This post will serve as your combination platter U-Dub preview and Irish Blogger Gathering entry for the week. First my pre-game thoughts as yet another "Greatest Dual Threat Quarterback Ever" leads the Washington Huskies into Notre Dame Stadium.
This game is all about Notre Dame. The Irish smoked a Jake Locker-less Huskies squad in Seattle last year, 33-7. And the game was not nearly as close as the score indicated. Last year's game at Washington was the only Notre Dame game I ever remember watching where I felt like the opponent had actually given up. It was a great performance by a prepared Irish squad, and an embarrassing display of hopelessness by U-Dub. Seeing the lack of Husky heart in that game, it was no wonder they went 0-12 on the season.
What a difference a coach and a quarterback can make.
Other than changing head coaches and getting their star QB back from injury, the 2009 Huskies are largely the same group of players that UW fielded in 2008. Yet this year the Huskies came within a whisker of beating SEC powerhouse Louisiana State (31-23), and they did beat the visiting USC Trojans two weeks ago (16-13). Washington is 2-2 on the year, the two losses being to LSU and last week to Stanford (34-14) in their first road game of the season.
Looking at the Huskies' season so far, they seem to have a split personality. The Dawgs really enjoy home cooking, and really feed off the home crowd at Husky Stadium, reputedly one the loudest stadia in the nation when the crowd gets into it. The close game against LSU and the win against USC were both home games.
Last week down on the Farm, in a stadium that was filled to the rafters with 36,390 wine-sipping Cardinal fans (only 36 thousand fans for a PAC-10 game? Really Stanford?) the Huskies were basically dominated, 34-14. Playing without their home crowd, but hardly in a hostile environment, the Huskies allowed 424 total yards --- 321 of those yards on the ground (an average of 6.4 yards per rush).
The "amazing" Jake Locker had 20 net yards rushing on 7 carries and went 16 of 31 (52%) for 191 yards with 1 TD and 2 INTs.
I don't doubt that part of the problem for U-Dub last week was them looking ahead to this week's game against the Irish. But that's a pretty weak performance, even granted that Stanford is an improved team under Coach Harbaugh.
Tomorrow, the Huskies are going to face not just 36 thousand apathetic Cardinal fans, but 80 thousand die-hard Notre Dame fans. Playing in Notre Dame Stadium as the second leg of back-to-back road games will be a challenge for Washington. As I wrote at the top, this game is all about the Irish.
It's all about whether they are prepared and focused and hungry. In my view, if the Irish had a good week of practice, and if they come into the stadium tomorrow ready to take care of business, and if they play with the requisite energy and heart, there is no way they lose this game. As noted before, both teams in this game are playing essentially the same guys that played in last year's game in Seattle, and that was a blow-out home loss for Washington.
On defense, Coaches Tenuta and Brown have to contend with the vaunted dual-threat quarterback, Jake Locker. Given all his hype, I might be worried. Except that Locker is the third "dual threat" QB our defense has faced this season. Our coaches and players have therefore had plenty of opportunity to fine-tune our strategies for defending this type of attack. The Notre Dame defense totally frustrated Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick, and were in turn frustrated by Michigan's Tate Forcier. So they've had a chance to see what works and what doesn't work. What doesn't work is really poor tackling inside Michigan Stadium. In addition to our own experience, the defense gets the added assistance of watching film of Stanford neutralizing Locker and the Husky offense. If we improve our tackling (which has been emphasized in practice this week), I have confidence that the Irish defense will fare well against the Huskies' offense.
On offense, the Irish coaches face a real quandary. One can't help but notice the rushing numbers Stanford put on U-Dub. 321 yards on 50 carries? Really? It will be very tempting for Coach Weis to hand the game plan over to run game coordinator (and O-line coach) Frank Verducci, and the maybe learn how to play golf. Notre Dame's offensive linemen outweigh Washington's defensive linemen by an average of 30 pounds per man (315 vs. 285). One easy route to success would be to send Irish running backs at the Washington defense in waves. Pound them with Robert Hughes, and Jonas Gray, and Theo Riddick, and Armando Allen. Again, and again, and again.
No doubt we'll see some of this in the game plan.
The quandary comes from the fact that Notre Dame plays USC in two weeks (after a bye week next week), and USC's defense is not going to be impressed with a one-dimensional offense featuring a group of running backs that is generally slower than just about every player on the USC defense. To beat USC, Notre Dame will need a balanced attack, including a potent aerial attack that stretches the field vertically. Prior to the Purdue game I wrote:
I hope that Coach Weis keeps the offense fundamentally the same as the first few weeks, stretching the field vertically with Tate and (probably) Evans. The difference will be that, in the absence of Floyd, Jimmy Clausen won't be able to just throw the ball up in the air and expect #3 to come down with it. He'll have to actually wait for a receiver to get open, and thus more throws will come over the middle of the field to Rudolph, Kamara, and Parris once Tate and Evans have lured the coverage deeper.(Emphasis added).
