DAZED AND CONFUSEDposted by John Vannie
Notre Dame opened the 2007 season with the most inept display of offensive football in the Charlie Weis era. As 80,000 fans withered under the relentless Indiana sun, the Irish experienced their own four hour meltdown against Georgia Tech. The game was not as close as the 33-3 final score would indicate, and Notre Dame has much work to do just to reach a competitive level at Penn State next week.
The Georgia Tech defense overwhelmed and exposed the young Irish offensive line, recording nine sacks, forcing two turnovers and limiting the hosts to negative rushing yardage. Meanwhile, Tashard Choice ran for nearly 200 yards as the Yellow Jackets shredded the gritty but out manned Irish defense.
Weis’ game plan unraveled from the start as quarterback Demetrius Jones was ineffective in directing a spread offense designed to utilize his running ability and showcase freshman tailback Armando Allen. While Allen flashed the speed and moves that were advertised by Weis in the days leading up to the game, Jones was ill-prepared for Tech’s defensive pressure. Once the Irish fell behind by more than one score, Weis called upon Evan Sharpley to lead a more conventional passing offense in order to get back in the game.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Sharpley had only limited success in this scheme. Under the direction of Coordinator Jon Tenuta, Georgia Tech’s blitz-happy swarm crushed any momentum created by the Irish offense. Tenuta was unfazed by Notre Dame’s mid-game strategy shift, and ultimately made Weis’ varied collection of personnel packages look like so much silliness. Weis did not move the pocket for his quarterbacks by rolling them out to avoid pressure, nor did the Irish execute a single screen pass.
Meanwhile, Corwin Brown’s debut on defense for the Irish was not a fair fight. Due to the inability of the offense to move the ball, two early turnovers by Jones and several unexpected poor punts by Geoff Price, the defense did well to hold Tech to three field goals in the first 20 minutes. The Jackets were obviously controlling the line of scrimmage, however, and Choice eventually broke through for a few long runs and a touchdown before halftime.
Notre Dame contributed to its own demise after the defense held the Jackets on third down just inside Irish territory. Justin Brown was called for a flagrant late hit to the head of a Georgia Tech lineman after the whistle had blown, and he was summarily ejected from the contest. Tech retained possession after the 15-yard penalty and scored its first touchdown later in that same drive for a 16-0 halftime advantage.
Choice was successful in part because Notre Dame’s outside linebackers could not hold the edge on sweeps and the pursuit was either too slow or unable to get off blocks. The secondary played reasonably well, although Tech’s Taylor Bennett spared Notre Dame further embarrassment when he overthrew a pass to a wide open receiver on a post pattern early in the third period.
The Irish squandered their best chance to score a touchdown in the third quarter when Weis inexplicably called a running play to the left side on a third and one inside the Yellow Jacket five yard line. As had been the case on similar left-side runs during the same drive and throughout the day, Tech stuffed the play for a loss. Brandon Walker then converted a 24-yard field goal for the lone Irish points of the day. The only other scoring chance by the Irish was an overthrown deep ball by Sharpley to David Grimes after Grimes had broken clear of the defense.
All three Irish quarterbacks saw action in this game, and it will be interesting to see who receives the majority of the snaps in practice this week. Jimmy Clausen was the most effective of the group, although he did not play until long after the issue had been decided. One thing seems certain: the Weis experiment with Jones running a form of spread option is not a viable alternative. Sharpley appears to be no more than a serviceable backup quarterback, and Clausen is clearly the future as soon as his tender elbow can handle the workload.
A downside of a return to a pro style offense is the potential reduction of touches for Allen. The speedster did not play from scrimmage after Sharpley took over, presumably because he has not mastered the pass protection schemes. Regardless, Weis needs to get him in the lineup this weekend and beyond as he is clearly the team’s best running threat.
Other bright spots for Notre Dame were the play of tight end John Carlson and receiver Robbie Parris on offense. James Aldridge also ran well when given an opportunity. Free safety David Bruton made a positive impression in his starting debut on defense. These few exceptions could not overshadow the horrible physical and mental performance by the offensive line, and particularly left tackle Paul Duncan, who was taken to the woodshed by Tech’s Darrell Robertson. The Irish staff has much work to do to clean up this mess, or they will quickly face similar criticisms regarding their own competence.
Answers to pre-game questions:
- Which offensive line can sustain an effective ground attack? - Georgia Tech
- Which quarterback will be more accurate and make fewer mistakes? - Bennett
- Will Notre Dame be able to handle the blitz? - No
- Will the Irish generate any pressure on Bennett? – Some early success, but the Jackets were rarely forced into passing situations after the first period.
- Which secondary will employ tight coverage without giving up the big play? - Both, thanks to overthrown passes by each team.
- Can Notre Dame generate a scoring play on special teams? - No, although Allen came close to breaking a couple of returns.
- Field goal conversion: - Travis Best was outstanding for Georgia Tech
Notre Dame fans are now forced to adjust expectations for this young team. The goal remains steady improvement as the season progresses, but the level of concern has been reduced to the simple ability to make a first down as opposed to the likelihood of victory against a quality opponent. Weis himself needs to address his own leadership shortcomings, as he is being fed a steady diet of humble pie by college coaches against whom he initially claimed a strategic advantage. That myth was utterly destroyed under the glare of the hot sun in a cloudless sky on Saturday.