Monday, September 29, 2008

Week 5 Big Ten Wrap

I will begin with my one Purdue positive this week. I felt that the Boilers could potentially have a 10 win season this year. The talent was there. There weren’t any overwhelming games outside of a trip to Ohio State. The defense seemed to be improved enough to give an “improved” Curtis Painter a chance in every game. We must not lose heart because if that 10 win seasons till happens, however unlikely it is, we will be playing in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. Wisconsin and Illinois, our two Big Ten no plays, already have a conference loss. To reach 10 wins we would have to go 8-0 in conference play, making us the undisputed champion.

Of course, that is not going to happen. I don’t even give it a realistic shot of happening unless we drastically turn things around and pull a pair of upsets the next two weeks. Five things need to happen before we can dream of championships again, and pulling five wins out of the rest of the season for a bowl appearance would necessitate about three of these things.

1. Fire Brock Spack – I can understand one year of a bad defense after that great one of 2003 sent numerous players to the NFL. That should have happened in 2004. That defense was actually pretty good. It was not the impetus behind that season’s slide, and it even came up with several big stops. Since 2005, the defense has been non-existent. To me, it is not a lack of talent (except in one area), but a lack of coaching. We simply refuse to believe that in game adjustments are even legal, let alone consider making them. A prime example, other than Saturday’s game, was Michigan State’s Devin Thomas catching slant pass after slant pass against us last season on third down. If I, a random blogger who never played a down of organized football in his life (I was always a basketball player) can recognize this need for adjustments it has to be a glaring issue.

2. Concentrate on recruiting real linebackers
– Right now we have one serviceable healthy linebacker, and that is Anthony Heygood. Even he is a converted fullback. He’s a good player, but imagine how good he would be if this wasn’t just the second year he has ever played the position. Getting Jason Werner back will help, but this has been the overwhelming glaring weakness for us since Niko, Landon, and Gilbert left for the NFL. I think our line and our secondary are fine, but without good linebackers we’re essentially playing 8 on 11. No matter who is D-coordinator we will struggle until this is fixed.

3. Realize that other teams make adjustments and we’re allowed to counteradjust
– The game of football is incredibly fluid. What works one moment will not work the next. This is true on both sides of the ball. Our coaching staff for too long on both sides of the ball has been WAAAAYYY too rigid. Another example: In Tiller’s first season we ran the bubble screen and it freaked people out. Not more than two years later a no-name linebacker for Central Michigan jumped on the play and returned it untouched for a touchdown. Other teams learn right now, we don’t.

4. Attack another team’s weakness – This may be the most maddening of all. Notre Dame cannot stop the run. We ran 17 times against them against 55 passes. Only once in almost every six plays did we actually attack a team’s weakness. The rest of the time we banged our heads against their strength, trying to break through. Running the ball (without the blasted no huddle) keeps the clock moving, keeps the ball out of the other team’s hands, and keeps our own weakness, the defense, off the field. It’s a strength this year, so let’s freakin’ use it! The same is true defensively, where we knew going in that if we blitzed Clausen he had a tendency to make mistake. Sure we may not sack him, but we might get incompletions or interceptions. Part of this is because we have linebackers that are so weak, but we still rely too much on getting pressure from just four guys. They cannot rush the quarterback and help the linebackers contain the run at the same time. It becomes a guessing game there, and we often lose.
5. Don’t panic
– We are acting like John L. Smith’s teams at Michigan State when we go el foldo after a disappointing play. We showed some resiliency Saturday by coming down the field after the pick six and scoring, but once Notre Dame rolled down the field in the second half it was over. One might even say the missed field goal in the first quarter was the impetus behind that. Imagine if we make that kick, then score after not throwing the pick six. Suddenly we’re up 17-0 on the road. We cannot make mistakes, whenever they happen, affect us so dramatically anymore.

Simply put, it is up to coach Hope to fix these things. Only one involves personnel too.

At least the Cubs might win the World Series

Week 5 Big Ten rankings

11. (9) Purdue (2-2) Result: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 21
– And this is where we will stay until I am proven otherwise. Even Indiana put up a fight this weekend after falling behind Michigan State. The only thing that pulls us out of this ranking the next two weeks is an upset of the Nittany Lions or Buckeyes. That erases one of our losses.

10. (10) Indiana (2-2, 0-1) Result: Michigan State 42, Indiana 29
– I guess at this point I should say how every team ranked ahead of us would beat us. Well, with Indiana it is simple. They had a running game about as bad as Notre Dame a season ago and we refused to adjust to a simple halfback draw. This allowed Marcus Thigpen to gash us like Gale Sayers. Kellen Lewis is dangerous too, so we can forget tackling him. He is a better runner than LeFevour. Indiana doesn’t have much of a defense this year, but their offense will win some games.

9. (8) Iowa (3-2, 0-1) Result: Northwestern 22, Iowa 17
– noted Iowa blog Black Heart Gold Pants said that Northwestern is the worst 5-0 team in college football history, but what does that make the Hawkeyes after losing to them? I can’t see why we would lose to the Hawkeyes, except for the fact that we always play terribly in Iowa City. I’ll be in Miami that weekend, anyway.

8. (11) Michigan (2-2, 1-0) Result: Michigan 27, Wisconsin 25
– I was very impressed by the way Michigan got off the mat Saturday. The offensive numbers weren’t eye-popping and they were helped out by a huge pick six from the defense, but Threet as a running threat paid huge dividends. As they continue to improve, I will be proven more and more wrong about them.

7. (6) Minnesota (4-1, 0-1) Result: Ohio State 34, Minnesota 21 – I find it incredibly sad that Minnesota went on the road and played a better game in the ‘shoe this week than we did at home with a better team against the Buckeyes a year ago. DeLeon Eskridge made some hard yards on Saturday. He is a good back for them to build a rushing offense around and the passing offense isn’t too bad either.

