Friday, October 27, 2006

Anchors Aweigh!

Notre Dame-Navy, not so much a rivalry as a contest defined by tradition and respect between two historic American institutions, resumes tomorrow in Baltimore with the Irish heavily in the BCS mix and the Midshipmen continuing their encouraging trend under Paul Johnson. Many college football pundits openly wonder why Notre Dame continues to schedule year in and year out a team they haven't lost to since the Roger Staubach era in 1963. The Irish have 43 consecutive wins against the academy, an NCAA record for one school versus another, and every game represents a pyhsical and statistical mismatch of epic proportions. But one thing Navy always does - play with pride and play with intensity. It's why, against Irish squads that were less focused, they came dangerously close to ending the streak on multiple occasions. But for a DJ Fitzpatrick field goal to close the game, the 2003 contest would have gone to overtime, and Bob Davie's 1999 squad needed a highly questionable spot of the ball on 4th-down to keep alive the game-winning touchdown drive. Here's hoping no similar heroics are necessary on Saturday...

#11 Notre Dame vs. US Naval Academy
12:00 PM EDT

M&T Bank Stadium -- Baltimore, MD

Why Navy Will Win

How to put this delicately - they can't. Not unless they generate an awesome ground attack or feel comfortable enough to put the ball in the air 35 times without an interception or an incompletion. It isn't that Navy doesn't have hard-working players - on the contrary, every coach in America would love the dedication these guys bring to the field. That's the best chance for Paul Johnson's crew, to just go out there with the old college try and pray for Notre Dame to make enough mistakes to let them stay in the game.

To Johnson's credit, he knows exactly what he's up against. "Notre Dame has Parade All-Americans, and we have guys who've marched in a parade", he is fond of saying. But he has still brough the Naval Academy one of the country's most potent rushing attacks (316 yards per game) and has to expect that his guys can control the line of scrimmage. If they do it long enough, limiting Brady Quinn's opportunities to light up a defense allowing 348 yards per game, his squad has a shot. It's all he can ask for.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Notre Dame should DOMINATE the line of scrimmage against the Midshipmen. All those rushing yards are impressive, but quarterback Brandon Hampton was instrumental in that attack and he's out with a knee injury. Furthermore, the Irish are simply a much bigger, much stronger unit on both sides of the trench. Hey offensive line, want to shut people up for one week? Utilizing that 40-pounds-per-man advantage (294 vs. 251) you'll have against Navy would be good.

No matter what Navy's offense might be able to do against the front four of the Irish, where the physical matchup is basically even, Notre Dame's offense ought to be too much for the academy to hang with for very long. Look for the academy to mix in more passes early on than their used to, but a faster linebacking corps with Travis Thomas and a slimmed-down Chinedum Ndukwe should be able to contain the option better than Notre Dame has in year's past.

One of the interesting things to watch will be how Notre Dame does on the first three offensive series. Will the miracle play against the Bruins last week serve as another spark plug to early success, like three weeks ago when the offense ran rough-shod over Purdue, or will they come out lacksadaisical and let an opponent hang around. Last year's game was 28-7 at halftime. Let's see if the Irish can match that production again in Baltimore.

The Prediction

Charlie Weis has an immense amount of respect for Navy, but given the mini-controversy surrounding his assessment of pollster opinion and the suspect nature of Notre Dame's defense, perhaps he will not resist the urge to pour it on tomorrow.

Notre Dame 38, Navy 17.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 20, UCLA 17

Won on one.

For the second time in five weeks, Notre Dame saw its life flash before its eyes, and for the second time, they somehow managed to walk away still standing, now at 6-1 and in the hunt for one of the 10 lucrative BCS berths.

A lot was made of UCLA's remodeled defense having an artifically high ranking thanks to playing half of its games against teams that rank 92nd or worse in total offense. That might still prove to be the case, with the Bruins yet to face off with three Pac-10 units that rank in the Top 25 of total offense (USC, Cal, and Washington State), but Karl Dorrell's team certainly played like one of the ten best defenses in the country on Saturday. At least until the final 1:02.

