Preview of the Notre Dame Game

UCLA has had this game circled on its calendar for a year. The Revenge Game. Notre Dame is 0-5 and struggling with youth and inexperience, especially at quarterback. There aren't many reasons why UCLA shouldn't dominate the Fighting Irish Saturday...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- UCLA faces Notre Dame on Saturday in the Rose Bowl at 5:00, with the game being televised nationally by ABC.  Dan Fouts, Tim Brant and Todd Harris will be calling the action.

-- The Bruins are 4-1 and lead the Pac-10 with a 3-0 conference record (they've played one more conference game than eight of their league brethren). 

-- UCLA also climbed back into the top-25 rankings this week, now being ranked #25 in the ESPN/USA Today  Coaches Poll. They are ranked #30 in the AP Poll.

-- Notre Dame is 0-5, which is the school's worst start in its 120-year history of football.

-- The Fighting Irish have lost to Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and, last week, to Purdue, 33-19.

-- If it won this week, and went 1-5, it would be only the third time in Notre Dame history it started as poorly as 1-5.

-- It will be just the fourth time the two schools have faced each other in football, with the Fighting Irish having won all three previous meetings.

-- Last year, in South Bend, Notre Dame rallied late in the game to beat the Bruins, 20-17. UCLA led, 17-13, with just a minute to play when Notre Dame's quarterback, Brady Quinn, engineered an 8-yard drive in three plays to score on a 45-yard pass play with just 27 seconds left.

-- The loss was considered a huge blow to UCLA's season, and many of UCLA's players are still not over it.

-- The other two meetings between the two schools in football were in 1963 and 1964, with Notre Dame winning 27-12 and 24-0.

-- The Fighting Irish have not played in the Rose Bowl since the 1925 Rose Bowl against Stanford.  Notre Dame was led by coach Knute Rockne and the famed Four Horsemen.

-- Notre Dame is coached by Charlie Weis, who is in his third year at South Bend. Weis has led the Fighting Irish to a 19-11 record overall. In his first year, in 2005, he led them to a 9-3 record and an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl, where they were beaten by Ohio State. Last year, Notre Dame finished 10-2 and then lost to LSU in the Sugar Bowl. Weis, who came to Notre Dame from the New England Patriots, where he was the Offensive Coordinator on three Super Bowl champions, is considered an offensive guru.

-- The Irish have lost 9 straight bowl games, which is an NCAA record.

-- Notre Dame is in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, its worst in 21 years. One more and it will tie the longest streak in its history.

-- Notre Dame is the only school in the country to play eight BCS schools in its first eight games of the 2007 season.

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

-- UCLA Offensive Coordinator Jay Norvell worked on the same staff for Wisconsin in the early 1990s as Notre Dame's receiver coach, Rob Ianello.

-- Eight players on Notre Dame's roster hail from California.

== There are eight players from Notre Dame's roster that come from either the same high school or hometown as eight of UCLA's players.

-- Notre Dame is an extremely young and inexperienced team this season, with only two seniors starting on offense, and three returning starters. They're a bit better on defense, with seven senior starters, and five returning starters from a season ago.

-- But with injuries and changes, so far this season, 18 players have registered their first career start for the Fighting Irish.

-- UCLA has had just five players start for the first time this season.

-- The game at the Rose Bowl against UCLA will be Notre Dame's fourth road game out of six so far this season, being only one of three BCS schools (Duke and West Virginia being the other two) to play four of its first six games on the road.

-- Notre Dame is 76-40-6 against the Pac-10.  They have a winning record against 9 teams of the Pac-10, being just 0-2 against Oregon State.

-- Under Weis, Notre Dame is 10-0 when allowing its opponent 19 points or less.

-- They are 3-10 when they've allowed an opponent's running back to rush for more than 100 yards.

-- They are 15-1 when leading after halftime.

-- They are 8-4 on the road, with three of those losses coming this season so far.

-- UCLA is expecting a large crowd, but not a sellout (the Rose bowl seats, 91,136). 

