Friday, August 20, 2010

Fighting Irish season preview

Ok, so it is no exactly Catholic apologetics but I couldn't resist and a little diversion might be nice.

Like so many weary and downtrodden Notre Dame fans, hope springs eternal.

Hope is something Notre Dame fans need. The last time Notre Dame won a National Championship, Ronald Reagan was still the President of the United States. The Irish last held the #1 spot in the polls on November 20th, 1993 before losing at home to #16 Boston College and the Irish have beaten USC only once since the start of the millennium.

Yet, there continues to be reason for optimism.

First, last year's Notre Dame team was not really as bad as the 6-6 record indicates. The Irish lost all 6 of those games in the final 2 minutes of regulation, or in overtime- a staggering statistic if you think about it.

Let's put it another way. Notre Dame was a mere 11 points from being a 9-3 team, and only 34 points from going 12-0.

Further, Notre Dame scored at least 20 points in all of their games and at least 30 in 7 of them. In fact, Quarterback Jimmy Clausen put up Heisman worthy numbers and receiver Golden Tate won awards as the best receiver in the country.

Nevertheless, the team did finish 6-6 and Charlie Weis lost his job. Why?

Here are the biggest reasons.

  1. Woeful production from the defensive line. No where was this more telling than in the last game of the season. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen completed almost 77% of his passes for 340 yards and 5 touchdowns but the Irish defense simply could not stop Toby Gerhart and the Stanford running game. Gerhart pummeled the Irish for 205 yards. The wilting of the Irish defense was a major factor in all 6 of Notre Dame's losses. The Irish defensive front simply could not stop the opponent's running game or get any pressure on the quarterback. To compensate for this, the Irish under Weis tried blitzing and cheating up the safeties and linebackers- to disastrous result.
  2. The November swoon. The Irish were 13-12 over their last 2 seasons. However, in games not played in November, they were 12-3. In November games in Charlie Weis' last 2 seasons, the Irish were a horrific 1-9 including losses to Connecticut, Syracuse and Navy. Whether this was the result of poor conditioning, or a frustrated team giving up remains to be seen.
  3. An inability to establish the run. The Notre Dame running game under Charlie Weis was statistically the worst in the history of the school. In 2007, it was the worst in the nation. If Notre Dame had an even serviceable running game, they may very well have won all of their games last year, despite their defensive woes. With no ability to run, the Irish could not control the clock or keep the other team's defense off the field. The Irish inability to run was inexplicable with plenty of 4 and 5 star talent along the line and in the backfield.

Here is why there is reason to hope;


Notre Dame's defensive woes spring chiefly from their inability to draft and develop the marquee defensive linemen, particularly the guards. In the last couple of years they have begun to recruit and develop that kind of player. Kapron Lewis-Moore, Darius Fleming, Tyler Stockton, Ethan Johnson and even freshman Louis Nix should help the Irish defense improve dramatically in this area. Look for a lot less gambling from the Irish defense. This will allow the extremely talented Notre Dame linebackers and Defensive backs to cut down substantially on the big plays that just killed the Irish during the Weis era.


By all reports, the conditioning under Brian Kelly is far more fast paced and physical than under Weis. This should markedly improve the Irish's propensity to wilt, both in the 4th quarter of games and seasons.

The Spread offense.

Switching to the spread offense will widen the field and get some of Notre Dame's faster players to the perimeter and into open space more often. Putting speedster Theo Riddick in the slot is a brilliant move. With all-world tight end Kyle Rudolph and all-world wide receiver Michael Floyd each drawing double coverage, players like Riddick, Duval Kamara, John Goodman and Shaq Evans will get ever opportunity to really step up as play makers.

True, the loss of receiver Golden Tate will be hard to compensate for but I believe the Irish offense will actually get an upgrade in production from the Quarterback position because Dayne Crist is a far more dangerous runner than Clausen ever was.

However, I think the one difference maker that Weis was never able to use right was Robert Hughes. The guy is a beast. A great combination of speed and power. He reminds me of Jerome Bettis.

Notre Dame is not a team that is short on talent, by any means. They have not played up to their talent level in 3 of the last 4 seasons. That is where Kelly will make the most immediate impact. He has a proven record of developing talent. I believe that, under Kelly, Notre Dame will continue to recruit great talent but will be much better at developing it and integrating it.

There is no logical reason to believe that Notre Dame cannot win 10 games this year.

Let's look at the schedule-

Dividing the schedule into quarters is instructive.

The first three games have included Michigan and Michigan State in every year under Charlie Weis and, in every year, he lost to at least one of those two teams. So, opening with a win over Purdue would be helpful, but not enough. To truly exorcise the demons, Brian Kelly must sweep these 3 games and give the Irish it's first 3-0 start in 8 years. That will require an Irish team that is far more physical than what we have seen in quite some time.

