2005 Look Ahead: Notre Dame

While we focus today on the internal questions that abound for 2005 Stanford Football, we remain mindful of the opponents against whom the Cardinal will compete this fall. In the first of 11 capsules for Stanford's 11 opponents in 2005, we take a look at Notre Dame. Though the Irish are last on the schedule this fall, they remain high on the minds of many Cardinalmaniacs...

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

First Down: Quick Hitters

Notre Dame @ Stanford - November 26 (ABC)

Last Meeting: Notre Dame 23, Stanford 15 ('04)

Side-by-Side Stats: (Notre Dame/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 11/10
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game: 127/81
2004 Passing Yards Per Game: 218/246
Returning Defensive Starters: 3/5
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 88/143
2004 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 281/249
2004 Record: 6-6/4-7
Vegas' Predicted 2005 Record: 6-5/4-7

Second Down: Offense

The upcoming season will mark Notre Dame's fourth year away from the option, as Ty Willingham's hire brought that era to a close in South Bend.  Conventional wisdom holds that the transition to a new offensive philosophy is a three-year process, and sure enough in 2004, Willingham's third as coach, Notre Dame's 24.1 points per game marked their best scoring average since their Fiesta Bowl season in 2000.

The 2005 Irish offense looks to be even better as Notre Dame returns all 11 starters.  Under center, quarterback Brady Quinn followed a trying freshman season (9 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a 47% completion percentage) with a much-improved sophomore stint last year (17 TD, 10 INT, 54%).  All the pieces are in place for Quinn to continue to improve.

Complementing Quinn, tailback Darius Walker will spearhead the ground attack.  Walker exploded onto the national consciousness early last year with over 200 combined yards in consecutive Irish victories against Michigan and Michigan State, showing Maurice Clarett-like ability to bounce runs to the outside.  However, Willingham used Walker sparingly through the remainder of the season, and the Irish ground attack never quite regained its stride.  With the 2004 seniors graduated, Walker figures to be the clear-cut starter this season, and the sophomore should significantly upgrade the ground game.  Rarely do "Notre Dame" and "underhyped" belong in the same sentence, but Quinn and Walker form the nucleus of a very underrated Irish backfield.

The rest of the Irish offense has the potential to be spectacular, but has yet to demonstrate the necessary consistency.  The wide receiver corps is chockfull of top-10 wide receiver recruits, yet the Irish topped 270 receiving yards in just one game in 2004.  Similarly, returning eight of their top 10 linemen last year, Notre Dame garnered only 3.3 yards per carry after posting 4 yards per carry the year previous.  Nearly all the talent throughout the WR and OL depth chart returns this year, so the Irish have the potential to be great offensively; now they just have to achieve.

Third Down: Defense

The outlook isn't nearly as bright for a defense that returns only three starters.

The front seven was a strength for the Irish in 2004, allowing only 88 rushing yards per game and less than three yards per attempt against one of the nation's toughest schedules. (To put those numbers in perspective, USC's famed front seven allowed a comparable 79 yards per game.)  However, this is the one unit hit the hardest by graduation as five of the seven starters depart, including DE Justin Tuck, Notre Dame's all-time sack leader and a 3rd round draft choice of the New York Giants, and ILB Mike Goolsby, the team's top tackler last year.  After such a stellar 2004 and such heavy losses, Notre Dame figures to take a huge step back defending the run.

Notre Dame's secondary appears to be the biggest question mark entering the season, as is the case for Stanford.  The Irish got torched deep last year as opposing quarterbacks posted nearly 300 passing yards per game and a 23-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio.  Admittedly, the Irish faced some of the best passing teams in the country last year (including USC, Michigan, Tennessee and Pittsburgh) and the secondary is full of highly-recruited talent, but with only one starter returning from that sub par 2004 campaign, the 2005 Irish pass defense may severely test the adage that the only way to go is up.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- The major story out of South Bend this summer has been the heavy attrition the Irish have suffered.  In total, seven 2004-05 scholarship players expected to return for the 2005 season will not suit up for Notre Dame this upcoming season.

- While the departures may affect the Irish in future years, the exodus does not appear to have a major impact in this upcoming season.  Of the seven departees, four would have been redshirt freshmen and none would have been seniors.  None of the seven were starters last year, and only Freddie Parish, who would have been a junior safety, figured to challenge for a starting spot this season.

- The special teams, never a priority under Willingham, figure to improve under new head man Charlie Weis.  Returning K/P D.J. Fitzpatrick has a booming leg, posting a spectacular 37.6 net punting average in 2004.

- The contest, to be televised by ABC, will mark the last game held in the old Stanford Stadium, as renovation is scheduled to begin immediately after the final horn sounds.

- Stanford is the only program to open and finish their schedule facing Independents.  (Stanford opens their season against Navy in Annapolis on September 10.)

- The Stanford contest will mark Notre Dame's first game away from home in nearly two months.  Four home games and two bye weeks separate Notre Dame's Stanford visit from their October 1 trip to Purdue.

- New coach Charlie Weis brings three Super Bowl rings to South Bend as the former offensive coordinator for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

- Weis has hit the recruiting trails hard and appears on his way to one of the Irish's strongest classes in years.  Before the season has even kicked off, Weis already has garnered 12 verbal commits in his 2006 class.

- Former Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe, a 40-game winner in the SEC, looked to be a great hire as an assistant HC.  However, Cutcliffe resigned his position at the start of June, citing health complications.

- Overall, Notre Dame's offense looks strong, but the defense looks porous.  With both Notre Dame and Stanford facing challenging schedules, both teams may enter the contest, the season-finale for both squads, counting on a victory to become bowl-eligible.

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