Sunday, August 26, 2007

OC Domer 2007 Season Expectations (Game-by-Game)

Intro. As I wrote in yesterday's post, I am not close enough to the program or knowledgeable enough about football talent, systems, and match-ups to "predict" what will happen as the Fighting Irish play through the 2007 schedule. But as an alumnus, a very interested observer, and devoted fan of Notre Dame football I definitely have some expectations about what we'll see from this team in Charlie Weis' third year at the helm. A lot has been written about the success great Notre Dame coaches have had in their third year, but I do not put too much stock in it in Coach Weis' case. Previous coaches taking over the program at least had significant talent on the roster to work with. Using better coaching, the likes of Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz were able to win championships using a lot of the players brought into the program by their predecessors. As much of a disappointment as Gerry Faust was, his recruiting classes were generally very highly regarded. Coach Weis had to follow Ty Willingham. The senior class is very small and the talent level in that class is not up to Notre Dame standards. Compounding the issue is that Coach Weis and his staff got a very late start on their first recruiting class. Although they did a pretty good salvage job, that class was not very big and is not ranked as highly as the next two classes were. Thus, while my expectations for this team are high, I think expectations of a run at the National Championship are unrealistic. Without further ado, here is how I see 2007 unfolding.

Georgia Tech (Sept. 1 @ Home). It's hard to get a good read on the Yellow Jackets. I've seen them ranked as high as #14 in the country (Athlon Sports), but most pre-season rankings have them in the low-to-mid 30's, typically just a few spots above the Irish. The latest AP poll has them at #27 (ND is #38). The USA Today/Coaches Poll also has GT at #27 (Irish are #29). But, of course, despite everyone ranking GT ahead of Notre Dame, the Irish head into the opener as a 2.5 point favorite with the odds makers. Go figure. It's easy to dismiss the Yellow Jackets, but it would be a mistake. They won the Coastal Division of the ACC last season, beating out a very good Virginia Tech squad for the honor. Ironically, almost everyone expects improved quarterback play for GT now that four-year starter Reggie Ball has moved on. The loss of All-Universe wide receiver Calvin Johnson certainly hurts the Ramblin' Wreck, but aside from losing Ball and Johnson they bring almost everyone else back from last year's talented team. The Irish defensive front seven will be facing a talented and veteran offensive line and will have to try to stop a very highly regarded running back in senior Tashard Choice (1,473 rushing yards in 2006). Likewise, the Tech defense returns eight starters and will have a significant advantage in experience over the Irish quarterback, running backs, and receivers. It's easy to forget that Notre Dame was trailing Georgia Tech 10-0 last year before the Irish finally got on the board with a quarterback draw from the 5-yard line with 11 seconds remaining in the first half. Notre Dame was able to take Calvin Johnson out of play in the second half with some defensive adjustments, and we squeaked out a 14-10 win.

Tech will probably be a better team this season than they were last year. The returning experience from a very good team, improved QB play, and a more balanced offensive attack led by Choice will make them better on offense. The defense will be improved by virtue of maturity. Have the Irish gotten better? I believe Corwin Brown will revitalize the defense. Choice will get his yards, but we'll keep the Tech passing game largely under control. On offense, the Irish will have to be able to run the ball early and often. GT defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is an evil genius of the blitz and will feast on our young quarterbacks if we get ourselves into "must pass" situations. If we can mix pass/run on our own terms, and not on Tenuta's terms I think we win it. As I wrote yesterday, it all comes down to how our offensive line plays. If we can control the line of scrimmage and neutralize Tech's blitzing schemes with an effective power running game, we'll be successful.

Two factors weigh heavily in our favor for this opening game. The first is the "Talent Gap." Irish Round Table had a very nice post recently setting forth the differences in talent level between Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, using star rankings from By some measures, the disparity in talent between these two programs is greater than the difference between Notre Dame and USC last season. Star rankings may not mean much in an individual case, but on a more macro level I think you have to give it some credence.

The second factor is historical. I wrote at length recently about how Notre Dame quarterbacks have done over the years in their first start. Whoever Coach Weis has chosen, I like our chances. According to my research, Notre Dame quarterbacks making their first ever start in a season opener are 11-0 in my lifetime. (I originally had it as 12-0, but a reader correctly identified Joe Theisman's first start as being late in the 1968 season rather than the 1969 opener). Add in the fact that we play this game in our house, and I am confident of a Notre Dame win. I expect a close game, relatively low scoring, Irish win by a touchdown. Call it 24-17.

