2006 Look Ahead: Notre Dame

Everybody in college football is talking about the Brady Quinn-led Irish offense this year, and with good reason. Notre Dame will be lighting up the scoreboard in '06, but their preaseason #3 ranking is equally justified by their defense. The Cardinal's battle in South Bend on October 7 looks to be a challenge at several positions on the field.

Notre Dame Irish

First Down: Quick Hitters

Stanford @ Notre Dame – October 7 (Ride the Boot-Train!)

Last Meeting: Notre Dame 38, Stanford 31 ('05)

Side-by-Side Stats: (Notre Dame/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 7/10
2005 Yards Per Point: 13.0/12.9
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game: 147/92
2005 Yards Per Carry: 3.6/2.6
2005 Passing Yards Per Game: 330/224
2005 Pass Completion Rate: 64.8/61.4
Returning Defensive Starters: 9/6
2005 Yards Per Point Allowed: 16.2/14.4
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 132/156
2005 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 3.9/4.0
2005 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 265/286
2005 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 64.8/60.8
2005 Record: 9-3/5-6

Second Down: Offense

The season finale at USC may not just be for a trip to the National Title.  It may well be a meeting of the country's top-two offenses.  And considering that school in L.A. had the best offense college football had ever seen last year, that is no small praise.

Quarterback Brady Quinn is the Heisman frontrunner and possible San Francisco 49ers, I mean top draft pick, next April, and he is worthy of the hype.  Would-be contenders cannot put up Quinn's numbers last season – nearly 4,000 passing yards, 32 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and 65% accuracy – on their PlayStations.  He did not just break the single-season records at college football's second-winningest program (thank you, Michigan); he shattered them by 13 touchdown passes and nearly 1,200 passing yards.  True, the Irish have historically been an option team, but I think it is fair to anoint him the school's best quarterback ever, especially considering the competition is Ron Powlus, Steve Beuerlein and Rick Mirer.  Opponents will gun for Quinn, and if he goes down, all bets are off as the backups are talented but have no experience.

While running back Darius Walker would start for every Pac-10 team save Cal, that speaks more to the lack of exceptional tailback talent on the left coast than it does Walker's elite abilities.  Admittedly, he is very good, but I have not yet seen him display the elite speed, strength, hands or escape abilities of a Reggie Bush/Maurice Clarett (the best two backs I have seen in college football, hands down).

But the whole argument is somewhat irrelevant.  Even if, as I am to propose, Walker puts up great numbers because teams tee off on Quinn and the receivers, the passing attack should be as wide open as ever in South Bend, and so too should the holes for Walker.

At receiver, depth departs but Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija are the best one-two punch outside of USC's Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith.  Samardzija, a First-Team All-American, presents matchup problems galore at 6'5" and 216 pounds.  However, if McKnight, a top-ten receiver recruit, blows out his knee like last year, in steps a true sophomore with no experience outside special teams – either D.J. Hord or David Grimes.

On the line, four seniors are the presumptive starters – and this is the Irish's least experienced offensive unit.  Rightside starters Dan Stevenson (three-year starting guard, sixth round choice of the New England Patriots) and Mark LeVoir do depart, but seven of last year's top 10 return.  While the unit does not look to be a strength, it will hold its own long enough to let Quinn, Samardzija and Walker work their magic.  Incoming freshman Sam Young, the top offensive line recruit in the country, should push for time at guard.

Third Down: Defense

The improvement in the defense makes me call this the best Notre Dame team I have seen.

The knock on the Irish for the past few years has been a paper-thin secondary.  That was true two years ago (58% passing, 281 yards per game) and contained a kernel of truth last year (53% passing, 265 yards).  This year's nine returning starters include the entire secondary, which should transform the back four into the defensive strength.  Couple that with the Irish's offensive firepower, and Notre Dame should be significant favorites every week until the finale at USC.

In the back, boxer/safety Tom Zbikowski is a Third-Team All-American with 4.3 speed.  The scary news?  Lockdown corner Ambrose Wooden calls that slow.  He runs a 4.26.  Seniors Chinedum Ndukwe, a receiver converted to safety, and corner Mike Richardson, a converted quarterback, round out the unit.

The front four returns all its starters.  (That is bad news for a Stanford offensive line that yielded the Irish seven sacks in last year's season finale.)  While Notre Dame will not come near their national-title caliber numbers of 2004 (2.7 yards per carry and 88 yards per game), they should improve last year's 3.9 yards per carry and hold about steady at 132 rush yards allowed (no projected drop because opponents will try to rush more given the improved secondary).

Perhaps the biggest question mark at the team is at linebacker, where Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays, the team's top-two tacklers have graduated.  However, the lightning-quick secondary and experienced front should be able to carry some of the tackling load as the 'backers gain experience.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- Call me an atheist if you must, but the evidence strongly suggests there is no (Touchdown) Jesus after all.  Notre Dame's home record the last four years (since Willingham's hire) is 15-9.  Its road record over the same period?  15-7.  Yet the media still calls it one of the toughest stadiums in the country.

- Nationally, the defense should be Top 20 and the offense Top Three.  With 16 returning starters, the most overrated schedule in the country (USC and Michigan may be the only ranked opponents on the slate) and no other clear-cut favorites for the title, that is plenty justification for the #3 preseason ranking they received last week.  Let me put it this way: would you rather bet on the Irish or an Ohio State team (another preseason favorite) that returns two defensive starters to win the national title?

- What makes the Irish so formidable?  This team has just four players (Quinn, Samardjiza, Wooden and Zbikowski) who are among the best nationally at their positions, but they simply do not have any gaping holes.  Given solid play from the "no name" (as much as that is possible when you are on national television each week) starters across the board, the firepower they do possess could be enough.

2006 Regular Season Prediction:

11-1 (If the USC game were either before Thanksgiving weekend or in South Bend, I would project the Irish undefeated and into the National Title.  Then again, with Rhett Bomar gone at Oklahoma, maybe 11-1 will be enough.)

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