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Football: Penalties stifle Irish momentum

Jay Fitzpatrick | Monday, September 10, 2007

STATE COLLGE, Penn. – After Notre Dame forced Penn State to punt from its own 14-yard-line, a fair catch by Tom Zbikowski gave the Notre Dame first-and-10 from its 44-yard-line with 2:35 remaining in the first quarter. The Irish had prime field position and momentum on their side.

Then they saw the flag.

Fifth-year captain Travis Thomas was flagged for a personal foul, unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after Thomas got in a scuffle with Penn State wide receiver Jerome Hayes after the punt, forcing the Irish back to their own 29.

“They had a player on the ground, he came up swinging, I happened to be near him when he came up swinging. We’re on the road, we’re in Happy Valley, things aren’t going to go our way,” Thomas said.

Before viewing the replay, Irish coach Charlie Weis said that although he didn’t see exactly what happened, he was disappointed that Thomas committed the penalty.

“I did say to Travis when he got off the field, ‘Look, you’re 50 yards away from the play. Why are we even in a position to get a penalty 50 yards away from the play,'” Weis said. “That’s not using very good sense in that situation.”

This penalty was one of 14 the Irish committed against Penn State, giving the Nittany Lions 97 free yards in the 31-10 Penn State win. The Irish drew flags on offense, defense and special teams – meaning the problem is more widespread than just one position.

“It seemed like any time you’re playing and you’re not playing a very efficient offense yourself, any time you have the number of penalties in there, it just doesn’t bode well for any type of momentum,” Weis said.

Irish cornerback Ambrose Wooden was called for pass interference after reaching around Lions wide receiver Deon Butler, giving Penn State the ball at the Irish one-yard-line and a fresh set of downs.

The Irish committed crucial, drive-killing penalties on both sides of the ball Saturday, either adding fuel to the Lions’ fire or killing whatever momentum they could muster.

One of the key problems with penalties came from the offensive line, who as a corps committed four false starts and two holds.

Although Weis said the false starts could be in part attributed to the noise level at Beaver Stadium, he said most of the blame lies with a lack of concentration on Notre Dame’s part.

Irish senior center John Sullivan agreed.

“You can never condone false starts. Penn State is a loud place to play, but false start penalties, line of scrimmage penalties – things that we can control – we don’t want,” he said.

Junior guard Dan Wenger agreed that Notre Dame’s offensive linemen need to return to the basics and focus on how to continue to improve.

“It’s not just one guy that’s jumping off sides, it’s everyone that has to realize the situation that we’re in,” he said. “We knew we were going to get a lot of noise, we knew the crowd was going to be crazy. We just have to be more focused and everything like that.”

Wenger also said that, while Penn State’s defense did do a lot to put pressure on the Irish line, the penalty problem lay more in Notre Dame’s inability than Penn State’s skill.

“We knew what they were going to bring. It’s not a matter of what they brought that caused us to hold, it’s a matter of us not executing, it’s a matter us not doing fundamentals and technique and we’ve got to get back to that,” he said.

Defensively, Notre Dame committed several drive-extending penalties.

The defense was flagged twice for incidental facemask – one committed by middle linebacker Joe Brockington and one by defensive end Morrice Richardson. Although the penalties were not serious enough to warrant a personal foul, both extended Penn State drives. Brockington’s followed a six-yard run from Lions tailback Austin Scott, giving Penn State a first down at Notre Dame’s 24-yard-line. Penn State took advantage of the free yardage with a touchdown and 14-7 lead.

But the offense is just as concerned about the calls as the defense.

“We have to go back and look at everything we did wrong and correct it,” Wenger said. “It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be hard, but that’s what it’s going to take. That’s what it’s going to take for us to get back on top.”