Friday, September 07, 2007

Into the Lion's Den

No, I'm not gonna apologize for this obvious cop-out of a headline. Because right now, having suffered a 30-point beatdown and now sending in a freshman quarterback to compete amid the bright lights of a 108,000 blood-thirsty Penn State fans...a little gallows humor is appropriate.

Happy Valley will be rocking tomorrow night, awaiting the Irish's first visit since 1991 and more than ready for payback after Brady Quinn and Company quickly derailed the Nittany Lions' hopes of repeating their 2005 success with a 41-17 smashing on September 9th, 2006. 365 days later...
  • Paterno's crew is the veteran outfit, led by matured quarterback Anthony Morelli, versatile running back Austin Scott, athletic receivers Deon Butler & Derrick Williams (pictured below, right) and All-America caliber linebacker Dan Connor.
  • Notre Dame is hording a lot of young talent, but it bears repeating that they are young and inexperienced - and they certainly played the part last Saturday. Maybe it would've been a different story had the Irish broken their young bucks in against, shall we say, Florida International. But they didn't.
  • The Penn State fans have the super-intimidating "WHITE OUT" stunt planned for Saturday night. And they give the Irish crap about the green jerseys...
So here we are, another go-round for the Irish and the first in the 2007 series of game previews. Let it begin...

Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. #14 Penn State Nittany Lions
6:00 PM EDT
Beaver Stadium - State College, PA

Why Notre Dame Will Win

Is this a trick question? Hard to find is the optimistic Notre Dame fan after the week ND Nation has been through. The 33-3 loss to Georgia Tech set a lot of people to wondering if those who had foretold doomsday (Mark May) were actually right, if the Irish really were so wet behind the ears that they would lay an egg to the tune of a 1-7 or 0-8 start. Tough to think such things coming off the previous two seasons, but such is life in the world of Notre Dame. You are either on top or scrambling like crazy to get there. There is no middle ground, and if you didn't win then you lost. Doesn't matter if you looked good or respectable doing it - you still lost. And when you look silly doing it, like in a game when you rack up just 122 yards of offense, that's when the enemies really start brandishing the heavy artillery.

The "advance scouting report" on Penn State's defensive was relayed to me on Saturday as this - "They're all great, but you haven't heard of any of them." After hearing that except same superlative being lobbied on behalf of the Notre Dame offensive line all summer, color me unimpressed. Even so, as Charlie Weis quipped this week, the Lions don't employ the 'blitzkrieg' defense alĂ  Georgia Tech, "but I would". Count on seeing plenty of pressure coming from the Lions back-7, which features two outstanding linebackers in Connor & Sean Lee, plus great defensive backfield led by corner Justin King (blazing fast) and Anthony Scirroto at free safety.

So what the hell does Notre Dame have to do to stay in the game - forget for the time being about planning to win, how do you find a reason to believe they won't be humiliated and let Jimmy Clausen be devoured? For one thing, expect the offense to stay far more true to its NFL-style Patriot roots this week. The Boy Wonder showed even in mop-up duties against GaTech that he has a lot of the attributes Weis wants from the QB position in his preferred offense. And for all the hype, for all the accolades, for all the doubt and occasionally self-inflicted criticism Clausen creates, it's still true that he's no ordinary college freshman. The kid's about to turn 20 - held back once to develop physically before high school, and that was after starting school at age 6. Never lost a game in three years as a starter in Southern California. While some pointed out that he usually faced less strenuous competition being part of a small private school's conference in Thousand Oaks, I'd wager even 'lesser competition' in SoCal trumps what he'd see in the 'elite' Pennsylvania divisions.

But the Irish need two things - one, minimize the mistakes on offense. Clausen needs to be held back from attempting to be another Brady Quinn (for now). Second, and here's how the Irish can win, is to attack and create turnovers. Force a couple, turn them into points, and all of a sudden we've got a ballgame. The Irish are underdogs and with good reason, so we have to chalk this game in the same category of '02 Florida State, '04 Michigan & '05 USC. The 'hidden plays' of special teams, of momentum-changing turnovers and stops, will determine the Irish fate. The minimum threshold of success: force at least 3 turnovers, and score 14 points off those turnovers.

Why Penn State Will Win

Because Ed Bradley (we can assume) is not an idiot and saw everything he needed to see in last week's Georgia Tech film. He has a defense on caliber with Georgia Tech's - not as proven a commodity along the front 4, but solid at linebacker and safety and more than capable of bringing the pressure. But will history repeat itself? Last season the Nittany Lions got caught with their pants down, Butkus Award winner Paul Posluszny admitting after the game, "We expected them to keep going deep, but they just cleaned us all out and went underneath." That's why, if he really isn't an idiot, Bradley won't rely solely on what he saw in the Georgia Tech game film when preparing. With Clausen back under center, new wrinkles from what the Irish ran last week are not just inevitable but essential. However, the Penn State defense is still quick, angry about what happened last season, and fully aware of just how inexperienced their opposing quarterback is.

What does it all add up to? A potentially very long night for Clausen - despite the fact that not every one of them was a protection problem, the Irish offensive line still surrendered 9 sacks last week. And Weis may have noted that Bradley doesn't blitz quite like Tenuta. "But I would."

The Prediction

Despite all the doom-and-gloom that hovered over the Irish for the past 6 days, there may just be no better tonic than to strap on the pads and get back to hitting people under the lights on Saturday. It's just too much a leap of faith to expect a win, but with the guy Weis has wanted since the day he was hired (Dec. 12, 2004) now quarterbacking the Irish, expect a more fluid offense that at least nets a touchdown or two. If the Irish can catch JoePa's crew off-balance and exploit the same type of mistakes that happened last year to turn the game into a blowout, they've got a fighting chance. But like I said, this game represents some very inexperienced hunters going into the lion's den. And they're talented, ornery lions...not to mention one very senile one.

Penn State 34, Notre Dame 21

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