Penn State (Sept. 8 @ State College). The Irish leave the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium and travel to the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania to take on the Nittany Lions, who will be coming off an opening bye week scrimmage game against Florida International. The strength of Penn State's team figures to be its offense. Senior Anthony Morelli returns at quarterback, as do most of his receivers. But the starters at running back are unproven, and PSU is rebuilding the left side of it's offensive line, even bringing in some JUCO players to help them out. The defense will likely be good, but not as good as last year. The defensive line and secondary will see a lot of new faces. Matching the Lions up against the Irish, we see Morelli and his experienced receiving corps passing against the strength of the Irish defense, our secondary. Our linebackers and D-line should be able to handle their new starters at RB. On the other side of the ball, our offensive line should have it's way with a very young defensive front, and our young QB and receivers should be an even match against PSU's rebuilt secondary.

We blew out PSU (41-17) in our place last season. While the Irish were clearly the better team, we weren't THAT much better. Notre Dame did a great job of making the Lions pay when they turned the ball over, and it got out of control pretty quickly. I don't expect an Irish blowout again. Notre Dame played PSU for twelve straight seasons from 1981 through 1992. In that stretch, three games were "blowouts". (ND by 37 in 1984, PSU by 30 in 1985, PSU by 22 in 1991). Two out three times the loser in the blowout came back the following year and won the game. (PSU in 1985 and ND in 1992).

Is it just me, or does Penn State seem way overrated to you? The pre-season AP poll has them at #17. The USA Today Coaches poll has them at #18. For a team that has significant holes to fill on both the offensive and defensive lines, they seem to be getting a lot of love. I thing we match up really well with Penn State. Our offensive line will control the line of scrimmage, and we will run the ball right at them very effectively. The young secondary will begin to over-commit to the run game, and Sharpley will victimize them with big plays over the top. On defense, our front seven controls the run and gets decent pressure on Morelli, making it tough to make plays down the field against our DBs. Our defense will be disruptive enough to force a couple of turnovers, but first-big-game-on-the-road-jitters will probably lead to a fumble or two from the Irish as well. By and large we control the line of scrimmage, although Morelli makes a few plays. I expect a workman-like win by Notre Dame, 21-13. The loss drops PSU out of the Top 25, and Notre Dame cracks the polls for the first time.

Michigan (Sept. 15 @ Ann Arbor). Have Chad Henne and Mike Hart not earned their PhDs yet? Michigan is ranked #5 in both the AP and USA Today polls, and indications are that they deserve to be there. Michigan opens the season with Appalachian State (seriously) and then Oregon (both at home). I think Oregon will play well enough to put a little scare into the Wolverines (who may be looking ahead) and we will see an opponent with renewed focus. The Irish travel to the Big House to take on a team that whipped them 47-21 last season in Notre Dame stadium, and most of the pieces on Michigan's very potent offense remain in place. Henne, Hart, and Mario Manningham figure to pose a serious test for the Notre Dame defense, even though the Wolverines are rebuilding the right side of their offensive line with the latest crop of 300-pounders. Notre Dame will probably be able to move the ball against Michigan, as the Wolverines return only 4 starters on that side of the ball. The question is whether we can move the ball enough to outscore a UM offense that figures to hang some points on us.

Notre Dame has played Michigan 23 times since World War II (starting in 1978). ND is 12-10-1 over that stretch. Only twice in those 23 games has the margin of victory been greater than 20 points. (2003 and 2006). In fact, wins by more than ten points in this series (since WWII) are somewhat unusual, having occurred in only 7 of those 23 games (including the two 20+ pt. blowouts). 16 of 23 games have been decided by fewer than 10 points. In the six 10+ point victories, the losing team has come back the following year to win the game four times and earned a tie one time. Only once has the loser by more than 10 points (UM in 1987) failed to come back and win the game the next year (1988). Even an unranked Ty Willingham team was able to beat UM 28-20 in 2004 after losing 38-0 in 2003.

