GRUMPY IRISH VISIT HAPPY VALLEYposted by John Vannie
Jimmy Clausen will make his starting debut at quarterback for Notre Dame. The freshman’s arm has been deemed ready to withstand the practice regimen that will prepare him for this game, but fans should not expect Clausen to single-handedly overcome a repeat of the fundamental offensive breakdowns that were in evidence against Georgia Tech.
Pass protection issues and the ability to sustain an effective running game are the primary concerns heading into the Lion’s Den, and the onus is on the Irish offensive line to right itself. Last week’s problems were both physical (inability to execute and hold blocks) and mental (missed assignments and protection breakdowns). Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine that this group can generate a 180 degree turnaround in a few short days.
Still, you have to start somewhere and it is much too early to write off this team and the season. Notre Dame will undoubtedly play much better this week than last, but the question is whether it will be good enough to win. Clausen’s presence will afford Coach Charlie Weis the opportunity to run his basic pass offense, but the freshman will need a complementary running game if he and the Irish are to survive.
Weis has come under considerable criticism because his offensive game plan for Georgia Tech was dead on arrival. Although there is some justification for this reaction by fans, Weis has cobbled together a fairly good record in 2+ years despite obvious talent deficiencies and holes on the roster. In 2005 and to a larger extent last season, he used a gifted quarterback to control the clock and protect a thin defense while trying to squeeze production from a below average running game.
This season, the offense appears to be more balanced, but the quarterback and supporting cast are very young. The defensive front seven is an even greater concern than last year. The result is that Weis must again construct his game plans with an eye toward covering weaknesses as much as employing strengths. His last three attempts, all against superior opponents, failed miserably. Blowout losses to USC and LSU last year were more a product of poor execution and talent mismatches than a flawed plan, but last week’s loss was less about talent and more about preparation and coaching.
Notre Dame’s players should be embarrassed after last week’s performance, but it remains to be seen whether they will display the intensity and emotion that quite honestly has been missing since the Michigan State game last year. Weis’ professional and business-like approach is fine, but there appears to be a lack of emotional leadership on this team.
The question becomes what approach is best for the 2007 Irish and the future of the program. Should Weis take the long view and ensure weekly improvement in fundamentals while his young players gain valuable experience? This seems to be the right course, but Notre Dame and its fans are not known for their patience and Weis is not one to embrace humility. As long as he believes he can out scheme the opposition and confound them his play-calling skills, Weis is unlikely to play it safe anytime soon.
This does not mean the Irish are doomed to fail against Penn State. The team and the coaches are not really as bad as their performance last week, and the Lions are not invincible despite their opening victory by 59-0 against a sandlot team from Florida International that did not win a single game last season.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Penn State Defense
The Irish can expect Penn State to blitz despite the fact that Defensive Coordinator Tom Bradley does not regularly employ this strategy. Notre Dame’s poor blocking performance last week makes it too tempting to lay back and allow a freshman starter at quarterback to get comfortable. Clausen will take three step drops and look for David Grimes on slants and both John Carlson and Robbie Parris in the short zones. An occasional deep ball to Grimes or D.J. Hord on first down or second and short will keep the secondary honest. Penn State cornerbacks Justin King and A. J. Wallace are fast, experienced and willing to take chances on short routes if Clausen locks in on his receivers or the Irish passing game becomes predictable.
Notre Dame’s running game has nowhere to go but up. The Lions have been depleted up front by graduation losses in three of four spots, but they boast outstanding linebackers who are stout against the run in Dan Connor and Sean Lee. Nevertheless, Weis must commit to the ground game to take the heat off Clausen and find ways to utilize Armando Allen. If the Irish cannot achieve balance in terms of running and passing, they will not be competitive in this game. Weis showed last year that Connor and Lee are much less effective in coverage than in run support. Look for Notre Dame to finally execute a few screen passes this week after several abortive attempts against Georgia Tech.
Penn State Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The Lions will also seek to attack Notre Dame on the ground. Austin Scott will start at tailback, but Evan Royster and Rodney Kinlaw will also play. All are competent backs, although none are quite as good as Tashard Choice.
Penn State’s strengths are Morelli and a trio of fast wide receivers. Juniors Deon Butler, Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood are a dangerous group, and tight end Andrew Quarless is productive pass catcher in the short zones. Quarless had been serving a suspension from the team of unspecified length, but he is expected to play against Notre Dame. Mickey Shuler played well last week in place of Quarless and contributed four receptions, including one touchdown.
Notre Dame’s best chance to win is to stop the running attack and force Morelli into mistakes in the passing game. That is a tall order, but the Lions are breaking in two new starters at offensive tackle and may not be able to dominate the game in the trenches. Still, the Irish proved vulnerable to outside runs last week and the linebackers must do a better job of holding the edge while the other players take better angles to the ball carrier.
The Irish secondary will have a more difficult challenge with Penn State’s receivers this week, and Morelli could be lethal if he is not pressured in the pocket. The Lions will undoubtedly test the Irish with play action fakes and deep passes to any of their three blazers.
Notre Dame received plenty of practice returning kickoffs last week, and Allen appears to be capable of breaking a long run. Lion kicker Kevin Kelly does not usually reach the end zone with his kickoffs, so Allen should get additional opportunities. Tom Zbikowski will again be back to return punts, but he may finally have room to maneuver this week since Jeremy Brown averages over 47 yards per try.
Kelly is a reliable kicker from short and medium range, and he has the advantage over Notre Dame’s Brandon Walker simply on the basis of experience. The Lions also have a dangerous return game as Williams is a proven threat to go the distance.
Penn State will come after Clausen and the Irish, although the freshman would not surprise most people if he remained poised and delivered crisp, accurate passes to his receivers. The question is whether the Irish will be able to keep the Lions off balance or the hosts will dictate play selection by forcing Notre Dame into third and long situations. If the Irish execute well and Clausen is as capable as advertised, they will score some points and stay in the game throughout.
The Irish defense must not be placed in awful field position by the special teams and given insufficient rest by the offense. It was difficult to judge this group last week for these reasons, but there is no question that Notre Dame must stop the run and avoid surrendering huge chunks of yardage on first down. Corwin Brown’s charges did not force a turnover last week, but they did put pressure on the passer when the outcome was still in doubt. If they cannot make Morelli uncomfortable in the pocket, he will have a big game for the Lions.
The key elements that will determine the outcome are as follows:
Which team can establish the run?
Will Weis effectively utilize Allen in his game plan?
Will Notre Dame handle the blitz?
Will Morelli strike for long plays against the Irish?
Which team will force the other into third and long situations?
Who will win the turnover battle?
Notre Dame will show significant improvement on offense over last week, but there is too much work to be done for fans to expect a complete turnaround. Both teams will have modest success on the ground, but Penn State’s passing game is ahead of Notre Dame’s at this point in the season. The game will be close in the first half, but the Lions will seize control in the third quarter and win comfortably.
Penn State 34 Notre Dame 17