Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Notre Dame Football 2006
Issue 2: Penn State

Penn St Rush Offense vs. ND Rush Defense

Penn State only put up 282 yards of total offense in their 34-16 victory over the boys from AK Rowdy last week. That number is a little misleading, though, as 6 of 13 PSU drives started 40 yards away from the end zone or closer. Senior tailback Tony Hunt had a tough day, picking up just 36 yards on 14 carries. That may just be an indication that Akron was focused on stopping the run, hoping new quarterback Anthony Morelli would make some mistakes in the passing game. Hunt averaged 14.5 carries and 87 yards per game last year, so don't write him off yardage-wise just yet. Also, don't be surprised if he gets more carries than 14, now that quarterback Michael Robinson is gone. Fullback Matt Hahn rushed 3 times for 9 yards against the Zips, after carrying the ball two times all of last year. And don't rule out some tomfoolery by the Nittany Lions. Receiver Derrick Williams ran 3 times (although those could have been laterals), safety Jason Ganter had 2 (paging Tom Zbikowski0, and DB/return man AJ Wallace picked up 42 yards on his lone carry. One man you probably won't see carrying the football upfield is the quarterback Morelli. Morelli didn't have any rushing attempts against Akron, and likely won't start running in his first home start.
Both Hunt and Hahn are listed at 230 pounds, meaning they have a weight advantage over Maurice Crum and Travis Thomas. Trevor Laws will need to use his size to be a force on the inside, and Victor Abiamiri and Chris Frome will have to step it up from the outide. Whoever is at the Sam linebacker will have to help Crum and Thomas, and the entire front seven will have to make smart, sure tackles all day long.

ND Rush Offense vs. Penn St Rush Defense

Games of near 100 yards rushing are becoming commonplace for Darius Walker. Walker may not create very many flasy runs, but when used effectively he will reliably create 2nd- or 3rd-and-short situations, which are essential in keeping drives going. The backup situation should be interesting this week. Wear and tear from Penn State's physical backs could keep Travis Thomas (6 carries, 19 yards last week) on the bench when the Irish offense is out on the field. If that is the case, who will spell Walker? Fullback Asaph Schwapp did carry the ball 3 times for 13 yards. Munir Prince did see playing time last week, but did not have any touches. Will he continue being a decorative centerpiece, or will he be given a chance to show off his much-hyped speed? Not counting sacks, quarterback Brady Quinn scrambled 5 times for 28 yards last week. Quinn's throwing may have been erratic against Georgia Tech, but there has never been a time when Quinn incorrectly chose tucking and running over throwing the ball away.
Penn State's defensive line is as inexperienced as their linbacking corps is experienced. Because of this, the Lions will occasionally sub in an extra linebacker for a lineman (or even two linebackers for two linemen). It will be up to Brady Quinn and the Notre Dame offensive line to effectively read PSU's defense and react accordingly. Penn State's defense is led by outside linebacker Paul Posluszny. Dan Connor, the other outside linebacker, benefited from the attention paid to Posluszny last week, as Connor led the team with 10 tackles. Between these two, Ryan Harris, Sam Young, John Carlson, and Marcus Freeman will have a busy day.

Penn St Pass Offense vs. ND Pass Defense

The word most associated with quarterback Anthony Morelli is "accurate" (unless you're an ESPN Token Southern Color Commentator (TM), in which case the word most associated with Morelli is "ACKurit"). Morelli completed 16 of 32 passes in his first start, for 206 yards and 3 TDs. The completion percentage isn't great, but it was his first collegiate start. It's hard to draw run/pass trends for Penn State based on what we have so far. Last year's numbers are a wash, as Robinson was such a great running QB. Last week's numbers are a wash, as Akron could have been playing the run all day, or they could have had a lousy pass defense. However, Morelli will be making his first start in hostile territory this weekend, so we may see more conservative playcalling, at least at the beginning of the game. Morelli already appears to have a favorite receiver, wideout Jordan Norwood. Norwood had 7 catches for 61 yards and a TD last week. Other wide receivers Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, Chris Bell, and Terrell Golden added a total of 7 catches for 127 yards and 2 TDs (by Williams and Butler). Halfback Tony Hunt was the only other player to catch a pass. He in fact had 2 receptions for 18 yards.
Notre Dame's defense fared surprisingly well last week, giving up only 140 yards to Georgia Tech. Safeties Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe combined for 13 tackles. Both defined their position as the last line of defense well - Zbikowski with his "you're not getting away from me" tackles, and Ndukwe with a game changing hit on Calvin Johnson. The corners may have been suspect, but there are signs of home. Freshman Darrin Walls covered Johnson, arguably the most talented wideout in college, step for step down the sidelines. And just because the tight end wasn't used last week, that doesn't mean he won't be used this week. Of course, if the defense blitzes and hides coverage schemes well, the secondary's job will be fairly easy: just wait back for Morelli to make a mistake, and then go and get it! (And when they get it, that's when they go on offense. And that's when they go get 'em....)

