No Contest

IrishEyes examines a few storylines as the heavily favored Irish travel to San Antonio to take on the 1-6 Washington State Cougars.

Miracle of Miracles

It hasn't always been this bad for the Washington State program. The Cougars won 10 games in three consecutive seasons (2001-03) and the #15 Cougars met and matched #5 Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl, winning 28-20. The game marked the decade's watershed win and since, the gang from Pullman has endured five consecutive losing seasons (with a sixth on tap); the low-point a 2-11 mark last year.

From early-October to Thanksgiving Weekend of 2008, the Cougars were inarguably the worst team in the nation, losing by 49, 25, 53, 69, 58, 31, and 31 points in a seven-game stretch that ended with an unexpected 16-13 upset win the soon-to-be 0-12 Washington Huskies in the '08 Apple Cup (the winless Huskies were favored by a touchdown).

Over their last 20 contests, Washington State has lost by more than seven touchdowns on six occasions. The Cougars have scored 34 total first Quarter points in that 20-game span, including an astounding three points this season in the opening period.

They haven't beaten a BCS conference opponent not coached by Tyrone Willingham since November 10, 2007.

Curiously, the Cougars stayed with USC (27-6 defeat in late September) but have since dropped games by 46, 13, and 32 points to conference foes Oregon, Arizona State, and California, respectively.

Regardless of the '09 Cougars' modicum of improvement, a loss to Washington State in a neutral site on Saturday would arguably be the worst in the history of the Notre Dame Football program.

Still…Remember the Alamo

Every major program has one: Michigan to Toledo (Appalachian State, after all, was pretty good…actually, Michigan has two); Alabama to Louisiana-Monroe; Tennessee to Wyoming…the list goes on and has increased its number of unsuspecting victims over the last 10 seasons: the parity era of college football.

Notre Dame's personal "Alamo" was of course the 2008 Syracuse Orange. The program that has (currently) managed to defeat three BCS programs since the beginning of 2007.

Since I'm the same guy that wrote this last year (prior to ND's upset loss to the Orange):

ND is 18-9 in home finales since 1981 with about a 95 percent chance of producing a 19th victory this Saturday vs. rudderless Syracuse…

I won't make any more pointless percentage-related proclamations. Anything can happen on game day, but if the Irish focus on sound football and remember their personal Alamo, they'll emerge with win No. 6 for the season.

The Big Number

Note: The following is for informational purposes only:

As of 10 AM Friday morning, the Irish were a 27.5 point favorite over the Cougars in Saturday's neutral site contest. The near-four TD margin is the largest for the Irish since the 2006 home finale vs. Army, a game in which the final line showed Notre Dame as a 29-point favorite (the Irish won 41-9).

In the Weis era (including 2009), the Irish have been favored by two touchdowns (at least 14 points) on 10 occasions:

  • 2005: Navy (23-point favorites/won 42-21); BYU (18-point favorites/won 49-23); Syracuse (34-point favorites/won 34-10); Stanford (15-point favorites/won 38-31).
  • 2006: Purdue (14-point favorites/won 35-21); Stanford (29-point favorites/won 31-10); North Carolina (24-point favorites/won 45-26); Army (29-point favorites/won 41-9).
  • 2007: Just kidding.
  • 2008: San Diego State (21-point favorites/won 21-13); Syracuse (19-point favorites/lost 24-23).

Weis' Irish are just 2-7-1 against the spread when favored by two touchdowns or greater, yet this point spread seems too low.

Pressed to Impress

An often overlooked aspect of (forecasted) one-sided contests is the natural pressure that exists for the heavy favorite to not only win big, but to win with style.

That's certainly a stumbling point for the Irish Saturday night, a team that boasts an offense with two Heisman Trophy candidates, both of which could use signature plays and big numbers on the prime time stage in an effort to augment their final statistical resumes.

As another site's writer aptly noted in Tuesday's press conference with Weis, there's a tendency to want to, "Score two 80-yard touchdowns on one play..."

Irish fans expect a game similar to Hawaii…a seven-touchdown explosion and dominant overall effort. Irish skill position players have certainly taken note of the Cougars 119th-ranked defense while hopeful sackers and big hitters can point to the 35 sacks allowed (worst in the nation); 2.2 yards per carry offensively (116th nationally) and whopping 72 tackles surrendered behind the line of scrimmage (also last in the nation). But this overall futility on paper won't translate to the field every week for a Cougars team that is playing with more confidence that it showed last season.

While the offense should have no trouble moving the football, Notre Dame hasn't displayed the necessary fundamentals to assume dominance defensively in any contest.

Finally, the antiseptic nature of the neutral site won't provide a rallying point for the heavily favored Irish, who'll have to rouse themselves to meet the energy level of the underdog Cougars.

Improved, Confident and Therefore Viable

Despite evidence to the contrary above, the Cougars will come to play Saturday. They fought with USC in The Coliseum (shutting out the Trojans for more than 33 game minutes before falling 27-6) and came from 17 points down to defeat SMU in overtime in early September. Most recently, Washington State battled with Pac-10 defensive leader Arizona State in a 27-14 defeat.

