by Mike Coffey
Notre Dame returns home to face the Spartans of Michigan State with questions still hanging over their heads. I asked five … er, three of those questions to Keith Arnold from NBC’s Inside the Irish, and his answers are available below. My questions came from Subway Domer, and my answers are at that link. The other questions can be found on the other participating blogs, Strong & True, UHND, and Her Loyal Sons.
A common theme of ND opponents since the bowl game has been Notre Dame’s play tendencies with certain personnel on the field and/or the formations they’re using. Some of our readers on NDN have pointed out their uncanny accuracy in predicting a play while watching the game based on the same factors. Do you believe these tendencies are a factor in how the offense and defense are performing this season, and why/why not?
I wrote the same thing after the game and think this could be a legitimate criticism of Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin’s scheme. That said, I think you’ll start to see some looks designed to catch defenses cheating. It only takes one or two big plays to keep a defense honest and I’m guessing those should be coming soon (maybe even Saturday). All that being said, if you saw Purdue nearly intercept two screen passes, and heard Darrell Hazell’s halftime comments to ESPN, it’s pretty clear that opponents are keying on formational looks and taking some chances. Expect Pat Narduzzi to do the same thing.
How do you compare Tommy Rees as a quarterback today versus two years ago when we saw a lot of him? In what areas, if any, do you believe he has improved? In what areas, if any, do you believe he has regressed?
I think the sample size is probably a little small still, though this Saturday will be an interesting datapoint, playing against what looks like an elite defense that does a nice job forcing turnovers and creating quarterback confusion. But the biggest difference to me is Rees’ ability as a downfield passer. Notre Dame has been a lot more efficient throwing the football down the field this year, with Rees showing some really nice touch on deep throws that weren’t his strong suit in the past. He’s also done a better job with decision making and recognition. He’s really only had one decision that what a bad one (the first interception at Michigan, which I was watching from the pressbox and thought looked open at the time, too). If there’s a regression, it’s that his completion percentage seems to have ticked down a bit from 2011, but I think that’s more a product of the deep throws and playing two defensive coordinators ND knew nothing about and Greg Mattison.
It’s time to put the big-boy pants on the next four games, as the level of competition goes up significantly. What do you think is the biggest thing ND has to do in the next four games that (a) they weren’t doing before, or (b) were doing before but need to do just as well or better?
What they weren’t doing before? Forcing an offense to be one dimensional. It was nice that Purdue only managed one rushing first down. But stopping the run needs to be the bedrock of this defense, and that wasn’t the case against Michigan or Temple, which puts this unit in some difficult situations that made things difficult for the back end of the Irish defense. As Kelly hinted at on Tuesday, I think some of that falls on finding optimal looks for this defense, and whether or not they should be playing a three or four man front.
Doing before but need to do (just as well or) better? Get a rhythm running the football. I’m all for keeping the players on your roster happy. But trying to balance five running backs is a losing proposition and I think it’s hurting the Irish ground game. With the group Notre Dame has up front, being No. 92 in rushing offense just doesn’t cut it. Nobody wants to run the football into an eight man front, but watching the Irish finish the game’s final seven-plus minutes against Purdue by running the football down their throat proves that this team can do it, and now they need to establish that early, allowing them to make big plays over the top in the playaction passing game.