After a 3-9 campaign in 07' which featured a historic loss to Navy, most of the college football pundits predicted a 8-4 (+/- 1) season for the Fighting Irish. Most of these same pundits forgot their expectations, and put Charlie Weis on the hot-seat after a 17-0 loss to Boston College.
Many of these so called experts then declared that Weis had to defeat Navy to save his job. With offensive coordinator Mike Haywood dealing with a death in the family, Weis declared he would take over playcalling which sparked even further discussion about the coach. The pressure was on for Weis. A convincing win against Navy would go a long way in keeping Weis name out of the media cross-hairs for at least a week.
Weis did get the "must win" on saturday. Unfortunately, some hard lessons were learned on Saturday that left out the "convincing" in "convincing win".
On the first offensive play of the game James Aldridge busted up the middle for a gain of 19 yards which could have went to the house had he made one more Navy defender miss. That play seemed to be a great opener to set the tone for the rest of the day, and let the "convincing" begin. Five plays later Jimmy Clausen threw an interception, and doubt crept into the minds of many.
The first Clausen interception of the game, was his fifth interception since his last touchdown pass to Golden Tate in the 4th quarter vs. Pitt.
Lesson No. 1
Weis must forget one of his many noble offseason changes. Get more hands on with your quarterback. Weis' ability to develop a quarterback has been well documented. Clausen represents his youngest pupil. If there was ever a quarterback that needed Weis most, it is Clausen. Clausen's turnovers this year have almost all been due to decision making, and that is where Weis can help most.
After Navy went three and out, which was the first time Navy had not scored on their opening possession all season, the Irish offense returned to right the ship. Armando Allen ran twice for gains of four and 15 yards.
Clausen then kept the chains moving completing two consecutive passes. A converted basketball player took the wind out of the Irish sails, when Corey Johnson embarrassed tackle Mike Turkovich to get a strip sack on Clausen.
Lesson No. 2
The offensive line has improved since last year. Sacks allowed stats would certainly support that case and even convince that the Irish are good at pass protection. Stats can lie, and the Irish are not good at pass protection. Clausen getting less then three seconds vs. an eight-man rush the last four games, and a basketball player easily sacking Clausen supports that case.
While some of the facts on mikeanellofacts.com may not be true, nobody can deny he may be one of the greatest walk-ons in Notre Dame history. Anello's punt block which Toryan Smith returned for a touchdown gave the Irish a much needed change in course.
The first quarter finished with the Irish defense holding Navy in check again, and another Irish offensive series starting with a "pound it" mentality. The second quarter started with Golden Tate lined up in the Wildcat formation.
While many may criticize this call, I applaud it. The offensive line had blocked well enough on five straight runs for twenty yards. Golden Tate is a big play threat and this was another way to get the ball in his hands. Had Tate followed his blocking to the outside he would have easily gained the five yards necessary for a first down, but instead he tried to cut inside and was met by the Navy defender Trevor Robinson didn't block. Another Irish drive, another negative ending.
Navy was forced to punt after their next two offensive possessions, and so was Notre Dame. The second of these Irish possessions can be filed under Lesson No. 1. Jimmy Clausen attempted a quarterback sneak to convert a 3rd and four. The first of these possessions lead me to....
Lesson No. 3
Robert Hughes is not going to be successful on any play which does not have him at full speed at the line of scrimmage. Most of the runs Hughes has had for no gain or a loss this season have been due to him having to dodge defenders behind the line of scrimmage. Some of Hughes' poor carries have been due to plays like the toss sweep in this particular possession which don't suit his running style.
Navy finally broke through and scored on their next possession when Corey Finnerty took an option pitch 22 yards to the endzone. The play also featured a crushing block on David Bruton which somehow didn't hurt Bruton, but gave me a mild concussion. Actually it was a bad headache because Notre Dame and Navy were tied 7-7 with 2:39 remaining in the first half.
For those who were putting on their life jackets after the Navy score, they more then likely jumped off the Weis bandwagleship after the next Irish possession.
