Know thy Opponent 2009: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

 

My proudest moment as a blog writer came two years ago. In my 2007 Notre Dame preview, I stated there was a good chance that Irish could start the season either 1-7 or 0-8. That led to the following comment:

1-7 or 0-8? Ay yes, and I'll believe that when me sh*t turns purple and smells like rainbow sherbet ... Had you said 4-4, you might be making some sense. 0-8/1-7 makes you look like a biased fool. Do better. -- Gerry of College Football Nation on my July 12, 2007 prediction Notre Dame could start 1-7 or 0-8 in 2007

In the end, I was wrong. They started a delicious 1-9 with home losses to Air Force and Navy. It was a glorious season for Irish haters everywhere. To tell you where I stand, I think it was their best season in school history.

To be fair, Notre Dame has learned quite a bit from that season. Too much talent has too much experience now to think they will be that bad again. Last season was better for the Irish, but it wasn't night and day better. That is supposed to be this year. This game will likely be our only prime time appearance this year. Since most likely we're not going to win at Oregon, this is a good chance for us to make a little noise and show we're not as bad as people expect.

2008 Record: 7-6

Bowl result: Beat Hawaii 49-21 in Hawaii bowl

Blog Representation: Domer Sports Report, Irish Band of Brothers, Blue Gray Sky, Rakes of Mallow

Series with Purdue: Notre Dame leads 50-24-2

Last Purdue win: 9/29/07 at Purdue 33-19

Last Notre Dame win: 9/27/08 at Notre Dame 38-21                 

Last Season for the Irish:

Notre Dame leads the Shillelagh portion our rivalry 33-19, but a large reason for that is our 11 year drought during the Colletto/Akers years.

As for last season for the Irish, it is difficult to say if it was a step toward something bigger or the result of a weak schedule. Notre Dame played just two ranked teams, USC and North Carolina, and lost both games. Our game against them, especially in the third quarter, was one of the most embarrassing defensive efforts ever from a Purdue team. The Irish also lost games to good teams in Michigan State, Pittsburgh, and Boston College. The worst loss was a home loss to Syracuse. You can't draw much from their wins though. San Diego State was awful, yet the game was unnecessarily close. Michigan and Purdue weren't much better. Stanford and Washington didn't go to bowl games either (Washington epically so at 0-12). The only bowl team they beat in the regular season was Navy.

Much was made of Notre Dame's win over Hawaii in the bowl game. The Warriors are normally a pretty tough team at home, so it could be considered a good win. However, saying that the Warriors struggled with pass defense would imply that they had a pass defense. I do think more good came out of it than bad though. Jimmy Clausen lived up to his enormous hype for the first time in his career, and he has to show he can continue to do so lest he become Ron Powlus. Of course now that he has won a bowl game he is better than Powlus.

Everyone is talking about how easy Notre Dame's schedule is this year. I tend to disagree. The opener against Nevada is a game they should win, but the pistol offense that the Wolfpack runs could be tricky. If Michigan has any kind of an offense they can win at home the next week. Michigan State owns the Irish in South bend as well, so week three is no guarantee either. USC, Boston College, and trips to Stanford and Pittsburgh are far from guaranteed wins. I won't predict another 1-7 start, but those saying 10 wins are certain know nothing about college football.

Notre Dame offense:

This is why I am glad Brock Spack is no longer coaching for us. I got fed up with his inability to prevent players from having career days against us after last year's game. His run defense was pathetic last year against Notre Dame, especially in light of the Ohio State game against a better opponent. Allen ran for just 585 yards and three TD's on the season. He was #1 on the team in rushing yards and #2 in touchdowns for a poor running game. Against us, he had a career high 134 yards and a touchdown. To put that in perspective, his next highest single game rushing total was 73 yards against Pittsburgh. It is his only 100 yard rushing game to date. As a team, Notre Dame had 201 yards rushing against us, nearly twice as much as their season average. Notre Dame needs more of a running game to take the pressure off of Clausen. They proved that in our game last year as Clausen had plenty of time to throw and had one of his best career games. Allen, Robert Hughes (382, 4 TD), James Aldridge (357, 3 TD), and Jonah Gray (90 yards) all return, while speedy backs Cierre Wood and Theo Reddick come in has 4-star freshmen. With all that talent there is no excuse for Notre Dame to have one of the worst running games in America again.

Jimmy_montana_medium

I call him Jimmy Montana, Boiled Sports call him Pickles, some call him the Emu, but the kid has some talent.

As mentioned, that running game will be a big key to quarterback Jimmy Clausen's success. It will take a redshirt year and another medical redshirt year, both in which he wins the Heisman and the Irish win national championships, for Clausen to meet his original prediction. The junior quarterback improved greatly last season mostly because he wasn't running for his life every game. He is the unquestioned starter with 3,172 yards and 25 TD's last year against 17 picks. We failed to pick him off in our game and he threw for 275 yards and three scores. Clausen has a good completion percentage just under 61%. He can get a lot better by cutting down on his interceptions.

Clausen has plenty of talent to throw to led by junior receiver Golden Tate. Simply put, we cannot guard the guy. Spack knew nothing about covering him, and now there are other weapons to throw to so we can't focus on just Tate. Tate was far and away the best receiver last year (58-1,080-10), while Allen was second on the team in receptions. Michael Floyd (48-719-7) is a good second option who had a 100 yard day against us. He put up his numbers despite missing the final three games of the regular season. Kyle Rudolph (29-340-2) gives Clausen a solid tight end as an option as well. Duval Kamara, Robbie Parris provide depth as well.

