For the first time this year, I am truly excited about a game.
Yes, I was excited about Charlie's first game, but I was anxious about what kind of talent Michigan State was going to bring to the table, and how Charlie would deal with the Circus that is game week on campus for the first time.
For Southern Cal, I was fired up, but excited doesn't really describe the gamut of emotions I was experiencing. As a matter of fact, that entire week I was like a manic depressive, veering wildly between depressed memories of Ty's embarassing losses to the Poodle and wildly optimistic dreams of fairy tale endings that would vault us to a National Championship. I was impatient, but not excited. Also, having my brother in town was a lot of fun, but also quite a distraction.
For BYU, well, it was BYU. I knew we would win, and win big, but despite last year's loss to the Cougars, I just couldn't rile up a lot of emotion. I was way more excited about having my sister in town and showing her and her friend the game day atmosphere than the game.
This week, though, I am absolutely stoked. Excited beyond belief. We have a quality opponent with a talented defense limping in halfway through a disappointing season for them. We are a Top 10 team, well-rested with two weeks of preparation under our belts. It should be a dogfight - a hard-hitting, smashmouth football game in the trenches with the exciting plays and momentum shifts that are inevitable in this kind of matchup. I don't have anyone from out of town to try to schedule around. I can finally go enjoy a game on my own.
Now lets break this match-up down (I'm cutting back the format a little, looking at key match-ups for the game instead of every single player on the field.)
Notre Dame Passing v. Tennessee Secondary and Pass-rush
Brady Quinn, QB, 175-266 (65.8% completions) 2,352 yds., 20 TD, 4 INT, 44 rushes, 169 yds.
Parys Haralson, DE, 30 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks
Jason Hall, DE, 26 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 5 sacks
Brady has been torching teams all year, sitting at 5th in the country in pass completions per game (the most by a quarterback for any team ranked in the top 15). Tennessee is averaging 3 sacks per game (tied for 15th in the nation), while Notre Dame is giving up only 1.5 sacks per game. Something has got to give. Either Notre Dame's offensive line will continue to be efficient, or Tennessee's ends will get theirs. My gut feeling is that Brady's pocket presence will trump the pass rush, and we'll give up maybe two sacks.
Don't underestimte these rushers, though; if they can get to Brady early and disrupt his timing, they could gdrag this offense down to a snail's pace. Also look for Jessee Mahelona inside to collapse the pocket a couple of times.
Jeff Samardzija, WR
Maurice Stovall, WR
Jonathan Hefney, CB
Jonathan Wade, CB
Notre Dame's receivers are getting better by the week, but they haven't faced a tougher corner tandem than this. Returning starter Jonathan Hefney is the team's shut down corner, usually bottling up the opposing team's leading receiver. The opposite corner, Jonathan Wade, beat out last year's starter Roshaun Fellows to emerge as a force at the other side of the field. Teams have tried to pick on him, but he has a knack for getting his hand on the ball. Because last year's starter, Fellows, is the third corner, Notre Dame would have to go at least 4 deep at receiver to expose any weaknesses.
This, for me, is the most intriguing matchup this week.
Notre Dame's Running Backs vs. Tennessee's Linebackers and Defensive Line
Darius Walker, RB
Travis Thomas, RB
Omar Gaither, LB
Kevin Simon, LB
Jessee Mahelona, DT
Notre Dame doesn't have the standout running back many people expected in Darius Walker this year. Some of this is due to the utilization of Travis Thomas and Rashon Powers-Neal. Some of it is Darius learning how to run effectively in Charlie's system, trusting his blocks and hitting the seams decisively, even if they haven't opened yet.
Tennessee is the 5th best rush defense team in the country, giving up only 85 yards per game on the ground.
This could be a long day for ND's runners, as the linebacking core and D-line for Tennessee closes holes quickly and penetrates the backfield effectively.
Much like the Pittsburgh game, look for Charlie to rely on screens to move the ball, rather than attack this defense's strength.
Problem with that: Jason Allen, the All-American free safety.
Notre Dame Offense v. Tennessee Defense
This matchup is what has me excited about this game.
Charlie Weis is an offensive genius-robot.
Phil Fulmer's defense is one of the best in the country, and these kids are like wounded animals backed into a corner. They feel like they have something to prove.
Tennessee gives up 208 yds/gm passing compared to the 340 yds/gm we are accustomed to.
Tennessee gives up only 85 yds/gm on the ground. Despite the disappointments in this area, we still average almost 153 yds/gm on the ground.
Thats a difference of exactly 200 yds/gm between what they give up and what we normally get.
