Prediction #15: The Irish Defense Will Yield its Largest Yardage Total of 2009 vs. Nevada
There are a number of factors involved with this prediction, including the fact that Nevada simply has a consistent, veteran offense with a chance to operate at peak efficiency and hit the ground running (literally) on September 5.
Before discussing Nevada, let's use the process of elimination with the remaining 11 choices:
- I'd Be Shocked: Navy (offensive style shortens the game); Purdue (too many question marks, including its QB); Boston College, Pittsburgh, and UConn (more QB issues and none employ the necessary style to amass a huge yardage total); and Washington State (one of the worst teams in recent memory last season). None of these teams enter into the topic's reasonable pre-season discussion.
- Physical Games Equal Fewer Total Yards: Michigan State (the contest has the appearance of a head-knocker played much closer to the vest); and Stanford (ditto MSU…and the Irish defense will be much better by Thanksgiving Saturday) are quality teams not likely to attack the Irish in a frenzied manner as will the Wolf Pack.
- Darkhorses: Michigan (little chance they're at peak efficiency in Week Two with a new quarterback, though they did rack up the third highest yardage total vs. the Irish last season); and Washington (has a chance to be a wild affair with QB Jake Locker under center, but that's assuming quite a bit for a team entering the season on a 14-game losing streak).
- The Obvious: USC – Choice No. 1A. But I never said the Wolf Pack would amass the largest number of meaningful yards. Additionally, the USC contest should be a well-played, much more emotional, and likely closely contested football game. One in which every yard gained helps determine the victor.
And that last bullet illustrates my point. The end result of the contest need not be part of the discussion. I believe September 5 will showcase a wild offensive affair with the Irish marching up and down the field on Nevada and its apparently porous secondary, and red zone execution holding the key to a comfortable margin in the second half. Likewise, expect the Wolf Pack and QB Colin Kaepernick (pictured), coming off a season in which he produced 3,979 combined passing and rushing yards, (with 39 total touchdowns) to perform well vs. an Irish front seven that features (either one or two) first-time starters on its D-Line and three other players with fewer than 11 aggregate starts among them. Don't expect many three-and-out possessions from a team that boasts a unique offensive attack, has three former 1,000-yard rushers on its roster, and the skill and experience to execute.
Last season, teams that committed to running the ball vs. Notre Dame did just that, as the Tar Heels were the only offense with a pulse not to rush for at least 150 yards against the Irish front seven. The Wolf Pack never posted a lower combined yardage total than 362 (at Missouri in Week Three) in 2008 and topped the 200-yard rushing mark in nine different games. When the Wolf Pack was held below the 200-yard rushing mark, they proceeded to throw for 180 (Missouri), 241 (Boise St); 397 (LA Tech) and 370 (Maryland) yards.
Purdue (462) and USC (449) were the only opponents to top the 400-yard mark vs. the Irish defense last season. Nevada will field a team that topped 475 total yards in 11 of its 13 games last season; one that catches the Irish on opening day; and a team whose defense should allow for a couple of quick-strike Irish touchdown drives on the afternoon. They're a solid choice to produce the highest yardage total vs. Notre Dame this (regular) season…regardless of the final scoring margin.
Prediction #16: The Irish Offense Will Pile Up its Largest Yardage Total of 2009 vs. Washington State
First, we'll establish the obvious: In 2008, Washington State allowed the following yardage totals to FBS opponents: 367, 405, 555, 507, 325 (in a 28-3 loss), 548, 625, 456, 531, 398, 323 (to 0-12 Washington), and 378 (at Hawaii). The Cougars surrendered more than 30 points in nine games; more than 40 points in seven; and more than 60 in four contests last year. Eight teams ran for more than 220 yards vs. the Cougars last year as the defense finished last nationally against the run (which, of course, renders Wazzu's No. 44 ranking vs. the pass meaningless).
A second point of emphasis is the timing of the game: There's no look-ahead scenario for the Irish(a home game with Navy follows); and the Cougars' defense (and offense) will offer a welcome respite after a two-game home set vs. USC and BC. Whether the Irish emerge from that October proving ground 2-0 or 0-2, they'll nonetheless be ready for a wide open breakout game offensively after two tough contests in which the opponents held the Irish to three combined points in '08.
As well, the neutral site scenario (the game will be played at the Alamo Dome in San Antonio) follows a 49-day span in which the Irish players won't have ventured outside of the state of Indiana for a football game. Aside from the quality of opponent, there's very little case to be made for a natural letdown in this matchup.
The only drawback to this prediction on paper is the likelihood that the Irish and head coach Charlie Weis will have a chance to call off the dogs in the fourth quarter of this game. Whereas matchups with other porous defenses (Nevada, Washington) could turn into relatively high scoring affairs, the matchup with the Cougars promises to provide a late third-quarter (at the latest) cushion and mercy could enter into the equation. But as I alluded to above, after dates with USC and BC over the previous 14 days, the Irish might be ready to explode all over a defenseless opponent.
Last season, Notre Dame posted its three largest yardage totals vs. Hawaii (478), Purdue (476), and UNC (472). In a game that resembles last year's contest at Washington, with the added bonus of a focused and dialed-n Clausen, look for the Irish to amass their largest total of the 2009 season vs. Washington State behind 250-plus rushing yards, and nearly 300 passing yards in the Alamo Dome on October 31.
Prediction #17: Kyle Rudolph Will Record the Highest Single-Season TD Total for a Tight End Since Ken McAfee in 1977
McAfee grabbed six touchdowns that year, and is unofficially the school's record-holder with those six grabs, allowing that the tight end first appeared in Irish vernacular in 1967. (The designations of LE/RE were the norm in previous seasons, with LE Monty Stickles securing seven TD grabs in 1958, and End Jack Snow – a prototype WR if there ever were one – setting a then team-record for receiving touchdowns with nine in 1964).
But McAfee was a true tight end, a three-time first team All American, and forever the Notre Dame standard at the position. Since his sterling effort in the 1977 Championship Season (54 receptions for 797 yards and six TD), the position at Notre Dame has produced several high draft picks, multiple All-America honors, NFL starters and Super Bowl Champions. But no one, not Tony Hunter, Mark Bavaro, Derek Brown, Irv Smith, Pete Chryplewicz, Jabari Holloway, Anthony Fasano or John Carlson has ever scored more than four touchdowns in a single season for the Irish (nor did NFL Hall of Famer Dave Casper before them). That will change this season when Kyle Rudolph secures his fifth touchdown of the season.
Possible roadblocks for Rudolph are the same that faced Fasano and Carlson before him: the presence of two fantastic red zone targets at WR, in this case, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. But with 13 games under his belt, and 12 Saturdays this fall plus an extra game in January (optimism reigns), the talented sophomore target should present Jimmy Clausen with an inviting target each time the Irish approach the opponent's 20, and especially 10-yard line.
The game has changed, the Irish offense has changed, and this is by no means a comparison of the players; merely an prediction that Kyle Rudolph will have a major impact this season and record the highest single-season TD total by an Irish TE since 1977.
Ken McAfee's career numbers: 128 receptions for 1,759 yards and 15 TDs.