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Our high preseason ranking this year was a farce fueled by media stupidity that generally looks at where you finished the year before, your quarterback, wide receivers and running back then thinks about what will sell the most magazines and get the most hits. Most who follow Notre Dame closely expected a marginal BCS bowl at best -- we have no depth of talent and no game changers. Before the season began Mike Frank of Irisheyes (who's been doing a spectacular job covering recruiting and the Army All-American Bowl) told a Philadelphia audience dreaming of national championships the sobering news: this was probably a two-loss team at best with dangerously thin talent.

Smithwick on Rock's House looked at our recruiting rankings, and the rankings of our opponents for the Soph-Senior classes:

1-LSU: 3-year AVG(2003-2005):Rivals-8.3, Scout-7.7
2-Michigan: 3-year AVG: Rivals-9.3 , Scout-5
3-ND: 3-year Avg(2003-2005)- Rivals-28, Scout-20.7
4-Penn State: 3-year AVG: Rivals- 44 (19.5 w/o 2003), Scout- 30
5-Illinois: 3-year AVG: Rivals- 43.6, Scout- 40

We won't even go near USC.

Notre Dame averaged right around 25th in the country for its top three classes on the field -- and note that almost no one is left from the 2004 class that was ranked even higher than it should have been. The Junior and Sophomore classes (as noted ad nauseum) are black holes of talent.

Notre Dame's played above it's talent level the last two years. 10-3 may not be good enough, but at this point, it should be. Notre Dame got into a bowl over its head based on reputation and fan base and got beat bad by possibly the most talented team outside of South Central or Columbus. ND is a good team that could have beaten almost any team out of the top five, but it's just not a great team. As most will tell you, LSU was the most talented team in the SEC this year.

But what about Boise State and Rutgers -- they don't have the players ND does?

This argument is a canard. First, Boise State would not be undefeated with Notre Dame's schedule. Second, there are teams that catch lightning in a bottle every year. Sometimes, unexpectantly, team's mesh.

If a coach can sustain it every year against a top schedule, then talk to me. Otherwise this is a rather useless argument -- not to take away from the excellent coaching jobs at both schools.

Six losses in two years is at the high end of the expectation curve, IMO. We beat teams with equal or less talent (and depth of talent) and lost to teams with substantially better talent. That's good coaching that righted the ship that was sailing off the edge. As I wrote previously, we were on the verge of a virtual death penalty after years of poor and unevenly poor recruiting. When Urban Meyer (I know, I know) said he could win quicker at Florida, this is what he was talking about.

Dan Wetzel summed it up this way:

If Notre Dame (10-3) ever is going to return to the national elite, ever going to truly compete for that national championship that Weis wants to win yesterday, it isn't going to hinge on whether the big guy can coach.


Oh, he can coach. The first half when he took a decidedly average football team and kept it in the game proved that. It might be fun for all the Irish haters to watch him pace around as his defense gets scorched deep again, but the reality remains that the Irish are an exceptionally well-coached team.

They just aren't a very talented one.

The Irish don't have enough good players to hang with anyone that does.
Only bringing in the kind of elite athletes, both in quality and quantity, who can change that will determine whether Notre Dame ever gets back to the pinnacle of college football. Weis inherited a program that had hit a tailspin in recruiting
that still affects everything. He never publicly would blame Tyrone Willingham,
but the reality is the former coach's final three recruiting classes delivered
just a single five-star recruit (defensive end Victor Abiamiri), according to
Rivals.com. Then Weis' first class, when he was still offensive coordinator of
the
New England Patriots and couldn't devote to the task full time, was average at best and landed no elite prospects.

Those are the program's sophomores, juniors, seniors and fifth-year
players. Those guys are the core of the team, the recruits that are good enough
to beat Penn State and Georgia Tech but simply can't compete with Ohio State,
Michigan, Southern California and LSU.

Weis has, in essense, stopped the bleeding of five loss and losing seasons and more importantly worked his ass off to beat out teams like USC and Florida for the nation's top recruits. And they're coming:

The country's top quarterback, two top five receivers, the top tight end and one of the top speed backs in the country are coming to Notre Dame this year via the college draft known as recruiting. On defense Justin Trattou, Gary Gray, Ian Williams, Kerry Neal and Harrison Smith are on board... all four star or higher prospects. Notre Dame still has a shot at the #1 LB in the country in Chris Donald, top five DE Ben Martin and Louisiana DT Will Blackwell.

