#9 Notre Dame (4-0) v. Miami (4-1)
Soldier Field – Chicago, Illinois – 7:30 EST on NBC
Notre Dame Football & Herring Bone return from a long bye week to clash with the Miami Hurricanes and their crumbling
program defense. Jokes about Miami home games aside - imagine the furor among the Irish blogosphere if 4-1 Notre Dame, with a lone loss having occurred on the road against a Top 7 team, was unranked in all polls. The Hurricanes pants were pulled down 4 weeks ago by current #7 Kansas State and there's no two ways about it. Since the beat down Al Golden's bunch has rebounded and the Canes are averaging 40 points/game in three 2012 ACC wins. Notre Dame spent the past two weeks basking in the glow of Top 10 rankings and burgeoning Heisman hype for the hard-not-to-love Manti Te'o. If there was going to be a week without football, sitting high on the hog far surpasses gnashing our teeth over another crippling defeat. Let's not get too confident Irish fans. This is a tough match-up against a foe that might be somewhat undervalued and it should shock no fan if both these teams are vying for BCS births in late November. In a 2012 season full of them, this is a big a statement game kicking off a statement month of October.
First Thing - This is the first time I've taken to the keyboard since my inaugural trek to South Bend in the regular season. While it was mildly hectic traversing the campus and the round the clock goings-on leading up to the game with 8 people, I have to admit it was beyond a fantastic experience. As Steve in Iowa pointed out earlier this week, the Lady Friend and I kept a flask of Irish Whiskey handy at all times and the weather was constantly calling for Irish Coffees while roaming around South Bend. We made our first one no less than 5 feet from Dick Vitale in the bookstore while he was prepping for his rousing turn hosting the Pep Rally.
I don't care what you tell me about any pep rally ever – you will not convince me that Friday's before Michigan 2012 wasn't the coolest and best of all-time. A very special moment was shared between the masses and Manti Te'o before other kinds of special moments were provided by Prince Shembo & Troy Niklas. This all occurred between Vitale running all portions of his chatter way past his scripted time. At one point you actually heard the Leprechaun over the mic tell Dickie V that he needed to wrap it up. Vitale proceeded to tell another 7 minute story as if to ensure him that HE was running this show and running it well. The entire campus was buzzing in excitement and anticipation at all times and the win over the Skunkbears made for the perfect sports fan weekend. Thank you Manti & Notre Dame. Special shoutout to long-time reader and supporter Don2u74 who shared a few Jameson's, stories, and pre-game secrets with me in the Morris Inn before kickoff. Now, are you ready for me to talk football?
Michigan Game Notes: I was seated nearly dead center behind the North End Zone (tunnel side) and had a great view of developing plays during the game. Manti Te'o spoke about Danny Spond in this week's press conference and I must echo that in person he looked fantastic. I thought he looked slow and lacked aggression while in attendance at the Spring Game, but he has completely morphed since then as he appeared 100% tuned into all aspects of the defense and held the edge brilliantly from my seat. We could all see Tommy Rees start to warm up before he got the call. While there weren't any audible boos, it was clear the stadium was torn on the move. The crowd was mostly fantastic during the game – cheering long and loud throughout and really getting into the game at heightened levels as time progressed. Michigan 3rd downs were especially impressive. Because of turnovers, I can never remember high-fiving random fans at a game with so few scores. Cierre Wood looked great in the little time we saw him. Tyler Eifert is always open. Always. From our vantage point we had no clue how bad Golson's 2nd pick was. Depth: Likely the biggest thing I took away from the game was the constant shuffle along the Irish's dominating front seven. Watching at home, fans can notice some but not all substitutions during the game. It was mesmerizing to witness the defensive line rotate without noting a drop off in productivity. Therein lies the biggest change under Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco.
In 2012, are there fewer Catholics at Notre Dame & fewer "Convicts" at Miami than the rivalry's 1980's heyday? Anyways …
It's the 4th game for the Irish where the common refrain pre-kickoff will be "THIS is the game where the Irish secondary will finally be tested." Denard Robinson tested the Irish's ability to catch interceptions. They passed with flying colors and that's not always been the case. Miami QB Stephen Morris is coming off a record-setting 566 yard passing performance and is helming an aggressive attack that feels the need to score every drive because the Hurricane defense is not stopping anybody. Accompanying those 566 yards were 23 incompletions, but Morris, like Terbush, Maxwell, and Robinson before him, should challenge the back 1/3 of this defense in ways it hasn't experienced thus far.
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, you just might find
You get what you need"
Other festering Irish subplots aren't getting as much normal attention because, as John Madden loved to say: winning is the greatest deodorant. If ND was 3-1 following an offseason where most projected 2-2, this QB situation would still be getting murdered across all sites as clear proof of a coach who doesn't have a pulse on the most important position in the sport. Instead, we discuss an undefeated Irish team trying to develop an elite talent while winning tough football games. Do we WANT an offense and quarterback that operate with the efficiency of Geno Smith & West Virginia last week? Do we want a defense where we NEED that kind of offense. Point & Set. Brian Kelly is getting what he needs out of the position so far in 2012 as opposed to what he wants. Because he's then getting what he wants and needs – wins. Make sense?
Assuming Brian Kelly is telling us the truth, Everett Golson is set up for success this Saturday against a Miami defense that can't stop the bleeding. The Hurricanes points allowed against I-A opponents thus far: 32-52-36-37. That's 157 total. Notre Dame has allowed 36 points in all of 2012 against mostly superior competition. Golson needs to move the ball efficiently and that should feature a dominant rushing attack which places the young QB in better position to make easier throws. As long as the Irish are winning, the buzz around the carousel at quarterback will remain an annoyed purr. We want Golson to throw a haymaker at some point, but we'll also keep taking what we're getting and like it. As should all fan-bases.
