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Commentary: Irish need to get aggressive

Bill Brink | Monday, November 16, 2009

PITTSBURGH — Ever watch Golden Tate get up after a tackle?

He stands there for a second, sometimes staring down the guy who caught him, thinking.
“I’m only on the 37-yard line right now,” he thinks, frustrated. “Why am I not in the end zone?”

He’s got a passion that leads him to believe every play he’s a part of should result in a touchdown. He’s fiery, he’s talented and he’s aggressive.

Aggressive. Interesting idea. Going out there throwing everything you’ve got into winning the football game.

Notre Dame played too conservative against Pittsburgh, biding its time near the ropes while dodging Pitt’s punches.

“It was how we called the game,” Weis said. “We were playing the game relatively conservatively. When you’re playing on the road, raucous crowd, you don’t play the same way at home as you do on the road.”

Weis has somewhat of a point. You don’t want to be overaggressive when you step into the ring against Pittsburgh, especially since the ring is in Pittsburgh’s backyard. Don’t go throwing haymakers or the Panthers will duck and retaliate. So yeah, don’t heave it up to Tate or run double reverses every play, because they’d be swinging at air and Pitt would eventually pop them in the jaw.

But don’t stay conservative and dance around Pittsburgh either. Don’t let them come to you, because they’ll wear you down with body blow after body blow so eventually you’re sucking wind and will be unable to protect the quarterback in the final minutes.

Wait for your chance and time your punches.

Here’s the thing: that aggressiveness isn’t dormant, or hiding, or impossible to use against Pittsburgh for whatever reason. It’s there, in plain sight.

Take the fourth-and-one play fake to Floyd against Pittsburgh. Easily Charlie Weis’ best call of the year aside from the fake field goal. Floyd is wide open, but Clausen had to throw off his back foot because he had a man in his face. If he hits Floyd in stride it’s a touchdown. Either way, the Irish land a big hook that has Pitt reeling.

Same thing with the Wildcat plays with the Irish backed up on their own goal line. What’s the vanilla call there? Run the ball, avoid a turnover that would give the Panthers the ball in plus territory. But no, the Irish took a chance at getting something started. Weis called the plays “drive starters,” and they were great play calls, because they gave the Irish a chance to rip off a 25-yard first down and get some momentum. The execution is a different story, but the idea was there.

But that was it.

Why? Clausen, Floyd and Tate are the same players at home or on the road, and the Irish had Armando Allen healthy in this game. Coming into the game 6-3 off of a home loss to Navy, Notre Dame should have thrown the whole playbook at Pittsburgh.

The Wildcat failed twice, but the Irish never revisited the formation at any point during the rest of the game. Who knows what happens? We all saw Tate’s playmaking ability. Get him the ball enough, in any formation, and good things happen. Allen ran well out of traditional backfields, racking up 77 yards on 14 carries. He could spark something as well.
Instead, Allen’s main role in the second half was the depository for Clausen’s short dump-off passes.

In short, the Irish needed to approach this game the way Tate did: every play presents the opportunity to knock Pittsburgh senseless. Tate took a short pass from Clausen and powered his way into the end zone, then zipped by the entire Panther punt coverage unit for an 87-yard return touchdown two minutes later. A quick jab followed by an uppercut to the chin. He wanted this.

On the road, against a top-10 team at night, is not the time for conservative playcalling. The Irish had danced around so much that by the time they had to land a knockout blow, late in the fourth quarter, they had no rhythm and instead took a right cross that dropped them to the canvas.

The Irish offense is stacked with playmakers and can hang points on anyone in the country. But those playmakers have to be utilized for this to occur. If they’re not, the offense is no better than average.

Average won’t win football games. With Notre Dame’s season slowly careening out of control, now is not the time for the coaches to ease off the accelerator and pump the brakes. They need to floor it.

They can land the punches. But they’ve got to throw them first.

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

Contact Bill Brink at wbrink@nd.edu