Irish Blogger Gathering: Bye Week/Utah Edition
As noted prior to the season, Clashmore Mike has the honor of hosting the Irish Blogger Gathering (IBG) for the bye week/Utah game. For those unfamiliar with the IBG, check out some previous additions (in order of opponent) hosted by UHND, Her Loyal Sons, Inside The Irish, One Foot Down, Domer Law, Irish Round Table, We Never Graduate, and Subway Domer (Navy and Tulsa).
If you are link-clicking averse, the basic rundown is as follows: we send out the questions, post our answers, others in the Notre Dame blogosphere respond, and we link their responses. So be sure to check back periodically for updated links at the bottom of this article.
With format and logistics out of the way, let’s dive into the questions.
Q. 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?
Pre-season predictions are almost always a crapshoot. There are plenty of unknowns that could make things go one way or the other. Most fans expected a 9-3 campaign this year, but, given the various factors at work, that seemed like a somewhat unrealistic expectation.
First, what we knew during the off-season. New coaching staff, new offense, the fourth new defense and defensive coordinator in as many years, three new offensive linemen, a new quarterback, and no more Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate—two of the most dynamic offensive players in Notre Dame history that accounted for over 70 percent of the total yardage and scoring in 2009. As noted back in August, that much change doesn’t typically translate into a three-win improvement.
Then there are the unknowns, namely injuries and the schedule.
The former has been devastating. Quarterback Dayne Crist, running back Armando Allen, tight end Kyle Rudolph, and wide receiver Theo Riddick are all out for the season. And that’s just on offense. Nose guard Ian Williams is also out for the foreseeable future on the other side of the ball. Wide receiver Michael Floyd, tackle Taylor Dever, inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese, and safety Jamoris Slaughter have also missed games and several other players have played through lingering bumps and bruises.
The latter has turned out to be decidedly more difficult than most anticipated. To date the Irish have faced the 4th toughest AVR strength of schedule including games against Michigan State and Stanford, both ranked in the top 25, with an upcoming contest against an 8-1 and ranked Utah squad. And that doesn’t include Michigan and USC, two of the most dynamic offensive teams in the country.
Looking at all these factors, 4-5 actually isn’t all that surprising. Disappointing perhaps, but not completely out of left field. An argument can be made that the Irish have underachieved, but there were certainly a host of factors going against them.
As for the rest of the season, 1-2 is the most likely scenario, but an upset of Utah or USC would be huge for two reasons.
One, validation. This team and the players need a reward for their effort in a season filled with bad breaks. And two, bowl eligibility. Having 15 extra practices is a huge advantage for programs trying to rebuild, which is exactly what head coach Brian Kelly is doing.
The Irish certainly have a chance. Utah appears to be a formidable opponent and has a strong recent history of wins against BCS conference competition. But TCU—their only real test of the season—exposed multiple weaknesses and the Utes have been otherwise unchallenged by the 104th most difficult AVR strength of schedule. Notre Dame certainly isn’t the same caliber as the Horned Frogs, but they don’t need to be in order to walk away with a victory.
USC is loaded with talent but the Trojans are undisciplined, have a porous defense, and the offense has benefited from rather weak defensive competition. Given the makeup of the Irish, it is strength on (relative) strength—USC’s offense against Notre Dame’s defense—and weakness on (relative) weakness—Notre Dame’s offense against USC’s defense.
Q. 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?
Inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese. Manti Te’o was a lock for one inside backer position but the other was a big question mark heading into the season. Calabrese and fellow inside linebacker Anthony McDonald battled through fall camp and the former came out on top.
When Calabrese signed, he seemed to have limited potential. The toughness and physicality were givens, his high school film showed a run-stuffing linebacker that punished ball carriers, but his speed was a potential liability and Kelly noted as much when referencing his pass coverage skills during the off-season.
But watching film of him this year, you would hardly notice. Not only has Calabrese played with the toughness he was always known for, his instincts have covered for limited speed and quickness. Along with Te’o, Calabrese has played very well—and the two are just sophomores.
Take your pick: offensive line or outside linebackers…but for different reasons.
Apart from 2005, the Irish haven’t fielded a competent front five in what feels like ages. This year’s unit wasn’t expected to be great—three new starters essentially precludes an exceptional performance—but the inability to open holes for the running game and being outplayed by smaller defensive linemen (like the Midshipmen) are largely inexcusable for a unit with plenty of talent.
