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Squad is searching for answers

Heather VanHoegarden | Wednesday, September 8, 2004

The offense didn’t perform as well as expected, the defense gave up two too many big plays and the decision-making was poor in special teams. Now the Irish are left to solve these problems this week in practice before No. 5/No. 8 Michigan comes to town Saturday afternoon.

“When you don’t have success, it is amazingly disappointing, to our players as well as to our coaches,” Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said at Tuesday’s media conference.

The first problem the Irish had against Brigham Young Saturday was on offense. They gained 11 yards rushing and were unable to decipher a Cougar defense that consisted of blitz after blitz. Willingham said he and his staff anticipated the Cougar blitzing schemes.

“We tackled [the blitz] every week in preparation for every team,” he said. “We spend probably an over-adequate amount of time, looking at blitz, analyzing blitz, practice blitz, taking on blitz, putting them in almost every conceivable situation we can put them in.”

Now the Irish have to prepare for a Michigan defense that gave up just 33 rushing yards at Miami University (Ohio) last weekend. Willingham knows he has to regroup with his offense, as they must perform better if they are to score against the Wolverines.

“We are all very disappointed [in the offense at BYU] because I felt comfortable in my belief that this would be a good, solid, total offensive performance for us,” Willingham said of the BYU game. “And saying that, I still have great respect for BYU’s defense … But I still felt like we would be able to come out and have an excellent performance and have a balanced attack, and we didn’t do it. I’m disappointed, not disillusioned, and still confident that we can do some things offensively. But at the same time, really disappointed that we didn’t.”

The offense struggled most on the line, as evidenced by the lack of rushing yards. The line returned all but one starter from 2003, but some had shifted around since last season. Junior Bob Morton moved from center to left guard and sophomore Ryan Harris went from right tackle to left tackle. Willingham said that might have played a role in the offensive line’s subpar performance.

“It does take time,” he said. “It’s like learning a new job. But at the same time, I don’t say that in order to say that’s an excuse for us not executing and performing the way that we should, because I have great confidence in that group in that they can do some very good things.”

Second-year quarterback Brady Quinn threw for 265 yards, completing 26 of 47 passes with one touchdown. But he was only able to convert 3-of-16 third downs, and many times his passes didn’t even go past the third down marker. Willingham attributed that to Quinn taking what he could get.

“You always want to take what they can give you,” he said. “But you hope the option they give you is the one that you prefer in those situations. We are constantly working every day … the down-and-distance markers are right there.”

Defensively, the Irish have more to build on. They gave up just 22 rushing yards and Preston Jackson returned an interception for a touchdown. With the exception of three big plays, the defense limited the Cougars.

“I think there’s a lot of things to build on from Saturday, and there’s some negatives you have to learn from and if you build on the positives, and also learn from the negatives, I think you’ll be fine,” defensive coordinator Kent Baer said.

In the special teams area, the Irish struggled as well, consistently getting pinned inside the 20-yard line. Rhema McKnight made questionable decisions in the return game for the Irish, but Willingham said he was just trying to make a play.

“What you are trying to get them to do is one, get Rhema to be aggressive, to have a very close decision-making process that you can field one and return it; then you really take away that weapon that they are trying to gain on you,” he said. “And in the process of doing that, he was a little too aggressive in trying to make something happen.”

Now, the Irish must use the rest of the week to prepare for a tough Michigan team after a disappointing loss.

“You quietly tell your football team that we look at every football game as being very important,” Willingham said. “There’s not one that’s more important when you look at it, but at the same time, you know where your big games are.”