The biggest reason for Notre Dame's turnaround was the improvement of its offensive line. They couldn't block anyone in 2007, but last year they gave Clausen some time. Senior Paul Duncan steps into the one vacancy, but it is at the all-important left tackle position. Sam Young has the most experience at right tackle with 38 career starts. Dan Wenger started every game at center last season, so there should be few problems with the quarterback-center exchange. Eric Olsen has 19 consecutive starts at left guard, while the other guard position appears to be Trevor Robinson's. The experience is a big key on this line. They have plenty of size and talent, but now they have the in game knowledge to back it up. Don't count out Chris Stewart with nine starts as well.

Notre Dame defense:

The Irish defense excels at getting tackles for loss thanks to its unique blitzing scheme. They had 60 tackles for loss last season, 1ith 18 different players having at least one negative result. 12 different players got in on a sack, so it is hard to point to one defensive player and say he is the key. Senior safety Kyle McCarthy is the leader on the defense with a team high 110 tackles and two interceptions. Stepping in for the departed David Bruton at the other safety position is Harrison Smith. Smith had 57 tackles and 3.5 sacks a year ago as a linebacker. Robert Blanton and Raeshon McNeil. Both had a pair of interceptions last season and each has plenty of experience in the secondary.

As mentioned, Notre Dame loves to blitz. It will do so repeatedly with linebackers Brian Smith, Toryan Smith, and Scott Smith. These guys are big linebackers, all over 235 pounds. Darius Fleming and stud recruit Manti Te'o should also see plenty of time in the rotation as Notre Dame goes with a linebacker by committee approach. Notre Dame is switching its main defensive scheme from a 3-4 to a 4-3 this year, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out with so much raw talent at linebacker playing a reduced role.

Teo_medium

You can't go wrong with a giant Hawaiian linebacker who has public speaking experience.

The defensive line didn't have a huge star last season, but was fairly consistent in its 3-4 alignment. Kerry Neal will likely be used as more of an end in the new alignment where his speed will make him difficult to handle. He had two sacks last season, but will need more this year if Notre Dame is to create consistent pressure with just its line. Ian Williams and Hafis Williams continue the theme of generic last names (Smith and Williams) within the defense at the tackle positions. Ian is a space-eater inside that will make running the ball very difficult. Ethan Johnson will also likely see plenty of time. He tied for the team lead in sacks with 3.5 last season. Kapron Lewis-Moore is an unknown talent who hasn't played at all, yet had a fantastic spring by all sources.

Notre Dame Special Teams:

This was far from the team's strength as Brandon Walker hit on just 14 of 24 field goals. If we can keep Notre Dame out of the end zone he is far from automatic as a kicker. Tate and Allen will handle the return duties, as both split things almost evenly a season ago. Allen had a 96 yard kickoff return for a score in the bowl game against Hawaii.

Eric Maust is pretty good punter averaging better than 41 yards per kick. He is good at downing the ball inside the 20, doing so 16 times last year. The coverage teams are excellent, as much of the talent that doesn't get to play regularly excels on special teams. Opponents averaged just 6 yards per punt return and 16 yards per kick return in 2008.

Intangibles:

No one is facing more pressure to perform his season than Jimmy Clausen and Charlie Weis. Clause was fantastic against an awful Hawaii defense, but did virtually nothing against USC. Weis basically needs to get this team to a good bowl game or he is fired. I will agree that Clausen is getting better. I may even stop calling him Jimmy Montana. Until he has a good game against a real defense, however, I will remain skeptical. Our defense will be the strength of our team, especially early. We have very little chance of winning unless the defense plays worlds better than it did in South Bend.

A lot will depend on Notre Dame's psyche coming into this game. A 1-2 start is entirely possible before this game, especially if Michigan is markedly better. You cannot ignore that Notre Dames wins in the last eight games have come against an awful Washington team, Navy, and Hawaii. If they don't start 3-0 there will be questions.

Game Outlook:

This game gets into the realm of the unknown. It is hard to say what will happen until we see both teams play. Everyone says this is Notre Dame's best team under Weis, but is it really? What will people think if Nevada goes in and puts a scare into them in the opener? Conversely, we are supposed to be awful, but if we come in at 2-1 with a good showing against Oregon we should have some confidence. I remember how we embarrassed ourselves at home in a night game four years ago. I was so furious at that team I left the game before halftime. We can't let this game get out of hand like that one.

This could be a major turning point to our season. The Rivalry is already calling this an automatic win for Notre Dame. With our improved attitude and a good defensive performance this game will be much closer than people think. If our line can handle the blitz and we stay committed to the running game (something we always fail to do against Notre Dame) our offense should have some room to move. Notre Dame's defense is good, but we have showed the past three years we can move against it. We just need to score points to go with those yards.

Prediction:

I can't explain why I feel better about the Oregon game than I do Notre Dame. For now, I will give the edge to Notre Dame. Though I don't think Weis is as good of a coach as I used to, they have talent and experience we simply cannot match. Their passing game scares me a bit, and they showed last year they can run on us if necessary. We have to make them as one-dimensional as possible and get pressure on Clausen. This just feels like a game we'll be in a position to win, but we won't quite pull it out. If we do, however, everything changes just like it did in 1997. Notre Dame 24, Purdue 20.

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