It's the highest requested game ticket-wise in Notre Dame history with almost 67,000. These subplots all add to the intriguing match up of the Irish and the Nittany Lions on Saturday afternoon.
"The first thing it says is that you have two schools with great traditions with great fan followings," head coach Charlie Weis said at Tuesday's weekly press conference about the interest this contest is drawing. "And they want to come to the game. Our people always want to come to the game. That's no secret. Our people always want to come. It's the home opener. They have a great following, too, and it's all in driving distance. That's what accents the number of people that want to go."
Kickoff is scheduled for 3:42 p.m. at Notre Dame Stadium and NBC will provide the television coverage. It's the second home opener for Weis as the head coach. Hopefully, this game will go better than the first. Last year, the Irish lost to Michigan State 44-41 in overtime. As has been the case in losses, Weis put all the blame on himself, saying he didn't embrace the atmosphere of a home opener. This year, he's switched his terminology for the game from "circus" to "event."
"I go over a top-10 every week on Tuesday," Weis said. "We go over the 10 things that I feel are important to winning the game. Last year, I went back and reviewed the things I listed. One of them was don't be distracted. This one is play into the crowd. That's a general comment to use the energy of the crowd and don't be distracted. Last year, I felt it was a negativity. This year, I'll use that as an advantage rather than a disadvantage."
The opponent this week is Penn State, who is coming off a 34-16 win over Akron last weekend in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions are led by head coach Joe Paterno, who is in his 41st year at the helm and 57th season with the Penn State football program. In 2005, Paterno led his team to a 11-1 record, which included a Big 10 title and a victory in the Orange Bowl over Florida State. He's amassed 355 wins, two national titles, five undefeated seasons, 71 first-team All-Americans and 21 bowl victories.
"The guy takes over the job in 1966," Weis said of Paterno. "Let's think about what's happened. Since 1966, just in our history, we're talking about the Vietnam War up until now. Anyone who has gone through those cultural changes and still deals with 18-23 year old men, he has to be a special person because there's been quite a change in our culture. And here he is: just keeps on winning."
Last year, Paterno won with Michael Robinson, the dual threat quarterback that was the catalyst behind Penn State's success. This season, it'll have to be junior Anthony Morelli, a 6-4, 220-pound native of Pittsburgh, PA. Morelli has sat and watched his first two years in Happy Valley but it's now his time to continue the Nittany Lions' winning ways. Last week in the win over Akron, Morelli was 16-of-32 for 206 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He'll be facing his first true road test at Notre Dame and his first test against top-flight competition.
"If you give this guy the time to throw, you better watch out because he has a cannon for an arm," Weis said. "He's tall and he can see things. It's not very encouraging for the opponent's team when the guy's first pass goes for a touchdown. That didn't exactly lift my spirits."
Morelli is more of the prototypical pocket passer while Robinson could hurt teams with his arm and running ability. Morelli had a career total of 33 passes coming into the season before last week's start. That's not much game film for Notre Dame coaches to dissect on him but there are a few other clues as to what to expect on Saturday from the Penn State quarterback.
"Things do change," Weis said from one quarterback to the other. "What doesn't change is the protection schemes. The quarterback from last year, they might roll him out of the pocket more. You know that the same that I know that. Then it becomes how they set up their protection as they run it. Where are they running it? What are they trying to attack on your defense? Really, when you look over the course of an entire year, as long as the coordinator didn't change, you have a pretty good idea of their personality."
In the latest Associated Press poll released today, Notre Dame was dropped two spots to No. 4. Both Texas and USC jumped the Irish with more impressive season opening debuts albeit against lesser competition. Notre Dame still received more first-place votes (8) than the Longhorns (7) and Trojans (3) but more voters probably pushed them farther down the list because of the close ballgame with Georgia Tech on Saturday night. Weis isn't concerned yet with the polls.
"Right now, the biggest thing we're trying to emphasize is improvement from last week," Weis said. "Even on the defensive side of the ball, where we're content with how things went, it wasn't like we were error free. We didn't create any turnovers. There's points of emphasis that come up as well. On the offensive side, there's plenty of ammo."
One problem area that many Irish fans were fretting over the weekend was the performance of Carl Gioia. The senior place kicker missed two field goals against the Yellow Jackets, one from 42 yards and the other from 36 yards in the fourth quarter that could have given Notre Dame a 17-10 lead. Gioia won the kicking competition over Bobby Renkes and freshman Ryan Burkhart because of his accuracy in fall camp. Gioia is now 1-for-3 in his place kicking career. After looking at the tape, Weis said it was more of a matter of technique than confidence.
"In both cases, it was his left foot," Weis said. "It wasn't his right foot. It was his left foot and that's what we have to get fixed. It's not a question of whether he can kick it far enough. It's a matter of not planting your left foot correctly and pulling both balls. That's what we're working on."