Saturday, September 3, 2011

2011 Irish Could Be Special

With kickoff for the new season less than 3 hours away, it's time to get myself on the record with my expectations for the 2011 Fighting Irish.  Bottom line:  BCS Bowl or Bust.  The 2010 edition of the Notre Dame football team compiled an 8-5 record that could have been (and arguably should have been) 11-2.

There is no way to argue the losses to Stanford and Navy.  Stanford was a very good team and there was no doubt that they were much better than N.D. last year.  The final score was 37-14, but the Cardinal was up 34-6 with less than eight minutes to play.  Navy gashed the Irish for 367 yards rushing yards, the most ever by Navy against Notre Dame.  The Middies put some wrinkles into their option attack that Notre Dame was unprepared for and unable to adjust to.  It was probably the worst coaching performance so far in the young Notre Dame career for Coach Kelly and his staff.

But the other three losses were all games that should have been won, and which almost certainly would have been won by the more seasoned Irish team that played the final four games of the season.  Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson had 502 total yards against N.D., and yet the Irish still led the game 24-21 before Robinson's game winning touchdown with 27 seconds left in the game.  Had Dayne Crist not been sidelined by a strange head injury for most of the first half, or had the defense been able to collect itself and contain the dynamic Robinson even a little bit, Notre Dame wins that game.

The Michigan State loss in overtime on a fake field goal was an even battle that could have gone either way.

The Tulsa loss was a gut-wrenching affair.  Even before kickoff the team was in emotional turmoil following the tragic death of Notre Dame student-videographer Declan Sullivan.  Although the Irish were in control for much of the game, Dayne Crist was knocked out of the game early due to a season-ending knee injury, and Tommy Rees, while throwing for 334 yards and 4 TDs, also threw 3 interceptions, including one that was returned for a Tulsa TD.  Add a Tulsa punt-return TD, and a failed two-point conversion returned by Tulsa for 2-points, and you get an awful loss.  It was a sloppy game marked by the loss of our starting quarterback in an emotionally difficult week.  In almost any other circumstance you have to figure the Irish find a way to win that game.

So, an 8-5 year that ended on a high note with four straight wins, including a thumping of The U in the Sun Bowl, could have been even better.  What does this mean for 2011?  With most of the key pieces coming back for another year in Coach Kelly's system, and with a very manageable schedule, I expect the Irish to win 10 games (and possibly more) and play in a BCS Bowl Game, with an outside chance of playing for the National Championship.

On offense, Dayne Crist has been tapped as the starting quarterback.  This shocked nobody, although I expect that Crist will be playing on a very short leash.  Before being knocked out of the Tulsa game last season on his second freaky non-contact knee injury in two years, the Irish were a disappointing 4-4.  Although Crist's numbers over those first eight games were actually pretty good (about 60% completions for over 2,000 yards and 15 TDs), a starting QB gets judged (or should be judged) on wins and losses, and on leadership.  A great quarterback exudes confidence and inspires the whole team to a higher level of play.  I don't feel that the Irish were getting that confidence and inspiration from Dayne in 2010.  To me, Dayne too often looked a little overwhelmed last season, with just a little bit of a "deer in the headlights" quality to his play.  By contrast, Tommy Rees, although lacking that stud QB physique and rifle arm, generally seemed very calm and in control of the game (even while throwing multiple interceptions).  The team certainly played better as a whole when he was the starter, and I am hesitant to just shunt aside they guy who led the most impressive four-game winning streak seen in Domerland in many years.  As alluded to above, Tommy did have a penchant for throwing a few more picks than did Dayne last year.  Crist threw 7 INTs in 294 attempts in 2010, compared to Tommy's 8 INTs in just 164.  Folks tend to focus on that stat, which is fair, but which needs a little context.  Three Rees INTs were in the Tulsa game, a game in which he had no idea he would be getting meaningful snaps.  He came off the bench and threw for over 300 yards and for 4 TDs, along with his 3 picks.  Three more picks came against USC in the L.A. Coliseum, in horrible conditions.  On the flip side, Rees' completion percentage on the season was actually better than Crist's (61% vs. 59.2%) and he threw 12 TD passes in just 164 attempts, while Dayne had 15 TDs in 294 attempts.

So while there is something noble in allowing Dayne to be the starter again coming off his injury, he needs to play well right away.  This team is good enough to make some noise nationally if the QB gets the job done.  I don't believe Coach Kelly will be as patient as he was last season, knowing that Rees is a proven winner off the bench.  In his press comments Coach Kelly has said some very glowing things about how Dayne has progressed since last year.  Am I the only one who read between the lines and heard the inference that Kelly was not terribly impressed or pleased with Dayne last season?  And it doesn't end with Crist and Rees.  Andrew Hendrix showed some impressive ability in the Blue & Gold game, and you can't help but be excited about Everett Golson.  Golson fits the mold for Kelly's offense of being a good passer who can drive a stake through the defense's heart with his legs.  It seems to me that the Irish have done well in the past with exciting dual-threat QBs from South Carolina.  The Irish seem to have four quarterbacks who could come in and be very effective.  I can't help but contrast this situation with what the team faced going into the 2007 season when we had four quarterbacks and were wondering if ANY of them could play.  (Frazer, Jones, Sharpley, Clausen).

