By: Randy Moore
Speed kills, so look for the Tennessee Vols to commit first-degree murder Saturday against Notre Dame. The Big Orange will take the fight right out of the Fighting Irish.
Here's why: Notre Dame is located smack in the middle of Big Ten territory, so its football team is built using the Big Ten model -- big, strong, physical...and slow.
Remember the last three Big Ten teams Tennessee faced? Here's a refresher course:
• Jan. 1, 1996: Tennessee 20, Ohio State 14. Led by Heisman winner Eddie Georgia, QB Bobby Hoying, OT Orlando Pace, WR Terry Glenn and TE Ricky Dudley, the Buckeyes were downright imposing. They ranked No. 1 for much of the season. Yet, even on a wet track, Tennessee's quickness proved too much for Ohio State. Jay Graham broke a 67-yard TD run and Peyton Manning hit Joe Kent with a 47-yard TD pass.
• Jan. 1, 1997: Tennessee 48, Northwestern 28. Manning hooked up with Peerless Price for a 43-yard TD and with Kent for a 67-yarder. This one was child's play.
• Jan. 1, 2002: Tennessee 45, Michigan 17. Vol wideout Kelley Washington (37-yard TD catch) was too fast for Michigan's DBs. Heck, even Vol tight end Jason Witten (64-yard TD catch) was too fast for Michigan's DBs. Tennessee passed for 406 yards against a Wolverine defense that looked like it was running in quicksand.
Saturday's game with Notre Dame will look a lot like the Vol-Michigan Citrus Bowl matchup of 2002. Tennessee will pass the Irish silly -- much as Boston College did two weeks ago (383 passing yards) and Purdue did a couple of weeks before that (413 passing yards).
If Notre Dame couldn't shut down unranked foes like Boston College and Purdue, how can it SLOW DOWN a Tennessee team that is ranked No. 9 and boasts receivers the caliber of Chris Hannon, Jayson Swain, C.J. Fayton, Bret Smith, Robert Meachem, Tony Brown and Derrick Tinsley?
Obviously, a ball-control offense that keeps UT's attack off the field is Notre Dame's best chance to keep the score low. But John Chavis' defense has come of age in recent weeks -- shutting down Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama. The Vols shut down South Carolina for three quarters last weekend, only to switch to an ultra-soft prevent defense that allowed the Gamecocks to pile up more yards in the final 15 minutes than they had in the first 45 combined. As head coach Phil Fulmer noted afterward: ''You learn from those things.'' In other words, the Vols won't be making that mistake again. Tough luck, Irish.
Tennessee's homefield advantage is an added bonus. With an SEC East title, a top-10 ranking and a possible BCS bowl bid in sight, the Vols have plenty of incentive. And, after having to rally from an 8-0 deficit last weekend at South Carolina, they won't be taking Notre Dame lightly.
It all adds up to this: Even ''the luck of the Irish'' won't be enough to offset ''the pluck of the Vols'' this weekend.
BEWARE THE IRISH
By: Jeffery Stewart
Notre Dame is a name that opens a lot of doors in football recruiting and Ty Willingham is a coach who relates well to prospects. That combination has enabled the Fighting Irish to replenish their talent level the last three years.
Of course, it's young talent playing one of the toughest schedules in the country each year. For instance: Notre Dame (5-7) lost to Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, USC, Florida State, Boston College and Syracuse last year. Notre Dame (5-3) rebounded to defeat Michigan and Michigan State this year but lost again to Purdue and to Boston College. That latter setback is the third straight to B.C.
However, the Fighting Irish had their first bye of the season last week and since 1984 they are 23-2 following an off week. On the other hand, Tennessee will be playing its eighth straight week without a break, including a brutal stretch of games against Auburn, at Georgia, at Ole Miss, Alabama and at South Carolina. That could be the recipe for disaster especially where the defense is concerned.
UT was in the same situation last week playing a South Carolina squad that had an extra week to prepare. The Vols defense started off strong but looked more tired as the game went along. The Gamecocks did most of their damage in the fourth quarter, but they moved the ball throughout the game — gaining 567 yards including 341 passing — behind a pair of quarterbacks who were, at best, average throwers.
Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Brady Quinn (6-4, 220) is a lot better than average. He was rated among the nation's top 12 signal callers two years ago and his ability as a drop-back passer earned him scholarship offers from a long list of top programs, including Tennessee.
Among his wide receivers are Maurice Stovall (6-5, 224) and Rhema McKnight (6-1, 208) who were rated the nation's No. 4 and No. 9 wide receiver talents respectively in 2002. Tight end Anthony Fasano (6-4, 249) was rated the nation's No. 8 prospect at his position in 2003 while tailback Grant Ryan (6-1, 211) was a top 20 running back prospect.
Likewise, every starter in Notre Dame's offensive line was rated in the top 15 in their respective recruiting class with the exception of guard Jamie Ryan, a sophomore, who was rated No. 29 and earned three starts as a true freshman.
The defense is even more talented, featuring Victor Abiamiri (6-4, 245) who was the nation's No. 1 rated defensive end in 2003. Senior linebacker Mike Goolsby Jr. (6-4, 248) and senior nose tackle Greg Pauly (6-6, 295) were both rated No. 4 nationally at their positions in 2001.
Make no mistake there is a ton of talent at Notre Dame, considerably more top to bottom than what the Vols saw last week in Columbia, S.C. When you add the Fighting Irish's sustained success after off weeks, Willingham's reputation for producing upsets and Tennessee's fatigue factor, this is a game that could easily get away from the Vols. Even at home.