If the Irish do not defeat all 3 of these teams, they will not be ranked and they will not be confident of climbing out of their recent mediocrity. However, if the team is 3-0, it is impossible to imagine them not ranked in the 21-25 range of both wire service polls.

However, where they go from there- out or up- would be determined by the next 3 games of the season. The truth is that I believe it is entirely plausible that the Irish could win their first 3 games, then lose their next 3. If that were to happen, it would be very difficult for Kelly to not lose this team.

The most likely scenario for me is that Kelly will lose 2 of these 3 games (Pittsburgh and Boston College the most likely) and emerge with a 4-2 record. Charlie Weis started with better than a 4-2 record only once, when he started 5-1 in 2006.

Beating Stanford, in the 4th game, would have to be considered the threshold the Irish would need to clear to open up at least the possibility of a really special season. Even if Stanford is 3-0, voters are likely to be very unimpressed with wins over Sacramento State, UCLA and Wake Forest. Skeptical voters would punish the Irish severely for a loss to the Cardinal.

On the other hand, if the Fighting Irish emerge undefeated, they have at least the potential to help them selves a lot with the voters.

Boston College looks to be 2-0 going into their break after opening with 2 cupcakes. If the Eagles can manage to beat Virginia Tech, they will certainly command the nation's respect. This would be exponentially more true if the Hokies can manage to beat powerhouse Boise State in their prime time Labor day matchup.

Of course, I don't think Boston College really can beat Virginia Tech nor do I believe that Virginia Tech really can beat Boise State but you never know.

It also remains to be seen if the Fighting Irish can beat Boston College. If the Irish lose 3 games this year, the Boston College game will most likely be one of them. The problem is that Pittsburgh, who the Irish face in game 6, is likely to be another.

Pittsburgh is likely to be the toughest opponent the Irish face all year. If I knew the Irish would be 11-1, I would expect the Panthers to be the administrators of that one defeat.

If Notre Dame is 4-1 coming into this game, it will be Brian Kelly's first chance at a marquee win. If Notre Dame is undefeated, it will be the biggest Notre Dame game of the season. However, if Pittsburgh is also undefeated, it will be the biggest Notre Dame game since their epic 2005 game vs #1 ranked USC.

To get to 4-0, the Panthers would need wins against 2 preseason top 25 teams- Miami of Florida and Utah. If the Panthers manage that, they will certainly be a top 10- if not a top 5- team.

Nevertheless, it doesn't matter all that much. If Notre Dame is 6-0 after those 6 games, they will be well on their way to a very special season. My optimistic hope is that they will be 5-1, while my realistic opinion is 4-2.

In any of those scenarios, a good season is well within reach. Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa represent the easiest stretch of the schedule by far. This is where a 4-2 team becomes a 7-2 team, a 5-1 team stretches to 8-1 and a 6-0 team (dare we say it) gets off to the first 9-0 start of any Notre Dame team in 17 years.

That brings us to Utah in game 10. 2 years ago, this team went undefeated and routed Alabama in it's bowl game. That's right, Alabama who would win the next season's title. By all fairness, Utah should have been National champs in 2008. Last year, they fell back to earth a little at 10-3.

In the extremely unlikely event that both Notre Dame and Utah are both undefeated at this point, it could be the game of the year..... but I find that highly unlikely. I also don't think Notre Dame will lose this game, or the next one vs Army.

That brings us to game 12 and USC.

My feeling is that Notre Dame will enter this game 9-2. If that is the case, a win verses the Trojans puts the Irish in a BCS bowl and wins Kelly coach of the year. If they are 8-3 or 7-4, a win gives them a lessor bowl. 6-5 means a USC win is needed to save Kelly's job.

In the unlikely event that Notre Dame is 11-0, or even 10-1 coming into this game, a victory over the Trojans could put them in the title game.

S0, for kicks and giggles, let me try and predict the season.

Sept 4. Notre Dame 40 Purdue 28 (1-0)
Sept 11. Notre Dame 31 Michigan 24 (2-0)
Sept 18. Notre Dame 38 Mich. State 20 (3-0)
Sept 25. Notre Dame 38 Stanford 17 (4-0)
Oct 2. Boston College 28 Notre Dame 17 (4-1)
Oct. 9. Pittsburgh 24 Notre Dame 17 (4-2)
Oct 16. Notre Dame 54 Western Mich. 10 (5-2)
Oct 23. Notre Dame 33 Navy 17 (6-2)
Oct 30 Notre Dame 49 Tulsa 7 (7-2)
Nov 13 Notre Dame 41 Utah 30 (8-2)
Nov 20 Notre Dame 42 Army 0 (9-2)
Nov 27 Notre Dame 31 USC 20 (10-2)

Orange Bowl : Notre Dame 44 Ohio State 21 (11-2 Final ranking #10)

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