2007 Look Ahead: Notre Dame

Once again, Stanford and Notre Dame will play their game Thanksgiving weekend on The Farm. Scheduling this year makes it the season finale for the Irish but the penultimate game for the Cardinal, who a week later host Big Game. Notre Dame enters the 2007 season with loads of questions on offense after losing most of their weapons to the pros, and the Irish may not be much better on defense.

Notre Dame Irish

First Down: Quick Hitters

Notre Dame @ Stanford – November 24

Last Meeting: Notre Dame 31, Stanford 10

Side-by-Side Stats: (Notre Dame/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 4/8
2006 Points Per Game: 31.0/10.6
2006 Rushing Yards Per Game: 126/65
2006 Yards Per Carry: 3.9/2.1
2006 Passing Yards Per Game: 264/167
2006 Pass Completion Rate: 61.6/52.8
Returning Defensive Starters: 5/8
2006 Points Allowed Per Game: 23.8/31.4
2006 Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game: 137/211
2006 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 3.8/4.9
2006 Passing Yards Allowed Per Game: 203/177
2006 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 55.2/60.3
2006 Record: 10-3/1-11
2007 Projected Record: (7-5)/(3-9, 2-7)

Second Down: Offense

Hold in your tears, but the Irish attack should suffer one of the biggest fall-offs in the country.  Just consider everyone who left:  quarterback Brady Quinn (first-round draft pick), tailback Darius Walker (1,700 total yards last year), receivers Jeff Samardzija (First-Team All-American, school-record 2,593 career receiving yards) and Rhema McKnight (900 receiving yards, 15 touchdowns last year), and linemen Ryan Harris (third-rounder) and Dan Santucci (seventh-rounder).

Into the void steps the revolution of the quarterback position... or an overhyped, spoiled mommy's boy with a bone spur in his elbow.  That is your call to make; I am just a journalist.  I refer, of course, to incoming freshman Jimmy Clausen.  Love him or hate him, I have never seen a recruit garner so much attention before stepping on the field.  Of course, showing up to your press conference in a stretch limo might have something to do with that.  (My only take: his hairdo makes him look like an emu.)

Clausen might not win the job anyways, with the mobile Demetrius Jones and Evan Sharpley, the only candidate to have actually thrown a pass at Notre Dame, in the mix.  Whoever gets the job will be in a no-win position – matching Quinn's productivity is a pipe dream.

I am no scout, so it came as a shock to me when Walker went undrafted this past April.  He only got better by the season, rushing for 786 yards in 2004, 1,196 in 2005 and 1,267 last year – numbers that would make him Stanford's number-two all-time career rusher (behind only Darrin Nelson).  Still, while 32 teams of NFL scouts and general managers are sometimes wrong, betting against them is not a good way to make a living.  Walker's departure will undoubtedly hurt the Irish, but with uberhyped five-star sophomore James Aldridge backed by steady senior Travis Thomas, this group may grow to match the level of last year's backs.  Still, without Quinn, Samardzija and McNight to distract defenses, the Irish will not match last year's numbers.

The biggest question is probably at wide receiver, where junior David Grimes (336 receiving yards last year) is joined by unknown sophomores D.J. Hord and George West.  Senior tight end John Carlson did haul in 634 yards last year, but the Irish may be limited in their ability to stretch a defense vertically, especially with the youth at quarterback.  Quinn's insane 5.3 ratio (37 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) last year should drop to less than two this season, and that alone will cost the Irish several games.

The offensive line is a question, too.  Center John Sullivan, a senior, and right tackle Sam Young, a sophomore, are top recruits who have proven worthy of the hype.  But at guard (Matt Carufel, Eric Olsen and Northwestern transfer Thomas Bemenderfer, all sophomores figure into the mix) and at left tackle (likely starter Paul Duncan has played in only 108 minutes in his two years at Notre Dame), the Irish will suffer significant drop-offs.

This offense actually was less productive last year than in 2005 (31 versus 36.7 points per game), largely because the passing yardage dropped from 330 to 264 per game.  I project a similar drop in passing yardage and total points this year.  This offense is a middle-of-the-pack unit that will put up Irish's worst numbers since Tyrone Willingham manned the sidelines.

Third Down: Defense

The defense does not fall off as much from last year, but then again, last year's defense was not as good as last year's offense.  All told, the defense looks like another middle-of-the-road unit, much like their offensive counterparts.

The only national-level star on the entire team is Tom Zbikowski, a Third-Team All-American and former top-10 safety recruit stepping into his fourth straight year as starting safety.  Bowl eligibility would be a struggle were it not for his surprising return to South Bend this season.

Linebacker Maurice Crum and defensive end Trevor Laws are the best players on an otherwise unimposing front seven.  The Irish are switching to a 3-4, perhaps in response to the loss of end Victor Abiamiri (second rounder) and tackle Derek Landri (fifth rounder).  With two redshirt freshmen likely starting next to Laws up front, the learning curve figures to be especially steep.

The secondary then, looks to be the strength of the D, with seasoned corners Ambrose Wooden and Terrail Lambert returning alongside Zbikowski.  They will do fine against mid-tier opponents, but when the big boys line up opposite this unit – watch out.  Maybe it is a scheme thing, but I have seen Lambert and Wooden on the wrong side of more USC and Michigan touchdowns than anyone.  It got to the point that Michigan blogs started referring to the duo simply as "Toast."  The turnstile defense actually cost Wooden his starting spot last year, after he started all of 2005.  That he figures to start this year says all you need to know.  The loss of safety Chinedum Ndukwe and corner Mike Richardson, each late NFL draft picks, downgrades the defense from top-20 level to top-40.  Compounding the coverage problems is the fact that the Irish may have to run blitz plenty to support their raw front seven.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

Years of growing up a Michigan fan and watching a soon-to-be 7-5, nothing-special Irish team deflate national title dreams for my top-10 Wolverines has ingrained in me never to discount Notre Dame.  There is a certain aura that will carry the Irish to wins they should never have, and Charlie Weis has certainly restored that.  But I will go on the record: there is no way, no way, no way that Notre Dame matches last year's 10 regular-season wins, let alone contends for a national title.  A team that will likely start 10 underclassmen is just too young.

The flip side, of course, is that with just seven starting seniors, this is a top-five team in 2008.

Evidence that Notre Dame is overrated?  They have not won a bowl game in the last 14 years.  Recent high-profile shellackings by Oregon State (41-9 in the 2000 Fiesta), Ohio State (34-20 in the 2005 Fiesta) and LSU (41-14 in last year's Sugar) have not helped the cause.

Another stat that deflates the hype balloon:  the Irish have actually lost more games at home than away in the Weis era.  Alas, this year's contest is on The Farm – also Notre Dame's season-finale.

The Irish have the most backloaded schedule in the country, with a November of Navy, Air Force, Duke and Stanford after an opening of Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, UCLA, Boston College and USC.  Boston College should stink this year, and Michigan State and Purdue are nothing special, but the Irish could well be 3-5 or even 2-6 after October 20 – and still be right where they need to be in terms of securing bowl eligibility.

Third time's a charm?  Should the impossible happen, Charlie Weis would join Lou Holtz, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine as the fifth Irish coach to win the national title in his third year in South Bend.  And I will never wear this tee shirt again.

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