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Friday, November 20, 2009

UConn, Irish Clash on Senior Day

posted by John Vannie
Notre Dame will play its final home game of the 2009 regular season on Saturday by hosting Connecticut in the first ever meeting between these teams. The Irish fans in attendance will say goodbye to outgoing seniors such as Paul Duncan, James Aldridge, Eric Olson and Sam Young. There will also be speculation regarding the status of quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receiver Golden Tate, who have to decide whether to enter the NFL draft next spring or return for their senior seasons at Notre Dame. Despite these graduations and other potential changes in the program for 2010, the biggest story surrounds the future of head coach Charlie Weis, who may be leading the Irish through the Stadium tunnel for the last time.

The 4-5 Huskies appear at first glance to represent no great threat, but upon closer inspection this game seems destined to be decided in the final moments. Randy Edsall’s team held the lead late in the fourth quarter in four of its five losses, and was only a missed two-point conversion away from tying fourth ranked Cincinnati on the Bearcat’s home turf. The untimely surrender of big plays has proven costly, but injuries to key players such as quarterback Cody Endres and the stabbing death of cornerback Jasper Howard on October 18 has been too much for the UConn family to overcome. The team has not won since defeating Louisville, a game in which Howard was awarded a game ball by his coaches and teammates just hours prior to his death.

Former Notre Dame quarterback Zach Frazer has earned back the starting job for the Huskies after Endres was lost for the season. Frazer has completed only 51% of his passes and suffered seven interceptions, while Endres was far more efficient at 64% and only four picks. The pressure of playing at his former school will add to Frazer’s stress level, but Edsall has already taken the initiative to provide a calming influence.

"I brought him in and I spoke to him as you can imagine. I told him what he needs to do is just play like he did against Cincinnati. He showed great composure, tremendous poise, and very good focus just going out and taking what the defense was giving him. I know he has good friends and good memories out there, but once he hits that field, it's just another game."

Connecticut is coming off a bye week after three straight gut-wrenching losses, and Edsall’s attempt to downplay the upcoming opportunity on national television is classic coach speak.

"It really is just another game. It's the tenth game this season. But from the school's standpoint, it probably means more to the school and the people associated with UConn football from the beginning. I don't know if anybody ever thought that UConn football would have the opportunity to play such a storied program as Notre Dame. For the players, we have to treat it as just another game. The field is still 120 by 53 and a third, it's no different than the field that we play on."

This sure sounds like a football version of “Hoosiers” to me.

While the Huskies have not set foot in Notre Dame Stadium, Edsall paid his first and only visit in 1993 when he coached against the Irish as a member of Tom Coughlin’s staff at Boston College. Yes, we are talking about THAT infamous game.


The Huskies’ style of play is physical, but this year’s lineup consists of precious few veterans interspersed among numerous young players. Pass rusher Lindsey Witten is a senior with NFL potential and 11 sacks to his credit this season, while the other three linemen are sophomores and freshmen. Scott Lutrus leads a trio of three junior linebackers, and Greg Lloyd, Jr. is the son of the former Steelers great. The secondary is manned by a pair of seniors, safety Robert Vaughn and cornerback Robert McClain. Each has four interceptions this season. Howard’s spot at the other corner is being filled by freshman Blidi Wreh-Wilson.

The Irish running game can expect to meet resistance early in the contest when UConn is fresh. Weis has not shown patience in the past when the run is not working, so fans can expect a lot of passes from Clausen. The Huskies do not blitz very often and will drop into coverage to take away the long scoring strike. This is the same strategy used to a high degree of success by the likes of Navy, Boston College and Pitt. The key to its success is the amount of pressure that can be exerted by the defensive front four.

The matchup between Witten and Notre Dame’s offensive tackles will be a critical element in this contest. Clausen may have a field day if he has time to throw, but his protection has not been stellar lately. The bigger question, as always, will be whether the Irish can stick with the run and make it work.


