It was another thrilling victory again for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish as they defeated Washington in overtime yesterday. The Irish now stand at 4-1 heading into a bye week and a looming matchup with archrival USC in two weeks.
So what are we to make of Notre Dame after five weeks?
I think a lot of people believed before the season that a 4-1 record for the Irish would be a pretty decent start, and I think what we have learned is exactly that: Notre Dame is a decent team.
Unless Notre Dame improves significantly in a handful of key areas, particularly defense, this team is not a national contender, but there are still a lot of positives for this team as one of the biggest games of the Weis era comes up in a couple weeks.
If there’s one thing this team can do, it is throw the ball. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen is going to become a national Heisman contender over the next two weeks; there’s just no way he won’t be in the discussion now.
Clausen threw for 422 yards against UW, and this wasn’t one of those Weis games where Notre Dame abandoned the run and just threw it all over the field. The Irish ran the ball a respectable 29 times in the game, and Clausen only attempted 31 passes.
For now, I’ll just say Clausen is one of the most improved players in the country. He’s proven two things this year that bring a whole new dimension to his game and Notre Dame’s chances: he’s tough and he’s becoming clutch.
Elsewhere on offense, Golden Tate is an incredible athlete. His 244 yards receiving was second most in school history, and Tate is also becoming a clutch player. I wasn’t sure what Washington was doing, because it didn’t seem like they were doubling Tate, who was open all day long.
The other positive news for Notre Dame is that Nick Tausch has turned into a reliable and steady placekicker. The kicking game was a real liability the past two years, and Tausch has started 10 for 11, including tying a school-record five field goals against UW.
The running game was disappointing against Washington, and that is something that will have to improve if Notre Dame wants to beat USC. Armando Allen had a very mediocre game before being injured and replaced by Robert Hughes at tailback.
I’ve been hard on Hughes in the past, but I have to admit he really stepped up and played really well against the Huskies. In fact, he was the reason Weis could keep the offense relatively balanced after Allen left the game.
Overall, the offensive line for Notre Dame has been outstanding. They still struggle in short yardage situations, but Notre Dame can pretty much run the ball when it wants to and the line has been giving Clausen great protection all year.
On defense I don’t know what to think or say. On the one hand, they are statistically a downright bad defense and gave up 457 yards to Washington. Yet, for the second time this season, they came away with improbable stops when it counted most.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the defense is at best average. Clearly, the defense has been the most disappointing aspect of the 2009 Irish club and will need to play better if a BCS bowl is going to be discussed.
I can’t figure out what is wrong with the defensive backfield. This was supposed to be the beast of the Notre Dame defense, and they have been pretty bad this year. McCarthy is a great tackler and has been the defense's best player, but he isn’t great in coverage and his fellow safety Harrison Smith has been all but invisible this year.
Corners Darrin Walls and Rasheon McNeil have been picked on quite frequently this year and have not been doing much in coverage. Sophomore Robert Blanton has been better in coverage, but the playmaking ability is missing. From what I’ve seen, Gary Gray has been the most dependable corner and he needs to play more in the future.
On the coaching front, I think Charlie Weis is slowly learning the college football game, and he played his cards very well against Washington. Basically, he coached a very un-Weis like game and it worked amazingly.
Going forward, it will be beneficial and likely that Weis will not be gambling so much on fourth down. In the past, he might have tried to force a touchdown on fourth down near the goal line on a couple of occasions, but smartly relied on his kicking game.
Obviously, the game against USC is going to be huge. The Trojans offense may not be as powerful as in the past, but it is still a dangerous unit, and Barkley probably won’t be hesitant to throw the ball against Notre Dame.
That means it’s going to be tough to keep USC under 30 points, and the Irish offense will be facing its toughest test of the year against a top five defense. Without a strong running game, Notre Dame will be forced to rely heavily on the pass, and that most likely will not work.
Armando Allen seems to have a beat-up ankle and, even after the rest of the bye week, he may not be 100 percent. Hughes's effort has been admirable in the past two games, but he doesn’t present a huge threat and has trouble being effective if large holes aren’t opened by the offensive line.
