Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE
As one of the biggest and most important games of the season inches closer, fans from both sides are trying to get a better perspective of the opposition. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be taking on the Oklahoma Sooners in Norman for the first time since 1966. With stories coming out left and right covering both sides, there is no one better to break down the Notre Dame Fighting Irish than the fans themselves. Here to give us a great insider look and at depth scouting report of the the Irish is Frank Vitovitch from the ever popular Unofficial Home of Notre Dame.
Notre Dame Offense
Notre Dame has only made it through three games, when they've had all of its quarterbacks available, this year without changing signal callers for a reason other than a blowout - Navy, Michigan State, and Miami. In the other three games - Purdue, Stanford, and Michigan - Notre Dame has used multiple quarterbacks due to either injuries or ineffectiveness from starting quarterback Everett Golson. Golson missed last week after suffering a concussion in the final minutes of the Stanford game, but will be back in action and is a full go this weekend for Notre Dame's trip to Oklahoma.
Prior to Golson's injury, he was starting to show signs of improvement as well as the ability to overcome mistakes - something he wasn't able to do early in the year when early struggles against Michigan forced Golson to the sideline for the remainder of the game. During the Stanford game Golson showed both his huge upside as well as his inexperience with a few long runs on busted plays that highlighted his elusiveness. The problem for Golson, and the Irish offense, was that Golson also ended up losing three fumbles in that game - one of which came on his longest run of the season.
With Golson under center, Notre Dame adds a dimension to its offense that Tommy Rees doesn't provide. With Rees calling the shots for the Irish offense, opposing defenses have been content on dropping 8 defenders into coverage and taking away passing lanes from Rees. Rees thrives on making the correct pre-snap read and then getting rid of the ball quickly. With defenses dropping eight though, there hasn't always been a great place for him to go with the ball. With Golson under center though, defenses have relied more on putting pressure on Golson which has resulted in some nice runs by the sophomore as well as some open receivers downfield.
Golson is still very much a work in progress for Notre Dame, but I expect a lot more running out of Golson than we have seen previously. His tendency to fumble is a major concern for Notre Dame, but in order to move the ball on the Oklahoma defense, Golson is going to have to rip off a couple runs and put some fear into the Sooner defense to open up the pass.
The strength of the Notre Dame offense lies in its backfield where the Irish have three running backs capable of starting for a lot of colleges - Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, and George Atkinson. All three Irish backs have at least one 100 yard performance this season - and Atkinson was just a yard sky of 100 against Navy which would have meant that all three backs would have had multiple 100 yard performances seven games into the season.
Cierre Wood has been the most consistently strong runner of the group with 393 yards in five games with 6.0 yards per carry average and two touchdowns. Wood missed the first two games of the season due to suspension for violating team rules, but has come back and been more than effective despite sharing carries with Riddick and Atkinson.
Riddick has received the most carries amongst the Irish backs this year despite having the worst yards per carry average heading into last week's content with BYU. Against the Cougars, Riddick rewarded the Irish coaching staff's faith in him with by far his best performance of his career. Riddick ran for 143 tough yards on 15 carries including several runs where the majority of his yards came after contact. Riddick lacks the speed of either Wood or Atkinson - if either of them get in the open field it is usually trouble for an opposing defense - as highlighted by him getting run down from behind by a BYU defender last week, but what Riddick lacks in speed he makes up for in toughness.
The homerun threat of the group is Atkinson. The sophomore is averaging 8.1 yards per carry and has scored four touchdowns including scores from 55 and 56 yards. Atkinson is one of the fastest players regardless of position on the Irish roster and has been used more in the second halves of games once the opposing defense has begun to wear down some. With defenses just a bit slower in the third and fourth quarters, Atkinson's speed has been on full display.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Notre Dame has had a difficult time replacing Michael Floyd - arguably the best wide receiver in school history - so far this year. Sophomore Davaris Daniels has shown some signs of being a #1 wide receiver, but has not been consistent enough yet to be considered the go to threat for any of the Irish quarterbacks. Junior TJ Jones has started to establish himself as well, but the struggles at quarterback have afford Jones too many opportunities to this point.
If there is one elite receiving target on the Irish roster, it is tight end Tyler Eifert. Efiert is one of the best tight ends in the country and has caught almost everything thrown his way. The problem is, Notre Dame quarterbacks haven't thrown him the ball much. Tommy Rees has enough faith in his receivers at this point to throw it up for Eifert and let him battle for the ball. Golson was starting to get to that point before his injury so it will be interesting to see if he picks up where he left off this week. Efiert only has 19 catches for 319 yards and three touchdowns this season after hauling in 63 passes for 803 yards last year. Getting the ball more to Efiert will be key to Golson's development as a quarterback and in order for the Irish offense to have much success this weekend, that will need to start now.
