If you came away from the Saturday's Cougar victory over Idaho with a lot questions, you're not alone. Coach Bill Doba's first game plan, while lacking in razzle-dazzle, was deceptively brilliant. He gave no signals whatsoever of what the WSU offensive package is going to look like this year. The traditionally pass happy Cougs have seemingly become 3.5 yards and a cloud of dust (WSU actually averaged about 6.8 yards per carry against the Vandals) in the Doba era. Or have they?
WSU will need that element of surprise when they take the field at South Bend, college football's most hallowed ground. After nearly a decade of disappointment, the Golden Domers appear to have regained their luster under former Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham. Heading into the final game of the 2001 season, the Fighting Irish needed only a victory in Los Angeles to secure a prime BCS birth, but a stunning rout at the hands of rival USC followed by another against NC State in the Gator Bowl caused the team to head into the off-season with a chip on its shoulder. The Irish spent the off-season firmly intent on building a threatening offense to go with their already rock steady D. Now it will now largely be in the hands of senior quarterback Carlyle Holiday to determine whether year two of the Willingham experiment can meet rapidly rising expectations.
THE IRISH ON OFFENSE
Overview: The primary function of their spread offense is to capitalize off opportunities created by the defense. Good plan, because they didn't do much on their own last year. Five starters return from an offense that averaged just 313 yards and 22 points per game last season and had to battle through 7 games that were decided by a touchdown or less. The Irish won 6 of those close contests through their ability to minimize turnovers offensively and by their defense dictating field position. Notre Dame remains in transition from the Bob Davie era with most of its upperclassmen more suited to a hard, physical style of play than Willingham's dynamic fast-paced system. The offensive line in particular lacked the mobility that Willingham prefers and has needed to be retooled, albeit with the help of a strong recruiting base.
Strategy: WSU can hang with these guys, but only if they can stop the run. Notre Dame returns 1000-yard rusher Ryan Grant alongside prodigal son Julius Jones who led the team in rushing in 2000 and 2001 before becoming an academic casualty last season. With 4 new starters on the offensive line WSU may have an opportunity to render these two anemic and force the Irish to take their chances through the air. Cougar secondary coach Ken Greene helped put together a defensive package at Purdue last year that held ND to just 50 passing yards and only 203 total yards, so prospects here seem to be good for Wazzu.
Players to Know:
Carlyle Holiday, QB: Holiday is kind of a poor man's Michael Vick, with good speed and athleticism. He is also a fish out of water. Holiday was not recruited to run a spread offense and struggled to master Willingham's complex scheme over a very turbulent off-season. He passed for a lackluster 1788 yards and 10 TDs last year, while rushing for 200 yards and 3 more scores. To his credit, however, he's very effective at minimizing his mistakes, throwing just 5 interceptions in 252 throws last season, nearly half the interception rate that Jason Gesser had. Now a senior, he is expected to improve greatly with a full year of experience under his belt, and isn't asked to be a world-beater anyway.
Ryan Grant, RB: A durable workhorse, Grant typically follows lead blocker Rashon Powers-Neal and should get a ton of reps in this game. Last season Grant was the lone bright spot in the ND rushing attack, averaging 4.2 yards per carry while all other backs managed an average of 2.7.
Omar Jenkins, WR: Jenkins is the leading returning receiver with 633 yards gained last year. He is a nice combination of size and speed and filled the role of deep threat along with Maurice Stovall. With possession receiver Arnaz Battle gone to the NFL, he is a likely to become Holiday's favorite target on third downs.
Maurice Stovall, WR: At 6'5, 221 pounds, Stovall has absolutely lethal mix of size and speed and will need to be closely guarded. He presents serious mismatch problems for a lot of teams, and was only really restricted by Holiday's ability to get him the ball. With Jenkins, they make a nice combo, but overall depth at the receiver position remains unproven behind them.
Sean Milligan, Guard: Milligan is the long returning starter on the offensive line. Though talent will always surround him, he will be expected to step up lead an inexperienced group trying to find its identity. He's been having back problems but is probable for Saturday.
THE IRISH ON DEFENSE
Overview: The Irish don't get scary until you get to their defense. Eight starters return from a group that statistically ranked 9th in the nation last season, but that might be selling them short given the schedule they faced. They run an offset 4-3 scheme that involves players of different positions rotating zones and responsibilities. Inexperienced quarterbacks were thoroughly confused by it and even veteran quarterbacks like John Navarre and Chris Rix were unable to crack it. The most comparable defense our team has likely faced is the double eagle flex (aka: Desert Swarm) that Arizona ran up until this year, only ND uses 7 men in the box instead of Arizona's 8. Arizona also lacked the speed the last few years to make it work, which isn't a problem for the Irish. You'll see linemen dropping into pass coverage and safeties charging the line at a dead sprint. They seemed equally effective against both run and passing schemes as ND held opponents to just 2.8 yards per rush and 5.9 yards per pass. While they forced only 30 turnovers and 38 sacks, they are better than the numbers indicate and were the driving force behind all 10 Irish wins last year. When this defense works and QB's are unable to adjust, it seems unbeatable. But the downside for this aggressive D is when the Irish do get burned, it's usually for big yardage.
