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Know thy Opponent 2008: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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This should be interesting. Last season I drew quite a bit of criticism for what was originally a scathing review of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and their chances at success for the 2007 season. I admit that much of the original criticism was wrong, but the original prediction did come true. I originally predicted that the Irish would struggle mightily and a 1-7 or 0-8 start was entirely possible. It turns out my assessment was accurate, as the Irish did indeed start the season with a 1-7 record against eight tough opponents.

I do not think the Irish will have similar results in 2008. For one, they brought in another highly touted recruiting class. This was their third in a row. Regardless of how good or how bad their coaching may be, that much talent simply cannot play that poorly again. Second, the Irish face a much easier schedule in 2008. Notre Dame will rebound in 2008 and probably win at least seven games, but the dreams of a national title are probably a bit premature.

Last season for the Irish:

As much as I was ridiculed and belittled, the product that the Irish put on the field was embarrassment enough for fans of the program. A 3-9 finish with wins over UCLA (playing a third string walk-on at quarterback) Stanford and Duke was clearly subpar by anyone’s standards, let alone Notre Dame’s. A 1-6 record at home with losses to Air Force and Navy added further insult to injury. November 3, 2007 was a glorious day for Notre Dame haters everywhere as Navy finally broke its 43 game losing streak to Notre Dame 46-44 in triple overtime. It is hard to judge whether that was the low point in the worst season the school has ever had on the football field, or if a 17 point loss to Air Force a week later was rock bottom.

There were some positives, however. Notre Dame did recover to win its final two games of the season. Beating Duke is not a great achievement, but a loss to the Blue Devils would have meant a winless campaign at home. It also saved the greater embarrassment of losing to a team that has won only one game against a Division 1-A foe in the past three seasons. The win over Stanford also showed that the Irish could win a close game on the road against a motivated opponent. The Cardinal did upset USC at USC in one of the most shocking upsets in college football history, so they did have some talent.

As previously stated, the Irish should be much better in 2008. You can most likely already chalk up wins against San Diego State, Syracuse, Stanford, Pittsburgh, Navy, and North Carolina. With a little luck it is actually not outside the realm of possibility that the Irish could be 8-0 before going to Boston College on November 8th. Michigan will take a step back and must come to South Bend, while Notre Dame must go to Michigan State. Since neither team can win a home game in that series, expect an Irish win. Probably the only game on the schedule that Notre Dame may not have too much of a chance in is the season finale at USC. The other 11 games are certainly winnable if they are playing well.

Notre Dame offense:

I have derisively called him Jimmy Montana because of the amount of hype he has created for himself, but Jimmy Clausen appears to be the Notre Dame quarterback – for the moment. Evan Sharpley spent the spring playing baseball, leaving Clausen as the only scholarship QB for spring football. The Indy Star immediately anointed him as the starter, but Sharpley may return in the fall and new uber-recruit Dayne Crist could also earn some time under center. Clausen split time with Sharpley last season, throwing for over 1,200 yards and seven TD’s to go with six interceptions. Sharpley played less, but still had 736 yards passing with five TD’s and three picks.

Much of the reason that Notre Dame struggled so much stemmed from poor play offensively. Their best offensive effort came in scoring 44 points against Navy. In the first eight games of the season Notre Dame never cracked the 20 point barrier, coming close only once with a 19 point effort against Purdue (they did miss two extra points). Notre Dame didn’t have an offensive touchdown until the Michigan State game, and Notre Dame quarterbacks didn’t complete a touchdown pass until Clausen found John Carlson on a 4th down desperation heave in the third quarter of the Purdue game. Much of these struggles were attributed to a poor offensive line that didn’t allow the running game to get going or protect Sharpley and Clausen. It will not take until the third quarter of the season’s fifth game for Notre Dame to throw its first touchdown pass this year.

The offensive line allowed 58 sacks last season. That’s nearly five a game and is simply inexcusable. Center John Sullivan is the only player that needs to be replaced, and Irish Illsutrated seems to think that may actually make the line better. The current depth chart has plenty of size with all five projected starters over 300 lbs. Paul Duncan and Sam Young appear to be the tackles, and both are massive standing at least 6’7" and weighing close to 310 pounds. Dan Wenger looks to place his 6-4 300 pound frame in the middle as the new center.

At the other skill positions Notre Dame essentially gets everyone back. James Aldridge and Armando Allen were the leading rushers last season and both return, but neither rushed for more than 500 yards. Both were also kept out of the end zone for the entire season. The departed Travis Thomas led the team with five rushing scores, but that came with just 58 yards rushing. Four-star running back Jonas Gray may also see time in a crowded back field that features a number of stars recruiting-wise, but was unable to produce behind the poor offensive line last season.

Should the Clausen-Sharpley-Crist combo have time to throw they will have a number of options. The incoming Michael Floyd is a five-star recruit from Minnesota, while Duval Kamara, Robby Parris, George West, and David Grimes all return as four of last season’s top five receivers. Notre Dame must replace John Carlson’s 40 catches and 372 yards from last season. He led the team in both categories from his tight end position. Of special note for Purdue fans is that Golden Tate also returns. Tate had just six catches for 131 yards and one score last season, but half those catches and 104 of those yards came against Purdue. Tate had a couple of highlight reel catches in the Purdue game, including a diving 25-yarder for his only score.

The bottom line is that Notre Dame’s offense was historically bad last season, but they are simply too talented and too many of them return for them to repeat the performance. By sheer evolution and repetition they will be better as they continue to play together. If the line comes together, everyone could take a giant leap forward.

