Further Out on the Limb

The Irish 101 Series adds three more predictions for the upcoming season.

I just can't stop putting my foot in my mouth...or on my keyboard. Two of the three predictions below are upbeat, the third? Well, you can't always ignore recent Irish history.

To view Predictions 1-17, begin by clicking here.

Prediction #18: Notre Dame Will Not Lose a Game by a Double-Digit Deficit this Season

Avoiding a double-digit loss this season would mark the first such occurrence of the Weis era, and the first season in which the Irish didn't drop a contest by at least 10 points since…wait, that can't be right? 1993?

In fact, since Frank Leahy retired after the 1953 season, the Irish have avoided a double-digit loss (including Bowl Games) in the following seasons:

  • 1964 – Final A.P. ranking: #3
  • 1965 – Final A.P. Ranking: #9
  • 1966 – National Champions
  • 1977 – National Champions
  • 1988 – National Champions
  • 1990 – Lost a chance at a split national title in the Orange Bowl on terrible clip call. Final A.P. ranking: #6
  • 1993 – It's a family Website, so I can't express my true feelings regarding the #2 A.P. final ranking

For those of you that believe a loss is a loss, the significance of double-digits is that, except for rare circumstances (such as a late return TD by the opponent), the vanquished team did not have an opportunity to win the game on its final drive. Allowing that double-digit losses are in no way created equal, let's move onto this prediction's rationale with acknowledgment of each opponent

Double-Digit Candidates – Prepare for Implosion:

Nevada: This would entail a complete offensive collapse and make my job the following week very, very difficult.

Washington, Washington State, Navy, UConn: Maybe in 2007, but not this fall.

Boston College: This hurts to consider.

Double-Digit Candidates – Stranger Things Have Happened (Recently, In Fact):

Pittsburgh: The Irish have lost by 10 or more points in seven of their last 14 road games (dating back to the opener in 2006). I have this game marked as the lowest-scoring game of the season in Prediction No. 8, so obviously I think the game will be close.

Michigan and Purdue: All road games are in play (the Irish committed 21 turnovers in six road games last season if you include the neutral site battle with Navy), but a defeat at the hands of either team would likely occur in a close contest.

Stanford: The Thanksgiving Saturday trip to Palo Alto will have one of three repercussions attached:

  • A BCS Berth on the line
  • A January 1 Bowl vs. Lower Tier Bowl Berth on the line
  • A Coaching Staff's Future on the line

I think the Irish would win or go down swinging in any of those proposed scenarios.

Double-Digit Candidate – Unlikely in '09 but Plausible:

Michigan State: The Spartans bring a six-game South Bend winning streak into this year's Week Three contest, with the margin of victory in the 1997, 1999, and 2007 contests each topping 10 points. Weis has lost his last two meetings with Sparty by a combined 33 points and has never faced Michigan State without also looking up at the wrong end of a 16-point deficit in each of the four contests. Recent history is on the side of the Spartans…revenge, motivation, and finally, talent, favor the Irish. This should be one of the two best games of the season at Notre Dame Stadium.

Double-Digit Candidate – The Litmus Test

USC: First, the unfortunate: 31, 31, 31, "3", 20, 38, 35…those are the last seven margins of victory in the series, all in favor of the Trojans. Entering 2009, the Trojans have a major advantage on both the offensive and defensive line; the country's best safety; one of the nation's five best wide receivers; the best collection of running backs (and fullback) in the amateur ranks; and more talent (young this season, but still more talent) than any team west of Gainesville; not to mention a head coach that's 82-9 since the beginning of 2002 (with zero double-digit losses in that span). For you trivia buffs, Pete Carroll's only collegiate loss of a double-digit margin occurred in 2001 vs. Notre Dame and Bob Davie.

So yes, this is a prediction that the same team that lost to a woeful Syracuse team (one that was even worse than you think) last November, and eight days later could muster just one meaningless first down after three quarters at USC, will give the same Trojan program everything it can handle in this one-game scenario in South Bend.

Double-Digit Candidate – Game 13 – The Bowl Opponent:

I must admit…the TBD team that awaits the Irish in either December, if things remain the same, or in January, if all goes well, tempted me to switch my prediction. But what fun would that be? Two close losses would appease most Irish fans and place the 2009 squad in the Top 10 at season's end.

Prediction #19: The Irish Will Block Six Kicks/Punts, Matching the Highest Team Total of the Decade

First, it must be noted this is a poorly tracked stat, as I have video evidence of Sergio Brown blocking three punts last year (SD State, Syracuse, and Hawaii), and the Irish, as a team, were credited with just two. Throw-in Mike Anello's blocked punt vs. Navy that led to a touchdown and there were at least four blocks among Irish players last season. As a result of this obvious discrepancy, we'll track this stat ourselves for the purpose of the prediction…

Sergio Brown is a terror as the second man (along the line). He slips through cracks, accelerates, and launches himself at the front foot of opposing punters. Coupled with Anello knifing through the creases in protection, Brown will begin to demand double-team or chip block attention on every punt…opening the door for another member of the Irish punt return team to join the party.

If Ethan Johnson or one of his line mates can chip in with consistent penetration and a well-timed raised hand or two vs. opponents' field goals and PAT, this prediction will rank among the easiest of '09. The 1995, 2005, and 2006 Irish squads each blocked a total of six kicks/punts. The 2009 Irish will match that number this fall.

