Know Thine Enemy: Notre Dame (1 of 2)

Stanford's sixth (and, dare we say, best-liked) 2008 opponent is none other than Notre Dame. Just like The Bootleg predicted in this space last year, the 2007 Irish were to offense what MC Hammer was to music, finishing dead-last nationally with 232 yards per game. This year, if the line plays to its potential, The Bootleg has another prediction entirely...

First Down: Quick Hitters

Stanford @ Notre Dame – Oct. 4
Last Year: Notre Dame 21, Stanford 14

Side-by-Side Stats
Stats listed Opponent/Stanford. Stanford stats Pac-10 only.

2007 Offense:
Yards Per Game: 242/297
Points Per Game: 16.4/16.4
Rushing Yards Per Game: 75/79
Yards Per Carry: 2.1/2.3 
Passing Yards Per Game: 167/218
Yards Per Pass: 5.2/5.9
Returning Offensive Starters: 9/7

2007 Defense:
Yards Per Game: 357/473
Points Per Game: 28.8/31.1
Rushing Yards Per Game: 195/193
Yards Per Carry: 4.3/4.7
Passing Yards Per Game: 162/280
Yards Per Pass: 5.6/7.8
Returning Defensive Starters: 7/9

Bottom Line:
2007 Record: 3-9/(4-8, 3-6)
2008 Predicted Points Per Game: 26/23
2008 Predicted Points Allowed Per Game: 21/28
2008 Projected Record: 8-4/(3-9, 2-7)


Second Down: Offense

Notre Dame's offense will improve more than any in the country. This is a top-25 team, and this should be a top-25 offense. But after last year's implosion, the offensive line is the million dollar question.

In this space last year, I led with, "Hold your tears, but the Irish attack should suffer one of the biggest falloffs in the country."  Sure enough, the Irish went from 31 points per game to 16, easily the biggest dropoff in the country. In hindsight, the call was obvious, as the Irish lost Brady Quinn, tailback Darius Walker, receivers Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight, and linemen Ryan Harris and Dan Santucci.

This year, I'm calling for the opposite: Notre Dame's offense will improve more than any collegiate attack. Part of it is the schedule, part of it is simply a regression to Notre Dame's historic mean, part of it is a ton of returning experience and part of it is sheer talent.

The problem, pure and simple, was the Notre Dame run game. Gaining just 75 yards per game, it was the worst in school history. The 59 sacks allowed were an NCAA-worst, and the 2.1 yards per carry equally atrocious.
 
So I'm of two minds: on the one hand, Notre Dame has to improve its rush game. The Irish did bring in three new starters last year, while this year they return everyone but center John Sullivan, a sixth-round draft choice of Minnesota.

On the other, I knew they were 3-9, but didn't realize just how bad the run game until those numbers leapt off the page at me. They could improve their run-game numbers by 50 percent and still be pretty bad.

The linemen are four-star type guys, and the offensive coaching staff is highly regarded, whatever your personal feelings about Charlie Weis. (Weis, for whatever reason, has engendered more hate from opposing fan bases than any coach in recent memory. Who's comparable? Pete Carroll? Steve Spurrier? They enjoy more of a grudging respect than the outright hatred Weis seems to inspire.)

Thus, the question Notre Dame fans must have been wrestling with all season is exactly why the O line was so awful. Specifically, do last year's struggles hint at problems that will haunt Notre Dame for seasons to come…

- Maybe the Lemming effect is real and the Irish recruits are all overrated? (More on that in Part 2.)
- Maybe the offensive coaching is awful?

… or were the troubles just a one-time fluke occurrence:
- Maybe events just snowballed, and the team kind of quit after a few games?

I think the truth is closest to the latter – the line just quit, and therefore, their results from last season aren't indicative what we should expect this year.

Given that assumption, I'm projecting that the line will upgrade to respectable: 3.5 yards per carry, 130 ground yards per game, 30 sacks allowed on the season. If so, there's enough talent everywhere else to make Irish a legit top-25 team that could sneak into the watered-down BCS. But, if I'm wrong and last year's woes are going to take Notre Dame years to iron out, it could be 6-6 in South Bend, and another bowl-less offseason or two.

That line is Notre Dame's million dollar question.

Moving on, true sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen (56 percent accuracy, seven touchdowns and six picks) did just as well as could be expected given the chaos around him. He was one of the most highly-touted recruits in his class, and so between his natural talent, Notre Dame's projected rise this year and a quarterback's improvement between his freshman and sophomore years, all signs point to a breakout year. Besides, with highly regarded backups Evan Sharpley and Dayne Crist, the Notre Dame quarterback position is, like Allstate, in good hands.

At first glance, a bigger question would be at tailback, where no one of Team James Aldridge, Armando Allen and Robert Hughes broke 500 yards last year. However, I pin the struggles on the line, as Hughes averaged 5.5 per carry and the other two around four per touch, all healthy averages. (Clausen was sacked so much as to singlehandedly drive the team's rushing average down from the mid-fours to 2.1. Unreal.)

Aldridge was the No. 7 tailback recruit in a 2006 class that featured Knowshon Moreno, Emmanuel Moody, Stafon Johnson and Chris "Beanie" Wells in its top-12. (And services other than Scout ranked him second only to Wells that year.) Allen and Hughes were legit four-stars, so between their rushing averages last year and the low odds of the recruiting services going 0-for-3, you have to think Weis will be able to find someone capable of putting up a 1,200-yard season and slowing down the pass rush on Clausen just a little. The plan is to use all three interchangeably, with Allen the speed back and Aldridge and Hughes the power guys.

Tight end John Carlson leaves, which is a big loss to the receiving game, as the tight end is a de facto receiver under Weis. (Stanford fans wondering what to do with all its tight end recruits: here is the template.) Carlson was a second-round draft pick and led the Irish with 372 receiving yards last year.

Golden Tate has the best name of the receivers, and thus deserves this mention, but it'll be Robby Parris and David Grimes leading the way with Carlson gone. They combined for 600 receiving yards last year, which doesn't sound like much until you consider it was over 20 percent of the Irish's offense.

The two were the recruits of the three-star variety Notre Dame was getting before Weis arrived, and nothing they've done at Notre Dame suggests they'll be world-beaters, but they are upperclass returning starters. They'll be consistent, and unlike the offensive line, it seems highly unlikely they'll soil their pants.


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