Wednesday, August 31, 2005

ND Football 2005

Issue 1: Pittsburgh

Pitt Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

Dave Wannstedt has cleaned house with Pitt's run game. The Panthers' 2004 1st and 4th leading rushers in terms of yardage, Raymond Kirkley (560 yds) and Marcus Furman (116 yds), don't even show up on the depth chart. Instead, the run game will be headlined by freshman Rashad Jennings. Jennings will be backed up by sophomore Brandon Mason and freshman LaRod Stephens. But Pitt's run game isn't just about the tailback. Last year, fullback Tim Murphy, who will again be the starting blocking back this year, finished second on the team with 334 yards, and returning quarterback Tyler Palko finished third with 139 yards. (That number is misleading, however - Palko had 469 yards in the positive direction, and 330 lost to sacks.)
Wannstedt is known for favoring the run, but if there's one thing this Notre Dame defense has been able to do the past few years, it's stop the run. The linebacking corps is headlined by hard-hitting runstopped Brandon Hoyte, while the defensive line is anchored in the middle by Derek Landri, a solid senior nose tackle, and the talented Trevor Laws. Stopping the running backs shouldn't be a problem for ND. What they have to worry about is a scheme to contain the scrambling Palko. This will be the job of four first-time starters: Victor Abiamiri and Chris Frome at defensive end, and Corey Mays and Maurice Crum, Jr. at linebacker.

ND Rush Offense vs. Pitt Rush Defense

Julius Jones ran all over Pitt in 2003, and many argue that the duo of Darius Walker and Ryan Grant should have easily done the same in 2004. Walker is back for revenge, coming off a season where he lead the team with 786 rushing yards. He'll be backed up by Travis Thomas, whose fumbling problems quickly sank his 2004 season, and also perhaps by talented sophomore Justin Hoskins. What will be most interesting to watch is the role that fullback Rashon Powers-Neal plays. RPN's last coach thought that fullbacks were for receiving and blocking, not for rushing. But what does Charlie Weis think of this former tailback? Regardless of who runs the ball, Notre Dame's backfield should be confident in their veteran offensive line, featuring junior tackle Ryan Harris, and the new center duo of Bob Morton and John Sullivan.
Pitt is returning their top two tacklers, linebackers HB Blades and Clint Session, who combined for 199 tackles in 2004. Session, however, will start the season as a backup to redshirt sophomore Derron Thomas. Hey, when your team is coming off a season where it gave up 140 yards per game on the ground, you've got to try anything you think might work.

Pitt Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

I was very upset dropped an F-bomb on live TV following last year's game, I was very upset. I had Jon Gruden and our own Chris Orenchuk in the "first unedited f-bomb during an NBC Notre Dame broadcast." (If we actually had a former ND player in the broadcast booth, that alum would have had plenty of reasons to drop sed f-bomb at some point between the 1997 and 2004 seasons.) Where was I? Oh yes, Palko. Do you really blame a kid for being excited after he threw five (five!) touchdown passes in Notre Dame stadium? For the past few years, Notre Dame has had two options in their pass defense: play straight up and take your chances with their #1 receiver (in this case, it will again be Greg Lee), or bracket that #1 receiver while Palko dinks and dunks to the backs, tight end Eric Gill, and "possession receiver" Joe DelSardo (both Gill and DelSardo are returning starters). In 2003, ND went bracket in the second half and Larry Fitzgerald didn't have a single catch. In 2004, the Irish went straight up in the first half, got beaten up by Lee, then switched to bracket in the second half and got demolished by Gill.
The giant question with this Notre Dame team is the pass defense. Gone are its top pass rusher, and 3/4 of its starting secondary. The good news is that the remaining 1/4 of that starting secondary was by far the best. This year, Tom Zbikowski will start at strong safety. Across from him, Chinedum Ndukwe, the hard-hitting former receiver, will try to step in at "weak safety." Now, normally, you think of the weak or free safety as the last line of defense in your passing game. Hardly a responsibility you want to give to someone who's played 9 games on defense in his entire life. However, the fact that he's called a "weak" safety (lined up on the side of the field the tight end isn't on) as opposed to a "free" safety makes me want to believe that Ndukwe and Zbikowski will be sharing the "last line of defense" duty from play to play.
Two years ago, everyone worried about the state of the defensive line after Anthony Weaver and Ryan Roberts left. Darrell Campbell and Ced Hilliard stepped in, and the line did just fine. Then, last year, with Campbell and Hilliard gone, everyone once again worried about the state of the line. But Justin Tuck and Derek Landri stepped up. This year, Landri is back but Tuck is gone, causing everyone to worry about the lack of a pass rush (which is especially an issue considering the inexperience in the secondary). Can ends Abiamiri and Frome, combined with Laws at tackle, pick up the slack?
In a world where catching passes out of the backfield is becoming an increasingly important tool for many offenses, the ability of Notre Dame's linebackers to cover running backs in pass patterns was lagging far behind. Enter the Apache linebacker. Much like Will, Mike, and Sam are the nicknames for the weak, middle, and strong-side linebackers, "Apache" is the nickname for the "adjuster backer." Think of the Apache as a small, fast linebacker, or a big, hard-hitting safety. The Apache can line up at linebacker when needed, spy a back out of the backfield, or play safety in three deep sets. This year, the role of Apache linebacker will be played by Maurice Crum, Jr. and Anthony Vernaglia.
Finally, there are the cornerbacks. Junior Ambrose Wooden is said to be the most athletic DB the Irish have. As a starter, he'll get a chance to prove it. Across from him, a senior will have a shot at redemption. Last year as a reserve, Mike Richardson made a name for himself by being posterized or by volunteering as a visual aid on the intricacies of pass interference. Most memorably, Richardson surrendered a late touchdown in last year's loss to Pitt. This Saturday, he will be given a chance to rewrite the Mike Richardson story.

