Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Maize n Brew Third Degree With House Rock Built and Rakes of Mallow

You may not have realized this, but apparently Michigan and Notre Dame play one another this weekend. I know, I know. You were competely caught up in Grey's Anatomy and just missed it. Well just to catch you up to date, the internets have begun to look like Belfast, circa 1964.

The calm before the storm
Michigan and Notre Dame supporters stand ready to do battle

Both sides have attempted to set the other side on fire in a war of words. Sheriff Murdered. Innocent women and children blown to bits? We must protect our phoney-baloney jobs gentlemen! Harumph, Harumph, Harumph!

Gentlemen, please! Rest your sphincters!

Earlier this week, in an attempt to pre-emptively stop the madness, I emailed with Brian of The House Rock Built and CW at Rakes of Mallow regarding the upcoming Michigan Notre Dame game. Like Nixon going to China or Rodney King asking if we could all get a long, we bridged that gap that separates our cultures and sat down to an honest discussion of Notre Dame Football.

Can't We All Just Talk About Football?

I sent over a couple of tough questions, mixed in some softballs, and a baltant dig at a certain wide receiver. I had the chance to preview the Irish earlier this year, so I let them fill in the gaps. My thanks to the guys for having a sense of humor and taking the time to answer these questions.

Enough of the pleasantries. So, no more Mr. Nice-Guy-Let's-All-Get-Along. I'm turning Sipowicz on your ass. Time to slam the interrogation room door, smash our fists on the table and demand some god-damn answers!

I said asnwer the #%@*ing questions, punk!

Maize n Brew - The Irish seem to have shown us two different teams the last two games. They struggled to beat a tough but offensively challenged GT squad, but pummeled a simply challenged PSU team. Which ND team is the real ND? Is it a composite of both games or is it something we haven't seen yet?

House Rock Built - It all kind of depends on what you throw at the Irish. When Notre Dame faces a team with a formidable front seven and a gambling, blitzing defense that causes trouble in the backfield, the offense is more of a slow-paced, ball-control game that will try to patiently take what they can get and limit their mistakes. As a result, you see lower-scoring affairs like the Tech game and Michigan 05.

On the other hand, when a defense is visibly vulnerable by lack of talent or by slow-witted defensive schemes, the Irish are able to quickly and painfully eviscerate them in four-hour bukkake-fests, like the game last week. This is a very potent, talented, and intelligently-run offense, but it's not bulletproof.

The Irish are always able to move the ball, the key for defenses is to try to limit the scoring that arises from it. In Atlanta, the Irish put up pretty big yardage numbers, it's just that Tech was able to stiffen in the red zone and restrict the scoring. Take away the stiff defense in opponent's territory and some field goal kicking gaffes and that game is another laugher.

Rakes of Mallow - Surprisingly, the one constant between the two games has been the great play of the defense. Is that great play maybe helped out by two subpar quarterbackers? Perhaps, but I'd like to think we're doing something right when the opponent has the ball. The offense was just under constant duress down in Atlanta, working out the kinks while GT pummeled them with blitzes, so I'm hoping the offensive Irish you see Saturday lean more towards the group that sliced and diced PSU. Bring the pressure, and you might get the Week One version.

Maize n Brew - One thing that has stood out to outside observers of the Irish is their lack of a running game. 138 net rushing yards against GT (164 gained) and 110 net rushing yards against PSU (145 gained). Walker has not looked particularly impressive. Is this all part of the Robot Genius' plan or are you concerned? Does this offense need a 100 yard rusher to be successful against better teams?

House Rock Built - One thing that Charlie Weis has always stressed in his press conferences is that when he tabulates the offense's production, he counts yardage from designed screen passes as rushing yards. Sure the Irish haven't been dominant between the tackles, but when you add in the yardage on quick wide receiver flips (there are about half a dozen or so a game) or designed screens to Darius Walker to beat a blitz, the numbers are quite a bit more respectable.

Short answer, then, I don't think having somebody run for 100 yards is a strict indicator of success, nor is it even an indication of success in a rushing game. A big part of Weis' offensive supergeniosity is getting production out of the running game even if there's not much success doing it the old fashioned “cloud of dust” way.

Forget Quinn. This guy is the key

Rakes of Mallow - Darius really doesn't get enough credit for the work he does. Against Penn State, the game plan was to chip away at them considering how great their linebackers were and our assumption we simply could not run on them. Against Ohio State, the best defense ND has faced under Weis, D-Walk ran for 99 yards and had another few dozen receiving. Against Michigan, we're going to have to run some to slow down the pass rush, and I have little doubt that we will. Michigan was D-Walk's first game as a freshman, and he loves him some Wolverines.

Maize n Brew - Jeff Samarbghmnqprsxxzikawicka's nose, how big is it in real life? Could you land a C-130 or a C-5 Galaxy on it?