-- The weather is expected to be excellent on Saturday, with a high of 80 degrees and no chance of rain.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. NOTRE DAME'S DEFENSE

This is one of the easiest match-ups to figure.

UCLA has the 16th-best rushing offense in the country and Notre Dame has the 107th-best (out of 119) rushing defense.

UCLA hasn't gotten very good play out of its quarterback position. 

Notre Dame's pass defense is much better than its rush defense, being ranked 7th in the country.

Easy math: UCLA is going to run the ball.

Kahlil Bell.


The issue with UCLA running the ball, however, is that both of their "starting" tailbacks are banged up. Chris Markey has turf toe, which he suffered early on against Oregon State. He "took a needle" in that game to return, and he hasn't practiced this week and he's projected as 50-50, which isn't good.  On top of that, Kahlil Bell has a bum shoulder, also suffered in the Oregon State game. He had on a red, no-hit jersey in practice Tuesday, and while he'll play against Notre Dame, it very well could be a factor.

So, what does UCLA have to fill the void?  Apparently, not a great deal. Sophomore Chane Moline, who was limited early in the season by a broken wrist, hasn't seen much action. He was supposed to be the next Manuel White-type guy for UCLA when he came to Westwood and last year looked like he had that type of potential, used particularly in third-and-short situations.  Behind Moline is converted safety Christian Ramirez, who it appears the staff doesn't have enough confidence in to give significant minutes.

Even if Bell is 100% and Markey is out, it will be interesting to see if the UCLA coaching staff will merely give Bell all of Markey's carries or try to work in Moline or Rodriguez. The best bet is that Moline could get 10 or so carries, but Bell will see his carries go up to 25-30. Hopefully his shoulder can take it.

If not, UCLA's offense could be in trouble.

Because it can't rely on its passing game.  Ben Olson looked better in the fourth quarter against Oregon State last week, but that's not enough evidence to say he's close to that corner-turning.  Unless UCLA changes its offensive philsophy and playcalling, you can probably expect to see more out-of-sync passing game in this one.  And Patrick Cowan is still hurt and unable to be used as a reliever.

Notre Dame's defensive strength is definitely in its passing game, and it's a pretty proven strength.  While giving up only 145 yards per game through the air could be influenced by opponents running the ball against the Irish, on the other hand, Notre Dame has gone up against some good teams.  Purdue was the best passing team among them, but last week Notre Dame kept them below their season average for yards gained through the air. 

The secondary is led by veteran Tom Zbikowski (SR, 6-0, 207) at strong safety, who's coming off a very good game against Purdue.  He has a rep as a big hitter and has forced a couple of fumble so far this season.  The new starter at free safety this year is David Bruton (JR, 6-2, 207), who has done well and been a big key in Notre Dame's pass defense. 

Also a huge key has been the play of Notre Dame's cornerbacks. Returning starter Terrail Lambert (SR, 5-11, 191) didn't have a great season a year ago, but he's been much improved this year.  And speaking of not having a good season, the other cornerback, Darrin Walls (SO, 6-0, 180), was torched so bad in one game last season as a true freshman he was taken out and never played much the remainder of the year.  Walls, though, won the position during the off-season and has been solid so far this year.  Ambrose Wooden (SR, 5-11, 190) pushed Walls, and he's the nickel back.

Notre Dame's linebackers are the heart of their defense, especially since the Irish run a 3-4.  The leader is clearly inside linebacker Maurice Crum (SR, 6-0, 230), who has a huge 40 tackles on the season, second on the team.  He's a tackling machine.  Next to him on the inside is another returning starter in Joe Brockington (SR, 6-2, 240), who is no slouch himself, having recorded 38 tackles so far this season.  There was some question about who would step into the two outside linebacker positions this year, and Anthony Vernaglia (SR, 6-3, 234) and John Ryan (SO, 6-5, 253) have done well. Vernaglia didn't play last week when Notre Dame faced Purdue's spread offense, but is expected to get a lot of time against UCLA's pro set.  Ryan is essentially a stand-up defensive end who has been very active. A guy to watch is Kerry Neal (FR, 6-2, 245), who subs in for Ryan, and is a talented youngster who got a sack last week against Purdue.

