Friday, November 16, 2007

In what I'm sure must be a huge blow to the chorus of "Notre Dame is irrelevant" chanters, there are still a lot of people who consider beating the Irish to be a big deal. Like these guys. For sheer ingenuity I have to tip my cap to them, but in all honesty I have to say that it's nice to know somebody out there would still think they've accomplished something by beating a 1-9 football team. The Irish finally, mercifully, at long last, can put the 2007 season behind them with their first two games against teams with losing records coming in games 11 & 12. That's kind of stunning - of Notre Dame's first 10 opponents, all 10 are likely to go to bowl games (Michigan State & Georgia Tech currently sit on the fence with six wins each, and UCLA is 5-5 - but their odds of gaining the key sixth win took a dramatic step forward when Dennis Dixon's knee buckled last night in Tucson). So, here we are folks: the forecast calls for cloudy, dark skies with a chance of precipitation and temperatures in the low 40s, not exactly a game in a perfect place, but still a collision for history - and for all the wrong reasons. #118 Notre Dame and #119 Duke...not exactly the kind of day dreamed of, in a backyard, just around the corner from Main Street.

Game 11...

Notre Dame vs. Duke
2:30 PM EST
Notre Dame Stadium - Notre Dame, IN

Why Duke Will Win

It does seem hard to fathom, but the Blue Devils are every bit as incompetent as the Fighting Irish on offense. They're the only team in the country worse at running the ball than Notre Dame (52.9 yards per game match against ND's equally bad 56.6). Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, pictured at right, has been better this year than last in the passing game, throwing 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions (a change from 16 INTs and 11 TDs a year ago), though he completes only a tad over 50% of his passes for the year. The Blue Devils do feature a deep-ball threat in Eron Riley, who's pulled in 9 touchdowns and 751 yards receiving on the year, so it'll be interesting to see what Duke, a team that hasn't run for more than 100 yards all season, will plan when matched up with a team that, on paper at least, can't stop the run but does a good job against the pass in terms of yardage (5th nationally in pass defense). As nice as that figure looks, it conceals the fact that Notre Dame hasn't prevented teams from passing when they need to (the Irish are 46th in pass efficiency defense).

The matchup is just as equally awful on defense - Duke is stride for stride with the Irish in sieve-like ability versus the pass (113th in pass efficiency defense, surrendering 266 yards per game), but does marginally better against the run, allowing an average of 177 yards per game (78th nationally). As a team they have 21 sacks and forced 11 turnovers, versus 18 giveaways and 40 sacks allowed - which, surprise surprise, paces them well against a Notre Dame team that has allowed a national-worst 49 sacks, but at least has 21 takeaways to put them at +1 in the seasonal turnover margin.

If this is simply too much of a cut-and-dry numbers exercise for you, tough. It's 1-9 versus 1-9; numbers are the only thing we've got left. Duke can win the game by winning what is likely to be a war of attrition between two teams that haven't been able to get out of their own way this year. Perhaps the motivation of playing in Duke's Super Bowl carries them to a performance with fewer mistakes.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Here come more numbers - Notre Dame's 119th in total offense (118th rushing/111th in passing), 103rd in rushing defense, just 53rd in total defense. Last in sacks allowed, 109th in sacks...the only category the Irish can point to with pride is their net punting average, which ranks 15th nationally (and includes a bunch of duds by Geoff Price in the Michigan and Michigan State games). Of course, the punting excellence makes sense given all the practice Price and Maust have.

But it's Senior Day - the final chance to get the Irish a win at home, to send out a player like Trevor Laws, who gave everything he had left to give towards this lost cause of a year and would be a hands-down first-team All-American on a team that were at least .500. A chance to prove that against a truly awful team, they can execute a sound gameplan and avoid the mind-numbingly stupid mistakes that turned the past two games against them. A year ago, with a ton of potential surrounding the final two games of the season, Coach Weis remarked that the legacy of Notre Dame's 2006 season would be determined only at the very end. "You're always remembered by how it ended. That's how you're remembered." A win wouldn't come anywhere close to washing away the bitterness of nine losses, every single one of them humiliating in their own special way. But it would provide a necessary first-step towards rebuilding the psyche of the program as it moves forward. To serve as a good analogy - my Green Bay Packers were a mediocre 4-8 going into December last season, having suffered several blowout losses (26-0 to Chicago, 35-0 to New England, 31-9 to Philadelphia, and 38-10 to the New York Jets). But the Pack closed out to the year with 4 straight victories and the momentum still hasn't faded, helping the youngest team in the NFL improve to 8-1 so far this season. (PS - I don't want to hear how different the NFL is from college. In certain cases, it's simply football.)

I guess there was supposed to be some actual game analysis - here it is: under Charlie Weis, Notre Dame shoots to be a balanced offensive attack, but it's no secret that they really value the power of attacking through the air. Duke represents just the second team Notre Dame's played this year that is in the bottom half of national defensive rankings for both passing defense & passing efficiency (as in, not only can teams rack up lots of yards on them, they pass almost at will). The other team, in case you can't guess it, was Navy; a game in which Jimmy Clausen didn't play. Now, it might be the ultimate grasp at a straw to think Clausen and his receivers can use two decent drives in the last 20 minutes against an Air Force team content to sit on a 17-point lead as a spring board, but there's no denying Clausen came back healthy and put together the sharpest performance from a Notre Dame QB this season. He had one ball that should've been picked after he locked into a receiver despite double coverage (still his biggest problem), but his numbers (22/40, 246 yds, 3 TDs) should've been better when you factor in 8 dropped passes and a leaky offensive line. Now, finally, an awful pass defense and a healthy Jimmy Clausen, who last week took the all-important first step towards making Notre Dame "his team". The next step is to put together an even stronger performance in a winning effort and send out the seniors with a victory. If that can't be sufficient motivation against an opponent of Duke's caliber, then the Irish truly are lost.

The Prediction

Weis mentioned more than once this season that, at some point, the gloves would have to come off for Clausen. That, at some given moment, he'd have to progress from simply calling plays to taking charge of the offense. As we all suspected, doing that in the teeth of Penn State and Michigan's defense (not to mention home crowds) was a less-than-ideal situation. By the time Clausen might finally have gotten a chance to cut his teeth, he'd been banged around like a pinball so often that Weis chose to leave him on the bench against USC and Navy, which allowed him a chance to slow the game down - against Air Force, particularly in the second half, you saw some net gains on that investment. And the Falcons are a solid defensive team. Now, against an awful defense, it's time for a few more flashes of what Clausen and the boys are capable of.

Notre Dame 30, Duke 21.


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