Notre Dame team preview

When the #1 ranked USC Trojans march in to Notre Dame Stadium to take on a top-ten ranked Irish team, it ceases to be the "Notre Dame game."

On Saturday, we will be witnessing the Notre Dame Event, Spectacle and Experience as the Trojans of Southern California ride their 5-0 record, 27-game winning streak and Traveler into South Bend to take on first year head coach Charlie Weis' Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. But these aren't your older brother's Irish. After a few seasons of mediocrity, Weis has his team playing real offense and enough defense to keep his team in the game.

Irish offense

Quarterback – #10 Brady Quinn

Two years of mediocre performances and sub-par records made most followers believe that Brady Quinn was destined to become another Notre Dame disappointment. Five games of outstanding production and an Irish-like 4-1 record and top-ten ranking, and it's obvious that Brady Quinn was simply stuck in a stagnant offense. Comparing Charlie Weis' offense to Bill Dietrick's, the former Irish offensive coordinator, is like comparing the wheel to whatever they had before it. Under Weis' tutelage, Quinn has blossomed into a star. Blessed with a cannon for an arm, Quinn throws a great deep ball and can get the ball to his receivers in a hurry. But because of the strength of his arm, Quinn has struggled at times with the touch passes. He has steadily improved in that regard, but the Irish won't often utilize the fade route into the end zone, even with their tall receivers. This season, Quinn has shown a faith in his receivers that wasn't there in the past. He seems to have a firm grasp of the Irish offense and doesn't have that same deer-in-the-headlights look that was such a familiar sight to Trojan fans during the previous meetings. Through five games, Quinn is completing 65% of his passes, hitting 124 of 190 passes for 1,621 yards, 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions. In addition, he may be coming off his best game of the season. Against Purdue, Quinn completed 29 of 36 passes for 440 yards and three touchdowns against just one interception. He isn't a scrambler, but he is one of those quarterbacks that can completely frustrate defenses by scrambling for first downs in third and medium situations. Quinn takes a lot of hits, both in and out of the pocket, and the Trojan defense will look to rattle him into the shaky Brady of old. He is a lot like Arizona State's Sam Keller, in that he is a competitor and loves to play the game. The Trojans were able to put Keller on the turf a few times and if Quinn's uniform doesn't need Oxy Clean after the game, USC could be in trouble.

Running backs – #3 Darius Walker, #16 Rashon Powers-Neal

Several running backs have gotten carries for the Irish this year, but if the ground game is working, it'll be Walker with the ball. Walker has 116 carries on the season, piling up 528 yards, three touchdowns and a 4.6 yards-per-carry average. He is a very confusing runner for fans of opposing defenses to watch. It never seems like he is running all that hard. In fact, it looks like he's jogging most of the time. And yet, he consistently picks up positive yards and is a dangerous threat in the Irish backfield. Walker is able to do this because he has great vision, patience and an innate understanding of the game. He is extremely adept at using his blockers, often slipping just behind a pulling guard and riding his back four yards downfield until he can break the run to either side. Walker can find any hole along the line, often picking out spots that don't appear to be open and fitting through. Because he doesn't attack the line of scrimmage consistently, Walker can be held to no gain and negative yards occasionally. He doesn't have breakaway speed, but he is a valuable asset out of the backfield, catching 17 balls for 116 yards and two touchdowns on the year. The Trojan blitzers will have to be on their game as Walker is a great blocker in pass coverage. Rashon Powers-Neal is a pretty average fullback. He gets the ball in short yardage and goal-line situations, but he is by no means an automatic pick up. He does lead the team with six rushing touchdowns, but he doesn't hit the hole hard and has difficulty moving the pile forward. An average run blocker, Powers-Neal is better as a pass protector and will catch a few passes out of the backfield. In goal line situations, he will move to tailback and #44 Ashaph Schwapp will come in as the fullback.

