11.1 – Hike Up Your Kilt

I thought we were past the “Hold Me I’m Irish” phase? Guess not. In these down weeks of news it seems many Irish fans have taken to running from an imaginary falling sky. I’ve been trying to get a book proposal done, but I can’t take it anymore.

1. Brady Quinn is having a hell of a year. It’s not his fault we started off with Georgia Tech, Penn State and Michigan. Hell, Troy Smith had his worst game of the year against Penn State and Brady Quinn rolled the Lions. If Quinn were on Ohio State, who do you think would start? In their two games against like opponents Quinn has dominated and that’s with no running game and a crappy offensive line. Quinn has been sacked 21 times this year. Smith? 8. Ohio State’s running game is 15th in the country. I can’t count how far down Notre Dame’s running is. Defenses? Uh. Let’s not go there. Brady Quinn has done it on his own with a constant rush in his face. The Heisman doesn’t go to the best team, it goes to the most outstanding player. Any idiot who says that Ohio State winning out locks up the Heisman doesn’t understand the award. If Quinn were on OSU, they’d still be undefeated. If Smith were on ND, we might have two more losses.

2. The only measure Notre Dame is not having a good season by is absurd media predictions. The same ones that ranked Notre Dame 45th in the country before last season. This was a two loss minimum three loss likely team from the get go. We don’t have one good recruiting class between our sophomore and junior classes COMBINED. It’s almost impossible to win a NC with a two year black hole in recruiting. Charlie Weis (17-4) has a better record at the same point in his career than did Tressell, Carroll, Stoops and Saban. If he hasn’t been winning by enough to stop your undies from riding up, you might remember that most teams who win championships have to pull a few out of an unnamed orifice. Yapping heads are actually using Notre Dame’s late season schedule against the Irish while giving them no credit for starting out with a strong schedule (ranked #1 for five weeks.) Meanwhile OSU opens with Northern Illinois and everybody fawns.

Oh yeah, 60 minutes cut out the part about Weis making sure all of his players are student-athletes and graduate. Guess that wasn’t newsworthy.

3. Finally, recruiting. Notre Dame will have a top 10 class this year. We’ll likely have a top 5. That’s all we need. There are seeming highs and lows in recruiting and most of them come from adults with jobs trying to interpret a 17 year old’s intention through the internet.

Which is absurd.

Remember, at this point in the game David Givens had eliminated Notre Dame. Many are upset and concocting rumors about Illinois, grades, Aurelious Benn and alleged payoffs. Two things on that. One, Benn has the grades from everything we’ve heard. Two, I don’t think anyone Notre Dame is recruiting is stupid enough to risk an NFL career for a few extra bucks in college. Zook is a nutjob who won’t be here in three years. Benn will make the best decision for him whatever that is. He’s a great kid by all accounts, with grades and a great future. Let it happen. Recruiting will go up and down on the surface until signing day, but you’ll never know exactly what people are thinking until it’s over. Having watched recruiting for some 20 years now I feel pretty confident on advising people not to read the tea leaves. You just don’t know and I’ve been reading all of these idiotic interpretations from fans who think they can solve a puzzle with .01% of the needed information. This staff can evaluate talent, works hard and most importantly, can develop talent. I’m not going to fret over any athlete, remember most of them, even the top rated ones, don’t pan out. It takes more than high school accolades to make an NFL prospect. That written, if you haven’t watched Clausen’s tape… you should.

I can’t believe anyone would feel anything but giddy about Notre Dame football right now. Imagine where we’d be in year five of Willingham? You want more perspective? Read Omahadomer’s take on where we are:

In one sense, the national media is absolutely correct when it says that Weis is winning with Willingham’s players. It’s one of those indisputably true but uncomfortable-sounding statements, like saying that all the cornerbacks in the NFL are black.

But let’s examine it seriously. The truth is that Weis has had very little chance to affect the personnel on this team. The class that straddled the two coaches was small and the one class he’s had a chance to recruit is big and talented. But they’re freshmen. He has played an unusual number of freshmen and we even have one starting on the OL, but all in all over 90% of the player minutes this year have gone to players who were Willingham or even Davie recruits.

Willingham, to be objective about it, was trying to build a team in the image of his successful Stanford teams. And while he has taken his fair share of well-deserved shots on this board (including several from me), he did build a couple of teams that were wildly successful by Stanford standards.

