Irish Welcome New Beginningposted by John Vannie
It would normally be an advantage for a team to have a game under its belt when playing an opponent that is making its season debut, but last week’s game was more costly than instructive for the Aztecs. Several SDSU defensive linemen were injured against Cal Poly, and Coach Chuck Long has been left with very few replacement options. His counterpart, Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis, has openly declared that his massive Irish offensive line will look to pound the ball against the undersized and outmanned visitors.
Barring any Rocky Balboa heroics, this game should be little more than a confidence builder for Notre Dame. The Irish ranked near the bottom of most statistical categories last year in offensive productivity and are anxious to demonstrate significant improvement this season. While SDSU may not provide a compelling physical challenge, Notre Dame must concern itself with proper execution, avoidance of mental mistakes and improved blocking technique.
The Irish should be challenged a bit more on the defensive side, particularly against the pass. SDSU is counting on quarterback Ryan Lindley to keep them in games this year and sell tickets to fans who enjoy a good Wild West shoot-out. Lindley threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns in his debut, but those numbers will be hard to duplicate this week.
Notre Dame’s Offense vs. SDSU’s Defense
Weis should be able to make good on his promise to utilize the ground game to its fullest extent. The Aztecs are small and have limited depth up front, so the Irish should continue to pound the ball with its trio of experienced running backs. Jimmy Clausen will have time and the opportunity to throw a few play-action passes, but Notre Dame’s focus will be on controlling the clock and saving all but the most basic plays for upcoming contests against Michigan and Michigan State.
Just how bad is SDSU’s defensive line situation? The Aztecs lost two players for the season in fall camp and a third, end Tony DeMartinis, during the opener. Projected starting tackle Siaosi Fifita has not played this season due to a knee injury, and is still unable to practice. Four other players suffered injuries against Cal Poly ranging from ankle sprains to concussions, and the status of each will be evaluated at game time. When you consider that Coach Long had already switched two other would-be defenders to shore up his offensive line, you have to wonder who is left.
The Irish cannot afford to show sympathy since there was so much discontinuity in their own lineup last season. Clausen needs to work with starting receivers David Grimes and Duval Kamara, but fans will also want to see how two highly touted freshmen fit into the mix. Tight end Kyle Rudolph and wide receiver Michael Floyd have received rave reviews in practice, but they will see their first live action this week. Not to be forgotten is sophomore Golden Tate, whose outstanding speed will be useful as a slot receiver if he can demonstrate a mastery of the offense.
Notre Dame’s backfield and receivers are dominated by several talented young players, but their success will largely depend on the offensive line. The improvement of this unit will determine the ceiling for the team’s success, and anything less than a dominant performance on Saturday will raise red flags across ND Nation. Cal Poly rushed for 263 yards and more than five yards per carry last week, and the Irish should fare even better against the depleted Aztecs.
SDSU’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
San Diego State played from behind most of the evening against Cal Poly, but it is still difficult to explain their paltry 27 net yards rushing on 23 attempts. Tailback Brandon Sullivan gets the majority of the carries while Atiyyah Henderson will share the work load if his hamstring is sufficiently healed by Saturday. Sullivan is a solid receiver out of the backfield and scored a 16-yard touchdown last week on one of his nine catches.
SDSU has a group of capable wideouts that could be productive against the Irish if Lindley has time to find them. Vincent Brown, Roberto Wallace and Darren Mougey can play at this level and Brown is the best of the group. Coach Long also uses multiple tight ends effectively in his passing attack. Both Matt Kawulok and Waika Spencer caught passes last week.
Cal Poly chose not to blitz the Aztecs very often last week, but Notre Dame has confidence in its secondary’s ability to cover and will not be content to let Lindley get comfortable in the pocket. The Irish defensive line is supposed to be suspect against the run this season, but SDSU does not have the horses to generate a sustained threat. Consequently, the Aztecs offense will be one-dimensional and play right into Notre Dame’s hands.
Although Lindley is good enough to enjoy some success on Saturday, most of his positive statistics will occur after the issue has been decided. It is more likely that SDSU will commit a few turnovers and be largely unable to exploit any defensive weaknesses while the Irish starters are on the field. The athletes in the Irish secondary and the edge pass rushers are much faster than Lindley saw last weekend, and the game may be over by the time he adjusts.
The performance of these special units is right behind the offensive line in terms of interest for Irish fans. Notre Dame’s return teams performed poorly last season except for punt returner Tom Zbikowski, and Zibby has moved on to the NFL. Armando Allen will handle the majority of the punt and kick returns this season, and it’s time to turn potential into productivity. The kickoff coverage team also underachieved last season, although the main problem was the lack of depth on kickoffs.
Eric Maust returns to handle the punting duties, but the spotlight will be on place kickers Brandon Walker and Kyle Burkhart to see if either provides a reliable answer in field goal situations. Regarding SDSU, kicker Lane Yoshida is adequate, while the return and cover teams are a notch below the level the Irish will see from most of its opponents this season. It will be another bad sign if Notre Dame does not demonstrate a clear advantage in this area.
The only way this could become a competitive game is if SDSU were to play well above its talent level and catch the Irish looking ahead to Michigan. Neither is likely. A third possibility is that Notre Dame has not substantially improved from last season, but this concept is too disturbing for victory-starved Irish fans to consider. Instead, the football world will have to wait until next week before an accurate measure of the 2008 team can be taken.
A review of the key questions that will determine the margin of victory:
Will the Irish be able to run the ball at will given their huge size advantage up front?
Will Tate, Floyd and Rudolph become contributors in the passing game?
Will Mike Haywood flourish as the Irish play caller?
Will the Irish defensive line be able to stop the run?
Can Notre Dame win the field position battle on special teams?
Will the Irish look somewhat sloppy in this opener or will they display mid-season form?
Will the Aztec mascot and band members suit up and finish the game along the defensive line?
The mercy rule won’t be in effect, but Weis will hold down the fireworks and the score in order to save a few surprises for Michigan. The Irish defense will similarly stick to basic alignments and blitz packages. Notre Dame has better athletes and should not need much shock and awe from Coaches Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown to get the job done. The secondary will get a workout, but David Bruton may record a couple of interceptions before he and his friends watch the fourth quarter from the sideline.
Notre Dame 40 SDSU 14