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Football: Irish better than stats indicate

Dan Murphy | Monday, September 22, 2008

“We didn’t deserve to win, we had a chance to win the game, but we didn’t deserve to win,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said following a frustrating 23-7 loss at Michigan State Saturday.

Notre Dame’s first loss since a 41-24 rout by Air Force on Nov. 10, 2007 had a different feeling than the nine losses the Irish suffered last season.

Not to say last year wasn’t frustrating – it was. But this time around they had a chance.

To look at the final box score it would seem that the Spartans were clearly the better team on the field, but anyone who watched the game knows it was much closer than the stats may dictate.

Weis is right. Notre Dame did not deserve to win, but not because Michigan State was tougher, or more prepared or a better team than the Irish. Big mistakes in key situations were the difference in this game.

Turnovers sucked the life out of a couple promising Notre Dame drives and also gave the Spartans a short field to work with. Michigan State’s two first-half scoring drives were 24 and 22 yards long respectively.

The Spartans’ first touchdown came following one of two interceptions thrown by Jimmy Clausen in the half. Clausen, with a man in his face, threw behind his intended target and Michigan State took over just outside its own red zone. Nine plays later, Javon Ringer spun his way into the end zone for a 10-0 Spartan lead.

The drive was not only indicative of Michigan State’s opportunistic offense, but also the deceivingly stout Irish defense.

It took Ringer and his Spartans nine plays and a questionable third-down pass interference call to punch it in on a 22-yard drive. There were only two plays out of the nine that went for more than two yards. The Irish came within inches of keeping Ringer out of the end zone altogether despite the Spartans having first and goal from the two-yard line.

The goal line defense did finish the job later in the game on another first and goal from the two in the fourth quarter. Ringer tried, and was denied, three times before the Spartans settled for a field goal.

Despite what the stat sheet might show, the Irish defense can hold its head high after an impressive showing in East Lansing.

Sure, Ringer once again posted Heisman-worthy stats with 201 yards and two touchdowns, but he was far from unstoppable. Take away the 77 yards he picked up on the meaningless final drive of the game – including 63 on one carry – and his numbers are mediocre at just a shade over 3.5 yards per carry.

If you give a back the ball 39 times in a game, he is bound to put up some pretty big numbers.

“At the end of the day, [the defense] put us in a position to keep us in the game,” Weis said.

The defense was on the field for 10:26 in the fourth quarter, so the defense’s heavy legs on that final drive can just as easily be blamed on the lack of offensive production.

Any time you are held to seven points in a game, the offense can’t be too pleased with their performance. But once again, things may not be quite as gloomy as they look following the first disappointing loss of the year.

The Irish came out of the gates trying to establish the run game. Mission failed. The three-headed backfield combined for a loss of five yards in the first two series of the game on six straight unsuccessful runs. At halftime Notre Dame had rushed for 32 net yards and wide receiver Golden Tate had 24 of them on an end around play.

In the second half, however, things got much brighter for the Irish. Weis and offensive coordinator Mike Haywood completely abandoned the run game, opting instead for a quick-hitting empty backfield package.

Weis-coached teams, including this one, are traditionally strong at empty backfield two-minute drill style offenses. The efficient drives during the third quarter provided flashbacks of the good old days with Quinn, Samardzija and Stovall.

Clausen looks much more comfortable in this set. He can spread the defense out and make more accurate pre-snap reads. Clausen’s ability to go through his reads during a play has been one of the main criticisms against him. The set allow Clausen to catch-and-throw, eliminating a long list of reads on plays with longer pass drops.

A loss is never acceptable at Notre Dame, but the Irish can take away some positives from the loss this weekend. The Irish didn’t deserve to win, but they certainly belonged on the field.

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

Contact Dan Murphy at dmurphy6@nd.edu