Which leads to the real story of the day:
when can Notre Dame establish a legitimate rhythm on offense? They can look stuck in neutral for a whole game (Georgia Tech). They can look pretty well in-synch for a whole game (Penn State). They can perform atrociously for a half (Michigan, Michigan State). They can perform brilliantly for a half (Michigan State). They can look good on one drive, bad on the next (Purdue). And they can look like they honestly don't care and still hang 31 (Stanford). They even moved the ball effectively at times against the Bruins, none bigger than 80 yards, 3 plays, 35 seconds in the waning moments of the 4th quarter.

But 60 minutes of complete football evades the Irish from an offensive standpoint. Here were some of Coach Weis' comments at today's wrap-up press conference:
I've watched the tape, so I'm not good in a good mood anymore...

I thought we got off to a horrendous start. We turned the ball over on the second play and then we go three and out the next possession. That's just unacceptable. We really fumbled the ball twice, not once. We lose it on Darius's and then we're down in the red zone going in and we fumble the quarterback's center exchange. That ends up leading to costing you points, even though we didn't lose the ball...

We were 4 and 19 on 3rd down, which was horrendous. We got into the red zone three times, scored one touchdown. That's horrendous. Gave up five sacks and nine pressures. That's horrendous...

So basically you're saying there's still some work to do.The best news for the Irish is that they escape with the win and now basically have four glorified scrimmages - Navy, North Carolina, Air Force, and Army - to prepare themselves for the season-ending showdown in Los Angeles. Having endured three nailbiters (two on the road, one at home), three comfortable wins, and one awful blowout, the entire season has been boiled down to one game.

Elsewhere, there's a high probability of several others around them in the rankings suffering losses - Tennessee, Florida, and Auburn belong to the merciless SEC, and only one of that trio finishes with a single loss; either West Virginia or Louisville is certain to lose once, and both of them better be damn well ready to play Rutgers in November; USC still has to play Cal, Oregon, & UCLA; and, of course, Ohio State and Michigan play each other. There's room for the Irish to manuever in the rankings - high enough for the championship game? No. But certainly high enough to solidify their BCS credentials and maybe even benefit from a miraculous fall of dominoes should they defeat the Trojans.

But to entertain thoughts of a 5-0 finish, an 11-1 season, and a holiday visit to sunny Miami, vibrant New Orleans, pleasent Pasadena, or even wonderful Glendale, the overall effort the Irish had on Saturday won't cut it. Not even close.

Despite all the negative vibes you might want to take from the first 59 minutes, how sweet was that play?


Friday, October 20, 2006

Bear Trap

Notre Dame and UCLA have had a few memorable tilts on the hardwood, but their football history stretches back exactly two games, both played in South Bend during the early 1960s. The Bruins visit Notre Dame Stadium tomorrow at a modest 4-2, now trying to redefine the identity of their offense without Ben Olson, the 23-year old redshirt freshmen quarterback. Backup Patrick Cowan wasn't exactly stellar during the loss at Oregon last week, while the Irish have had two weeks to prepare and rest ailing defensive players Tom Zbikowski, Ambrose Wooden, and Travis Thomas. It's mid-October, hope is in the air at Notre Dame Stadium, and a team from Southern California comes calling. Looks like its time for Game 7 in ND's 12 part march to glory...

#9 Notre Dame vs. UCLA
2:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame Stadium - Notre Dame, IN

Why UCLA Will Win

Statistically, this is the strongest defense the Irish have faced (practically that title belongs to Michigan, but the numbers never lie. Riiiiggghhhttt...) But, just one year removed from a defensive unit that conjured up new applications of the word "awful", new coordinator DeWayne Walker has the Bruin defense walking tall as a top 10 unit in total defense and scoring defense, surrendering just 252 yards and 15 points a game.

The lofty #9 rank on defense isn't completely worthy of the hype, though. Five of the Bruins six opponents rank in the bottom half of NCAA offenses, including juggernauts Rice (#92 in total offense), Arizona (#111), and Stanford (#115). Even so, a unit that surrendered better than 400 yards per game with ease last season, including an ugly 66 points in the season finale against USC, deserves a pat on the back for the quick strides they've made.

