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Commentary: Irish caught looking ahead

Sam Werner | Monday, November 9, 2009

The players won’t say it. The coaches won’t say it. Nobody within with the Notre Dame football program is admitting it, but to anyone who follows sports, it’s fairly obvious what happened to Notre Dame on Saturday.

The Irish fell into the prototypical trap game.

Next weekend’s showdown in Pittsburgh was supposed to be the make-or-break game. It was all set up perfectly to be two top 20 teams nationally broadcast in primetime.

Except the Irish forgot about that pesky little Navy team that always plays Notre Dame tough. Who could really blame them? Navy had only beaten Notre Dame once in the past 45 years.

Except that one time was two years ago, and many of the players on Notre Dame’s roster played in that game. This team, more than any Irish squad of the past half-century, should not have underestimated what Navy was capable of.

The quotes from after the game were eerily reminiscent of the interviews after the loss to Syracuse last season, when the usually fiery Golden Tate said he felt the attitude was “Eh.”
“I think it did feel a little flat,” Tate said after Saturday’s loss. “I’m not sure why. I definitely did feel it, but I’m not sure why we felt that way, why I felt that way.”

The worst part of Saturday’s loss, though, isn’t that it was the second loss to Navy in the past three years, or the fact that this year’s junior and senior classes will never see a win against Navy in Notre Dame Stadium during their time as a student.

No, the worst part was that, even though the loss was unexpected, it was hardly shocking.
The Irish had been talking a tightrope all season, and so far had come out on the winning end more often than not.

Saturday, though, all the woes that had haunted the Irish all season showed up once again.

First, the red zone production was abysmal. Including Saturday’s game, the Irish have scored touchdowns on only 51 percent of their trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. On Saturday alone, Notre Dame found points on only two of the six red zone chances.

Next, the run defense, and defense in general, was gashed repeatedly. The Midshipmen rushed for a staggering 348 yards against Notre Dame. A run defense that looked to have improved over the past few weeks regressed back to early-season form.

It would be one thing if the Irish were burned by Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs or one of the Midshipmen’s speedy tailbacks, but the play that seemed to give the Irish fits was a simple dive play to the fullback. Vince Murray led the Midshipmen in rushing, with 158 yards on only 14 carries, almost all of them right up the middle.

Poor tackling, another bugaboo for the Irish all season, showed up in spades Saturday. How many times did a Navy player appear to be stopped, only to rattle off a few more yards after initial contact.

Against Navy’s triple option, it appeared that Notre Dame’s struggling pass defense would get a break, and the Midshipmen did pass only three times all day. On one of those passes, though, the Irish got burned for a 52-yard touchdown pass where it appeared the Irish simply neglected to cover the Navy receiver.

On the other side of the ball, the offensive line play was suspect as well. It’s one thing to give up pressure when USC is rushing only four defensive linemen, but to give up consecutive sacks — and one safety — to a Navy line that weighs in at an average of just 262.3 pounds is simply unacceptable for a team with legitimate BCS aspirations.

Despite all of this, Notre Dame still had a chance to win. I’ll admit that when the Irish regained possession in the waning minutes down only seven, I thought that Jimmy Clausen would lead yet another fourth quarter comeback.

It wasn’t to be, though, and the loss obviously raises more questions about Charlie Weis’ job security. In all likelihood, those questions won’t be answered until the end of the season.

One thing is certain, though. The Irish won’t be getting distracted by any BCS talk for the rest of this season.

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

Contact Sam Werner at      swerner@nd.edu