Prediction #20: The Notre Dame Running Backs Will Rush for 15 Touchdowns or Fewer

Not total touchdowns, rushing touchdowns, as I do think the Irish will "screen their way" to a few more scores in 2009. At first this appears to be an additional criticism of the offensive line, but that's a small portion of the prediction. I have Jimmy Clausen slated for anywhere from 30-35 TD passes in '09…not every offensive contributor can continuously find the end zone in a 13-game season. If the number appears especially low, just begin by using recent history as your guide. Here's a breakdown of the last 10 seasons of rushing touchdowns at ND:

  • 2008: Total rushing touchdowns by running backs: 10 (Tate added one on an end-around).
  • 2007: Total rushing touchdowns by running backs: 9 (Clausen added two on QB sneaks).
  • 2006: Total rushing touchdowns by running backs: 9 – The Irish added five more: Quinn 2; Samardzija 1 on a fake field goal; George West 1 (end-around); Grimes 1 (fumble recovery).
  • 2005: Total rushing touchdowns by running backs: 20 – (Quinn added the go-ahead QB draw TD against USC). This is the high water mark for ND running backs since Autry Denson left campus (and took the Irish rushing attack as we know it) with him in 1998.
  • 2004: Total rushing touchdowns by running backs: 14 (Quinn added 3).
  • 2003: Total rushing touchdowns by running backs: 13 (13 total).
  • 2002: Total rushing touchdowns by running backs: 12 (Carlyle Holiday had 3).
  • 2001: Total rushing touchdowns by running backs: 14 (Holiday added 2 for what was a pseudo-option offense. The "pseudo" in this case, is Greek for "ineffective").
  • 2000: Total rushing touchdowns by running backs: 17 – The team finished with a decade-high 24: QB Matt Lovecchio added 2; David Givens 2; Joey Getherall 1 (a game-winning, OT end-around vs. Air Force); K Nicholas Setta 1 (pitch from the holder on a fake field goal); and QB Gary Godsey 1.
  • 1999: Total rushing touchdowns by running backs: 13 – The team scored 25, including 7 by QB Jarious Jackson (and remember, this was not a predominant option offense); Getherall 2; QB Arnaz Battle 1; Givens 1; TE Jabari Holloway 1 (game-winning fumble recovery TD vs. USC in a monsoon).

In 1998, Autry Denson ran for 18 touchdowns and the team ran for 26 (I'm counting the Bowl Game while official stats, in 1998, did not). The end of the Denson era (1995-98 – the first two seasons he teamed with some combination of FB Marc Edwards, TB/FB Robert Farmer, and TB Randy Kinder) marks the end of consistent running back dominance at Notre Dame.

The running back committee that could prove me wrong: FB James Aldridge (3), RB Armando Allen (3), RB Robert Hughes (8), RB Jonas Gray, FB Steve Paskorz, and (freshman) RB Cierre Wood possess a total of 14 career rushing scores (though Gray has had limited opportunity and Paskorz none), but that's not the crux of my prediction. (And to be clear, if Golden Tate, Shaquelle Evans, or anyone else takes a direct snap as the "Wildcat" QB, I'll be happy to count the player as an ND running back.)

The Irish offense, and mainly the man calling the shots again this season, can't resist the matchup advantages he has on the outside. When 1st-and-goal at 5-yard line turns into 2nd-and-goal at the 3…well, Charlie Weis is going to throw it. He's calling for a first-read fade or stop-fade to the Tate/Floyd combo. He's calling for that skinny post from the slot that Samardzija ran to perfection; and he's calling for Rudolph to chip and sneak into a hole in the back of the end zone. More importantly, the Irish and QB Jimmy Clausen attack the end zone when the offense nears the opponents' 25-30-yard line. The Tate and Floyd show begins in earnest in that area of the field (more on this in a later Irish 101 column).

Moreover, I don't think Weis has had confidence in his O-Line since the end of 2005 when RT Mark LeVoir and RG Dan Stevenson graduated. The two unheralded linemen were instrumental in the '05 offense's (relative) balance, especially in the red zone, opening holes for the power of Rashon Powers-Neal (for five games) and blocking in space for Darius Walker's effective draw runs. Additionally, LeVoir and Stevenson provided a path for four memorable '05 TD runs:

  • Travis Thomas' shining moment in an Irish uniform – a 16-yard run to tie the score vs. USC, came as a result of a powerful block by LeVoir and backside seal block from Stevenson.
  • Brady Quinn's QB draw over the right side to score the go-ahead late in the 4th Quarter vs. USC.
  • Finally, the two cleared and/or pulled to wipe out Buckeye linebackers to pave the way for both Irish touchdowns vs. Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Those are plays, vs. the highest level of competition, that have been largely absent from the Irish front line since the end of '05. Until I see on-field evidence that the Irish offense can get back to that type of consistent point-of-attack run blocking, I'm siding with Coach Weis' plan of attack…let Floyd, Tate, Rudolph, and Duval Kamara win a one-on-one matchup.

The X-Factor in this equation? Mr. Cierre Wood. I'm rooting for him to prove this prediction false.

The Right Side – 2005:


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