The great Notre Dame Blog Blue-Gray Sky is one the most comprehensive blogs out there. They cover ND with a simple passion without all the nastiness that accompanies other rivalries.
Pat, Colin and myself fired some questions to each other and I think you will find a comprehensive look at how both teams are dealing with their respective troubles.
Here are our questions and their answers:
1) What the hell? There's rebuilding, and there's 1 - 6. Is there any key element that sticks out as the cause of Notre Dame's season so far, or is the inexperience really just that pervasive? Has your opinion of Charlie Weis changed at all as a result of the results for this season? How much time does he have, realistically, to rebuild?
It's just been a perfect storm of poor coaching, inexperienced players playing key positions, lack of upperclassmen depth, and a few poor showings from some of the veterans we do have. This is the youngest two-deep that ND has had since at least the 60's, but that doesn't completely excuse the record. The coaches have screwed things up too. Speaking of, my own opinion of Charlie has changed in that I naively thought he would be able to avoid many first time head coach mistakes. Well, he's doing a good job of recognizing and trying to fix them, but he's still making a few missteps. Most notably, his decision to avoid overly physical practices (ala Competition Tuesday) likely set back a young team in terms of development of basic blocking and tackling skills.
As for how much time he has to rebuild, I think he's going to need to make a few changes soon (thinking assistant coaches here) but he has next year to really show what he can do with a more experienced team. If he can show that this year was a fluke, everyone will hop back on the bandwagon. If not, people might start to seriously wonder about the direction of the program. What helps Charlie (and largely doomed Willingham) is recruiting. ND currently has a very solid recruiting class, especially on defense. It will be key for Charlie to keep the class together and overcome the wave of negative recruiting (cough Urban Meyer cough), but if it holds it's an excellent building block, along with the current freshman and sophomore classes that are already getting a ton of playing time.
2) The Notre Dame defense appears, to the casual outside observer, as having gone from being a point of anguish last year to a source of opportunistic turnovers and scoring this year. If that's a reasonable assessment, who's been making the key difference on the field? Is the play-calling noticeably different? If USC is able to run the ball more to reduce interceptions, how will Notre Dame shape up with that?
The defense definitely has been an interesting development. At the start of the season it was a liability like the offense, but it has been improving from game to game. The MVP has been defensive tackle Trevor Laws. He's been making plays left and right all year long. But what has really helped to spark the team is the emergence of two freshmen outside linebackers, Kerry Neal and Brian Smith. Both are better pass rushers than anyone else on the team and the better pass rush has in turn made the secondary look better and created some of those opportunistic turnovers. The play calling has been getting more blitz heavy as the defense settles into their roles and responsibilities and it wouldn't surprise me to see ND continue along those lines against the Trojans. Controlling the ground game will be key though, as the new 3-4 defense doesn't have much bulk along the front lines. Most teams haven't had too much trouble running on ND and even with a banged up OL, I expect USC to find success on the ground. The degree of success is what will likely determine the game.
3) On paper, Sharpley has worse stats but better results overall, so he seems a sound choice to be starter. I'm certainly not going to hassle Clausen for the hype to results imbalance, he is a true freshman and seems to spend a lot of time running for his life, but what's the sense of whether he's a QB for the future at Notre Dame?
I think Clausen is going to be a very good quarterback for ND. He's already shown plenty of flashes that top what Brady Quinn did as a freshman. He'll need to get stronger, but as he does he'll be a very good starting quarterback (assuming the OL starts to actually block people). He's also shown to be a pretty good leader and teammate. He's very vocal on the field and when Sharpley scores, he's one of the first off the sidelines to congratulate Evan. I know he caught a lot of grief from non-ND fans for his showy press conference, but, at least publicly, he's been a model teammate so far.
4) Can you explain the exodus of players that we have seen recently under coach Weis? All programs lose players as even USC has lost some this year. With Notre Dame being constantly under the microscope is the poor showing this season making players reevaluate their choice? It just seems that the departures are at epidemic proportions.
I addressed the transfers a bit in a previous post. Every transfer for the most part has been about playing time (and I'm sure the constant losing hasn't helped), but I have to admit that the mid-season timing of the transfers is a bit odd. A few left in order to take advantage of an NCAA rule that lets them sit out this current season rather than 2008, but it's still not a good sign to see so many guys cut and run on their teammates like that. No doubt Charlie is a tough coach to play for if you get on his bad side and South Bend certainly doesn't offer the surrounding comfort of L.A. So, I can see why players miserable on the team would be miserable in school. Still, while I do hope ND addresses the mid-season nature of the transfers and works harder to prevent it in the future, I don't think the numbers are really all that bad. It's just that when you combine the transfers with the horrible record, plenty of people are eager to get out their "jump to conclusions" mat and read too much into it. If ND was having a better year, the transfers probably wouldn't be as big a story.
5) This is less of a question and more of a request: if Notre Dame wins on Saturday, which seems quite possible from where we're sitting, would your fans please rush the field? We'd like to think that we rate above Boston College even when we're having an off year.
I don't think that will be a problem. Tell you what. I'll be at the game and I'll personally make sure it happens should ND pull out the victory. I would ask a request in return though. If ND wins and we rush the field, will the Trojans then be so kind as to win the rest of their games so Charlie can finally get one of those "signature wins" everyone says he's missing. Thanks.
Good luck Pat, here is to a great game!