Irish Battle Improved Dawgsposted by John Vannie
Quarterback Jake Locker, who sat out last year’s loss to the Irish with a broken thumb, figures to benefit most from the coaching change. Sarkisian was the primary position coach for Heisman winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart during his stay in Los Angeles, and spent the last two seasons as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator. Locker’s passing efficiency numbers have improved and he is starting to build a rapport with a group of young but talented receivers.
The Huskies have made significant progress on both sides of the ball, but there are still a few obvious holes on the roster. The running game remains below par and the offensive line is short of upperclassmen. Left tackle Ben Ossai is the leader of the group, but Washington has managed only 108 rushing yards per game while giving up nearly twice as many. Defensively, the line needs a few more capable players and the young talent in the secondary is experiencing growing pains.
As is typical of a young team, the Huskies returned to earth with a thud last week at Stanford after the emotional win over USC. Motivation and focus should not be a problem against the Irish, who hope to escape into the bye week with a victory and avoid further damage to injured starters Armando Allen and Jimmy Clausen. Allen’s replacements did a credible job at Purdue last week, but the junior is expected to be at or near 100% at kickoff. Clausen is almost certain to play and will probably start. Backup Dayne Crist is not yet ready to operate Coach Charlie Weis’ full offensive package, and Notre Dame will need to fire on all cylinders to win.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. WASHINGTON’S DEFENSE
If Crist is going to see considerable action, Weis will have to take the wraps off his arm and allow him to throw the ball. Washington held USC to 13 points and won because backup quarterback Aaron Corp could not complete a third down pass. The Huskies have trouble stopping the run, but any defensive team can get the job done if there is no real threat of the pass.
Golden Tate will attract a lot of attention from the defense after his performance against Purdue. This may open up the field for tight end Kyle Rudolph, however the wide receiver spot opposite Tate has been largely unproductive since Michael Floyd went down. Although the Irish have no shortage of candidates, no one has displayed the ability to catch the ball and execute blocks in the running game with the degree of consistency required. Consequently, this position remains a revolving door with no clear starter.
It’s likely that Clausen will play to the extent necessary to secure an Irish win, and his mere presence should allow the offensive line to open holes in the running game. Washington’s best defensive lineman is end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, and Irish tailbacks will use a few extra strides to run around 350 pound tackle Alameda Ta’amu. One area of focus for Notre Dame is the pass blocking of its offensive tackles. Purdue was successful with speed rushes against Paul Duncan and Sam Young last week, and Te’o-Nesheim is also quite capable of causing considerable disruption.
The strength of the Husky defense appears to be at linebacker. Unlike Notre Dame, the three linebackers are the team’s leading tacklers. Donald Butler, E. J. Savannah and Mason Foster possess the size and athleticism to make them successful at this level. Savannah is a fifth-year senior that was not on the team last year. He returns this season after being named the Huskies’ Defensive Player of the Year in 2007, when he led the team with 111 tackles and 14 tackles for loss. The secondary is very young and somewhat vulnerable, as several first and second year players are competing for starting jobs on a weekly basis.
WASHINGTON’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Locker has several talented and swift receivers at his disposal, including sophomores Jordan Polk, Devin Aguilar, and Jermaine Kearse. The best of the group may be freshman James Johnson, who leads the team with 19 receptions. Kavario Middleton is a rangy tight end with above-average speed. The top players at tailback are also freshmen and sophomores, with Chris Polk (cousin of WR Jordan) getting most of the carries.
Productivity in the running game and a shortage of quality offensive linemen is a deficiency that is holding back Sarkisian’s offense despite improvements in the passing game. Locker still must scramble more than is desirable, and Washington can ill-afford another injury to him if they are to climb back into contention for a bowl game this season.
Perhaps the greatest chance for the Huskies to score on Notre Dame is on plays where Locker improvises and the receivers are able to break away downfield while he is moving in the pocket to find a launch point for his throws. Locker’s ability to avoid the blitz and turn negative plays into first downs is a concern for the Irish defense, who have not forgotten the similar problems caused by Michigan’s Tate Forcier.
The Husky running game should not be any more of a threat than Purdue’s, which the Irish were able to handle last week. USC’s downfall came as the result of missed scoring opportunities and turnovers. Washington’s offense did not execute many long scoring drives against USC or Stanford, and it will be a surprise if they are able to put up more than 20 points in this contest.
Notre Dame’s kickoff return productivity has improved as freshman Theo Riddick appears to be only one block away from going the distance. A special teams score would help matters this week and possibly allow Clausen to retire to the sidelines early. Weis has not used kicker Nick Tausch on several field goal opportunities. This could be due to a lack of confidence in the freshman but more likely reflects Weis’ gambling habit on fourth down. Punting has also been an area of inconsistency for the Irish, so freshman Ben Turk may get a chance this week over incumbent Eric Maust.
Washington’s return teams are statistically average, while place kicker Erik Folk is reliable from forty yards in. His successful kicks against the Trojans were from relatively short range, but there was enormous pressure involved.
The Huskies should not be able to generate enough points or defensive pressure to win as long as Clausen and Allen are able to play. The only elements that could cause an Irish defeat are self-inflicted wounds such as turnovers or an emotionally flat performance. Locker will make his share of successful plays, but these will be limited and the battle in the trenches should be won by Notre Dame. Weis will have to keep Washington’s linebackers guessing, but there are holes in the Husky defensive line and in the secondary that he can exploit.
Defensively, the Irish need to contain Locker rather than blitz with reckless abandon. They also need to tighten up on the coverage assignment for the back side wheel route, since Purdue scored a go-ahead touchdown on this play and Michigan State barely missed a winning score despite a wide open receiver. The overall tackling has been singled out as a weak element of this defense, and it will be worth watching to see if there is any improvement.
Here are a few questions that may help determine the outcome:
Will the Irish defense contain Locker sufficiently to get off the field on third down?
Can Notre Dame’s offensive line keep Clausen from getting substantial pressure?
Will Washington find its running game against the Irish front seven?
Will the Irish special teams be able to contribute in the scoring column?
Can Crist put points on the board if he plays substantial minutes?
Will a backup wide receiver help Irish fans forget about the loss of Michael Floyd?
Can Notre Dame put away the Huskies before the fourth quarter?
Washington has speed on offense that can cause problems and Sarkisian will have them motivated after a poor performance at Stanford last week. The game could remain close throughout if the Irish play sloppy football, but on balance Washington looks to be a few linemen and a year’s experience away from presenting a serious upset threat. The USC game in Seattle was a perfect storm of factors that enabled the Huskies to win, but the Irish have enough healthy players available to hold them off.
NOTRE DAME 27 WASHINGTON 17