by John Vannie
Notre Dame travels to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 83 years on Saturday evening to play the high scoring UCLA Bruins. The game completes the 2006-07 home and home series between these schools that had not previously played each other for over 40 years. The Irish won last season’s thriller by 20-17 on the strength of a last minute Brady Quinn scoring pass to Jeff Samardzija.
The Bruins are a veteran team this season and expectations are high in Westwood. An inexplicably bad performance against Utah in a 44-6 road loss is the only blemish on UCLA’s record. Coach Karl Dorrell’s squad has not forgotten last year’s heartbreaking loss in South Bend, and they will be motivated to return the favor.
One does not usually associate a PAC-10 team with a strong ground game, but the Bruins run the ball nearly 60% of the time and have enjoyed considerable success. Tailbacks Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell share the workload about evenly, although Markey has a turf toe problem and his status is uncertain.
UCLA’s defense is equally tough against the run. They have managed to hold opponents to an average of less than 100 yards per game and only 2.8 yards per rush. This formula has worked well late in ballgames as the Bruins have been able to break open the last two contests in the fourth quarter and win going away.
Meanwhile, the 0-5 Irish have only started to taste success after playing a decent second half of football at Purdue last week. Those baby steps were still a far cry from a winning performance against a quality opponent, but the team enters this contest with at least a glimmer of hope. It will take no less than 60 minutes of solid play to defeat a confident Bruin team that has responded well when challenged.
Notre Dame’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense
On paper, it appears the Irish will attack UCLA through the air and utilize a similar game plan as in last week’s effort at Purdue. Notre Dame fans, of course, would like to finally see a greater degree of balance in the offense and consistency in the running game. Early problems on the ground last week and a 23-0 halftime deficit caused Coach Charlie Weis to call for more than 50 passes on the day. The Irish may again compile some nice statistics this week with a similar performance, but they won’t win.
End Bruce Davis will terrorize the Irish offensive line and lead the assault on Jimmy Clausen. Tackle Sam Young will need help to block Davis, and he will get it from the tight ends and backs. Davis is joined by Kevin Brown at defensive tackle and Nikola Dragovic at the other end position. The Bruin linebackers are fast but on the small side. Christian Taylor is the veteran in the middle while Reggie Carter is an emerging star on the weak side.
Notre Dame should run right at this group and try to establish a physical presence with James Aldridge and Robert Hughes. Junior Jabbie’s presence in the lineup usually means the Irish will throw the ball, but the senior has also run well when called upon. The emergence of Golden Tate and Duval Kamara has given credibility to the passing game and should cause UCLA to think twice before moving its safeties close to the line of scrimmage.
The Bruin secondary is manned by a group of seniors who really solidify the defense. Cornerback Trey Brown and free safety Dennis Keyes are the playmakers to watch. Both have scored on interception returns this season.
Jimmy Clausen is expected to start at quarterback for Notre Dame, and observers should be able to tell if his injured hip has an impact on his velocity or the ability to throw the deep ball. Evan Sharpley remains a capable reserve, but Clausen is the more accurate passer and has a stronger arm when healthy.
UCLA’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
The Bruins will continue to run the ball as long as the game is close. They have good reason to believe they will eventually break off long gains behind an outstanding offensive line. Center Chris Joseph leads this forward wall for UCLA, and he is flanked by a pair of fifth year senior guards in P.J. Irvin and Noah Sutherland. Regular starting guard Shannon Tevaga is slowed by an injury and may not be available.
Ben Olson, who did not play last year against Notre Dame, will start at quarterback. Olson returned from a concussion to lead the Bruins over Oregon State last week in a relatively sloppy contest. Backup Pat Cowan is injured and unavailable, and there is not much else behind Olson. The key for Notre Dame is to slow down the ground game and force Olson to throw it more often than he and Dorrell would like. Olson is little more than a 50% passer and he suffered three interceptions when UCLA fell behind Utah.
The diminutive Brandon Breazell is the leading Bruin receiver and deep threat. He is joined by Marcus Everett and Joe Cowan, who enjoyed a productive afternoon in South Bend last year. Meanwhile, Everett is hobbled and may not be 100% at game time. His replacement could be 6’3” sophomore Dominique Johnson, who has caught two touchdown passes in a reserve role.
UCLA thrives on the big play and has developed a habit of pulling them off in the fourth quarter. The Irish defense must turn the Bruins into plodders, as they have been susceptible to penalties and other miscues which have prevented them from putting away opponents early. Notre Dame can keep the game close by performing well against the run and avoiding turnovers, but another twenty point loss is within the realm of possibility. Penalties and unforced errors are no strangers to the Irish, who need to clean up this area once and for all.
Former Notre Dame recruit Kai Forbath has become an excellent place kicker for UCLA after a shaky start in the opener against Stanford. He is capable of hitting field goals in excess of 50 yards and is unlikely to miss at close range. Punter Aaron Perez is above average while the return men are very good athletes. Matt Slater has an 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to his credit, and Notre Dame has managed to enable opponents in this area.
The Irish offense cannot afford to be backed up in its own territory all night if it wants to execute the game plan. Kickoff returns have been a disappointment and punt returns have been derailed by penalties. Conversely, Notre Dame has been unable to put the ball near the goal line on kickoffs and punter Geoff Price has lost his job to Eric Maust.
UCLA’s record and game scores are somewhat deceiving. The talent is in place for dominant performances, but the Bruins have looked downright ugly at times against less than stellar opposition. There are many veterans on this team, however, and they have usually been able to find an answer when they appear to be on the ropes. The revenge motive against the Irish has some sway with this team, but those emotions quickly evaporate after kickoff.
Notre Dame’s freshmen have rekindled hopes for a turnaround this season, even before the current eight game gauntlet is completed. One positive this week is the Bruins have started slowly in games this year, and the Irish may gain confidence if they are not digging out of another first half crater.
A review of the key questions that will determine the winner:
– Will UCLA be able to strike for long scoring plays?
– Will the Irish be able to mix in the run more effectively than they did at Purdue?
– Will Olson be able to rely on the ground game and throw only 25 passes instead of 40?
– Will Notre Dame’s special teams finally make a positive contribution?
– Is Jimmy Clausen healthy enough to throw the ball with authority?
– Can the Irish protect the quarterback against Davis and company?
– Which Irish team that played against Purdue will show up in Pasadena?
e oddsmakers have installed the Bruins as heavy favorites, this game should be close unless Notre Dame completely regresses from the improvements it has made in the last two weeks. Unfortunately, the Irish will not be able to run the ball well enough to win, nor will they hold off the UCLA’s big play capability for a full 60 minutes. In the end, Forbath may prove to be the difference.
UCLA 27 Notre Dame 24