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Joseph: Poor fundamentals are concerning (Sept. 5)

Allan Joseph | Monday, September 5, 2011

Saturday’s game was, to say the least, unusual. From the first weather delay in Notre Dame history, to how quickly Dayne Crist got benched, to the second weather delay in Notre Dame history, everything about the 2011 season opener was bizarre. But despite all of the distractions, one surprise stood out more than most, and it’s the most worrisome — the Irish fundamentals were, quite frankly, terrible.

Missed blocks. Dropped punts. Personal fouls. Miscommunication. Shanked field goals. Turnovers, turnovers and turnovers. Dumb penalties. An interception off a receiver’s helmet because he wasn’t looking for the ball. The list grows from stupid oversights to infuriating mistakes all the way to so-ridiculous-you’d-be-laughing-if-you-weren’t-crying mishaps.

And yes, it’s a season opener. I understand that the first game of a season is always sloppy — in fact, I mentioned that in my pregame prediction. But there’s no reason it should have been anything like this.

First-game jitters are no excuse for a dropped pass, much less a late-hit penalty in the fourth quarter by an experienced player like Gary Gray.

What’s more, many of the mistakes, if not nearly all of them, were committed by veteran players who should have known better. A senior running back like Jonas Gray should know that defensive players want nothing more than to knock the ball loose inside the red zone. A senior receiver like Michael Floyd should know how to block his man correctly instead of committing an obvious holding penalty that negated the touchdown. A senior defensive end like Ethan Johnson should know better than to commit a personal foul that turned a potentially pivotal USF third down into a first down — especially in the fourth quarter when the Irish were trying to make a comeback against all odds.

Notre Dame is too talented to keep making mistakes like this. The sky is still the limit. But despite all of the raw ability, all of the comfort in the offensive system and all of the young talent on the defensive front, the Irish are destined for mediocrity unless they fix it.

It’s possible that the team got too comfortable this offseason. The talk throughout spring and fall camp was about becoming more familiar with Brian Kelly’s complex offensive schemes and about having a full arsenal on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.

Maybe the focus on the complex parts of the game precluded focus on the fundamentals — and if that’s what happened, it was a potentially disastrous mistake.

It doesn’t matter if you can outscheme your opponent if you turn the ball over five times. It doesn’t matter if you have airtight coverage against the pass if you commit penalties and keep giving the other team first downs.

There is room for hope. The offense put up over 500 yards, highlighted by Cierre Wood’s impressive day on the ground. His 104 yards came largely in the first half and suggest that the Irish may be able to establish a bona fide running game.

The defense did a generally good job of corralling South Florida’s explosive quarterback, B.J. Daniels, especially on third down, where the Bulls converted only two of their 14 attempts. Most importantly, despite five turnovers and countless mistakes, the Irish still had a chance to win it in crunch time — and South Florida is a very good team.

These all suggest that the season is not lost. If the Irish can stop making the small mistakes, they can be a very good team. But they don’t have a lot of time to get better.

Saturday’s atmosphere is going to provide more of a challenge than many of these players have ever faced, as it is the first night game in Michigan Stadium history. Beating Michigan in Ann Arbor will be impossible if the Irish don’t get it together.

Kelly said it best in his postgame press conference: “You can’t start winning until you stop losing.” What’s more fundamental than that?

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

Contact Allan Joseph at ajoseph2@nd.edu