Notre Dame Football: Season Preview

Apologies for the lack of posting recently. I’ve been recently moving into my new place and work has picked up a bit. This is a post I wanted to make a while ago, but hey things happen. This is why I call myself an “infrequent blogger” — thankfully I don’t have a set schedule for this thing. Anyways, onto the post and thanks to everyone that has been and still is reading and dropping by here!

It is nearly that time once again. In just under two weeks the college football season will kick off, and the Irish will set out to back up their current AP and Coach’s Poll rankings of #23 in the nation. It seems that it isn’t just ND fans that believe ND will be having a good season based on that — although some may be projecting a little bit too much positive mojo and making some uh…let’s say “gutsy” predictions (I’m looking at you Lou Holtz).

Overall though I am in the same camp. I do indeed believe that Notre Dame will be good. I’ll be honest, this post won’t be the “usual” for me. I’m not a big fan of trying to read the tea leaves and figure out just how good we will be. I’m a bigger fan of grabbing stats and using them to back up my points. However, stats from last year don’t have all too much bearing on this season. Players grow, freshmen make impacts, and even coaches can make strides.

Before I put on the Blue and Gold glasses and take a look at this season–and yes, this post is indeed a “why ND will re(-re-re-re)turn to glory (well, maybe not that, but why they will be much better season)–let me say one thing and get it out of the way right this second because it will be the pink elephant in the room if I don’t. This is the season the excuses for Weis end. I have defended him before, but these season those same reasons to not apply. His recruits are no longer kids, the O-Line is now a veteran line, he now has not one, but two of his QBs to run his offense, under-performing assistant coaches have been fired, and finally this time around another loosing season will put him well behind the win/loss records of Davie and Willingham even if you take away the “mulligan” 3-9 year.

Again, let’s be clear: If ND screws the pooch again this year, it is definitely 100% justified to start pointing the finger at Weis and looking for another coach.

Got it? Good.

Now I’m going to tell you why we won’t even have to worry about that this season.

Scheduling Fail

Let’s just be 100% brutally honest: our schedule is crap. We are playing one preseason top 25 team in USC and that’s it. Special thanks to Dr. White for putting us in this 7-4-1 scheduling disaster and making us such good friends with the Big (L)East instead of oh I don’t know, not trying to shoe horn a neutral site game in every year and scheduling some classic powerhouse programs instead of Big (L)East fodder. Now I’m sure our schedule could end up being slightly tougher than it originally seems, but in all honesty it is quite subpar for the course.

Good for us.

There is one good point that Lou made in his crazy BCS title bound prediction and that is that this schedule is freakin’ tailor made for an undefeated run. If you can beat USC, who else on that schedule actually scares you? Michigan is still rebuilding, Michigan State lost Ringer, and beyond that what else is left? This year’s schedule screams “go take care of business” to say the least.

On paper alone, it is quite an easy road. Even if you want to not be happy about playing a subpar schedule, it is hard to deny that you won’t be at least a little bit happy to see ND rack up the wins.

The Junior Effect

Let’s take a look a Brady Quinn’s sophomore stats (yes…I did manage to find a way to shoehorn stats into this…):

Completions: 191
Attempts: 353
Completion %: 54.1%
Yards: 2586
TD: 17
INT: 10
QB Rating: 125.87

And now Clausen last year:

Completions: 268
Attempts: 440
Completion %: 60.9%
Yards: 3127
TD: 25
INT: 17
QB Rating: 132.49

While Clausen may have more TDs and yards (Weis was obviously a lot more pass happy with Clausen than Ty was Quinn’s Sophomore year), if you look at completion percentage and QB rating, we are more or less talking about the same QB. Both of them had a lot of talent and both of them didn’t quite have everything click. While you can credit Weis from being able to make the offense better for Quinn or being a better coach for him, you still can’t discredit the fact that Quinn was still a Sophomre, starting his first full season, still trying to adjust to the college game.

So with Weis’ offense and another year of experience under his belt, Quinn came back and did the following his Junior year:

Completions: 292
Attempts: 450
Completion %: 64.9%
Yards: 3919
TD: 32
INT: 7
QB Rating: 158.40

INT down, TD, Completion %, and QB Rating all significantly up.

Clausen had many moments last season where it still looked like he just didn’t “get it” quite yet. During the Hawaii game though, we finally saw a flash of the QB we all heard he was supposed to be. Finally for once he was doing what he was supposed to be: lighting up inferior defenses and making smart passes. If Clausen is able to progress like Quinn did his Junior year, I would expect an even bigger season than Quinn had in 2005, especially if you take into account that the schedule isn’t so strong.

Furthermore, unlike Quinn, Clausen has Dayne Crist breathing down his neck as the next hotshot Weis QB recruit ready to light the world on fire. People wanted to burn Crist’s redshirt several times last year and Weis held out, well, that is definitely not an issue now. Weis’ neck is on the line, and you can bet he’d be more than ready to throw Crist into the fire if needed.

