Our coverage of Notre Dame week rolls on with a the first of two Q&A's with Irish bloggers, this one coming with Matt from Her Loyal Sons, one of the top Notre Dame football blogs out there. You can catch my answers to Matt's questions on his website tomorrow, and also be on the lookout for my somewhat rushed interview on The College Football Weekly Blog Radio Show later today. Alrighty then, let's get cracking.
First and foremost, in as much or as little detail as you want, can you explain to all of us what the hell happened over the past two months?
Ok, here we go: A lot of ND fans, and even some "objective observers" would tell you that ND has fallen victim to a "perfect storm." And what they seem to mean is a "perfect storm" of "excuses." We try not to put much stock in excuses because first and foremost we want ND to be a winning program, and if something is causing that not to happen, then that something needs to be fixed. So instead of saying the ND football team has fallen victim to a perfect storm of excuses, let's instead say that the 2007 Notre Dame Football Season has been the result of a perfect storm of issues, and the issues are all fixable.
And here are some of the issues in no particular order of importance or severity:
1) Poor recruiting by the previous head coach: As much as non-ND fans hate to admit, Willingham's recruiting "efforts" were miserable after his excellent first full class (the one that included Brady Quinn and the like). Not only were his following classes short of quality, but in quantity as well. ND hardly has any 5th year or "regular" seniors left on the team. So as good as Charlie Weis' recruiting efforts have been (2 classes already at ND were "top ten" classes, the current crop is ranked "#1"), the Irish are really lacking in guys who've "been there and done that." This is also really killing ND in terms of leadership. On the offensive side of the ball, only 1 elected captain of the team (TE John Carlson) sees regular playing time. Another captain on the offense was appointed by the coaches to help address the lack of experience and leadership on the offense and, frankly, has made about as many mistakes as any player on the ND roster in 2007.
2)Youth: Closely related with issue #1; A ton of players in key positions on the field for Notre Dame (particularly on offense) are very inexperienced. The top 3 tailbacks are freshmen and sophomores. The top producing receivers are freshmen and sophomores. The top 2 QBs are a freshmen and a junior with 2 years of eligibility remaining and, before the 2007 season, fewer pass attempts than I've fingers. And I lack fingers to spare. Meanwhile, the offensive line is anchored by a single 5th year senior and then a bunch of guys who've hardly played at all. The one other guy who's had many starts on the OL, sophomore Sam Young, played Right Tackle during 2006 and now plays Left Tackle. As you probably know, that an entirely different bag of chips.
3) Scheduling: As of this week, Notre Dame, despite having played nobody in several days, has played the most difficult schedule in the country according to the Sagarin Rankings. Not only is the schedule tough by national standards, but it created a combination of bad match-ups for Notre Dame. ND had to start an inexperienced QB and offensive line against Georgia Tech and John Tenuta's Blitz-happy defense. Then it started another highly inexperienced QB in Happy Valley for a night game. Follow that up with a game against a desperate and much deeper and experienced Michigan, and you just have to roll your eyes and shrug. Notre Dame, by Notre Dame standards, should be able to handle that sort of start. This season ND didn't even acquit itself admirably.
4) Coaching Mistakes: Ultimately, Charlie Weis is still a 1st time head coach who is learning on the job in the toughest, most scrutinized position in all of college sports, and he made a few "rookie mistakes" this year. For starters, he's been conducting less physical practices than you might expect from a college team largely because he was more concerned about his personnel depth issues than making sure young guys were ready to execute at "full speed." He also took his "NFL mentality" to the extreme, trying to scheme around Georgia Tech's defense with a hybrid offense that incorporated elements of the Spread Option – an offense with which none of the players at ND were familiar – because Weis always tries to "win the next game." As a result, a QB who is not even with the team anymore started the 1st game of the season, and ND spent time "scheming" rather than worrying about things like excellent fundamentals and execution. A lot of coaches would worry about building a solid foundation and then hoping that the foundation would prove to be enough to eek out a win or two against tough competition, but Charlie always, always goes for the win first and foremost. Luckily, from statements he's made in recent press conferences along with changes to the conduct of practices made over the course of the season, Charlie seems to have identified those mistakes and is now working to correct them so that we don't suffer the same results in 2008. As ND fans, we knew this sort of thing could happen with a 1st time head coach, but we certainly hoped that it wouldn't.
Clausen or Sharply? Who is the answer for next year? Who will start against the Midshipmen, and more importantly, will they actually do something?
Sharpley will start. Weis made that clear pretty much immediately after the Southern Cal game and has reiterated that fact this week. Clausen could probably use the rest as he's been quite banged up thanks to pretty poor protection efforts by the offensive line. Sharpley has a strong arm but some real accuracy issues. Hopefully 2 weeks of extra practice as the "#1 guy" will help him work that out. It'll be the first time in his career at ND that he's had this much practice as the starter. It would probably also help him if his offensive line can keep the pass rush at bay so he can set his feet and feel comfortable in the pocket. If all that happens, look out because ND does, in fact, have at least one receiver who can run right by anybody in college football (Golden Tate) and a couple of guys that can probably make a few things happen on short passes, not to mention a guy that should have had the best season for a tight end in call of college football (John Carlson).