Wide Receivers – #21 Maurice Stovall, #83 Jeff Samardzija, #82 Matt Shelton

Maurice Stovall had a world's worth of untapped potential heading into his senior year and always seemed like he should produce far more than he did. This season, Stovall is finally turning potential into production and is now making catches that he dropped in the past. He always had the height and speed to be a tremendous weapon and will tower over most defensive backs, but his height isn't often utilized. He's been kept out of the end zone for the most part this season, but will work the sidelines between the 20s. On the season, Stovall ranks second on the team with 23 catches for 388 yards. His lone touchdown came against Michigan State, in a game where he hauled in eight passes for 176 yards. He is Brady Quinn's favorite deep threat and is difficult to bump at the line. The Trojan cornerbacks will need to be physical with Stovall, as he doesn't play like a 6'5", 220 pound receiver. He can be ridden off the ball and can be out muscled on a jump ball, and he is still good for a drop or two each game. Through five games, Jeff Samardzija is probably the breakout player of the 2005 season. He is Oregon State's Mike Hass in a bigger frame. Samardzija is a very smart player who runs great routes and has hands like down pillows. He has a knack for getting lost in defensive secondaries and will haul in most jump balls over opposing cornerbacks. He only has average speed, but has made a habit of getting behind the defense. He leads the Irish in every receiving category, with 28 catches, 499 yards, eight touchdowns and a long reception of 55 yards. Like Derek Hagan of Arizona State, Samardzija is going to get his receptions against the Trojans; the important thing for USC will be stopping him from turning those into long gains. Matt Shelton has been the deep threat for the Irish in the past, but coming off his second knee surgery, Shelton is just now getting back up to speed. This season, he has yet to turn on the jets as most of his catches have been short of 15 yards. In fact, he's averaging just 11 yards per catch, as his 14 grabs have gone for 159 yards and no touchdowns. Stovall and Samardzija will be the two true receiving threats for the Irish and their production against the Trojan corners will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.

Tight Ends – #88 Anthony Fasano, #89 John Carlson, #87 Marcus Freeman

Anthony Fasano is a tight end in the mold of former Trojan Alex Holmes. He's not going to burn you with speed, but he'll find holes in the defense and catch everything thrown his way. He has 23 grabs on the season, for 249 yards. But Fasano may be more valuable as an extra offensive lineman, as he is often called upon to block defensive ends by himself. He will have a consistent presence in this game, as the Irish offense usually calls upon at least one tight end in each formation. John Carlson and Marcus Freeman are the other two tight ends who will see time. They are both more athletic than Fasano, but it's Fasano's understanding of the game that makes him more valuable. If the Trojan linebackers and safeties can keep the Irish tight ends quiet, Brady Quinn could have difficulties moving the offense consistently.

Offensive Line – #68 Ryan Harris, #50 Dan Santucci, #76 Bob Morton, #74 Dan Stevenson, #73 Mark LeVoir

The Notre Dame offensive line is big and brutal. For Trojan fans, they are a collection of the Jack Parkmans, Clue Haywoods and any other Disney movie sports villains of the world. Ryan Harris is better in pass protection than in the running game, but the Irish will run to his side with the help of pulling blockers from the right side of the line. The Trojan defensive ends will need to win some one-on-one battles with Harris during the game. Dan Santucci will pull in the running game and will finish his blocks downfield. He can get overly aggressive on occasion, which allows for him to be knocked off balance easily. Bob Morton missed the Purdue game with a high ankle sprain, but he'll be back on the field against the Trojans. He is a solid run blocker, but can get sloppy in his technique during pass coverage. Dan Stevenson is another guy that can pull on running plays because of his mobility and athleticism. He can get stuffed at the line by stronger defensive tackles and he won't often open gaping holes in the line by himself. Mark LeVoir is probably the best of the offensive linemen. He'll look to neutralize one of the Trojan ends entirely by himself. He can obliterate blockers and is equally good in pass and run situations. The line has allowed seven sacks on the season, and although they boast some pretty good players, this line won't be compared to the Sooners' line in last year's Orange Bowl. There were questions heading into this season about the interior of the Trojan defensive line, but up to this point, it has been one of the strengths of the defense. No team has really been able to generate an interior running game against USC, and Notre Dame, just like teams before them, will be in trouble if the running game isn't there.