So you mix in a now experienced QB, ready to prove he is the man for the job, and you should get the result of a solid year behind center.

The Big Uglies Are Bigger

One of the biggest complaints I’ve always had a bout Ty is that he absolutely failed to recruit in two vital areas: O-Line and D-Line. While the D-Line will be able to come off of life support this year boasting Sophomores and Juniors at the helm (more on the defense in general later), the O-Line, which has been a gigantic problem for ND lately is now one of the most experienced that ND has seen in a long time. Even better, if one happens to go down this year, there will be Seniors and Juniors to fill in instead of Freshmen and Sophomores.

Furthermore, this O-Line has experience and lots of it: 82 starts on the whole line. As Blue-Gray Sky points out, for once, ND is the most experienced O-Line in our entire schedule.

Think back to when Quinn and Co. exploded in 2005 and 2006. The O-Line then was a group of experienced veterans, with only Sam Young being the exception to the rule in 2006. It is no surprise that when said group graduated in 2007, leaving the line horribly young and inexperienced, ND had their 3-9 season. The line still hadn’t gelled last season either — our lackluster run game and Clausen still getting lit up far too often demonstrated that perfectly.

This year though, no more. Now we boast a line averaging over 300lbs/player with an unbelievable amount of playing time and a new O-Line coach to boot.

If this line can’t dominate against this schedule, there is something seriously wrong.

Holy Blitz Packages, Batman!

Awesome picture, shamelessly stolen from one of my friends

The Irish defense has been one of the bright spots for the most part. They’ve kept ND in many games that they should not have been in.

I’ve already mentioned earlier that the D-Line has gotten a little bit bigger and older, but the most important thing that will happen to the defense this year is that this will be the second full season of Tenuta’s scheme of “if you are playing full coverage, you are mixing it up”. Blitzes are all about timing — you have to hit the gap at the right time and you have to hit the QB before he has a chance to dump the throw off to a wide open receiver. Add on to that, Tenuta’s blitzes aren’t exactly simple either.

With another fall camp of getting used to Tenuta wanting the QB to die a horrible death, the Irish should be finding their blitzes hitting home far more often, which will in turn hopefully lead to several more turnovers for ND to capitalize on.

The Band is Back Together

This little section will be simple. We are bringing just a handful of playmakers back on the offense: all of them. Instead of asking “who do we have coming back this year?”, we should be asking “who exactly did we lose again?” (Answer: Schwapp and Grimes)

So yeah, the offense shouldn’t have any problems “clicking” anywhere. The only major change was moving Aldridge to FB, which really made that position a whole lot better, in my opinion, as he can actually catch and not cough up the ball ever other carry.

Special Teams Not So “Special” This Year (I Hope…)

It’s 4th and 6, ND is on the 30 yard line. Without blinking Weis goes for it on 4th down. Why? Because he doesn’t want to have a heart attack every time Walker is out there to kick.

Again to be perfectly blunt: Walker sucked. Kickoffs were awful and FG attempts were awful.

If it weren’t for Mike Anello, there would be no special teams upside for the most part last season.

That will hopefully change as Freshmen (and fellow Dallas Jesuit alum) Nick Tausch will be the starting kicker for ND this season. Along with FG duties, Tausch is currently slated to be the kickoff specialist as well.

I am just absolutely praying that this means I don’t have to start praying during 30 yard FG attempts this season and that Weis is able be able to say “hey, let’s take the points” during 4th downs.

All else fails though, Anello is back for a 5th year to make everyone happy.

Also, we have a punter that can out bench many NFL prospects

Something to Prove

With all I can say about the experience, weak schedule, and likely progression of the Irish there is still one huge looming fact: they all have something to prove.

Weis wants to prove that his insanely large contract is justified. Clausen wants to prove he isn’t all hype. Anyone involved with the running game is tired of hearing that they are a punchline. The defense wants to prove the switch to the 3-4 and a blitz happy package was the right move.

And anyone involved with ND is ready to bury the non-major bowl loss streak and the losing streak to USC. Stop the talk that ND continues to get bowl bids they don’t deserve to be in as well as that their glory days are just simply a past chapter in college football. Tired of hearing, before a single snap has been played, that they are once again “overrated”.

Everyone knows that the talk and the bravado with no results that has defined the Irish the last couple of seasons is old and tired. They are ready to put up or shut up:

Weis is a jelly bean jar of different moods and personalities, but the one constant has been his belief, both spoken and unspoken, that he’s smarter than you. (Remember his introductory news conference about outscheming his opponents?) The trait is his strength and his weakness.

But the new and improved Weis is keeping his mouth shut for now. He speaks, but there are no predictions attached. When you have the worst two-year total of losses (15) in Notre Dame football history, you learn the power of choosing your words carefully.

“Show me, right?” Weis said. “OK, that’s what we’re going to do. We intend to show you.”

I’m definitely ready for them to show me and silence the critics…

10 days…