As for next year's "answer," your guess is as good as ours. Sharpley, we believe, does have 2 more years of eligibility and seems to possess some level of leadership ability. Clausen, who seems to still be healing from off-season elbow surgery, does actually look to be the guy with the most "upside." Add to that mix the entrance of Dayne Crist, a current verbal-commit, who some say has as much if not more potential than Clausen, and we've got quite the QB battle brewing for 2008. One real advantage ND will have in 2008 that it did not have in 2007 is that all of the QBs who are in contention for the starting job are of the same "mold;" All of them are "drop-back pocket-passing QBs." In 2007, with Demetrius Jones fully in the mix for the starting job, that just wasn't the case.
It's likely that a lot will be made regarding the 119th ranked Notre Dame offense lining up across from the 105th ranked Navy defense. Personally I think Navy's defense is hopeless, but what are your thoughts on this matchup of less than stellar units?
Looking at the rankings, ND has faced the #7 (GT), #12 (PSU), #21 (UM), #36 (MSU), #56 (Purdue), #42 (UCLA), #20 (BC), and #4 (SC) defenses in the country thus far. Navy has faced the #102 (Temple), #13 (RU), #22 (BSU), #114 (Duke), #72 (AF), #97 (Pitt), and #90 (WFU) offenses along with Delaware (not ranked among Bowl Subdivision Teams). So the easily opposed force has faced off against defenses with an average rank of about 25th while the easily moved object has countered offenses that average a rank of about 72nd. So strictly by the numbers we have to give ND the edge. That said, as we've so vigorously pointed out earlier, this team is extremely young and extremely prone to errors. As much as very good defenses have beaten ND's offense, so too has ND's offense beaten itself. That's sort of the X-Factor. If Navy can manage to confuse ND and get them to make some mistakes, we'd say this match up comes down to a pick'em. ND definitely has a ton of raw-talent starting on the offense, but it hasn't shown much polish over the course of the season.
Notre Dame's defense has been suspect against Navy's option offense early in games over the last two seasons. What does new DC Corwin Brown bring to the table, and do you feel confident that he and his scheme can stop Navy's rushing attack?
The biggest thing that Corwin Brown has done is bring a new attitude to the ND defense. The past 2 years, Rick Minter ran a "read and react" defense. Corwin Brown takes the initiative much more, and his new 3-4 scheme allows ND to attack an offense from multiple angles on any given play. However, the option offense of Navy forces any defense to simplify things and play disciplined, assignment football. Brown has no experience scheming against such an attack, and the option pretty much takes any advantages ND's new aggressiveness might cultivate and throws it out the window.
When ND is coached well, they always seem to take about a quarter to adjust to the speed and precision with which Navy runs the option. You just can't duplicate that in practice against a scout team, and ND only sees the option once or twice a season. Hopefully ND will be able to limit any early-game advantage Navy has while ND adjusts, and then ND can minimize Navy's points. Corwin seems to be a very shrewd man. Even when he does take risks, they seem to be pretty calculated (ignoring, for the moment, a random call for press-coverage on a 3rd and 29 here and there). If nothing else, ND has more overall speed on the defensive side of the ball thanks to some new talent and the 3-4 scheme, so that should help mitigate a few mental errors. Watch out for freshmen Kerry Neal and Brian Smith; two freshman outside linebackers that get every ND fan's adrenaline pumping.
From what I can gather, there seem to be two different schools of thought on the issue of this year's Navy-Notre Dame game. Some Domer fans hold this game as a must-win, buck-stops-here scenario, while others seem to kind of take up the attitude of "it may as well happen this year" to any Navy upset possibility. How do you feel about this game, and what would a loss to the Midshipmen on Saturday mean for the ND program and the Navy rivalry?
We hope Navy eventually wins one of these games and we hope we never see it. Purely from a PR perspective, ND must win this game above all others. The blogosphere, the media, and the college football fan-base just wouldn't let a Notre Dame loss to Navy die until ND wins another national championship, and maybe not even then. As much as it's important for ND to finish the season on a few high notes, it's also vital that ND avoid any perceived "embarrassment" while trying to maintain an excellent 2008 recruiting class. That's not to say that losing to Navy would be an actual embarrassment to ND, but you can bet that all observers outside of the ND and Navy communities would try to sell it that way, especially to recruits.
The one thing I can say with a high level of confidence is that if Navy were to win on Saturday, it would not, despite some opinions, mean that Charlie Weis needs to be worried about his job. The guy has already managed to get Notre Dame to 2 BCS bowl games, and we've seen what he can do with a team when his decision making is firing on all cylinders. That's bought him a little patience from the ND fan-base. Things have a way of snowballing in either the positive or negative direction, and this season has already been a prime example in the negative. We think most of the Notre Dame faithful have come to accept that. Weis will have time to fix this because Weis earned it, but we're sure he's aware that patience never comes with an infinite supply. What we expect to see, and hope to see, on Saturday, is a young team start to realize just how much talent they really do have. There are some guys on this Notre Dame team with jaw-dropping ability, but they haven't had much room to breath, grow, and realize their own potential. Hopefully this ND/Navy tilt looks fairly similar to the previous two, but I suspect Paul Johnson and the Midshipmen will do all they can to ensure that will not happen.
Should Navy win on Saturday, it would be another great chapter in a long, wonderful story. The Notre Dame/Navy tradition is one of the best in college football, and we're proud to have Navy on the schedule every year.
Go Irish and Beat Army.
I want to thank Matt for taking some time to fill us in, and wish the Irish a great 3-0 end of the season after November 3rd.