I expect Notre Dame's defense to have trouble with Michigan's O-line. UM should be able to run against the Irish with the power game, and a pass rush that has trouble pressuring Henne will leave the secondary vulnerable to some big plays. On offense, I think the running game that was successful against GT and PSU will bog down, and we'll be forced to go to the air pitting our young QB and receivers against UM's very young secondary. If the O-line can give our QB some time, I like that match up. In the end, although I expect it to be a close game, I think the Wolverines control the line of scrimmage. We lose the field position battle because we can't kick the ball into the end zone. We also get bit because we miss at least two very makeable field goal attempts. If Demetrius Jones hasn't played much at QB before now, I expect that our need for a playmaker will cause Coach Weis to insert him in the second or third quarters to bring a spark to the offense and throw UM's defense off balance. It's another epic game in the series, but the Irish fall by less than a touchdown, 30-24.

Michigan State (Sept. 22 @ Home). I respect Michigan. I respect USC. But I can't stand the Spartans. There is no logical reason for Sparty to have as much success against Notre Dame as they have enjoyed, but like old gum you just can't scrape them off the bottom of your shoe. The Irish, behind a heroic effort from Brady "Can't Win the Big Game" Quinn came back from a 16-point deficit at the beginning of the fourth quarter to break the Spartans' little green hearts and send their coach to the asylum, all in a torrential rain. After the debacle against Notre Dame in front of their home crowd, Michigan State went off the rails. They have a new coach, a new quarterback, are learning a new system, and are picked by many to finish tenth of eleven teams in the Big , er, Ten? They return to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since planting their vile flag in the turf there following a victory over the Irish in 2005, Coach Weis' first year. Regardless of personnel, regardless of match-ups, I expect Notre Dame to crush the Spartans every year. MSU will run the ball against us behind a very big O-line, but the new QB will struggle in his first big test, facing the hostile Notre Dame crowd on the road after games against UAB, Bowling Green, and Pittsburgh at home. The Irish offense will run the ball outside against undersized defensive ends and will pass at will against young cornerbacks along the sidelines. The Irish are excited to be back home and explode on Sparty, winning 35-17.

Purdue (Sept. 29 at West Lafayette). In a classic case of good news / bad news, the Boilermakers look to return nine starters on each side of the ball. The offense expects to be very dynamic in the spread passing game, with a speed running game largely as a complement. This match-up seems to be a good one for the Irish, who have much improved depth in the secondary and who have switched to a 3-4 scheme with emphasis on more speed at LB. The key will be whether Corwin Brown's defense can generate enough pass rush to prevent veteran QB Curtis Painter from picking the secondary apart. On the other side of the ball, the pundits basically label Purdue as "soft." The phrase "pushed around" gets used a lot. This plays right into Notre Dame's new smash-mouth philosophy on offense. The Irish play keep-away, control the ball and shove it down the Boilermakers' throats. Time of possession is very lopsided in Notre Dame's favor in a slightly lower-scoring replay of last year's game. Irish win 31-20, while trying not to look ahead to Pasadena.

UCLA (Oct. 6 @ The Rose Bowl). With a 42-yard touchdown pass from Quinn to Samardzija with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, the Fighting Irish salvaged an important comeback win over the Bruins in last year's matchup in South Bend, 20-17. Quinn is gone. Samardzija is gone. This year the game is being played in the historic Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. And almost every Bruin who had to swallow last year's bitter pill will be back to right what they undoubtedly feel was a horrible wrong. UCLA is ranked #14 in the AP pre-season poll, and #17 in the USA Today poll. They return ten (10) starters on both offense and defense from a team that shocked the world with a 13-9 win over the USC Trojans in Pasadena last season. They held the Trojans to just 9 points with a fast, aggressive defense that refused to let Trojan QB John David Booty get comfortable in the pocket. Credit Quinn's modest success against this defense to his incredible maturity and experience, which none of the current Notre Dame quarterbacks have accrued yet. A glimmer of hope can be taken from UCLA's inconsistent play last year. Despite a win over USC and a near win over Notre Dame, UCLA lost at Washington, at Oregon, against Washington State, at California, and in the Emerald Bowl against Florida State. So they have a history of losing focus and losing games they should win. Do you think the Bruins will lack focus when Notre Dame comes to call?

