Know Thy Opponent 2011: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

This is always my favorite preview to write. If I don't give Notre Dame enough respect, I come off as a biased homer. If I give them too much respect... well, I haven't seen evidence on the internet of that happening in almost five years of blogging. I could set myself up here for yet another preview taking potshots at the Irish program, especially after the events of last year and the credentialing debacle in South Bend. Instead, I'll take the high road, mostly because we currently have no room to talk.

I submit two paragraphs when it comes to a look at this game. The first comes from me, written on December 1st of last year:

It is time to beat the Fighting Irish again. We should have beaten them at least once in the last three years, but we have failed to do so. They have not had the epic step forward as is typical when they hire the latest Greatest Coach Who Has Ever Coached. Their recruiting is leveling off a bit, and there is not the forward momentum that they were expecting. We also get them at home. It is time to beat them again, because there is no reason we shouldn't expect at least a competitive game against them anymore. They will continue to be a middling program, so we must have higher goals than hoping to beat them.

The second paragraph comes from Irish Sports Daily:

It is not really a rivalry when one opponent is never supposed to beat the other team. No matter how good Purdue is, they are never supposed to beat Notre Dame. During Joe Tiller's career at Purdue he built the Boilermakers into a team that could easily beat the Irish (or anybody else) in any given year. Danny Hope has not had as much luck against the Irish, losing his first two contests against Notre Dame. Last fall Notre Dame beat Purdue 23-12 in Kelly's first game in South Bend. Notre Dame dominated throughout, as the Boilermakers struggled to get their offense going. That would be a theme for Purdue all season long as they were devastated by injuries. Those injuries hurt Purdue in 2010, but it also means they return a lot more experience in 2011. Purdue will have an athletic football team in 2011, despite the loss of standout end Ryan Kerrigan. They will have speed at the offensive skill positions and return one of the better defensive front seven units in the Big 10, led by standout tackle Kawann Short and linebackers Dwayne Beckford and Joe Holland. Purdue will be much improved in 2011 and if healthy will have a chance to be a bowl team. They are likely a year away from truly getting back to the level they were at a few years ago, but they will be competitive this fall. Despite their improved play, Purdue is a team Notre Dame should beat in 2011. If they cannot win a road game against the Boilermakers the Irish will struggle to be the team they are expected to be in 2011.

Both of these paragraphs have relevant points. The Irish Sports daily echoes the sentiment of many Notre Dame fans in thinking that we're never supposed to be able to beat the Fighting Irish. Any Purdue win is a shocking upset, as they treat a loss to us like we treat a loss to Indiana. They have the better team coming into 2011 and absolutely should expect to beat us. We have lost three straight in the series, five of six, and the only victory in that time was over probably their worst team ever.

I made a few good points in saying that we must have higher goals than just beating Notre Dame. We still play in the Big Ten, and every conference game needs to have a higher priority. I was wrong in saying their recruiting had leveled off, that they lack forward momentum, and that they are a middling program. Those statements were made in the heat of the moment, but it is true that we need to beat them at home if we are going to keep pace in this rivalry. Once again, it will be a primetime night game. We should be 3-0 heading in with this as our first major test of the season. A victory over a Notre Dame team that will probably be in the top 25 would be a much needed step forward, whereas a loss could keep us mired a losing streak against them that could reach the 12 straight from 1985-97. We need this game, but truthfully, I don't see us getting it.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

2010 Record: 8-5

Bowl Result: Defeated Miami 33-17 in Sun Bowl

Blog Representation: Rakes of Mallow, UHND, NDNation, Irish Roundtable, Inside the Irish

Series with Purdue: Notre Dame leads 54-26-2 (Notre Dame leads Shillelagh portion 35-19)

Last Purdue win: 9/29/2007 at Purdue 33-19

Last Notre Dame win: 9/4/2010 at Notre Dame 23-12

Last Season for the Irish

There is reason for optimism heading into 2011 because Notre Dame closed last year on a nice four game winning streak after a 4-5 start. They broke a long losing streak to USC, thumped a pretty good Utah team in South Bend, and won their second straight bowl game. While they aren't all the way back to national title contender status, they are well on their way.

What's impressive is that they shook off consecutive disappointing losses (35-17 beat down by Navy and 28-27 loss to Tulsa) to finish the season with that four game winning streak. It is a credit to Brian Kelly that this Irish team overcame these unexpected defeats and finished strong.

Notre Dame Offense:

Both Purdue and Notre Dame started quarterbacks in last season's opener that were later lost for the season with a second knee injury. Both of them may not return to their starting position because of backups that performed well. While we must answer the Robert Marve or Rob Henry question, the Irish are debating between Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees. Crist threw for 2,033 yards and 15 touchdowns against seven interceptions in nine games last fall. Rees also saw action in nine games, throwing for 1,106 yards and 12 scores against eight picks. I would say Crist has the edge going into this fall, and Irish Illustrated's depth chart lists him as #1. Still, it will be nice for them to have a solid backup ready in Rees.

The running game loses Armando Allen, but Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray are listed as the top two returning backs. Wood gashed us for 58 yards on seven carries, and I specifically remember us struggling because he was a change of pace back we were unprepared for. He led them with 603 yards on the ground and three scores in 2010. Gray had an even 100 yards on 20 carries.