Defensive end Trevor Laws
But while the linebackers have been strong in pass coverage, the front seven haven't been stellar against the run.  Last season, Notre Dame's rush defense wasn't great, and it's still their main defensive problem.  Replacing two starters from a front three that wasn't that great was an issue going into the season and continues to be.  Trevor Laws (SR, 6-1, 296) was a returning starter at defensive tackle, but has made the switch to defensive end, where he's been incredibly active, leading the team in tackles with 41 and 4.5 tackles for loss.  Pat Kuntz (JR, 6-3, 285) is the nose tackle, and he's been having a difficult time this season, especially against some of the big running teams the Irish have faced. Ian Williams (FR, 6-2, 300) has been spelling him, but Williams is just learning how to play.  The other end spot was considered a big question going into the season, with a pair of untested upperclassmen vying for the spot in Justin Brown (SR, 6-3, 261) and Dwight Stephenson (SR, 6-2, 272). Brown won the spot, but Stephenson gets time and it's still thought to be a problematic spot. Brown has an injured ankle and Stephenson was thought to be looking better anyway.

The main reason they moved Laws out to end was a lack of experience on the edge among their front seven, and while he seemingly has been getting every other tackle for Notre Dame, it still hasn't helped. Opposing running backs have had career days this season bouncing runs to the outside for big yards.

Advantage: UCLA.  It's just a slight edge, because of the injuries to Markey and Bell. If they were 100%, it'd be a bigger one.  But if Markey can't go and Bell isn't completely healthy, getting production out of the running back position could be the biggest question of the game Saturday.  You can probably expect UCLA's passing game to look much like it has this season, out of sync and sloppy, against a good passing defense.  Luckily for the Bruins, who have been very poor at protecting their quarterback, Notre Dame hasn't been able to mount much of a pass rush so far this season, so perhaps Olson won't be under fire as much and he'll have time to make decisions. 

It's amazing that UCLA's tight end, Logan Paulsen, only has three receptions on the season. Whether it's a matter of plays not being called for him, or the UCLA quarterbacks not checking down to him, it's still a situation you'd think UCLA would like to rectify. It has, essentially, taken a major weapon out of its arsenal. 

When UCLA has the ball, no matter who is lined up in the tailback position, you can expect the Bruins to be dedicated to the ground game. Even if Notre Dame stacks the box and rushing yards are hard to come by early, expect UCLA to continue to pound away on the ground, expecting holes to open up as the game progresses.  

UCLA's offense, by no means, will put up a huge amount of points, unless, of course, it benefits from turnovers. But the advantage it has in its offensive line over Notre Dame's defensive front, especially if UCLA gets back Shannon Tevaga, the best offensive lineman on the team who has been out for two weeks due to a slightly torn ligament in his knee, should be sufficient to move the ball on the ground, take time off the clock and keep its defense off the field.

NOTRE DAME'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

If you believe at all that UCLA's offense is poor, you need to get a load of Notre Dame's.

This is <i>truly</i> one of the few worst offenses in all of college football. They are second to last in the NCAA in scoring, second to last in total yards gained, last in rushing offense, and one of the 13 worse in passing offense.

Again, you have to balance this a bit, since Notre Dame has played some pretty good teams so far this season.  This isn't exactly Florida International or Akron; the Irish have these numbers, to a certain extent, because they've played against some good competition.

But with that said, Notre Dame's offense is still pretty bad.

At least with UCLA's offense you feel that the Bruin running game has a good chance, every week, of gaining some decent yards and keeping UCLA in the game. There is nothing about Notre Dame's offense that leads you to believe they'll stay in the game.

They are vastly young and inexperienced, returning only four starters and just three starters are seniors. 

That makes for quite a bit of ineptness, with a great deal of it coming from their skill positions.

