The Irish Will Have a Chance to Win Every SaturdayThis isn't a starry-eyed 13-0 prediction, merely an observation that for the first time since 2005, Charlie Weis' squad can reasonably expect to be in position to win at some point in the fourth quarter against the entire 12-game slate.
The first (hypothetical) blowout possibility is October 17 when the Trojans come calling in South Bend. In four of the last six meetings between the teams, USC has had a laughable talent advantage, and for six of the last seven meetings, the Irish entered the fourth quarter needing either a wild turn of events (2006) or an According to Hoyle Miracle ('02, '03, '04, '07, '08) to pull out a victory. This should not be the case in '09, especially in Week Seven and especially in South Bend.
USC is loaded again, but the likelihood that the Trojans host of talented defensive replacements and its quarterback are playing their best football by mid-October of their first season as starters is low (remember, 1st Round draft pick Mark Sanchez was nowhere near at his peak performance level as a QB last season in October). USC should still be a solid favorite, but unlike season's past, the '09 game won't be a name-your-score affair.
That leaves Nevada, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue (night road setting), Boston College, Pittsburgh, and Stanford as relative peers for the '09 Irish. Aside from the natural hazards of a rivalry road game, it's hard to imagine this Irish unit getting worked over by any of those solid, but less-than-dominant teams. (If Washington, Washington State, Navy, or Connecticut blows out Notre Dame in South Bend/San Antonio, we should probably eliminate all pre-season projections for next season).
Winning them all is unlikely – having a chance to do so in each individual battle is – and that's what you want as a sports fan.
Golden Tate and Michael Floyd Will Rank Among the Top Receiving Duos in the NationMy thoughts on the subject were detailed in last's week's column, The Dynamic Duo. Suffice it to say Irish fans, media, and even team detractors are high on the two young stars. Barring injury (or playing through myriad injuries) Tate and Floyd will be a handful for every defense they encounter. The continued development of TE Kyle Rudolph and plausible reemergence of 3rd receiver Duval Kamara will only add to the pressure Tate and Floyd can put on opponents in '09.
At best, the duo will develop into a tandem for the ages; at worst, they'll continue as the main offensive factors on a team poised to field one of its top four offenses since the end of the Holtz Era.
The Field Goal Unit Won't Sabotage the OffenseWith a Notre Dame comeback attempt stalled at the Michigan State 23-yard line, and the Irish trailing 16-7 midway through the fourth quarter in East Lansing, head coach Charlie Weis was forced to adhere to simple math and send in the field goal unit to turn a two-possession game (9-point lead) into a six point deficit. A made field goal, subsequent defensive stop, and touchdown drive would conceivably win/steal the game for a Notre Dame squad that had recently found its legs (no pun intended) after a rough start.
The crucial aspect of this one-shot plan was, of course, the field goal attempt…one that met the same fate as five of the six previous attempts by the Irish…it landed somewhere other than between the uprights.
Irish place-kicker Brandon Walker was not the sole culprit in the kicking woes of the last two seasons: Botched holds, bad snaps, both incredibly ill-conceived and ill-advised fake field goals, miserable kicking conditions, and obviously Walker's accuracy itself have all played a significant role. But while the junior from Findlay , Ohio can't be considered automatic, he certainly has the ability and confidence to hit the mid-range field goal after surviving a 1-7 streak early last season (Walker hit 13 of his final 17 attempts in '08).
In the triple overtime loss to Pittsburgh, Walker connected on his first four field goal attempts, three of which kept the Irish alive in regulation/overtime, including a career-best 48-yard strike to preserve the 2nd OT. Walker 's eventual miss (wide left from 38) might have officially ended Irish hopes that day, but shoddy tackling in the final quarter followed by inept offensive execution in the extra sessions were the true culprits. As for Walker's failed attempts in the Senior Day loss to the hapless Orange – attempts that included a botched snap and 54-yard frozen pigskin that fluttered harmlessly at the final gun – there are approximately 60 other culprits from the press box to the sidelines to the playing field to analyze before Walker in that wretched display of football.
During most of 2007 and in September of '08, the Irish field goal unit was about as successful as New Coke. Since that time, Walker has shown he can connect with a regularity befitting a college kicker. Weis now has confidence in Walker; Walker has confidence in himself…if the rest of machine can operate at a respectable level (snap-hold-laces out-kick) there's no reason the kicking game should sabotage the Irish in '09.
The Official Arrival of Brian SmithAs a freshman in 2007, Brian Smith provided a glimmer of hope for Irish fans that clung to the belief that better days were on the horizon. He emerged as a weapon in the hard-fought Week Four loss to Michigan State and continued to provide big plays vs. UCLA, Boston College, and Stanford.
Last season, Smith was expected to rank as one of the defense's top three, if not top two defensive players. At season's end, that ranking would be a bit of a stretch as Smith too often ran around blocks in his MLB role. But if a few pieces fall into place in August as expected (Toryan Smith is one of those pieces), B. Smith will fill the role of the weak side linebacker in the Brown/Tenuta base defense and slide back to the middle in the team's nickel sets. It's a role change that should prove ideal for Smith and an aggressive defense.
Smith appears to be the vocal leader the Irish defense needs – one that has shown he can be a playmaker – and one that must now prove to be a consistent, imposing linebacker in a defense that will feature his skill set. This reasonable pre-season expectation is one that must come to fruition if the Irish are to contend for a BCS berth in '09.
The Irish Defense Will Get Off the FieldIn 2008, Notre Dame's 3rd down efficiency defense ranked 20th in the nation (percentage points ahead of Florida and, curiously, behind Army). An emphasis on the blitz and the reality that the team's nickel personnel represented what was its most effective defensive package were both major reasons for the solid ranking.
With extensive game experience, scheme familiarity, and increased speed populating each of the three defensive units, Irish fans can expect two improvements over 2008: better gap discipline (which would help control opposing running games) and, not unrelated, a dangerous rather than merely acceptable blitz package in passing situations.
While a high sack total on Saturday generally leads to a happy Sunday for fans, staff, and players, it should be pointed out that the Irish offense didn't struggle because of repeated loss of yardage due to sacks (in '08), but to the inability to convert on third down. If the 2009 Irish defense can improve its ranking from the top 20 to the top 10-15 in this often overlooked category there should be fewer chewed finger nails among the Irish faithful this fall.
Tomorrow: Leaps of Faith from Irish fans this off-season.