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Football Commentary: Not as complicated as it seems

Chris Khorey | Monday, September 24, 2007

When a team is 0-4, usually there are a lot of problems.

That isn’t the case here.

Notre Dame has talented running backs, a serviceable freshman quarterback, a big offensive line and receivers with good hands.

It also has athletic defensive backs, linebackers with a nose for the ball, and hard-nosed defensive linemen.

So why are the Irish 0-4?

It’s very simple. Almost every time a Notre Dame player is in a one-on-one physical situation, be it a block or a tackle, the Irish player loses. Notre Dame is getting pushed around.

Michigan State ran for 219 yards Saturday, but it wasn’t because the Spartans were gashing huge holes on every play. What happened was the Irish front seven struggled to get off blocks and then when they did hit Spartan running backs Jehuu Caulcrick or Javon Ringer, they were driven backwards for an extra three yards.

“It wasn’t so much their athletic ability as we didn’t do our job,” Irish nose guard Pat Kuntz said.

Notre Dame managed 117 yards on the ground, a major improvement over previous games, but on multiple occasions the Irish had third or fourth-and-one and could not pick up the first down. On one possession, they had two plays to get less than a yard and couldn’t do it.

Why is this happening? Every member of the offensive line was a highly regarded recruit, and while the defensive linemen weren’t quite as sought after, they still have talent.

The problem doesn’t seem to be effort. The players are clearly going all-out on the field, and they seem upset when they lose – but why can’t they block and tackle?

Partially the issue may be scheme related. Coach Charlie Weis likes to confuse opposing defenses, but right now the offensive line looks confused about who to block. On defense, the Irish defensive line is undersized and not quick enough on the outside to run the 3-4.

But those schemes can both work and will work once the current players get older and next year’s recruiting class comes in – they can’t be blamed for the lack of fundamental physicality.

Notre Dame also has problems with technique. Tacklers hit too high and get driven backwards. Blockers, especially in open space (like pulling guards and fullbacks leading running plays), tend to bump into defenders or push them, rather than engaging and driving them backwards.

What really seems to be the underlying issue is the lack of hitting in Irish practices. Weis has started to correct this in the past week, but the fact that the team didn’t hit in fall camp has set Notre Dame back weeks – and possibly years.

It’s clear the Irish know their playbook well. Take for instance screen passes. Almost every time Notre Dame has run one this year, the defensive line has been fooled and a back – usually Armando Allen – has caught the ball with more blockers than tacklers in front of him.

But those plays are rarely getting more than five yards because the blockers in front don’t actually block the defenders.

Similarly, the defense has been very effective at stringing outside stretch plays this year. But it doesn’t matter if there’s no apparent hole, all the back has to do is charge at the first tiny opening he sees, knowing the Irish defender will try to arm tackle him and the play will gain solid yardage.

Even special teams has been hurt by this lack of physicality. On returns, wedges set up beautifully, then collapse. On coverage, returners are hemmed in, then suddenly find a way upfield.

The simple fact is that Irish players know who to block and know where they need to be to make a tackle, but when they get there – they can’t make the play.

Fortunately, Weis knows the only way to fix this is to practice blocking and tackling. And based on the Michigan State game, there has been improvement since Notre Dame went “back to training camp.”

After the loss to the Spartans, offensive tackle Sam Young said the Irish were “on their way” to the proper blocking and tackling.

“We want to be there as fast as possible,” he said.

The problem is that the Irish should have “been there” before Georgia Tech. But 0-4 is the reality they have to live with, and it’s time to start hitting people like a Division I team should.

Sometimes, football really isn’t that complicated. Winning is all about blocking and tackling.

Notre Dame isn’t doing those things right now. And until they do, they won’t start winning.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily of The Observer.

Contact Chris Khorey at ckhorey@nd.edu