The Irish started the season unranked but quickly made some waves when they knocked off #23 Pitt in the opener and followed it up with a win over #4 Michigan. Before the hype machine could get fully underway the Irish the Dr. Jeckle/Mr. Hyde Spartans came to South Bend and beat them 44-41 in overtime. Not to be discouraged, Notre Dame finished out a special season only losing one game to the #1 team in the country, USC. They could have beat the Trojans if not for a fumble that bounced out of bounds and a gutsy call by Matt Leinhart to bull into the endzone with no timeouts left and the clock running down. The Irish finished the season 9-2 and earned an invitation to the Fiesta Bowl to play the Ohio State University. The Fiesta Bowl was a major disappointment for the Irish. The Buckeyes rolled up 617 yards of total offense en route to a 34-20 thrashing that wasn't as close as the score indicates. The loss was their eighth bowl loss in a row dating back to 1994.
Charlie Weis came into South Bend last season sporting his three Super Bowl rings he earned with the Patriots. One 9-3 season later everyone is talking about what a genius he is. If his football I.Q. is as big as his waist size, Penn State is in some serious trouble.
Bring the Wookie to me
The Irish return All-American, All-Heisman, All-World, future #1 overall draft pick quarterback Brady Quinn. But you already knew that. The Great One smashed all kinds of Notre Dame records in 2005 when he completed 64.9% of his passes for 3919 yards and 32 touchdowns. He is the odds-on-favorite to win the Heisman going into 2006.
Quinn's primary target is wide receiver Jeff "Can I Buy a Vowel Please" Samardzija. The Shark is the leading receiver from last year when he caught 77 catches for 1249 yards and 15 touchdowns. He's a big physical receiver that stands 6'5" and 216 lbs. Lost to graduation are wide receiver Maurice Stovall and tightend Anthony Fasano who combined for 116 catches for 1725 yards and 13 touchdowns. Replacing this chunk of the offense will fall on wide receiver Rhema McKnight and TE John Carlson. McKnight returns from a knee injury last season. He was a great receiver before the knee surgery, and if he is fully recovered he should prove to be an ample target for Quinn.
Darius Walker figures to get the bulk of the carries at running back. Walker had 1274 yards last year with a 4.7 ypc average and 10 touchdowns. He's a solid back that can churn out five yard gains all day, but he probably isn't a big play threat. Also seeing some carries will be Travis Thomas when Walker needs a breather. Thomas is playing both sides of the ball this year also seeing time at linebacker. A secret weapon we may see Saturday is uber-freshman James Aldridge. He enrolled early in the spring and has reportedly impressed the coaches with his speed and game breaking ability.
The offensive line returns the left side but has to replace the right side this year. Three-year starters Dan Stevenson and Mark LeVoir are gone at RG and RT and are replaced by a couple of journeymen seniors. These guys should be pretty good, but Georgia Tech was able to get some pressure on Quinn last weekend. If Jim Shaw and Eddie Johnson can outmuscle these guys and get some pressure on Quinn, it could be a long day for the Irish.
There's no doubt Notre Dame is going to score a lot of points this year. The million dollar question for this team is how many points can this defense keep off the scoreboard. If the defense allows the Irish to get involved in shootouts every weekend, I don't see how they can keep from losing at least two games.
The defensive line returns everyone from a squad that gave up an average of 132 yards per game on the ground last year and registered 13.5 sacks. They are led by senior DE Victor Abiamiri who had 8 sacks a year ago. His matchup with John Shaw will be a key matchup in the game. They are an experienced group that should be better than average in run stopping and pass rushing, but there probably isn't any All-Americans in the group.
The linebacker position is a glaring question mark that sticks out like a sore thumb on this team. The loss of Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays from last year is a heavy blow. These two combined for 172 tackles and 11 sacks. The Irish linebacker depth chart is so thin that running back Travis Thomas saw significant playing time in the GA Tech game. This is a position the Lions will have to expose and capitalize on if they are going to be successful.
The defensive backs got torched by Troy Smith, Ted Ginn, and Santanio Holmes in the Fiesta Bowl. It was ugly. Real ugly. Like "put the kids to bed early" ugly. Questions arose in the off season about whether the speed of the defensive backs was adequate for this team to compete. There is no doubt that some of the big plays were due to miscommunication and misreads by the defense. But none-the-less, all the defensive backs were sent to speed camps this summer to get quicker. Maybe they fixed the miscommunication problems, but nobody can go from 4.5 speed to 4.3 speed in one summer. One thing is for sure, the corners Richardson and Wooden will need some 4.3 speed to keep up with the fast Penn State receivers. As strong safety, Tom Zbikowski is one hard hitting tough kid and unquestionably the leader of this defense. Any catches over the middle will be met with paaaiiiiin.
Try and come across the middle, sucka!
Special Teams Preview
Zbikowski returns the punts this year after having a fine year in 2005 averaging 14.0 yards per return. Jason Grimes and George West are returning the kickoffs and both had a decent return against GA Tech. Geoff Price is the new punter this year. Against GA Tech he had five punts for a booming 50.4 yard average. The field goal kicker is Carl Giola who missed both field goal attempts of 42 and 36 yards against GA Tech.
I can read the depth chart myself, Mike. What's going to happen?
Again, at this point let me point out I nailed it last week in predicting a 34-16 final score against Akron. I'm just sayin.
When Notre Dame has the ball, I look for them to dink and dunk little short passes all day to keep the blitzing linebackers at bay. I don't see them having much success running the ball against our underrated defensive line and linebackers. On third and short situations I expect to see a linebacker shadowing Quinn to prevent the kind of demoralizing conversions we saw him run for against Tech. The thing that scares me is how big and physical Samardzija is. I expect at least three or four times in the game we will see Quinn throw up a jump ball twenty yards down field and just let the Shark go up and get it against our undersized corners. Notre Dame is going to put together some long drives, but the fast and physical Penn State defense is going to make them fight for every yard.
When Penn State has the ball they are going to struggle to put together long drives, much like they did against Akron. The running game will be good in a few weeks, but it's not there yet. If the Lions get 100 yards rushing I will be shocked. The offensive line should do an ok job of protecting Morelli. I look for the Nittany Lions to do a lot of three step drops and shotgun formations to help out the inexperienced line. But the bottom line is the Nittany Lions will not put together any long drives. It's essential that the defense force some turnovers and the special teams present some opportunities to play with a short field. But I do think the Lions will put some points on the board with some big plays. Wallace and Williams will give the Lions good field position with one or two big kick returns. While the Irish did a good job in containing Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson, they had to do a lot of double and even some triple teams to do so. Penn State is going to spread the field with three or four wide receivers and challenge the Irish to cover them. Maybe they can cover Williams. Maybe they can even cover DWill and Butler. But I'm not convinced they can cover Williams, Butler, Norwood, and Bell/Golden if all four are one the field at the same time. Morelli is going to hit his receivers for some big plays and that is how Penn State is going to score.
Anyone predicting a blowout in this game is smoking crack. This game is going to go down to the wire. But in the end, Penn State is going to pull out the upset in South Bend.
Penn State - 24
Notre Dame - 20