Glory on hold
His honeymoon now a distant memory, ND's Willingham stays the course
Posted: Thursday September 18, 2003 10:55AM; Updated: Thursday September 18, 2003 10:55AM
This time a year ago, he was the toast of South Bend.
At his weekly news conference on Tuesday, Tyrone Willingham found himself answering one critical question after another, including, point-blank, "Is Notre Dame football in trouble?"
And that one came from a minister.
Since beginning his debut season 8-0 and soaring as high as No. 4 in the country, Willingham's Irish have lost four of their past seven, including lopsided defeats in their past three meetings with ranked opponents, most recently last Saturday's 38-0 debacle against Michigan. At the heart of the problem is an offense that, a year after ranking 108th out of 117 teams nationally, has actually managed to regress -- through two games, it stands 116th, averaging 228 yards per game.
Seeing as the most popular scapegoat for any struggling offense is almost always the quarterback, the large majority of questions Tuesday centered around Carlyle Holiday, the third-year starter and former option QB who's long been considered an ill fit for Willingham's preferred style of offense.
But here's where Willingham differs from predecessor Bob Davie.
Whereas Davie seemed perpetually overwhelmed by the magnifying glass, Willingham seems to relish it. It's as if he gets a kick out of toying with his critics. Despite much prodding, he's refused to tip his hat as to whether hot shot freshman Brady Quinn may soon supplant Holiday as his starter.
"Carlyle has still identified himself as the best quarterback," he said.
Furthermore, he dared to suggest Tuesday that maybe, just maybe, it's not the quarterback's fault.
"The problems of our offense are never just limited to one person," said Willingham. "We as coaches believe we have to do a better job to put him in better position. We have to have better execution, and that's the way we look at it."
One reason Willingham was able to do that last year was he had the benefit of a heavily senior-led squad. Though he'll never say this, Davie left the underclass cupboard somewhat bare, making it harder to simply replace the guys they lost and move forward.
Nowhere is that more evident than on the offensive line, where the Irish lost four starters -- center Jeff Faine, left tackle Jordan Black, right tackle Brennan Curtin and left guard Sean Mahan -- all of whom are currently on NFL rosters. Their replacements have allowed nine sacks in two games and helped create just 3.1 yards per rush.
Taken in that context, it's easier to see why Willingham is in no rush to throw Quinn into the fire.
Ultimately, Wilingham's desire is to run an explosive, full-fledged West Coast offense like he had at Stanford. To do so, however, requires not only a highly skilled passer but a competent offensive line and a stable of playmaking receivers. Much to the chagrin of the faithful, it may take a couple years to get to that point.
In the meantime, he knows the best alternative is to rely on his two skilled tailbacks, Ryan Grant and Julius Jones, and a smart, attacking defense. It's a formula that worked in their comeback win against Washington State in the opener and should do the same this week against Michigan State.
Unfortunately, the rest of their upcoming schedule could make it awfully hard to duplicate last year's 10-3 effort. Purdue and Boston College are toss-ups, but it's hard to imagine them moving the ball effectively against the defenses of Pittsburgh, USC and Florida State.
"It's one of those scenarios where you don't necessarily throw the baby out with the bath water," said Willingham. "We like what we are doing. We will stick with what we are doing and we think that we have the young men that can do it. But on occasions, you don't do it. We try to address those issues and go forward."
Patience, not a common attribute in South Bend, will be a necessity.
Safety comes first for Dogs
Losing its top two free safeties, Kentrell Curry and Greg Blue, to preseason injuries could have been crippling for Georgia. Instead, it produced an unexpected dividend.
Sophomore Thomas Davis, expected to start at strongside linebacker, has moved to safety and through three games is the Bulldogs' leading tackler (31). Teamed next to standout strong safety Sean Jones, who had two interceptions last week against South Carolina, Davis' emergence has helped No. 7 Georgia hold its first three opponents to just 5.7 points per game.
"Our safety play has been outstanding," said head coach Mark Richt. "We haven't gotten too fancy, we have been able to play a good bit of zone coverage, allowing our front seven to hold up against the run."
