A few thoughts on the game, position by position.
QB - That was the Brady Quinn most ND fans had hoped we would see. He looked calm in the pocket, faster than he has in the past (I guess having the QBs do agility drills with the RBs in the fall paid off), and really was the leader of the offense. Best of all, he didn't do this.
Only one really bad throw that I saw -- the underthrown pass to a wide open Stovall that was intercepted -- but other than that and a few screen passes thrown a bit low, he was on target all night long. He still tends to rifle those short passes, but on the whole he is leaps and bounds better than he was last season. It's scary to think he has two full season left to improve. I was anxious to watch Wolke play, but ABC saw number 14 come in and figured that it was officially garbage time. They only showed four plays from scrimmage over the final 9:10 of the game so I guess the Wolke notes will have to wait. According to the official stats, he did have a nice 22 yard run though. So he's got that going for him, which is nice.
RB- I was having Reggie Brooks flashbacks as Darius Walker took approximately 5 minutes to run that screen pass 50 yards into the endzone. Like Brooks, Walker doesn't blow you away with his speed, but his vision and ability to stop and start will result in more than a few big plays this season. He looks a lot stronger than last season and appears ready to handle the bulk of the offense. Travis Thomas hit the hole hard on his few carries and ran with confidence right up the middle.
FB - Ten carries for the fullback. I love it. Granted some of RPN's carries came when he lined up as a running back, but his touchdown runs right up the gut were things of beauty. He also showed some good hands on the screen pass and I'm sure that won't be the last time Weis tries to get him out in the open against some poor cornerback. The Asaph Schwapp era has officially started and I sense a fan favorite. I know I'm going to love watching opposing linebackers getting knocked backwards into the endzone on goal-line plays for the next four years.
WR - The WRs only had 112 of the 227 receiving yards, but also had great downfield blocking throughout the game. The best example coming on the large convoy that escorted Darius Walker to the endzone in the first quarter. Jeff Samardzija had the catch of the night, but I was excited about the quick throws out to Samardzija and Stovall when the corner had soft coverage on them. They were able to use their size to quickly get close to the 1st down marker with not much more than a stiff arm. Another example of using size mismatches. I can't wait until some poor corner tries to jump that route and finds himself on the burnt toast side of a pump and run. Keep in mind that Pitt had two of the biggest cornerbacks that ND will face this year.
I loved the fake end-around, pass play to McKnight. He just looks so smooth in the open field. And his catch in the middle on 3rd and long in the 1st quarter to keep the drive alive was the play of the game in my mind. It enabled ND to get a touchdown and take the lead, rather than attempt a field goal for the tie. Once we took that lead, we never looked back and Pitt just didn't look the same.
TE - Fasano picked up right where he left off last season. Excellent blocking and great hands. You can sense that Quinn loves throwing him the ball, because he knows Fasano is going to come down with it. Carlson surprised me with how much he's bulked up. Not a statistically great game for him, but I suspect he will have a few big games this season. As for Marcus Freeman, watch RPN's first touchdown run again. Freeman came across behind the OL and destroyed the Pitt DT that surged through the line. After that, the path to the end zone was clear. I hope to see what Freeman can do with the ball in his hands, but he looked great blocking last night.
OL - What can I say...somewhere Joe Moore is smiling. You could just feel the pent-up energy spilling out on ND's first offensive play when left tackle Ryan Harris exploded out his stance and knocked the Pitt defensive end off his feet, sending him flying two yards backwards. And that was only the beginning, as the OL mauled the smaller Pitt DL all game long and still displayed enough stamina to not let up a single sack. Seeing Dan Stevenson 20 yards downfield driving a Pitt defender out of bounds on Walker's TD catch and run was a thing of beauty. LeVoir really seemed to relish driving guys into the ground all night, but I expect him to catch an earful about avoiding the personal fouls late in a game. We don't need a Ron Isreal-redux up in the Big House next week. Still, a dominant and extremely impressive performance by all of the lineman.
DL - They did a good job of forcing Palko to move around in the pocket and got their hands into passing lanes as much as possible. Five sacks on the night, which is great, but only really one sack, by Frome, was a result of a straight pass rush. Still, coverage sacks like Victor's are a result of hustle and the line did a great job of shutting down the run. Even with Kirkley's 55 yard run, Pitt only amassed 103 rushing yards. Talley and Justin Brown played more than I would have thought and I was impressed with both of them. Brown is quick off the snap and Talley is a real physical presence that will just get better as he gets stronger and more experienced.
LB - One thing is for certain, the linebackers are much faster this year. They were flying all over the field and Mays was particulary quick through the line on blitzes. He just missed on a few sacks, but I'll give Palko credit for being a quality scrambler. They tried to run at Crum and exploit his smaller stature, but despite losing a few yards, he showed to be a quality tackler. He really reminds me of Courtney Watson. Not the biggest linebacker, but always around the ball and always wraps the guy up when he tackles him. Hoyte was Hoyte. How many times will he send an opposing QB to the trainer after a big hit?
DB - After that first Greg Lee touchdown, when he walked into the endzone leaving a trio of Irish defenders scattered on the ground in his wake, a terrible feeling of deja vu swept over me. Luckily, it was short-lived. There is still work to be done, but overall a pretty good job. Lee is a great WR and shutting him down like that was impressive, but it will be harder against teams with more than one legitimate downfield threat. Wooden started out with some shaky tackling, but as the game progressed he really started to lower his helmet and wrap guys up rather than the awful shoulder tackling which doesn't quite work against tight ends twice his size. Three passes hit our DBs in the hands and hopefully soon those types of passes will turn into interceptions rather than deflections. But really, holding Palko to only 220 yards receiving is a job very well done.
Special Teams - Some good, some not so good. The fumble strip by former walk-on and now full scholarship player Casey Cullen was a great effort play. And apparently Weis agrees since he named Cullen the special teams caption for the Michigan game. The kickoffs still need some work though. Either they were pop-ups to the 15 yard line or line drives to the 5. Pitt special team gaffes saved one or two of the kickoffs from going out of bounds too, which is something I hope stops happening right away. Handing the other team the ball on the 35 yard line repeatedly is not the way to win games. Still, the coverage looked better and any open lanes were shut quickly. It seems Weis is still trying to find a definite kick-off and punt returner. Zibby may not be the answer, but it was fun to watch him try to steamroll the Pitt defender and then keep driving his legs forward as Panthers jumped on trying to bring him down. I can only assume that Samardzjia won't forget that he's the holder again. Something tells me he's going to hear about it from Coach Polian, who we know got an earful from Coach Weis.
Really, it was an impressive win with nearly everybody playing a great game, and the mental and physical lapses that did occur ended up not hurting us. If there is steady improvement as the season progresses, this team will be surprisingly good on defense, and downright scary on offense.
Monday, September 05, 2005
A few thoughts on the game, position by position.