Sunday, November 15, 2009

Weis' Irish Wake, Part II: Pitt, Refs Crush Notre Dame Comeback 27-22

Charlie Weis, Robert Hughes, ND-Pitt_11-14-09In what has become a familiar scenario, Notre Dame fell down by a huge third quarter deficit, came back big time in the 4th to make it a game, but in the end, the 8th-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers, aided by some truly rank officiating, prevailed by five. And in doing so, Dave "Champion of Faith" Wannstedt's charges not only kept Irish Head Coach Charlie Weis' nearly (im)perfect records against ranked teams intact (Weis' Irish have now won only one of eleven games against top ten opponents since 2006) but sent Charlie ever closer to the edge of the coaching abyss.

After penalties and turnovers left Notre Dame converting on only two of six trips to the red zone last week, Weis called "a relatively conservative game" in the first two quarters, which led to zero Irish trips inside the Pitt 20 in the first half and a 10-3 Panther halftime lead. It later became apparent Weis did so to prevent the Irish QB Jimmy Clausen from getting clobbered by the Panthers ferocious pass rush, and this worked okay in the early going when the Irish defense was playing relatively well. But when two Pitt runs and one Panther pass over 50 yards ran the Pittsburgh advantage to 20-3 and later 27-9, you knew once again that Clausen would be forced to put it up.

And put it up he did! After throwing for less than 80 first-half yards, Clausen, despite tremendous pressure, dropped passes, and several sacks, still finished 27 of 42 for 283. On a day when even ND's fine wide receiver Michael Floyd (who still caught 7 for 107) dropped a crucial 3rd down reception, it seemed only one man was up to Clausen's comeback challenge. For when all others felt the pressure, Golden Tate continued to impress.

Not only did Tate the Great catch 9 balls for 113 yds and Jimmy's only touchdown toss of the day, but Golden then took a punt return 87 yds to the house for Notre Dame's 3rd TD of the fourth quarter, putting the Irish in position for an improbable win. As it turned out Clausen would get one more chance to lead the Irish to the end zone. But when the referees turned a Clausen incompletion into a fumble and Pitt recovery with a call so blatantly incorrect that even the Panther coaches had a hard time comprehending it, the improbable Irish comeback (and probably Weis' Irish coaching career) was over.

"The time for talk is over, it's now time to produce," Weis said before this season, and it seems his own words have now doomed him. Having documented Weis' team's defensive deficits last week, yesterday's action shows that, while Charlie has recruited some skilled offensive players, he never has produced a great offensive line. This, coupled with the fact that his special teams have been AT BEST inconsistent (this year near the bottom of punting average and missed extra points) means Weis is more a coordinator than head coach. Weis does deserve credit for developing his quarterbacks and receivers (Charlie helped mold both Clausen and Brady Quinn from raw talents into bonafide stars, and by switching Tate from running back to wide receiver helped Golden reach his full potential) but right now the Irish football team mirrors the University in the disappointing direction it is going. Just as a handful of orthodox Notre Dame priests and teachers earnestly try to save Notre Dame from its dissident trustees and president, a few believing players still desperately try to preserve Her Honor on the field every Saturday. But, as last Saturday showed, without the right leaders, the rest of the recruits and students are not on the same page, and the fight of a few is usually not enough.

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