It's a different kind of game against Notre Dame this week, so we have a different kind of Q&A. This week, in lieu of the normal question-answer format, we've got a scouting report from UHND, the unofficial home of Notre Dame football. Frank was gracious enough to break down the three units, offense, defense and special teams, and you can read about the Deacs over there, hopefully on Friday afternoon.
Notre Dame Offense
Notre Dame's offense has shown some signs of life over the last few weeks, but is still waiting for that one performance where they put it all together. One week the Irish will move the ball inside the 20's but waste opportunities in the red-zone like they did against Pitt. The next week Notre Dame will capitalize in the red-zone but turn the ball over before getting there a few times like they did a week ago against Boston College. As a result, the Notre Dame offense has been solid but unspectacular throughout the season.
The ups and downs of the offense this season for the Irish can partially be tied to the development of sophomore quarterback Everett Golson. The athletic Golson didn't play at all as a freshman in 2011 but won the starting job in the summer and has had his ups and down along the way. He's gotten pulled from a couple of games for injury and ineffectiveness although since guiding the Irish to an impressive victory on the road against Oklahoma, Brian Kelly has given his young quarterback a longer leash.
Notre Dame's offense is at its best when Golson busts a nice run or two early in the game to settle in. The more Golson has run this season, the more effective he's been and that trend should continue for the rest of the season. Look for Golson to have a few designed runs early in the game and for him to pull the ball down and run throughout the game - sometimes at the cost of missing an open receiver as he's had a tendancey to do throughout the season.
Helping Golson is an Irish running attack that has experienced a rebirth this year. Led by a three headed backfield, Notre Dame has run for 198.7 yards per game including three 200+ yard performances in the last four weeks with the only outlier being last week's 184 yard output against Boston College. That three back attack features seniors Theo Ridduck and Cierre Wood and sophomore George Atkinson III. Each has their own strengths with Riddick being the toughest runner and the most elusive, Wood has the best vision and patience, and Atkinson the best speed as the home run hitter of the group.
In the receiving department, Golson lost one of his favorite targets for the rest of the regular season when Davaris Daniels went down with a shoulder injury last week. Golson has, however, begun to develop some chemistry with Tyler Efiert - Notre Dame's All American tight end whom with Golson had trouble connecting early in the season. Eifert has 6 catches for 60+ yards the last two weeks and it is very clear that Golson has developed more of a comfort zone with him. With Daniels out, look for Robby Toma and TJ Jones to play a more prominent role in the offense and keep an eye on freshman Chris Brown. Brown, a deep threat, has just one catch on the season, but it was a huge 50 yarder against Oklahoma. 5th year senior John Goodman could very well play a big role this weekend on senior for Notre Dame as well.
Up front, Notre Dame's offensive line has developed nicely this year after some shaky performances early on. Notre Dame fans were hoping for a dominant line this year and while we haven't quite seen that level of performance this year, the offensive line has been more than solid in paving the way for the Irish ground attack and in giving Golson time to get the ball downfield. One area where the line struggled earlier in the year but has been better lately is with procedure penalties. Oddly, the line has struggled with these more at home than on the road too.
Notre Dame Defense
The strength of this team and the number one reason why the Irish are sitting at 10-0 right now is because of a defense that is leading the NCAA in scoring defense by keeping opposing offense out of the end zone at an incredible pace. So far this season, Notre Dame's defense has started drives with the opposing offense at or inside their own 40 yard line. Of those 93 drives, the opposing offense has reach the endzone just 1 time meaning that when an opposing offense starts with the ball inside their own 40, they have roughly a 1% chance of scoring a touchdown. That is just an incredible stat and one that I never thought I'd see from a Notre Dame defense again.
The strength of the defense is the front seven where Manti Te'o headlines a unit that has been able to get the best of every offensive line they've faced thus far this year. Te'o is a finalist for just about every major defensive award he is eligible for and has been Heisman hype all season long. That hype has been dying down a bit since the Oklahoma game when it reached its peak, but even still, Te'o has 6 interceptions from his inside linebacker position and leads the Irish in tackles again this year. Saturday will be the last time Te'o steps on the field in Notre Dame Stadium so it will be an emotional day for him, but if there is one thing that we've learned this year its that Te'o thrives in those situations.
Allowing Te'o to roam free and make the plays he's made this year is a defensive line that has played text book defense in Bob Diaco's 3-4 defense. Louis Nix is Notre Dame's cog on the middle of the defense at nose tackle. Nix has become a dominant force this year by doing exactly what a nose tackle is supposed to do - force double teams, occupy blockers, collapse the pocket, and block up plays with penetration. Nix's stats aren't gaudy but there aren't many, if any, nose tackles in the country playing the position better right now.
Flanking Nix up front are sophomore Stephon Tuitt and 5th year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore. With 11 sacks so far this season, Tuitt has an outside chance of breaking Justin Tuck's single season school record for sacks at 13.5. He's been an absolute force in his first season as a starter and like Nix, he forces double teams which opens up space for Te'o and company to work.
Te'o isn't the only linebacker who is making plays for the Irish though. Junior outside linebacker Prince Shembo had a bit of a breakout performance last week in Chestnut Hill with 3 sacks against the Eagles giving him 7 for the season. Inside linebacker Dan Fox has quietly collected 51 tackles this year despite splitting time next to Te'o with Carlo Calabrese and is now 4th on the team in that department. Junior Danny Spond has become a playmaker for the Irish at outside linebacker as well and his return to the line in week 3 really sparked the resurgence of the defense.
The Notre Dame secondary was supposed to be a major weakness this year after a rash of injuries ravaged an already thin unit, but thus far they have held their own. Bennett Jackson and Kei'Varae Russell have been steady at corner for the Irish while Zeke Motta has become a leader on the defensive side of the ball. Sophomore Matthias Farley was thrust into a starting role after Notre Dame lost Jamoris Slaughter for the season and while he has had some ups and downs, he has played about as well as could have been expected considering he spent last season playing offense.
Notre Dame Special Teams
In short, Notre Dame's special teams are a bit of a mess. Notre Dame has struggled at times in the place kicking department with some big missed kicks at times that nearly cost the Irish. The return game has been almost nonexistent on both kicks and punts. Punting has been inconsistent at times. And coverage units haven't exactly been stellar.
Notre Dame has talent throughout its special teams units - especially on the return teams with George Atkinson handling kicks and freshman Davonte Neal handling punts - but so far this year all aspects of the special teams have had their struggles. This is the one unit that could end up costing Notre Dame in a tightly contested match down the road.
Notre Dame has struggled at home this year against teams they probably shouldn't have struggled against such as Purdue, BYU, and Pitt. For whatever reason, Notre Dame has been much stronger on the road, so it wouldn't surprise me if the Irish came out and looked a little flat to start. It's happened before this year and with emotions running high on senior that is always a possibility as well.
That said, I don't think we'll see Notre Dame get caught looking ahead at all this weekend and think we'll see the Irish offense take a step in the right direction.
Notre Dame 34, Wake Forest 13