Other Irish wide receiver to look out for include senior Robby Toma and Chris Brown. Toma, a senior, a high school teammate of Manti Te'o, has come up with some clutch catches for Notre Dame so far this year and Brown, a true freshman, has shown the ability to get behind a defense even if Golson has been unable to connect with him when he has done so. I would be very surprised if a deep pass to Brown was not dialed up early, even if just as a decoy to open up some space underneath for Efiert.
Notre Dame's offensive line has had its ups and downs this year. At times, the offensive line has looked dominant paving the way for huge rushing days against Navy, Miami, and BYU. Other times, they have struggled and looked overmatched in uneven performances against Purdue and Stanford. While there has been some inconsistency in their play, the real disappointing aspect of their performance this year has been in the form of costly, untimely penalties. The Irish offensive line has a knack for procedure penalties at the most inopportune times this year - something to keep in mind with Notre Dame playing on the road in a hostile environment this weekend.
The Notre Dame line has been at its best in the second halves of games though. Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin have stuck with run throughout the season and have allowed their offensive line to wear down opposing defenses in second halves and take control of games. The Miami game was close at half time until Notre Dame attempted just three passes while scoring touchdowns on all four drives over the final 30 minutes. Last week Notre Dame trailed in the second half but ran their way back into the game and took the lead in the fourth behind their running game.
Pass protection has been a problem at times for Notre Dame this season though - especially when Golson has been under center and defenses have decided to blitz more than with Rees. With Rees as the quarterback, defenses have not blitzed much so the line has held their own for the most part. With Golson though, defenses have blitzed the young Irish quarterback much more in an effort to force him into mistakes.
Notre Dame Defense
The strength of Notre Dame's resurgence has been the talent and depth along the defensive line where for the first time in a long, long time Notre Dame features several players who will be playing on Sundays. Stephon Tuitt has blossomed into one of the best defensive linemen in the country as a sophomore and has collected 8.5 sacks through seven games. In one on one situations, he has been virtually unblockable this year forcing opposing offenses to give their tackles some extra help in slowing him down.
The middle of the Irish defensive line is anchored by junior Louis Nix. the Florida native has been everything you want in a nose guard in a 3-4 defense - a big, massive, space eating cog capable of collapsing a pocket and forcing negative plays. NIx has four tackles for loss this year, but has forced many more this season by doing exactly what he is supposed to do - occupy multiple blockers and open up space for the rest of the front seven.
Rounding out the defensive line for Notre Dame is fifth year senior, captain Kapron Lewis-Moore. Fresh off perhaps his finest game as collegiate defensive lineman, Lewis-Moore has two sacks of his own and has been playing his best football lately after being slowed by some minor injuries earlier this season. Other names to watch for are true freshman Sheldon Day, sophomore Tony Springmann, and junior Kona Schwenke.
While the defensive line has keyed the success of the Irish defense, the star of the team and the emotional leader of the team is inside linebacker and Heisman hopeful Manti Te'o. Hardly anyone had Te'o as a Heisman candidate before the season, but thanks to a weak field of candidates and a stellar season thus far, Te'o is right in the thick of the race. While the Heisman is unlikely for Te'o - unless Notre Dame were to win the table - his senior season has been one of the biggest reasons Notre Dame sits at 7-0 heading into this weekend. Te'o leads the Irish with 69 tackles and is tied for the lead with 4 interceptions.
While Te'o is the star of the show, Notre Dame's other linebackers have done their part as well. Junior Danny Spond had some problems with migranes in the summer, but his return in week three against Michigan State kicked off Notre Dame's streak of 17 straight quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown and fellow junior Prince Shembo has provided a great pass rushing threat off the edge at outside linebacker. Inside next to Te'o, Notre Dame has rotated in seniors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox with Fox playing more in passing situations. Neither, however, is particularly strong in coverage - an area of the Irish defense that hasn't been exploited much this year.
If there was one area on the team that scared Notre Dame fans heading into the season, it was the secondary where the Irish were replacing three of four starters from a 2011 unit that wasn't setting the world on fire. Then Notre Dame lost its most experienced corner, Lo Wood, for the season in the pre-season and 5th year senior Jamoris Slaughter in week three for the season as well. Despite all of these losses, the Notre Dame secondary has held its own through seven games although they have yet to face a test as formidable as the Oklahoma offense.
Notre Dame starts three players who began their careers on the offensive side of the ball. Junior Bennett Jackson switched to corner back last season, freshman Kei'Varae Russell moved over to corner from wide receiver upon reporting to campus, and sophomore Matthias Farley moved back to defense this year after spending his freshman year on offense. All three, however, have intercepted at least one pass this season with Jackson picking off four to tie for the team lead with Te'o.