Even with Charlie Weis considered such a quarterback guru, the production out of the quarterback position has been very poor.

The kid we're all very familiar with, Jimmy Clausen (FR, 6-3, 207), has taken over the starting position as a true freshman and clearly struggled.  They've tried to simplify the offense for him, giving him a lot of quick, short throws, but it's hard to drive the field when you're throwing for two yards a pop.  Clausen, to his credit, is really up against it in terms of coming into Notre Dame as a true freshman and being thrown into an extreme fire.  He's shown some poise and definitely throws some of those 2-yard outs accurately enough. 

Last week, he provided a little glimmer of hope for Irish fans, when he had his best outing of the season against Purdue. He went 18 for 26 for 169 yards and a touchdown before having to leave the game with a hip injury.  He's still been bothered by it this week in practice, but Weis says he'll start Clausen and see how he does.

The other glimmer of hope for Irish fans is the performance of Evan Sharpley (JR, 6-2, 216) in relief of Clausen. Sharpley went 16 of 26 for 208 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of the Purdue game.  Combined, the two of them threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns, which is some good production out of your quarterback position.  Notre Dame also, after being down 23-0 at half, out-scored Purdue in the second half, 19-10, so the Irish faithful are praying that this is a sign of more to come.

The two are similar in their style, but Sharpley doesn't have the talent of Clausen, who is a far more accurate passer, but Sharpley knows the offense better. 

Another potentially big injury is to the right ankle of Notre Dame's leading receiver, David Grimes (JR, 5-10, 177).  Weis listed him at 50-50 to play against UCLA.  Grimes is a nice, little playmaker, with good hands and an ability to create after the catch. If he's out, it will severely hamper Notre Dame's passing game.  The other, matching little receiver on the other side is George West (SO, 5-10, 197), who is very quick and having a good season starting for the first time. They counter the two smaller guys with two bigger guys, Robby Parris (SO, 6-4, 209) and Duval Kamara (FR, 6-5, 222), two younger, talented receivers that are getting their feet wet and showing flashes of being very good. Golden Tate (FR, 5-11, 188) also showed some serious flashes and had a bit of a coming-out party last week against Purdue, with some highly athletic catches. 

Then there is John Carlson (SR, 6-6, 255), who is a very good tight end. In an offense that has struggled to throw the ball, Carlson has 12 receptions so far this year, compared to the five catches UCLA's tight ends have total.  The inexperienced quarterbacks definitely look to the experienced Carlson out in the pattern.

James Aldridge.
The running back position has been an interesting one for the Irish.  Having to replace 1,200-yard rusher Darius Walker from a year ago hasn't been a clear-cut endeavor.  They've had three starters so far this season in five games, trying to find someone to catch fire. Travis Thomas (SR, 6-0, 216), who has seen time in previous years as a linebacker, is the experienced guy, but promising sophomore James Aldridge (SO, 6-0, 222) has gotten the start the last few weeks. Aldridge, Notre Dame's leading rusher so far this season, only got five carries last week, however.  The latest hot name is Armando Allen (FR, 5-10, 190), who has blazing speed, and many Irish fans consider him the big-play guy of the future.

The offensive line play has been pretty poor, with only two players with any kind of starting experience returning from last season. Center John Sullivan (SR, 6-4, 303) is considered a future NFL player, and tackle Sam Young (SO, 6-8, 310) is thought to be the next big thing.  But other than that, Notre Dame is struggling with youth and inexperience on the line. Tackle Paul Duncan (JR, 6-7, 308) and guards Mike Turkovich (JR, 6-6, 301) and Matt Carufel (SO, 6-5, 295) are new to the starting game and learning on the go.  The line has been criticized, also, for being a bit slow and lumbering.  They've not only struggled mightily to create holes in the running game but are the absolute worst in the country at allowing sacks (5.8 per game).  It doesn't help a true freshman quarterback when he's constantly under pressure and getting popped.

