In 2011, a veteran Irish defense will be pitted against two handfuls of experienced signal-callers.
Superstars: Andrew Luck and Denard RobinsonI've heard myriad theories regarding why Robinson can't repeat his epic 2010 performance vs. the Irish in 2011. And though I agree he won't run roughshod over Notre Dame's defense again this fall, remember this:
Robinson had to convert one run in which the entire Stadium knew he'd keep the ball last season: a 4th-and-1 to keep the winning drive alive in South Bend. He converted.
Three snaps later, facing 3rd and 5, Robinson had to read the defense, then hit one clutch pass in a one-on-one coverage situation to keep said drive alive. He did, setting up his own winning score. His success wasn't due solely to a series of poor tackles executed from a defensive scheme still in its infancy as many Irish fans claim. He was the best player on the field. Period.
Until Notre Dame shows up and tackles Denard Robinson, all proclamations of his demise in a new pro-style offense are baseless speculation. We'll find out September 10 under the lights in the Big House.
Luck is the best NFL prospect in the college game and could become the first opposing quarterback to defeat the Irish three times since USC's Matt Leinart (2003-05). The Irish defense fared comparatively well vs. the Cardinal signal caller last year (21-32, 238 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT). Luck, however, finished 6 of 9 on 3rd Down in the contest, with each of the completions resulting in a Stanford first down/touchdown.
If Notre Dame defeats both quarterbacks, the Irish are an odds-on favorite for a BCS bowl berth.
Forgotten Star: Matt BarkleyNotre Dame won the battle of the backups last November in Los Angeles, with unheralded Tommy Rees outlasting former schoolboy hero Mitch Mustain. But both the Trojans and Irish defense controlled the opposition in that Thanksgiving Weekend upset – a far cry from the previous season's fireworks put forth by departed passer Jimmy Clausen and then-freshman signal-caller, Matt Barkley (380 yards, 2 TD, INT).
Barkley, who started the season opener of 2009 as a true frosh and has since compiled a 17-7 record as a starter, entered 2010 as one of the nation's best young quarterbacks, but his team's fall from grace and the presence of Stanford's Luck and Oregon read-option triggerman Darron Thomas in the same conference lessened his star standing. His game, on the other hand, should be on point as a third-year starter (41 TD passes to date) with a bevy of explosive wide receivers at his disposal.
Round 3 with Kirk CousinsCousins has started twice previously against the Irish, losing the first after his last-minute ill-advised throw into goal line traffic was intercepted in 2009, and winning last season in OT with the help of a special teams trick play for the ages.
Regardless of the circumstances, his Spartans have scored 64 points vs. Notre Dame over those two battles, and Cousins has completed 46 of 68 passes for 567 yards and 3 TD (2 INT) over that span.
Including a two-headed RB monster in the backfield, Cousins' skill position options rival that of USC among 2011 Irish foes.
First Half dual-threats: B.J. Daniels and Tim JeffersonThe Irish draw Daniels in the opener and the senior will likely resemble the Daniels of 2009 – a free-wheeling runner capable of gashing teams on the move (772 rushing yards with 9 TD) – rather than the uncomfortable pocket passer of last fall. Daniels enters 2011 with two years of eligibility remaining and 27 starts under his belt.
Jefferson, 21-10 as a starter, runs the triple-option with precision, accounting for 25 touchdowns last season (15 rushing). He tops the list of underrated players the Irish must face in 2011.
The Irish defense will encounter both prior to its Week Seven, mid-October bye.
ACC Part I and II: Danny O'Brien and Tanner PriceMaryland's O'Brien, the ACC rookie of the year as a redshirt-freshman last season, tossed 21 TD passes (four short of the ACC freshman record) and helped direct one of the nation's biggest turnarounds: from 2-10 in 2009 to 8-4 in 2010.
