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Know thy Opponent 2007: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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Personally, I'm not a big fan of Notre Dame. I am looking at Notre Dame’s schedule in 2007 and relishing the fact they may start the year at 1-7 or even 0-8 if they lose to Michigan State in South Bend again. Of their first eight games the only game Notre Dame is more likely to win than that Michigan State game is against us, and if we play like we’re able to we should be able to win in West Lafayette.


Speaking strictly from a perspective as a college football fan, there is no team I hate more than Notre Dame. Most of it comes from the media bias they receive. Every two game winning streak is treated as a return to glory by all in the media, and every two game losing streak is treated as a panic of Biblical proportions.


I am excited about this year because I expect the Irish to struggle early on against a very difficult schedule. Let’s look at their early schedule: Georgia Tech, at Penn State, at Michigan, Michigan State, at Purdue, at UCLA, Boston College, and USC. That’s three top 15 teams (two on the road), two more top 25 teams, and two more good teams in us and Boston College. They could be eliminated from even qualifying for a bowl game by the middle of October, let alone going to the BCS again. I also recognize that this bias slightly clouds my assessment of them as a team, so I will do my best.


Notre Dame will have a quarterback that has either barely played or is an talented but injured recruit, a new running back, only a tight end recovering from a knee injury as a proven receiving threat, and a young and shaky offensive line. Yes, I recognize there are some big-time recruits here, but they have yet to prove anything on the field. When you couple that with a shaky defense that wasn’t that good last year every Notre Dame hater is licking their chops for this season. Still, they are ranked as high as 21st in some publications


CFN has Notre Dame playing six of the top 50 games of the coming season, and has them losing all six in the first eight games. If this holds true to form then the seventh game not on that list, their September 29th visit to West Lafayette may knock them out of contention for any bowl game.

Last Season for the Fighting Irish:

One quality win (Penn State), four other wins over bowl teams (Georgia Tech, Purdue, Navy, and UCLA) and Notre Dame was awarded with a BCS bowl, simply because of who they were. 2005 was no different, but at least there were wins over ranked teams in Pittsburgh, Michigan, and Purdue (yes, we were technically ranked at the time).

The last two years have been a case of an experienced team taking advantage of a schedule that featured several underperforming teams like Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Purdue, and Michigan State. This year the situation is the opposite, as all areas have more talent, but not much experience except in the secondary. Still, at least they beat a few bowl teams last year. I know we only beat one, and our other seven wins were against as weak if not weaker competition.


Against three opponents last year, UCLA, Georgia Tech, and Michigan State, the Irish won more because the other team screwed up than because of anything they did. They were a 7-5 team with a 10-2 record because the Yellow Jackets forgot about Calvin Johnson, the Spartans gagged, and UCLA couldn’t tackle after playing well for 59 minutes. Even in our game an inability to score in the red zone gave way to a 14 point loss. Last year was two bad defenses going against each other, we simply couldn’t capitalize in the red zone and they could. I will give credit to Quinn for performing well behind a weak offensive line though. The Notre Dame O-line gave up 31 sacks (nearly 3 a game) and Quinn still put up impressive numbers.

Notre Dame Offense:

I hope everyone brought a program because you’re going to need it with this group. The leading experienced quarterback, Evan Sharpley, has completed one pass for seven yards. The top returning rusher, James Aldridge, only ran for 142 yards in mop-up duty last year. John Carlson at tight end is the only proven returning weapon, having caught 47 passes for 634 yards and 4 TD’s before his injury. David Grimes is next with 23 catches for 336 yards and two scores, but that is about it.


Gone is Brady Quinn, who put up great numbers behind a bad line. Gone also are Jeff Samardzija, Rheema McKnight, and Darius Walker, who were really the ones that made the offense go. Quinn was a master at spreading the ball around to them and letting them make plays.


I predict the Irish will miss Walker most of all, who was too undersized to be drafted last season and could have had a monster year this year as the focus of Notre Dame’s attack had he stayed for his senior season. To me, he was the team’s most dangerous player as he amounted to more than 1600 yards of total offense last year. At least against us, he consistenly had big games and took advantage of our shoddy run defense. He would have been the focus of the attack had he returned, and would have had another dominant game against us.


The offensive line must also replace three starters, and at times last year had trouble protecting Quinn with the guys they had. When you put a young guy back there with little experience he could get knocked around quite a bit. Even someone with Quinn’s numbers struggled his first two years, and Quinn’s 2004 game against us in South Bend reminded me a lot of Painter’s 2006 game in South Bend in terms of getting a ton of yards, but not a ton of points.


So who is left? Well, we of course have Jimmy Clausen. When it comes to being compared to a recruit though, do you really want to be compared to Ron Powlus? I say this only because of the disappointment Powlus turned out to be in South Bend, not as a slight to Clausen's ability. He'll have a good career, but it will take awhile for him to learn the offense fully. Right now it's a three way competition between him, Evan Shrpley, and Demetrius Jones. Of those three options Jones would do the most damage to us, as we struggle to contact an athletic quarterback that can run.


In all of Division 1-A Notre Dame only has more returning lettermen (30) than two schools: Iowa State and Navy. This is out of 119 programs, and very few of those lettermen have extensive game experience. Travis Thomas, James Aldridge and Armando Allen appear to be the early candidates at tailback, but they are short on experience as well. Carlson is a great tight end to throw to, but Grimes and George West are unproven commodities. Notre Dame will likely rely on the running game early, and even that will take some time to get going as the line develops.


