by John Vannie
After sending waves of panic through its neurotic fan base last weekend in Atlanta, the Notre Dame football team hosts Penn State on Saturday afternoon. Irish fans are still contemplating the possibility that Brady Quinn is a mere mortal and the Notre Dame offense might fizzle instead of sizzle. Those that actually hold onto their tickets instead of trying to scalp them will see first hand whether the rejuvenated Irish defense is a one-hit wonder or a new sensation.
The Nittany Lions are coming off a mediocre performance against Akron, during which several new starters including quarterback Anthony Morelli made their debut. Morelli completed 50% of his passes and demonstrated a powerful, accurate arm when protected in the pocket. Conversely, he made a few questionable decisions and forced a few throws into coverage in the face of defensive pressure. It won’t be difficult to predict Notre Dame’s defensive plan this week.
This 2006 Penn State team has not yet established an offensive identity. The offensive line is new except for All-American left tackle Levi Brown, and the tight ends are relative unknowns. Tailback Tony Hunt did not have much success against Akron, leading one to suspect that the Lions’ running game will still be a work in progress this weekend.
Notre Dame’s defensive line did not make many plays against Georgia Tech, but they should be able to enjoy some success against a group that is less experienced and not quite as athletic. The challenge for the Irish will be focused on the back seven where Penn State’s fleet of fast and extremely dangerous receivers will attempt to break free. Derrick Williams leads the group, but Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood make it difficult for Notre Dame to double team any one target. All three recorded a touchdown reception last week.
The Irish defense should focus its sights on Morelli, since he has demonstrated the ability to deliver the ball to his receivers when time allows. Penn State will also try to create opportunities for Williams where he has room to operate. The Lions are known to run reverses and other trickery, and will occasionally enlist speedy cornerback Justin King to run a few plays with the offense. It’s vital for Notre Dame that its defensive ends stay home and keep containment.
Although the Irish secondary is better equipped to match up with Penn State’s receivers, the Lions are likely to hit a fair share of plays. The key for Notre Dame will be to rattle Morelli with pressure and different looks in coverage that will lead to interceptions in his first road game.
When the Irish have the ball, fans may see several three and four receiver sets. The Lions are breaking in three fourths of a new secondary, and coach Charlie Weis will want to see their fifth and sixth defensive backs on the field instead of outstanding linebackers Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor and Sean Lee.
This trio is very aggressive yet disciplined, such that challenging them with screens, draws and conventional runs may not be a winning strategy. Notre Dame’s guards do not appear to have the athleticism to consistently get out and block them, so Weis may choose to run more out of passing formations. It would also be best to force PSU’s linebackers to cover faster players in space or get them off the field entirely, whereupon Darius Walker will become a more effective option.
Surprisingly, Notre Dame’s offensive line struggled in pass protection during the first half of the Georgia Tech game. This area must improve if the Irish are to win this week. Penn State’s defensive line is solid in the middle with Ed Johnson and Jay Alford, but new starter Jim Shaw and converted linebacker Tim Shaw (no relation) at end have yet to establish themselves.
It goes without saying that Quinn will need to get off to a good start and become relaxed in the pocket. The opening game brought back memories of his freshman season during which he absorbed a vicious hit on nearly every pass. Actually, Quinn’s own running ability helped alleviate some of Tech’s pressure last week, although that sort of thing is not the ideal first or second option.
Notre Dame’s receivers were supposed to have a field day against a young secondary last week, but that did not materialize. A similar opportunity presents itself on Saturday, although cornerback King and safety Donnie Johnson are quality players. The Irish must improve all phases of the passing game including protection, getting open, decision-making and delivering the ball. I expect this will be the case regardless of the opposition, but the Irish need production from receivers other than Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight.
As is the case in most games involving evenly matched teams, field position and special teams can provide the deciding factor. Notre Dame found a punter last week in Geoff Price, and kickoff man Bobby Renkes proved capable of reaching the end zone. Coverage and return teams also played well, particularly on kickoffs.
Penn State counters with Williams on punt returns, and the sophomore sensation teams with freshman A. J. Wallace on kickoffs. Jeremy Kapinos is an average punter but place kicker Kevin Kelly performed flawlessly last week in adverse weather conditions.
If the game comes down to a field goal attempt by Notre Dame, Irish fans will be holding their collective breath. Kicker Carl Gioia missed both kicks last week, and badly needs to get the first one at home under his belt. He struck the ball well each time and had proper trajectory, but his mechanics were off. This may have been caused by trying too hard or excess adrenaline, similar to a golfer that tries to hit a 300-yard drive when 270 would do quite nicely.
The teams match up as follows:
Position / Advantage
Quarterback – Notre Dame
Running Back – Notre Dame
Wide Receivers – Even
Tight Ends – Even
ND OLine vs. PSU DLine – Even
PSU OLine vs. ND DLine – Notre Dame
Linebackers – PSU
Secondary – Notre Dame
Punting and Kicking – PSU
Return Teams – Even
Intangibles – Even
Both teams have plenty of room to improve upon last week’s performance. Penn State ran the ball poorly and fumbled twice, while the Irish misfired or dropped passes and committed numerous penalties. Each team will try to exploit weaknesses in its opponent, but Quinn and the Irish should find a comfort zone at home more easily than Morelli and the Lions.
NOTRE DAME 27 PENN STATE 20