Close and Late

We resume our summer prediction series with a look at the games that will be played Close and Late on the 12-game slate.

Prediction #16: Notre Dame will play 7 "Close and Late"

Last year's prediction called for 8 or more (there were 10) "Close and Late" matchups, which I defined as a contest in which one score separates the teams at any point in the game's final 10 minutes.

Ultimately, the 2009 contests offered no gray area, as a program record 10 games were decided by 7 points or fewer, with the losing team in position to win or tie in the final five minutes of each.

Optimistic Irish fans will argue fewer than 7 such matchups heading into 2010, but the machinations of a season that includes no premier, but at least 7 top 60 opponents – coupled with the ebb and flow of what I expect to be an emotional turnaround campaign for the upperclassmen, will cause more than a few anxious Saturday moments.

The prediction is broken down into three sets of contests:

Unlikely Pair

Its hard to imagine a 4th Quarter struggle vs. either program in the season's second half.

Western Michigan:

  • On the field: Western Michigan is the least impressive pre-season opponent on the 12-game slate, losing program greats Tim Hiller and Brandon West from the backfield. The defense ranked 101 in total yards allowed last season and hired a new coordinator to fix what was clearly broken.
  • Game Situation: Notre Dame's first non-BCS foe of the season (Week Seven) should bring a nice contingent of followers to South Bend. The Irish face Pittsburgh one week prior. It will be WMU's second contest (they open at Michigan State) vs. a BCS program.
  • Outlook: Blowout of the season; reminiscent of Hawaii 2008.

Army:

  • On the field: The Cadets return a quality defense and could enjoy a .500 or winning season.
  • Game Situation: Focus could be an issue for the Irish – the contest occurs one week after Senior Day (vs. Utah) and one week prior to the regular season finale at rival USC. Throw in the inherent distraction of the contest as the first at the new Yankee Stadium and the on-field product could be sloppy, early.
  • Outlook: I wouldn't be completely shocked if the Cadets hang around for a half, but the Irish should pull away at some point.

The Great Unknown

Four contests in which the Irish won't be blown out, but could pose problems for the still-unknown quantity that is Notre Dame Football 2010.

Purdue:

  • On the field: The Boilers are without solid running back Ralph Bolden and University of Miami transfer Robert Marve – a dual threat QB – will make his first start since 2008.
  • Game Situation: The season opener for both teams.
  • Outlook: I think the Irish will handle Purdue, winning comfortably late, but it's ludicrous to list this matchup anywhere else in our breakdown.

Michigan:

  • On the field: Four key contributors to the 2009 contest have departed: WR Greg Mathews, RB Brandon Minor, DE Brandon Graham, and CB Donovan Warren. QBs Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson continue to battle for the starting job but both will play vs. the Irish.
  • Game Situation: Second game and second legitimate matchup for both programs (Michigan hosts Connecticut in the opener).
  • Outlook: I've had an uneasy feeling all summer, but I'm in the minority. I'm on record this will be a 4th Quarter finish.

Tulsa:

  • On the field: Tulsa is one year removed from a No. 2 national finish in Scoring Offense (47.1 ppg); last year's team struggled to protect returning QB G.J. Kinne, finishing 118th in Sacks Allowed.
  • Game Situation: Follows a New Meadowlands matchup with Navy and precedes the Bye Week for Notre Dame.
  • Outlook: I'll be impressed if Brian Kelly can keep the Irish focused for this non-descript matchup. It's a trap game vs. an inferior, but competent opponent in Week Nine.

Navy:

  • On the field: The Midshipmen have piled up 778 rushing yards vs. the Irish over the last three seasons. Notre Dame will trot out at least 13 defenders who've previously failed to stop Navy's triple-option over that same span.
  • Game Situation: Neutral site at the New Meadowlands; Navy hasn't beaten Notre Dame outside of South Bend since 1960.
  • Outlook: I only promise annoyance…again. Navy would likely handle at least five teams on Notre Dame's schedule.

Four Hours of Angst

None of the six matchups below should be a walk-in-the park for either team.

Michigan State:

  • On the field: The Spartans are loaded at the skill positions and linebacker. QB Kirk Cousins returns after shredding the Irish secondary for 300 yards in his third career start last season.
  • Game Situation: Notre Dame represents the Spartans first test (MSU opens with Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic); the Irish have won three of four in East Lansing.
  • Outlook: Weeks 1-2 could change this prediction, but I see the Irish dropping their first contest of the season under the lights in East Lansing.

Stanford:

  • On the field: Heisman finalist Toby Gerhart is gone; future 1st Round selection Andrew Luck returns at QB to guide Jim Harbaugh's squad.
  • Game Situation: Stanford will be battle-tested with previous contests at UCLA and against Wake Forest. Notre Dame will have completed its three-team tour of the Big Ten heading into the contest.
  • Outlook: Stanford should still have a balanced offense, one with a power running game complimented by the immense talents of Luck. They'll also feature a secondary that can't stop anyone with a pulse. Expect plenty of points in the final September Saturday in South Bend.

Boston College:

  • On the field: The Eagles return the bulk of their No. 14 ranked defense from last season, plus former All-America linebacker Mark Herzlich, who beat cancer in 2009. 26-year-old sophomore QB Dave Shinskie also returns.
  • Game Situation: Boston College will enter the contest following a home matchup vs. a top 10 level Virginia Tech squad; Irish head coach Brian Kelly should know a great deal more about his roster after four consecutive competent, if not strong opponents.
  • Outlook: Notre Dame has won once in Chestnut Hill since Lou Holtz left campus. It's never easy vs. the Eagles.

Pittsburgh:

  • On the field: RB Dion Lewis (152 yards and a touchdown in last year's contest) and WR Jonathan Baldwin (142 yards and a touchdown) return as do nine key defenders.
  • Game Situation: The Panthers should enter the contest in the Top 10…if they can score an opening week upset at Utah on September 2…and survive a late-September home tilt vs. Miami. Notre Dame returns home after a date at Boston College and at the final leg of six consecutive vs. BCS Conference foes.
  • Outlook: The Panthers have won two in a row in South Bend (2004 and 2008) and both of the last two contests vs. the Irish. There's very little chance of a blowout by either side in this October 9 contest.

Utah:

  • On the field: Utah lost six players to the NFL draft but returns eight offensive starters including its entire backfield and 4 of 5 on the O-Line.
  • Game Situation: Utah must travel to South Bend after a season-defining contest vs. conference rival and top 10 power TCU. Notre Dame will have two weeks to prepare for the Utes due to a late-season Bye.
  • Outlook: Utah's program has won nine consecutive bowl games – two of the BCS variety. They'll be prepared for this nationally relevant matchup

USC:

  • On the field: The Trojans are in far better shape than they are off of it…
  • Game Situation: USC returns home after consecutive road tilts at Arizona and Oregon State (where they've lost three consecutive). Notre Dame will travel LA after spending the previous week in Manhattan.
  • Outlook: The last five games in the Coliseum have been decide by 17 (in favor of ND), 31, 31, 20, and 35 points (in favor of USC). This one will come down to the final five minutes.

Six Contests most expect to be close; four more that could be; the guarantee that I'll be wrong at least twice along the way and the ebb and flow of a college season point to 7 games Close and Late for the 2010 Irish.


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