Last chance

Key stats, storylines and another sobering prediction for Saturday's contest between Notre Dame and Utah.

Strength vs. Question Mark

When Irish defensive back coach Chuck Martin was asked to compare the Utes' offensive juggernaut (41 ppg) with the spread offense of Brian Kelly's troops in South Bend, Martin immediately noted the differences between the attacks:

"They run more two-back stuff; they're a downhill, power running team. Now they will spread it out and sling it around a little bit like us, but for the most part their running game is a physical (focus). Not as much spread to create space but line you up and knock you off the ball."

Notre Dame has faced three such attacks this season: Michigan State in Week Three, Stanford in Week Four and Pittsburgh in Week Six. The Irish front seven improved as the season – and the games – progressed.

But that was with senior nose guard Ian Williams in the lineup and sophomore linebacker Carlo Calabrese at full strength, two players that were born to defend an attack meant to smack them in the face.

(Calabrese is doubtful due to a hamstring injury suffered on October 23 vs. Navy).

Notre Dame's rush defense had shown vast improvement prior to said contest vs. the Midshipmen, a game in which it was inexplicably cut down to size (pun intended) for 367 rushing yards and four touchdowns. It was then likewise gashed for 203 yards on 39 carries in its most recent defeat, a 28-27 stunner to Tulsa.

Utah has enough offensive balance to keep the Irish honest up front and enough speed to beat Notre Dame if Bob Diaco's defense is forced into too many one-on-one matchups.

It's not necessarily a huge advantage; especially considering the extra week of rest Notre Dame's defenders enjoyed in preparation for the contest, but you're kidding yourself if you think a November game involving Notre Dame won't include rushing success by such a stout, committed ground attack.

November Pain

The Irish rush defense has faltered in back-to-back Novembers en route to a 1-8 mark in the decisive month. Below is a look at opponents' carries, rushing yards and touchdowns allowed in the program's last nine November contests.

Judging from the last two contests ground gains (367 and 203), November came early under the Dome.

  • Pittsburgh 2008: 47 carries, 178 yards, 2 TD
  • Boston College 2008: 41 carries, 167 yards, 0 TD
  • Navy 2008: 45 carries, 178 yards, 3 TD
  • Syracuse 2008: 36 carries, 170 yards, 2 TD
  • USC 2008: 33 carries, 175 yards, 3 TD
  • Navy 2009: 57 carries, 343 yards, 2 TD
  • Pittsburgh 2009: 32 carries, 193 yards, 2 TD
  • Connecticut 2009: 48 carries, 263 yards, 4 TD
  • Stanford 2009: 48 carries, 280 yards, 4 TD

Strength vs. Former Strength?

When Tulsa's punt returner Damaris Johnson returned a Ben Turk punt 59 yards for a touchdown in Notre Dame's loss to the Golden Hurricane, he accomplished something no opposing team had done previously vs. the 2010 Irish coverage unit: gain yards.

Remarkably, prior to the matchup with Johnson and Tulsa, Notre Dame's punt coverage unit had held opponents to less than one yard per game in total punt return yardage over the first eight weeks.

Saturday, the nation's best punt returner – the aptly named Shaky Smithson – will bring his 22.78 yards per return average and two return scores to South Bend to match strength vs. strength. The Irish coverage group faltered once and paid dearly. That anomaly didn't shake (no pun intended) head coach Brian Kelly' confidence in his coverage unit, but Kelly knows the Irish might have to treat Smithson differently than your garden variety return threat.

"If you watch them carefully, they do a great job of building a wall for (Smithson) and allowing him an opportunity to get to that wall after he makes the first guy miss," Kelly noted. "Our guys have to do a great job of corralling him before he gets to that wall.

"There's probably going to have to be some times we decide whether we're going to kick to him or not," Kelly continued. "I think we have to consider all those things within the game plan when you're defending a dynamic return man."

Kelly offered in August that the Irish would be "dynamic" themselves in the return game. They've been anything but, with a host of kick returners contributing to a No. 76 national ranking and a punt returner, John Goodman, that has totaled minus 4, minus 2, 0, 0, and minus 2 yards with a lost fumble, respectively in his last five contests as the team's chief return man.

The Irish won't win the hidden yardage game Saturday vs. the well-schooled, dangerous Utes, but they don't have to be shredded, either.

Rees vs. the Run

Utah's No. 16 ranked rush defense is buoyed by a deep, aggressive and athletic defensive front. Notre Dame runs as an afterthought.

Look for true freshman Tommy Rees to throw a minimum 40 passes. 50 wouldn't surprise me…60 is entirely possible.

The lack of a rushing attack has doomed the Notre Dame offense (and arguably its defense) for the better part of five seasons. Former head coach Charlie Weis was famously 20-0 when his Irish outrushed their opponent on a given Saturday. Kelly has started 3-0 in such contests (Purdue, Boston College, Western Michigan) and, more troubling, is just 1-5 (defeating Pittsburgh) when the opponent gains more yards on the ground than do the Irish.

Notre Dame and Rees must throw to win tomorrow, and there's little chance they'll out-rush the ground-oriented Utes. But the closer Rees gets to the 40-pass attempt plateau, the lesser chance the Irish seniors have of breaking the program's two-season Senior Day losing skid.

Dating back to the beginning of the Charlie Weis era, Notre Dame has won just four of its last 25 contests in which its quarterback attempted 40 or more passes in a single contest.

They'll likely have to buck that trend Saturday with an offense that simply isn't built to play physical, BCS level football.

A Show Me State of Mind

The Irish have had two weeks to prepare; two weeks to digest a heartbreaking loss fueled by a head-shaking loss of last minute common sense. Two weeks to ponder whether they're playing for 2010, 2011 or simply playing out the string.

Brian Kelly has stated he remains focused on finishing the season strong; on qualifying for a bowl game to earn extra time with his team. And for about 45 game minute Saturday, I believe his troops might feel the same.

But this program appears to be in worse mental and physical shape than at any point since at least the end of the 1985 season. The seniors that will be celebrated have lost 26 of 46 career games – a nearly impossible ratio to comprehend in South Bend. I'd love to see them win one for the campus, the community and themselves. I'd love to see them beat a team with a pulse after failing to do so throughout their collegiate careers.

The Irish have in no way resembled a well-coached, dedicated, tough football team over the last three contests. Still, I expect we'll see Kelly's squad put forth its best effort since the Week Three heartbreaking overtime loss in East Lansing.

I believe Brian Kelly will have future success at Notre Dame, but I can't envision Year One in that journey finding a final month silver lining.

Utah 33 Notre Dame 24

Season Predictions: Straight Up: 6-3. Against the Spread: 4-3-2


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