The elder statesmen in the group now is senior Zeke Motta. Motta is second on the team with 40 tackles and has been vital in Notre Dame's ability to keep opposing offenses from scoring a rushing touchdown this season - something only the Notre Dame defense has been able to do this season.
While the secondary has held its own this year, this week's game has been the one circled on Notre Dame fans' calendars as when we find out if the secondary is for real. Notre Dame hasn't faced a passing attack nearly as potent as Oklahoma.
Notre Dame's kick and punt return units this year have been a non-factor although not because of a lack of talented returners. George Atkinson handles kick duties and despite taking two kicks back for touchdowns as a true freshman last year, he hasn't had much of an impact so this season as a returnman. Freshman Davonte Neal has handled punt return duties and liek Atkinson is a dangerous return man. Like Atkinson he hasn't had much of a chance to make plays either because the Irish blocking schemes on both punts and kicks leave a lot to be desired. There have been very few instances where Neal has caught the ball with any fewer than three or four defenders in his general vicinity. If there were ever a time for Notre Dame to make a play in special teams though, this would be the week it would help the most.
Sophomore Kyle Brindza took over kicking duties for senior Nick Tausch when Tausch went down with an injury earlier this year and it seemed as though he wouldn't look back. Brindza hit 10 of his first 12 kicks before a 1 fr 3 performance last week that included very makable misses from 28 and 40 yards. Brindza has hit some big kicks already this year though - a game winner against Purdue in the final seconds and the game tying field goal in a driving rain storm against Stanford again in the final minutes - so he has experience kicking in pressure packed situations. The two misses last week, however, are a concern and hopefully the effects won't linger into this week for Notre Dame's sake.
Notre Dame has had some trouble with snaps/holds as well including a botched snap against Stanford at the end of the first half that ended up setting up the Cardinal for a late field goal to create a 6 point swing before half time.
Senior Ben Turk has been the Irish punter for four seasons now, but the veteran still has his ups and downs. Early in the season it looked like Turk was turning the corner with some great punting efforts but the last two weeks he has been very inconsistent. Last week with Notre Dame punting from the BYU 32 in the final minute, Turk was called on to punt thanks to Notre Dame's shaky place kicking and the senior boomed one into the end-zone without even getting close to pinning BYU deep. Notre Dame has not been able to consistently win the field position battle this season because of the inconsistency they've had in the punting game.
This is going to be a game of strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. Notre Dame features a stout defense that hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown this season but was touched up for two passes scores last week in a three minute window - one of which came on a busted coverage. The young Irish secondary has held its own this year but facing Landry Jones and the Oklahoma passing game will be, by far, their biggest test of the season.
In order for Notre Dame to keep Oklahoma off of the scoreboard enough to be in the game, the defensive line for the Irish must get pressure on Jones. They are certainly capables with NIx being disruptive in the middle of the line and Tuitt causing problems off the edge. Miami and Stanford, however, were able to slow down the Irish rush and allowed just one sack combined in the two games. Last week the Irish got back on track with four against BYU, but if Oklahoma is able to give Jones time to pass, it could mean trouble for Notre Dame.
The key in my opinion though will be Oklahoma's ability to run the ball. If Notre Dame can keep the Sooner run game in check as they have done against some strong running games already this year and commit some extra resources to help the secondary, Notre Dame should be able to more than hold its own. If Oklahoma can establish the run early and set up the play action pass, that young secondary could get the baptism by fire many were expecting it to receive already this year.
Offensively, I think Notre Dame will have to play control offense and eat up clock to keep the Oklahoma offense off the field and wear down that Sooner defensive front. If Notre Dame can string together some long drives in the first half that end up with some points, I like their chances of running the ball wel in the second half. That has been the MO for this offense so far this year. Grind, grind, grind, and then take over in the second half. To do that I think Golson will have to run more and watch out for Atkinson being in motion. That was a new wrinkle we saw last week that could be effective this week with the more mobile Golson at quarterback.
At the end of the day, I think Notre Dame can win this game, but a lot would have to go right for that to happen. At a minimum they need to protect the football and not turn it over like they did against Stanford, keep the Oklahoma offense on the side lines as much as possible, reduce the silly procedure penalties that have been plaguing the offensive line, and get enough pressure on Jones to protect the young secondary. Could all of that happen? Certainly. Making all of those things an actuality, however, is a rather tall order.
I think this one will be close and that Notre Dame will have a chance in the fourth quarter, but that Oklahoma will put it away with
Oklahoma 28, Notre Dame 17