Corey Johnson, again, embarrasses another offensive lineman hitting Clausen mid-throw which resulted in a crippled bomb intercepted by Navy. Did I mention Corey Johnson came to Navy to play basketball? See Lesson No. 2 above. Luckily, two plays later Justin Brown recovered a fumble which was the first turnover the Irish defense has forced outside of Notre Dame Stadium.
Jimmy Clausen looked sharp running a two minute offense, and then was nearly decapitated trying to dive headfirst towards Navy defenders rather then slide (Lesson No. 1). Maybe due to being "Ruffenized", Brandon Walker made another clutch field goal and Notre Dame went to the locker room up 10-7.
At this point on Saturday, unlike their game vs. Navy in 07', Notre Dame seemed to be clearly the more talented, physical, faster, and better team. Yet, it also seemed clear that the Irish might find a way to shoot themselves in the foot and lose like they had vs. UNC, Pitt, and Boston College by making critical mistakes.
What a difference a quarter of football makes. Notre Dame absolutely dominated Navy in the 3rd quarter.
The Irish defense shut down Navy's first possession. The Irish offense then emphatically delivered on their second half adjustment to "pound it" out of a three wide set. Armando Allen had runs of seven, four, nine, and 11 yards on the first possession of the half, the latter being an easy touchdown.
The Irish defense forced a three and out, and then the Robert Hughes show began. Hughes carried six consecutive times on the last six plays of an eight-play scoring drive. The runs were for 11, 15, nine, two, four, and seven yards respectively the last being a touchdown putting Notre Dame up 24-7.
A dominant 3rd quarter finished with another three and out for Navy and the start of a good offensive possession for Notre Dame. Duval Kamara took a look pass for 13 yards, and James Aldridge took his turn in the rotation with carries of nine and four yards. "Convincing win" on the way?
Clausen and the offense eventually stalled on the drive and Brandon Walker hit a 36 yard field goal to put Notre Dame up 27-7. Had Walker missed this field goal, the eventual ending of this game would have been much, much, much more intense.
On their next possession Navy went four and out when Notre Dame stuffed Navy on 4th and two. Notre Dame took possession with 9:15 remaining in the game. Warm up the buses.
Lesson No. 4
Weis must better understand who on the team needs experience, and when to get it. Weis realizing he didn't give enough game experience to reserves in the past is a good thing. Trying to give them nearly a whole quarter with only a 20-point lead is a little too ambitious. Giving game experience to backups who are upperclassmen is just being too nice.
Had Jonas Gray scored a touchdown rather then fumble this may not even be addressed. Regardless, 9:15 remaining with a 20-point lead may be time to pull some starters, not most. Couldn't Clausen's confidence benefited from some more completions? Would the confidence of the line befitted from getting one of their backs over 100yds rushing?
Lesson No. 5
Learn how to run up the score respectfully. There are ways to trounce a team without getting the negative reputation earned by the Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier's of the world. Considering Notre Dame will always schedule Navy and other academies this lesson is very valuable.
For somebody who has been close to the military most of his life, I can tell you with full confidence the players for the academies don't want the sympathy of Charlie Weis. These servicemen want to battle against your best shot. If they lose, they want it to be giving their best against your best. Weis shouldn't let the incident of a disgruntled Navy supporter at his press conference in 06' dictate the way he coaches.
What could have been a "convincing win" for Weis and Notre Dame turned into an almost disaster. Navy scored 14 points in a span of less then 30 seconds. Navy also converted two consecutive onside kicks, which may be more difficult to do then winning the lottery, but none the less occurred with the help of a recovery attempt by Notre Dame severely lacking in testicular fortitude.
History will show merely that Notre Dame defeated Navy 27-21 in the 2008 season. Some may see it as another step towards the end of the road for Charlie Weis. Others may see it as a step in the right direction for the great future of Charlie Weis and Notre Dame.
Lesson No. 6
Weis must be more involved with the offense from here on out. The Notre Dame defense is getting better and better each week, and shut down the Navy rushing attack despite run defense being their weakness. What help can Weis really offer a defense that has Corwin Brown and John Tenuta behind it? What help can Weis offer an offense that has a young quarterback stuck in a rut, and an offense that lacks a clear identity?