Woo-hoo!! It's time – football season is upon us. The first game is THIS Sat. Yep, you heard right THIS Sat. But, I am sure I didn't have to tell you that! Before discussing Notre Dame, I want to first say thanks to all of you readers. Next, the plan for this year to again put out the weekly schedule for columns. On Wednesday of each week (game week), GoJackets.com will put out an opponent preview. Expect a light-hearted approach to the upcoming game and some things to key in on. Second, Dr Football will again grace us with his nuggets of wisdom every Thursday. Finally, on Sunday, we will recap Saturday's game.
With that out of the way, let's talk Notre Dame!
Who are these guys?
Charlie "Tuna" Weis (hey…he IS a Parcells protégé) enters his second year following a successful "wake up the echoes" rookie campaign. The Fighting Irish topped off a successful 9-3 schedule with a blowout loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Weis will bring a team ranked #2 in the AP poll to the Flats led by Heisman hopeful Brady Quinn and an experienced offense. Without a doubt, this offense presents (on paper anyhow) the stiffest challenge of the year for the Yellow Jacket D. After sifting through the confusion of the Notre Dame class designation (they don't tell you who redshirted and who didn't), I am at least 50% positive that they return someone other than Brady Quinn. OK, the actual number is irrelevant as this is an experienced group.
On defense, it's another story for the Irish. It appears to be a mixed bag. While they return quite a few starters, those starters from last year were part of a defense that generally ranked somewhere south of bad. So, either the returning starters will use their experience to bolster the Irish D or they will show why they were awful last year. And, the new starters will either show why they didn't start last year or they will add a new element of talent and speed to the mix. Personally, I'm betting it will be somewhere in the middle.
The high point for the Irish on special teams is the return game of Tom Zbikowski - an excellent return man. The Irish will also be sending out a new punter and kicker.
What should I keep my eye on?
Your drink and the nearest cop as you refill. You meant on the field?? Sorry! I think the key matchup on offense for the Irish is against the Jackets blitz. We know that Tenuta has already sent 622 safeties and 311 cornerbacks on a blitz to get to Quinn. How will the Irish line adjust to the litany of zone blitzes, corner blitzes, and band blitzes (yes, expect the trumpet section to be sent on at least one blitz during the game – you heard it here first)? Can the Irish WR's get quick separation and can Quinn make the right hot read? From my perspective, we best not be counting on Quinn to read things wrong. He's pretty good. No, make that real good. The better bet is on the OL handling the blitz in their first game and whether or not the Jackets' D will sufficiently cover the ND WR's to give the army of blitzers time to get to the QB. Expect a LOT of 3 step drops, slant patterns, and screen plays from the Irish. You can also expect them to stay in max-protect formations to give them an extra blocker. If the Jackets struggle getting to Quinn regularly and he has time to go through his reads, then it could be a loooooong night.
What about matchups when the Jackets have the ball?
The Jackets have a secret weapon at their disposal for this game. All we want is for this weapon to show the same level of coaching and strategy as we all remember so fondly when he was on the Flats. Yes, it's Bill Lewis (remember him?) – the Irish DB coach. And, I have personally been talking to him all off-season convincing him that Calvin Johnson can EASILY be single covered. I think he's buying it. Yeah right! Expect to see Calvin double-covered from the moment he comes out of the locker room on the sidelines and triple-covered when he comes in the game.
In all seriousness, I think the real key is about as obvious as the ugly is on that darn leprechaun. Its Reggie Ball (and everyone goes "DUH!"). He shows up and its going to be a fun and exciting night for the Jackets. Expect the Jackets O will get their yards on the ground. While the Irish DL is solid (but not spectacular), the Irish LB's are perceived as a liability and I expect the Jackets trapping and zone-blocking OL schemes to catch them off-balance enough to keep a decent ground game rolling. Throw in Tashard Choice (my choice for breakout player of the year in the whole ACC) and I expect some yardage – especially early. But, to win this game, Ball needs to make enough plays on passing plays to keep the Irish DB's honest through the course of the game and not allow the safeties to start cheating. Now, you notice that I said "on passing plays" and not throwing. Remember those LB's of ND? Expect Reggie to take a look at where they are on each play and have a green light to take off when they leave space. We all know he is a pretty good runner and can make the Irish pay with his legs. Equally as importantl, Reggie needs to avoid the costly mistakes that he makes from time to time. Yes, I do indeed have a firm grasp of the obvious (thankyaverymuch). And, just to reiterate the point about Reggie being the key, I shall cut and paste parts of above paragraph for each and every game and put it bold headline italics. Except maybe Samford. Then, I'll leave it in normal text.
You'll notice I didn't mention Calvin in that last paragraph. I figure that getting him the ball is another big "Duh!" and I didn't want to exceed the overly obvious quota for that paragraph. It will be interesting to watch the schemes ND uses to deny him the ball and to what extent they will leave the other WR's, TE's, and RB's available. I wouldn't be surprised to see them decide that Calvin will not beat them at any cost and to put the onus on the other players to make the plays.
Why did you skip special teams?
Hey, I didn't skip them. We just hadn't gotten there yet. To be honest, its hard to know what to expect here except to hope that if the improvements at recruiting are any indication of the lift we can expect from special teams (since it was handled by the same dearly departed coach), then maybe we fans can expect a draw with Notre Dame in this area. Given the last few years, I'd be pretty happy with that. How about you?
Questions on defense
The key is Reggie
The net result is that I expect a medium scoring game (mid 20's) that should come down to a 4th quarter finish. With rare exception, the Jackets have shown up and shown up big when the big games head their way. Expect nothing less on Sat night no matter the hype coming from South Bend.
Here Come the Irish!
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