The gameplan for the Bruins has two basic components - pressure Brady Quinn, and win the turnover battle to set up a short field for their middling offense. Defensive rush specialist Justin Hickman has 7.5 sacks on the season, while a pass defense paced by Chris Horton, Al Verner, and Trey Brown has racked up 8 picks and 24 deflections. If the Bruins get the Irish to commit a bevy of mistakes, they've got more than a fighting chance.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Six weeks ago it didn't seem like Travis Thomas could possibly be the focal point of the Notre Dame defense. But plain and simple, the Irish D changes with him on the field. For Thomas, along with Ambrose Wooden and Tom Zbikowksi to all be missing time over the past two games created a sense of urgency within the D, as youngsters Ray Herring, John Ryan, Darrin Walls, and Morrice Richardson assumed a more active role, not to mention little used senior Joe Brockington being thrust into the starting spotlight. The urgency just got upped even more with news that one of the most experienced pass-rushers, Ronald Talley, has left the team. With the bye week used as an opportunity to get completely healthy, look for the Irish D too reassert themselves in Coach Weis' "second season".

On offense, the bye week has always been a tool for Notre Dame, and under this coaching staff look for things to be no different. It might in fact be a good defense coming out from Westwood, but they didn't exactly ace their first difficult road test in Eugene, allowing 30 points and 400 yards to the Ducks. More significantly, UCLA yielded 256 yards rushing, and Coach Weis and Darius Walker would love to see the Irish running game looking better and better, as it has over the last two opponents.
So while it may not be the most flashy offensive gameplan coming out of the chute on Saturday, the Irish will once again settle for steady, meticulous drives that balance running and passing. A strengthened defense should use that to their advantage and put the game away.

The Prediction

Neither team explodes on offense, but neither team implodes on defense. The Irish just stick with the gameplan and remember who's supposed to be doing what on this day.

Notre Dame 28, UCLA 14


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 31, Stanford 10

The game was so boring, it took 11 days just to muster up the strength to say, "I've got nothing else to do, might as well recap the game."

The Irish took their sweet-ass time against a Stanford team that never really presented much of a challenge. Early on it looked like that might be their undoing, as they followed up a splendid, balanced opening drive with drops, lapses in judgment, a near-death experience involving a pick six that was called back, before finally reconnecting with their late first-half mojo for a 14-3 lead. (The Irish have used their last drive of the first half to score a touchdown in five of their six games.)

Darius Walker had a second straight outstanding day, again racking up almost 200 total yards, while Brady Quinn was again hitting 2/3 of his passes and avoiding mistakes. The defense held an inept Stanford offense below even their own pathetic standards, so that gets chalked up as a positive. On the whole though, there was nothing to be overly impressed about - which is probably a good thing in the long run. The Irish were exactly where they were supposed to be against an inferior opponent, in complete control. Showing some kinks in the armor under those circumstances would (hopefully) make them all the more correctable.

Oh, and as for that Heisman thing...

Adrian Peterson is done for the year. Garret Wolfe was bottled up by Western Michigan. Calvin Johnson will have one more chance, against Miami State Penitentiary (er...University). Steve Slaton isn't enough of a superstar at West Virginia. That boils the race down to Troy Smith and Brady Quinn.

How Brady is still in the race after the horror show against Michigan on September 16th is more of a testament to the fact that this is a weak overall field than to the improvements made in his game. He can't afford any subpar efforts between now and the USC game, and that'll only guarantee him a chance to make his case in primetime Thanksgiving weekend. Anything resembling an encore of the Michigan performance will give Smith a Charlie Ward-type lock on the Heisman. And as long as the Buckeyes win out, Smith will get the award anyway.


Friday, October 06, 2006

There's Really No Reason to Play This Game...

