What a difference a coach makes

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Nov 05, 2005



Last year, Pigskin America lamented Notre Dame's lack of talent at the skill positions. The Irish struggled to move the ball against good teams and, on defense, the secondary was torched at a rate never before seen in Notre Dame history. The Irish can't compete, many said, because they don't have talent at the skill positions.
 
Well, what a difference a coach makes.
 
Just one year after a 6-6 season that earned head coach Ty Willingham a boot out of town, the Charlie Weis-led Irish are littered with big-time gamebreakers on both sides of the ball.
 
Quarterback Brady Quinn has posted some Manning-esque numbers this season, with a school-record 23 TDs and just 4 INTs, a ratio of nearly 6 to 1. Wide receivers Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall, both 6 feet, 5 inches tall, haul down virtually everything thrown their way with one circus catch after another. Samardzija has caught touchdowns in a school record eight straight games and is a bona fide first-team All-America candidate.
 
The numbers in Notre Dame's passing game are simply mesmerizing compared with last season. Here's how Quinn, Samardzija and Stovall's numbers through eight games this season compare with their numbers in 12 games last season.
 
Quinn
Year
Comp.
Att.
Pct.
TDs
INTs
2004
191
353
54.1
17
10
2005
195
299
65.2
23
4
 
Samardzija
Year
Catches
Yards
Average
TDs
2004
17
274
22.8
0
2005
51
877
17.2
12
 
Stovall
Year
Catches
Yards
Average
TDs
2004
21
313
14.9
1
2005
42
666
15.9
6
 
The offensive numbers speak for themselves, but you could argue that Notre Dame's most explosive player is in the defensive backfield.
 
Safety Tom Zbikowski is the leader of a unit that was utterly shredded last season. In a 2004 loss to Pitt, quarterback Tyler Palko became the first player in history to throw five touchdown passes against Notre Dame. In the very next game, Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart did the same thing.
 
Zbikowski scored two touchdowns Saturday against Tennessee, one on a punt return and the other on an interception return. He now has four touchdowns this season, with two punt returns and two INT returns.
 
More importantly, he leads a defense that has witnessed the same kind of whiplash turnaround as the offense. In 12 games in 2004, Notre Dame surrendered 23 touchdown passes and picked off just nine passes. Through eight games in 2005, the Irish have allowed just 11 TDs and picked off 11 passes.
 
The Irish are now 6-2 following a 41-21 win over Tennessee that featured a three-touchdown, fourth-quarter explosion to break open a tie game, and are poised for a big-time BCS bowl bid.
 
Tennessee linebacker Kevin Simon, a leader of a defense that has fared pretty well this season in an explosive SEC (the Volunteers had not given up more than 27 points this season), was impressed with the suddenly high-powered Notre Dame offense.
 
The AP quoted Simon after the game: "They have more playmakers than anyone we've played. They have more star power and a good coach to boot."
 
Quite impressive, because the words "playmaker" and "Notre Dame" rarely went together in 2004.
 
***
Blame Nike kingpin Phil Knight for the latest fashion disaster to hit the college gridiron.
 
If you've watched Virginia Tech either last Thursday against Boston College or Saturday night against Miami, you might have noticed that the Hokies have gone to a gaudy two-tone brown-and-orange jersey. The jersey is 90 percent brown, except for one shoulder that's emblazoned in hunter orange. Paired with brown and orange arm sleeves that players freely alternate, it makes for a seemingly never-ending combination of garish gridiron ensembles.
 
Florida players wore a similar uniform last week, one that provided a slightly less offensive blend of hunter orange and bold Gator blue.
 
According to ESPN, Knight personally picked the uniforms and they're being tested on a small handful of teams – Virginia Tech and Florida being the most visible.
 
ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe said you're likely to see more uniforms of this style in the future. She interviewed Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer during Saturday's game against Miami. Beamer said that he hit the recruiting trail after the Boston College game and found that "recruits love 'em."
 