Irish Defense

Defensive Line – #95 Victor Abiamiri, #98 Trevor Laws, #66 Derek Landri, #75 Chris Frome

Trojan fans will notice that Victor Abiamiri offers the same combination of strength and athleticism that both starting USC defensive ends possess. He leads the line with 18 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, and like almost every other Irish defender, has forced a fumble. Winton Justice draws the assignment against Abiamiri and keeping him away from Matt Leinart's backside will be vitally important to the Trojan attack. Trevor Laws and Derek Landri have teamed up in the middle of the Irish line and are doing an impressive job in stuffing opposing teams' interior running games. Landri is undersized, but he is very quick and can penetrate into the backfield. His motor is constantly running and he'll chase plays from sideline to sideline. Laws is similar to Landri in that penetration is his first goal. Teams haven't had success in running straight into the Irish line, but Notre Dame has yet to face an offensive line and running backs as good as the ones the Trojans will bring to South Bend. If the Trojan line is able to open holes in the Notre Dame front, LenDale White and Reggie Bush will be running downhill for most of the game. Chris Frome will line up opposite Abiamiri, and although he doesn't have the quickness that Abiamiri possesses, he has better technique and finds a way to the quarterback. He won't record a lot of tackles, but he's a solid presence at the end of the line. Notre Dame has held its opponents to just 116 yards rushing per game, but they've also allowed over four yards per attempt. The question is whether they are actually stuffing the run, or teams are choosing to throw against their secondary. I don't see this defensive front holding the Trojan tailbacks under 200 rushing yards for the game. The offensive line is too good and the backs are too motivated.

Linebackers – #39 Brandon Hoyte (Will), #46 Corey Mays (Mike), #40 Maurice Crum Jr.(Apache)

New defensive coordinator Rick Minter's biggest contribution to the Notre Dame defense has been a position change in the linebacking corps. Instead of a strong side (Sam) linebacker, Maurice Crum Jr. will play an Apache linebacker position, which is more of a safety/linebacker hybrid, and similar to what the Oregon Ducks use. Crum could be the key for the Irish defense against USC. While he offers some run support like a linebacker, Crum will usually be matched up with the slot receiver and can make plays in the passing game. Against the Trojans, however, Crum could find himself in some one-on-one situations with Reggie Bush out of the backfield or lined up as a receiver. As a Trojan fan, it's not as exciting as having him matched up against someone who is strictly a linebacker, but as long as Bush isn't matched up against the opposing team's number-one, shut down cornerback, I like our chances. Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays are both hard-hitting linebackers and as the only true backers on the field, are responsible for making plays from sideline to sideline and on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Hoyte leads the team with 32 tackles, 10 and a half for loss, four sacks and has forced two fumbles. He's not going to run down Reggie Bush from behind, but he has enough speed to beat most running backs to the corner and stop plays for no gain. It will be important for the Trojan fullbacks to get to the second level and put a hat on Hoyte. Mays has been another reason for the Irish's stout run defense. He can fly through the middle of the line and meet the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage. The Trojans may be able to take advantage of his aggressiveness however, as his desire to lay the huge hit will occasionally leave him out of position to make the tackle.

Cornerbacks – #22 Ambrose Wooden, #30 Mike Richardson

Cornerback, which was the Achilles' heel of the Notre Dame defense a season ago, has turned into a strength for the Irish defense. Ambrose Wooden has all the makings of a star. He is still somewhat raw in technique, but he is a great athlete and has the speed and size to match up with any wide receiver. Not many balls thrown his way have gone for completions and he is a strong supporter in the run game, picking up 36 tackles. He has one interception and leads the team with five pass deflections. Mike Richardson lines up opposite Wooden and is the guy you want to attack. He doesn't have Wooden's speed or ball-hawking ability, so he relies on keeping receivers in front of him. He wraps up well, mostly limiting the receiver's yards after the catch, but if any of the Trojan wide receivers are in one-on-one situations with him, Matt Leinart should be looking that way. Notre Dame doesn't play a lot of man coverages, so the Trojan receivers will need to run precise routes and find holes in the Irish secondary. In fact, Leinart's arm might be tested on Saturday, as a better option might be for the Trojans to test the Irish deep, because of their…

