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Football Commentary: Winning takes all 11 players

Chris Khorey | Monday, November 12, 2007

Football teams have 11 players on the field at any given time.

Each one has a job to do on every play.

When a team is playing well, those 11 players can seem like one smooth unit, moving seamlessly together down the field.

That has not happened this season for Notre Dame.

It doesn’t have to be a total team breakdown. A lot of times, especially recently, the problem has been only one or two players.

And they’re different players on every play.

But this is a team game, and if just one player fails to his job, a play can break down.

Take a couple examples from the 41-24 loss to Air Force on Saturday:

u In the third quarter, quarterback Jimmy Clausen dropped back to pass. He was well protected, he scanned his progressions and he rifled a perfect pass.

Meanwhile, wide receiver David Grimes ran a crisp route and was open. But when the ball arrived, he dropped it.

A perfectly executed play – and a promising drive – was derailed by a dropped pass from a player that, otherwise, had a good game.

u The problems aren’t always physical. Early in the second half, Air Force ran what looked like a quarterback sweep to the left side. But instead of cutting up the field, signal caller Shaun Carney suddenly dropped back. Irish cornerback Raeshon McNeil came up to defend the running play and completely lost track of Falcons wide receiver Mark Root. The result was a 26-yard pass play that led to an Air Force touchdown.

McNeil was fooled by the misdirection, so his mistake is understandable. But some other mental mistakes came despite several repetitions in practice.

u Clausen was blindsided two times in the first half because running backs didn’t step up and block outside blitzers. But coach Charlie Weis said the Irish worked on picking up that exact blitz package in practice.

“We said, ‘This is the blitz they run, and the lineman’s going to get the first guy and the back’s going to get the second guy,” he said. “But it didn’t happen that way, and the quarterback got hit.”

So what is causing these problems?

Sometimes as many as 10 players are doing their jobs effectively, but at least one man is making a physical mistake, getting fooled by the opposition or forgetting what the team worked on in practice.

Part of the answer is youth. The imbalance toward the younger classes on this team’s roster has been well documented.

But when Grimes is dropping passes and fifth-year senior running back Travis Thomas isn’t stepping up to block the right person, the problems aren’t only with young players.

So is the problem coaching? Possibly, although Darius Walker didn’t have any trouble learning blitz pickup, Maurice Stovall improved dramatically at catching the ball with his hands and Mike Richardson developed into a solid cover corner, all under this staff.

Why aren’t these players improving the same way? There have been flashes, but then things regress again.

“The improvement has been too spotty. One of the improvements you’d like to see is more consistency,” Weis said. “One of the things I’m most disappointed in as a teacher is that when you have intelligent young men, that as the years goes on, that there would be some consistency that progresses from the beginning of the year to the end.”

Even the players themselves are dumbfounded.

“Look at the coaches’ pedigrees,” tight end John Carlson said. “They’re good teachers. And the players on the team are students at the University of Notre Dame. You’d think that we’re all fairly intelligent individuals. But something isn’t clicking, and I don’t know what it is.”

At least part of the problem is confidence. Notre Dame has many contributors that didn’t play a lot last year. They’ve never had success without Brady Quinn or Jeff Samardzija on the roster.

The only thing that can cure that is winning. For them, it would be best to start next week against Duke or the week after against Stanford or at least next September against San Diego State.

And once this season is over, the Irish coaching staff can redouble its efforts to fix this team’s problems, correct the mistakes and get the 11 players on the field playing like one again.

In the meantime, as Carlson said after the game, all this team has to play for is pride. If that pride means that just one person on every play does his job a little better than he did the play before, then this Notre Dame team might just end the season on a high note and get some momentum for 2008.

But every player on this team needs to have that pride, because at any time, they could be called upon to be one of those 11 players on the field.

And it takes all 11 to succeed.

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

Contact Chris Khorey at ckhorey@nd.edu