Can the Irish Steal One in Knoxville?

Rebounding from a crushing defeat two weeks ago will be difficult for the Notre Dame football team. The Irish will play one of the best teams in the toughest conference in football on Saturday. Throw in 109,000 screaming fans, and the Irish have their work cut out for them. But these are the types of games where the Irish have always seemed to respond in the past.

Defensive lineman Greg Pauly has played in a number of big games for the Irish during his career. Pauly says the chance to play in Saturday's game is one of the main reasons a recruit chooses to play at Notre Dame.

"That's why you go to Notre Dame," said Pauly. "You come here to play the best teams and play the best football. That's why we're here."

Neyland Stadium in Knoxville s supposed to be one of the most difficult environments in college football for an opposing team to play. Pauly says he's heard the war stories from older Irish players who've played at Tennessee.

"It's supposed to be real loud," Pauly said. "I remember when I was a younger and the older guys played down there, they were saying when you're in your stance, you just feel your facemask shaking because it's so loud out there. We just plan on being real focused and making sure we get our assignments down."

Adding to the difficulty is the Irish will be playing another very talented team on Saturday according to the Waukesha, Wisc. native.

"They're a big offensive line and they're backs are real athletic and quick," he said. "Our goal is to stop the run and try to make them one-dimensional like we try to do every week.

Senior defensive back Preston Jackson also expects to see a talented Tennessee receiving corps. While the Volunteers don't have a go-to guy, they do have a lot of guys that the Irish will have to cover according to Jackson.

"If their quarterback has enough confidence to spread the ball around, that's good for their offense," said Jackson. "We can't really key on a certain receiver. We've got to match up regardless and make plays against their playmakers. You've got to expect that the ball is coming to your man at all times."

Jackson said the Tennessee receivers will test the Irish secondary.

"Tennessee has got good size and speed, and at times they're real physical," he said. "They're going to present a challenge to us."

The Irish have been trying to simulate the environment they will find themselves in on Saturday during practice this week. Head coach Tyrone Willingham was asked if he's burned "Rocky Top" in his head after playing the song over and over during practice sessions this week.

"No, it's not, even though someone said we must have played it a billion times," Willingham said of the Tennessee fight song. "No, my eyes were sort of fixated on other things and sometimes you don't even hear some of the other stuff when you're really concentrating on some things."

The third-year Irish head coach says communication will be key on Saturday due to all of the noise.

"Absolutely, it's the whole ballgame that involves communication. Now it becomes more difficult. You may have a coach who just mouths something with no volume to what he is saying in order to help accent that point of really locking in and really concentrating and really focusing. And your players have to do that. So, honestly, it helps, but do some people look at it as probably a nuisance - yes. I wonder what my film guys are saying right now. They are sitting up there listening to it come across all day, so to them, it's probably noise."

Willingham says his team is anxious to get back on the field, and they realize they'll be playing in one of the most feared environments in the country.

"Well, there is no question this is a big game and we are playing at, I think you have to rate it, one of America's most difficult places to play. I saw the other day something that said the toughest five places to play, and all of those were in the southeast conference and I think Tennessee was No. 2 or No. 3, somewhere in there.

"So there is no question we are excited about this opportunity and the thing that we have to make sure we are doing is being well prepared, both mentally and physically. Even though we worked hard during our bye week, I think our guys feel physically pretty good and ready to go and we've got most of our guys back. Mentally, I think we are locking in to what they do and working our system so that we will be ready to go."

Most of the experts will pick against the Irish on Saturday. Willingham was asked what he has to say to everyone who will pick against his team.

"I don't think there is any question that most people around say it can't be done," Willingham said of his team sneaking out with a win in Knoxville. "I think most of the people who have been talking to me are really feeling great pity on our football team that you even have to go into that environment. Gosh, I'm getting prayers already. We know it's tough. We know it's difficult, and it is a great place to play, and we're playing a great football team. We just have to suck it up, go in there and find a way to win."

The Irish won't be picked to win, but as we said before, these are the types of games Notre Dame teams have stolen in the past. Will this be another Notre Dame moment?


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories