Holy shit…the college football season is half-over already?
Indeed! And Irish Shu is here with his mid-season review to look back at the first 6 games for his beloved Fighting Irish of Notre Dame as they enjoyed their bye week.
The short version? Well, they’re a step below what I expected. 4-2 is a game below what I predicted they’d have at the halfway mark and, honestly, I’m surprised it’s not any worse. Why? Well, the team has something in-common with how it played last year – the defense is carrying an under-performing O to the wins they have gotten thus far…but this years’ defense is not nearly as dominating as last years’ was. After the first 6 games last year, Manti Te’o and company had yielded only 52 points. Pretty damn impressive when one considers that 3 of the teams they beat were ranked in the top 25. This year? The Irish D have yielded 153 points after 6 games – 3 of the teams they played were ranked again – and they lost 2 of those. OUCH. The D lost only 4 starters from last year but Te’o, Zeke Motta and Kapron Lewis-Moore were HUGE losses, not only for how they performed statistically, but for their leadership. Clearly the Irish are missing that.
With that, let’s recap the first half game-by-game:
TEMPLE: Well, I expected a win and got one…not much more can be said. The Irish scored on their first 2 possessions – both TD passes to receiver Davaris Daniels - and then put it in cruise control against the outmatched and currently-winless Temple Owls to win 28-6. It was a game that had kind-of a “blah” feel to it that one gets when a team is keeping some plays and some effort in the back pocket. After the game, it was announced that Head Coach Brian Kelly had signed a new 5-year contract to stay with the Irish. Not too surprising considering the teams’ results from the previous year.
MICHIGAN: I predicted this as a loss and so it came to pass…still hated it, though. Michigan QB Devin Gardner donned jersey number 98 to honor long-ago Heisman winner Tom Harmon and tore through the Irish D for 460 yards including 82 rushing as Meat Chicken downed the Irish 41-30. Gardner connected with receiver Jeremy Gallon for 184 yards, 3 touchdowns and a career night, thus exposing the Irish D as, well, not what they were last year. Gardner did throw a pick-6 to Stephon Tuitt in what was his only huge error of the game, but in the end it didn’t matter. Since then, Meat Chicken has had milquetoast showings in the games that followed – after closer-than-expected wins over the likes of the Akron Zips and U Conn, the Wolverines finally did lose last weekend to Penn State in 4 overtimes. HA!
PURDUE: The Purdue Boilermakers have won only one game this year…you wouldn’t know it from how they played against the Irish that night. Notre Dame needed a bounce-back win and got it over the inspired Boilers 31-24. It took some late-game heroics in the form of 2 TD passes from Tommy Rees to Daniels and then a pick-6 from cornerback Bennett Jackson for the Irish to seal the deal. Rees looked as good as he ever has as he went 20 of 33 for 309 yards, 2 TD’s and no interceptions and made it 3 games in a row with over 300 yards passing…an effort that, sadly, would not repeat against the stronger defenses in the games that followed.
MICHIGAN STATE: An UGLY game in which defenses ruled…but the Irish prevailed in the end 17-13 over a Spartan team which hasn’t lost before or since…of course, Sparty still has yet to face the meat of their Big Ten schedule but it’s still a nice thought, nonetheless! The Irish mainly exploited 2 things in this win: an inexperienced quarterback in Cameron Cook who hadn’t faced the kind of defensive pressure the Irish would bring to him, and a sloppily over-aggressive Spartan defense that would be flagged 4 times for pass interference and once for defensive holding (I have to admit a couple of those were bullshit calls – but I’ll take em!). Between that and the Irish offense doing just enough, Coach Kelly got his 10th home win in a row.