Yes, the Irish have a very highly touted recruiting class. Yes, this will be their fifth game and third on the road and thus make them more seasoned, but you can’t rely on that many young guys and expect to be great. Our defense is expected to be better (it’s hard to get much worse), maybe even significantly better, but Notre Dame’s offense is going to be worse than it was last year. In a year or two they could be a dominant force, but it will bog down at times this year.

Notre Dame Defense:

The Irish have a solid guy to build around in the secondary, as I am of course referring to Mr. Tom Zbikowski. His numbers weren't great last year with 79 tackles, 1 forced fumble 1 TFL, 1 fumble recovery (for a TD), and no interceptions, but he was still a 3rd team All-American. He’s a good tackler, fast, and a hard-hitter, but needs more production than last year to live up to the hype.


The rest of the defense is undergoing a major overhaul after getting mauled in big games last season. Corwin Brown is taking over at defensive coordinator and is implementing a new 3-4 scheme. He has never been a defensive coordinator before, but does have NFL coaching experience. Maurice Crum the top defender at linebacker, and will be key in that 3-4 attack. Crum had 100 tackles last year with 10 of them coming in the backfield for negative yardage. He also had four sacks and an interception in being the best player on a bad unit.


Basically this unit faces many of the same questions that the offense does. There are a couple of proven players (Zbikowski did have a good 2005, better than 2006) and a whole bunch of untested guys with talent. When you couple that with the fact they will be learning a new scheme that adds even more uncertainty into the mix. The unit didn’t give up a lot of points in some games last year, but much of that was against some really bad teams. Against the best teams they got smoked for more than 40 points in all three losses.


The defensive line returns only one player with significant stats from last year in Trevor Lewis, and the strength is in the linebacking corps. This won’t be the worst defense in the country based on talent alone, but they won’t be the best either and that will hurt the Irish as the offense grows up. They will be better by the time they face us, but will it be enough?

Notre Dame Special Teams:


If there is one area where Zbikowski is worth the hype it is this one. He averaged nine yards per punt return last year and is a threat to take it to the house every time. Notre Dame must replace its kicker as the theme of relying on untested guys holds true. This will be big as the offense won’t be scoring as many touchdowns and will need more field goals from the special teams.


Geoff Price was a solid punter last year averaging more than 45 yards per kick, but often out-kicked his coverage. If he can pin the ball inside the 20 more he will be dangerous, but will still need the defense to come through and stop drives after his big kicks.


This unit will be critical to Notre Dame’s success this year. If their kicking game struggles like ours did last year the whole team will struggle, much like ours. Notre Dame easily could have a season mirroring our 2006 season where they move the ball, but come away with no points because of uncertainties in the kicking game and an inability to finish drives with touchdowns.

Intagnibles:

With all the youth in all three factors of the game it’s hard to believe that Rivals.com already has Notre Dame ranked 30th, and others have them as high as 21st. They’re banking a lot on some solid recruiting classes and the coaching ability of Charlie Weis. There’s a ton of talent there because of Weis, probably more raw talent than we have, but that talent needs to prove itself and will struggle at times this year.


There are things I like and dislike about Weis. I like the attitude he has that if you don’t win the game then your effort wasn’t good enough. With him there is no such thing as a moral victory and honestly it’s an attitude dozens of teams (including our own) sorely need. He is coming in with the goal of winning every game this year and that attitude will go a long way. A lot will be said about his ability this year to turn something around with a team that on paper looks like it could struggle early. Still, I think Weis is honestly a better coach than we have right now.


A big plus the Irish will have is that by this time they will be battle tested more than us. We have some tough games, but nowhere near as tough as Notre Dame’s first four games. Only Michigan State is a bit of a breather before they come to face us, and even that has been an adventure as the Spartans have won five straight in South Bend. They will be a better team by game five than in game one, and we need to be ready for that.


Notre Dame also will not be intimidated by our home crowd, as two years ago we were about as jacked up as I have ever seen us for a home game and we fell flat on our faces. While I believe Purdue has an advantage, though not significant, in most all the other categories, I give Notre Dame a huge advantage in intangibles, coaching, and sheer dumb luck.

Game Outlook:

While I would love to say we should crush this team, I know this is not the case. How do we react if Notre Dame springs a couple of upsets to start the season and is on a bit of a roll coming into this game? It's certainly possible with the talent there., as I can see them at the very least splitting their first four games.


How will we be playing at this point in the season? Again, it comes down to the defense and how they are playing. Let’s face it, no one has any confidence in our defense to stop anyone right now, and until proven otherwise we have to accept them as a liability. We could very easily roll to a big win in this game, or crumble against a team that is long on raw talent, but very short on experience.


We will have to have our offense get rolling early and put points on the board unlike last year. Selwyn Lymon went nuts on them, and we certainly have the receivers to do so again. If we can balance our running game nicely we can keep their inexperienced offense off the field and tire down their defense. Our defense will also need to get into the backfield and disrupt their passing game before it can get going.


Also key will be containing Zbikowski in the return game. I remember the 2001 game at Ross-Ade when a special teams play, specifically a 100 yard kickoff return from Vontez Duff killed the momentum we had just gained. So many of these Purdue-Notre Dame games recently have turned on a play like that, so we have to make sure we make that play.


Our offense is better than their defense. Our defense should hopefully be better than their offense. If we can’t win this game, we may not beat the Irish for a long time.

Prediction:

Notre Dame’s inexperience in all areas is way too much of a factor and anyone who thinks this is a top 25 team has them overrated. Give them a year or two and they could be very, very good. This year though I think they will take a step back. We still have a history of letting teams like this hang around and I predict a late touchdown will be the difference in a close game. Purdue 31, Notre Dame 24.