Nevada junior defensive ends Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch combined for 36 tackles for loss and 21.5 sacks last season. At 6'6" 240-pounds with purported 4.5 speed (incidentally, game film in no way refutes that claim), Basped's a future Day One NFL draft pick.
At 6'1" 245 pounds, Moch might not have the ideal measurables to make a draft day impact in 2010-11, but his presence on the college gridiron is obvious – Moch's a playmaker, especially in pursuit, and the undersized end ranks as a pre-season nominee for the Ted Hendricks Watch List (the award is given annually to the nation's top defensive end).
Basped has lived in the opponents' backfield for two seasons, posting 30 tackles for lost yardage in his last 25 contests including 14 sacks. He (along with his opponent Saturday, Irish left tackle Sam Young) is a pre-season nominee for the Lombardi Award (presented to the nation's best lineman or linebacker) as well as the Nagurski Trophy, awarded to the nation's best defensive player.
Two Bad Apples
The Irish offense enters Saturday with a host of mismatches to exploit as the Wolf Pack returns the nation's 119th ranked passing defense and prefer man-to-man coverage in the secondary (Paging Mr. Tate…Mr. Golden Tate…).
Both returning (and departing) linebackers struggled in short zone coverage last season and the defense as a unit allowed more than 30 points in seven contests, including a 38-31 defeat at the hands of Hawaii in late-October.
But Basped and Moch represent a "puncher's chance" for the Nevada defense: two havoc-wreaking athletes screaming around the edges and forcing Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen out of the pocket or out of his comfort zone would greatly diminish the myriad mismatches held by the Irish elsewhere.
Enter Clausen's protectors, chiefly, a senior right tackle with 38 career starts – Sam Young.
Young has familiarize himself with both Wolf Pack pests through extensive film review, and the veteran has faced his share of talented pass rushers since starting the season-opener as a true freshman in 2006.
"They're definitely different players but they're both very talented guys. That's something we've looked at on tape – how to attack them – and that's something I work on pre-practice, I look to see what each individual guy likes to do whether its (come at him with) speed or a power move and I've worked on that in my own time.
"They do a bunch of different things, they try to attack the ball but we've been watching film and have tried to prepare for it…finding different weaknesses in their defense and trying to exploit them."
And therein lies the rub. For each gaudy national statistic the Wolf Pack defense can claim (No. 6 overall run defense; 10th nationally in sacks; 9th in tackles-for-loss), the ugly truth can be found in the numbers that matters most: Nevada allowed 420 points last season and 31 passing touchdowns (17 rushing). BCS opponents Missouri (69); Texas Tech (35); and Maryland (42) combined for 17 offensive touchdowns (and three of a different variety to be discussed tomorrow).
Conference rival and high BCS-level opponent Boise State torched the Wolf Pack secondary for 41 points and 414 passing yards in a late-November win at Mackay Stadium in Reno.
Nevada's speed-rushing duo posted 3.5 sacks in the team's four matchups (two courtesy of Moch vs. Maryland). In other words, Nevada's defense can be had. But not if Moch and Basped aren't contained.
The Left Side – Rebirth and the Relative Rookie
5th-year senior left tackle Paul Duncan hasn't played in an organized game since November 2007, at the merciful end of a merciless season for the pass protector – one of many Irish offensive linemen that struggled to protect each of the three Irish quarterbacks who suffered through a then-NCAA record 58 sacks.
Junior backup left tackle Matt Romine has played just over 44 total minutes of backup duty over the last two seasons. Finally healthy, Romine posed a major challenge to Duncan (the star of spring practice) in fall camp and has been singled out by both coaches and teammates as a quality pass protector entering '09.
Both will endure (re)baptism by fire at the hands of Basped and Moch.
"Duncan will start at left tackle but Romine will definitely play in the game," explained Irish head coach Charlie Weis at his Tuesday press conference.
"Those two guys (speaking of Romine and backup G/C Dan Wenger) are two guys we want to make sure we get involved in the game in the first half."
While its more likely that Romine simply challenged Duncan for the starting role, one could surmise that Romine's presence was deemed necessary against the speed ends of the Wolf Pack rushers.
"He's a good pass blocker," offered Irish junior defensive end Kerry Neal regarding Romine. "His footwork is real good and he's one of the tougher guys (to rush against)… just quicker than most offensive linemen."
That quickness will serve Romine well vs. Basped, a player who boasts both blazing straight line speed and lateral quickness.
"He's a big speed guy – a lanky guy with speed…maybe Michael Johnson from Georgia Tech was similar," offered Young when asked for a point of comparison (Young faced Johnson in 2007 in South Bend). "But they're both (Basped and Moch) very good players and it's a challenge that I'm going to welcome to be able to go against them."
If Young and Notre Dame's left-side tackle tandem can meet the challenge the Irish offense should pile up points aplenty Saturday in South Bend.