6. (7) Northwestern (5-0, 1-0) Result: Northwestern 22, Iowa 17 – The curse of the pink locker room is broken? Iowa simply handed the game over with five turnovers and 19 unanswered points. The Wildcats might want to worry about their kicking game, as a missed PAT nearly cost them. They get a week off to host Michigan State in what should be a very interesting game. If they get past that a 9-0 start suddenly becomes realistic.

5. (5) Illinois (2-2, 0-1) Result: Penn State 38, Illinois 24 – I am still not quite sure what to make of the Illini. I watched a good portion of the Penn State game and they seem wildly inconsistent. One moment they look like they can do no wrong, the next they are getting burned by speedy receivers and can’t move the ball themselves. The game with Michigan should be very good in terms of positioning for the bowls.

4. (1) Wisconsin (4-1, 0-1) Result: Michigan 27, Wisconsin 25 – Wisconsin choked. That’s the only plausible explanation for blowing a 19 point second half lead. Wisconsin dominated nearly every statistical category, yet turned the ball over four times to negate Michigan’s five mistakes. Their loss was a lot like ours to Oregon in that they had several chances to put the game away, but couldn’t take advantage. Credit then goes to the Michigan defense.

3. (4) Ohio State (4-1, 1-0) Result: Ohio State 34, Minnesota 21 – I think the optimist in me has totally been burned away. Before Saturday, I was actually thinking Purdue had a chance of going to Columbus and winning. Even as Minnesota didn’t get totally blown out I thought that. Now, I expect nothing less than the next game in which we roll over and die after playing unexpectedly close against Penn State this week. Excuse me while I break something.

2. (3) Michigan State (4-1, 1-0) Result: Michigan State 42, Indiana 29 – Jevon Ringer’s worst game this season came in Michigan State’s only loss at California. Even then, he had over 80 yards rushing and a pair of scores. Right now he is the conference’s most legitimate Heisman candidate. If he stays healthy he will also be sleeping on a pile of money with many beautiful ladies at this time next year.

1. (2) Penn State (5-0, 1-0) Result: Penn State 38, Illinois 24 – The Nittany Lions are now a top ten team. They are the only team from the conference that has a somewhat realistic shot at the national championship. If true chaos were to reign, the Boilers would somehow bottle the magic from the great 1999 Michigan State game and pull off a huge upset this Saturday. The more likely of scenarios is that this team will play out of its mind for three quarters, suck me in again, then crush my heart, leaving me to drive back to Indianapolis and watch the tape of Miami-Florida State we’ll have in silence that evening as I write another tirade and wait for basketball season.

Blogpoll ballot:

There is some big news brewing in regards to the blogpoll. It is news that I can’t publish at the moment, but it will mean a lot more exposure for Off the Tracks. It was some very good news to hear today as today was also my grandmother’s funeral. There were a huge number of changes to this week’s ballot because of the number of upsets. My preseason tirade against Nick Saban and Alabama makes me look like a complete idiot, but I can accept that. After all, I predicted Purdue could win 10 games this year. Here is this week’s preliminary ballot. Feel free to comment in the comments.

1 Oklahoma 2
2 Alabama 11
3 LSU 1
4 Texas 2
5 Missouri 2
6 Penn State 5
7 Georgia 5
8 Texas Tech 1
9 Southern Cal 8
10 Brigham Young --
11 Auburn 1
12 Florida 7
13 Utah 1
14 South Florida 2
15 Wisconsin 7
16 Ohio State 2
17 Kansas --
18 Boise State 1
19 Oregon 4
20 Michigan State 2
21 Vanderbilt 5
22 Wake Forest 7
23 Ball State 2
24 Northwestern 2
25 Oregon State 1

Dropped Out: TCU (#20), Clemson (#21), Miami (Florida) (#24).

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Season over

It’s not even over as I write this, but this is the most embarrassing loss under Joe Tiller. The statistics tell the story.

Notre Dame came in as one of the worst rushing teams in the nation again, not even averaging 80 yards per game. We gave up 201 yards, including 134 to Armando Allen.

Jimmy Clausen had a career best 275 yards and three touchdowns. He had two picks in each game so far. We didn’t get a pick, and rarely got defensive pressure. I’ll give credit where credit is due. Jimmy Montana played a great game, but our defense showed no interest whatsoever in wanting to play the third quarter.

Notre Dame was susceptible to the run. After Kory Sheets’ early touchdown run we completely went away from the running game. Once down 14 points, we went back to it for a few plays and Kory gashed them. It seems to me that is this is working,a nd has for four games now, we might want to go to it again.

Kickoff returns were a strength. On most returns it was a comedy of errors.

We couldn’t afford empty trips into the red zone like two years ago. We missed a short field goal and went for it late when we probably shouldn’t have. Three points there might have at least given us a small chance. Notre Dame Answered with a three point drive of its own and it was over.

The one play I alluded to in the preview happened. Painter’s ugly pick six undid a lot of good for the senior quarterback. We were leading 7-0 at that point. We had missed a field goal, but survived an ND miss to even things out. The pick tied it, but after coming back down to retake the lead we were outscored 31-7 the rest of the way. We only slowed down the Irish when the game was well in hand at the end.

Brock Spack needs to be fired. Don’t even wait to get back to West Lafayette, just fire him in the post game press conference. The offense once again played well enough to win. His defense, however, continued its maddening tendency to not make adjustments or exploit weaknesses. It’s like he felt we didn’t need to play run defense because they were so bad. Why not play overwhelming run defense and force Clausen to throw 60 times per game? The game has passed Spack by. If he will not make any in game adjustments or even try make other teams adjust to his defenses it is time for him to go.