Development of the front five should have been a top priority for Kelly and hiring Ed Warinner seemed like a big step in the right direction. But despite modest expectations, the offensive line has underperformed. There is some truth to claims that the current personnel don’t fit Kelly’s ideal body type, but that has nothing to do with being able to block the man directly across the line of scrimmage, which the Irish have struggled to do.
For the outside linebackers, the disappointment lies in unfulfilled potential.
Kerry Neal, Brian Smith, Darius Fleming, and Steve Filer all have plenty of athleticism, but haven’t consistently performed at a high level. Part of the blame falls on the previous coaching staff which flip-flopped between defensive schemes and coordinators, effectively disrupting any chance at player development. Part of the blame lies in a lack of secondary depth which forces the Irish to remain in base 3-4 personnel, not substitute in extra bodies in the secondary, and put the outside backers in difficult matchups.
But irrespective of both, the athleticism of the players at this position hasn’t proven to be an asset pressuring the quarterback and setting the edge, and the latter has proven costly in more than one outing.
Q. 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)?
There’s no covering up the game against Navy, those who know and understand the triple-option well exposed an Irish defensive staff that was woefully unprepared. But the game against the Midshipmen was the exception.
Diaco has had his ups and his downs this year, but the net result on defense has been positive. The Irish finished 2009 ranked 58th in defensive TPR. Through nine games this season, the defense ranks 37th. From 2008 to 2009, fewer than 30 teams made that much improvement on defense.
Furthermore, last season’s unit was roughly a top 80 defense while this year’s defense has more than a few statistical bright spots. The Irish currently rank 33rd in in third down efficiency, 16th in red zone touchdown efficiency, 17th in yards allowed per completion, 37th in interceptions, 20th in sacks per game, 35th in pass attempts per sack, and 13th in passing touchdowns allowed per game.
There are certainly some weaknesses—allowing 4.4 yards per rush attempt and nearly 25 points per game are at the top of the list. But given that the Irish offense has turned the ball over 19 times (with an average opponent field position very near the 50-yard line) and the defense has been on the field for 33:11 and 72.4 plays per game, most of the production numbers are respectable. Adjust for the caliber of opposing offenses like Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford and Tulsa, and the performance looks even better.
But there are also the intangibles—the 2010 Irish defense has tackled much better, played with more physicality and attitude, and has, for the most part, given the team a chance to win every game they’ve played. The unit is by no means dominant, safety depth, (the aforementioned) poor play by the outside linebackers, and the lack of a dominant presence on the defensive line are all liabilities. But there has been a healthy amount of improvement over last season.
Q. 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(s) next week in South Bend?
Utah’s opponent AVR ranks (with team record in parentheses): Pittsburgh (5-3)—50, UNLV (1-8)—114, New Mexico (1-8)—119, San Jose State (1-8)—113, Iowa State (5-5)—56, Wyoming (2-8)—106, Colorado State (3-7)—98, Air Force (6-4)—40, TCU (10-0)—3. One of these is not like the other. And that one beat the Utes in demonstrative fashion on their home turf last Saturday.
That doesn’t mean Utah isn’t a decent football team—TCU may be that good. But the Utes have faced teams with a combined 34-51 (0.400) record, and remain largely untested. The game is in South Bend, Utah struggles to defend the pass (83rd in yards per attempt, 72nd in pass efficiency), and the Irish have nothing to lose. A win would certainly be an upset, but it isn’t out of the question.
There are two matchups that will be critical to the outcome.
One, the Irish offensive line vs. the Utes’ front four. Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake relies on getting pressure from his defensive line, frequently employing tight coverage on the outside with help over the top. Absent the ability to get pressure without blitzing, the scheme doesn’t function particularly well. So far the front four have produced, defensive linemen have accounted for almost half of Utah’s sacks, and the unit ranks 11th in the country with one quarterback takedown every 10 pass attempts. With a freshman signal caller, solid pass protection will be imperative for the Irish offense to sustain drives.
Two, the Irish outside linebackers vs. Utah’s slot receivers. The Utes’ spread the field with frequency and will force Diaco’s outside backers to defend the run on the perimeter as well as cover and tackle in space. The lack of secondary depth mostly prevents going into nickel and dime packages so it will (again) be up to Neal, Fleming and Smith to defend the run and pass in space against players with more speed and quickness. The trio are capable of playing well, they certainly held their own against Western Michigan and Tulsa, and will need to replicate these performances to give Notre Dame a chance against the Utes.