The long off-season wait is almost over. After seven months of posturing and hypothesizing, we will finally get to stop wondering how Notre Dame will look this year and will be able to see for ourselves with the Irish set to open the season by hosting the Nevada Wolf Pack. For the first time since 2006, expectations in South Bend are high and the words BCS and Notre Dame are being used in the same sentence without that sentence being a punch line. We’ll get our first glimpse of just how realistic those expectations are in just over a day.
This year’s season opener is a pretty unique matchup for Notre Dame. The Irish have never played Nevada before and this game was the result of Notre Dame moving the 2004 BYU game ahead of the Michigan game in order to give Notre Dame a tuneup for Michigan. Well, we all know how well that turned out for Notre Dame.
When the original deal was made to move that BYU game, this game was thought to be a gimme for the Irish. Times have changed though and this game is anything but a gimme for the Irish. While Notre Dame has more talent on both sides of the ball than Nevada, the Wolf Pack are a good team and if Notre Dame takes them lightly and sleep walks through another season opener like they did last year, those sky high expectations could come crashing down in a hurry.
Notre Dame on Offense
By now everyone knows that Nevada had one of the worst pass defenses and one of the best run defenses in all of college football a season ago. So it seems pretty obvious that Notre Dame will come out and try to take advantage of their weak pass defense with Jimmy Clausen throwing to the duo of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd at wide receiver. Nevada’s head Chris Ault is in the Hall of Fame for a reason though and will likely try to force Notre Dame to run the football – something the Irish haven’t been able to do with any consistency since 2005.
For Notre Dame to take control of this game early, the offensive line is going to have to show some of the improvements we’ve been hearing about over the last seven months and take it to the Wolf Pack defensive front. If Notre Dame isn’t able to establish the run early, Nevada will simply drop eight men back into coverage and take away throwing lanes for Jimmy Clausen just as teams did last year when it was clear Notre Dame couldn’t get a running game going.
Notre Dame has the backs to have a formidable running game if the line can take a step (or two) forward from last year and force the Nevada defense to play honest. If they can do that, it could be another “bombs away” day for the Notre Dame offense because the Nevada defense simply doesn’t have the talent in the secondary to be able to cover either Floyd or Tate one on one. Nevada is going to be hard pressed to cover Kyle Rudolph over the middle as well.
Establishing the run will be the key to the game for Notre Dame. The Irish have enough talent to be able to win this game threw the air even if the running game stalls, but if they can move the ball on the ground and open up the play action passing game, we could see another Hawaii Bowl-esque offensive performance.
When Notre Dame does pass, look for Nevada to try and get some pressure on Clausen until he shows he can handle it and make them pay. Up to this point in his career Clausen hasn’t shown the ability to avoid a rush and make plays downfield when the pass rush doesn’t get to him. Weis has praised Clausen’s improvement in this department this summer. We’ll get our first glimpse at that progress this weekend. Nevada also doesn’t have the talent in the secondary to stick with Floyd or Tate very long so they will have to try and force Clausen to get rid of the ball quickly.
Notre Dame on Defense
Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick will be one of the better quarterbacks Notre Dame faces all year. He isn’t quite as dangerous as Washington’s Jake Locker, but he is close. Last season Kaepernick threw for 2,849 yards and ran for another 1,130 yards. Notre Dame has had trouble with dual threat quarterbacks in the past and if the blitz happy Irish defense doesn’t get to Kaepernick when they bring pressure he could make them pay with some long runs.
The Wolf Pack offense strives to create a ball control, balanced attack. If they are going to make Saturday’s game competitive throughout, they will have to wear out the Notre Dame defense and keep the Notre Dame offense off the field.
Notre Dame’s biggest weakness on defense last year was holding up against the run throughout games. Teams like Pitt and Michigan State wore Notre Dame out through the course of the game and were able to run the ball almost at will by the time the fourth quarter rolled around. Now, some of that was due to the Irish offense being ineffective at sustaining offense at times and putting the defense in tough situations. Still, the defense was not able to stop the run at critical junctures of games last year and it ended up costing the Irish a couple wins.
If Notre Dame can get a couple stops early and force Nevada into passing the ball, they will force the Wolf Pack to play right into their strength – the secondary. Notre Dame has one of the best secondaries in college football. That secondary should allow Jon Tenuta to dial up as many blitzes as he wants on Saturday because Nevada does not have a lot of experienced talent at receiver this year. Robert Blanton, Raeshon McNeil, and Darrin Walls will most likely be playing a lot of one on one coverage – a task they should be up for.
Notre Dame on Special Teams
Freshman Nick Tausch won the starting place kicking and kick-off duties in camp and will be the starter for Notre Dame this weekend. He will be making his first collegiate kicks so it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure as a true freshman.
Notre Dame had one of the best kick coverage units in the country last year and with gunner Mike Anello back combined with a kicker who is said to get considerable more hang time than last year’s kickers that shouldn’t change this season. Notre Dame will have the advantage in the return game with Armando Allen and Golden Tate returning punts and freshman Theo Riddick returning kick-offs if for no other reason than the strength of their own coverage units preventing big returns.
Nevada will most likely be jacked up to start the game and there’s a chance we could see a big return early if they are too aggressive and over pursue a kick.
Notre Dame Players of the Game
Look for Jimmy Clausen to put up some big numbers this weekend. While Notre Dame will have to run the ball to be successful, the Irish will be relying heavily on Clausen’s accurate right arm this season. Weis is going to want to build up Clausen’s confidence early and will let him throw the ball a lot on Saturday. Look for Kyle Rudolph to be a big part of the offense this weekend too. Weis will want to show other teams that Notre Dame has a tight end to be reckoned with so they are forced to account for him at all times.
Defensively, if Notre Dame can force Nevada into throwing more than they’d like, Robert Blanton could have a nice game. Blanton is a very instinctive corner and could end up with a pick this weekend. Also look out for Darius Fleming as a pass rusher from the edge and Ethan Johnson from the inside. Johnson showed a glimpse of what he is capable of in the Hawaii Bowl and should be a disruptive force again this weekend.
I’ve been torn on how I think Notre Dame will come out of the gates Saturday. My heart tells me that Notre Dame is going to come out and start fast after getting a taste of beating a team soundly in the Hawaii. But, my head tells me that this is still the same team that lost to Syracuse and has a lot of work to do. It’s the season opener though, so what fun would it be listening to my head at this point?
Notre Dame 42, Nevada 21