Notre Dame Week
Well, it's that time of the year again (again).
The theme of the week will be the fact that the tables have been reversed. As we all know, BC is coming into South Bend undefeated and as the #4 team in the country. Notre Dame, well, isn't undefeated or the #4 team in the country. Certainly many Irish fans would love to ruin our season the way we ruined theirs in 1993 and 2002. In fact, you can bet that Charlie Weis has been showing clips of the 1993 and 2002 games to his players all week.
A common Domer excuse for losing to BC annually is that it's just another game to their players, whereas to our players it's the Super Bowl. Don't fall for it. The Irish players will, without a doubt, be every bit as fired up for this one as the guys in maroon and gold are. BC is the far superior team and should win, but we can't simply stroll into Notre Dame stadium and expect to walk away with a victory.
So how does BC avoid the upset?? The first key is to get pressure on Jimmy Clausen. BC's Achilles' heel defensively is, without a doubt, the deep ball. The cornerbacks other than DeJuan Tribble are inexperienced (even 5th-year senior Taji Morris has spent most of his BC career either injured or constantly bouncing back and forth between DB and CB); the pass rush has been anemic so far (although it did show signs of life against a decent Bowling Green offensive line); and the safeties, while excellent in run support and the short/medium-range passing game, lack elite high-end speed and could be exposed deep. The good news?? The Irish have not really shown the ability to consistently go deep as of yet. Their team speed, while improving and probably a touch better than BC's, is still nowhere near the level of the ACC powers like Florida State and Virginia Tech that BC is used to facing. More importantly, Clausen has not yet proven that he can throw the deep ball. It seems to be a confidence issue, whether on his part or the coaching staff's; but either way, the Irish need to be able to throw deep in order to win. They are not going to be able to run on BC; and while the short passing game will chew up yards and clock, it will also lead to BC interceptions.
On the other side of the ball, the main thing I am concerned about is the offensive adjustment to Notre Dame's new 3-4 defense. For the first time in years the Irish have more talent on the defensive side of the ball than they do on the offensive, and now they also have a confusing new scheme to go along with it. It should be noted that BC did a very nice job against a similar Virginia defense 2 years ago, but only one starting offensive lineman played in that game (for perspective, Quinton Porter was named ACC Player of the Week for his performance against the Cavaliers). While I don't think Notre Dame has the raw talent on defense to match BC, the 3-4 scheme will take some adjusting to for the linemen and backs. A huge advantage BC has here is the tremendous ability of both Andre Callender and L.V. Whitworth in the passing game--primarily in blitz pickup, but also as released receivers. Matchup-wise, I think undersized but quick and wily true freshman RT Anthony Castonzo will excel against the 3-4, where he will be facing off not against a 260-lb defensive end but against a 240-250 lb linebacker such as Kerry Neal or John Ryan.
Of course, Matt Ryan needs to have a good day, but that goes without saying. And he will. BC's lack of a #1 go-to guy in the WR corps is actually an advantage in my opinion, as it forces opposing defenses to gameplan for 5 or 6 different guys. Brandon Robinson is the best wideout on the team, but Kevin Challenger, Rich Gunnell, Clarence Megwa, and Justin Jarvis are all also capable of breaking out for 100+ yard games--and that's before you get to the tight ends and backs, not to mention younger receivers like Ifeanyi Momah and Billy Flutie. My guess is that the Irish will play conservative defense, seeking to deny BC the deep ball and forcing Ryan to dink and dunk down the field against an unfamiliar 3-4 scheme. While this could pose some problems, it will at least have the effect of forcing their best defensive playmaker, safety Tom Zbikowski, to stay deep.
Special teams need to be on target. Billy Bennett was held out of practice yesterday for undisclosed reasons, but should be good to go on Saturday. Kickoff coverage needs to improve, and the punt team needs to keep doing what they've been doing. Could this be the week we finally see true freshman speedster Dan Mulrooney returning punts??
Finally, BC needs great support from its fans in South Bend. I'm expecting about 10-15,000 BC fans to be there, which would make for the largest away contingent of Eagles fans since the 2003 San Francisco Bowl. BC's allotment of 5,000 tickets sold out as soon as it went on sale, and despite that virtually everyone I know who's going to the game didn't actually get their tickets through BC. We need to cheer our team on, be loud when the Domers are on offense, and show the world that BC fans can travel when we have something worth traveling to see.
My prediction?? I think the Irish will keep it close for about a quarter and a half, but ultimately they just don't have the horses to hang with a great BC team this year. While they have certainly improved since the trio of season-opening debacles against Georgia Tech, Penn State, and Michigan, they have yet to face a team nearly as good as BC. While their win over UCLA will give them a boost of confidence, I don't think it will have much ultimate impact on the game. This one will be uncomfortably close for a while, but the Eagles will pull away in the end.
Prediction: BC 41, Notre Dame 17
My group is leaving for Notre Dame at around 5 today. If you see a green 4Runner with Colorado plates, BC and UNC stickers, and (if I have time to stop by the bookstore before departure) an enormous, gaudy BC helmet magnet, give a honk and a wave.