Something's got to give.
Expect the Irish to struggle early against the best defense they'll play this year, but to get a couple of quick strike touchdowns towards the end of the first half.
Tennessee's defense will reassert itself in the second half, but Notre Dame will grind out another score late in the game.
Tennessee Rushing v. Notre Dame Linebackers
Arian Foster, RB - true freshman, 61 rushes, 285 yds., 2 TD, 3 fumbles
Brandon Hoyte, LB, 56 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Corey Mays, LB, 32 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles
The loss of Gerald Riggs to injury during the Alabama game doomed any hope Tennessee had of consistency on offense this season. Tennessee is average a paltry 110 yds/gm on the ground, while Notre Dame's rush defense is a solid 119 yds/gm. this translates into a situation where Tennessee will struggle to move the ball on the ground all day.
I expect Tennessee to have less than 75 yards rushing at game's end.
Tennessee Passing v. Notre Dame Pass Defense
Bear with me as I go statistic-happy for a little bit, as this matchup is difficult to decipher.
Tennessee's passing game is only averaging a little over 200 yds/gm (79th in the country).
On the bright side for them, Notre Dame is giving up just over 300 yds/gm (114th in the country).
However, these numbers are a bit deceiving.
Notre Dame's opponents have all been pass-happy teams compared to Tennessee. Southern Cal averages 344 yds/gm in the air, BYU 325, Michigan State 307, Purdue 263, Washington 232, Pittsburgh 223, and Michigan 219.
Averaged out, Notre Dame gives up about 25 yards more per game than their opponent's average.
Tennessee has also faced some of the toughest pass defense teams in the country. Their opponents give up very few passing yards: Alabama 160yds/gm, Florida 168, Georgia 174, South Carolina 177, Mississippi 186, LSU 203, UAB 210.
Averaged out, Tennessee is gaining about 25 yards more per game than their opponent's average.
So the question is, does Notre Dame give up about 225 yds (~25 yards over Tennessee's average), or does Tennessee throw for about 325 yards (~25 yards over Notre Dame's average)?
This matchup is interesting because Tennessee will not be able to run, and Notre Dame has been susceptible to the pass.
The statistic I think will decide this is efficiency. Notre Dame's pass efficiency defense is a respectable 122 (for those non-football people, that means that they are actually 58th in the country, not 114th). Tennessee's pass efficiency offense is a pitiful 101 (this puts them at 101st in the country, not 79th).
What does this all mean?
Notre Dame, because of Tennessee's one-dimensionality, will be able to sit on the pass and will bottle up Tennessee's passing game.
Tennessee Offense v. Notre Dame Defense
Notre Dame has faced some incredibly high-powered offenses this year. Tennessee is not high-powered, especially with their best offensive player on the sidelines.
Tennessee is used to playing against stingy defenses. Notre Dame isn't exactly stingy, as they have given up lots of passing yardage.
However, Notre Dame's defense has adjusted well in every game this year, especially in the 2nd quarter.
Expect Tennessee to look good early, as their team is playing with a lot of pride and emotion. I wouldn't be surprised to see them jump out to an early lead.
Notre Dame will adjust late in the first half, pressuring the quarterback and throwing off their timing.
In the second half, the Vols will rally again, but will simply not have enough offense to make up the deficit they'll be facing late in the game.
Also, as usual, expect the Irish to come up with 1 or 2 red zone turnovers against a team that will be pressing most of the game, and will be looking for an identity on offense, due to confusion in the coaching ranks.
Notre Dame Coaching v. Tennessee Coaching
Earlier this week, Tennessee's offensive coordinator resigned, effective at the end of the year. Beginning with this game, their offensive coordinator will be in the press box, discussing the play calls with Phil Fulmer, Tennessee's head coach, via headphones.
Notre Dame's head coach Charlie Weis was just granted an extension to his contract, keeping him here until 2015, amid rumors that NFL teams were courting him.
Do you really have to ask which team has the advantage here?
Notre Dame's biggest worry in this game is complacency by the coaching staff. If Coach Weis doesn't stay agressive on offense despite early struggles, this game could get away from him, with Tennessee's defense dictating the pace of the game. As long as we stay aggressive, we should be OK.
Notre Dame 24
Tennessee will jump out to an early 7-0 lead, but Notre Dame will score 14 straight in the second quarter to retake the lead. Tennessee and Notre Dame will grind out a couple of field goals early in the second half, and Tennessee will slim the lead to 13-17. Notre Dame will respond with an epic fourth quarter drive to put the game out of reach.