Broadcasters Bob Davie and Ron Franklin, who were calling the Miami-Virginia Tech game (a 27-7 Miami win), were not as impressed.
 
Said Franklin: "I thought (the uniform) looked really good on FloJo."
 
***
Many "pundits," particularly those in a Northeastern region of the country that's out of touch with the rest of Pigskin America, seem more than a little surprised that Weis would sign a 10-year deal with Notre Dame, virtually dedicating his career to the college game.
 
Of course, there are surely outs in the deal, as there are in most contracts for big-time coaches. But assume for the sake of argument that Weis is committed to Notre Dame for the long term. Why should that surprise anyone?
 
We discussed this a bit last year when Weis, much to the surprise of many a "pundit," spurned to the scant offerings in the pros to take a job at Notre Dame.
 
But the Cold, Hard Football Facts look and wonder: why would he want to coach anywhere else?
 
Weis gets more face time than any coach in pro or college football. Every game is on national TV and Weis has already participated in the biggest pro or college game of the season, the 34-31 loss to USC back in October. Ask yourself this: how many times have you seen first-year NFL coaches Romeo Crennel or Mike Nolan on the tube this season? Unless you live in Cleveland or San Francisco, you haven't.
 
Instead of struggling to build up a team like the Browns, Weis finds himself the most talked about and most celebrated coach in football this season and gets relatively complete autonomy at an institution absolutely dedicated to big-time football.
 
Weis has all the tools he needs to build the Irish back into a national powerhouse. With a pair of national titles in the next 10 years or so – certainly a possibility – Weis will secure a legacy and a lifetime of financial security at the nation's most popular sports franchise and a university that he loves.
 
Sure, Weis may be lured away somewhere down the road by the NFL. But it's easy to see why someone would want to stay at Notre Dame. Is there anything wrong with being the most visible and most celebrated coach in the country, along with one of its most well paid?
 
***
Donkey of the Week honors go to Boston College coach Tom O'Brien.
 
O'Brien has done a wonderful job in his nine years bringing respectability back to a football program marred by a scandal before he took over. In fact, he's done more than bring respectability back. He's made the team a consistent Top 25 performer and bowl winner.
 
Not bad. But not as good as it could be.
 
Many fans and alumni believe O'Brien's stubbornness prevents the team from stepping it up to the next level. Case in point this season is O'Brien's stubborn insistence at sticking with quarterback Quinton Porter when it's clear to anyone who's seen Boston College play that backup Matt Ryan is the more productive player.
 
BC had its best win of the year, 16-13 in overtime at Clemson, with Ryan at the helm. It had its best comeback of the year in a 35-30 victory over Wake Forest. The Eagles trailed 30-21 late in the fourth quarter of when Porter was replaced by Ryan with less than four minutes to play. Ryan quickly pieced together a pair of scoring drives, each one capped by a touchdown pass.
 
Saturday at North Carolina, the Boston College offense was completely ineffective with Porter at the helm and trailed 16-7 late in the game. Ryan came in, again in the fourth quarter, and promptly led BC to a touchdown. The ensuing onside kick failed, and North Carolina walked away with a 16-14 upset over the Eagles. Ryan, a sophomore, went 10 of 14 for 93 yards in his less than one quarter of work. Porter completed 16 of 26 passes for 144 yards.
 
The loss dropped BC to 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the ACC.
 
The defeat itself was bad enough – but it proved disastrous later that afternoon, as N.C. State shocked Florida State, 20-15.
 
BC entered the day a game behind Florida State for first place in the ACC Atlantic Division. If the Eagles had beat North Carolina, they would have found themselves in a tie with Florida State for the lead in the division today, giving them at least a shot at the ACC title game, a BCS bowl bid and the millions of dollars the bid brings with it. (FSU beat BC, meaning the Eagles would need one more FSU loss to capture the division.)  Instead, BC is out of the ACC title picture and heading for something like the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise in late December.
 
It's great that O'Brien can show loyalty to one of his players. But don't the rest of the players on the team, not to mention the university itself, deserve the same loyalty?

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