It would be a mistake to decide that this is Purdue, we should be able to handle them, so let's just work on our run game. That could well work for one game, but Coach Weis needs to let Clausen and the receivers run the entire offense so that they are ready to execute the full passing attack against Washington and USC without Floyd to lean on.
While the win over Purdue was a gutsy one, my fears about the direction of the offense in the absence of Michael Floyd were largely realized. With the exception of the final scoring drive, the win over Purdue was the result of a very conservative, ground-based attack, with short horizontal throws mixed in. Kudos to the offensive line and the running backs for taking charge of the game and keying the win. But our "vertical" passing game all but disappeared last week.
The longest play from scrimmage against Purdue was Theo Riddick's 24-yard rush in the 2nd quarter. The two longest pass completions in the game were a 22-yard completion to TE Kyle Rudolph on the final scoring drive and a 23-yard completion to RB Gary Gray in the 1st quarter. Both of those plays consisted of very short throws (caught near the line of scrimmage) and long runs-after-catch. The longest completed down field throw was a 17-yarder to Golden Tate on that final scoring drive.
In order to get the ball into the hands of our one remaining play maker, Coach Weis had to resort to the wildcat package and get the ball to Golden Tate in the backfield. That might be enough to get the job done against Washington too, but it won't be enough against USC.
It's axiomatic that you take the games one at a time and you don't look ahead. But part of the game plan this week has to be finding a wide receiver who can complement Golden Tate and threaten the defense down the field if Tate is double covered (which he will be).
Now, on to the Irish Blogger Gathering for this week, hosted by the founder of the IBG, Subway Domer. Subway has moved his blog into new digs, so head over there to check him out and to read all this week's IBG contributions once you're done here.
My worst nightmare is that Jake Locker plays like Tate Forcier, the Big Televen officials that called the Michigan game sneak into Notre Dame Stadium, and the defense once again forgets how to tackle. Yeah, it could happen. Locker is a talented QB with a lot of moxie. He will find a way to beat you if you give him half a chance. But I don't think it will happen. The defense is getting better each week, and I can't imagine the Indiana State Police letting those officials cross the state line.
No. In the pre-season I picked USC's Matt Barkley as the top QB we will face. His shoulder injury has hampered his development, so I no longer think it will be Barkley. But that Forcier kid sure got my attention. Sparty's Kirk Cousins put 302 yards on us and even Purdue's Joey Elliott pu 289 yards and 3 TDs on the board. I don't think Locker will be as productive as any of those QBs against Notre Dame. So maybe Jake is 4th best QB we'll see.
On offense we have to get Duval Kamara out of there. He is dropping passes and getting called for inexcusable penalties. He is playing in Michael Floyd's stead, and nobody is going to replace Floyd, but Duval does not threaten defenses down the field at all. He's a decent possession receiver at his best, but not a speed guy. He has to be replaced by a speedster, and the most likely candidate is Shaquelle Evans. Put him in the same role Golden Tate played as a freshman - send him deep and chuck the ball to him a few times. Force the defense to account for him so Golden has a chance to get open too.
Give Robert Hughes the start over Armando Allen. He earned it with his play last week, and the U-Dub defense can be pounded into submission with a strong run game. Let Hughes pound the defense for a while and wear them down, then bring in Armando as the change-of-pace speed guy to break some big plays.
On defense Toryan Smith needs to make way for the youth movement. Toryan goes to the bench, Brian Smith slides over to the middle, and Manti Te'o starts at the Will linebacker spot. Toryan just hasn't been making plays. He lacks the speed and lateral movement to get to the QB on blitzes or to chase down any play that isn't run right at him.
Finally, I'd give Raeshon McNeil the start at cornerback over Darrin Walls. I haven't gone back and looked at the tape, but it just seems that I have seen #2 miss on too many plays this season.
At the urging of the ushers, the crowd gets eerily silent. Coach Willingham, a look of intense concentration on his face, paces up and down the home sideline, seemingly oblivious to what's happening on the field. At last, he locates his golf ball near the southwest corner of the end zone, and hits an impressive 8-iron over the stadium rim and in the general direction of Legends. He doffs his hat in response to the polite smattering of applause from the crowd, and he leaves as mysteriously as he arrived.
Impressed. I think Verducci is an improvement over Latina. Weis has given Verducci responsibility/authority for game-planning the ground attack, and these guys are all a year older and more developed. Add in a dose of more decisive running by the backs (thanks Coach Alford) and you have a better ground game.
I'm going with ... Hannah Storm. Hannah is a brunette, and a Notre Dame grad. She's hot and smart, although not as hot or as smart as my dear wife, (Hi Honey!) and I've always like her. She would certainly be on the defensive around me! (Badabing! I'll be here all week).
I'm not a big Wendy fan. And I'm not going to add to the unfair and cruel objectification of Erin Andrews after all she's been through lately.
I predict I'm going to get some heat over my answer to question 6.
And I predict a comfortable Irish win. We control the ball on the ground, hit some big plays over the top as a change of pace, and have a bend-but-don't-break day on defense, giving up some points but keeping things under control.
Notre Dame 27, Washington 17 in a game played in a cold rain.