Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Notre Dame Football 2006
Issue 1: Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

Oklahoma transfer Tashard Choice will take the starter's role from the departed PJ Daniels. Last year, Choice ran 117 times for 543 yards. It appears that Choice was the go-to guy in the red zone last year, as he had 6 rushing touchdowns to Daniels' 3. Backing up Choice is Rashaun Grant, who also handles return duties. Grant carried 10 times for 44 yards during an injury-plagued 2006. Discounting sacks, quarterback Reggie Ball ran 94 times for 297 yards and 4 touchdowns. Based on last year's tendencies, look for the starter Choice to get around 20 carries on Saturday, with Grant and Ball each carrying the ball 10 times or so. Fullback and high school prank caller favorite Mike Cox did not carry the ball once last season, but don't rule it out this year. All in all, this is a very balanced offense.
Notre Dame's defense has struggled with mobile quarterbacks over the past few years. A pessimist would say that this year should be no different, with two new linebackers in the starting eleven. Still, this year's starting trio at linebacker is smaller and more athletic, so that could compensate for any inexperience. Maurice Crum, Jr., the lone returning starter among the backers, was not known for his run stopping ability in 2005, recording only 3.5 tackles for loss. Then again, his post at Apache linebacker was not intended to stop the run. This year, with Crum at playing middle linebacker, we shall see if things will change. In the end, the Irish may have to rely on run-stopping end Victor Abiamiri and a veteran defensive line to contain the Yellow Jacket Ground game. That will be no small task, however, as the GT offensive line returns four starters.

ND Rush Offense vs. Georgia Tech Rush Defense

Notre Dame returns 1000-yard rusher Darius Walker at halfback. Walker may not have been able to "break the big one" last year, but he was able to put up a very consistent performance. In 2005, Darius ran for 1196 yards and 9 touchdowns on 253 carries. It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, spells Walker. Travis Thomas will be starting at linebacker. Because Thomas is still learning to play linebacker, it appears that Charlie Weis does not want to overload him with running back responsibilities as well. Weis mentioned that there are "certain situations" for which Thomas is prepared. Only time will tell which "certain situations" those are. With Thomas' time at halfback limitied, and with freshman James Aldridge nursing an injury, fellow freshman Munir Prince has been listed on the 2-deep for this game. Many fans of recent Irish history hope that Prince's choice of jersey #25 is a sign that he will channel a past #25 - a guy more recently seen on ESPN's College Gameday. Fullback Asaph Schwapp, while known primarily as a blocker, did average two carries per game, totaling 27 runs for 67 yards. Disregarding sacks, quarterback Brady Quinn ran 49 times for 225 yards. Drawing on 2005 numbers, look for 20 carries from Walker, a few well-timed scrambles from Brady Quinn, and perhaps five to seven rushes from other sources.
Georgia Tech's gave up 103.9 yards on the ground in 2005 - a rather impressive number, especially considering some of the number of good backs on ACC powerhouses. But, as I'm sure you've figured out by now, sacks count against NCAA rushing statistics, and GT was very successful in the sack game last year. The Yellow Jackets zone blitzing system accounted for 257 yards lost to sacks. Taking that negative yardage out brings the rusing total given up to 125 yards per game. Maybe that blitz shouldn't be ignored, though. Just because you're not the quarterback doesn't mean Tech can't stop you in the backfield. GT had 92 tackles for a loss last season, meaning that they moved the offense backwards once every 8 or 9 plays from scrimmage. The two guys that got into the backfield the most last year (a combined 25.5 times) are linebackers KaMichael Hall and Phillip Wheeler. Both are back for this year, as are defensive linemen Adamm Oliver and Joe Anoai. These four combined for 195 tackles last season.
Everyone who has played EA Sports' NCAA Football knows that you beat the blitz by running screens and draws (sweetheart). So, be prepared for even more Darius Walker than you're used to.

