by Mike Coffey
by John Vannie
Notre Dame opens the 2009 football season at home on Saturday with renewed hope for both the program’s reputation and the security of its head coach. The Irish struggled to a 10-15 record in the past two seasons as Charlie Weis attempted to rebuild the program with a solid base of underclassmen. This year, the team and its fans expect to reap the rewards of this endeavor. The overall roster is generally more athletic, many key players have gained valuable experience, and the schedule appears to be quite favorable.
The opposition this week will be provided by the Nevada Wolfpack, who have never played Notre Dame. Chris Ault’s team boasts a potent offense that was ranked in the nation’s top five last year and returns most of its starters, except at wide receiver. The defense is far less formidable, but Nevada hopes that the patience afforded last year’s young players will lead to improvement this season.
Weis barely managed to survive last November’s collapse and must start fast this month in order to keep the smoldering chair in his office from a spontaneous combustion. The Irish boast a wealth of talent at the skill positions and an experienced offensive line. The latter unit has been much maligned over the past two seasons for inconsistent performances and passive play, but enters this campaign injury-free and absent any plausible excuse.
Defensively, the back seven is stocked with speed, skill and numbers. Competition at each linebacker and secondary position has yielded a formidable two-deep that has not been evident in South Bend in more than a decade. The primary concern is an inexperienced group of linemen, but this can be mitigated if sufficient members of a promising sophomore contingent meet or exceed expectations. Nevada is the first of several teams that will test Notre Dame’s ability to stop the run, and the degree to which the Irish are successful will be a key factor in their overall season results.
Notre Dame’s Offense against Nevada’s Defense
Nevada may be the perfect team to test Notre Dame’s ability to run the ball early in the season. The Wolfpack ranked sixth in the nation in rushing defense last year and return their core group of linemen. The pass defense was quite poor, however, and one would expect the Irish to attack them through the air on Saturday. Although this strategy should produce points, it won’t answer the main questions surrounding Notre Dame’s offense. Irish fans are anxious to gauge the progress made by offensive line under new coach Tom Verducci and how this improvement will manifest itself in terms of rushing yardage. Junior tailback Armando Allen is poised for a breakout season and Jonas Gray has emerged as the primary backup over several other talented candidates including exciting freshmen Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.
Quarterback Jimmy Clausen remains the leader of the offense and could conceivably emerge from the shadow of Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy to take his place among the nation’s elite signal callers. He has an impressive array of wide receivers and tight ends at this disposal, led by starters Golden Tate, Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph. The key items to watch are the protection afforded Clausen by his linemen, especially left tackles Paul Duncan and Matt Romine, and Clausen’s own ability to move around in the pocket to deliver the ball while under pressure.
The Wolfpack pass rush is led by ends Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch, each of whom recorded more than ten sacks last season. Sophomore James-Michael Johnson is the best of the linebackers, and free safety Jonathon Amaya leads a group of veterans in the secondary that was routinely torched last season. Obviously, Nevada hopes that experience, however painful, will lead to better results this year.
In order to have a chance at victory, Nevada must try to contain the Irish running game with its front four and drop additional players into pass coverage. If Notre Dame can dominate the line of scrimmage, the game could become a rout. If the Irish linemen struggle to execute blocks as they have the past three seasons, the contest could become uncomfortably close. Notre Dame will not reach its potential this season if its offensive success is based solely on the ability of its talented pass catchers to make plays downfield.
Nevada’s Offense against Notre Dame’s Defense
The Wolfpack offense is balanced and dangerous. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick personifies this diversified attack as evidenced by his 2,849 yards passing and 1,130 yards rushing in 2008. He is supported by a pair of All-Conference rushers in Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott, but his offensive line may not be quite as formidable due to key graduation losses at center and left tackle. The matchup between this group and the young Irish defensive front will be critical to the outcome. If Notre Dame can contain the running game and force Kaepernick to throw, the advantage tilts decisively toward the home team.
The reasons for this assertion are the fact that Nevada has lost its top three receivers from last season, while the Irish secondary is shaping up as one of the best in the country. Only tight end Virgil Green can be considered a legitimate threat in the passing game. Although Kaepernick and his new, inexperienced receivers have spent considerable time getting acquainted in the spring and summer, the Wolfpack aerial show is still very much a work in progress.
Notre Dame will strive to force Kaepernick into passing situations by stopping the run and building a lead on the scoreboard. Nevada will remain competitive only to the extent it can maintain balance on offense and keep the high-powered Irish attack off the field. The matchups to watch will be the Wolfpack offensive tackles and the Irish defensive ends, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Kerry Neal. The latter two will be counted upon to hold the point of attack in defense of the run, which is a major concern of this unit coming into the season.
One wild card element for the Notre Dame defenders is the scrambling ability of Kaepernick. Nothing frustrates a defense more than slowing down the running game and covering the receivers only to have a nimble quarterback take off for first down yardage or buy time to find an open receiver in key situations. The Irish may have to assign a linebacker to spy on Kaepernick to mitigate this risk. A similar approach may also be needed later in the season against Washington’s Jake Locker and possibly others.
The Irish have awarded the kicking chores to freshman Nicholas Tausch, who won the job over previous incumbent Brandon Walker. There has been considerable turnover among the personnel throughout Notre Dame’s special teams, but punter Eric Maust, return man Allen and gunner Mike Anello are familiar faces to Irish fans.
Nevada’s kicking situation is unsettled, and junior college transfer Ricky Drake is penciled in to handle the job after the graduation of four-year starter Brett Jaekle. The punting duties are in good hands with veteran Brad Langley. Taua is the primary return man and could cause problems if he has room to maneuver on punts.
Nevada’s offense is sufficiently experienced and talented to score points, but the Wolfpack will find it much more difficult to cope with Notre Dame’s own offensive firepower. The teams could easily combine to score more than 60 points in this contest.
Here are a few key questions that will determine the outcome:
- Will Notre Dame’s offensive line avoid the frustrating breakdowns of the past and open holes for its running backs?
- Will Clausen’s performance most resemble his erratic Novembe
r 2008 outings or his Hawaii Bowl breakout?
- Will Kaepernick escape the Irish rush to make big plays with his arm or feet?
- Will the Irish be demonstrably more physical in the trenches?
- Can Toryan Smith become the run stuffer Notre Dame needs at middle linebacker?
- Can Duncan and Romine protect Clausen’s blind side?
- What impact will a freshman kicker have for the Irish?
- Will circumstances allow Notre Dame to send in the reserves for meaningful minutes?
- Which team will play fearlessly and make the fewest mistakes?
Despite putting up impressive offensive statistics in the WAC during the past two seasons, Nevada has not been successful of late against BCS conference teams. They do not figure to threaten Notre Dame on paper, but there is sufficient uncertainty surrounding the 2009 Irish after wildly inconsistent performances last year and numerous changes on defense and in the coaching staff. These unknowns can make certain prognosticators look quite foolish, but Notre Dame’s core players should be experienced enough to turn in a winning performance even if there are a few opening game issues to resolve going forward. Besides, Weis’ job essentially depends on it.
Notre Dame 42 Nevada 23