Notre Dame Game Preview

UCLA travels to South Bend, Indiana, for just the third time in its history to take on a good Notre Dame team led by a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback in Brady Quinn. The #8-ranked Irish could be a bit over-rated, especially with a vulnerable defense, so can UCLA pull out the victory?

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- UCLA travels to South Bend, Indiana, to take on Notre Dame in a non-conference match-up that will be televised nationally by NBC, beginning at 11:30 a.m. PST. Tom Hammond and Pat Haden will be in the booth.

-- Notre Dame is 5-1 on the season and ranked 10th in the country by the AP, and 8th in the USA Today poll.  They have beaten Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan State, Purdue and Stanford, while losing to Michigan in South Bend.

-- UCLA has played Notre Dame just twice before, once in 1963 and then in 1964, both in South Bend.  The Irish won both games, 27-12, and 24-0.  The two schools are slated to meet for the first time in Los Angeles next year, on October 6th, in the Rose Bowl.

-- In the 1964 shut-out, two California products, quarterback John Huarte (from Anaheim) and receiver Jack Snow (Long Beach) were key players. Huarte won the Heisman Trophy that season.

-- Notre Dame is coached by Charlie Weis, in his second year at the helm. Weis, a graduate of the school, came to Notre Dame from the NFL as one of the most-respected offensive coordinators in the game, having never been a head coach. In his first year at Notre Dame in 2005, he lived up to expectation, taking the Fighting Irish to a 9-3 record and a sixth-place finish in the final BCA standings. Weis turned the Irish into an offensive power, scoring more points in 2005 than in any previous season in school history, while gaining 477 yards per game on the season.  Weis, considered a disciple of NFL head coaches Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, has earned a reputation as a hard-nosed taskmaster. 

-- While Weis has kept the Irish faithful satisfied so far, going 14-4 in a season in a half, the Notre Dame head coaching position is among the toughest jobs in football.  Weis' predecessors didn't have it so good. Tyrone Willingham preceded Weis as Notre Dame's coach and was fired after three years. Willingham, you might remember, started his coaching career at Notre Dame 8-0.  Willingham wasn't the first choice of the Notre Dame administration at the time, however. In 2001, Notre Dame hired George O'Leary, but when discrepancies were found in his resume, O'Leary resigned five days after he was hired. Before O'Leary and Willingham, Notre Dame was coached by Bob Davie, who never really won over the Irish faithful, going 35-25 in five years.

-- Current UCLA offensive line coach Jim Colletto served as an assistant coach at Notre Dame in 1997-98.  Remarkably, Colletto also played as a fullback on the two UCLA teams that met Notre Dame in 1963 and 1964. Colletto also faced Notre Dame when he was the head coach at Purdue.

-- The Fighting Irish play in Notre Dame Stadium, which seats 80,795, and has natural grass.  It will be the 109th straight sell-out. Notre Dame has sold out every game since 1966 but one.

-- Notre Dame, with a win, will go to 6-1, which would be its most successful beginning of a season since Willingham started 8-0 in 2002.

-- Notre Dame is 75-39-6 all-time against the Pac-10. The 120 games played against the Pac-10 is the second most for the Irish against any conference, with Notre Dame having played Big Ten teams 338 times.   Notre Dame has played against every Pac-10 team and has a winning record against nine of them, with Oregon State holding a 2-0 advantage over the Irish all-time.

-- Notre Dame will play three Pac-10 teams this season - Stanford, UCLA and USC.

-- Notre Dame's all-time overall record is 817-267-42.

-- Notre Dame has 12 players on its roster from California.

-- UCLA Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker worked on the same staff as Charlie Weis in 2000 with the New England Patriots.

-- The most famous match-up between the two schools was in basketball, when, in 1974, Notre Dame ended UCLA's NCAA-record winning streak at 88 games in a 71-70 thriller.

-- Notre Dame had a bye week last week. Two weeks ago, they faced Stanford in South Bend, beating the struggling Cardinal, 31-10.

-- This game is probably the most-supported road game by UCLA fans in many years. UCLA sold its allotted 5,000 tickets for the game, and it's been reported that a few thousand more UCLA fans have bought up more tickets.