I am excited about Cierre Wood at running back, spelled by Jonas Gray.  But I honestly don't even know who our third RB is.  Coach Kelly stated in one of his pressers that he would put his first 22 against anyone, but that depth was an issue.  Looking at the running back position, I can see what he means.  Cierre is a dynamic playmaker, and Gray has some toughness and reliability.  But those guys need to stay healthy.  I am very concerned that we don't have anyone on the roster to replace Robert Hughes.  Hughes was a real leader and embodied toughness when the Irish needed it.  Who is going to be the guy when we need that late, dominating drive to win the game like the Irish did at USC last year, with Hughes and the O-line imposing their will?

At receiver, we have Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick, and TJ Jones.  That is an awesome starting trio.  Floyd will be a key to our offensive success, but I hope he has actually gotten his off-field act together and we have seen the last of his immature behavior embarrassing the team and the University.  As at RB, the depth behind the starting receivers is a pretty steep drop-off as far as game-breakers go.  We have guys who can be be effective, but neither Toma nor Goodman strikes fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators like our starters can.  Tight end is not a feature position in Kelly's offense, but those duties should be very capably filled by Eifert and Ragone.

The offensive line appears to be very talented, and deep.  This line should give the offense some stability and give the team the chance to be effective from the get-go, in both the running and passing games.  They should also enable to Irish to control the ball and the clock when needed.

It's the defense that really has me excited bout 2011.  Although the D had some egregious low points in 2010 (Navy, Michigan, Tulsa), this unit clearly gelled late in the year allowing an average of less than 10 points per game in the final four contests (3, 3, 16, 17).  The performances against USC and Miami were dominant and inspiring.  Most of that unit returns, and for the most part the key losses will be very capably replaced.  On the back end, I am very comfortable with Robert Blanton replacing Darrin Walls at corner.  I am a little unsure about the two safeties.  Harrison Smith is a ball hawk and can make plays, but he is also the same guy who fell down at the end of the USC game and almost gave up the game-winning TD but for a lucky dropped ball.  There's a lot of Zibby in him, risk-reward.  Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta are both upper-classmen with ample playing time and experience who should play well, but both players have been a bit under the radar and I don't have a real feel for my confidence level at that second safety position.

The front seven of the defense should be dynamic, disruptive, and at times flat-out dominant.  For the first time in a very long time the Irish D should be talented, deep, and stout at the point of attack.  This unit should be very difficult to run on, and the recruitment and development of explosive pass rushers will make opposing quarterbacks miserable.  Unlike the depth issues on offense, the problem on defense will be finding enough playing time for all the talent.  It will be fun to watch the upper-classmen rise to their potential (Manti Te'o, Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Darius Fleming) while also seeing the young guns flash their talent (Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo, Troy Niklas).

As this season unfolds, I expect the signature unit of the team to be the aggressive, stifling defense, rather than the efficient, potent offense.  There will be weeks when the offense sputters a bit, but the defense will be consistently good and will key Irish success in 2011. 

Special teams will be very solid.  Ruffer, Tausch, Turk all return to capably share the kicking/punting duties.  Theo Riddick has been named to return kicks and punts.  He will be very good as a returner, but I admit to being nervous about having such a key offensive player at risk of injury in the return game.  The fact that Riddick is by far the best man for the job confirms the lack of depth at RB and WR. 

I'll give a quick bite on each of the games for this season, as well as my confidence level for each game, as is the custom here at OC Domer.

South Florida (9/3).  The Bulls are a talented team that has was somewhat inconsistent in 2010.  What worries me is their head coach.  Skip Holtz is a former Irish player, an ND alum who coached at ND under has Dad.  He "gets" Notre Dame and I have to believe this game is a big-freaking-deal for him.  He is also a terrific coach, as he demonstrated by his success at East Carolina, a team nobody had ever heard of before he got there.  But Coach Kelly has familiarity with Holtz as a coach from their time together in the Big East, and Kelly has the more talented squad.  The defense will key an Irish win, but I don't expect a blowout.  ND 24, USF 13.  (Confidence level:  70%).

At Michigan (9/10).  The Irish lost a bizarre game last year.  Crist was on the sideline for most of the first half with vision problems, Denard Robinson was inexplicably impossible to tackle, and yet the Irish were with 27 seconds of winning the game.  Michigan is undergoing a coaching change and has seen a lot of layer defections in the off season.  The Irish are a significantly better team than they were a year ago.  Michigan is in a tough transition.  Irish earn a workmanlike win.  ND 30, UM 20. (Confidence level:  85%).