This season is now for all intents and purposes, over. We will not beat Penn State. We will not beat Ohio State. In two weeks, we will be 2-4 needing to go 5-1 in the second half just to assure a bowl game. That will not happen. Michigan will run wild on us after shocking Wisconsin today. Tyrell Sutton will gash us because we won’t adjust to Northwestern’s running game. Javon Ringer could possibly break LaDanian Tomlinson’s single game rushing record against us. That is 406 yards for those of you scoring at home. Even Indiana will run for over 200 yards.

It is not even the fact that we lost to Notre Dame. I can accept that as the Irish played a nearly perfect game offensively. It is the method in which it happened. There is absolutely no excuse for things that have been glaring weaknesses for at least 15 consecutive games to become overwhelming strengths. More examples:

We knew Notre Dame was vulnerable against the run. We ran 17 times and passed 55 times. That was with the game being within reach for the majority of time. It’s not like we fell behind early and had to pass, pass, pass to catch up. Kory Sheets ran for almost 7 yards a carry, yet he only rushed the ball 13 times and less than 10 in the first half when we led most of the way? WTF?

It led to only three points, but we got absolutely hosed on a play that even the receiver didn’t think he came up with the catch. At that point there was still the smallest of chances. A stop there meant it was a two possession game. With the way the offense was moving we still had time for two scores. The catch let Notre Dame get enough for a field goal, and it was game over from there.

The fact the Irish even made a field goal is the final insult. It was Notre Dame’s first made field goal of the year.

Now, matters are worse. We lost one of best defensive players in Frank Duong to a knee injury that certainly did not sound good. We also may have lost Kory Sheets for awhile too. When he went off the field late in the game favoring his shoulder it looked like he could be out for an extensive amount of time.

Sheets, Tardy, and Painter (if you take away the interception) played very well. Painter was spreading the ball around as he should. Sheets was elusive when we gave him the ball (which wasn’t enough) and Tardy was fantastic after the catch. Those are the only positive from this game.

Still, this coaching staff needs a drastic attitude adjustment. The “good” rushing team should never have 17 attempts when the “abysmal” rushing team has 40. That is what happened today. That lies strictly on the shoulders of the coaching staff. It is like they are trying to force Painter’s Heisman candidacy and record breaking attempts instead of doing what will help this team win football games. Against Oregon we ran a freaking no-huddle instead of running clock with the lead against a ranked team. These coaching decisions aren’t even questionable anymore. They are downright absurd.

Barring a drastic turnaround defensively, this season is all but over. We cannot stop even the worst rushing teams from running the ball down our throats. We are not generating a pass rush even against a team that doesn’t have a strong offensive line. We should be absolutely embarrassed with our second half effort this week after being able to play good second halves in all three games before this. We succeeded only in making Jimmy Clausen looks like Joe Montana and Armando Allen look like Marcus Allen.

We might find two or three wins the rest of the way, but five in order to assure a bowl game? I don’t think so.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Big Ten week 5 preview

I continue to kick some severe ass in the Big Ten bloggers’ pick ‘em standings, but I admit that the games have been easy to pick so far. That changes this week as everyone but Purdue opens up conference play. About the only thing I can pick with 100% confidence is that Purdue will be all by itself in 6th place come Sunday morning. Most of the games have clear favorites, but I get the sense we’re in for one of the more interesting conference races in years since the Michigan-Ohio State game likely won’t decide the conference champion.

Purdue (2-1) at Notre Dame (2-1) 3:30pm NBC

If Purdue plays a perfect game, or even close to perfect, I think the Boilers will win in South Bend. That is far from a guarantee, however. We are still susceptible to short screen passes and that is what the Irish love to do. Last year we didn’t defend the deep ball well and now Golden Tate has emerged as a solid deep threat. Unlike our visits to Ann Arbor, I feel truly cursed in Notre Dame Stadium because of the sheer number of mistakes we make just to cost us the game. At least going to Michigan I know we’re going to play like crap and get destroyed.

In 1998 it was two late Drew Brees interceptions when we only needed to run out the clock. In 2000 it was special teams miscues that allowed us to get beaten by a third string QB that eventually became a tight end. In 2002 it was three turnovers returned for touchdowns, including two on consecutive plays. In 2006 it was failing to get points on five trips into Irish territory. When we came up with the rare perfect game we stomped the Irish 48-16 in 2004. That is still one of my favorite games I have ever watched, but I don’t expect it this year.

We will know early if Purdue is going to win if they keep Notre Dame’s running game under wraps and can defend the short pass. I have confidence in our secondary because we have been able to defend the deep ball fairly well so far. We also must commit to the running game with Kory Sheets. Notre Dame is vulnerable against the run, and Sheets proved last year he can run on them. Like 2004, we need to get a lead early and not let up. That being said, I still need to see it to believe it. Something will happen to give Notre Dame another “luck of the Irish” win over us. Notre Dame 21, Purdue 20

Michigan State (3-1) at Indiana (2-1) Noon, ESPN

Ball State’s MarQuale Lewis ran all over the Hoosiers last week. Can you imagine what Jevon Ringer is going to do? It was because of Lewis’ effort that Nate Davis had a very efficient game that turned into a blowout. The Ball State defense even pitched a second half shutout, so what is an experienced and talented Spartan defense going to do? It is amazing to see that after one game Indiana’s dream season is in serious trouble. Ball State is good, but they still vastly exposed and humiliated the Hoosiers last week.