OKLAHOMA…or as the Steve Martin character “Rupricht” from the movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" would say: “OKLAHOMA-OKLAHOMA-OKLAHOMA-OKLAHOMA!!!”:
Rees dropped back twice in the first 3 minutes of the game and said: “here Sooners! CATCH!...here Sooners! CATCH AGAIN!” Well, to be fair, those first 2 picks weren’t entirely on him. On the first one, a blocking assignment was missed and Rees was hit from behind as he threw the pick-6 and on the second one the ball hit TJ Jones’ arm but glanced off for the 2nd interception. Both picks, however, got the Irish in a 14-point hole that made them play catch up the rest of the game and led to the 35-21 loss to the Sooners. The loss cast a shadow over what was a career day for running back George Atkinson III who ran for 148 yards and a touchdown in the losing effort...he was about all the Irish had offensively that day. The Sooners, meanwhile, suffered their first loss last weekend – to a Texas team whose fans, up until today, had been calling for Coach Mack Brown’s head on a stick…and who knows? They still might.
ARIZONA STATE: For the second week in a row, Rees threw a pick 6…fortunately for him, so did ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly. The Sun Devils had 2 other turnovers that were the difference in the game and the Irish won what may have been their best-played game thus far this season 37-34. Rees had a decent night as he threw for 279 yards and 3 touchdowns. Another big difference in this one was that, in spite of yielding 34 points, the Irish D finally showed some domination with 6 QB sacks – 3 by linebacker Prince Shembo – and did a good job of keeping ASU’s powerful offense at bay by limiting their time of possession and bottling-up their running game…I can only hope their effort in this one represents a “turning of the corner”.
So with the first 6 games in the books, we look ahead to the last 6. The second-half opponents don’t appear to be quite the “gauntlet” the first 6 were, but there are a couple tough ones. Their next opponent in USC, even with Coach Lane Kiffin being fired recently, always comes at the Irish hard and I expect that BYU and Stanford will, too. Stanford was upset by Utah last weekend for their first loss, but that may end-up being their only loss this year if they use the wake-up call as motivation. I do think a 10-win season and BCS bowl spot is possible for the Irish, but not likely. I see at least one more loss in there before it’s all said and done, which means they’ll have to settle for a bowl bid a step down from a BCS…but as I always say, I’ll be elated if I turn out to be wrong about that!
My big concerns are in 2 areas. The first is at quarterback. Tommy Rees is, and has always been, good at times. That’s all. For his career, the senior has 508 completions in 837 attempts (just over 60% completion percentage) for 47 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. Not bad for a QB who cannot run…but that’s the problem; he cannot run and opposing defenses know that and plan accordingly. He’s done fairly-well against teams that box-up the running lanes and force him to throw for the most part, but has also made mistakes. I should point out, though, that it really isn’t Rees’ fault that last year’s starter in Everett Golson made poor choices to neglect his grades and get suspended from the team after all the plans and preparations went into him being the starter well-past Spring drills before he was kicked-out, but I really wish Andrew Hendrix (a better running QB than Rees) would get a better shot than he’s been allowed so far...with the season half-done I wonder if he ever will.
The other concern is with team health – the Irish already had to start the season without several key defensive players including starting outside linebacker Danny Spond (retired due to chronic migraines) and backup d-lineman Tony Springmann (knee injury during fall drills that ended his season). Now add to that: defensive end Sheldon Day missing several recent games with a high ankle sprain, their leading tackler in linebacker Jarrett Grace breaking his leg in the ASU game, backup receiver Daniel Smith also breaking his ankle in the same game, highly-touted frosh running back Greg Bryant having tendonitis in his knee (he likely won’t play again as the coaching staff has decided to seek a medical redshirt for him, instead) and a couple others, and you have injuries piling-up. Irish depth WILL be tested as the season continues.
One other bright spot does encourage me, though; that of true frosh linebacker Jaylon Smith.
I’m not saying this kid is going to be another Manti Te’o...that is possible...but he’s going to be damn good. He already has had some moments, particularly against ASU; he broke into the backfield and disrupted several plays in that game. Smith is very quick and very aggressive – he just needs to get some reads and assignments down with experience and he’s gonna be something!
We’ll see how the last 6 games play out! GO IRISH!!!