Attention Notre Dame schedule critics: you are about to be fed a whole boatload of ammunition. I speak here of the 2006 Stanford Cardinal, who come into this contest sporting an 0-5 record, have a legitimate chance at finishing the season winless, have managed to limit their leading receiver from a year ago to NO catches in the first five games, and boast one of the absolute worst offenses to ever grace a Division I-A practice field, let alone stadium. It's not hubris to suggest that Notre Dame could run the scout team out there tomorrow and feel pretty good about its chances.

Charlie Weis says, "I absolutely do not believe in running up the score." OK Chuck, work your way out of a blowout against a team whose offense AND defense rank in the triple-digit section of the NCAA stats columns.

#12 Notre Dame vs. Stanford
2:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame Stadium -- Notre Dame, IN

Why Stanford Will Win

All 22 starters on Notre Dame get food poisoning. And need an emergency appendectomy. And contact a nasty staph infection during the operation. And suffer massive internal bleeding that finally takes them down sometime in the third quarter. (Sorry, I've been watching a lot of House lately.) Is this a trick question? Stanford gives up an average of 458 yards and 37 points, while their juggernaut of an offense averages 289 yards and 12 points. They need a miracle, plain and simple.

Why Notre Dame Will Win

They remember what the Cardinal almost did to them a year ago. Down 31-30 with less than two minutes to go during the final game at old Stanford Stadium, the Irish were seeing the entire year flash before their eyes, then repsonded with a game-clinching touchdown drive. That game was what, more than any other, sold people on the idea that the Irish were still a long way from the top of the mountain.

While the performance thus far in 2006, particularly on defense, says that the critics have it more right than wrong, one of the best judges of an elite team is the time it takes them to dispose of somebody who's hopelessly overmatched. The Irish struggled to easily put away Syracuse and Navy as well, though they won each game by scores of 42-21 and 34-10. The key for the Irish is to go back to the cliche well and remember the simple fact - they belong on the field, Stanford doesn't. Play within yourself, blah blah blah. It's a test of maturity more than anything else, and the Irish will pass.

The Prediction

No need to be humbly respectful of the opponent this week, not when favored by 34. Irish roll.

Notre Dame 44, Stanford 14.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 35, Purdue 21

The Irish found their running game on Saturday. Defense? I'll get back to you.

The stat sheet says that the Irish dominated the game both by ground and by air, with Darius Walker tallying 146 yards on the former, Brady Quinn 316 via the latter. The Irish held the edge in first downs, third down conversions, and held a huge advantage in time of possession.

And still Purdue piled up 490 yards of total offense. On the other hand, while all that yardage might be nice, this was a Purdue unit that came in averaging 40 points per game. Holding them to 21 deserves some sort of acknowledgment. In addition, the Irish minimized the opportunities to inflict damage on themselves by holding onto the ball and commiting only 5 penalties, two of which were HIGHLY questionable pass interference calls.

While that gouge of yardage does nothing to quiet the suspicions about Notre Dame's defense, you also have to consider that 88 of them came on what I like to call the ultimate PlayStation possession. With just 1 minute left in the first half, Purude QB Curtis Painter found Selwyn Lymon on a post, and Irish defenders Darrin Walls and Tom Zbikowski ran into each other, springing Lymon loose for an 88-yard touchdown. That's a play that every buzzed freshmen playing NCAA '07 on his PS2 completes, but the odds of it working in real life are ridiculously slim.

Then another 80 yards were racked up by Purdue on a TD drive when they trailed by 21 in the 4th quarter. While last week should serve as a reminder that the game is NEVER over in the minds of an Irish fan, was anybody truly fearful that Notre Dame would cough the game away like the Spartans did? My point is that 490 yards certainly isn't the way you want a defense to perform, but it can in fact be misleading - just like you'd look at Brady Quinn's 29 for 38 number and assume he bombed away on the 115th ranked secondary in college football. It was more of the dink, dunk, hook, and screen variety, but it got the job done.

The Irish are now fully into the "ho-hum" part of the schedule, with only UCLA representing a legitimate challenge before the season-ender against USC. If they can use this underbelly to get into a groove before the Novemeber 25th date at the Coliseum, a lot of what we expected to be on the line that day will be.