Michigan State only needs to be concerned about wearing down a great back Ringer. Yes he’s at almost 700 yards and has 11 TD’s on the year already, but he also has an enormous number of carries. Michigan State probably wants to limit his carries at least somewhat over the next three weeks before a key Ohio State-Michigan-Wisconsin stretch beginning in mid-October. If Indiana comes out and rolls over like it did last year in East Lansing they will be in severe trouble the rest of the year. A loss means they would have to run the table at home (and Wisconsin would likely prevent that) while gathering one win at Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State, or Purdue just to guarantee a bowl game. Michigan State 34, Indiana 21

Northwestern (4-0) at Iowa (3-1) Noon ESPN Classic

This will be an interesting game in terms of Big Ten bowl positioning. Neither team will win the conference, but both will be fighting for one of the last three bowl spots. The only real test either team has faced was Iowa’s visit to Pittsburgh last week, which the Hawkeyes nearly passed. Northwestern’s offense hasn’t put up the numbers that some expected from them, but they are 4-0 for the first time in 46 years so I doubt their fans have much to complain about.

Iowa’s offense faces some similar struggles. It put up some big numbers against Maine and FIU, but was bailed out by the defense against Iowa State and couldn’t get moving for a game-winning score at Pittsburgh. Northwestern’s defense has been surprisingly stout by Wildcat standards, so that should provide an interesting test. Iowa probably needs this game more than Northwestern at the moment. Home games against Wisconsin and Penn State with road trips to Michigan State, Illinois, and even Indiana (a tough out for the Hawkeyes recently) would all be tough if Iowa loses this game. I do think the Hawkeyes can squeeze this one out at home though. Iowa 17, Northwestern 16

Minnesota (4-0) at #13 Ohio State (3-1) Noon Big Ten Network

Am I alone in thinking this game could potentially be a lot closer than expected? Minnesota’s offense has had some pretty good moments so far this year. Still, they remind me of Purdue the last two seasons. Yes, they’re unbeaten, but this is their first real test. Ohio State isn’t playing too well at the moment, but this could be a game like last year’s in West Lafayette when they simply asserted dominance based on overall talent.

This will also mark the long-awaited return of Chris Wells to the Ohio State lineup. I didn’t think one player would make a difference with the sheer amount of raw talent the Buckeyes possess, but we’ll find out if it truly does make a difference. It should also be interesting to see how things open up for Terrelle Pryor at quarterback with Wells beside him. I can think of a lot worse options for teams. Minnesota will probably hang around for a quarter or two, but if Wells is back at full strength the Buckeyes probably won’t be challenged. Ohio State 28, Minnesota 13

#9 Wisconsin (3-0) at Michigan (1-2) 3:30 ABC

This has the potential to get ugly. Both teams have had two weeks to prepare for this game. Michigan certainly needed the time more. If it is a matter of practice and repetition the Michigan offense should be much better this week. Still, opening against the prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten is far from the best case scenario. What Michigan needs is a confidence-building win against a weaker opponent, not a top 10 team coming to town with dreams of something larger for its season. Michigan’s first four conference games are about as hard as it gets for anyone this year.

The Wisconsin defense has been lights out in the second half of games so far. They have given up just 17 points after halftime. If they lead at the half it is pretty much game over. Michigan will provide a sterner test than Akron or Marshall. They still have a ton of improvement to accomplish before I can pick them here though. Wisconsin 27, Michigan 10.

#22 Illinois (2-1) at #12 Penn State (4-0) 8pm ABC

Illinois needs to pull an upset here if it wants to return to a BCS bowl. Of course, I don’t think they deserved to go last year, but I’m sure the athletics departments of all 11 Big Ten Schools will thanks the Rose bowl committee for the extra payday their appearance produced. If Big Ten schools guarantee paydays for the Northern Colorados of the world its about time we got paid a little extra for one member to go take a beating. Illinois can silence a lot of questions by shocking the Nittany Lions.

Unfortunately, Penn State is the one team in the conference that has had absolutely no problems so far. They haven’t even fallen into the trap of playing down to their competition. A win this week likely means our next shot at a ranked team will come against a member of the top 10. I definitely want to keep an eye on this on to gauge our chances for next week, especially if we pull off the win in South Bend. Penn State is one of the few Big Ten teams left with a marginal shot at playing for the national championship. They will keep that shot alive, but Illinois proved last year they are not afraid to play in any venue. Penn State 27, Illinois 21.

National games of note:

#8 Alabama at #3 Georgia – This week’s SEC matchup of top 10 teams should be a pretty good one. Both teams are playing extremely well at the moment, so expect another close one like Last week’s Auburn-LSU game. This easily could be a preview of an SEC championship rematch, and even (if everything falls just right) round one of three between the two. Say it is a close game that Alabama loses. Both teams then run the table in a very tough conference and meet in the SEC championship where Alabama turns the tables and wins in a close one. If no one else is unbeaten you can bet there will be a lot of talk about a third game between he two. Georgia 17, Alabama 14

#24 TCU at #2 Oklahoma – this game ahs blowout potential. TCU already tripped up Oklahoma at home a few years ago when everyone was ready to hand them the national championship, so you can be the Sooners will not overlook this game again. Oklahoma 35, TCU 14

North Carolina at Miami (FL) – I was very impressed by the stomping the Canes put on Texas A&M last week. Next is a team that has given them all kinds of fits since they moved to the ACC. It is also a homecoming for Butch Davis, who is building a very good program at UNC. He was very responsible for Miami’s last national title, as he brought in many of the players on that dominant team. If Miami gets past this one, they are a serious threat to win the ACC. Miami 24, North Carolina 17.

Q&A with Rakes of Mallow

I wanted to thank everyone that has stopped by the last couple of days and offered their condolences. It has been a whirlwind since yesterday, and will continue to be until the funeral on Monday. I have a few things that were already pre made to post over the next few days in order to break up the monotony

The first such thing is a question and answer session that I had with the Notre Dame blog Rake of Mallow over at SB Nation. My answers can be found over here at this link:

Off the Tracks: Notre Dame's defense didn't help the offense at times last year. How much improvement have you seen on this side of the ball? Have you been concerned by the absolute lack of a pass rush?

