Frank’s San Diego State Preview

Notre Dame, IN ( – The long off-season wait is almost over.  In a little more than 24 hours, Notre Dame will kick-off the 2008 season against San Diego State in hopes of making last season’s debacle a distant, distant memory.  The Aztecs come to town this weekend for the first time and appear to be exactly what the doctor ordered to help Notre Dame’s ailing offense from a season ago.

San Diego State kicked off its season last week with a 27-29 loss to Cal Poly – a middle of the road Division 1AA team.  The Aztecs came into last week with a banged up defensive line and ended up surrendering 483 yards of offense while suffering a few more injuries up front.   Things have gotten so bad for San Diego State that head coach Chuck Long has been testing out linebackers at defensive end this week in practice.

A tune up game prior to this weekend’s content could have helped out the Aztecs, but the injuries combined with the confidence loss associated with losing to a team from a lower division of college football pretty much negated such an advantage for San Diego State.  Now they will be making a trip across the country for a game in Notre Dame Stadium – a venue which has caused many a team to be intimidated by its mystique over the years.

People have complained about the presence of a team such as San Diego State on the Notre Dame schedule to start the season, but after last year, is there a better type of team to open with?  The Irish offensive line was atrocious last year and with the state of San Diego State’s defensive line, this game should afford the Irish ample opportunity to work on the ground game as well as their pass protection which surrendered a NCAA worst 58 sacks last year.

Notre Dame on Offense
Charlie Weis has said multiple times this week that he intends to pound the ball this week against San Diego State and their undermanned defensive line.  According to Weis, he’s wanted to have a power running game since arriving in 2005, but hasn’t had the personnel for such a ground attack.  With five starting offensive linemen in 2008 who bring some starting experience with them and a stable of running backs which is deeper and more talented than any backfield in recent years, it seems like Weis might finally have that personnel in place.

I fully expect to see Notre Dame come out and run the ball early and often and have success doing so.  Even if San Diego State stacks the line of scrimmage, the Irish will be bigger, stronger, and faster up front and with the injuries San Diego State has along their defensive line there is really no reason Notre Dame shouldn’t be able to run it effectively.

While seeing Notre Dame come out and run the ball right at San Diego State should be a welcomed sight to all Notre Dame fans, let’s not forget just how ineffective the Notre Dame passing game was a year ago as well.  The Irish had no downfield threat and couldn’t keep defenses honest with an offense that could move the chains through the air.  Having a game against a team like San Diego State should allow for the Irish to work on that passing as well this weekend.

If Notre Dame can establish the run early, it will open up the play action passing game to receivers David Grimes, Duval Kamara, Golden Tate and freshman phenom Michael Floyd.   It will also give us a clue as to just how much the offensive line improved in the pass blocking department this off-season.  If San Diego State is able to generate any sort of consistent pressure against Notre Dame, we could be in for some trouble this season.  If the offensive line and new left tackle Michael Turkovich can keep Jimmy Clausen on his feet, their confidence will be given the shot in the arm that it never got last year.
Speaking of Clausen, Saturday’s content will also give us a sneak peak at just how much Clausen has improved this off-season as well.  Weis hasn’t been shy about giving his sophomore signal caller praise this summer for the strides he’s made in better grasping this offense and reading the defense.  We’ve all heard how much better his arm has looked in practice with a full off-season to heal and build up, Saturday will give us a clue as to how accurate those reports were.

Look for Notre Dame to show a run heavy offense early on and start working in the play action and downfield passing in the second quarter.  A quick first quarter will be the likely result of Notre Dame pounding the ball and the Irish may not have a whole lot of points after the first period, but that should change by half time.

Notre Dame on Defense

Defensively the Irish will be working in Jon Tenuta’s new blitz schemes which he brought with him from Georgia Tech.  The first year Irish assistant head coach will get his first opportunity to show what he will add to the Notre Dame defensive staff against an offense that the Irish shouldn’t have a tough time stopping consistently.

It will be interesting to see how the Aztecs choose to attack the Notre Dame defense.  Notre Dame will have its problems stopping the run this year, but the running game isn’t really the strength of the San Diego State offense.  Against Cal Poly last week, the Aztecs rushed for just 27 yards on 23 attempts and lost three fumbles.  If they come out and have success running the ball right at the Notre Dame defense, we may have a problem on our hands.