Michigan State (9/17).  I'm guessing Brian Kelly will remember losing in OT on a fake field goal forever.  I'm also guessing it doesn't happen again.  Mark Dantonio is a heck of a coach, and MSU will be very good again this year.  They just seem to reload with more of the same each year.  This will be a physical battle, but the Irish D is more stout up front than in previous years, and the offense should have an advantage spreading the field against Sparty.  And this time the game is at our place.  Irish win another close game, 24-21.  (Confidence level:  70%).

At Pittsburgh (9/24).  Irish won a close one at home in '10.  Pitt projects to have a very good defense in '11, but have a new head coach and are learning a new offense.  I expect the Irish D to win this game for us as the Irish O struggles a bit.  ND 20, Pitt 10. (Confidence level:  80%).

At Purdue (10/1).  It's Purdue.  Back-to-back road games for the Irish, but talent will tell.  Irish win comfortably, 45-20.  (Confidence level:  90%).

Air Force (10/8).   Glad to be back home in the friendly confines, but maybe peeking ahead to the USC game, this could be a trap.  Air Force is very experienced, and they beat a Navy team that whipped the Irish in 2010.  But the Falcons will be coming off a road game at Navy, and playing their first game of the season on grass.  Uncomfortably close, the Irish win 20-13.  (Confidence level: 75%).

Southern Cal (10/22).  The Irish get two weeks to prepare.  This year both teams should have their starting QBs healthy, and it should be a battle.  Barkley is really good, but his supporting cast is young.  NCAA sanctions are hurting Trojan depth, but bowl ban turns this night game into a Bowl game for USC.  The atmosphere of the night game should be electric, and I expect the Irish defense to build on last year's success to win another low-scoring contest.  ND 24, USC 14.  (Confidence level:  70%).

Navy (10/29).  This is Bob Diaco's big chance to redeem himself after getting burned badly by the Middies in '10.  I think he does so.  Could be a letdown game after USC though.  I think the Irish solve that pesky Navy offense and overwhelm them, 27-14.  (Confidence level:  80%).

At Wake Forest (11/5).  I love this game, because I like playing top level universities that take the concept of sudent-athlete seriously.  But the Demon Deacons aren't very good.  Irish win big, 40-13. (Confidence level:  90%).

Maryland (11/12).  The Irish are rolling now.  I would predict another blowout, but the Terps have a new coach, Randy Edsall, who proved at UConn that he doesn't buy into any Irish mystique.  Irish win comfortably, 35-17.  (Confidence level: 85%).

Boston College (11/19).   ND beat up the Eagles pretty well in 2010.  No reason for that not to repeat.  ND 38, BC 20.  (Confidence level:  85%).

At Stanford (11/26).  If they had asked me, I would have gladly hosted Jim Harbaugh's going away party.  This could be a HUGE game for the Irish.  If all goes well, a win in this game sets the Irish up for a BCS Bowl game.  If all goes REALLY well, this could be a game to decide whether ND gets to play in the BCS Championship.  For Stanford, the game figures to be "big" but not "BIG."  The Cardinal's fate in the Pac-12 will already be set.  Win or lose, they either will or won't be playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game.  If they are in the conference title game, they could be looking past the Irish.  If they aren't, then this is a consolation game.  I much prefer a first-year head coach to playing Harbaugh.  The Irish are a much better team than they were in week 4 last year, and Stanford figures to take a step back, even with Luck at QB.  Irish win a real battle, 27-24, and earn a BCS Bowl berth if not better.  (Confidence level:  65%).

Conclusion:  I see the Irish with the very real potential to run the table.  But there very few gimmee games on the schedule, and if they have a couple injuries or show up flat, they could lose three or four.  I would predict that the breaks beat the boys a couple of times, and they end up 10-2, playing in a BCS Bowl.

Sorry I don't have time for pictures, etc... but it's almost kickoff!  Go Irish!


Hoss said...

The only special they're looking in the first half is special ed. The single worst half of football I've ever seen a team play.

Anonymous said...

GOOD CALL!!! A BCS TEAM LOL!!! Coach Kelly is a complete ass on the sidelines, great example of what ND is all about. ND has a great chance to beat UM next week and maybe winning 7 to 8 games, but they are A VERY LONG WAY from being a BCS team. Only a HOMER would think they would go 12-0!!!

OC Domer said...

I love "Anonymous" comments from guys who clearly know it all. After the game has been played. And being called an ND "Homer" doesn't really stun me, you know? I've been out of the closet as an ND Homer since my first blog post. Clearly Game 1 was abysmal. But look at the changes from the first half to the second? We'll get better.

Dana said...

It's Karma for granting Obama an honorary degree.