Strategy: If you are Smiley Willingham, what in God's name do you tell your team to prepare for this week? Are the Cougs fun-n-gun or the pony express? Part of me hopes that Doba opens the first play of the game with wishbone option left, just for the sheer psychological effect. Regardless, of what they can expect to face, the reality is the Irish have a dangerous array of speed and power to work with. Matt Kegel and company must be well prepared. While the short quick passes and off-tackle runs worked perfectly against the Vandals, this stuff won't fly against Notre Dame's team speed and zone blitzes. Teams that beat the Irish last year did so vertically. WSU must stretch the field or the Irish will suffocate them. Unfortunately, this Willingham team will likely guard against the home run ball that killed them late last year and will try to force Kegel to audible to shorter yardage plays. They will look to slow this game down into a low-scoring battle of attrition, so the Cougs need to be prepared for a full 60 minutes of hard-nosed combat. For WSU to win, Kegel really needs to have a nearly flawless game. He doesn't need to throw for 300 yards, but he must avoid turnovers at all costs and keep his decision-making quick and precise. With the safeties looking to crush the receivers, he may have some opportunities to run for cheap yardage if the coverage doesn't open up. Cornerback Jason Beckstron is returning from a torn bicep that kept him out last year and Kegel should test him immediately, as that is one of the only potential gaps in their defense.
Players to Know:
Courtney Watson, OLB: Watson is a machine, with skills and speed to defend whatever the offense brings to the table. He led the team in tackles (90) and interceptions (4) and tallied 3 sacks despite missing some games with injuries. He's listed as the strong-side backer but lines up more to the interior.
Glen Earl, FS: ND's second leading tackler anchors the secondary. He isn't an interception specialist but can absolutely crush opposing receivers.
Mike Goolsby, ILB: Watson's partner in crime was ND's third leading tackler from last year and clogs up the middle well. He broke his collarbone back in the Gator Bowl and is still listed as questionable for Saturday. Not sure what the story is, but it's looking like he might sit this one out.
Vontez Duff, CB: ND's top cover corner. Duff is a world-class athlete that could emerge as a shutdown corner. He is also a strong kick returner. The Cougs will need a dynamic passing scheme to shake him off Devard Darling.
Cedric Hilliard, Nose Guard: Hilliard leads a dominant line. The Irish defense was stifling in the middle last year and it started with Hilliard. Coug center Mike Shelford and the guards will have their hands full with him. (He may be dinged up but getting gold out of Fort Knox is easier than getting injury reports out of South Bend.)
Derek Curry, OLB: The Irish occasionally had trouble getting pressure on passers with good offensive lines. Expect to see Curry blitzing off the weak side and making Kegel's life harder.
Jason Beckstrom, CB: Beckstrom has some experience but sat out all of last season with a torn bicep. He is attempting to fill the shoes of ND's best coverage player Shane Walton and may get picked on.
THE IRISH ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Kicker Nicholas Setta is a bit of a clone of Drew Dunning. After a breakout year in 2001, he became somewhat erratic last season and finished with a mere 56% accuracy. Expect him to be improved, but the edge belongs to Dunning if the game becomes a battle of field goals. The Irish have some questions to answer at the punter position where Setta has basically won the job by default. He averaged around 40 yards per punt in the spring, when junior DJ Fitzpatrick was struggling to stay above 35. This could be a major factor in a tight game as the Irish are heavily dependant upon winning the battle for field position. On kickoffs, the Cougs should be wary of Vontez Duff who ranked 9th in the country on return average, especially given the trouble they had with Idaho in this area. One mistake could change the whole complexion of this game.
The outcome of this game depends on the play of two quarterbacks who have struggled to live up to huge expectations. Whoever can overcome the tough defense they are facing will emerge the victor. Kegel may prove to have the better line in front of him, but Holiday has a far better history of avoiding mistakes. Regardless, Kegel must come out of the gate firing. If ND gets an early lead they will simply sit on it, whereas if WSU gets some early scores, the Irish have a very limited ability to come from behind. It's difficult to see what the Cougs chances really are in this one as Notre Dame seemed to be two different teams last year. On opening week they blanked Maryland 22-0, but then a few weeks later they had to score 15 points in the final 4 minutes of play just to beat Navy. This is also the team that was out gained by USC last year 610 yards to 109 so they aren't above imploding. It's really anybody's guess as to which Irish team will show up on Saturday.