Friday, October 5, 2007

Beat The Bruins!

And we're back. Wednesday morning I had just left the house to hit the O.C. & L.A. freeways, when I received a text message from my boss. "Don't go to the office today - you might be going to Florida." So I turned around and went home to wait for the final word. At around 9:00 a.m. it came - "pack your bags." I was booked on a noon flight out of John Wayne and into Orlando via Dallas. By the time I got to my hotel in Cape Canaveral it was already11:30 p.m. After calling home and helping my son out with some math homework, I could call it a day. Except that when you fly from the west coast to the east, you aren't ready to sleep until about 2:00 a.m. When the wake-up call comes at 7:00 it feels like 4:00. Jet Lag is a Drag. So, a very full day of lawyer-stuff yesterday, finally sending off my final e-mail just after 9:30 p.m. Up early and flew home today. Not exactly how I thought my week was going to go! But, my flight got back to John Wayne in mid-afternoon, which means I'm home on a Friday much earlier than usual.

Why am I typing all this?

1. I haven't written a UCLA preview post this week. Now you know why.

2. Florida sucks. It's the first week of October and it's still 90 degrees and 80% humidity. At one point I was walking through a parking lot with the sun shining overhead, while somehow getting soaked by a rain shower. They say the South is football crazy, but the only sports talk radio I could find was all NASCAR and wrestling. Or ultimate fighting. One of the two. As always happens on my business trips, when I got off the plane in Orange County I couldn't believe how great the weather was. Wherever I go, whenever I go, the weather is always better in Orange County when I get home than it was wherever I went. And that includes Hawaii.

3. It's great to be home. When I went on my trip, I wasn't sure I'd make it back by the weekend, which was worrisome because I have tickets to the UCLA game and I really didn't want to miss it. Whew!

So what about the Irish chances against the 4-1 Bruins? Let's review. Before the season began I wrote that I expected Notre Dame to go 9-3, including a close loss to UCLA, and my ability to foresee the future hasn't gotten much better as the season has unfolded. Of course, with the Irish now sitting at 0-5, and the Bruins at 4-1, it would be totally logical to stand by my pre-season expectation that UCLA would avenge their narrow loss at Notre Dame. After all, they return almost everyone from a team that should have won last year's game, while most of this year's Notre Dame starters were in high school last season (or so it seems). Instead I say this: The Irish have the Bruins right where we want them! As I wrote in an e-mail earlier this week, the whole season until now has been an elaborate ruse to lull UCLA into complacency.

Here is why Notre Dame wins this game:

First, it is practically a home game for the Irish. For such a large school, UCLA is somewhat notorious for their inability to attract a crowd to their football games. Notre Dame has a huge fan base in Southern California that will turn out in force for their team. And Notre Dame is undefeated in games played in the Rose Bowl. I jest (a little), but the Rose Bowl holds a special place in Notre Dame history, and a win tomorrow in Pasadena would be historically important for this program. If you haven't read the terrific write-ups about that 1925 Rose Bowl game against Stanford, you really should. Start Here. And here. Seriously - I'll wait here until you're done.

Second, while not an ideal match-up for Notre Dame, there are some chinks in the UCLA armor that open the door to an Irish upset. The first is turnovers. UCLA quarterbacks have already thrown six interceptions this season, five by starter Ben Olson. As a team they have fumbled the ball nine times, losing five of them. That's an average of a fumble lost and 1.5 interceptions thrown per game. It tells me that there are game-changing opportunities available to our defense if it can force the action a little bit. If we can get a couple of turnovers to thwart UCLA drives and give the Irish a short field, that can be a big swing in points.