UCLA hosts the Irish the week after a road trip to Oregon State, which can be a very tough place to play. The Beavers likely catch the Bruins looking ahead and either beat them or put a real scare into them. The Notre Dame game is by far the biggest game on the Bruin schedule up to that point, and they follow our game with a bye week. They are going to be ready for us, and they are going to have one thing on their minds: Payback.

The Bruin offense is nothing special. Solid QB, solid RB, solid receivers, but nobody that strikes fear into opponents' hearts. The question will be whether the Irish offense can get anything done against that defense, which played it's best ball late in the season. This is another game that highlights the importance of the offensive line this season. To neutralize UCLA's defensive speed and take advantage of an undersized, though quick, front seven the O-line needs to take control of this game and we have to be able to ram the ball down the Bruins' throats. Big, strong running backs like Travis Thomas, James Aldridge, and Robert Hughes need to bring the lumber. We won't be able to outrun the defenders to the perimeter. Screens and draws won't work. We need to go right at them and run over them. Then, when the linebackers are committed to stopping the run, and the defensive backfield starts cheating up to help out, we can take some shots in the passing game. If the offensive line can establish control of the line of scrimmage, then we can win this game. If not, if we get behind or are forced by down and distance to drop back and throw, then we are in trouble.

This game worries me. It is one of a pair of swing games in the middle of the season (along with Boston College) which will largely determine how successful Notre Dame's season is. Win both, and a 10-win season is very possible. Lose both and eight wins becomes the best case scenario. Split them and we're likely 9-3. I think we split them. I think the Irish arrive in Pasadena excited about the chance to play in the historic Rose Bowl, but tired. It's the sixth straight game without a break on a schedule that is brutally tough. We have a young team, and it's the second straight game on the road. We're probably a little banged up. UCLA will be jacked up and the Irish will be unable to match their intensity. The game will be close, but a couple of key turnovers to DeWayne Walker's defense and failure to cash in on stalled drives with field goals means the Irish lose a close one, 24-21.

Boston College (Oct. 13 @ Home). The game against BC is the second of the two swing games in the middle of the season that worry me. The Eagles are ranked #28 in the AP poll and #26 in the USA Today poll. They had a nice 10-3 campaign last season in what was really a down year for the ACC. They bring back a decent quarterback in Matt Ryan who played much of last year with a broken foot. They were 50th in the nation in total offense and 34th in total defense. They have a new head coach after Tom O'Brien bolted for N.C. State. I expect Notre Dame's new defensive scheme to be in full bloom by this point in the season and handle the Eagles' quality but not dynamic offense without much difficulty. On offense, we're going to have to change things up and win this one through the air, as there will little room to run. Boston College expects to start two defensive tackles that weigh in at 343 and 337 pounds, and the linebackers are a veteran group that is stout against the run.

Since I anticipate a likely loss at UCLA, I think the Irish bounce back with a solid win and a very balanced performance against BC. Footballs will be in the air and we'll see some scoring. Notre Dame 31, Boston College 17.

[NOTE: If the Irish pull out the win at UCLA, then the BC game is a potential trap game. A letdown after a UCLA win, plus looking ahead to the Trojans a week away would likely mean a Notre Dame loss.]

Southern California (Oct. 20 @ Home). Everyone's pre-season #1 comes to South Bend for Notre Dame's eighth straight game without a bye. Thanks Dr. White! The Trojans are loaded. Although UCLA caught lightning in a bottle and shocked the Trojans last year, this is still a team that beat the Brady Quinn-led Irish by 20 points last season and who embarassed Michigan in the Rose Bowl 32-18 (that was the Michigan team that beat the Irish by 26 points). Although they return only 5 starters on offense, those five include the QB, John David Booty, who is being hyped for the Heisman Trophy. They have 5-star Blue-Chippers coming out of their ears, including 10 9 tailbacks that could likely start for almost any team in the country. They return ten starters on a defense that many predict will be Coach Pete Carroll's best ever. The good news is that the NCAA has turned down Coach Carroll's petition to allow USC to put more players on the field in order to give all their talent an opportunity to play. So he has to live with only playing 11 guys at a time.