Notre Dame defense:

When the Irish went to consecutive BCS bowls in 2005 and 2006 the offense behind Brady Quinn powered them while the defense merely had to hold on in a couple games. In 2007 the defense was talented, but the offense was unable to stay on the field for long stretches. This tired out the defense quickly, and the Irish gave up more than 30 points in eight of their 12 games. Still, there were signs of hope. A telling example from the Purdue game comes from that fact that Purdue was unable to finish drives against a Notre Dame defense that bent, but did not break. Notre Dame stayed close because Purdue had to kick four field goals instead of finishing drives with touchdowns.

The defense features a complex blitzing 3-4 alignment that is designed to keep opposing offenses guessing as to where the blitz is coming from. Last season teams ran wild on the Irish, averaging 195 yards on the ground per game. Much like the offensive preview, however, things will be better simply because so many people return with experience. If the offense can stay on the field longer the defense will also improve by simply resting. After all, you can’t score points if you don’t have the ball.

Linebacker Maurice Crum is the top returner defensively. Last season Crum had 84 tackles, a sack, a pair of interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and three forced fumbles. He is the type of player that, to borrow a cliché, has a nose for the football. Safety David Bruton also returns to lead the secondary. He was third on the team in tackles last season with 85 and had a team high three interceptions.

Anchoring the defensive line will be freshman All-American Ian Williams. Williams started just two games last season, but is a big nose tackle at 6-2, 306 pounds. He will be the key to improving the run defense by plugging up the middle. The Irish did not have a consistent pass rushing threat last season, but ends Justin Brown and Morrice Richardson will look to turn the corner from promising recruits to consistent producers.

The defense must replace Tom Zbikowski, but safety is one of the deeper positions on the roster with Kyle McCarthy and Harrison Smith looking to step in with Bruton. The Irish also have a number of talented freshmen coming in to compete for spots at linebacker and defensive end. When combined with the recruits that coach Weis brought in the previous two seasons, the amount of raw talent is staggering. Still, this is the year that those previous recruits on both sides of the ball must produce.

Notre Dame Special Teams:

It didn’t matter in a lot of games last season, but Notre Dame’s special teams were just as bad as the other two units. Kicker Brandon Walker hit on just 6 of 12 field goals and was 22 of 23 on extra points. Nate Whitaker also saw some time at the position, missing his only field goal attempt and going 1 for 2 on PAT’s. neither kicker had much of a chance to prove themselves since Notre Dame often couldn’t get into field goal range, but Walker at least showed some range with a 48-yarder against UCLA on his resume. According to Irish Illustrated, Whitaker has beaten Walker for the starting job as of right now.

Notre Dame must replace Geoff Price as its punter, but Eric Maust, who had a slightly better average in 21 attempts last season, looks to be capable of holding down the job. Both kickoff and punt coverage units were pretty good last season, failing to surrender a touchdown either way. Like the other areas, there is enough experience here for expected improvement.


Much of Notre Dame’s fuel comes from its tradition. I know it has been 20 years since their last championship, but the Irish are still one of the most successful teams in college football history. Wherever they play, no matter how poorly they are doing, it is an event. Last season they came to Ross-Ade with a 0-4 record and terrible offense, yet the stadium was still sold out well in advance. Because of this tradition, they really get no off weeks. The Irish always get the best possible shot from their opponents. When they are good, everyone wants to beat them to improve their own seasons. When they are bad, everyone wants to beat them because they are still Notre Dame, making it a "name" win. This means that Notre Dame, in turn, is always forced to bring its best effort week in and week out. That can make them better, but it can also wear on them.

Game Outlook:

This game concerns me because it is in South Bend. If you take away the 2004 game, Purdue has not played well in South Bend for decades. Based on stars alone the Irish should win in a walk, but those stars have yet to produce. In his career coach Tiller has gotten the most of out of his 2 and 3 star guys, while Notre Dame in the past 11 years has gotten the least of its 4 and 5 stars guys. Notre Dame will always get better recruits simply because of who they are, yet over the past 11 seasons they are only 6-5 against "inferior" Purdue.

Much of Notre Dame still remains a mystery, therefore it makes this game hard to call. I will give the Irish the advantage in that it is the fourth game for both teams. Both should be getting into their seasonal rhythm. Both teams have similar schedules to this point in that they are difficult, but hardly overwhelming. If Notre Dame can figure out its offensive woes and get things rolling in its first three games we should watch out. If they continue to juggle quarterbacks and can’t get moving, expect a Purdue win.

Curtis Painter will need to avoid a game very similar to his own to two years ago. His effort there reminded me a lot off Brady Quinn’s effort in 2004. In 2004 Quinn threw for 432 yards and no picks, but had just one touchdown. In 2006 Painter had 398 yards and two scores with no picks. In both cases the quarterback with the "better" game lost because they didn’t get much from the running game. Quinn came back to play very well in winning the next two games against Purdue. Painter won last year with a much more pedestrian effort and a big game from Kory Sheets. Sheets went for 141 yards and a score, dictating the pace much like Darius Walker did a year earlier with 146 yards and a score. To me, Painter and Sheets (or Jaycen Taylor) must reprise their roles from last season, without the pair of Painter interceptions, for Purdue to win.


This should be a good game. I think Purdue can definitely compete in South Bend. Notre Dame has a ton of talent, but I think they are about one year away from exploding. This is the year where everything begins to come together and they must learn how to win as a group. Their fight during the spring isn’t encouraging if you’re a Notre Dame fan, but the spirit is there. Purdue should be starting to come together at this point as well, but it is still South Bend. Losses in 1998, 2000, and 2002 taught me that those games are never over and victory can be lost in a heartbeat. If Purdue is playing well and beats Oregon I think we will win. If the same Purdue of the past few seasons that cannot beat good teams shows up, we will lose. The Boilers must prove themselves to me before I will believe they can beat a good team, and Notre Dame will be a good team. Notre Dame 28, Purdue 24