No matter what happens, this will be Notre Dame's second straight top ten recruiting class, which would make it almost 20 places higher, on average, than what is currently on the field.

And most importantly, Weis will finally have his guys with his attitude -- the residue of the Willingham years affected more than just the talent base. The sting of the bowl loss will soon fade toward optimism based in reality and not hopeful expectation. But while we're talking expectation, expect a much nastier and more talented football team to come out of South Bend despite lower media expectations. Notre Dame will finish in the top 5 in 08 and surprise most of you with a top 15 finish next year.

~ The Rock

P.S. As JVan noted, LSU adjusted to take away the outside runs that were so effective in the first half.

19:31 - 08:43

Notre Dame played well in the first half on offense, controlling the ball by an almost 2-1 margin, piling up 262 yards and putting up 14 points despite many mistakes -- but when LSU scored late in the first half, I knew this game was over. It was OSU -- it was Michigan -- it was USC -- all over again. We can't stop good teams right now and might not be able to until 2008.

Weis seemed to have the perfect run-pass mix in first half with Darius Walker gutting the Tigers for 125 yards on the ground. Notre Dame only stopped itself with execution and a bad fake punt call in the first half.

Which, I somewhat get... I think.

Weis thought Notre Dame had to win the first quarter to win this game and keep the ball away from the LSU offense and by nature he errs on the side of aggressiveness. Whether it was called or audibled, it was ugly. On the other hand, odds are LSU would have driven down the field for a score anyway after a punt and the fake gave us a chance to control the early momentum.

It was bad.

That didn't cost Notre Dame the game though. And Samardzija's penalty was the real killer of that drive. Cheap though it was, Notre Dame can't afford those mistakes.

Now a moment on the wide receivers. As much progress as Stovall and Sam made last season, Samardzija and McKnight just didn't seem as passionate this year. Rhema was complaining to the refs far too much and dropping passes. Samardzija literally had a touchdown bounce off of his helmet after a short pushing match and, as noted, killed a drive by tossing the ball at his man. I wrote after the Georgia Tech game that both players seemed to be coasting this year and that was the main difference, IMO, between last year's offense and this year's offense. We missed Stovall greatly and Samardzija was just not the same receiver. More on that and how it's affected by the talent dearth below.

Back to the game.

There was just no stopping LSU's offense and while Russell was good, he all he had to do was get the ball in the general vicinity of his receivers, because they were wide open. Notre Dame never jammed their receivers and Notre Dame's defensive line could not control the line of scrimmage. This exacerbated our mismatches in both the secondary and the linebacking corps. The Irish are not a very big team and the physical mismatch against LSU was obvious. OSU exposed the flaws in the Irish defense and every team that has beaten ND since has followed the same playbook. Am I the only one who saw Russell check to a running play again and again? Didn't someone in the booth see this?

Now some have said the Irish gave up on the run too soon in the second half and those of you who read this column know that I think we need to improve our run-pass mix. But the second half was just a different ball-game than the first half. We used the pass to set up the runs in the first half -- not the other way around.

Our first drive of the second half wasn't any different than that of the first half except for execution. Chicken Egg. We tried to do it in the second half... but our run plays weren't getting yards an our pass plays were poorly executed. IF we had executed on some of the passing plays you likely would have seen just as many running plays (ratio wise) in the second half. LSU killed us on TOP in the second half. Notre Dame held the ball for under four minutes in the third quarter and, after our first drive, we didn't get the ball back until three minutes left in the third.

We completely controlled TOP in the first half -- which allowed for the mix.

LSU ate up the first 5.5 minutes of the half on their first drive.

We went pass-pass-run-pass.

Both passes worked and ND has a second and three, but LSU brought up seven in the box (they'd been playing four at times in the first half) and stuffed Walker. Brady then tried Samardzija on a slant, but the coverage was too tight and the pass was a tick behind. This was a well-called series, IMO. Though Weis could have gone back to the run on third down.

LSU controlled the clock for the next four minutes.