Do the Irish have a chance? I mentioned previously how unusual blowouts are in the ND-Michigan series. The opposite is true for Notre Dame and USC. The Fighting Irish and the Trojans have played each other 61 times since World War II (resuming play in 1946). Notre Dame is 32-25-4 in those games. Of those 61 games, 19 games had a margin of victory of 20 points or more - almost 1/3 of the time! Of those 19 blowouts, the losing team has come back the following season to earn a win 8 times and a tie 1 time. Thus, nearly half the time a team gets blown out in this series (since WWII) they redeem themselves the following year. So a Notre Dame win is not at all out of the realm of possibility.

I know Coach Weis would sorely like to find a way to get this series turned around, to get back the one that got away in 2005. But I think the talent gap is still too large, especially with regard to experienced players. When Brady Quinn & Co. almost beat the Trojans in 2005 he was in his third year of playing quarterback full time. This year we'll be led by a player in his first year, and possibly in one of his first games depending on how the season plays out. I think we will have more success with the power running game, enabling us to control the ball a little better and display a more balanced attack. I think the defense will be improved and the secondary will make USC work harder for their touchdowns. I think the "gap" is closing. (Shall we name it the "Davie-Willingham Gap"?) I think the game is undecided at half time, but the Trojans talent and depth eventually wear us down and we lose by just under two touchdowns, 30-17.

And then we get our bye week. Better late than never?

Navy (Nov. 3 @ Home). I think it's good that we continue to honor Navy because of all they did for Notre Dame during the war years. But Coach Weis doesn't fool around with these lesser foes. The Irish beat the Middies soundly but respectfully, 35-10.

Air Force (Nov. 10 @ Home). No disrespect to the Cadets or the USAFA (my Dad is a '63 graduate of the Academy), but when did they become a permanent fixture on the Notre Dame schedule? I'd like to see if we couldn't replace them with another mid-major. Irish beat the zoomies soundly but respectfully, 34-16.

Duke (Nov. 17 @ Home). I wish Duke was better. Duke, along with Notre Dame, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Northwestern, and a few others are among those schools that are ranked among the best academic schools in the nation and who also field Div-IA football teams. I like the idea of these similar schools playing each other and supporting each other's programs, sort of like the Ivy League but with 4- and 5-star players. Alas, Duke is most assuredly NOT better and we beat the Blue Devils handily, 48-13.

Stanford (Nov. 24 @ The Farm). Stanford is better than Duke, barely. I actually expect new Head Coach Jim Harbaugh to do some good things in Palo Alto. But it's going to take a while. His team went 1-11 last year and Stanford has no easy W's on the schedule. Notre Dame controls both side of the line of scrimmage (as well as the ball) and starts running out the clock midway through the second quarter. Irish 38, Stanford 16.

Bowl Game. At 9 wins and 3 losses, the Irish don't get selected to go to a BCS Bowl, and instead get to play in a respectable bowl game against an opponent they can beat. Having solved our big-play problems on defense, and having healed up from the brutal first eight weeks of the schedule, Notre Dame handily wins it's first bowl game since New Year's Day of 1994.

Final Results: With young but talented players all over the field, and with new defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, the Irish basically win the games they won and lose the games they lost in 2006 (UCLA being the exception). But we don't get blown out by anyone. We aren't a Top 5 program yet, but at 10-3 overall, we end up just outside the Top 10 in the final polls of the season. Entering 2008 we are a Top 10 team fighting to become an elite Top 5 program.

Conclusion. So, this is how I see the season playing out. Is it a prediction? Not really. It's just a thorough explanation of where I see the program and what I think I'm going to see. Might Charlie's Fighting Irish exceed my expectations? They could. The offensive line could be dominant, the QB play spectacular, the young receivers amazing. The front seven could be energetic AND stout. We could beat Michigan and UCLA, we might even surprise everyone with an improbable win over the Trojans. On the other hand, the O-line might not be what we need it to be. The young QBs and receivers might sputter. The front seven might give up too many yards in the running game. If that happens, we could lose to Georgia Tech, Penn State, MSU and BC. It could be a disaster. But, as one sage once said "That's why they play the games."


sir john said...

Another nice job OC. My predictions aren't too far away from yours.

Marc Brammer said...

In the many years I have lived in South Bend and watched Notre Dame football I am convinced that the value of ND intangibles which is real happens when ND fields teams that are physical on both offense and defense on both first and second units. The 2007 team has the makings of a very physical team but they are a year away from special games becoming a regular diet. 9-3 will be the start of something special.