Notre Dame Preview: Litmus Test

In early July, IrishEyes began its pre-camp rankings of the 2009 Irish and their 11 major position groups. The team's wide receivers were listed as the runaway No. 1 group while the team's young defensive line was grudgingly listed in last place at No. 11. Check and check. Here's an updated look at the Irish through two games entering Saturday's contest vs. the Spartans.

In early July, IrishEyes began its pre-camp rankings of the 2009 Irish and their 11 major position groups.

The team's wide receivers were listed as the runaway No. 1 group while the team's young defensive line was grudgingly listed in last place at No. 11.

Check and check.

Here's an updated look at the Irish through two games entering Saturday's contest vs. the Spartans.

Offense

Notre Dame enters its third contest possessing one undeniable strength – the Irish can throw the football. Junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen has evolved into a downfield passing machine, completing 62 of his last 86 passes for 1,052 yards and 12 touchdowns with no interceptions dating back to last December's bowl victory vs. Hawaii.

Clausen has the benefit of throwing to an outstanding tandem of receivers in junior Golden Tate (12 receptions, 174 yards, 2 TD in '09) and sophomore Michael Floyd (11 catches, 320 yards, and 4 TD this season) as well as sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph (7 receptions, 67 yards, 1 touchdown).

Junior half back Armando Allen has played the best football of his career this September, rushing for 211 yards and two scores for the 1-1 Irish.

One glaring weakness in Allen's skill set (and a cause of angst among Irish fans) is the lack of game-breaking runs in his career. Through 27 career contests (14 starts) Allen's longest run from scrimmage is just 24 yards (last Saturday at Michigan) and the junior has just five runs in excess of 20 yards in his career.

Though the Irish offensive line is undoubtedly improved under new OL Coach Frank Verducci, the group's litmus test is Saturday vs. the Spartans, a defense that held the Irish to just 16 total rushing yards in last year's 23-7 home victory.

Defense

The Irish boast a deep and talented defensive backfield, though the unit let down on the game's final drive in last Saturday's loss to the Wolverines. Notre Dame will rotate three cornerbacks for most of the afternoon with seniors Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil as well as sophomore (technical starter) Robert Blanton. Blanton possesses the best ball skills of the trio while Walls is easily the most graceful natural cornerback of the three.

5th-year senior SS Kyle McCarthy and junior FS Harrison Smith have been the defense's best players through two weeks, combining for 37 tackles (2.5 for lost yardage) and two interceptions (both by McCarthy).

The number "37" is a bit disturbing and illustrates a key Irish weakness: the team's run defense, most notably its defensive line as the unit has been handled by both Nevada (153 rushing yards) and Michigan (190) with the team's interior incurring most of the damage.

Weak side linebacker Brian Smith and middle linebacker Toryan Smith dominated the season-opener vs. the Wolf Pack's "Pistol" offense but were sub par in last Saturday's defeat in Ann Arbor. Freshman Manti Te'o, technically a WLB should see extended playing time as the season progresses.

Due to the unconventional offenses of Notre Dame's first two opponents, the Irish defense have played nearly 90 percent of its defensive snaps in a nickel package. Expect the Irish to return to their base 4-3 defense Saturday vs. the Spartans.

Special Teams

Notre Dame's kick coverage unit ranked No. 1 nationally in 2008. That number is likely out of reach for '09 after the Irish surrendered a 94-yard KR TD to Michigan last week. Still, the unit should be sound in future contests and is led by former walk-on Mike Anello who posted an incredible 23 tackles in punt and kick coverage last year.

The Irish employ a new kicker since the teams last met, true freshman Nick Tausch, who beat out incumbent Brandon Walker in fall camp. Tausch missed the first offering of his career (a 28-yard field goal in The Big House) but bounced back to connect from 34 and 42 yards against the Wolverines.

Irish punter Eric Maust has been solid over 15 starts but his 29-yard punt in the game's final minutes last Saturday set up the Wolverines close to midfield to begin their game-winning touchdown march.

The Irish feature a true freshman, half back Theo Riddick as their lead kick returner though his assigned protector and lead blocker, senior wide receiver Barry Gallup, broke off a 52-yard return in The Big House. Golden Tate continues to handle the punt return duties as Irish head coach Charlie Weis is hesitant to use one of two freshman (Riddick and wide receiver Shaquelle Evans) in the PR role.

Overview There are two highly likely scenarios for Saturday's contest in South Bend:

• The Irish will pass for more than 300 yards (regardless of the outcome)
• The Irish defense will allow more than 150 rushing yards to the Spartans

The key for both squads will be denying its opponent balance offensively.

If the Spartans continue to move the ball through the air as they have through the first two games on a talented Irish secondary, Notre Dame will need in excess of 35 points to pull out a victory. Likewise, if the Irish offensive line and half back Armando Allen continue to find running lanes, the Spartans could be on the short end of a high scoring affair in South Bend for the first time since 1993.

Charlie Weis is 16-0 when outrushing his opponent. Conventional wisdom suggests the Irish will have to find another way to win vs. the stout Spartans front seven.

Key Matchups to Watch

CB Robert Blanton and Darrin Walls vs. Blair White – Blanton is the more physical defender but Walls' speed and experience would be invaluable vs. White.

C Eric Olsen vs. MLB Greg Jones – Olsen switched from left guard to center after spring practice. The Irish haven't faced a linebacker within light years of Jones' talent level this season. Though Olsen's the team's most improved offensive lineman and has greatly improved as a blocker in space, the senior will undoubtedly have his hands full with Jones on Saturday

WR Golden Tate and Michael Floyd vs. the Spartans CB trio – Tate and Floyd are going to win this war. It's up to Jeremy Ware, Ross Weaver, and Chris Rucker to win a few key battles along the way. One of those battles would include picking off Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen – something that hasn't happened in South Bend over the last 20 quarters of football.

WR Michael Floyd vs. 15 stitches – The track along the back corner of Michigan's end zone was the Wolverines best defense against Floyd last week as the Irish sophomore opened a gash in his knee after catching a Clausen offering out of bounds. Floyd missed the game's final six minutes getting stitched (he reportedly would have been available in overtime) but was back at practice sporting a new knee pad on Tuesday. His ability to play at full strength is essential if the Irish are to break the Spartans six-game winning streak in South Bend.

The Irish interior defensive line vs. Ringer's Replacements – On September 5, Nevada RB Vai Taua produced more than 100 yards on 18 carries, the bulk of which came through the heart of the Irish defense. One week later, Michigan's Brandon Minor damaged the Irish front seven for 106 more yards on just 16 carries. There's a hole in the bucket…in other words, Michigan State fans will know if they have the makings of a go-to running back this season by about 7:00 pm on Saturday, September 19.

X-Factor Matchup

SAM LB Eric Gordon vs. TE Kyle Rudolph. There aren't many college linebackers capable of handling Rudolph downfield. Gordon might be one of them and that development would allow much-needed safety help downfield vs. the explosive Tate/Floyd combo. Rudolph boasts a legitimate 7-inch height advantage over the speedy Spartan LB.


Spartan Nation Top Stories