by John Vannie
Notre Dame opened its long anticipated 2008 football season with a sloppy 21-13 victory over San Diego State. The final outcome did not overshadow a disappointing performance by the Irish, who committed four turnovers and were on the brink of defeat before the Aztecs fumbled away a golden opportunity to put the game away.
Much has been said and written about Notre Dame’s return to respectability this season, but the first three quarters of this contest provided precious few reasons for Irish fans to have such expectations. There were some bright spots, however, and the outcome boiled down to outstanding individual plays by quarterback Jimmy Clausen and his receivers.
Clausen, who threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to pull the Irish from a 13-7 deficit, was the most improved Irish player on the field. His accuracy, arm strength and poise lifted his teammates when they needed it most. Sophomore receiver Golden Tate was also a major factor in this win as was veteran David Grimes. Freshman sensation Michael Floyd lived up to his advance billing with an acrobatic reception for the team’s first touchdown.
Another positive was the overall play of the kick coverage and return units. Armando Allen and Tate provided a spark in the return game, Sergio Brown blocked a punt, and crowd favorite Mike Anello was the star of the coverage units.
The offensive line protected the passer well against an Aztec defensive front that was decimated by injury coming into this contest. Unfortunately, the coaching staff abandoned the running game on Notre Dame’s third play from scrimmage, so all the pregame talk of pounding the ball was really more bluster from the head coach. The Irish finished with an embarrassing 105 yards rushing on 34 carries.
Defensively, the new look approach failed to put pressure on the quarterback as advertised. Aztec passer Ryan Lindley calmly dinked and dunked to open receivers in the short zones all day while his mates turned away Notre Dame’s blitzers with relative ease. The Irish defensive front was not really tested against the run because San Diego State made no attempt to establish it. Lindley threw the ball on 19 consecutive plays to open the game and 59 overall.
Notre Dame squandered two scoring chances in the first twenty minutes when Brandon Walker missed a 47-yard field goal attempt and Robert Hughes fumbled inside the Aztec 5. San Diego State opened the scoring later in the second quarter after a Clausen pass deflected off wide receiver Duval Kamara’s hands and was picked off. Lindley immediately hit Darren Mougey for 43 yards to the Irish one and snuck it in on the next play for a 7-0 lead at the 5:32 mark.
A great special teams effort by Brown gave the Irish an opportunity just before halftime. Brown partially blocked an SDSU punt and Notre Dame took over on the Aztec 21. Clausen hit Floyd on a perfectly executed corner route for the tying score.
It appeared that restless Irish fans would get some relief after intermission when Kerry Neal wrestled a screen pass away from SDSU tailback Brandon Sullivan to give Notre Dame the ball on the Aztec 17. Eschewing an opportunity to pound the ball and the opponent into submission, Notre Dame elected to throw the ball up for grabs on the very next play. Kamara failed to make a reasonable effort to catch it and the Aztecs came down with an easy interception. This prompted a chorus of boos from the stands that was obviously directed at the Irish coaches.
An energized Lindley quickly led his team down the field and hit Mougey again for the go-ahead score. A missed extra point left the score at 13-7 midway through the third period. The Irish had actually stopped the drive at one point by forcing a third down incompletion, but a defender jumped offside in punt formation and gave the Aztec possession new life.
San Diego State was driving again when the game rolled into the fourth quarter. Lindley continued to convert first downs and the Aztecs were able to mix in a few successful runs. When it appeared the visitors were about to go up 20-7, Irish safety David Bruton jarred the ball from Sullivan as he was stretching to put it over the goal line. Notre Dame survived a replay review and took over at its own 20.
Given new life, Clausen and Tate quickly went to work. Tate caught three passes during the ensuing drive, including a 38-yard touchdown strike to lead 14-13 with 9:43 left in the game. The Irish got the ball back after a three and out by the stunned Aztecs, and proceeded to put the game away. This final scoring drive was aided by third down pass interference and offside penalties, but by this point Notre Dame fans did not care how they accomplished the task. Clausen hit David Grimes with a well-thrown fade pass covering six yards and provide the final 21-13 margin.
There were several question marks for the 2008 Irish coming into this game, and some of the answers provided on Saturday were clearly unsatisfactory or at best incomplete. At this stage of his development, Clausen is becoming the quarterback most thought he would. The most disturbing aspect of the offense for Irish fans is an undue reliance on the passing game and a lack of commitment to the run. This failure rests entirely with the coaching staff, and their jobs would be in grave danger today had Sullivan advanced the ball a few more inches before Bruton jarred it loose.
Here’s a brief recap of the questions we asked in our preview.
Will the Irish be able to run the ball at will given their huge size advantage up front?
– Not at all. SDSU changed up its alignment to protect a patchwork defensive line, and this confounded Notre Dame and its highly paid coaching brain trust.
Will Tate, Floyd and Rudolph become contributors in the passing game?
– Absolutely. On the other hand, Kamara’s poor play is a cause for concern.
Will Mike Haywood flourish as the Irish play caller?
– He was awful, but I’ll bet he had help.
Will the Irish defensive line be able to stop the run?
– We’ll have to wait another week to find out.
Can Notre Dame win the field position battle on special teams?
– Yes. It was a welcome change, even against an undermanned opponent. The kicking game is still lousy though.
Will the Irish look somewhat sloppy in this opener or will they display mid-season form?
– “Somewhat sloppy” is being much too kind.
Will the Aztec mascot and band members suit up and finish the game along the defensive line?
– Not at all. The group SDSU put on the field played their hearts out, and my hat is off to them.
At the end of the day, this performance by the Irish was not what fans expected or will tolerate going forward. The staff has failed to deliver a competent running game throughout its tenure and there was no evidence that sufficient practice time was spent in this area during the past nine months. While Notre Dame would have lost this game with last season’s team, the current group will not win more than six games in 2008 if it continues to rely on a sophomore quarterback and a blitzing defense that exposes itself to mediocre opponents. The Irish also looked uptight throughout the game until the final moments when the outcome was assured. This also reflects on the coaching staff.