UCLA's Trey Brown and Alterraun Verner.
UCLA's defense came to play last week against Oregon State. After OSU was having its way with the Bruins for the first quarter, some adjustments were made and UCLA's defense shut down the Beavers offense for the remainder of the game, turning in easily its best performance of the season. 

While UCLA's defense, and defensive coaches, get a great deal of credit, you also have to credit OSU's poor quarterback.  UCLA, very well, could see much of the same from the Notre Dame quarterback position this week, which gives them a big edge in the match up.  Expect UCLA to be bringing a great deal of pressure on Clausen (or Sharpley), feeling confident they can leave their good cornerbacks in man coverage against Notre Dame's passing attack.  

Advantage: UCLA.  Clearly. The UCLA defense isn't a good match up for Notre Dame (but then again, not many defenses are this season).  UCLA is good against the run, even without run stopper, defensive tackle Brigham Harwell, which leaves Notre Dame to have to pass, which is an adventure, especially with the poor pass protection its been getting. The Irish are facing the 16th best pass-rushing team in the country in the Bruins. Expect defensive Bruce Davis to have a big day rushing the passer, with Notre Dame's big tackles struggling to keep their big mitts on him.

The Irish faithful, though, are trying to hang some hope on the improved second half against Purdue last week.  The offense gained 427 total yards against the Boilermakers, after averaging <i>just 137 yards per game</i> in its first four games.  They're saying that the light turned on for the quarterbacks and the running back Allen is Reggie-Bush-esque.

There's always quite a bit of faith and hope coming out of South Bend.

On Special Teams, it's also been an adventure for the Irish. The most surprising has been that the punter, Geoff Price, who was considered a potential All-American before the season and was a Ray Guy Award semi-finalist last season, has been replaced for his inconsistency.  After setting a school record a year ago for averaging 45.4 yards per punt, Price was averaging 41.2 yards per punt, and he's been replaced by Eric Maust, who is averaging 43.7 yards. Brandon Walker, the field goal kicker,  missed an extra point last week, so they brought in Nate Whitaker, who then missed the next extra point. Between the two of them, they're 2 of 4 on field goals for the season, and have missed the two taken further than 30 yards.  Safety Tom Zbikowski is a good punt returner. 

Prediction

UCLA is hovering around a three-touchdown favorite, which is probably inflated, based on its deceiving 40-14 win over Oregon State. 

But there's no reason why UCLA shouldn't completely dominate this game.  This shouldn't be one of those games where it's not clear that UCLA is the clearly better team.  UCLA should dominate both lines of scrimmage. It's a home game, where UCLA is holding one of the best home records in the country in recent years.

Also, the Bruins have revenge on their minds.  There is still a bad taste in the collective Bruin mouth over the loss in South Bend last year.  Plus, while beating this Notre Dame team isn't a great feat, to the UCLA players it's still Notre Dame.

Some have made the case that this game is a lose-lose proposition for UCLA.  The assertion is, if UCLA actually loses, they're going to be the embarrassment of college football, losing to this Irish team. And, if they don't win in a dominating matter, it won't be considered a good win, against this Irish team.

Only one solution: UCLA has to win in a dominating fashion. It should, given all of the factors. 

Notre Dame probably isn't as bad as they appear to be. Again, it's not like this is Temple, who is 0-5 against teams like Buffalo, Connecticut and Bowling Green.  Notre Dame's stats are bad, but they've gotten them playing against good teams.  They've also played on the road, in stadiums packed with 100,000 fans, in considerably more hostile environments than the bucolic Rose Bowl. 

So, it should probably be a little closer than you might think.  Notre Dame, coming in with some newfound confidence after its best showing of the season last week against Purdue, might give UCLA some resistance.  If UCLA's running backs aren't 100%, the Irish could stay in this for a time.

But ultimately, UCLA should won both lines of scrimmage.  Hopefully that will be enough to overcome any potential turnovers or excessive penalties.  Luckily, the Irish are turning over the ball at a much quicker clip than UCLA and keeping pace with UCLA's penalties.

UCLA 34
Notre Dame 17

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