UCLA has not been a team that "starts fast." Notre Dame has had a lot of trouble this year by getting deep into a hole early in games and then not being able to climb back out. For the most part, the second halves of games have been irrelevant. Coach Weis has expressed a feeling that if the team could get on top early, the ensuing confidence and energy would build on itself and carry us to victory. We saw a glimpse of that energy last week when ND battled to within a touchdown of Purdue in the second half. But our opponents have not cooperated, outscoring Notre Dame by a margin of 101-21 in the first half. The Bruins, on the other hand, have largely been a second-half team. They have just outscored opponents in the first half overall (56-48), and have outscored opponents through three quarters by a margin of just 90-78. They were tied 10-10 with Washington at half-time and trailed Oregon State 14-6 at the half. UCLA's pattern has instead been to win the 4th quarter decisively, outscoring opponents in the final stanza 72-45. 72 points is more than twice as many points as the Bruins have scored in any other period (3rd qtr = 34 pts). They scored 28 fourth-quarter points last week to win a game they trailed after three quarters, 14-12. If UCLA allows Notre Dame to keep the game close well into the second half, I like our chances. If this young Irish team smells a win, and if our confidence and energy starts to grow, I believe Coach Weis and his staff will out-coach Karl Dorrell and his staff down the stretch.

UCLA is good, but no more than that. Although 4 and 1, they are hovering right around the #25 spot in most of the polls. That is right where Purdue was last week, and Notre Dame was one defensive stop from having a chance to win that game. The Bruins are to be credited with finding a way to win four games, but this is a team that was dismantled by Utah, 44-6 three weeks ago. As noted above, they trailed Oregon State after three quarters, and were tied against UW at the half. They are not dominating anyone. Although Notre Dame is winless through five games, we have been tested by five straight games against high-caliber competition, and it has slowly been making us better. That trial by fire had made the Irish ready to take on the inconsistent and emotionally fragile Bruins.

UCLA is a running team, and are hobbled. UCLA has rushed the ball 219 times this year, versus only 155 pass attempts. They have averaged 4.6 yards per rush and 7.26 yards per pass attempt. They have 997 rushing yards (including a minus 95 yards for QB Olson), and just over 1,126 passing yards. The Bruins run-first mentality makes sense since they have two very good running backs in Kahlil Bell and Chris Markey. But Markey is injured and may not play at all against the Irish. The Bruins still have Bell to rely on, but you have to believe the loss of Markey will place a little more of the offensive burden on QB Ben Olson who has a completion percentage of just 51.6% and 5 INTs. Olson is also recovering from a concussion he suffered in the loss to Utah. If injuries force UCLA to alter their run-first mentality even a little bit, that works in Notre Dame's favor.

Bottom line: As has been the case since the horror of the first game against Georgia Tech, the key question going into the game is whether the Notre Dame offensive line can block. We now know that the quarterbacks can throw the ball when given a chance, that the receivers can catch it, and that our running backs can gain yards if they get a crease to run in. We know what to expect from the defense. They are bend but don't break. They'll give up some yards on the ground, but will generally avoid the huge play. They've seen and played well against better offenses than UCLA's. But UCLA's defense presents quite the conundrum for the Irish offense. They have been very stout against the run, allowing just 2.8 yards per carry. Yet, they also have recorded 16 quarterback sacks. Pick your poison. Notre Dame has to be much better at run blocking, or pass blocking, or both, than they have been all year. If the O-line doesn't perform way above average in at least one of those phases, Notre Dame's offense won't go anywhere. Looking at the numbers, and knowing Coach Weis' inclination to throw the ball all over the yard, I expect Notre Dame's game plan to look a lot more like the Purdue game than the Michigan State game. Despite their pass-rushing prowess, UCLA is clearly more vulnerable to a passing attack than they are to the running game. The trick will be to give Clausen time to throw the ball. Expect to see more of Duval Kamara on the quick slants. And expect Golden Tate to score the winning touchdown in the North end zone right in front of me and my son!

Go Irish! Beat the Bruins!

See you at the Rose Bowl.


Aequitas said...

Great post Domer. I am going to be attending the game: Its my first Notre Dame game ever. I am super excited. I really hope they win, that would be awesome. But honestly, I'm just glad to be there. It might be my last chance to attend for a long time. Go IRISH!!

sir john said...

Nice OC like you I have been sooooooooo busy. ^&^& game is not on TV, here. Everyone is scrambling to find something free. Canada gets the game 85% of America does not.