Georgia Tech Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

Like his Irish counterpart, Reggie Ball is about to begin his fourth year as the Georgia Tech starting quarterback. Ball's numbers will also remind many Irish fans of a pre-2005 Quinn: a completion percentage that's always at or around 50%, and a nearly equal number of touchdowns and interceptions. An average day in 2005 for Reggie Ball consisted of completing 16 or 17 of 34 pass attempts for close to 200 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Ball's favorite target was and still is All-American Calvin Johnson. Johnson caught 54 passes for 888 yards and 6 touchdowns last year, respectable numbers but no doubt hampered by double teams and offensive scheme. Johnson's average day consisted of 5 catches for 74 yards, numbers that belie a rollercoaster of big games (10 catches, 130 yds) followed by frustrating ones (2 catches, 14 yards). On the other side of the field will be James Johnson, who replaces the departed Damarius Bilbo. Bilbo took advantage of the attention paid to Calvin Johnson to the tune of 40 catches and 591 yards. James Johnson hopes to repeat that performance. If he does, he'll average 3-4 catches and 49 yards a game. Running backs PJ Daniels and Tashard Choice combined for 35 catches and 250 yards last season, while fullback Mike Cox added 13 catches for 72 yards. So, look for about 4 connections out of the backfield this weekend. One final stat of note is that Reggie Ball had not one but two receptions last year. One was courtesy receiver Damarius Bilbo, while the other likely came from a tipped self-pass. Still, if I were Tech, I would try to use Ball's talents as best I could, even if it took some tomfoolery involving backup QB Taylor Bennett.
Notre Dame returns all for starters in a secondary notoriously burned in the Fiesta Bowl last January. On the season, the team gave up 264.6 yards in the air, a decent number considering the competition. Defensive coordinator Rick Minter may take a page from Kent Baer's playbook against Larry Fitzgerald and go into bracket coverage on Calvin Johnson, forcing Tech to beat the Irish with their other weapons. Or, he may not. Reggie Ball's scrambling ability may help Georgia Tech's passing game more than anything. Safeties Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe love to stuff the run. With the inexperience at linebacker, they may be tempted to forget two years of coaching and creep up to help contain Ball or Choice. If so, corners Ambrose Wooden and Mike Richardson could spend a majority of their evenings chasing the receivers Johnson down the sidelines. On top of that, a defensive line that was and still is criticized for lacking a dominant pass rush is facing an offensive line that only surrendered 10 sacks last season. Georgia Tech's offense may not be elite, but they certainly have the opportunity to look like one if the Notre Dame defense is caught napping.

ND Rush Offense vs. Georgia Tech Pass Defense

If you walk by a magazine rack in Indiana or Chicago, you'll see the same guy in the blue #10 jersey on the cover of all the college football preview magazines (assuming they aren't sold out already). That guy is Brady Quinn, who went from mediocre to mythical in one season. Quinn's average day consisted of completing 24 of 38 passes for 327 yards and 2 or 3 touchdowns. On a bad day, he'd throw one interception, but that was it. Quinn's leading receiver and longtime favorite target, Jeff Samardzija is back from a season where he averaged 6 catches, 104 yards, and a touchdown every game. Maurice Stovall, Quinn's second leading receiver last year, is gone, but Rhema McKnight returns from injury to take his place. If defenses ignore tapes from 2004 and choose to ignore Rhema to concentrate on Samardzija, McKnight should easily duplicate Stovall's 69 catch/1149 yard/11 touchdown performance of a year ago. McKnight's elusiveness complements Samardzija's height and strength, but McKnight is tall in his own right at 6'2. (On the same token, Samardzija is by no means an uncoordinated possession receiver.) Notre Dame will have to compensate for the loss of senior receiver Matt Shelton and tight end Anthony Fasano, who combined for 75 catches and 905 yards last year. Hoping to fill the void are receivers David Grimes and Chase Anastasio and tight ends John Carlson and Marcus Freeman. Those for combined for only 9 catches last year, 7 coming from Carlson. But Grimes is now a sophomore and his stock is on the rise. Anastasio is a senior who paid his dues on special teams, and Freeman had some success catching the ball under Ty Willingham. Darius Walker was a key threat out of the backfield in 2005, averaging close to 4 catches and 30 yards receiving per game. The talented Rashon Powers-Neal had 9 catches in 5 games; it remains to be seen whether Asaph Schwapp, Travis Thomas, or perhaps Munir Prince can pick up where RPN left off.
As has been established, Georgia Tech loves to blitz, and they are very successful with the blitz. The Jackets recorded 36 sacks in 2005, with most coming from the front seven. The pressure also forced 21 interceptions, including 4 by linebacker Philip Wheeler. But the secondary is very young this year, and so thin that #4 receiver Pat Clark was moved to corner. Will that cause Tech to blitz less or blitz more? Certainly a zone blitz puts far less pressure on the secondary than a regular blitz, which leaves everyone not blitzing in man coverage without a safety blanket. How will Charlie Weis choose to attack the Tech defense? If the line does have trouble handling the blitz, it virtually guarantees that Walker will be the only tailback you see, as he is the best at blitz pickup. But that eliminates him as a receiving threat for the most part. Will Weis keep extra tight ends in for protection, then? Or will he go 4- or 5-wide, forcing GT to make a tough decision. If Tech replaces linebackers with more inexperienced defensive backs, things are more favorable for a run, plus the pass may still work against the young DBs. Leave the linebackers in, and you either have the outside guys beating you on short passes, or Grimes burning a linebacker up the seam. Yet another thing to look for on Saturday night.