-- The weather is forecast for Saturday in South Bend as a high of 59 degrees and a low of 41 degrees, with a 30% chance of rain.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. NOTRE DAME'S DEFENSE

The Irish defense isn't great. In fact, it's pretty mediocre. It's ranked nationally at 75th (347 yards per game). To put it in perspective, UCLA's struggling offense is ranked better, at 66th.

It's not as if one aspect of Notre Dame's defense is really bad. Both the rushing defense and passing defense aren't very good.

The defense has been troubled by some losses from last season, injuries, an unexpected departure and generally some lingering question marks.

Probably two of the most known quantities on the defense are the two senior defensive tackles, Derek Landri (6-3, 283) and Trevor Laws (6-1, 294).  Landri, you might remember, is from Concord De La Salle, and considered the stalwart of the d-line.  He and Laws are good anchors inside. On the outside is senior defensive end Victor Abiamiri (6-4, 270), who is beginning to deliver on some hyped potential this season, having five sacks and 9 total tackles for loss, to lead the team in both categories.  The other starting DE is senior Chris Frome (6-5, 266). That position, however, was weakened a bit last week when back-up Ronald Talley, who was getting a good amount of playing time, decided to leave the team for an unspecified reason. 

The linebacking unit has been where losses from last season and injury have been issues. The Irish lost two of its three starters from a season ago, and the two that have filled in those spots have been doing spotty work. Senior Travis Thomas (6-0, 218) is under-sized but has good quickness. He sat out the Stanford game, but after the bye week, is projected to start.  Senior strongside linebacker Mitchell Thomas (6-3, 236) isn't considered much more than a journeyman, but no one else on the squad could beat him out for the starting position.  A great deal of the linebacking responsibility is carried by junior middle linebacker Maurice Crum (6-0, 225) who, while a bit smallish himself, flies around the field well, sharing the team lead for tackles (43) and having six tackles for loss.

Irish middle linebacker Maurice Crum.


Among the back four, the safeties have been the stalwarts. Senior free safety Chinedum Ndukwe (6-2, 209) is having an all-conference type of year (if Notre Dame had a conference), sharing the team lead for tackles, having a good nose for the ball. Senior strong safety Tom Zbikowski (6-0, 216) had a streak of 29 straight starts snapped when he sat out the Stanford game, but he's expected, after the bye week, to start against UCLA.  He could be the best player on the defense. 

The question marks have been at cornerback for the Irish, but recently they might have found some answers. Senior Mike Richardson (5-11, 182) was a returning starter from last year and has had a strong senior year so far.  Speedy junior Terrail Lambert (5-11, 188) has taken over the other spot when he intercepted two passes against Michigan State, including one for the go-ahead touchdown.  Senior Ambrose Wooden (5-11, 190) will return from injury this week, but Lambert it seems has won the starting position.

As Notre Dame's defense hasn't been good against the run or the pass, UCLA's offense is a good match-up for it, since the Bruins' offense hasn't been good at either so far this season.  The UCLA brain trust keeps insisting every week that it's just a matter of time until the offense puts it together, but it's running out of games.

UCLA sophomore quarterback Patrick Cowan hasn't exactly been given an easy entree into his starting career. He started last week at Oregon, which is a tough gig, and now heads to South Bend to face the #8 Irish. To make matters worse, Cowan is suffering from a strained voice, which has made it difficult for him to yell out the line calls. He was able to talk pretty well Wednesday in practice and it's not believed it will be an issue, but it's hard to tell whether, after trying to yell over the Notre Dame crowd for a couple of quarters, the voice will hold up.  UCLA has said that center Robert Chai can make the line calls and Cowan would be able to use hand signals to the skill positions if he needs to audiblize.

But then again, Cowan's voice is probably the least of his worries.  He's making just his second start, coming off a game where he didn't play badly, but certainly didn't play exceedingly well.  Last week in the loss against Oregon Cowan didn't necessarily do anything that made UCLA lose the game, but he didn't do anything that would win it either.  He's been accurate throwing the ball generally, and has made pretty good decisions. Cowan, despite getting jumpy when he talks to the press, is pretty even-keeled on the field, and isn't really the type to get rattled to the point it would affect his play drastically.