ND Pass Offense vs. Penn St Pass Defense

Brady Quinn looked shaky against the Yellow Jackets blitz schemes, completing only 23 of 38 passes for 246 yards. Of course, as Coach Charlie Weis points out, without drops that number rises to 29 of 38, which isn't too bad. Wide receiver Rhema McKnight led the way with 8 catches and 108 yards. With the solid performance by McKnight, Jeff Samardzija could afford to have an off night - only 6 catches for 74 yards, and no TDs (said the author, tongue planted firmly in cheek). John Carlson proved that he can and will be used as a receiver, as he pulled in 4 balls for 36 yards. Marcus Freeman also added his first reception since 2004. In what was again a typical performance, Darius Walker had 4 catches.
This will be the best cat-and-mouse game of the contest Saturday. Like their defensive line, Penn State's secondary is also very green. As mentioned above, the Lions use a number of combinations with their linebackers, with anywhere between 3 and 4 (or perhaps even 2 and 5) on the field at one time. How will Penn State react when Notre Dame goes four or five wide? Will they pull their best defenders off of the field in favor of more DBs, or will they let Conner and Posluszny take their chances with Munir Prince and David Grimes? Irregardless of what formation Penn State puts on the field, will Brady Quinn know when to pass and when to hand off, and will he have enough time to do so? Does putting Posluszny on a slot receiver effectively shut down the quick screen? Will Pat Haden make an idiotic and borderline offensive remark when Posluszny lines up on Samardzija in the slot? (Probably.) Will Schwapp be able to pick up a blitzing linebacker? Will he see more carries against a "smaller" front seven? Will we see more runs from 4-wide and passes from "jumbo" sets? It should be fun to watch.

Special Teams

Kevin Kelly is returning at placekicker for the Nittany Lions. He made one from 39 and another from 42 after converting 16 of 23 attempts last year. For the Irish, Carl Gioia missed two tries from almost those exact same distances.
Like Kelly, Jeremy Kapinos will return as Penn State's punter. Coming off of a year where he averaged 41.3 yards per, Kapinos was only able to manage an average of 34.5 yards and a long of 39 against Akron. Conversely, Irish punter Geoff Price had no trouble kicking the ball deep. He averaged 50.4 yards on 5 punts, with a long of 61.
AJ Wallace showed some flash as a kick returner for the Lions, picking up 95 total yards on two runbacks. Derrick Williams added one return of 19 yards, 2 yards below his 2005 average. Notre Dame kickoff specialist Bobby Renkes showed a much improved leg, averaging 64.7 yards on 3 kicks with one touchback. Averaging in the 17.5 yards per return given up by ND coverage teams gave Georgia Tech an average start just inside the 20. Then again, GT isn't known for spectacular special teams play.
George West must have been born early. Not only did he start school a semester early, but he also was the first Notre Dame player to touch the ball this season, returning the opening kickoff 33 yards. Not to be outdone, David Grimes added a 46 yard return. Kevin Kelly averaged 60.7 yards on his 7 kickoffs last week, with one touchback and one ball out of bounds. Lions coverage teams gave up 18 yards per return, which means the average Akron start was around the 22.
Derrick Williams is also the PSU punt returner. In three tries against the Zips he gained 44 yards, for an average of 14.7 yards. Notre Dame gave up an average of 8 yards on 3 punt returns last week.
Tom Zbikowski was effectively shut down as a punt returner last week, picking up only 30 yards on 4 tries. Conversely, Penn State only had to punt once last week, and they held that return to 1 yard.

Look for a big game from McKnight, Grimes, Prince, Laws, Mitchell Thomas, and Morrice Richardson.

ND 31, Penn St 24: One each by Samardzija, Grimes, Walker, and the defense, plus Gioia nails a chip shot.