When ND got the ball back with 3:48 in the quarter, Brady was flushed for an incomplete on the first play. Samardzija gained six back on the next. Then Darius was stuffed on the 3rd down draw. This is the series that Weis could have mixed in the run better by running on first or second down.

Here's a drive summary of the third quarter:

LSU    15:00 FIELD GOAL    13-73   5:26

ND 09:34 Punt 4-20 1:49

N 1-10 N22 Quinn, Brady sideline pass complete to Carlson, John for 13 yards to the
ND35, 1ST DOWN ND (Craig Steltz).
N 1-10 N35 Quinn, Brady screen pass complete to SAMARDZIJA,Jeff for 7 yards to the
ND42, out-of-bounds (Daniel Francis;LaRon Landry).
N 2-3 N42 Walker, Darius rush over left end for no gain to the ND42 (Glenn Dorsey).
N 3-3 N42 Quinn, Brady slant pass incomplete to SAMARDZIJA,Jeff (Jonathan Zenon).

LSU 07:45 FIELD GOAL 9-59 3:57
ND 03:48 Punt 3-6 1:52
N 1-10 N21 Quinn, Brady pass incomplete.
N 2-10 N21 [SHOT], Quinn, Brady middle pass complete to SAMARDZIJA,Jeff for 6 yards to
the ND27 (Jessie Daniels;Daniel Francis).
N 3-4 N27 Walker, Darius rush draw play for no gain to the ND27 (Marlon Favorite).
LSU 01:56 TOUCHDOWN 5-73 1:38
ND 00:18 Interception 1-20 0:43
And the fourth:
LSU     14:35 Interception   6-16   1:53
ND 12:42 Punt 3-2 1:04
LSU 11:38 TOUCHDOWN 9-76 4:11
ND 07:27 Punt 3-1 1:53
LSU 05:34 Punt 5-21 4:12
ND 01:22 End of half 2-3 1:22
If there was a failure to run more in the second half it came on the second series of the third quarter when time had ticked down to under four minutes in the quarter. After that, Notre Dame was in Michigan State mode. But the bottom line here is that the Irish just didn't have many opportunities in the third quarter (two) and if the pass plays had worked you would have likely seen more complementary running. Got to hand it to the OL, which did some excellent blocking in the first half. There's hope.

Now about that talent gap.

It hurts in a couple of ways. LSU has three backs that could start over Darius Walker or at the very least split time. While Walker is very good, a Julius Jones could have broken a couple of his runs last night for touchdowns. That's where having difference makers matters. A Ted Ginn allows you room for error, because they can erase errors in one play.

LSU's line's are deep and big. Notre Dame's is talented, but undersized and woefully thin. LSU simply has more options and more to play with and while their first teams are better, more importantly, so are their second teams.

Notre Dame has to play every big game on the margin. That's why this year's recruiting class is critical. Notre Dame needs to put together back-to-back top classes. The LSU senior and Junior classes that played Notre Dame last night were both ranked second in the country. USC's were ranked first in the country both years. Notre Dame's seniors were ranked fifth, but the junior class was not ranked and the sophomore class was worse.

That's where the talent gap lies. Most top recruits don't live up to their billing, so you need to stockpile them. A good chunk of Notre Dame's starters would not be starting if ND had landed its top targets in the Junior and Sophomore classes.

You need depth of talent, so the best can rise up.

For example, if Rhema had a Greg Little or Duval Kamara behind him this year he would have either stepped it up or stepped it out. Nedu would not be starting at safety. Neither would certain OL. But right now, ND has no choice and no choices.

We have two offensive linemen over two years. We've recruited one real DT in three years. We had a running back starting at linebacker. Our wide receivers went three deep. Our secondary consists of three converted wide receivers and one former quarterback. You don't win National Championships with that kind of talent depth, you just don't. Even top teams have depth problems, uncertain areas and position switches, but Notre Dame just has too many right now and the direct cause is poor recruiting in the Junior and Sophomore classes. We're lucky to be 10-3 this year.

This year's Notre Dame team had a shiny veneer, but the program has been rotting at the foundation for two years and that gets exposed when ND plays teams of LSU's and USC's caliber.

So yeah, there's a talent gap. There's also a defensive coaching gap. I'm very confident that the first is changing rapidly. Will the second?

~ The Rock

P.S. 19:31 - 08:43 is Notre Dame's time of possession in the first and second halves.