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



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