ND Pass Offense vs. Pitt Pass Defense

Whether you like him or you're still skeptical, Brady Quinn is the #1 choice at quarterback for ND. Last year, Quinn spread 191 completions and 2586 yards among 21 receivers. Back this year are his three top options: Rhema McKnight, Anthony Fasano, and Maurice Stovall, who combined for 90 completions, 1290 yards, and 7 TDs. Other options at receiver are the reliable Jeff Samardzija and deep thread Matt Shelton. At tight end, the talented John Carlson and Marcus Freeman back up Fasano.
In 2004, Pitt gave up 255.2 ypg and 22 passing touchdowns, numbers that mirrored their offensive output in the air. Gone are Malcolm Postell and Tyrone Gilliard, who combined for 5 picks in 2004, but back are Tez Morris, Darrelle Revis, Mike Phillips, and Josh Lay, who combined for 7 INTs. The defense had 22 totals sacks. Their leader was JJ Horne with 3.5, but the redshirt senior will platoon with Brian Bennett at the Will linebacker position this year.

Special Teams

Pitt kicker Josh Cummings comes off a season where he made 18-17 field goals, with a long of 47. Not bad for a guy who plays half his games in Heinz Field. His counterpart is the versatile DJ Fitzpatrick, was 11-15, also with a long of 47.
Pitt's punter is also returning from last season. Adam Graessle put up good numbers last year, averaging 43.3 yards per punt with a long of 79 yards. Again, his counterpart will be Fitzpatrick. DJ began college as a placekicker, but he developed into quite a punter last year, averaging 41.8 yards with a long of 67 and 29 punts placed inside the 20.
Returning kicks for Pitt will be LaRod Stephens, a Joey Getherall-sized running back, and either backup backs Mason or Furman. Last year, Pitt averaged 19.9 yards per return while Notre Dame gave up that exact same amount per kick. Possible kick returners for the Irish include Chase Anastascio, who battled an ankle injury for most of last year, talented DB Terrail Lambert, freshman receiver DJ Hord, and Justin Hoskins. Notre Dame averaged 18.7 yards per return in 2004, while Pitt yielded 22.7.
Sophomore DB Darrelle Revis will return punts for Pitt. Last year, Pitt averaged a meager 5.5 yards per punt return, while Notre Dame surrendered a decent 8.2 yards per return. Several options for Notre Dame at punt returner include Tom Zbikowski, who has looked impressive in the open field, Rhema McKnight, who is also talented in the open field but looked lost returning punts last year. Notre Dame picked up 10.8 yards per punt return in 2004, while Pitt gave up 12.1.

Look for a big game from

Charlie Weis, Walker, Fasano, Stovall, the offensive line, Hoyte, Laws, Zbikowski, and Fitzpatrick.

ND 27, Pitt 17: Two by land (Walker), one by air (Fasano, set up by a turnover), and two by DJ.