Tennessee's defense was predictably solid, but they haven't faced anything like the Irish offense this year.
Tennessee's rush defense was solid, giving up only 48 yards on 33 rushes, for a paltry 1.4 yads/rush average. However, if you look at just the running backs the Irish gained 77 yards on 23 carries. Their pass rush was excellent, as Brady sruggled all day to find enough time to pitch the ball, getting sacked 3 times, and hurrying him all day.
Tennessee surprised me, however, with their offense. I expected us to really shut the run down, but they committed to the run, and were relatively effective - they gained over 100 yards on the ground. Their passing game was largely ineffective, however, despite our inability to rush the passer. Statistically, our pass rush was as good as Tennessee's, but Brady, on average, had much less time to throw than Erik Ainge. Ainge would routinely sit in the pocket for 7+ seconds, looking for a receiver. Despite all the time, however, he only completed 40% of his passes, and threw 2 picks.
Which brings me to what I really want to talk about - the overall complete game the Irish played. There were a couple of weaknesses, but overall the Irish executed well in all three phases of the game.
The Irish offense struggled statistically compared to what they've been able to do all year, but this is largely due to the Tennessee defense. The offense did plenty, however, scoring three passing touchdowns and controlling the pace of the game.
A couple more passing records were broken - most touchdown passes in a season, most touchdown receptions in a season, and consecutive games with a touchdown reception. At this point, the only passing records that may be safe come year's end are: pass attempts in a game (in '67, 63 passes were thrown in one game - Charlie likes balance too much for that one to fall) and yards per attempt/completion (Charlie's offense uses short passes like other offenses use the running game). Other than that, Brady, Jeff, and the rest of the receiving corps will have the rest. This includes the records for quality and efficiency, not just the ones for quantity. For example, look at: season pass interception percentage (record: .016, 4 in 250 attempts; current: .013, 4 in 299 attempts) season completion percentage (record: .638, 118 of 185; current: .652, 195 of 299).
And did I mention we have three of our five weakest opponents ahead, with all of our tough opponents behind us?
The other phases of the Irish game were clicking on Saturday as well.
On defense, our pass rush was weak, but our secondary played as well as I've seen since the Holtz era. They were consistently glued to the receivers, and didn't give up the big play - the longest completion was 23 yards. We gave up a couple of long runs, but our pursuit was excellent, and they had no long scores. We had a fumble recovery, and two interceptions, one of which was returned by Zbikowski for a touchdown.
On special teams, we were great. Tennessee averaged a pitiful 4.7 yards per punt return, and only 21.7 on 8 kickoff returns. We averaged 23.3 per kick return, and a whopping 39.3 per punt return (helped by a spectacular 78-yd TD return by Zbikowski). We were perfect on field goals and PATs.
Yes, you read that correctly, Notre Dame scored a touchdown in all three phases of the game - offense, defense, and special teams.
This was the very picture of a team effort, and puts the Irish in the position to win out, as they should be favored by double digits in all three remaining games.
Navy has the best record of the remaining opponents at 5-3, but they've lost to Stanford, Maryland, and Rutgers with no wins over ranked teams. Syracuse is the worst team we'll play, with their lone win this season coming against MAC doormat and winless Buffalo. Stanford, at 4-4, is the toughest opponent remaining on our schedule; despite an embarassing loss to Division I-AA opponent UC-Davis earlier in the season, the Cardinal has been playing better late in the season, with a near-win over then-#8 UCLA and an upset of Arizona State. None of these teams have the talent to beat Notre Dame this year, barring the sudden loss of Quinn, Samardzija, Zbikowski, Walker, Thomas, Stovall AND Fasano. And even then, our backups could win these games (remember, Wolke drove the second team down the field against Purdue's first team in garbage time to score a TD).
See you in Tempe?