Thursday, November 10, 2005

United States Naval Academy v. University of Notre Dame

This game has always been my favorite game to attend. Notre Dame is all but guaranteed to win, but the game is always hard-fought for 60 minutes and no matter the outcome, game day is imbued with a higher level of respect between opponents than any other games the Irish play.

The service academies always demand a certain level of respect, considering that the men that take that field are first soldiers, then students, and finally athletes.

But Notre Dame - Navy is more. For Notre Dame and Navy, this game has a much deeper historic meaning than other games.

From Navy's game notes for this week:
"Notre Dame and Navy first met on the football field in 1927, while Knute Rockne was the Irish head coach. But to truly understand the Notre Dame-Navy series requires a trip back to the 1940s, when Frank Leahy had the Irish on top of the football world.
"Leahy coached the Irish to a national championship in 1943, his third year as head coach, just before enlisting with the Navy to serve in World War II. Following the war, Leahy and the Irish picked up right where they had left off, going four entire seasons without a loss and claiming national championships in 1946, 1947 and 1949.
"But World War II cost Notre Dame a lot more than its talented head coach and a slew of players (including 1943 Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli). It virtually wiped out the small, all-male school. The University was having terrible financial problems, and as an all-male school with so many young men being drafted and going off to war, there was almost nobody left to attend the University.
"As part of the war effort, the Navy needed more officers than the Naval Academy was able to produce in a short period of time. So a decision was made to utilize a number of institutions across the nation in which young men would attend college and receive training to become officers. Notre Dame became the site for one such program. Not only did Notre Dame now have a much-needed influx of students preparing to become Naval officers, but the Navy also built a number of facilities on campus that served Notre Dame for years. It's safe to say that if it wasn't for the Navy and the Naval Academy, Notre Dame may not exist today."

Legend has it that, pursuant to the Naval Academy's assistance during World War II, Coach Frank Leahy and President John Cavanaugh agreed to play Navy in football any time they wanted, and sealed the deal with a handshake.

Prior to that agreement, Notre Dame had played Navy every year since 1927, and have continued ever since. The agreement is not legally binding, but the integrity of both schools is in many ways a more enduring bond than any contract.

The stark reality on the football field, however, is that Navy cannot compete with Notre Dame in the current college football landscape. The last time Navy beat the Irish was also the last time Navy fielded a Heisman trophy winner in Roger Staubach. The Naval Academy is simply not equipped to compete with the upper level competition in Division I-A, especially with the height/weight limits placed on the service academies. For example, Navy is starting the smallest offensive lineman in Div. I-A: 249-pound offensive guard Antron Harper.

However, it is worth noting that the Midshipmen are second in the country in rushing, and they operate an unconventional wishbone option attack which is difficult to prepare for. They'll fight hard all game, and the last several victories in Notre Dame Stadium have come by 2 or fewer scores, and the last visit was decided by 3 points.

Notre Dame 56
Navy 17

Here's why:

Notre Dame Defensive Line v. Navy Offensive Line
Navy: 270.4 lbs. per player
Notre Dame: 277.7 lbs. per player
At a position where defensive lineman are usually outclassed by nearly 50 lbs., this week Notre Dame's D-line will have the advantage of weight in addition to speed and power. Look for the D-line to attempt to get quick pressure up the field to disprupt Navy's timing on their option attack.

Notre Dame Skill Positions (WRs/TEs/RBs)
Calrson, TE: 6' 6"
Samardzija, WR: 6' 5"
Stovall, WR: 6' 5"
Fasano, TE: 6' 4"
Shelton, WR: 6' 0"
Thomas, RB" 6' 0"
Walker, RB: 5'11"
Navy Secondary and Linebackers
Tyler Tidwell, OLB, 6' 2"
Rob Caldwell, ILB, 6' 0"
Jake Biles, ILB, 5' 11"
Keenan Little, CB, 5' 11"
Jeremy McGown, S, 5' 11"
DuJuan Price, S, 5' 11"
David Mahoney, OLB, 5' 9"
Greg Thrasher, CB, 5' 8"
Jump ball, anyone?

Notre Dame Defense v. Navy Offense
ND rush defense rank: 25th Navy rush offense rank: 2nd
ND pass defense rank: 110th Navy pass offense rank: 114th
There strengths play into our strengths, they do not play to our weaknesses; this means our better athletes will win these matchups. Finally, Notre Dame's pass defense will look good statistically.

68-9-1: the series record. There is no dominance in college football like Notre Dame's over Navy. If Notre Dame ever loses this game, I guarantee the Midshipmen will bring down the goalposts no matter where the game takes place. To put this in perspective, however, even Ty Willie, Kuharich, and Faust went undefeated against Navy. I don't expect this series to have close games again for a long, long time. Notre Dame wins big.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Notre Dame 41, Tennessee 21

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?