Wazoo a Treat for the Irishposted by John Vannie
Coach Wulff has juggled his lineup considerably this season, both out of necessity due to injury and in order to provide promising young players some game experience. The Cougars have started three quarterbacks in its seven games, but have apparently settled on true freshman Jeff Tuel. Injuries along both lines have made it impossible for Washington State to maintain the same starting lineup in two consecutive games this season.
The Irish are relatively healthy, although Michael Floyd will continue to be sidelined until he is needed next month. Jimmy Clausen is managing despite his turf toe malady, and this could finally be the week that backup Dayne Crist gets back onto the field for meaningful action. The Cougars are at or near the bottom of every defensive category among Division I schools and are equally inept in terms of rushing offense and passing efficiency.
Tuel has injected some life into the passing game, however, and his 354 yard passing performance against California last week caused fans to make comparisons to Drew Bledsoe. Unfortunately, the line has surrendered an average of five sacks per game and the quarterbacks have more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (7). This is still an improvement over 2008 when starting quarterback Kevin Lopina, now a senior, did not throw a single scoring pass all season.
NOTRE DAME OFFENSE vs. WASHINGTON STATE DEFENSE
Freshman defensive end Travis Long is the only player on the Cougar front four to have started every game this season. Long is the team’s best pass rusher, although the line as a whole has no senior starters, lacks ideal size in the middle and is not very productive. Outside linebackers Jason Stripling and Andy Mattingly have been constants while three sophomores have shared time in the middle since starter Louis Bland went down early in the season. Notre Dame should be able to run the ball consistently against this group and sustain the attack throughout the evening.
Clausen should also be able to pick apart a secondary that lacks elite talent and does not get much help from the front seven. Junior safeties Chima Nwachukwu and Xavier Hicks lead the team in tackles, but the coverage is generally loose in order to guard against the big play. Washington State ranks dead last in total defense and surrenders 500 yards per game, it’s only a matter of time before the opponent finds the end zone.
The challenge for Charlie Weis this week will be to settle on a game plan that will generate an early lead and ensure that the Cougars are not allowed back into the contest. There is no need for high risk plays, and the focus should be to wear down the thin, injury-plagued defense by pounding it into submission.
WASHINGTON STATE OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME DEFENSE
On the flip side, Tuel and his receivers will test the Irish secondary that has given up an alarming 282 yards per game and ranks only one rung above their Washington State counterparts at 284. The Cougars do not have a prolific receiver, but Jared Karstetter, Gino Simone and Jeff Solomon have had some success to date. Tight end Tony Thompson is used primarily as a pass protector.
Although Tuel may have some success through the air, the improving Notre Dame defensive line should be able to bring some pressure that leads to turnovers. The challenge for the Cougars is compounded by the fact that they do not generate any semblance of a running game. The team average is a paltry 72.6 yards per game, which prompted Wulff to name 230-pound Logwone Nix as the starter at tailback over diminutive senior Dwight Tardy.
Washington State’s offensive line is led by senior center Kenny Alfred, but the remaining players are a patchwork group without a lot of experience. Two freshmen share the duty at left tackle, and the 35 sacks allowed indicate that this is a primary area of concern for Wulff and his staff. Tuel is more mobile than the other signal-callers on the roster, which may be one of the reasons he was able to earn the job over more experienced teammates.
The Cougar return and coverage teams are statistically below average, and the Irish should enjoy an advantage in field position. Punter Reid Forrest has a strong leg but frequently outkicks the coverage. Place kicker Nico Grasu has missed two of twelve extra point attempts and is only six for ten on field goals.
Notre Dame has punted the ball poorly this season, but newly appointed starter Ben Turk may not see the field during this contest if the offense performs as expected. Nick Tausch has been solid in his field goal attempts and should exhibit plenty of range indoors this week. Fans would like to see a kickoff return for a touchdown by Theo Riddick, and it could happen this week if his blockers have the proper mindset. Since the Irish will probably kickoff several times and the environmental conditions will be perfect, it will be interesting to see if David Ruffer can consistently approach the goal line.
The Cougars won’t win a game in the PAC-10 this season and were thumped in their home state by a 2-5 Hawaii squad that led 35-6 at the half. There is no reason for Notre Dame to win by less than four touchdowns and clear the bench before the fourth quarter is underway. The Irish cornerbacks should work on their technique while safeties Sergio Brown and Jamoris Slaughter must continue to get comfortable with the defensive alignments. Offensively, Clausen should spread the ball around with relative ease and Weis should strive to reengage his tight ends in the passing game.
The main emphasis, however, should be the running game and the ability of the offensive line to dominate an opponent. This will pay dividends next month when the opposition is better and the weather is worse.
Here are a few questions that will determine the margin of victory:
Will Notre Dame reach 200 yards rushing, given that the Cougars allow an average of 215 per game?
Will the Irish defensive line take advantage of a weak Washing ton State front line?
Can Tuel become the latest freshman quarterback to have remarkable success against the Irish secondary?
Will Notre Dame’s special teams take advantage of their counterparts?
At what point will Charlie Weis have the luxury of removing Clausen from the game?
Will the Irish enjoy a +3 or better turnover margin?
The question in this game is not whether the Irish will win, but by how many points. Notre Dame has demonstrated a tendency to play at the level of its opposition, but that would be disastrous for a program that needs to realize continuous improvement over the next few weeks to realize its ultimate goals. Tuel and the Cougars may provide a few moments of frustration for Irish fans with some success in the passing game, but they will not be able to sustain it.
The game should be a showcase of Notre Dame’s talent for anyone who cares enough to watch, but I hesitate to say it will be a monumental blowout given the recent inability of a Weis-coached team to bury an inferior opponent. Still, there won’t be many anxious moments for the Irish after the first quarter.
NOTRE DAME 41 WASHINGTON STATE 13