The Huskies are a run-first team with a tandem of capable backs and a massive offensive line. Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon share the carries at tailback, and will have to be successful in order to reduce the pressure on Frazer. Conversely, the Irish must force Frazer into third and long situations so they can take advantage of his relative inexperience. They will blitz frequently on passing downs in an attempt to rattle him and force errant passes.

When Frazer drops back to throw, Marcus Easley has emerged as his primary target and deep threat. Brad Kanuch and Kashif Moore are capable short range receivers and tight end Ryan Griffin is an improving young player. The passing game made strides against Cincinnati in their last game as Frazer went 19 for 32 for 261 yards and no interceptions despite playing from behind most of the day. A repeat of this type of performance may be problematic for the Irish, especially if UConn’s rushing attack is equally successful.

Notre Dame played well defensively last week at Pittsburgh for the most part, but a few breakdowns led to big plays that spelled defeat. The Huskies are not known as a high powered offensive team, but Easley and Todman can hurt the Irish if given an opening.


UConn’s Desi Cullen was named one of ten semifinalists for the 2009 Ray Guy Award, which identifies the nation's top collegiate punter. Kicker Dave Teggart is reliable within 40 yards but his range does not extend much farther. McClain has returned a punt for a touchdown this season while Robbie Frey has a 100-yard kickoff return to his credit. Edsall’s coverage teams are usually very competent, and this year is no exception.

The team that wins the battle of field position will have a distinct advantage. Notre Dame’s offense has routinely started deep in its own end in recent weeks, and poor punting has put undue pressure on the defense. Any near-term expectations that the Irish will improve in this area have expired, so the path to victory becomes that much more difficult.


The more Edsall and UConn try to say that this is “just another game” for the Huskies, the more you know that they are salivating at the opportunity to beat Notre Dame in their first visit to South Bend. A bye week will provide even more focus for this capable but hard-luck group, and the Irish must be ready for a sixty minute battle. UConn does not have the personnel to stay with Notre Dame if the Irish play at a high level, but the team has performed poorly of late and is in the midst of another November collapse. The lack of good fundamentals combined with the fact that it’s more difficult to surprise an opponent at this stage of the season tend to negate the talent disparity between Notre Dame and a mid-level but highly motivated and well-coached team.

Let’s consider a few questions that will help determine the outcome:

Will the Irish be able to keep Witten from adding to his impressive sack total?

Can Frazer control his nerves and deliver a quality performance?

Will Clausen be asked to throw 40 passes?

Can Notre Dame’s defense neutralize UConn’s rushing attack?

Will the Huskies be able to capitalize on their distinct advantage in the punting game?

Will the importance of Senior Day be sufficient motivation for the Irish to match UConn’s all-out effort?


There is little recent evidence that Notre Dame can put together and sustain a solid effort, but the fourth quarter comeback against Pittsburgh showed that the light is not completely extinguished. The Huskies have dropped several games in the last few minutes to good teams, and losing in that manner can become a malady that is hard to shake. Although many signs point toward an upset, I just can’t get past the wide gulf between quarterbacks Clausen and Frazer. Somehow, some way, the Irish should prevail.

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Blogger Scranton Dave said...

Vannie, you have done yeomans work this year, you really have. I dont know if they are going to win tomorrow, with all that's going on with Weis job specualtion, and the last 2 tough losses, and the season being, lets be honest, a colossal dissapointment, I just dont know whats left in the tank. If feel awful about this Weis situation cause he is a ND guy, but he has to go. He is an NFL OC not a College head coach. I want the kids to have a good senior day but I have a really bad feeling. Lets hope the Stoops rumors are true.

11/20/2009 05:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Tim B. said...

If this is Charlies last time through the tunnel.. then i wish him all the best. He is a good honest ND man that deserves our Notre Dame respect. As far as any rumors.. i personaly feel its time for Urban renewal.

11/20/2009 06:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that all alums and fans of the football team are really, really tired of what has happened to our football program. Excitment has been replaced by exhaustion. "Here We Go Again" has become a cheer. The Huskies have something to prove. The Irish have little to gain for yet another year.