San Diego State did, however, have success throwing the ball.  Aztec quarterback Ryan Lindley completed 27 of 45 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns, but he also threw two picks.  Lindley also spread the ball around to seven different receivers with four catching at least three passes led by Vincent Brown’s 7 receptions for 98 yards.

The strength of the Notre Dame defense this year, however, is the secondary led by senior safety David Bruton.  While conventional wisdom would suggest that Tenuta will hold back most of his blitzes and save them for Michigan next week, I still think we’ll quite a few of them on display this weekend.  Because Michigan will be coming in with a spread offense and not a traditional down field passing attack, the blitzes Tenuta and Corwin Brown choose to use against San Diego State might not necessarily be the ones they’d use against Michigan’s offense.

San Diego State turned the ball over five times last week and with what is supposed to be an aggressive, pace dictating defense from Notre Dame this year, look for Notre Dame to put some pressure on the Aztec offense and great some favorable field position for the Irish offense.

Because Notre Dame will be working in some new blitz schemes and alignments this weekend don’t be surprised if the result is a blown assignment or coverage here and there that results in a big play or two for San Diego State.  While the Aztecs offense shouldn’t be able to consistently move the ball on the Irish defense, they are good enough offensively to make Notre Dame pay for some mistakes and yes there will be some mistakes on defense.  It’s the nature of the beast when you install new schemes.  Playing a team like San Diego State, though, should allow for those mistake to have a minimal impact on the outcome of the game.

Notre Dame on Special Teams
Special teams was a renewed focus of Charlie Weis this off-season with Brian Polian taking full responsibility of the unit with Weis’s help.  Aside from some heroic punt returning from Tom Zbikowski the last three years, special teams across the board have been a non factor for Notre Dame.  The kick return unit has rarely set up the Irish with good field position; the place kicking has been at the very least inconsistent and unreliable;  the punting unit has been inconsistent outside of Geoff Price’s outstanding 2006 season; and coverage units have been suspect.

Just how much have all of these units improved this off-season?  We’ll start to see Saturday.  San Diego State allowed a 23 yard punt return to Cal Poly last week.  With Armando Allen taking over for Zibby in the punt returner role, we should be able to expect a similar return or two out of the sophomore running back.  Allen has gotten  a lot of hype from Weis over the last year and a half, but that hype hasn’t led to too many big plays so far.  That could start to change on Saturday.

Allen will also be working as the primary kick return man along with fellow sophomore Golden Tate.  Both were the primary returnmen a year ago as well, but neither had too many shining moments in this department.  The main reason for that, however, was more about the blocking team setting up the wedge. Rarely was there a crease for Allen or Tate to exploit.  It would be nice to either of them break a long return Saturday.

It would also be nice to see some consistent place kicking from sophomore Brandon Walker and some deep kick-offs from junior Ryan Burkhart.

Notre Dame’s size and speed advantage alone should allow for at least one long return from either the kick or punt return units.

On paper this is a game Notre Dame should dominate from start to finish.  As we found out last year though, the team that should win on paper doesn’t always win on the scoreboard.   Still, San Diego State was a pretty bad team to start the year and their injuries woes have only made them a weaker foe.  If Notre Dame shows any consistent struggles in this one, it will be a very bad sign for the rest of the season.

Look for Notre Dame to come out and slow the game down early while it works on the running game before opening it up in the beginning of the second quarter with its downfield passing.  We should see a healthy dose of Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, and James Aldridge on the ground and I suspect we’ll see quite a bit of Michael Floyd and Golden Tate in the passing game even though they are both listed as backups on the depth chart heading into this one.

Defensively, look for Notre Dame to pressure San Diego State early and force the Aztecs into some mistakes.  They showed last week that their offense is capable of turning the ball over often so expect Tenuta and Brown to apply some pressure to force more turnovers.  With added pressure will come a greater chance for a big play from the Aztecs though and I think we’ll see at least one big play through the air from them.

Prediction: Notre Dame 41, San Diego State 10 (Is the 41 points a prediction of 5 touchdowns and 2 field goals or 6 touchdowns with a missed extra point mixed in?  Ask me Sunday).

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