Safeties – #9 Tom Zbikowski, #18 Chinedum Ndukwe

If you're looking for a weak spot in the Irish defense, this is where you start and stop. Both Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe are simply linebackers playing out of position. Neither of them plays the pass well, as they both are so preoccupied with charging to the line of scrimmage in run support. Zbikowski is one of the fastest players on the Irish, but that usually just means that he gets out of position quicker. He's still a great athlete though, and can still make plays, evidenced by his 31 tackles, two interceptions and four pass deflections. Ndukwe is a big hitter, but somewhat lacking in pass coverage. Passes can be completed in front of him, but he has been a turnover machine through the first five games. He has 21 tackles, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble and four fumble recoveries. I know a lot of Trojan fans have been waiting for a break out game for Dominique Byrd, and if he's matched up against these Irish safeties, this could be it. It's also likely that we could see a couple of play-action bombs on Saturday.

Irish Special Teams

Kicker – #19 D.J. Fitzpatrick

Irish Placekicker D.J. Fitzpatrick is very accurate. He has made six of seven kicks on the year, with his only miss coming from 48 yards, but he has hit one from 48 as well. On kickoffs, hewon't put the ball into the end zone with regularity, which should allow for the potent Trojan return game to get going.

Punter – #19 D.J. Fitzpatrick

As a punter, D.J. Fitzpatrick is good, but not great. He is averaging just over 40 yards per punt on 19 kicks. He doesn't force many fair catches (one on the year) and doesn't put many in the endzone (one also). He's had one blocked kick on the season, but the Trojans will probably look to set up returns all game long.

Kick Returners – #11 David Grimes

David Grimes has been handling the kick return duties for the past two games for the Irish. He has a nice burst through the first wall of defenders, and his long for the season is 40 yards. At this point, it would seem that opposing teams could let offensive linemen return kicks and still end up with good field position against the Trojans. On kickoff coverage, one player out of place can make the entire unit look bad, and USC will need to stay focused all game long, forcing the Irish to go on long drives in order to put points on the board.

Punt Returner – #9 Tom Zbikowski

Tom Zbikowski is a Greig Carlson-type returner. He's back there to catch the ball and any yards he can squeeze out as a return are a bonus. He is averaging just over 13 yards per return on seven attempts. He has the speed to make the Trojans pay if the coverage is as sloppy as it has been at times this season.

Game Outlook

This week, head coach Pete Carroll had his team under tighter lockdown than a mafia wedding. Everything has been about focusing on Saturday, and even though Notre Dame has had a week off to prepare for the Trojans, that is made null and void by Carroll's proven superior preparation. The Irish have the offensive firepower to move the ball against the Trojans, but if Matt Leinart is on, it'll be just like the past two years against the Irish secondary. Add to that the rejuvenated ground game of the Trojans and things don't look real good for the Irish.

On the other side, and as much as Trojan fans like to bash him, Charlie Weis is an exceptional football coach. He's coaching with the same talent that Ty Willingham had and is racking up over 500 yards of total offense, has put up 40 points three times and has lit a fire under his quarterback. Weis won't let his team give up a lead easily against the Trojans and has already authored a heroic comeback against Michigan State that just fell short.

The Trojans can do him one better though, actually coming back and winning the game, twice, on the road, in hostile environments. But Autzen and Tempe will seem like morgues compared to Notre Dame Stadium this weekend.

Everything seems right with the world when the Trojans and Irish are meeting with National Title implications on the line. And everything will seem a little righter if the Trojans can march out victorious.


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