In the movie, "Hoosiers," Coach Dale tells his team: "I've seen you guys can shoot but there's more to the game than shooting. There's fundamentals and defense."

Of course, Gene Hackman isn't a real head coach. But it seems that Charlie Weis isn't much of a real head coach,either.

Another tough afternoon for the Irish.


11/20/2009 06:58:00 PM  
Anonymous O'Boyle said...

I have a hard time with the current "Fighting" (We still say this, right?) Irish coach playing the NFL philosophy of his mentor and "Only looking ahead to the next game" when this is the man that requested a meeting with Father Hesburgh to plead his case about why Coach Devine should be fired for his record and recent loss in the 70's back when he was a student. This man (Devine, never the other) is reponsible for one of the last two national titles for the school.

Bottom line- Experienced college coaches have just that; experience. A successful college coach would serve the University, and the monlith that is the ND board needs to give SOME flexability to that inevitable replacement.

11/20/2009 07:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see ND picking up enough motivation and spark to beat this
very mediocre team by at least a TD.
However, CW needs to move on. I do not share the emotions of many who somehow have trouble letting go of CW. He was a coach hired to
do a job which he did not do. He was tremendously overpaid to do that job and will walk away a multi
millionaire never having to work
again in his life.

So, my heart goes out to our players. However, CW is simply someone who didn't do the job and
is still getting a severence check like some of the CEO's that have been fired after taking their company

11/20/2009 08:18:00 PM  
Blogger felicardenas said...

great piece. by far the best thursday night read I've had in a long time. the matchup is storybook, unfortunately not so much for nd. I believe the irish will play well tomorrow, play hard, hit hard, for the seniors. I just can't visualize a victory, considering it'll most likely go just as you predicted.

go irish!

11/20/2009 08:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a Notre Dame fan at all costs. Whoever is coaching or playing I will stand with through it all. I am tired of all of the 'fans' that say they want good things but speak ill of whatever part of the program they choose to degrade. These are young men that we are talking about, give them your support or give them your silence. End of that story.
As far as fans in the stadium, I am past dissapointment on that. I am at most every home game and I see a bunch of people that should have given their tickets to a real fan and gone to the gold outing they think they are at. Stand up and cheer thr whole game! That is what a real fan does, stand up and shout encouraging statements & no demeaning ones.
GO IRISH, I love this team/stadium/school/coaches/everything that is Notre Dame Football

11/20/2009 11:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You always ask the question "Can/will the Irish establish/stick with the run". You should have the answer to that one on auto insert, and just put it in ahead of time ... of course not.

11/21/2009 06:46:00 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Jensen said...

The thing that I keep coming back to and what is driving me crazy about Saturday's game is Weis' comment afterwards that he called the game conservatively in the first half.

This was Charlie Weis' last chance for a win against a team with less than four losses. Last chance for a road win against a top 10 team, his first since a win vs. a 7-5 Michigan team in his second game. Last chance to prove his critics wrong.

Last chance to let it rip.

And what does he do?

Call the game conservatively, and say that he was pleased the game was tied 3-3 with six minutes to go in the first half.


When you think about it, this decision might be one of the biggest indightments of Weis' head coaching career.

What was he afraid of?

That his team would fall behind 20-3?

That his defense would give up big plays on the ground and in the air?

That his offensive line couldn't win one-on-one match-ups in the trenches?

Guess what? They all happened anyway.

Perhaps more importantly, what did he have to lose?

Answer: Nothing.

The loss to Navy had already blown any chances for a BCS bowl. The Pitt game was perhaps Weis' final chance to prove this team belonged in a New Year's Day Bowl, and that he was the man to lead them in the future.

He never even gave his team a chance to make their case.

It's almost as if Weis is constantly trying to show that he is capable of outsmarting the other team.

With one of the most prolific passing offenses in Notre Dame history, sure they're gonna come out throwing, try to get the Panthers back on their heels and get an early lead.

Nope. Too obvious.

11/21/2009 12:10:00 PM  

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