Notre Dame (3-2) is looking to bounce back from a crushing 41-16 defeat at the hands of in-state rival Purdue. The margin of loss was a real surprise to most Irish fans, but experienced quarterbacks have given the Irish fits in the past.
Kyle Orton simply was able to do whatever he wanted by completing 21-of-31 passes for 385 yards and four touchdowns. The Irish secondary had been a surprise up to Saturday's game, only allowing two touchdowns through the air in four games.
Despite out-gaining the Boilermakers, 536 yards to 512, the Irish couldn't find a way to put the ball in the end zone.
Sophomore Brady Quinn leads the Irish. Quinn is coming off what I consider his best game while playing at Notre Dame, completing 26-of-46 for 432 yards and a touchdown.
The progress of Quinn has been gradual, but he's improving every game. Quinn has thrown nine touchdowns on the season while limiting his interceptions to five; he threw none in the last game.
Behind Quinn, the Irish have former walk-on Pat Dillingham at the backup quarterback position. Dillingham has played very little this season, completing all three of his passing attempts for 28 yards. Dillingham has experience as a starter for Notre Dame, filling in for an injured Carlyle Holiday in 2002.
The Irish appeared to be putting together a nice running game, but Purdue stuffed the Irish for just 76 yards rushing last Saturday.
The hamstring injury to starter Ryan Grant has limited the Notre Dame rushing attack. The Irish have been using mainly freshman Darius Walker (354 yards, 3.6 ypc, three touchdowns) in Grant's absence. The loss of Grant has put a big load on a freshman tailback, and the Irish don't appear to have a lot of confidence in their other backs, as Walker got the lion's share of the carries on Saturday.
Fullback Rashon Powers-Neal has also gotten a few carries at tailback, but has mainly been used as a blocker and occasionally out of the backfield as a receiver.
The Irish have a tremendous amount of talent at tight end, but the main weapons so far this season have been juniors Anthony Fasano and Marcus Freeman. Fasano set a record for most receiving yards by an Irish tight end last week with 155 against Purdue. Fasano was banged up early in the year and is becoming Brady Quinn's favorite target.
At wide receiver, the Irish also have a lot of talent and depth. Senior Matt Shelton has been the deep threat for the Irish, averaging 27.6 yards per catch and scoring four touchdowns on the season. Rhema McKnight leads the Irish in catches with 21, and has chipped in a couple of touchdowns.
Sophomore receiver Jeff Samardzija is also starting to emerge for the Irish. He's made a number of clutch catches the past two weeks, playing in the absence of injured starter Maurice Stovall. Stovall's status for this game is still uncertain.
The Irish offensive line had been doing a nice job of protecting Quinn, but Purdue harassed Quinn into seven sacks last week. The Irish returned four starters from last year along the offensive line, but have remained inconsistent at times and have dominated at others.
Despite the high yardage numbers last week, Notre Dame struggled in the red zone on Saturday, scoring just nine points in four opportunities, and had a fumble on the Purdue one-yard line that was a critical play in the game. The running game really shut down in the red zone last week, and they were a big reason why the Irish offense had problems scoring points.
On the other side of the ball, the Irish defense was the main reason Notre Dame won three straight games. They had been playing excellent defense until Orton and company took them apart.
The main reason the Irish had been successful was they were forcing turnovers. The Irish defense had forced 16 turnovers in four games before being shut out in the turnover department in last Saturday's game.
The Irish defensive line has been doing a nice job of stopping the run so far this season. The Irish have a veteran defensive line, who has been productive in the running game, but haven't managed a great number of sacks (just 10 in five games) despite having Notre Dame's all-time sack leader starting in Justin Tuck.
The Irish have allowed just two rushing touchdowns in five games this season so they are pretty good against the run in the red zone.
The Irish also have a veteran group of linebackers. Two-year starter Mike Goolsby leads the team with 45 tackles at middle linebacker. Derek Curry is a three-year starter and Brandon Hoyte is a two-year starter. This group is very good against the run, but they do struggle in pass coverage at times.