What would really give the inexperienced Cowan a big boost is if the UCLA passing game got on track. So far this season it's been atrocious, on a pace to be one of the worst passing offenses in recent UCLA history.  Much of the blame, whether it's earned or not, has been dumped at the feet of the coaching staff, for not throwing the ball down the field enough. Now, whether the coaching staff has called the down-the-field plays and there just hasn't been a receiver open or the quarterback decided to check off short, is hard to determine. It's generally agreed upon, though, that the UCLA offense hasn't intended to throw down the field enough this season, and it's making the offense have to labor its way down the field on short gains. 

Even though the UCLA coaches have said in weeks past that they were going to open up the offense that week, it could be true this week. In practice the last couple of days, UCLA's offense has, in fact, been throwing down the field, almost excessively.  Now, again, they've done this in practice before - in fact, in the week before the Washington game, the one where UCLA looked to throw the least. 

UCLA doesn't have big-time playmakers at its receiver positions, but they're not slouches either.  Junior Taylor, Marcus Everett and Brandon Breazell have proven in years past that they could make the big play if given the opportunity.  Taylor is possibly still not himself due to the knee injury and Breazell has struggled physically, getting bumped off his routes. But Everett, while not blazingly fast, with good strength, route-running and hands, looks to be a good candidate for UCLA to use to stretch the field this week.  Also, after he got the call on a reverse last week, watch for true freshman Jeremy McGee to get on the field in the hope of giving UCLA more speed down the field. 

UCLA took a hit at tight last week when it lost Ryan Moya for the season with a broken leg.  Among UCLA's receivers, Moya probably gave the Bruins its biggest match-up advantages, so he'll be missed.  Logan Paulsen has had a good sophomore year so far, with 12 catches for 170 yards. With senior blocking tight end J.J. Hair still out, UCLA will rely on converted defensive end William Snead for the two-tight-end sets. 
UCLA's Chris Markey.


But don't expect UCLA to suddenly become completely pass-happy. For one thing, it wouldn't be a good idea, since Notre Dame isn't a great rushing defense and, if any aspect of UCLA's offense has shown flashes of being good, it would be the running game.  Running back Chris Markey has been just okay so far this season, hitting holes efficiently, but not having great explosiveness and not running with much power and, thus, not putting much fear in opposing defenses.  The other issue is that the back-up tailback, Kahlil Bell, has looked completely average so far this season.  The UCLA faithful is still waiting for freshman Chane Moline to get more chances.

A big factor in the game will be the performance of UCLA's offensive line, and its health. Last week, starting tackle Aleksey Lanis missed some time against Oregon, and it really hurt, both in the running game and particularly in pass protection.  A very good match-up should be between UCLA's interior line, namely standout guard Shannon Tevaga, and Notre Dame's defensive tackles. 

Advantage: Even. Really. Yes, UCLA's offense hasn't been very good, but neither has Notre Dame's defense. If you had to give the advantage to either one, it'd go to Notre Dame's D only because they're playing at home and against a young, inexperienced quarterback. 

But Notre Dame's defense has looked vulnerable, particularly against Stanford two weeks ago.  While it might not appear that way, Stanford rushing for 70 yards against the Irish wasn't a good performance against the Cardinal, which has one of the worst rushing attacks in the nation. 70 yards is pretty good, also, when the opposing team's offense has the ball for a vast majority of the game. 

And, actually, Notre Dame's passing defense is considered worse. Notre Dame hasn't faced many good passing teams, but when it did, which was Purdue, the Boilermakers threw for almost 400 yards on them. Even Stanford looked decent throwing the ball two weeks ago in South Bend.  The Irish's corners are sloppy in coverage.  It will really help getting back safety Zbikowski.

In fact, Notre Dame's defense is probably healthier after the bye week than it's been alll season.  If there's one factor that could make Notre Dame's defense considerably better than they've looked so far this season it could be that they have everyone healthy again.

