Last week Notre Dame played all three of their quarterbacks and they combined to lead the Irish to just three points. They tried Demetrius Jones in a spread style offense and it couldn't move the chains and the offensive line looked lost trying to block for Jones. Evan Sharpley was the second quarterback to play and while he led the Irish to their only points, he didn't look comfortable in the pocket and took a number of sacks that probably should not have occurred. The blocking he received was not great, but he also failed to pick up a few delayed blitzes and got beat up pretty good.
This week Notre Dame will be starting uber recruit Jimmy Clausen. Weis announced this week that Clausen was the #1 quarterback coming out of the spring, but his elbow surgery prevented him from having full medical clearance until right before the Georgia Tech game. Without the ability to take most of the snaps in practice, Weis felt he couldn't gameplan around Clausen and thus started Jones. With Clausen under center, I expect the Irish offense to look more like it has the past two years than what it looked like in the first half last week. Clausen's strengths are his quick release and his decision making so look for Weis to use a steady diet of short passes early mixed in with a few deep plays to try and keep the Penn State defense honest.
Considering Clausen is a true freshman, the obstacles he will face are fairly obvious - first career start, on the road, and in a hostile environment. If the Notre Dame offensive line can keep Clausen standing, he gives the Irish the best chance since he is the most accurate of the three quarterbacks and also has more of that "it" factor than the other two as well. It was evident during Notre Dame's Blue-Gold game in April that Clausen had the best field presence and just looked the part of a quarterback more so than Sharpley or Jones.
Weis says he has five running backs who will play in games, but I do not expect to see him work in all five as much as he did last week again. I have a feeling he was trying to get a feel for what he had with some of his younger backs. The listed starter is Travis Thomas - a 5th year senior and two time captain. Thomas has bounced around from offense to defense and back to offense though and last week he had negative yards running. He is the most complete blocker so he will take most of the obvious passing downs, but I expect sophomore James Aldridge, a 5 star recruit out of high school, to receive more of the work load than he did last week. Aldridge showed some tackle breaking ability and if the line can open up some space for him, he is the best between the tackles running back for the Irish.
Also in the mix are a pair of freshman - Armando Allen and Robert Hughes. Allen had 25 yards on 3 carries working with Demetrius Jones in Notre Dame's failed spread offense, and is the home run hitter among the group. Allen can flat out fly, but as a true freshman he is still working on his blitz pickups and is getting working into the offense. He is a dangerous weapon with the ball in his hands though. The few times he touched the ball on Saturday he showed signs of being one of those backs that can take it the distance at any time. Look for Allen to get worked into the game plan more this week. Hughes, the other freshman, is the biggest running back the Irish have and saw some time last week, but is probably fifth on the depth chart right now behind the three previously mentioned backs and senior Junior Jabbie.
The Notre Dame receivers might be the most inexperienced group on the team. David Grimes was the #3 receiver last year and became the #1 guy after Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija graduated. Other than Grimes, the Irish receivers are very green. The #2 guy is sophomore George West who like Grimes, is a small receiver who is more quick than fast. Neither Grimes or West has truly elite straight line speed, but both are extremely quick and can make things happen in the open field - if they are given a chance.
Right now the #3 receiver is a toss up between junior DJ Hord and Robbie Parris. Hord was a top 100 recruit out of high school but missed all of last year with an Achilles injury. He's been great in practice and should be a pretty good receiver by the end of the year, but he is still pretty short on experience. Parris gets comparisons to Samardzija all of the time because of his complexion, but in reality the two are very similar receivers. Parris is a big target with sure hands and the ability to break tackles after the catch and led the team with 3 catches for 30 yards against Tech.
Also in the mix at receiver for the Irish is freshman Duval Kamara who could be the most talented wide receiver on the roster. He will see some playing time, but isn't ready to be an every down receiver yet.
John Carlson was a Mackey Award finalist last year and is one of the best tight ends in the country. Inexplicably, Notre Dame didn't get the ball in his hands until the 3rd quarter last week. With Clausen making his first start, look for Carlson to be involved early. His blocking is still a work in progress, but as a receiving tight end, he is a matchup nightmare for any defense. He's got great speed and can work the middle of the field if given the chance.
The most disappointing unit for the Irish against Tech was the offensive line hands down. Notre Dame is starting a new left tackle , junior Paul Duncan, and two new guards, sophomore Dan Wenger and junior Michael Turkovich. The returning starters are 5th year senior John Sullivan at center and sophomore Sam Young at right tackle. This group took its lumps in a big way in the first game working together. Georgia Tech had the Notre Dame offensive line on its heels all game. Part of this could have been due to the unfamiliarity of trying to block for the spread, but it was mainly because of the inexperience of three first time starters.
Weis hasn't released an official depth chart for this game yet, but I would not be surprised if he tried to shake up the lineup a bit and inserted sophomore Matt Carufel in for Turkovich. Other than that, the line should remain in tact.
This is a line that has a lot of talent - all of the starters were at least four star recruits coming out of high school - but they are very short on experience and it showed last week. Facing a defense which blitzes as aggressively as Georgia Tech was a baptism by fire so Irish fans are hoping that a week of focused practice after last week's whipping will result in a better performance from the offense line.
Weis has been seen giving the offensive line some personal instruction this week which is something that Weis has not done much of at all since arriving at Notre Dame and something he hasn't been seen doing at all this summer. Weis has been normally spending all of his time with the quarterbacks, but his individual attention to the line shows that improvement in this area was a major focus for the Irish in preparation for Penn State.