The Cougars talent base is rooted in its underclassmen, with 36 aggregate starts from 10 freshmen. Jeff Tuel has emerged over the last two weeks as the team's unquestioned quarterback, and the freshman signal-caller posted a career-best 354 yards in a losing effort (49-17) at California last Saturday.

Defensively, Weis noted the Cougars throw every look imaginable at an offense, as well as regularly alternating from their base 4-3 to a 3-4 alignment (with junior LB #13 Myron Beck serving as the key lineup insertion signifying the 3-4 D). Washington State rotates three defensive ends and four defensive tackles but rely on four linebackers: the aforementioned Beck; senior strong side ‘backer Andy Mattingly who has taken over for injured sophomore Louis Bland; Alex Hoffman-Ellis in the middle; and Jason Stripling (3.5 tackles-for-loss) on the weak side.

Like the Irish defense of 2008, the Cougars top tackle producers reside on the backline, with SS Chima Nwachuwku (55 stops) and FS Xavier Hicks (45) leading the squad in both solos and assists.

Bosom Buddies?

One disturbing stat that lends the Cougars hope is the similar ranking the two teams possess in the increasingly hot-message board topic: Pass Defense. The Cougars, No. 118 overall, don't have to look far to find the Irish, who currently reside as the nation's 117th ranked pass defense (the statistic measures total passing yards allowed per contest). The Irish have allowed opponents to throw for just over 282 yards per game while WSU surrenders 284 per Saturday. (Incidentally, opening-week opponent Nevada ranks No. 119 allowing 299 yards passing per contest.)

Washington State struggles to run the football, but unless Notre Dame improves its defense on the backline, the Cougars won't have to. Thankfully for Irish fans, and even if the team's pass defense is worse than we realize, Washington State simply can't stay with Clausen and Co. in a Texas Shoot-Out.

Just Make Sure Someone Has Jimmy's Blind Side

Junior left tackle Matt Romine; senior guard/center Dan Wenger; junior right guard Andrew Nuss…Irish fans should get an extended look at each this Saturday, as the trio has earned first-string rotational playing time in a game of this nature. (This is the perfect time to give Romine and Nuss extended work, as the pair challenged for rotational roles in early September but both have seen a sharp decrease in playing time over the last few contests).

And as Weis noted in his Tuesday press conference, the Irish will travel with more linemen than usual with the goal of "a bunch" of those backups seeing game action.

Look for junior right tackle Taylor Dever and sophomore guard Braxston Cave to see action if the scoring margin reaches three touchdowns, and for sophomore center Mike Golic, Jr. to get a look as well, provided the Irish front liners take care of business in the game's opening quarters.

Get the Band Back Together

With senior WR Robby Parris expected to be withheld from action (ankle); sophomore star Michael Floyd a weekend away from the CAT Scan results heard-round-college football, and junior half back Armando Allen (ankle) a game-time decision, the Irish coaching staff will have a chance to develop a few of its second-string stalwarts under competitive game conditions.

Sophomore John Goodman should again fill the team's No. 3 receiver role, but freshmen Roby Toma and Shaquelle Evans as well as sophomore Deion Walker have a chance to rotate into the first half mix and again prove their wares against someone in an opposing uniform.

Likewise, sophomore half back Jonas Gray has the opportunity to receive the bulk of the carries with Allen questionable and junior runner Robert Hughes (cleared to play) one week removed from a hit that left him woozy and in need of cognitive clearance to join his teammates in practice early this week.

Gray and freshman half back Theo Riddick had earned early-season playing time. If the duo remains a notch below or near that level of performance in the eyes of Weis and running backs coach Tony Alford, Saturday could present the ideal opportunity to allow the young guys at least a portion of the heavy lifting.

Another option is senior fullback James Aldridge, who should take a few hits to this healed shoulder before he can be trusted in short-yardage situations in enemy territory later this month.

Wholesale substitutions when the game is in doubt isn't the only way to develop quality depth and offer a backup game experience. It's up to Weis and his staff to integrate players knocking on the door throughout the contest Saturday night.

Game Prediction

In the summer, I pegged this matchup as the game in which Notre Dame would pile up its highest yardage total of the season. Considering every one of the 530 yards gained vs. Washington in South Bend on October 3rd were necessary, I have a feeling the Irish will be hard-pressed to top that total in what should be, at least at some point, a one-sided affair.

Look for the Irish to take control from the outset and patiently earn an 18-21 point lead early in the second quarter.

The Wildcat formation will make more than one appearance in the game's first 30 minutes and backup sophomore QB Dayne Crist should get the bulk of the work on the back nine as the Irish roll, scoring their first non-offensive touchdown of the season; tying a season-high five turnovers created; and celebrating a record-setting performance by freshman kicker Nick Tausch, who's two successful field goals removed from the program's record for consecutive field goals made, (held by former walk-on Mike Johnston who hit 13 straight in 1982).

Finally, seven different Notre Dame players have scored touchdowns this season. That number will reach nine by Sunday morning.

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