Price started the bulk of 2010 after his relief role propelled the Demon Deacons to a Week Two comeback win over Duke. He completed his first season at the helm with seven touchdown passes, (plus four rushing), eight interceptions, and a healthy dose of spring competition from redshirt-sophomore Ted Stachinitis, who started once in place of an injured Price last October.
O'Brien was lauded by the previous staff in College Park for his football IQ and ability to digest Xs and Os; it's a skill that will come in handy this August and into the fall as the Terrapins must adapt to a new offense under first-year head coach Randy Edsall. Maryland's date with the Irish in mid-November, which should give the group time to assimilate to its new roles.
The Wake Forest/Irish battle in Winston-Salem precedes Notre Dame's date with the Terrapins and ranks as a perceived "break" for the Irish among two handfuls of bowl quality foes this fall.
Welcome Back: Purdue Pair, Chase Rettig, and Tino SunseriNotre Dame's three wins in three contests vs. Purdue, Boston College, and Pittsburgh last fall weren't directly attributable to the opponents' quarterback play…but the triggerman for each squad undoubtedly helped the Irish cause.
Rettig was completely over-matched in his first career start, a 31-13 Irish beat down of Boston College in Chestnut Hill (the true freshman lasted one quarter of the home field humbling). Purdue's Robert Marve was held in check in the Irish/Boilers opener, his 20-yard bootleg in the fourth quarter serving as the visitor's only score. The Miami transfer suffered a torn ACL last fall – the second of his collegiate career – and was replaced for the duration by run-first QB Rob Henry, who exited spring as the Boiler's supposed starter, but that could change by the time the teams meet in Week Five.
Pitt's Sunseri was steady but unspectacular – his Panthers managing 17 points in a six-point loss in South Bend. Incoming coach Todd Graham has overhauled Pittsburgh's power attack in favor of the en vogue shotgun spread, though the Panthers don't yet have the pieces in place to run the up-tempo scheme at full bore.
The Irish will face Sunseri and Henry/Marve in successive road tilts to conclude September while Rettig's Eagles visit South Bend on Senior Day.
New Kid on the Block: Kriss ProctorThe senior takes over Navy's triple-option after two-year starter Ricky Dobbs' graduation. Proctor started three times in Dobbs' stead over the last two seasons, including a 2010 win over Central Michigan in which he amassed 201 yards on 20 carries – the 10th-best rushing effort by a Navy quarterback in school history.
While Dobbs' toughness and leadership may prove impossible to replace, the quarterback position won't suffer from a drop-off of athleticism – Proctor finished fourth on the squad with a 4.10 time in spring agility drills.
Round-up: 2010 ResultsA look at Notre Dame's success vs. both veteran and first-time starters last fall.
- Purdue (Marve): Started in 2008 for the University of Miami but made his first start for the Boilers vs. the Irish. ND 23 PU 12
- Michigan (Robinson): Second career start resulted in a record day and 28-24 victory.
- Michigan State (Cousins): Second season as a starter aided 34-31 OT win
- Stanford (Luck): Also in his second year at the helm, keyed 37-14 rout.
- Boston College (Rettig): Blitzed early in his first career start before yielding to backup Dave Shinskie in 31-13 loss.
- Pittsburgh (Sunseri): First-year starter lost 23-17 to then 3-3 Irish
- Western Michigan (Alex Carder): First-year triggerman dropped 44-20 decision to superior Irish squad.
- Navy (Dobbs): Won his second career start vs. the Irish, 35-17
- Tulsa (G.J. Kinne): Second-year starter helped engineer 28-27 upset – Notre Dame's last loss of 2010
- Utah (Jordan Wynn): Second-year starter hammered in 28-3 defeat
- Army (Trent Steelman): Second-year option triggerman was engulfed in 27-3 defeat
- USC (Mitch Mustain): Shaky effort in first start for the Trojans, losing 20-16 to conclude the regular season
- Miami (Jacory Harris): Worst effort of the season vs. the Irish (4 completions and 3 interceptions) in 33-16 bowl defeat.