Nov 16, 2009, 7:30 AM EDT
So I took Sunday off from writing about the Irish. Mental health day let’s call it. It was a beautiful November day in Southern California, not a cloud in the sky, a temperature you might as well have dialed up on the thermostat, and I had myself a nice lazy Sunday.
I have a feeling things weren’t the same in South Bend.
Notre Dame canceled Charlie Weis’ usual Sunday night press conference, citing a later than planned arrival back into town after last night’s game. While many of us would’ve liked to hear Weis’ take on Saturday night’s loss, it was probably for the best to give the man a break. As he said last night, he’s got to start worrying about UConn.
(And after seeing Stanford demolish USC, it’s clear that the Irish really need to worry about UConn, as that might be the only chance at an elusive seventh win…)
There’s plenty of time to talk about what’s to come, but until then, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I’m running out of superlatives for Golden Tate. If there’s a more impressive football player in college football, I haven’t seen him. Last night, Tate almost single-handedly brought the Irish back from the dead, and his punt return for a touchdown fulfilled the special teams compulsories of his Heisman worthy campaign.
Tate and Michael Floyd both went over 100 yards receiving, and while it might be a hollow comparison with the season going down the drain, the Irish have the collegiate version of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin starting at wide receiver, and if Tate sticks around, will return the dynamic duo next season as well.
While the defense played decent in the first half, they were still plagued by the explosive play, as Jonathan Baldwin’s 36-yard touchdown catch showed. And when the Irish defense needed to make plays in the second half, they simply couldn’t do it. Whether it was poor tackling, bad ball skills, or a nonexistent pass rush, the Irish defense came up empty when it mattered the most.
The Irish didn’t get a single sack on Bill Stull Saturday night, and only managed four quarterback hurries. Even worse was the tackling by the Irish defense on backup running back Ray Graham’s 53-yard touchdown run, where Graham made practically half the defense miss, including safety Sergio Brown twice. With the team desperately in need of the defense to step up in the second half, the Irish gave up 10 third quarter points, putting the offense into a hole they couldn’t get out of.
To put into perspective how woeful the Notre Dame punting game has been, I took a look at the high school alma maters of Eric Maust and Ben Turk, figuring that even their high school punters were doing better at their jobs than the two Notre Dame scholarship punters.
At Blessed Trinity Catholic High School in Roswell, Georgia, where Maust was a standout baseball and football player, Riley Lyons averaged 36 yards a punt last season, with a long of 49 yards. At St. Thomas Aquinas, where Ben Turk punted last year, the Raiders are averaging over 39 yards a punt this season.
Meanwhile, the Irish punters have kicked 37 times for an average of 35.4 yards on the season, getting out-kicked by their high school equivalents. Even more detrimental, in Notre Dame’s four losses the Irish have been forced to punt 14 times and are only averaging 30 yards a kick. When you’re playing good teams, you can’t consistently put yourself in the hole in the field position battle, and that’s exactly what Notre Dame has done.
On Saturday, Notre Dame’s was forced to start, on average, at their own 21-yard line. Pitt’s average start was at the 30, and that’s not including Clausen’s interception or “fumble” that would skew this stat even more in Pitt’s favor. Notre Dame’s mediocre punting game has been just as detrimental to winning as the much maligned defense.