Prediction #6: Jimmy Clausen Will Boast a 3:1 TD to Interception Ratio
Whether the ratio falls in the neighborhood of 18-6, 24-8 or somewhere in the vicinity of 33-11 is irrelevant to the prediction. I simply believe Clausen will protect the football much better than in 2008 and the Irish passing offense will once again produce the team's most consistent ticket to the end zone, both from long distance and once inside the red zone.
While an inconsistent running game can lead to squandered leads and the occasional third-and-long INT, it also (statistically speaking) provides the opportunity for a high-powered passing attack to post gaudy numbers over 13 weeks.
This prediction doesn't necessarily subscribe to the prevailing theory that the Clausen will make a leap to stardom simply because Brady Quinn took a similar jump during his junior season (between '04 and '05). Rather, that Clausen and the entire offense has matured to a level that they should be able to compete with the entire slate of opponents (especially considering the preponderance of home games and a "neutral site" matchup with a Washington State team expected to struggle mightily again this year).
With between eight (Michael Floyd) and 13 games and in some cases, 22 starts under his belt with his entire stable of receivers, running backs, and main tight end, Clausen's pre-snap check downs and post snap hot reads should be better in tune with his targets and continue to progress throughout the season. More importantly, the Charlie Weis offense of 2005 and 2006, with its myriad formations and route options should make a dramatic return to South Bend in '09.
If not now, when?
Prediction #7: Darius Fleming Will Lead the Team in Sacks
Able candidates for the honor abound, from DE Kerry Neal to DE/DT Ethan Johnson to darkhorse candidates in LB Brian Smith and DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, but Fleming is my choice to emerge as ND's sack-master in '09.
The reasoning is three-fold:
- Fleming will be a full-time player: Aside from the occasional prevent look I can't visualize a defense that won't include Fleming as a main cog in the package. He'll play SLB in the base defense; move to a pass-rushing role in the nickel; and is la ogical choice to remain on the field for first-and-goal sets inside the 10-yard line (if not at the goal line when he could give way to another run-stopping lineman).
- Fleming's an athlete that will finish the drill: In other words, there's a difference between pressuring the pocket and sacking the quarterback. Fleming can track opposing QBs in space and breakdown quickly enough to avoid falling victim to the easy QB sidestep that so often limits the impact of a hard-charging pass rusher.
- He'll see fewer double teams than my second choice – Ethan Johnson: Not only fewer double team blocks, but Fleming will have the opportunity (along with WLB Brian Smith) to come free much more often than will Johnson (or Neal) in Tenuta's blitz packages.
An (achievable) number such as seven sacks would place Fleming just outside the Top 10 on the school's all-time single-season sack list (the statistic has been tracked since 1981, rendering "all-time" a bit of a misnomer). Irish Eyes will discuss a team sack total in a later prediction.
Prediction #8: The Pittsburgh Game Will be the Lowest Scoring Contest of the Season
I considered three other games, including the obvious in USC, but settled with a trip to Heinz Field vs. the Panthers on November 14.
First the ancillary factor in my decision: I feel a cold, mid-November game under the lights is in the works (even without the cover of night I think this will turn into a second half defensive struggle). But football logic applies to the choice as well:
- Adjustments: I believe the Irish left points on the field last season in the triple overtime loss, but we must also credit Pittsburgh and head coach Dave Wannstedt for consistent defensive adjustments as the Panthers held opponents to 47 total fourth quarter points last season.
- Strength vs. Weakness...And Right Back At Ya: The Panthers best unit, its defensive line, will matchup with Notre Dame's worst, its maligned O-Line. The Panthers should put consistent pressure on the quarterback in '09 and this won't be an easy situation for Clausen and the Irish to walk into if the ND running game continues its three-year stall vs. quality defenses. Likewise, the Irish blitz packages and secondary should make life difficult for QB Bill Stull and a young group of skill position players. Departed RB LeSean McCoy was a difference-maker for the Panthers offense. His loss won't be easily overcome by Dion Lewis, a (talented) freshman ‘back. Additionally, the Irish now have a foil (Darrin Walls) for red zone target Jonathan Baldwin. Speaking of Baldwin…
- The off-season issues will be swept under the rug: Don't count on stars such as CB Aaron Berry to miss extended time (the game is in November, after all) due to off-season transgressions. The Panthers have defensive players that can match up with the Irish attack if Pittsburgh's offense can play close to the vest.
Pittsburgh's talent base resides in its defense. The home crowd, slotting of the game, and possible stakes for the Irish could all play into the tenor of the contest - one I had originally forecast as just the sixth toughest matchup of the season for the Irish - but hey, that was in May. The previously listed factors, coupled with the likelihood that the Irish defense will be at its peak later in the season leads me to believe we'll see a game played close to the vest with the victor barely topping the 20-point barrier.
Prediction #9: Robert Blanton Will Become the Fourth Irish Player to Record Five (or more) Interceptions Since 1992
Two DBs turned the trick in '92 (CB Tom Carter and Safety Jeff Burris…Carter picked off five passes in 1991 as well). Since then, only LB Lyron Cobbins (five in '95); CB Shane Walton (seven in '02) and S Tom Zbikowski (five in '05) have reached the number over the course of a season. For the sake of reference, only CB Todd Lyght with eight picks in ‘89 and S Dave Duerson with seven in ‘82 reached the number during the 1980s.
Blanton showed a penchant for jumping poor routes last season. That innate trait, as well as his aggressiveness, confidence, and athleticism make him a likely candidate to lead the team in interceptions as a sophomore on a talent-laden secondary. It doesn't hurt that Blanton should have the team's best cover corner, senior Darrin Walls, operating on the other side (in other words, Walls won't be tested quite as often) and a quality pass rush disrupting a string of inexperienced opposing quarterbacks for most of the season.
Prediction #10: The Irish Will Exceed 40 Points in Five Games This Season
Charlie Weis' 2005 squad scored more than 40 in six different games (Pittsburgh, Michigan State, Purdue, BYU, Tennessee, and Navy).
The 1996 Irish topped the number in five contests with four of the five games actually exceeding the big Five-O on the scoreboard that season, including two 60+ point outbursts. The record-setting '92 unit topped the barrier on five occasions with four winning totals falling between 48 and 54 points.
And in 1991, Lou Holtz and the Irish just couldn't stop scoring (or allowing) points, piling up in excess of 40 points in six games while threatening the mark in the high 30s on two other occasions.
(The three best teams of the last thirty years, the '88, '89, and '93 Irish, as well as the '06 offense, called off the dogs a few times, tickling the 40-spot for four games each).
On the other hand, the '07 and '08 Irish managed to top the 40-point mark once apiece (resulting in a loss to Navy and in the bowl win vs. Hawaii). With the Irish facing (on paper) six porous defenses and a seventh team (Navy) vs. which Charlie Weis' squads have produced 42, 38, 44, and 27 points (despite a plethora of physical and mental errors on the field and sidelines), the '09 Irish should have plentiful scoring opportunities each Saturday.
Though it's too early to predict game scores, I foresee eight contests played at a high-scoring pace this season with only MSU, USC, BC, and Pittsburgh falling into the "sound" football category...games in which valued possessions help decide the final outcome.
Look for five more predictions for the upcoming season every Tuesday leading up to Nevada week.