You'd have to expect Notre Dame to try to limit UCLA's running game with extra guys in the box to force Cowan to beat you.  We'll go out on a limb this week and actually predict that UCLA will try to buck the scouting report on their offense and throw down the field. You might even see back-up quarterback, the athletic and shifty Osaar Rasshan, get a series, to try to keep the Irish off-balance.  Rasshan isn't a great thrower, but he would give UCLA that Isaiah Stanback-type element, which UCLA could use just to mix it up.

NOTRE DAME'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

The Irish have a good, balanced offense, combing a solid running game with a very effective and efficient passing game in primarily pro sets. 

It really all begins with Notre Dame's quarterback, senior Brady Quinn (6-4, 233). Quinn either owns or is about to set most of Notre Dame's passing records, including career passing yards (9,970), touchdown passes (74), and average passing yards per game (237).  He finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy race last year and is probably among the handful of serious contenders this year.

Quinn isn't necessarily putting up the big numbers from a year ago, but he's still been very good by any standard. Perhaps the most impressive has been the 63.5% completion percentage, or just the four interceptions he's thrown in six games.  He's smart, experienced, makes good decisions, has an accurate arm and is mobile, able to run if need be. If you give him time, he'll beat you and the game will be over.

What has really helped Quinn in the last two years has been a very good group of receivers, led by Southern California product, senior Rhema McKnight (6-2, 203). McKnight, you might remember, chose Notre Dame over UCLA and, four years later, he probably doesn't have any regrets -- finally. It's been a rollercoaster for McKnight, getting through a coaching change and then having to sit out all of last season with a knee injury.  What makes McKnight so effective is his running mate, senior receiver Jeff Samardzija (6-5, 216), who will remind Bruin fans more of former-UCLA receiver Danny Farmer than any other previous Farmer comparison. He physically looks like Farmar and is similar in his pass-catching style - big, strong, with good hands and tough. 

What also has really made Notre Dame's passing attack flourish this year is the emergence of junior tailback Darius Walker (5-10, 208) as a receiving threat out of the backfield. Walker, in fact, leads the team in receptions with 38 (McKnight has 37 and Samardzija has 34).  It's really given the Irish offense another dimension, with Quinn swinging it out or dumping it off underneath to Walker very frequently for 7-12-yard gains. 
Notre Dame tailback Darius Walker.


Senior tight end John Carlson (6-6, 256) has also emerged as a big threat, catching 28 balls on the season for 397 yards, which is 11 receptions and 186 yards more than any UCLA wide receiver. 

After those four targets, no one else is really a threat - but those four certainly give Quinn enough weapons.  And they're big and strong weapons, which might give the smaller UCLA defensive backs flashbacks to the Oregon game last week. With those kind of guys catching the ball, Quinn likes to go down field often. 

Walker, who was thought to be just a good running back but not great, has really earned his keep with a very good first half of his junior year.  Not only is he Notre Dame's leading receiver, he's running the ball fairly well, while Notre Dame hasn't exactly been good at opening up a lot of running room for him. Senior Travis Thomas (6-0, 218) is the bigger change-of-pace at tailback. Notre Dame did suffer a loss when the season of promising starting sophomore fullback Asaph Schwapp ended because of knee surgery.  There is a drop-off with senior Ashley McConnell (6-0, 239).

Notre Dame's offensive line has been passable so far this season.  Three proven veteran starters returned from last season, all seniors: left tackle Ryan Harris (6-5, 285), left guard Dan Santucci (6-4, 300), and center John Sullivan (6-4, 279).  Harris is considered a good pro prospect and a very good pass blocker.  New starter, senior right guard Bob Morton (6-4, 300) has stepped in and been relatively seamless.  At right tackle, highly recruited true freshman Sam Young (6-8, 305) is starting and, while he's talented, he's inexperienced and has been exposed some so far this season. The group last year had issues getting a push in the running game, and those issues have continued this year, while they also haven't been stellar in pass protection, allowing 15 sacks on the season.
The UCLA swarm on defense.


UCLA's defense, for a second week in a row, will be challenged, on the road against a formidable offense with a very good quarterback and many dangerous receivers.  Last week, they didn't hold up well, giving the Oregon defense the run of the field for the a quarter and a half, which was enough for the Ducks to score three touchdowns and essentially put the game out of reach. 