Rakes of Mallow: This defense is pretty young and rather thin along the defensive line, but I think they've been playing well. The safety tandem of David Bruton and Kyle McCarthy has been fantastic, both nearly averaging double digits in tackles, and Brian Smith is emerging as a leader at linebacker. The corner depth is really strong, although relatively untested against the run-heavy attacks of Michigan and Michigan State.

You pointed out the lack of pressure, and yes, that's a cause for concern. The biggest weakness on the defense is negligible depth, and that means the Irish have to blitz to get pressure. While we all have faith that Coach Tenuta's blitzes will eventually begin hitting, they're just not getting there yet. I'd like to think they'll have success against Purdue Saturday, but there is no way to tell.

OTT: How has Notre Dame's running game struggled so much with such talented backs? Is it a result of the line or underperforming ballcarriers?

ROM: I would put it more on the line than the ballcarriers. Armando Allen seems to have difficulty finding space at times and James Aldridge has been dinged up since he started getting serious time, but Robert Hughes has had some solid production in his limited career. The line still doesn't have a lot of starting experience outside of right tackle Sam Young, and whether its scheme, play-calling or talent, the running game just hasn't gotten it done since 2006.

OTT: Where do you think Jimmy Clausen is in his development so far? Is he ahead of or behind Quinn?

ROM: Quinn and Clausen both were thrown into the fire their freshman year and performed admirably under adverse circumstances, but at this point, I'd give the nod to Clausen. To be fair, Quinn's sophomore year passing options under Ty Willingham were limited to "Bomb it deep to Matt Shelton" or "Throw a bubble screen to Rhema McKnight." Say what you will about Coach Weis, but he knows his quarterbacks, and the level Quinn reached his final two seasons in South Bend is something Clausen can only aspire to reach. There is enough talent at wide receiver (Tate, Floyd, Kamara), that Clausen could approach all of Quinn's records if he can get an offensive line in front of him comparable to what Our Fair Brady was working with, but he has to keep improving.

OTT: What do you think is the biggest reason Purdue has struggled to close out Notre Dame in South bend under coach Tiller? Is it simple "Luck of the Irish?"

ROM: I really have no idea, because Notre Dame Stadium has been anything but a house of horrors for most Irish opponents (Michigan won in '06, USC the last three trips, Michigan State never loses there). I guess just plain bad luck, plus catching some of the better Irish teams there (the'98 Gator Bowl team, '00 Fiesta Bowl team,'02 Gator Bowl team, '06 Sugar Bowl team) and hosted the atrocities in 2003 and 2007.

Finally, in an effort to pay some bills this week, it is important to remember that the Purdue-Notre Dame game is one for the Shillelagh trophy. If you're in need of your own trophy, feel free to visit the following sites:

golf trophies

cheerleading trophies

soccer trophies

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Off the Tracks pauses for a moment

Today is a sad day, as the official grandmother of Off the Tracks, Edna Dillon, passed away this afternoon at the age of 91. She leaves behind four grandchildren with me, my sister, and our spouses, as well as two great grandchildren. My mother is the only child, but today my grandmother is reunited with my beloved grandfather. Both are very responsible for my love of sports, so in a way they have a big hand in the creation of this site. My grandmother was a Boilermaker fan by association. I was the first member on her side of the family to graduate from college, and I made sure she was there at my graduation six years ago. She proudly had a Purdue grandma shirt back in the day and was wearing a Purdue Rose Bowl shirt watching the game on TV back here in Indiana while we were out there. Naturally, the publication schedule will be a little hectic over the next few days.

Let's Boiler up on Saturday and win one for one less Boiler fan today.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Notre Dame Preview

I would almost say that Saturday’s game in South Bend is a must win for Purdue if we’re going to have a good 2008 season. We have already whiffed on one good chance for a “name” win. The Irish are better this year, but they are still beatable. With upcoming games against Penn State and Ohio State, plus a road trip to Michigan State later on we need as many wins as we can get for to stymie the inevitable game that we completely gack against someone we should beat. Unfortunately, our recent history has shown that Notre Dame Stadium is the most unkind venue of all for us short of Michigan and Ohio Stadiums.

What does a win do for us? It lets us keep the Shillelagh trophy for consecutive seasons, something that’s only been done once under coach Tiller. It also gives Tiller an even .500 record against the Irish, something many Irish fans would refuse to admit to. More importantly, it gives us a much-needed 3-1 finish in non conference play. Since we’re already down a strike to Northwestern and Minnesota record-wise in terms of bowl position we can’t afford to give them another strike, or give a strike to teams like Indiana, Iowa, and Illinois. 4-4 is a reasonable expectation for a Big Ten season, but needing 5-3 just to insure a bowl leaves little margin for error.

What scares me the most about this game is the sheer inability to finish when we have played in South Bend. Yes we finally broke through in 2004, but that should have been our fourth win in a row up there, not the first in over 30 years. We completely choked in 1998, 2000, and 2002. I fear another painful loss can happen this year. That is why I refuse to believe in any win at Notre Dame Stadium by the Boilers until the clock reads triple zeroes and we have more points than them.

Notre Dame offense:

I have derisively called him Jimmy Montana, but he has brought it on himself with the braggadocio he displayed in saying he wanted to win four Heisman trophies and four national championships at Notre Dame. While he will fall short of that goal, you have to give him credit for thinking big. After all, isn’t that the point of playing this game? Jimmy struggled last year, but has improved in year two. In what little that I saw of the Michigan State game I saw that he is already somewhat ahead of Curtis Painter in that he doesn’t zero in on one receiver every throw. He actually moves his head and scans the field. The numbers are respectable through three games as he has completed 55 of 96 passes for 626 yards and six scores. He also has 6 interceptions, so he is still learning.