Special Teams

Georgia Tech returns kicker Travis Bell, which may or may not be a good thing. Bell made only 11 of 21 field goal attempts last year, including 4 of 11 from 40+. Still, Notre Dame fans have nothing to laugh at. Carl Gioia converted only one field goal last year, from 29 yards. He was infamously passed over later in the Stanford game for an injured DJ Fitzpatrick. Gioia may only be keeping the position warm until freshman Ryan Burkhart can prove he's ready.
Tech will have a new punter this year, Durant Brooks, who may also qualify as a Reggie Cleveland All Star. The Irish will also have a new punter in Geoffrey Price, who came in with much hype but never showed any consistency on the practice field. Word has it that some time with Colts punter and ND grad Hunter Smith has pushed Price in the right direction.
As mentioned above, Rashaun Grant is Tech's main return guy. Last year he averaged 22.6 yards per return on 11 total runbacks. Receiver Chris Dunlap will be back deep beside Grant. Dunlap gained a total of 58 yards on 3 returns last year. They will face ND kickoff specialist Bobby Renkes, who performed in that spot in 2004, but had no kicks in 2005. The Irish as a team surrendered an average 21.2 yards per return in 2005.
David Grimes returns as Notre Dame's top kick returner. Last year Grimes averaged 22.5 yards on 15 total returns. He will be joined by freshman early enrolee George West, who is also listed as the #5 receiver on the depth chart. Mohamed Yahiaoui (who is rumored to particpate with Jeff Samardzija in a vowel-consonant exchange after the game) will once again handle GT's kickoffs. Last year he averaged 59.9 yards per kick with 12 touchbacks. Coupled with Tech's 23.7 opponent return average means foes more often than not started around the 29 yard line.
Cornerback Pat Clark is the Yellow Jacket punt returner once again. Last year he averaged a pedestrian 6.4 yards per return on 30 total tries. That number matches exactly with the 6.4 yards ND's punt coverage team gave up last season.
Safety Tom Zbikowski is still Notre Dame's punt returner. After last year's performance, how could you replace him? Zbikowski fielded 27 punts and took two back for scores. His overall average was 14.0 yards per. Georgia Tech's punt coverage team gave up 8.8 yards per punt return in 2005, a rather average performance.

Look for a big game from Walker, McKnight, Grimes, the O-Line, Abiamiri, Trevor Laws, and Wooden.

ND 31, Georgia Tech 21: One of each from Walker, a short TD by Carlson set up by a long play by Grimes, one each from McKnight and Samardzija, and a chip shot by Gioia beat two legit TDs and one late, meaningless score from the Jackets.

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