Frankie V’s Preview: Notre Dame v. UCLA ’06

Notre Dame, Ind (UHND.com) – The UCLA Bruins will travel to South Bend for just the third time this weekend to face the 8th ranked Irish.  UCLA comes in with a 4-2 record and a highly ranked defense with an upset on their mind.  Despite their highly ranked defense, all signs point to what should be an easy Irish victory this year.

UCLA’s defense is currently ranked 9th overall in the NCAA, but their lofty ranking has come amongst the likes of Utah, Rice, Washington, Rice, Stanford, Arizona, and Oregon.  Of that group, the only real offensive power is Oregon and the Ducks piled up 256 yards on the ground alone against the Bruins.

The Bruin run defense is giving up an average of 84.3 even after their dismal performance last week in Eugene, but after seeing the Ducks run for 256, that run defense just doesn’t look as impressive anymore.  Part of the inflated run defense stats come from the Bruins impressive sack total of 18.  Those 18 sacks have accounted for -135 yards of rushing offense for UCLA.  Add those yards into the mix the Bruins are surrendering 106.8 yards a game which does not seem nearly as daunting.

All that said, I expect Weis to come out and try and establish the run again as he did against Stanford and Purdue.  UCLA should see a heavy dose of Darius Walker running and catching the ball.  Walker currently leads the team in catches and he will continue to be used on screens against an aggressive defense that gets to the quarterback three times a game.

UCLA has a couple of speedy defensive ends in Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis.  The two pass rushers have combined for 12 sacks already this year and can get to the quarterback.  Weis has shown in the past to use the screen game against teams that get to the quarterback quickly so look for him to use the screen game early to slow down the UCLA pass rush.

Oregon’s ability to run the ball on UCLA had to get Weis’s attention and with freshman Munir Prince and James Aldridge being worked into the offense more, look for Notre Dame and try to duplicate Oregon’s success running the ball at this defense.

The Bruins are surrendering 167.7 yards through the air this year and opponents are completing just 51% of their passes this year, but they have yet to see a passing game with the potency the Irish pack.  Oregon has a strong passing game, but with the success of their running game, the attempted just 22 passes.

A lot of UCLA’s success defending the pass comes from their ability to rush the passer.  Oregon attempted just 22 passes while running the ball 43 times.  On the season Oregon’s run/pass ratio is close to 50%, but against UCLA they ran it almost twice as much as they passed it.  Oregon took away UCLA’s bread and butter with their pass rush by running it at them.

If Notre Dame establish the run and soften up the UCLA defense, it could set up some big plays for Brady Quinn and the Irish passing game.  Notre Dame has lacked a deep threat this year, but if they can come out and find some success early running the football, it should create some one on one situations down the field for Notre Dame receivers.

UCLA has only given up less than 20 points once this season and they did so against a pretty bad Arizona team.  Oregon showed last week that UCLA’s revived defense might really just be the result of a very weak early schedule and I think Notre Dame does the same this week.

Defensively, the Irish will be facing UCLA’s backup quarterback, Patrick Cowan, with starter Ben Olson out until at least next week. Cowan doesn’t exactly come into the contest with a clean bill of health either, however, after getting hit in the throat and having problems speaking this week.

Cowan took a shot in throat last week against Oregon and was still able to speak somewhat, but he ended up losing his voice and has been told not to speak this week so it will be difficult for him to communicate with his offense this week.

With this game being on the road, his voice problems could be an issue.  Cowan got a baptism by fire last week with his first road start coming in noisy Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon.  Autzen Stadium is one of the rowdiest stadiums in the country so noise probably won’t be a factor for the younger starter if he had the use of his voice.

Running back Chris Markey leads the Bruins with 98.2 and has come out and guaranteed a UCLA victory this weekend.  The junior running back, however, has just one rushing touchdown this season – a problem that has faced the entire UCLA team.  As a whole, UCLA has scored just 12 offensive touchdowns in six games (7 passing, 5 rushing).

UCLA’s touchdown woes have led to a strong season from place kicker Justin Medlock.  Medlock has connected on 14 of 15 field goals this season including hitting on two of two from over 50 years.

This UCLA offense is not nearly as formidable as last year’s unit which featured Drew Olsen and Maurice Jones-Drew and I think the Notre Dame defense will be able to hold the Bruins in check most of the game.

With Notre Dame coming off the bye week, they will be rested and should be healthier than they have been all season.  Against Stanford two weeks ago, the Irish were minus three defensive starters – Travis Thomas, Tommy Zbikowski, and Ambrose Wooden.  All three should be at full strength this for this weekend which will give the Notre Dame defense a boost.

Look for UCLA to hit on a deep pass or two much like Purdue did against the Irish, but UCLA won’t be able to sustain offense long enough to make too many scoring drives.  This will also be the first trip to Notre Dame outside of any recruiting visits for all of the UCLA players so the “aura” of Notre Dame could come into play.

This is precisely the type of game Notre Dame should win easily.  UCLA is not as good as they were last year on offense and their “improved” defense sure looked a lot like fool’s gold last week.  With an extra week to heal and prepare, Notre Dame should be well prepared and ready to play.  It’s possible the week off could cause the Irish to come out a bit sluggish after the offense was just starting to click, but I doubt it.  Furthermore, Chris Markey’s comments should give the Irish players a little extra motivation even though they won’t say it.

Prediction

Notre Dame 35 UCLA 17

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