House Rock Built - Having never seen it up close in person, I'm not really an authority on the subject. He's a big guy, and all of his features are fairly strangely proportioned. Fact of the matter is, he's getting more ass tonight than every college football blogger will in their lifetime, so frankly I don't think it really matters to anyone.

MnB - I'll put you down for the C-130 then. Jeff Samardjwicka walks into a bar, bartender says "Hey! Why the long face?" Thank you. I'll be here all week. However, speaking for the married college football bloggers union, we do all right for ourselves thank you very much.

Jeff Samardzija's nose seen here delivering aid to Ghana

Rakes of Mallow - The Shark does have a rather large nose, but without getting into details, he does pretty well for himself despite it, if you know what I mean.

MnB - Just for the record, Chad Henne has a misshaped head. He looks like Jaws from the early Bond films.

Blue 48! Blue 48! Hut! Hut!

Maize n Brew - One of my biggest criticisms of the Irish going into the season was their perceived lack of a secondary. Through two games is it safe to say they haven't been tested yet? What do you make of the Irish defensive backfield? Are they better, worse or about the same as last year?

House Rock Built - A lot of pundits and media what-have-you's loved the bang the drum that there's no speed or athleticism in the Irish secondary, but I never really saw it that way. Everyone back there last year could run a 40 just as fast as the best defensive backs in the nation, the problem was much more with scheme and communication. I don't care how fast you run, if you don't understand where you should be or have the confidence to fly to a spot, receivers are going to score touchdowns all over you.

The entire secondary has multiple years of starting experience, and it is a very veteran group, perhaps one of the more experienced secondaries in the country. So far, the payoff has been pretty good. By and large, there weren't too many desperately out-of-position DB's, and our safety tandem of Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe are about the hardest-hitting sons of bitches I've seen in a while. If people are where they're supposed to be and the big hitters are laying the lumber, this unit should be able to hang with the best.

That being said, they really haven't faced a true test yet. Reggie Ball is a yuckster with no accuracy and Morelli looked lost and confused out there. While Henne is a more experienced and poised vet, I don't think this game is going to be won or lost on the Michigan passing game. It might not be until next week when the Irish face a “spread” offense that I'll be able to give you a definitive grade.

Rakes of Mallow - I'd have to say we're better, or at least appear to be via the smoke and mirrors thrown out so far. Calvin shook loose a few times, and so did some of those awesome Penn State receivers, but I'm not sure how many teams in the country can cover Calvin Johnson. The safety play has been fantastic, as Zibby is hitting everything that moves and the twenty-pounds slimmer Chinedum Ndukwe is all over the field. I realize Manningham is very good and Breaston might stop being a disappointment any second, but we should - ~should~ - be able to roll with the Wolverine receiving corps.

Maize n Brew - Who the hell is John Carlson? The Irish were supposed to have graduated their pass catching TE. How has he emerged from the woodwork?

House Rock Built - Kind of the question I've been asking myself as well. Carlson is a senior who has always been known to have good hands, although you don't really get to show it off as a second TE (he did haul in a long TD pass against Purdue last year, but who didn't?) He's not half the blocker Fasano was, so he's not a complete clone of him, but his ability to get downfield and catch anything that's thrown to him is very heartening. Tight Ends are a big part of Weis' gameplan, so having a true pass-catcher is a huge gift. We should be stacked in this department for a long time to come, locking up the #1 tight end recruits in both the class of 2006 and the class of 2007.

Rakes of Mallow - Carlson was a solid back-up last year, and we knew going into this year he would most likely step into Fasano's role in the offense. We've been pleasantly surprised at just how well he's done so. His blocking hasn't been the best, but he serves the role of third receiver at times, and does it really well. Look for another big game from him as your Maize and Blue secondary focuses on Rhema and the Shark.

Maize n Brew - During the first two games the Irish have only managed to get to the opposing quarterback three times. Even though the Irish dominated the PSU game they only got to Morelli twice. What's your take on the Irish pass rush?

House Rock Built - While sacks are nice, getting pressure on and disrupting the play is really the key of a pass rush, even if you don't get to knock out the QB's fillings. So far, I've been pleased by how quickly the big uglies have been able to get in there, and I've seen a lot fewer plays this year where the quarterback can sit all day and make reads on all his targets. As kind of a side note, Victor Abiamiri would have had five sacks against PSU if the refs didn't completely ignore all forms of holding against him. Watch that game again and you'll see there is clearly a double standard for what constitutes holding against normal people and against 95. Twice I saw the tackle grab him from behind on his shoulder pads and drive him to the ground without a flag flying.

Abriamiri preparing to deliver the "death stomp"

Rakes of Mallow - In the first game, I don't think we were trying to get to Reggie Ball, only to contain him. Against Morelli, I'd like to think we were just held a lot, but the truth of the matter just might be that our pass rush really isn't that great. Victor Abiamiri will rain pain and destruction on one side of the line, but I'm unsure if you'll get any push from the other. If ND can stop the run or get ahead and Henne starts passing, the game may turn here.

