Monday, March 06, 2006

Three Minutes: Act II

And now, part two of the three-minute drive that defined a season. If it's still too painful, you don't have to read. If you've forgotten part one, refresh yourself here.

Play Five

2nd and 4, ball on USC 34, 3:35 Remaining

In four quick plays, Weis has chewed up more than half of the field and is now poised to make a run for the end zone. It's a four point game, and there's no sense in playing for another possession at this point, so it's four down territory. The first half of the drive, Weis picked apart USC's defense with a variety of slants and quick-hitting pass plays, finding weaknesses in every single variety of defense that was thrown out there. By this point, the entire focus of the USC defense is to take away the quick slant by whatever means necessary. In an attempt to counter the hits to the center of the field, Carroll moves the linebackers right up onto the line of scrimmage and shifts them both to the left.

This is what Weis has been waiting for. With each successful slant pass, the linebackers creeped up closer and closer, and became increasingly wary of the short routes. Now that they've been drawn in, Darius Walker has a lot of room to move on a quick handoff to the right side.

And that's just what he does. Walker takes the handoff and dashes through the line, trying to hit that big vacuum of space between the linebackers and the secondary. Walker explodes into the hole, and only gets brought down by a superhuman effort by Defensive End Frostee Rucker on the right side. Walker's five yards is good for a first down, but it could have been much more had Rucker not barely snatched up Darius from behind and dragged him down.

Play Six

1st and 10, ball on USC 29, 3:05 Remaining

This is the big daddy of them all. This play made me jump ten feet in the air, scream, and hurl from my ruptured vocal cords a string of profanity-laced poetry so divinely inspired that it made heads turn in awe in a several-yard radius. It's more or less the same play as before, but this time the blocking at the line, the lineman pulling, and the downfield blocks by the receivers all come together perfectly to let Walker explode into the vacated spaces caused by a defensive oversensitive to the short pass.

Three big things happen downfield on this play that turn it into the show-stopper it was:
  • The first kudos goes to Matt Shelton, who made an improbably fantastic block downfield against Safety Josh Pinkard, who Yahoo tells me outweighs Shelton by 25 pounds. Shelton takes off at the snap and is targeted for Pinkard, his assignment is to do whatever it takes to somehow prevent Pinkard from getting into the center of the field. Shelton one-ups that by driving Pinkard backwards and into the cluster of blocks in the middle of the field. Pinkard eventually has to spin away and take an angle on Walker to drive hiim out of bounds.
  • John Sullivan makes a beastly pancake block on USC Linebacker Collin Ashton. First of all, it's impressive that the center found his way 10 yards downfield before Darius Walker even got there, but even more impressive is the impact he makes once he gets out into that space. Ashton, the left linebacker, was a little bit lazy getting into the play, and in his haste to size up Walker's trajectory and chase him down, he took his eyes off of the mountain of man patrolling the middle of the field. As Darius Walker reaches the middle of the field, Sullivan lowers his shoulder and wipes out Ashton, bowling him onto the turf like a ragdoll.

    A snapshot of Collin Ashton's last vertical moment on this play.

  • USC Cornerback Justin Wyatt turns a solid play into a huge one in his overpursuit. As the cornerback on the right side, Wyatt is responsible for the entire right sideline, as the weakside safety is playing the middle of the field and, at the moment, was being blasted backwards by Matt Shelton. Wyatt gives up his containment to try and make a play on Walker, but Walker makes a quick right turn and turns on the jets, leaving Wyatt in the dust and a dozen yards of sideline to work with.

Play Seven

1st and Goal, ball on USC 9, 2:52 Remaining

As Darius is flung into the band directly in front of my seats, the instant jubiliation is quickly interrupted by a sense of uneasiness as 80,000 heads glanced at the game clock. 2:52, stopped. All of the sudden, the objective of the game changed, or at the very least became more complicated. Which odds are better for USC? Stopping Notre Dame's clicking offense four plays in a row inside the nine yard line or driving the length of the field in three minutes? While there's not enough data to do a full sabermetric breakdown of this, you can't help but think that USC's best chance to win is with the ball in their hands. We can't know for sure what went on in that huddle, but it would not be surprising to hear something to the effect of "Play Defense, but don't necessarily do anything superhuman at the expense of the clock."

Another quick run to the left as Darius Walker pushes a visibly exhausted line forward about five yards. An interesting note is that on every run play, the slot receiver has run a screen route to the outside, each time effectively drawing their defender out of the play with the man-to-man coverage up front.

Play Eight

2nd and Goal, ball on USC 5, 2:15 Remaining

Darius Walker takes a much-deserved breather as Travis Thomas comes in as halfback. Thomas goes out in motion, and now it's an empty backfield. The call is somewhat reminiscent of the Michigan game, where Weis went five-wide in their first goal line situation for an easy quick pass to Rhema McKnight. This time, however, it's a jailbreak. I still don't believe this was a five yard touchdown run, because from my vantage point it looked like Brady Quinn must have run 45 yards. While agile in avoiding trouble in the pocket, Brady isn't the most fleet-footed of athletes, and watching him run for his life against the athletic defense of USC was a stressful, nail-biting minute of my life.

Man alive you should have seen the pandemonium. It was the culmination of a flawless, perfectly-called drive in the most critical, pressure-packed moment of the season... possibly in several seasons. It was a whole new Notre Dame.

Just as an addendum, and not to rip open any wounds, but this picture seems to show what I thought I saw from behind the band. It looks like maybe, possibly, Quinn's knee is down before he stretches out across the goal line. It is interesting (although an agonizing and completely fruitless labor) to wonder what might have happened if the ball had been downed inside the one yard line and the clock continued to run. Okay, stop thinking about it now. Seriously.