News and Notes: 9/14/2006

*The Irish have been unable to get their punt return game on track. Tom Zbikowski has returned six punts for 34 yards, an average of 5.7 yards per return. Last season, the Mohawk-wearing safety was like a Mack truck running through defenders, taking two to the house for scores and while averaging 14 yards per return.

Last week in the Penn State victory, Zbikowski made the cardinal sin. He fumbled a punt only to be saved when Notre Dame eventually recovered it. In the Georgia Tech contest, Zbikowski caught a punt inside the five-yard line, usually a special teams no-no. The senior defensive captain knows how to fix the short-term problem.

"Just better decision making," Zbikowski said. "I know drops are going to happen. I've just got to shake it out and get out of my head and get back to fundamentals and basics. That's what I've been working on. Yesterday after practice I stayed longer just making sure I'm worrying about catching the ball before trying to get a return."

Zbikowski will try to turn the fortunes this Saturday against Michigan. On defense, the safety is doing fine, totaling 15 tackles, which is good for the second on the team to Maurice Crum, Jr.'s 20. He's also made some bone-crunching hits that'll make opponents know where No. 9 is on the field. Zbikowski can sense the special feel to this game.

"It's a game that's been going on annually for a long time," Zbikowski said. "It's a physical game. I love playing games like this. That is the reason why you come to Notre Dame is big games. You try and stay away from the hype, but it's one of the biggest things is you're going to be eyes watching this game."

*Our very own Steve Wiltfong wrote an article that appeared on the website Wednesday morning about the Notre Dame players focusing on fundamentals and techniques heading into the Michigan week. Any question about a Wolverine defender or scheme they run, the media has got the same line every time. Case in point: earlier this afternoon, when quarterback Brady Quinn was asked a question about Michigan cornerback Leon Hall, here's what the senior offensive captain had to say.

"I mean, right now, again, we're not necessarily focusing on that now," Quinn said about Hall. "We're focusing on ourselves and the different things we need to improve coming into this week. We can't really focus on a whole lot of different things about our opponent before we're working on things we need to work on going into this game."

Defensive coordinator Rick Minter, is this Michigan game the most challenging of the first three?

"What we're trying to do is get better," Minter said. "We got a ton of things we need to work on, regardless of how we play. Whether they be more physical or work more on technique and fundamentals, we're just trying to get better."

Is anyone trying to "get on the bus" for this contest?

*A point of emphasis coming into the year was to get pressure on the quarterback. Four returning starters on the defensive line (five if you include Chris Frome to the mix) was a good first step. Weis said they should be one of the strengths of the team. This year, through two games, the d-line has amassed one sack by Victor Abiamiri. They have gotten pressure on a few other occasions. Getting to Michigan quarterback Chad Henne on Saturday could make it a lot tougher for the Wolverines to pull the upset.

"You've never satisfied," defensive line coach Jappy Oliver said about his level of satisfaction with his group. "Never. Obviously, we can improve on every facet of the game. We definitely need to step up the pressure on the quarterback, whether that's a four man rush or pressure. I'm always challenging my guys to do that. We just have to do a better job of getting pressure and keeping him in the pocket and follow that. But not close to satisfied.

"My guys may set individual goals for themselves. But it's not something we talk about as a group. We don't say we're going to come out of this game with so many sacks or so many tackles. We're trying to be involved in every play one way or another or making the play or forcing it back for someone else to make a play."

At practice Wednesday, despite the players wearing shorts and shoulder pads, the intensity and physical presence was there. This is a good thing because the Irish expect a hard, smash mouth game from the Wolverines on Saturday. Michigan likes to run the ball (averaging 249 yards per game) and stop the other team's rush attack (4th in the nation vs. the run). Last week, Notre Dame allowed 192 yards on the ground to Penn State because of making it a priority to stop the pass first. It's cliché but this game will be won in the trenches. Oliver and the coaching staff have turned up the hitting this week in practice.

"We've done that," Oliver said. "It's not so much our guys. It's everybody. It's the scout team. It's the show team. The harder they give us a look, the harder we practice. We're expecting a very physical game and hopefully we're up to the task.

"It's very intense. That's one of the things Coach Weis has brought to the team. We practice hard, whether we're in full pads or in shoulder pads or shorts. We take care of each other but we get after one another."

*Irish fans planning on making the trek to Baltimore later this season better have their ticket arrangements in place. The Notre Dame-Navy game on October 28th at M&T Bank Stadium is sold out. The 70,107 seat venue is the home of the Baltimore Ravens. CBS is scheduled to televise the contest and kickoff is set for noon.

*The suits at NBC must have wide smiles on their faces. The Notre Dame-Penn State contest garnered a 4.8 overnight rating/12 share. How good is this? It's the highest home opener number in eight years. Who was the opponent on that day? Michigan, and the contest received a 5.9 overnight rating/15 share.


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