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Football: Team identity changes by week

Bill Brink | Monday, September 22, 2008

Even the casual fan could diagnose Saturday’s 180-degree shift in offensive philosophy.

Running backs James Aldridge, Armando Allen and Robert Hughes combined for 23 yards on 13 carries in the first half. The first six plays of the game, all rushes, led to two three-and-outs.

“It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that our offense came out in the first half trying to win the line of scrimmage and that wasn’t taking place,” coach Charlie Weis said.

The “pound-it” philosophy, against its toughest test thus far, failed in the first half, necessitating a new game plan. So in the second half, the Irish came out throwing.

“We were going to give them an opportunity to run the ball a bunch of times in the first two or three series,” Weis said. “And when we didn’t, we started adjusting.”

The Spartan defense, Weis said, outplayed Notre Dame’s entire offense, not just its offensive line.

“We weren’t getting mismatched. A lot of times in the run game you get scared to run because you are getting outnumbered and that wasn’t the case in this game. We weren’t getting outnumbered. They were getting the best of us.”

Junior tackle Sam Young agreed and said the Michigan State front seven kept the offensive line from getting off the ball and creating holes for the running backs.

“They were able to physically match us,” Young said. “They shut us off up front and we just weren’t able to get anything going.”

So in the second half, Notre Dame abandoned the run and focused its offense skyward. Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who was 7-of-14 for 79 yards and two interceptions in the first half, played most of the second half in the shotgun. He finished the game 24-for-41 for 242 yards and a touchdown along with his two picks.

Clausen attributed the pass-heavy offense partly to the fact that Notre Dame was playing from behind.

“Obviously when we’re down in the second half we gotta get things going, we gotta score faster,” he said.

Most of Clausen’s second-half passes were short out routes, slants or swing passes. On multiple plays, Allen would go in motion out of the backfield and into the slot, and Clausen would hit him outside. These plays, Weis said, helped the offense keep from becoming too predictable.

“We’re one-dimensional in the fact that we’re throwing so much, but a lot of those three-step drop passes are like outside runs,” he said.

Spartans tackle Justin Kershaw disagreed.

“It made them one-dimensional,” he said. “Whenever you eliminate a team’s running game, it’s discouraging for them.”

One-dimensional or not, Weis said an offense’s identity was not something the team could lock itself into. Some flexibility, he said, was good.

“I think we have to do that on a weekly basis,” he said.

The players, Weis said, felt they would come back to win the game after Clausen threw a touchdown pass to freshman receiver Michael Floyd early in the fourth quarter.

“I think that the team felt after that touchdown that we would get a stop, get the ball back, and get another opportunity,” Weis said. “That it would be a 14-13 final. You could feel it on the sideline.”

Sophomore receiver Golden Tate said he had confidence in the receiving corps should Notre Dame throw the ball like it did in the second half.

“I think all the receivers that we have are outstanding receivers and we count on all of them like today,” he said.

Regardless of the issues with the running game or the lack of offensive identity, the team, Young said, can’t take the loss too hard. It needs to learn from the game and move on, he said.

“You have to a short memory in terms of ‘we lost this one,’ but at the same time you can’t forget what it feels like,” he said. “We’re not going to forget what happened, we’re just going to build off it