Irish Opponent Watchposted by John Vannie
The Irish squeaked by San Diego State in the opener for both teams, but things have not gone well for the Aztecs since their three quarters of a moment in the sun in South Bend. Today, they were annihilated 70-7 by mighty New Mexico. I don’t think Notre Dame is ready to hang 70 on anyone, so I found myself a little envious of the Lobos.
It’s always fun to see Michigan lose, and their continued ineptitude on offense is simply delightful. I tuned in just in time to see the Wolverines get outscored by 32-0 in the second half. From his animated facial expressions, JoePa seemed to know what was happening on the field despite his semi-petrified state, but I suppose it could have been gas.
Unfortunately for the Michigan State Spartans, the leaves are turning brown and their annual second half swoon got off to a rousing start today in East Lansing. Ohio State did the honors with a 45-7 shellacking of Moo U. Notre Dame must have caught Sparty on a good day, or maybe the 4-2 Irish aren’t as good as we’d like to believe.
Purdue hasn’t done very well since they were manhandled by the Irish. With the worst defense this side of France, the Boilermakers were crushed again today by that juggernaut from Chicago. Not the Bears, silly. I’m talking about Northwestern. The Wildcats moved to 6-1 on the season while Purdue fell to 2-5.
Our new friend Jim Harbaugh snatched defeat from the jaws of victory today against another Irish favorite, Rick Neuheisel. UCLA beat Stanford with a touchdown in the final ten seconds. "I'm not pointing any fingers”, Harbaugh said after the game – right before he started to point them at his own players. I guess the PAC-10 referees are off limits these days.
Predictably, North Carolina returned to earth with a thud this weekend after defeating the Irish last weekend. The Tar Heels squandered numerous scoring chances throughout the afternoon against a mediocre Virginia team, blew a lead in the last minute of regulation and could not recover in overtime.
In retrospect, Notre Dame has defeated four of college football’s worst teams while losing twice against second echelon opponents. Where does this leave the Irish in the overall scheme of things? While their 4-2 record is partially a product of a weak schedule, the overall expectation this season is to get better. Progress has clearly been made since September 3, but the chance for this team to make a statement still lies ahead.
Three upcoming opponents that are clearly beatable are Washington, Navy and Syracuse. The winless Huskies have a porous defense and cannot run the football. Second string quarterback Ronnie Fouch is playing due to Jake Locker’s broken thumb, and Fouch spent the night against Oregon State running for his life behind a terrible offensive line. When he manages to remain vertical, Fouch likes to throw deep and is even successful from time to time. Washington might give the Irish problems early, but they do not have enough talent, discipline and coaching to beat them.
Notre Dame should be able to start a new winning streak against the Naval Academy, although the Middies will score a few points with their option attack. They were thumped by Pittsburgh today by 42-21, and the game was not that close.
Syracuse, on the other hand, is the worst remaining team on the schedule and will be little more than a speed bump for the bowl-bound Irish. The 1-6 Orange were stomped by South Florida today and coach Greg Robinson looks more and more like a lame duck. If Notre Dame were to lose any of these three contests, Coach Charlie Weis should hand in his resignation.
The defining matchups during the second half of this season will come from Pittsburgh and Boston College. Both are similar in caliber to Michigan State and North Carolina, and each of these four teams should be regarded as tossup games for the Irish. Losses to all four would not bode well for the program and would indicate the absence of real progress this year. On the other hand, wins against the Panthers and Eagles would cause Notre Dame fans to forget about the Spartans and Tar Heels. It would mean the team has made considerable strides this year and is positioned well for the future.
A split in these two remaining "barometer" games seems more likely. Boston College plays excellent defense and does not have any significant weaknesses. The Eagles are a veteran team and quarterback Chris Crane is getting better each week. Given the recent history in this series and the fact that the game is in Boston, Notre Dame will be underdogs going in.
Pittsburgh is a winnable game at home for the Irish, but the Panthers run the ball well with LeSean McCoy and will be able to exploit the Notre Dame defense. The game may well be a high scoring affair that is decided by a turnover or late field goal.
The final game for the Irish is against traditional rival USC. The Trojans are climbing back into the national championship race and today’s 69-0 crushing of Washington State could have been worse if Pete Carroll did not clear his bench early.
I want to refrain from calling this game a defining matchup for the Irish this season because it is highly unlikely that Notre Dame can beat USC in Los Angeles with so much at stake for Troy and with the immense talent on their roster. Still, the Irish must be competitive this time. Another embarrassment could make for another long winter, although a bowl win of any kind would be welcome relief.
Notre Dame fans should take the one step at a time approach to the rest of the season and enjoy the team’s first road victory next week. A 9-3 finish and a bowl win is probably the high end of the spectrum this season, and I don’t know anyone who would be unhappy with that.