Five Things To Watch
5. Irish OL in 1st Quarter - Miami "boasts" the 112th ranked rushing defense in America while allowing an abysmal 226 yards/game. While the QB controversy grabs the majority of the negative headlines, the Irish offensive line has under whelmed and maintained little consistency outside of finishing the games against Sparty & Michigan (not that we're complaining about that fellas). Mike Golic Jr. gets singled out by bloggers, but 3 year starter Zack Martin has made some bone-headed plays and we've seen the senior getting beaten on more pass plays and run blocks than we remember. Miami will be up for this game and Anthony Chickillo is a name we'll hear.
4. RB Rotation - As a group, Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick & George Atkinson III are averaging 4.9 yards/carry. Pull off those Navy stats (206 yards at 7.4 yards/carry) and you find a less impressive group. All have shown flashes of brilliance, but with the offense Kelly is running it would seem that a 70-20-10 split might work better than what seems more like a 45-45-10. It's hard to watch Oregon utilize multiple backs so well for the past few years when ND might have similar talent on the RB depth chart but a far less efficient way of deploying them with Golson/Rees.
3. Sacks - Notre Dame sits in the Top 10 nationally as a team (3.5/game). Sophomore Stephon Tuitt leads the elite unit and ranks 2nd in America with 6 sacks on the season. Our young secondary is buoyed by constant QB pressure and a defensive line that often bulldozes opponents. The Irish should rattle Morris early and often and we can only hope former #1 ranked high schooler & Canes 2nd-team OT Seantrel Henderson goes toe-to-toe with Tuitt Saturday to remind fans how volatile and ridiculous recruiting rankings are.
2. 3rd Down – Notre Dame is 15/42 on third down since Navy. Converting at a 36% just isn't going to cut it this month. This number must get better and Golson must improve managing the game from this perspective and show Brian Kelly he can get the offense into better plays … then execute them.
1. Te'o For Heisman - Defensive players can only hope of getting an invite to New York for the Heisman Trophy in the modern age. Luke Keuchly averaged 16 tackles/game in 2011 and didn't make the trip. As the Honey Badger, former LSU DB Tyrann Mathieu, can attest – it's all about turnovers when getting recognized by the Heisman Trust and national voters. Being undefeated most of the season helps. If Te'o hopes to keep this Heisman buzz alive then he needs to keep the double digit tackle games coming, despite entire game plans designed away from him, and he needs to continue to be in the right place at the right time consistently all year. Also – Notre Dame-USC needs to be a BCS/Heisman showcase game: it needs to matter for both teams.
Brian Kelly had his first impressive win after a bye week in 2010 and his most deflating loss after a bye in 2011. Shutting down Utah in 2010 kicked off an impressive 4-0 finish while the USC debacle was the awful center of a bad start and bad finish to last season. We're still not sure if Brian Kelly is a good bye week coach but with what has gone on with the QB position, the earlier than usual off week could only be a blessing heading into an eight week gauntlet of rivals and teams that would love nothing more than derailing all of 2012's built up momentum.
Predicting The Game & What We'll See
Maybe I should re-name this portion of my preview column: Here's What Won't Happen. Two weeks to rest and prepare seems like a major advantage for a team dealing with offensive inconsistency and a defense that has spent a ton of time holding down the fort. Everett Golson had an opportunity to re-set while the coaching staff could use the extra time observing why things haven't been clicking against better competition. Manti Te'o was able to head home and draw some closure with family and friends following a trying couple weeks and the 2 deep on the defensive line freshened their legs. While being listed as a "neutral site game" in Chicago, we all know the crowd will be 90%+ Irish and the Floridians will get their first taste of winter weather as temps could drop into the 30s Saturday night. All these notes add up to quite a few things that tip in the Irish's favor on paper, but if Miami jumps out early then all bets are off. Miami isn't comfortable with a lead and ND has never trailed. Interesting combination.
Miami – The Irish's last two opponents have found tough sledding on the outside of the defense and with a QB that isn't a runner it's difficult to see the Canes trying to run too much this Saturday. Morris is clearly getting more comfortable with Golden's program and I think he gets a few big plays over the top and is able to keep the game close. Defensively the Canes will likely stack the box, like other opponents, while trying to confuse Everett Golson with coverages and schemes. Even though the team allows Notre Dame to open up it's rushing attack, the Canes hold down long enough to keep hopes of winning alive. Former Irish target, DE Anthony Chickillo, wreaks some havoc and talks smack throughout.
Notre Dame – Notre Dame will try to control the clock and the game by rushing the ball almost exclusively early on, including designed rushes for Golson. The Irish woes on 3rd down continue, but Cierre Wood gets a heavier workload in the 2nd half and rewards the staff with multiple big runs and a few catches. Wood finishes with 125 total yards while Tyler Eifert gets on the board with 5+ catches, 90 yards and a touchdown. Rees takes a series at QB after Golson makes multiple mistakes in the 3rd quarter, but with the lead Kelly brings him back to finish the game.
The teams are tied heading into the 4th quarter 19-19 but scores on consecutive Irish drives hold up. Eifert catches a TD and Cierre Wood puts the game away. ND gets 240 yards on the ground. Tuitt grabs sack number 7 and Louis Nix gets one too.
Notre Dame (-14) Over/Under: 53.5
Herring Bone Says Take Miami (+14) & The Under
Final Score: Notre Dame 29-19