Irish Face Difficult Task With Schedule

The Notre Dame football team enters the most difficult stretch of their schedule with games at Purdue, at Pittsburgh, at home against USC, at Boston College and then at home against Florida State. Some ESPN analysts wonder how the Irish can win six games this year. The same analysts predicted a 5-7 season last year for Willingham's first season. The schedule is very challenging—no question—still, the Irish can still have a good season.

Starting off 1-2 wasn't the plan or what anyone had hoped for. The Irish unquestionably have problems on offense but we don't share the opinions of others. It's never as bad as it seems and also never as good as it seems. Let's look at the next five opponents.

The Irish head to West Lafayette, IN on Saturday to face Purdue. The Irish have beaten the Boilermakers three straight years including last year's 24-17 win in Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish defeated Purdue 24-18 at Ross-Ade Stadium in 2001.

The 2-1 Boilermakers are currently ranked 50th in the country in rushing averaging 168 yards a game. They are also ranked 39th in the country in passing averaging 257 yards through the air. Purdue lost their first game of the year against a good Bowling Green team 27-26. They then faced a good Wake Forrest team and won 16-10. They clobbered a poor Arizona defense 59-7 (ranked 116th out of 117 teams allowing 43.3 points per game) in their last game.

The Boilermaker defense has been stingy allowing just under 15 points a game. They are ranked 7th (57.3 yards per game) in rush defense and 64th (218 yards per game) through the air.

Purdue presents a definite challenge for the Irish. Their offense is pretty balanced and their defense doesn't allow many points to be scored. One must remember that I picked the Boilermakers to beat the Irish in the preseason. I haven't seen much from either team that would make me change my mind yet.

The major hurdle the Irish must overcome is the fact that Purdue could've won at least two of the previous three games. The Irish will have to fix their problems on offense and defense this week to walk out of West Lafayette with a win.

After the Purdue game, the Irish will have a week off and hopefully can heal some nagging injuries and better prepare themselves for the next four games.

The week off will help but they then travel to play Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. The Panthers also have the week off to prepare so neither team will have much of an advantage.

The Panthers lost a hard-fought game last year to the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium 14-6. The Panthers out-played the Irish on the stats sheet but the Irish scored touchdowns and the Panthers settled for field goals. The Panthers return 17 starters from their 2002 squad and currently have a 2-1 record.

Pitt took a page from the Kansas State scheduling handbook and scheduled three sacrificial lambs before facing the Irish. What they didn't know is that the MAC has become a pretty competitive conference with teams like Marshall (beat Kansas State last week 27-20), Bowling Green (beat Purdue 27-26 and barely lost to the National Champions, Ohio State 24-17) and Toldeo (beat Pitt 35-31 and Marshall 24-17).

The Panthers have an impressive offense led by Rob Rutherford and Larry Fitzgerald. They are currently ranked 58th-ranked rushing offense (155 Yards per game) and 15th in passing (307 YPG) so they have a very potent offense.

The Panthers also have a pretty solid defense ranking 17th (85 YPG) in rushing and 87th against the pass (247 YPG).

The real key is to stop Rutherford and Fitzgerald in this game. The Irish did do a good job of that last year but both Rutherford and Fitzgerald have improved since the game last year and the Irish will have to find a way to stop these two from hooking up often and deep.

The Irish then face USC at home. USC doesn't traditionally play well at Notre Dame as the Irish have a 23-9-1 record against the Trojans at home. The Trojans embarrassed the Irish defense last year with over 600 yards of offense at the Coliseum. The Irish offense also had a poor showing on offense gaining only 109 total yards against the stingy Trojan defense.

The Trojan defense is showing some kinks in their armor this year. The Trojans are ranked 104th in the nation against the pass allowing 278 yards per game through the air. They are still impressive against the run, currently ranked 4th and allowing just 50 yards on the ground per game. They've also faced BYU and Hawaii—two pass-happy teams.

The Trojans also had to replace a lot of offensive firepower and their losses are starting to show. The Trojans are ranked 86th in rushing with 119 yards per game. Their impressive passing attack has sputtered a bit as they are currently ranked 54th while averaging just 227 yards per game.

The Trojans are going through the same thing the Irish are. The difference is they have an experienced offensive line and that is helping their young skill position players along. They are 3-0 right now so they have nothing to worry about.

The Irish will have to put pressure on their quarterback, shut down their running game and find ways to score touchdowns instead of field goals if they want to have a chance to win this game.

The road doesn't become any easier as the Irish hit the road to play Boston College. The 2-2 Eagles lost 32-28 to a good Wake Forrest team and just lost 33-14 to a very good Miami team. They have beaten Penn State 27-14 and Connecticut 24-14 so far this year.

The Eagles are breaking in some new quarterbacks but still have Derrick Knight. The Eagle rushing attack ranks 42nd with 176 yards per game. They are also averaging 170 yards per game through the air and are ranked 90th. They are scoring 23 points per game.

The Eagle defense has been pretty good as well allowing just 139 yards on the ground and 189 yards through the air after playing some good teams. This game won't be an easy game because the animosity between these two teams is as great as any two teams that will face each other all year.

The final game in this stretch is against Florida State at home. The 4-0 Seminoles have been pretty potent on offense. The Seminole offense is averaging 154 yards per game on the ground and 292 through the air. They are also averaging 33 points per game.

The Seminoles have defeated North Carolina 37-0, Maryland 35-10, Georgia Tech 14-13 and clobbered Colorado 47-7.

The real improvement for Florida State has come from their defense. The Seminoles have been impressive against the run allowing just 85 yards on the ground and 167 yards through the air. The most impressive stat is that this defense is allowing just 7.5 points per game.

The Irish won the game last year 34-24 in Doak Campbell Stadium in 2002. The Seminoles weren't pleased with their performance or the outcome so expect a highly motivated team when the Seminoles role into South Bend.

Anyone looking at these next five games might wonder how the Irish will be able to win two considering the way they've played thus far. I couldn't begin to make a case as to why they would win two or more than two.

The encouraging sign is that the want to is there. This Irish team didn't quit against Michigan State and needs to solve some of the mental breakdowns and the cart will start to roll. They just need to find some momentum and I think we saw that at the end of the game.

No matter what, the Irish are going to have to find a way to beat Purdue to have a good season. I can't see a 1-3 Irish team feeling good about themselves and they need some momentum going into the off-week.

Tyrone Willingham has said no particular game is more important than another but I disagree with him about this game against Purdue. This game likely will decide the fate of the 2003 Irish team. Top Stories