The passing game will benefit from the return of Michael Floyd, who is simply one of the top receivers in college football. He has faced some off the field issues that have led to questions about a suspension, but he will be playing against us barring injury. His numbers (79-1,025-12) were fantastic and he even missed the Navy game. He has evolved into the type of receiver that will get his in every game, and you can't really stop it. The departure of Kyle Rudolph to the NFL will hurt, but Theo Riddick (40-414-3), T.J. Jones (23-306-3), and Tyler Eifert (27-352-2) give Crist plenty of targets to throw to. There is little question that Josh Johnson, Ricardo Allen, and the rest of our secondary will be tested.

Notre Dame's offense benefitted greatly from improved offensive line play in 2010. The Irish gave up just 20 sacks, with Ryan Kerrigan getting a couple of them last year. Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson, Chris Watt, Taylor Dever, and Zack Martin are all highly recruited, talented starters that will give Crist plenty of time to throw. An improved running game could also result, making them even more dangerous. Watt is the lone new starter, giving them consistency that will pay off.

Notre Dame Defense:

The Fighting Irish had 27 sacks last season, but four of them came against Robert Marve as our offensive line flat out sucked in South bend. We couldn't get a running game going, Marve ran for his life all day, and Ian Williams lived in our backfield. Williams is gone, but Hafis Williams moves into his spot at nose tackle in their 3-4 scheme. He had 11 tackles as a reserve in all 13 games. Aaron Lynch could start immediately as a true freshman defensive end, while Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore give them tons of experience. Lewis-Moore had 62 tackles and a pair of sacks last season, while Johnson had five sacks.

All-everything Manti Te'o has evolved into a solid linebacker after being five star recruit two seasons ago. He returns after notching 133 tackles, 9.5 for loss, a sack, and a forced fumble last year. Our best bet is to simply run away from him. Carlo Calabrese, with 60 tackles, will patrol the middle with him, while Prince Shembo and Darius Fleming will be on the outside. Shembo was a solid pass rusher with 4.5 sacks, while Fleming can also get into the backfield. Look for Ishaq Williams to be an immediate performer as a freshman.

Harrison Smith leads the secondary as a solid safety with 93 tackles and seven interceptions last year. Along with Zeke Motta (50 tackles), Notre Dame will be very strong in the middle of the field. Robert Blanton and Gary Gray are both experienced starters on the outside, giving the Irish defense no glaring weaknesses. The defense as a whole returns virtually everyone, and there is plenty of incoming talent as usual.

Notre Dame Special Teams:

The kicking game was very strong with ND going 19 of 20 on field goals in 2010. Nick Tausch hit his only attempt, while David Ruffer was 18 of 19 with 50-yard range. Ruffer returns, leaving the Irish with little to worry about. He also leads a kick return unit that allowed less than 20 yards per return.

Ben Turk was one of the few underperformers as a returning starter, averaging only 38 yards per punt with teams averaging 5.2 yards per return against him.

In the return game Goodman will handle punts but he averaged barely over a yard per return. Wood is listed as the primary kick returner with a 20 yard average from last year. Blanton is credited with a punt return for a touchdown, but it came off of a blocked punt as the punt return game was virtually non-existent.

Game Outlook:

As I said above, it is time to beat the Irish again since we have them at home in the perfect spot on our schedule. Unfortunately, I don't think we can do it. This is one of the most experienced and deepest Notre Dame teams in several years. They have solid coaching in place, plenty of depth, solid incoming talent, and no major weaknesses aside from a running game that has less than 1,000 returning. Even then, the running game needs to only do enough to keep defenses honest, and both Wood and Jonas Gray should be able to do that.

After doing the research for this preview I am forced to side with Irish Sports daily. Notre Dame fans should be extremely disappointed if Purdue beats them this year. The strength of our team will be the defense, but I am not confident we can keep them under 25 points. On the other side we have major questions on offense and that unit did very little a season ago. We faced them last season when we were healthiest and we still managed only 12 points (two of which came from the defense via safety). They contained us to 322 total yards, most of which came in empty drives.

We have the advantage of a home night atmosphere that should be charged, but we all know plenty of Irish fans will be there. The word already went out when single-game tickets went on sale last week. I have to be truthful when I say that I really expect to struggle in this game.

Unlike past Notre Dame teams with Jimmy Clausen, Tom Zbikowski and Charlie Weis that were long on hype and short on production of wins, I actually like this ND team a bit. Floyd has had issues off the field, but for the most part this is a hard-working, business-like bunch that concentrates on earning its reputation rather than coasting on past exploits. I think ND actually grew from adversity last year for the first time in ages, and that is a good thing if you're an Irish fan. They got better when it mattered. Meanwhile, I have little confidence in our own team mostly because of the completely indefensible timeout two years ago. If we don't somehow win this year I predict it will be a long time before we beat Notre Dame again.

Prediction:

I think we avoid a 2005 situation where ND did what they wanted in the first half and took us out of the game immediately, but they will slowly exert their will over the course of the game. Our offense will struggle to move the ball against an experienced defense, and their offense will have plenty of time to be patient and pick us apart. Notre Dame 35, Purdue 17

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