Weis seems reluctant to give Gray and Riddick any carries, but they may be needed to add more speed against USC. It would also be a good idea to get Tate the ball as much as possible, and give him some carries out of the backfield, too.
The receivers played better against UW, but there still isn’t a decent number two. Evans finally made a name for himself this weekend, and I think it’s safe to say he will be sharing most of the playing time with Robby Parris. Clearly, Evans has the ability, and Parris (besides his drop in the end zone) is a smart player with reliable hands.
Sticking tight end Kyle Rudolph at wideout was also a great move by Weis, and it could be very effective against USC. If Notre Dame can get another tight end to block consistently and become a small threat in the passing game, Rudolph could be a huge threat. Weis could then use Rudolph in a Dallas Clarke-type role and create mismatches all over the field.
The Irish defense really feeds off energy, and with the home crowd, they have a chance to beat USC. Two areas the defense really needs to improve on are tackling and coverage. The tackling against Washington was mostly abysmal, and it is still too easy to move the ball through the air against Notre Dame.
The good thing is that Notre Dame is winning games they would usually have lost in the past. That is a big sign of progress, and I believe Weis has really done well this year game planning for opponents. Beyond USC, there are still a few tough games (BC, Pitt, and Stanford especially), but the Irish can still be a 10-win team.
As bad as the defense has played, it will be very difficult to stop the Irish offense. The anemic efforts against Michigan State, Pittsburgh, BC, and Syracuse in 2008 are not going to happen this year. That’s why this team still has hope for greater things.
*Manti Te’o played his best game of his brief career against Washington and showed why he’s one of the best defensive recruits in the nation. From this point forward, he should be starting at outside linebacker and giving the defense a big boost in speed and playmaking ability.
*How about the defenses multiple goal line stands? Have you ever seen such big stops so close to the end zone? I have to give credit where credit is due, and the defense played incredible down there, especially on the game-sealing big hit on the UW receiver in overtime.
On the touchdown that was overturned (and probably would have won UW the game), I thought the player was down at the half-yard line after seeing the replay, but I still thought it would be better for the Huskies to score (assuming they would score anyway from the one yard line) and leave Notre Dame with more time on the clock to come back.
Little did I know the Huskies wouldn’t put it in for six. I was very surprised Sarkisian went for field goals twice down that deep. It was weird to watch Weis be conservative in moments he usually wouldn’t be, and for the Huskies to not try to put the dagger in the Irish’s heart late in the game.
*Jimmy Clausen is officially one of the best quarterbacks in the country. His failed swing pass to Allen that was scooped up and brought back for a score was a huge blunder, but how many passes has Clausen thrown that were even close to being considered bad?
There was one ill-advised throw into the end zone that was almost picked off, but other than that, Clausen had two drops and a few balls that he rightly threw away. Even the interception to Allen should have been caught.
*This was another game that had ridiculous officiating. The refs were bad to both sides, too, overturning Washington’s touchdown at the one-yard line, which was questionable, and not spotting Hughes’s knee down on the two-point conversion.
Also, how do you call roughing the passer on Johnson, passing interference on Brown, and, worst of all, the roughing the snapper on the Washington field goal? All three were just terrible calls.
*Is this team better than the 2005 or 2006 teams? Before the Washington game, I thought this was a team very similar to Weis’s first two clubs—most likely, 10 wins and a BCS bowl appearance.
But after the defense gave up massive amounts of yards again, I’m not sure they can carry Notre Dame to a BCS berth. Can the Irish rely on Clausen to lead miracles every single game?
Obviously, beating USC would be a huge statement, but I think even keeping the game close in two weeks will bring optimism. USC might have had a hiccup against UW, but I still think they are a top-five team and will be very dangerous.
A loss to USC would reignite the hot seat for Weis, but even still, Notre Dame can win the rest of their games and shoot for winning a BCS game. No matter what, so far this year, Weis has Notre Dame improving and that is a very positive sign.