UCLA's defense, last week, looked a bit over-matched for the first time this season, mostly with UCLA's d-line matching-up against Oregon's bigger offensive line. Notre Dame's offensive line is sized a bit better for the Bruins, and UCLA's speed on the edge among its two defensive ends, Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis, should be more of a factor in this game.  The Bruins should really make some considerable attempts to exploit the huge Young and his inexperience at that tackle position.

Middle linebacker Christian Taylor wasn't 100% a week ago against Oregon, and he has been practicing on a limited basis this week, still nursing the sore ankle.  Expect him to play but not be 100% again. 

UCLA's defensive secondary got its first real test last week against a top-notch group of receivers, and hopefully for the Bruins that got them warmed up for the Irish.  UCLA safety Dennis Keyes will have to play much better than he did a week ago, especially in pass coverage, and there will again be a lot of pressure put on UCLA's cornerbacks. While he's held up well so far this season, you can still expect Notre Dame to run and throw in the direction of true freshman Alterraun Verner. 

Advantage:  Notre Dame.  UCLA's defense is good, but probably a bit over-rated, having not faced too many good offenses yet this season. When it did, last week, against Oregon, it wilted, especially against the run, with the Ducks gaining 256 yards on the ground.  Notre Dame doesn't have that kind of running game, averaging just 106 yards per game, so expect UCLA's rushing defense to rebound this week. It might not put in a performance like you were used to seeing in the first five games (where it gave up 50 yards per game), but reducing Notre Dame's running game to a relative non-factor is within the realm of possibility.

UCLA will be very hard-pressed to do the same against Notre Dame's passing game.  It's just too effective, with the very efficient Quinn and those big, experienced receivers.  Also, you have to consider coaching here, with Charlie Weis's meticulous game-planning and offensive acuity being a huge factor. Weis is earning a rep for good in-game adjustments, being able to recognize a defense's weaknesses and quickly adjusting to exploit them. Last week, UCLA's defense didn't adjust very well itself against Oregon when the Ducks came out and threw some surprises at the Bruins.

Special teams have been an issue for UCLA so far this season, with place-kicker Justin Medlock being the only bright spot. Punter Aaron Perez has consistently given opposing offenses too-good of field position.  UCLA's kick-off and punt coverages have been vulnerable. And once it looked like UCLA might have its punt returner situation settled, Terrence Austin suffered a hamstring pull this week and is out for the game, leaving inexperienced Ryan Graves as the punt returner.  Notre Dame, on the other hand, might have one of the best punters in the country in Geoff Price (6-3, 193), who ranks second in the nation, averaging 46.6 yards per punt.

Prediction:

While it'd be foolish to predict UCLA will win this game, it's not nearly as lop-sided in analysis as last week's Oregon game (In fact, we think Oregon's better than Notre Dame).  Notre Dame is a good team, with a very good offense and some star offensive players. But it lacks a good running game and its defense has been, as we said, mediocre.  Notre Dame, in fact, could be a bit over-rated, and this year's Irish team bears some resemblance to last year's UCLA team. The defense isn't as bad as UCLA's from a year ago, but it has a good passing offense, led by a veteran quarterback, having to make up for a not-good defense,  and needing to mount a comeback or two to do it.

We'll go out on a limb again and say that UCLA's offense will be able to move the ball decently against Notre Dame's defense.  Stanford's depleted offense could move it fairly well, so you'd think UCLA might be able to also. 

The question, to stay in the game, will be if UCLA's defense can hold off Notre Dame's O.  More than likely it can't, and Brady Quinn will probably be able to utilize his veteran receivers to exploit some of the weaknesses in UCLA's middle we saw last week against Oregon.  Watch for the big Samardzija and the tight end Carlson to have big days. 

But, also, there is enough here to support that UCLA's defense could have a chance to keep Notre Dame's offense from exploding. Mostly, since UCLA will be able to go to its nickel package pretty often since Notre Dame doesn't run the ball very well. Also, UCLA will probably be able to pressure Quinn.  It might not be enough to keep Notre Dame's prolific offense completely under wraps, but enough to keep it in range for UCLA to be in the game.

Notre Dame 28
UCLA 24


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