The Irish secondary had a rough week last week after allowing just two touchdowns in four games through the air. They surrendered four to Purdue receivers on Saturday.
Seniors Preston Jackson and Dwight Ellick start at corner for Notre Dame. Jackson is a fiery player, but at 5-8, has trouble with the bigger receivers. Ellick has good speed, but was on the short end of the stick a few times last week against Purdue's Taylor Stubblefield.
Sophomore Tommy Zbikowski has been a real surprise so far early in the season. The strong safety has an interception, 2 forced fumbles and returned a fumble 75 yards for a touchdown against Michigan State. He's played well for a first-year starter. The other safety position is manned by senior Quentin Burrell, who's third on the team in tackles.
The Irish special teams have been spotty at best. They've allowed two kickoff returns for touchdowns in five games - the latest being a critical return against Purdue that changed the momentum of the game.
The Irish are averaging just 18.4 yards per kickoff return so far this season.
Kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick is 4-of-6 on field goal attempts, and 16-of-16 on point after tries. Fitzpatrick is also averaging 40.6 yards per punt.
This is a good Irish team, but they do have holes to exploit. The Irish offense is inconsistent in both the running game and the passing game. Usually one or the other (run or passing game) will show up for a particular game, but rarely do both.
However, the Irish passing game has been improving a great deal the past two weeks and Quinn's accuracy has been greatly improved. If the Irish can get a running game going with an improving Quinn, they should be difficult to stop on offense.
The Irish defense is better than they played against Purdue. I do expect them to bounce back in this game, but Purdue exposed some weaknesses in the Irish secondary and in pass coverage in general.
However, the lack of solid tackling really hurt Notre Dame against the Boilermakers, and they had been a good tackling defense prior to last Saturday.
Names You'll Remember
Because of academics restrictions, the Irish and the Cardinal run into each other quite often when searching for talented players that will meet their academic standards. Here's a quick update on a few that got away from the Cardinal.
Victor is considered a starter even though he doesn't start. He rotates a lot with senior Kyle Budniscak at the strong side defensive end position. So far he's recorded four tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and recorded his first sack of the season against Purdue last week. Many believe Abiamiri can have a Tuck-like impact for the Irish.
Ambrose is a backup corner who will see some action in mop-up duty and does play some on special teams. Wooden just switched to corner this season after playing wide receiver his first season at Notre Dame.
Harris surprised many Irish fans by stepping into a starting role as a true freshman at offensive tackle last season. Harris performed admirably at right tackle last season, and has been switched to left tackle this season. The future is very bright for Harris.
Anastasio has recently climbed his way into the wide receiver rotation, catching his first pass last week for 15 yards. He's also been a mainstay on kickoff return where he shows great promise. He's starting to emerge as a playmaker in a talented and deep receiver rotation.
Carlson is a backup at the tight end position. We keep hearing about all the spectacular plays Carlson makes in practice, but so far he hasn't seen the field much. Irish fans have been waiting to see what the buzz is about.
Walker has obviously contributed a great deal since his debut in the Michigan game. Walker's shown great vision and feet in traffic, but hasn't found many running lanes the last few weeks. He appears to be all he was hyped up to be.
Bob is a two-year starter for the Irish. Morton started at the center position last season, but moved to guard this season to make room for sophomore center John Sullivan. Morton's done a nice job so far at guard this season.
Leitko is a backup at defensive end. He'll get some action in mop-up duty and his future appears to be next season when both Tuck and Budinscak graduate. Leitko has been a nasty special teams player and keeps getting better. He'll likely play a lot next season for the Irish, if not start.
Ndukwe made a splash this spring after moving from wide receiver to strong safety. Ndukwe had never played defense, but showed a headhunter's attitude on the field right from the start. Many thought he was challenging for the starting position before injuring himself late in fall camp. He has played some this year, recording 2 tackles. Many expect him to challenge for a starting spot next season.
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