This past week, the Notre Dame Football team found themselves at a very unique crossroads. For a long while, the Irish have yet to field a football team that could be so enjoyable to watch and yet, with a split second and a mental lapse, could be so frustrating to watch. When they are clicking on all cylinders, this football team has the ability to compete with anyone. However, when they are reverting back to their old habits of last year's painfully horrid season, they are able to be beaten by anyone.
With a record of four wins and two losses, the Notre Dame Football team headed into its bye week on a gloomy note. As was the case for most of the games in the first half of the season, the Irish could not play consistently good football and came away from Chapel Hill, North Carolina with a loss. At times, the Irish have played like most fans expect them to throughout the 2009 season. At other times, they have shown us glimpses into the very recent past of this football team, which have been frightening for us all. Every facet of the Irish Football team, including the coaching staff, has not been consistent in any definition of the word. It has been a nasty problem that has marked nearly every contest in which Notre Dame has found itself.
As Anthony Pilcher has pointed out in his offensive statistical review, the offense, for the most part, has been operating at a high level. With the now healthy arm of Jimmy Clausen, who is on pace to throw for over 3,000 yards and just under 30 touchdowns on the season, the offense has just recently instilled a confidence in themselves that allows them to move the ball up and down the field with some consistency. In nearly every facet of the offense, they have improved. Clausen is playing much better and with a renewed sense of leadership that allows others to feed off his confidence. The offensive line is blocking better and is starting to look more like a cohesive unit, which takes some pressure off Offensive Line Coach John Latina. The wide receivers are the break-out unit of the offense behind the young tandem of sophomore Golden Tate and freshman Mike Floyd. And, Kyle Rudolph has seemed to take his new responsibility in full stride, becoming a serviceable blocker and a legitimate third down and goal line situation threat.
But, the offense isn't without its faults. It has a tendency, when leading by multiple scores, to make mental errors that have cost them two games and may cost them more in the future. Jimmy Clausen, as good as he is, has made some horrible reads that seems to negate some of his improvements. Just when he's moving the ball with consistency, throwing it with pin-point accuracy, and making correct defensive reads, he throws an interception into double coverage. Or, just as the running backs are starting to run with some vision and confidence (which is a few times a game), they miss a hole and get driven back for a loss, or worse yet, they cough the ball up in a crucial situation. This offense has the ability to score points on most defenses, but it also has the ability to shoot itself in the foot.
Similarly, the defense has been playing in the same fashion. In the Michigan and Stanford games, this defense looked like it could have been one of the best in the nation. Then, in the Michigan State game, the Irish give up costly yardage to a very good runner in Javon Ringer. Or, just as it seems like the Irish would defeat the Tar Heels of North Carolina, the offense gives up the ball on a couple of occasions and the defense can't stop the Tar Heels from scoring, even without their number one receiver and with a third-string quarterback behind center. The defense has struggled mightily this season giving up costly yards to blown coverage or their inability to tackle well at the line of scrimmage. They often find themselves mismatched and out-schemed.
Additionally, the kicking game has been abysmal this season. In some respects, they have been the most consistent part of the entire team, which causes every Irish fan to hold their collective breaths when Weis sends Brandon Walker out onto the field with the ball spotted on the 30 yard line. Ryan Burkhart is not much better, failing to record a single touch back all season. Something needs to be done to remedy this situation and it seems as though Weis is taking the necessary steps. On Tuesday's practice, reporters spotted a fresh face on the field. It was the face of a walk-on kicker who, at this point, has no name because nobody outside of the team knows his name. Whether he'll turn out to be our answered prayer is yet to be seen.
Finally, the coaches have been leading the team in a fashion that encourages this type of inconsistent play from their players. Mike Haywood, as offensive coordinator and offensive play caller, has been learning on the job and it's hard not to notice. The predictability of the play calling has been somewhat covered up by the sheer talent on the offense. The accuracy of Jimmy Clausen and the ability of Golden Tate, Mike Floyd, and Kyle Rudolph has allowed this team to convert third downs and score somewhat consistently in the red zone. Similarly, the fusion of Jon Tenuta's and Corwin Brown's different defensive schemes has left this defense vulnerable and exposed. When sending a safety or multiple linebackers on a blitz, the cornerbacks are providing the opposing receivers with too much cushion, allowing their quarterback to pick apart the under-performing Irish secondary. Additionally, the defensive line had yet to record a sack going into the Stanford game and may not record too many more before the season's end.
As Notre Dame prepares to play Washington, this weekend has major ramifications for both teams. Washington is 0-6 on the season and I'm sure that the Huskies would love to redeem part of their season by beating the Irish. Notre Dame, on the other hand, has had a fairly successful first half of their season and would love to improve on their progressions thus far and win on the west coast convincingly, which may be an easier task than previously thought, seeing as how Washington will be without the services of Jake Locker. This would be a perfect time for the Notre Dame Football team to start fresh in the second half of their season.
The Irish need to play with some consistency on all facets of the game. Let's face it, this is still a young team, but they have the raw talent to overcome their deficiencies cognitively or schematically. The offense, aided by Jimmy Clausen, need to start moving the ball with consistency and during the whole game-not just the first half. The defense needs to shut down opposing offenses with lighting-fast blitzes and tight coverage in the secondary and ensure that they do not give up many big plays with sure tackling. The special teams units need to find some consistency in their kicking game. The Irish desperately need their aid in putting valuable points on the board and pinning opposing offenses deep in their own territory. Finally, the coaching staff needs to find some cohesiveness in their coaching styles, schematics, and their play calling. Additionally, they need to stop coaching to lose when they have the lead and coach to win. There is a HUGE difference.
The second half of the Irish schedule could turn out to be much easier than the first half. If the Irish find some sort of consistent play from their leaders and play makers, they could march into Southern California with just two losses on their record. However, if they fail to reach some consistency and continue to play in their erratic and unpredictable manner, they could face the Trojans with two additional losses on their schedule coming at the hands of Boston College and Pittsburgh, which would be a huge disappointment with how much potential this team possesses. Inconsistent play and poor coaching, thus far, has caused this team to not quite attain that swagger that Coach Weis wanted his team to have at the beginning of the season. Here's hoping that this team can play the type of football that they have the ability to, in order to earn the swagger that they so desperately need.