Jimmy’s offense has improved because he has received better protection. He is no longer running for his life on every single play as the coverage breaks down. Purdue was able to knock him around last year, but he still made some good throws to go with the bad (18 of 26 for 169 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT). It will be important to get that same pressure, especially since the Notre Dame running game often offers him little help. Robert Hughes leads the Irish on the ground with just 142 yards and two touchdowns through three games. This has come on 41 carries, so it’s not like he is breaking big runs, either. Notre Dame’s longest run from scrimmage was a 24 yard end around by Golden Tate. As a team the Irish have only rushed for 234 yards and those two scores by Hughes.

Still, Central Michigan was only slightly better and they ran all over us. Most of that came from Dan LeFevour. Jimmy Clausen is no Dan LeFevour in terms of mobility. Hughes and Armando Allen have talent on paper, but have not shown it consistently on the field. We cannot let them go off as we let LaGarrette Blount and Jeremiah Johnson of Oregon. We have to make Clausen throw, and we have to learn to defend the screen pass to the running back.

Allen and Hughes have combined for 12 receptions so far, but have not gathered many yards. If Notre Dame is smart they will pass to them time and again out of the backfield on screens because we have been unable to stop this play for five years. We couldn’t learn it last week when Ontario Sneed caught six passes for 57 yards and two scores, so I doubt we’re suddenly going to learn it. This was a problem as far back as 2004 when Sam Keller kept dumping the ball off to his running back in the Sun Bowl. We continue to act like we have never ever seen this play, let alone think it is legal. Why do I expect us to start no?. If I were an opposing offense I would keep exploiting it until we stopped it.

As far as other receivers go we need to watch for Golden Tate. Tate was quiet last year against everyone else, but exploded for 104 yards and a score on just three catches. Two of them were highlight-worthy dives, while his remaining numbers on the season were 3 for 27. Thus far he has proved to be Clausen’s favorite target with 15 catches for 303 yards and two scores. He is a big play threat we must contain because he’ll actually catch the ball as opposed to dropping it like Central Michigan and Northern Colorado did. Michael Floyd is the next threat (10-118-2), while Clausen has spread the ball around to seven other receivers on the season with at least two catches. One is the suspended Will Yeatman, but he only had two catches for six yards.

The eye-popping numbers of as recent as two years ago are not there for the Irish. Still, we have a history of turning quiet players into stars for a day. A great example is Tate just a year ago. If we’re going to have a chance in this game we cannot allow this to happen. If we can hold the bulk of Notre Dame’s regulars to their season averages we should have a good chance at winning. If Allen and Hughes starts busting 15 yards runs every play (or 20 yard catches on screens) we’ll be in deep trouble. Notre Dame’s offense has improved so much because the line has allowed just 3 sacks on the season. Our secondary must keep playing well in coverage and bring down our 429 yards per game average.

Notre Dame defense:

Statistically Notre Dame’s defense isn’t good, but it is better than ours. Again, that is statistically speaking. Part of the reason it looks better is because of the competition it has faced. San Diego State bombed away with the passing game while Michigan’s offense is one in that calling it inept at this point would pay it a complement. Talking about the Irish pass rush would imply that it actually had one. The one sack that Notre Dame has in three games came from linebacker Maurice Crum. Our offensive line continues to improve in protecting Painter, so he should have plenty of time to throw again. The Irish have generated a more respectable 15 tackles for loss, so they have proven they can get into the backfield some.

Notre Dame has proven to be pretty good at forcing turnovers with nine takeaways in three games. David Bruton has two of those takeaways with an interception and fumble recovery. He is also tied for the lead in solo tackles with Kyle McCarthy at 18. Crum may be the most dangerous all-around player. He is a 3-year starter at inside linebacker and he has 10 solo tackles, 2.5 for loss. He is the player the defense revolves around.

The critical element of our offense will be Kory Sheets. Javon Ringer of Michigan State and Sam McGuffie ran all day on the Irish, as did Sheets a year ago (141 yards, 2 TD’s) in West Lafayette. Notre Dame is giving up more than 140 yards per game on the ground, but the past two games have been especially bad. SDSU had only 71 yards on the ground, but Um and MSU has 159 and 242 respectively. If Sheets continues to play well and has another day like he did against Oregon, Purdue has a great chance of winning.

The Irish are fairly average against the pass, giving up 215 yards per game through the air. Two years ago Curtis Painter had a great day in South Bend, but struggled in the red zone and got no help from the defense. Last year Sheets had a banner day, but the red zone struggles continued as Chris Summers bailed us out with his first four field goal day. We need every point we can get in South Bend. This year those field goals have to be touchdowns. We have to go for the kill offensively and not let up until this team is dead. Even then, as history has proven, we’d better score another touchdown just to be safe.

Simply put, Curtis Painter has to play better. He will have time to throw, so he has to go through his progressions and not make big mistakes as he is prone to do. He has not played well yet, but this can change with a good game on national TV. We also need to make sure we use Mr. Sheets plenty. If we get another 100 yard game we should be in good shape. An Oregon-esque performance means we will lose only if we beat ourselves.

Notre Dame Special Teams:

This should be a huge advantage. For all the four and five star players that Charlie Weis has recruited since arriving in South Bend he has yet to get an even serviceable kicker. Last year the Irish missed not one, but two extra points in West Lafayette. Brandon Walker is a perfect 9 of 9 on PAT’s, but it 0 for 3 on field goals with all three misses coming from 40+ yards. There have also been issues with snapping the ball on attempts. Weis is a sneaky coach, so I would be ready for a fake every time. It worked two years ago, if you’ll remember.