Despite seven new starters, the Dogs' defense appears to be faster than a year ago, and, at least so far, just as dominant. The real test, however, comes Saturday against 11th-ranked LSU and its dangerous passing tandem of quarterback Matt Mauck and receiver Michael Clayton.
A middle without Mitchell
Over the course of its now four-year run of defensive dominance, Oklahoma has been fortunate to avoid major injuries to its key players. That went out the window last weekend against Fresno State when middle linebacker Lance Mitchell, an All-America caliber player and leading tackler last season, went down with an ACL tear.
"It's tough any way you look at it," co-defensive coordinator Mike Stoops told the Daily Oklahoman. "We were playing as well as we ever have here. We were playing probably the best defense of anybody."
Of the four players vying to replace Mitchell, OU coaches seem highest on true freshman Lewis Baker, a USA Today second team All-America whose redshirt got lifted last weekend. Junior Grayson Allen and sophomores Clint Ingram and Wayne Chambers are also candidates. It's also yet to be decided whether All-America Teddy Lehman will be moved to the middle.
Show yourselves, Sun Devils
Heading into its first real test Saturday at 18th-ranked Iowa, No. 16 Arizona State remains somewhat of a mystery. Expected to be a highly explosive offensive team behind QB Andrew Walter, the Sun Devils haven't exactly lit up the scoreboard in season opening 34-14 and 26-16 wins over Northern Arizona and Utah State.
Head coach Dirk Koetter insists his staff wasn't hiding anything from the Hawkeyes. His team has simply been sloppy.
"If you take away four plays in that [Utah State] game -- two times inside the 5 we didn't score, a dropped touchdown pass and we don't score, and we have a punt return for a touchdown called back -- if we make those plays, now the score is 50 to something and everyone is smiling," he said. "There are too many things we are beating ourselves on, and we are playing a team this week [Iowa] that is the epitome of not beating themselves."
Popular thinking in the preseason had up-and-coming ASU taking the nation by storm and graduation-depleted Iowa taking a step back. We'll find out Saturday whether they should have been reversed.
Leader of the band
Saturday's Tennessee-Florida showdown may lack some of the luster of years past -- heck, it's not even considered the biggest game in the SEC this week -- but there's still no shortage of venom. In fact, the Gators are still smarting over the Vols' last trip to the Swamp in 2001, a 34-32 Tennessee win after which QB Casey Clausen conducted the band's rendition of Rocky Top.
''I'm not going to say he's a marked man,'' said Florida guard Max Starks. ''But after the game, we'll be looking for him to see if he's going to direct the band again.''
Boise State carries the nation's second-longest winning streak, 13 games, into Saturday's trip to Oregon State, but following a sluggish 24-10 victory over Idaho last week, the Broncos weren't sounding overly optimistic. "We looked like a bottom-of-the-barrel team in the WAC on offense," said quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie. ... USC has been using its bye week to determine which freshmen it should redshirt, including much-touted QB John David Booty, who's been sharing first-team practice reps this week with starter Matt Leinart. ... A Houston television station last week obtained an internal letter sent by WAC commissioner Karl Benson to league presidents that specifically mentions Conference USA's TCU, Tulane and Houston as expansion targets. ... Reggie Robertson's tenure as Kyle Boller's successor at Cal lasted four games. Aaron Rodgers, a highly touted juco transfer, will start at Illinois on Saturday after replacing Robertson against Utah and going 15-of-25 for 224 yards and two TDs against Utah. .... ... With starter Matt Berry out with a broken hand, BYU will start true freshman John Beck at quarterback against Stanford on Saturday. In two appearances thus far, Beck is 1-of-6 for 12 yards and an interception. ... Oregon has started a different tailback -- Ryan Shaw, Terrence Whitehead and Chris Vincent -- each of its first three games, but coach Mike Bellotti doesn't seem to mind. The Ducks are averaging almost 200 yards per game on the ground. ... Boston College coach Tom O'Brien this week submitted an open letter to the school's student newspaper asking fans to "cheer with class" when Miami makes its last visit as a Big East member Saturday.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.