Willingham took Stanford to an 8-3 regular season and the Rose Bowl in 1999 and went 9-2 during the regular season in 2001. Since Pop Warner left Stanford the list of coaches who have gotten to 8 or more wins more than once at Stanford is pretty short: John Ralston (whose teams won back-to-back Rose Bowls behind Jim Plunkett in the early 1970’s), Bill Walsh (whose feat of winning back-to-back bowls in the late 1970’s was considered such an accomplishment that he was immediately hired by the 49er’s where he did OK), and Willingham.

So whatever else his limitations, Willingham enjoyed success by Stanford standards. How did he do it? Well, he did it with teams that had big-armed quarterbacks who could throw downfield, tall receivers with glue-like hands, smallish OL’s that were better at pass blocking, pass-catching TE’s, scat backs who were good at catching the ball and running delays and draws and enough defense to give up a bunch of yards but force teams to kick field goals and turn it over often enough that you could outscore them.

Does this remind you of any team that you’ve watched lately? Consider that Stanford’s 1999 team outscored the opposition 34.8 to 30.3. Stanford’s 2001 team outscored the opposition 35.2 to 28.3. Last year ND outscored the opposition 36.7 to 24.5. This year’s ND margin so far is 28.9 to 22.7 (and but for the new clock rules would probably be something like 31.1 to 24.5 figuring that scoring overall is down about 4 ppg).

The thing that Weis has done so brilliantly is to win 78.9% of his games after a decade stretch where ND won 60.1% (73-47 from 1995 through 2004) of its games. He has done a really good job of playing the cards he’s been dealt. They weren’t the worst cards in the world, they weren’t the best cards in the world surely, but he has pretty much played them just right.

But ND was not being configured to win a national championship especially against the level of competition we play. Winning an NC against our schedule probably requires a power running game and more defense.

That’s not to say that it’s absolutely impossible to win an NC with a flawed team. You just need a lot of breaks and for there not to be any truly great teams out there. Consider the two teams who have won NC’s lately in their coach’s second year. Oklahoma under Stoops caught a break in that their JUCO QB Heupel had the year of his life and OU managed to stumble by 3 late opponents beating Texas A&M 35-31, Oklahoma State 12-7 and KSU in the Big 12 championship game 27-24. Then OU got another break when the computers sent FSU instead of Miami to the NC game.

Ohio State was another flawed team that won it all by pulling a bunch of games out of its ear. OSU that year escaped Minter’s Cincy team 23-19, was in a fight with Northwestern before winning 27-16, snuck by Wisconsin 19-14, survived Penn State the next week 13-7, beat Purdue the next week 10-6 completing a 40-yard TD pass on 4th down on OSU’s final possession, struggled to beat Illinois the next week 23-16, got by Michigan 14-9 the next week and then would’ve lost the NC game to Miami but for a remarkable pass interference call in overtime that extended a game that appeared to be over.

Neither of these teams would have stood the remotest chance of beating teams like Miami in 2000 or USC in 2004. None. But everything fell in place for them and despite their limitations they won. And both Stoops and Tressel managed to follow coaches who had reputations as good recruiters but obvious limitations as coaches. But let’s not forget that those really dominant teams were the product of several years of building by coaches with an undeniable ability to identify, recruit and develop talent: Butch Davis at Miami and Pete Carroll (and Norm Chow) at USC.

Now, could ND be one of those blessed teams like OU or OSU? It could happen despite the loss to Michigan. Assume that ND runs the table eliminating USC from contention and that USC eliminates Cal from contention. The SEC teams wipe each other out and the conference champ emerges with 2 losses. Rutgers, Louisville and W.V. perform the Three Stooges routine where they knock each other out. And ND winds up ahead of Texas. In that case ND could play the winner of the OSU-Michigan game for all the marbles. And you know what? ND could win that game if the pieces fall into place. It’s not probable, but it’s possible.

More likely and still satisfying is that ND could play in a good bowl game and actually win it.

In one sense the jury is still out on Weis because we don’t know what the final product (the 2008 or 2009 team) will look like. I think it’s going to look good but it’ll look different with more defense and running.

But in the meantime let’s enjoy someone actually playing correctly the cards he’s been dealt.


~ The Rock

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