In the punting game we have to get better at coverage. We had success against Central Michigan, but the Oregon game is still fresh in my mind. Our own return game has been great so far, but I don’t want it to be a factor Saturday. We’re currently second in the country on average yards per kickoff return and we haven’t even taken one to the house yet. I would just as soon improve on that by having only one chance Saturday and taking it to the house. That means we pitched a shut out, but I don’t expect it at all.

Armando Allen is a dangerous returned, averaging over 11 yards on punts returns and 24 on kickoffs. Remember how Vontez Duff was such a difference maker in the 2001 and 2002 games? Allen could be the same.

Final thoughts:

On paper we should win. Notre Dame’s offense is one-dimensional and has a tendency to get bogged down on the ground. Michigan gifted them with a boatload of turnovers and San Diego State had an unfortunate fumble at the goal line. Otherwise, the Irish would likely be 0-3 right now. On the other side of the ball, we’re running the ball well and Curtis Painter is due for a breakout game. Why then, do I have such a bad feeling?

It has to do with history. We very rarely play well in South Bend. We almost always shoot ourselves in the foot with a costly turnover or special teams play. Our defense also has shown in recent seasons that we can even make the most average of players into superstars for one game. On paper the Irish have a huge talent differential if you go strictly on recruiting rankings. Those players have yet to produce, but that doesn’t mean the talent isn’t there. It only takes one game to break out, and we’re capable of being more than accommodating.

I like that our offense, even in its struggles, is still playing much better than Notre Dame’s. It has moved the ball when it had to and gotten points when needed. The defense has shown some good moments so far too. Clausen can’t run nearly as well as LeFevour, so we won’t have that element to worry about this week unless there is a disastrous breakdown multiple times. If we can actually figure out the damn screen pass we can slow down the Irish offensively. If we play like we did early against Oregon we should win.

But this is South Bend, and that almost never happens. I expect another close game with an agonizing finish like a 65 yard bomb of a field goal to beat us in the end. Pick forthcoming tomorrow in the Big Ten preview.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Big rankings for week 4 (plus blogpoll ballot)

Before we begin this wrap I wanted to touch on the events of yesterday evening. Last night was the final game in Yankee Stadium. I have never been a fan of the Yankees. I was raised a Cubs fan and I will die a Cubs fan (making this year a rare happy year in baseball). Still, I have a sense of history. I had a chance to attend a game at Yankee Stadium last summer. I knew I was going to be in New York City on the day of a Yankee game so I got tickets in advance. It was the only day I have ever been in New York. I went strictly as a sports fan visiting one of the great cathedrals of sport. I consider my single visit to be one of the jewels in my crown of sports attendance. It was only a meaningless July game against the blue Jays, but to stand in the same house where so much history was made was almost overwhelming.

It is a shame that we live in an age where money is more important than tradition. The single class Indiana High School basketball tournament, the Miami Orange Bowl, and now Yankee Stadium are all on that list of proud traditions that were lost, but did not need to be lost. I consider myself fortunate to have seen all three. Yankee Stadium, you will be missed. The only way baseball could be sadder is if Fenway and Wrigley (two other parks I have been fortunate enough to visit) go by the wayside as well.

Week 4 Big Ten rankings

11. (11) Michigan (1-2) Results: bye – The Wolverines had a bye this week, so there’s not really much else that needs to be said. Opening the season with the new prohibitive favorite in the conference won’t help matters much. Michigan can do wonders for its season by beating Wisconsin this week. The Badgers simply want to get past one of their most difficult road games.

I don’t think the Wolverines will stay down here for long. The long bowl streak is likely to end this season as everyone lines up to take their shots, but they will get better. Just how much better remains to be seen.

10. (7) Indiana (2-1) Result: Ball State 42, Indiana 20– The Dante Love injury last night was absolutely hideous. The news that he is moving again and seems to be recovering after a five hour surgery is incredibly encouraging. That is easily the biggest story from IU’s loss last night. It wasn’t even the only life-threatening injury on the night, as South Florida’s Brouce Mompremier had another very serious looking injury last night as well.

Ball State is very good this year. They may have the best team they have ever had. Their streak against BCS conference teams is now over and I suspected it would happen. I just never expected it would happen in such dominating fashion. The Cardinals completely shut down a very good Indiana offense in the second half. Now the Hoosiers had better hope they win five conference games to assure a bowl bid, because a later game against Central Michigan is far from a guarantee.

9. (10) Purdue (2-1) Result: Purdue 32, Central Michigan 25 – Most people thought Purdue would be 2-1 at this point regardless of what happened. The truth is that Purdue should be 3-0 right now if Curtis Painter had played up to his hype. If Painter ever starts playing to the massive expectations played on his shoulders Purdue has shown that they will be a difficult out every week. As I write this, I am watching the replay of yesterday’s game on the Big Ten network. They were talking about how we had nothing on the ground. Well, we had nothing on the ground because we didn’t go to the strength of the team (at this time, the running game) in Kory Sheets enough.

And what is wrong with that? The running game has been great when we have used it at this point. Why not commit to it and run until teams force us to throw? I know I am nothing more than a blogger instead of a head coach, but why not completely shift the perception of the team just to shock people for a few games? That’s a wild and crazy idea, considering everyone expects us to pass until Painter’s arm falls off. It would never work.

Seriously though, I am encouraged by much of our defense. Unfortunately, through three games opposing offenses have exploited the weakness of that unit. The front four has performed well, even generating great pressure yesterday. The secondary has been great with four picks in the last two games, three for absolutely huge plays. Opposing offenses have been attacking our linebackers at will. Heygood is good, but he has been on a bit of an island so far. If Werner gets backs they should be better, but if I were an opposing offense I would continue to do exactly what Northern Colorado, Oregon, and Central Michigan have done. Memo to Notre Dame: run the halfback screen all day and Clausen will break records.

