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Counting Irish problems

Chris Federico | Monday, September 22, 2003

How bad was Notre Dame Saturday against Michigan State? Let me count the ways:

One, quarterback Carlyle Holiday possibly had the worst game of his Notre Dame career – which isn’t saying much for the oft-maligned signal caller who may lose his starting job to freshman Brady Quinn next weekend. Holiday played so poorly that he ought to consider switching sports – say to basketball. After all, he attempted more bounce passes Saturday than Notre Dame point guard Chris Thomas. Holiday’s 10-for-25 performance with two interceptions – one of which was returned for a touchdown and served as the “nail in the coffin,” as Spartans coach John Smith described it after the game – was just the beginning of Notre Dame’s troubles.

Two, even on the rare occasions that Holiday’s throws were on the money – and in his defense, some of them were – the Irish receivers were likely to drop the balls. Notre Dame had at least eight dropped balls that should have been completions, including such beauties as Maurice Stovall’s third-down drop at the start of the second quarter to move the chains and Jared Clark’s potential first-down reception from Quinn that could have put the Irish in scoring position near the end of the first half.

Three, one of the reasons that many of Holiday’s passes were caroming off of the turf in Notre Dame Stadium was that, for the third straight game, he was attempting to deliver most of them while falling to his backside. While Michigan State only had three sacks – which is three more than the Irish defense had all day – Spartan defenders had free range on Holiday and Quinn all afternoon.

Four, while one way to cure the problem of pressure on the quarterbacks would be to run the shotgun, Notre Dame couldn’t do that because center Zach Giles couldn’t complete the simple task of snapping the ball to the quarterback without sending it above his head, throwing off any rhythm the quarterback may have had with the play.

Five, but even getting past all these problems, the Irish managed to put together a few impressive drives that should have resulted in touchdowns and a Notre Dame victory. But time and again, the Irish took themselves right out of the game with costly penalties and turnovers at the most crucial time.

All three Irish turnovers halted successful drives and swung the momentum right back into the hands of Michigan State. Holiday’s interception on a swing pass attempted for fullback Rashon Powers-Neal stopped a seven-play, 33-yard drive that could have answered Michigan State’s game-opening field goal. Marcus Wilson’s fumble turned around a 12-play, 49-yard drive to start the second half, and Holiday’s second interception all but sealed the victory for the Spartans.

But unlike most Notre Dame games of the past year and a half, offensive anemia was not the only gripe. Even the once-mighty Irish defense bears some of the blame for Saturday’s loss.

Six, while the defense contained the Spartan running backs for the most part, they suffered a complete breakdown on a Jaren Hayes 71-yard touchdown run. Later, with the team in striking distance and only needing a third-and-8 stop to get the offense back on the field for a last-minute drive to win the game, the defense fell short, allowing Hayes a 7-yard run to set up the first down and the Spartan victory.

But the scary part is, this game was an easy one for the Irish and a must-win. They now have to travel to take on two potential top-25 teams in Purdue and Pittsburgh, then they get to come home for the pleasure of hosting USC, who blew Notre Dame up for 610 yards of offense last year. After that, it’s on the road to take on rival Boston College, followed by a home game with a Florida State squad bent on revenge.

“It is really hard to point to any positives from today’s game,” running back Julius Jones said. “I think everyone is feeling the pressure now.”

And they should, because without some major improvements after Saturday’s performance, the Irish are staring a 1-7 start right in the eyes.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Chris Federico at cfederic@nd.edu.