Penn State is going to throw the kitchen sink at this line this weekend and while I think we'll see a much better performance out of this group as a whole this week, there will still be some missed assignments and breakdowns.
Notre Dame switched to a 3-4 defense in the spring and I honestly was not too disappointed with the defensive line despite Tech's ability to run the ball seemingly at will on the Irish. Tech's Tashard Choice did hardly any of his damage up the middle on this defense. Junior Pat Kuntz is the starting nose guard and he did a pretty good job of taking up blockers on running plays. Senior Justin Brown started at one of the defensive end positions, but was ejected in the second quarter after a personal foul. That personal foul gave Tech a first down after they failed to convert a 3rd and long. A few plays later they scored their first touchdown for a 16-0 lead. Before his ejection, Brown was playing pretty well.
Trevor Laws is the elder statesmen of the group as a fifth year senior and is the third starter. Laws also played pretty well and recorded a blocked field goal when the score was still a manageable 6-0.
For their first game in a new scheme, this unit was actually fairly strong. The problem here for the Irish is depth. Notre Dame is paper thin along the defensive line so any injuries (or ejections as was the case last week) will put them in a precarious situation. The line wore down in the second half while the Irish failed to keep them off the field.
On the defensive side of the ball, the linebackers were the least impressive for Notre Dame against Georgia Tech. Choice did most of his damage off the edges where the outside linebackers in a 3-4 should keep contain. Sophomore John Ryan and senior Anthony Vernaglia both recorded their first career starts on the outside and both had their moments, but as a whole they did a very poor job of containment. Ryan was push around a lot and was sealed off very well by the Georgia Tech blockers. I would be surprised if Penn State did not run right at Ryan early on.
On the inside, Maurice Crum is a third year starter while Joe Brockington and Toryan Smith combine to handle the other inside linebacker spot. Of this group, only Smith is ideal size for an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense and it showed last week. Crum was pushed around a lot and was fairly disappointing considering he is a 3rd year starter.
Notre Dame's secondary was its Achilles heel last year, but I was rather impressed with the improvement here. Tech's Taylor Bennett was just 11 of 24 and wherever he threw there were Irish defenders close by. Bennett missed a couple of passes that could have been huge plays, but there were not any wide receivers running free which was a trademark of Notre Dame's defense last year. Sophomore Darrin Walls made his first career start and his name was not heard much at all which is always a sign that a corner is playing well. Tech did not test Walls at all while they instead tried going after senior Terrail Lambert. Lambert held his own and had pretty tight coverage. He missed one huge opportunity for a pick on a jump ball, but overall he had good coverage.
Tom Zbikowski is back at strong safety for his fourth year as a starter, but he was not very active last week. Zibby's strength has always been his running stuffing ability, but he was not much of a factor against Tech. The single most impressive player on defense for the Irish last week, however, was new starting free safety David Bruton. Bruton had a sack to stop a Georgia Tech drive inside the 10 and was very impressive for a first time starter. He is a sure tackler who can bring the wood when he hits.
Tech did not test the Irish secondary nearly as much as I think the Penn State offense will, but as a whole it appears the secondary will not be the major liability that is was for the Irish a year ago.
Punter Geoff Price had an uncharacteristically poor game, but I don't expect that to repeat this week. Price is one of the nation's best punters and when he is on his game he can be a major factor in the field position game. Place kicker is still a question mark for Notre Dame as it has been for the better part of the last decade. Freshman Brandon Walker converted the only field goal attempt of the game, but this position is far from solidified for the Irish.
Notre Dame does have a couple of dangerous return men. Armando Allen, the speedster freshman running back I mentioned earlier, is the #1 kick returner and can flat out fly. He had plenty of opportunities to return kicks last week and he showed that he has the ability to make some big plays. Golden Tate, a freshman wide receiver, is the other kick returner and he too has a lot of speed and big play ability.
Zbikowski is the primary punt returner and is very dangerous with the ball in his hands because he is a very strong runner with great speed. He is very good at making the first couple of defenders miss and then accelerating through a gap.
As you can probably tell, the biggest concerns for Notre Dame this season are youth and depth. This is a very talented team that by season's end could be very, very competitive, but the lack of experience, primarily along the offensive line, will cause some growing pains. The Irish are also VERY thin in their junior and senior classes which is forcing Notre Dame to play a ton of freshman and sophomores. Add all that up and you get a performance like the one Notre Dame put up last week.
I do not expect the Irish offense to sputter as it did a week ago with Clausen under center this week. While he may be a true freshman, he reported early and had a full spring of practices under his belt before the summer. With Clausen Notre Dame will also get back to the standard Charlie Weis offense which should allow the Irish to play faster than they did a week ago because of their familiarity with the system.
Defensively, my biggest concern heading into this game is Notre Dame containing the outside running game. The Irish defense held its own up the middle and got some decent pressure on Bennett last week, but when Tech ran to the outside they tore up the Irish defense. The Yellow Jackets also did not test the Irish secondary much which is also a concern because of Penn State's crop of talent receivers.
In the end I think you will see a much better effort across the board for Notre Dame. I'm obviously a Notre Dame homer so I can't bring myself to pick against the Irish, but I will be very surprised if Penn State won this one running away. After last week, it obviously wouldn't surprise me if Penn State won this, but it would if Notre Dame came out and laid another egg.