8. (5) Iowa (3-1) Result: Pittsburgh 21, Iowa 20 – I don’t know if the following was an Iowa related e-mail, but it came from the state of Iowa. Therefore, I officially apologize to any Iowa fans that read this site for this e-mail:

Do you get paid to make your stupid predictions? I have seen some talking heads in my lifetime who thought they were so-called experts, but you really take the cake.

You are not even close. What a joke.


Adel, Iowa

Okay, I predicted Iowa to lose, and they did lose. I am not exactly trailing the Big Ten bloggers’ pick ‘em standings by that much. So please, inform me what you are basing the accusation on?

Seriously though, Iowa needed a win yesterday against their first real opponent and they did not get it. Therefore, I have to continue reserving judgment on the Hawkeyes. Opening Big Ten play at home against Northwestern, who finally broke through and beat all of its non-conference opponents, will be a good gauge for both.

7. (6) Northwestern (4-0) Result: Northwestern 16, Ohio 8– Speaking of the Wildcats, they deserve congratulations for surviving C.J. Bacher on Saturday. The Wildcats tried their best to get their annual head-scratcher of a non-conference loss, but pulled it out in the end thanks to the defense. Bacher threw four interceptions, but the defense managed to block a pair of field goal attempts and kept the Bobcats from turning that generosity into a flood of points. If Bacher plays better, Northwestern will definitely go bowling somewhere. Northwestern is 4-0 for the first time in 46 years.

6. (9) Minnesota (4-0) Result: Minnesota 37, Florida Atlantic 3 – Minnesota is an odd team so far. In their non-conference games that I expected them to sail through they struggled. In the two that I expected trouble, they won with ease. A 37-3 win over Florida Atlantic is nothing to be ashamed of, especially since the same team hung 42 on their defense a year ago. Tim Brewster’s bunch can now legitimately dream of the postseason with just a pair of conference wins. That’s quite a step forward from a year ago.

Unfortunately, as the close wins over Northern Illinois and Montana State have shown, the defense still has a tendency to go south at times. That will likely make for a very up and down Big Ten campaign.

5. (8) Illinois (2-1) Result: bye – No game for the Illini last week, which is probably a good thing after the close call against Louisiana-Lafayette. They don’t draw an easy assignment by opening conference play at Penn State. The Nittany Lions also have revenge on their minds after losing in Champaign last year. I admit I haven’t followed the Illini much this season since Purdue hasn’t played them in two years. I’m going to try and follow this week’s game at Penn State a little more, especially since we get Penn State next.

4. (3) Ohio State (3-1) Result: Ohio State 28, Troy 10 – I’m dropping the Buckeyes again because the Troy game was probably a little too close for too long. Minnesota may be feeling feisty enough to make a game of it this week, but I doubt it. More than Beanie Wells, this team feels like something is just off at the moment. Switching from Boeckman to Pryor appears to have helped, but that was against Troy. Minnesota is better than Troy, and could potentially pull an upset if the Buckeye aren’t careful.

3. (4) Michigan State (3-1) Result: Michigan State 23, Notre Dame 7 – Thank you, Spartans, for preventing the return to glory. Now just please make sure you run Javon Ringer as much as you have so he is exhausted by the time we play you. Seriously, Ringer is playing like the Big Ten player of the year so far. I might even say he is making a mild case for the Heisman. It’s unfortunate that the loss to Cal happened, because the longer that Michigan State stayed undefeated the better his chances were. The Spartans will have to balance their offense more in case teams either figure out how to stop Ringer or he gets hurt.

Notre Dame was also in position near the end to win when I didn’t expect them to. This makes me very nervous heading into South Bend Saturday.

2. (2) Penn State (4-0) Result: Penn State 45, Temple 3 – Penn State has been the most dominant team in the conference so far. They have yet to be tested by any of their opponents. Sure they haven’t played anyone of note, but it has to be encouraging that Penn State hasn’t even remotely played down to their level of competition. Now they face a pretty good Illinois team. If they win that one in dominating fashion we can seriously consider Penn state for even more than the Big Ten championship.

1. (1) Wisconsin (3-0) Result: bye – Wisconsin stays at the top because they have the most impressive win to date. They also get the first crack at Michigan in conference play. There is no true advantage coming into this week’s game because both had a bye before facing each other. As well as Wisconsin’s defense has played in the second half of its games Michigan may be lucky to see the other side of the 50 after halftime. October 11th may be the best game this season in the conference when Penn State comes to Madison.

Blogpoll ballot:

I didn’t have many changes at the top this week. I couldn’t even punish Auburn that much because of who they lost to. Most of the changes are at the bottom. I had to give Ball state some love after Saturday night’s game. The Cardinals are definitely for real and the game at Central Michigan should be fantastic. I was also impressed enough by Miami stomping Texas A&M at College Station that I let them back into the poll. If Miami continues to improve like they are I expect the Canes to stay for most of the season. I may even be attending the November 13th game against Virginia Tech down in Miami. Here is the rest of the poll, feel free to comment or gripe in the comments section.

1 Southern Cal --
2 Georgia 2
3 Oklahoma 1
4 LSU 1
5 Florida 2
6 Texas 2
7 Missouri 1
8 Wisconsin 1
9 Texas Tech 2
10 Brigham Young 5
11 Penn State 6
12 Auburn 3
13 Alabama 3
14 Utah 5
15 Wake Forest 5
16 South Florida 3
17 Kansas 1
18 Ohio State 4
19 Boise State 7
20 TCU 6
21 Clemson --
22 Michigan State --
23 Oregon 11
24 Miami (Florida) 2
25 Ball State 1

Dropped Out: East Carolina (#16), North Carolina (#23), Fresno State (#24), Vanderbilt (#25).