MnB - Reuben Riley, I hope you're reading this.

Maize n Brew - The rush defense didn't look good against PSU (at least in my eyes), giving up 192 yards gained. PSU's starting tailback didn't lose a yard all day, and he averaged 6.2 yards per carry. Even more troubling, PSU was breaking in 4 new offensive line starters. How do you think the Irish run defense will hold up against the better rushing attacks they face (UM/MSU/Navy/USC)? Who's the anchor of the run defense?

House Rock Built - Sadly, it seems like the secondary is the anchor of our run defense, as more times than not it's a safety or a nickelback that ends up making a tackle. Realistically, I don't think a dominant run defense is going to develop, simply because of our undersized linebackers and lack of a giant man-mountain defensive tackle who can plug up holes. The positive spin is that nobody has really busted out a huge run, as the second layer of defense has been good about wrapping up the runner. If we can limit big running plays, then I like our chances of forcing teams to sustain longer drives that are more prone to shutting down due to penalties or the stray tackle for loss.

Rakes of Mallow - You're right in saying the rush defense has been pretty bad- something around 4.5 yards allowed per carry – but as we're establishing new linebackers, this is to be expected. Maurice Crum, Jr. and Travis Thomas were all over the field as ND relied on more of a nickel package against the Nittany Lions. Against Michigan, I doubt we can do that. The anchor of the running game? I'll cheat and go with the anchor of our defense, the safeties. Tommy Z and Chinedum are great in run support, and since we're playing a lot of nickel, their presence is key. Obviously, you don't want them making too many tackles eight, ten, twelve yards downfield, but putting them up in the box if an effective countermeasure.

MnB - I was impressed by Mo Crum's play on Saturday. In my opinion he'll have to be the lynchpin in that LB corps if the ND defense will hold up against the run. I know the safeties are excellent run stoppers, but if they're making most of the tackles on Michigan's running backs it's not a good sign for the Irish.

Maize n Brew - Quinn looked human against GT and excellent against PSU. GT got after him and created some problems. PSU tried to, with lesser success. Why the big swing in performance? Was GT that good, PSU that bad, or did Brady simply work out some kinks?

House Rock Built - It's simple, actually. If you go after Brady with as much pressure as humanly posssible, there's a chance you'll get some shots him and knock him off of his game. If you sit back with eight guys in coverage and let him size up the defense for as long as he wants, you're going to be staring down a six touchdown deficit faster than you can say “Brock Spack”. Brady is a great quarterback, and the only way to shut him down is to get into his face and terrorize him. It might not work all the time, but it's better than the guaranteed failure of sitting back and letting him kill you.

Rakes of Mallow - I think GT will turn out to have a really good year this year – maybe eight wins! – and Penn State is pretty bad, but I think it was Brady working out some offseason kinks. Eight months of being told you're the best would have a negative effect on anybody's crispness, and Brady is no exception. Not that he was cocky in the game, but perhaps a little unprepared. Charlie fixed that, and despite some rough throws early against PSU, the hurry-up was ran beautifully. If Michigan brings a lot of pressure, you might have more of the GT Brady, but I think he's slipping into his comfort zone.

Maize n Brew - Rhema McKnight = Hoss (this means he's good - ed.). Samarjwickawickawicka hasn't started all that strong (in comparison to last year - ed). How big a deal were Stovall and Fasano's departures to this offense? Can this offense continue on without skipping a beat or do you see things that could become problems?

House Rock Built - Really, I don't see a huge dropoff in receiving talent this year. McKnight has pretty much slid into the role left vacant by Stovall, and while they're very different in terms of style, they both have great hands and have all the physical ability they need to exploit holes caused by double and triple-teams on the Shark. The one concern I have is the lack of a solid third receiver, a spot vacated by the graduation of the very unappreciated Matt Shelton. Believe it or not, the biggest loss in the receiving corps is somebody I'll bet you've never heard of.

Well, maybe you have heard of him. Shelton's career highlight was when he caught that heroic long-bomb touchdown against Michigan in 2004.

Rakes of Mallow -

MnB - Upon futher recollection of that passing play (above), the corner covering McKnight fell down/got burned which is why McKnight was so open. The PSU defense was double covering Samarajwhateverhisnameis, but they weren't in triple coverage. Not even Herrmann was that dumb. Wellll.....

Maize n Brew - Give me your prediction for Saturday.

House Rock Built - Pain.

Rakes of Mallow - Michigan runs the hell out of the ball, limits the ND possessions and keeps it close until the obligatory Carr/Henne brainfart, probably a pick returned for a touchdown by Zibby. I'll go with 31-20 Irish, although I'm so terrified of this game karmically derailing our season don't take this as a vote of confidence.

MnB - Alcohol. Lots and Lots of it.


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