counter to the Irish offensive identity, expands the requisite material needed by the players to execute, and is wholly ineffective when not used in conjunction with other facets of an offensive game plan.
The other offensive mishap is the team’s bipolar identity. The “take what the defense gives you” approach to play calling requires that an offense be proficient running and passing the ball. Against less than mediocre competition Notre Dame has proven they can run the ball. However, the Irish rushing attack is anything but potent. Excluding the porous run defenses of Purdue, Washington, and Navy, Notre Dame is averaging fewer than 100 yards rushing per game and less than 3 yards per carry.
Yet Weis still tried to use the ground game to grind out a win against the Midshipmen. It worked, and it was the correct game plan, but the Irish would be better served establishing an offensive identity, developing proficiency in that identity, and using it as a staple of the offense and foundation for their future game plans.
The seesawing back and forth between running and passing requires too much concentration on the part of the players. This inevitably leads to hesitant play and poor execution, both of which contribute to the Irish inability to complete a game. There simply isn’t enough practice time to be highly proficient with an expansive running and passing playbook.
That isn’t to say the offense doesn’t need balance, it certainly does. But one dimension must become the first-strike weapon of the Irish attack. For a young team efficiently executing both the run and pass and developing fundamentally sound football players are nearly mutually exclusive. It would be prudent to devote more practice time developing fundamental technique than installing more plays.
It Was Onside
Allowing a single onside kick to be recovered is nearly inexcusable. Allowing back-to-back onside kicks to be recovered in obvious situations is egregious. So continues the trend of incomprehensible coaching errors (see losing at home to Pittsburgh after holding a two touchdown lead and the entire Boston College debacle).
It looked as though the Irish had never practiced recovering an onside kick before. Being the aggressor is imperative to success when attempting to recover an onside kick and both instances saw the Irish players with “deer in the headlights” looks.
It’s A Terribly Defensive Position
For the fourth straight game the Irish defense performed exceptionally well. Something must have happened in the bye week and whatever adjustments defensive coordinator Corwin Brown and assistant head coach Jon Tenuta made have worked well for the Notre Dame defense.
Thought to be the weakness of the team, the front four on defense came to play, turned up the intensity, and churned out a solid game. The performance of the defense should not be underestimated, Navy is a difficult opponent to prepare for and Brown and Tenuta deserve credit for an effective game plan.
Tying It All Together
The most important outcome of this game is bowl eligibility. The prestige of the bowl game and prowess of the future opponent matter little. For young teams practice is a valuable commodity and the extra weeks leading up to the game should provide precious opportunities to improve the lack of fundamentals and discipline preventing this squad from reaching it’s full potential.