The Big 4-0

Nevada will need at least 40 points to defeat the Irish in the teams' season-opener

30 wins and 20 losses. That's how the last eight Notre Dame Football teams have fared in South Bend vs. a mixed bag of visiting teams. They've lost to the best (USC '03 and '05) and the worst (Syracuse '08) the sport has to offer over that span. They've defeated a few solid challengers (Michigan '02 and '04; Penn State '06) and committed the unthinkable (Navy '07).

Saturday's opponent is not at the level of the three solid challengers listed above. They're also nowhere near the level of Syracuse or, likely, any of the teams Notre Dame defeated last season.

Nevada brings an explosive rushing attack; a terrible pass defense; a stout run defense; a miserable kick coverage group; a mediocre passing game; and a host of talented runners to South Bend on Saturday.

The Irish counter with an explosive passing attack; a potentially dominant secondary; a tremendous kick coverage unit; and a host of questions, none of which will like have definitive answers by Saturday at 8 PM Eastern.

It's a dangerous, no-win situation for the Irish and a golden opportunity for the Wolf Pack.

Below is my final look at Saturday's key points.

Clausen and the Window

It's generally available – however brief or narrow, a veteran quarterback is usually able to find a passing window vs. a collegiate defense. Nevada will bring consistent pressure on Jimmy Clausen tomorrow in the form of defensive ends Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch. Notre Dame receivers, tight ends, and running backs will be open vs. a sub par group of back seven cover men on the Wolf Pack's side of scrimmage.

It's incumbent upon the junior signal-caller to shuffle in the pocket; to not allow himself to be flushed into open space (where Basped and Moch reign supreme); and to find that open window that makes the Wolf Pack defense pay for preferring man-to-man coverage vs. the likes of Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and Kyle Rudolph.

There's No Need to Establish an Early Running Game…This Week

We all want Notre Dame to run the ball more efficiently. In fact, "efficiency" has little to do with it. Irish fans want Notre Dame to start pounding opponents into submission. The longer you've cheered for this program the more disgusted you likely are (not necessarily "Billboard Disgusted" that would be weird, excessive, and a bit creepy) but disgusted nonetheless with the level of execution of the Irish ground game over the last two seasons.

But the Irish won't win running the ball tomorrow, and that's okay. No matter how improved the offensive line is; no matter how much better Armando Allen and Jonas Gray and James Aldridge might be with room to run, the Irish need not establish the ground game tomorrow.

Missouri didn't last season, piling up 519 passing yards before running out the clock in a 69-17 thrashing. Hawaii? Ran for 42 and threw for nearly 300 in their 38-31 November win. New Mexico State piled up 409 passing yards and 48 points in their three-point victory at Mackay Stadium in Reno.

Boise State threw 48 passes, completed 29 of them, and carved up Nevada for 414 passing yards (or 13 more than Clausen put on Hawaii in the bowl win last December).

Notre Dame has to run the ball successfully this season to reach the BCS…starting next Saturday in The Big House.

Stay Home or Pay the Price

In today's "Matchup" column I noted the key to containing Nevada lies in the lost art of the open-field tackle, namely against Wolf Pack QB Colin Kaepernick. There's an addendum to that rule: the backside of the Irish defense has to stay home. Kaepernick is an adept cutback runner, and Irish defenders that flow too readily to the ball must be wary of the lanky athlete's cut back skills and ability to accelerate when he finds a crease.

Likewise, the Irish front seven and likely eighth man in the box have to stay home (similar to a matchup with Navy or a standard option team) lest they be gashed by inside runs of Vai Taua and the talents of sixth-year runner Luke Lippincott from multiple offensive sets.

The Screen Game as a Weapon Rather than a Defense Mechanism

In 2007 the Irish offense relied on excessive use of the screen pass in a (futile) effort to slow a weekly jail break disguised as opposing rush schemes.

In 2008, the Irish struggled in the screen game, not in its simple execution, but rather in the underrated but necessary role of picking up chunks of additional yardage. In other words, when eight yards were readily available on a particular screen pass, Irish ‘backs usually picked up Eight Yards. Against Nevada's heavy upfield rush, the screen game is once again essential, but this season, like in last December's Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, Irish blockers and ‘backs need to turn the requisite eight-yard gain into larger, more damaging acquisitions of football real estate.

A dangerous rather than successful screen game will make the Irish offense unstoppable vs. the Wolf Pack.

Own the Red Zone…Attack from the Green Zone

Nevada's going to move the ball on Saturday in South Bend. That's what they do: chew up yardage on the ground, occasionally through the air, and generally an impressive point total ensues. They topped the 600-yard mark in three games; 500+ in five others; 400 or more in three contests (including losses to Texas Tech and Maryland) and were under 400 just twice, still reaching 362 and 385 yards of total offense vs. Missouri and Boise State respectively.

The Irish, against a tougher slate of opponents to be sure, mustered more than 400 total yards in four consecutive games, beginning at home vs. Purdue and ending in Washington against the winless Huskies. The offense was held to fewer than 350 yards in seven of the remaining eight regular season contests before exploding all over Honolulu for 478 and six offensive scores.

The point is that Nevada's yardage total will likely be high, but if the Irish can limit Nevada to three or four field goal attempts inside the red zone, a Notre Dame victory Saturday is nearly assured.

Likewise, an Irish offense that could struggle to run vs. Nevada's stout rush defense must attack the Wolf Pack's porous secondary from football's "green zone" – the area between the two 20-yard lines. More directly, Clausen can pick apart Nevada's defense after crossing midfield as the one-on-one deep pass to Tate and Floyd down the sideline or to Rudolph down the seam has four likely results: A deep catch (or score) by the Irish; an incomplete pass; pass interference on the defense; an interception.

Two of the four are extremely positive; one easily overcome and the final serves as a de facto punt assuming the pick came on third-down.

Look for three Irish touchdowns to come via a Green Zone pass vs. the Wolf Pack.

Random Observations

  1. Brandon Marshall can't run with Irish tight ends
  2. Paul Duncan can't block Kevin Basped without help
  3. No WAC Team can stop Tate and Floyd with man-to-man coverage
  4. Colin Kaepernick can't beat teams with his arm. Third-and-long is a death knell for the Wolf Pack on Saturday.
  5. Dontay Moch's backside speed will be evident early and often against Irish running backs
  6. Irish SS Kyle McCarthy will lead the team in total tackles on Saturday. Toryan Smith will finish second; Brian Smith third and Harrison Smith a not-too-distant fourth.
  7. Michael Floyd will catch at least seven passes; the Irish will have two kick returns in excess of 40 yards
  8. Basped and Moch will combine for five tackles for loss (including a sacks)
  9. Nevada's front four, especially tackle Nate Agaiava, will consistently fire off the ball, causing Irish fans additional angst regarding the team's overall offensive line play.
  10. Kaepernick's deception in the sprint-option handoff will result in at least three runs by Vai Taua in excess of 15 yards.

Game One Prediction

Nevada scored 35 or more points in nine games last season. Their record in those contests? 7-2. The Wolf Pack scored fewer than 35 points in four games last year. Total wins in that span? Zero.

In June, I predicted Notre Dame would top the 40-point mark in at least five different contests this season.

Saturday marks the first entry

Final Score: Notre Dame 41 Nevada 23


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