Opponents

Notre Dame vs. Syracuse 2014
(Photo: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

For this week’s edition of Behind Enemy Lines, we have exchanged questions with John Cassillo of the Syracuse blog Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician.  You can also follow John on Twitter @JohnCassillo.   Our responses to John’s questions can be found here.

Editor’s note: the views expressed below are not that of UHND.com but rather the guest author of this post.

1. Two of the last three Notre Dame – Syracuse games are seen as the low points of each of the last to coaching regimes for Notre Dame (2003 for Tyrone Willingham and 2008 for Charlie Weis), but this year’s Syracuse team is much stronger.  What have the last two coaching staffs at Syracuse did to restore order to Syracuse football. 

Well, Doug Marrone — a Syracuse football alum himself — cleaned house, brought back the program’s sense of pride and success, and started bringing in more talented players. He also found himself a solid coaching staff, which included former SU defensive coordinator and now head coach Scott Shafer. Basically, not being Greg Robinson was enough to make both of these coaches better than he was. And the program’s in a whole lot better shape, too (obviously).

2. Notre Dame has opened up as an almost two touchdown favorite this weekend, what does Syracuse have to do to pull off the upset? 

Full disclosure: I don’t find an upset to be highly likely. HOWEVER, if Syracuse can actually generate pressure on Everett Golson and keep Notre Dame’s offense out of sync, they’ll have some chance here. The Orange run a high-paced offense (aim is 80 plays per game).  So, given the fact that the Irish run things a bit slower, some quick points by SU might be enough to completely disrupt ND’s game plan. There’s no guarantees that happens, mind you. But for an offense that put up 589 offensive yards last week, it’s also not as farfetched as some might assume.

3. How do Syracuse fans feel about this game being played in MetLife Stadium where there is likely going to be a very large contingent of Notre Dame fans for a Syracuse “home” game. 
Syracuse fans (and students) in the Central New York area get pretty peeved about these MetLife games since it’s a good three or four hours away from the Carrier Dome and it’s not included in their season ticket packages. For a fan/alum that lives nowhere near campus, however, it’s not nearly as aggravating for me. The MetLife games make us a pretty nice chunk of change (some rough figures say each season it’s more than every other home game combined, actually), so I really have nothing to argue with. Penn State fans outdrew us last year and USC fans looked about even a few years ago, which is a bummer. But the bigger bummer is losing. Winning these games would cheer a lot of folks up.

4. Who is one offensive and one defensive player on the Syracuse roster that Notre Dame fans don’t know much about but should before kick-off on Saturday. 

Offensively, you might not know much about Brisly Estime, but you’re going to hear his name pretty often in the passing (and punt return) game. With Ashton Broyld out for the next couple weeks, Estime should take over as his role as the top screen pass option. Brisly came on strong late last year and is one of the fastest players on the team — so chances are he’s a focus of Notre Dame’s defensive game plan.For the Orange defense, MLB Marqez Hodge might be the most unheralded player worth keeping an eye on. Despite all the focus (rightfully so) being on fellow linebackers Cam Lynch and Dyshawn Davis, Hodge’s ability to generate pressure from the middle of the defense was a big part of what Syracuse did right against Central Michigan, and if you find him in your backfield, it’s not a good sign for you as a passer. His speed and play-making ability is just in its infancy right now, so we’re still kind of waiting to see the ceiling of his skill set.

5.  What are your thoughts on Notre Dame’s inclusion in the ACC for all sports except football?  How do you feel about the Irish playing 5 games a year against ACC opponents each year?

We’ve been through this with you guys before, and it didn’t go too well. Obviously things are a bit different this time around, but the point stands: I’d prefer an all-or-nothing membership from any school in the conference. I get the history of independence that Notre Dame prides itself on, really, I do. The Orange were an independent themselves until the early 1990’s — obviously not with the same success as the Fighting Irish. I just don’t think any school deserves special treatment in today’s college sports landscape. I mean, ND’s already complaining about the five-game arrangement and we’re not even a full year in. Would simply prefer a full membership for the sake of the conference’s (football) well-being.

6.  Notre Dame has been shuffling around its offensive line a lot during the bye week.  Can the Syracuse pass rush take advantage of the struggling Irish OL and can they keep the Irish running game grounded as Purdue did?

That depends on what the reshuffling yields, obviously. If the line’s in disarray, it’s going to be to Syracuse’s advantage, but regardless of changes, the Orange were still going to blitz the hell out of Notre Dame throughout the game. They can certainly take advantage, but all that means is that Golson will have less time to throw — not that he’ll necessarily get hit or turn it over. Golson’s good enough to read the various blitz combinations thrown at him, so SU’s success really depends on the Notre Dame supporting cast. If there are options to throw to, then the Irish are alright. If not, then maybe they’re in trouble.

Editor’s note: the views expressed above are not that of UHND.com but rather the guest author of this post.

Thanks to John and the team at Troy Nunes is a Magician and be sure to give John a follow on Twitter @JohnCassillo.

Behind Enemy Lines: Notre Dame @ Purdue
Purdue Purdue mascot Boilermaker Pete prior to the game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at the Cotton Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

With Notre Dame set to take on Purdue this weekend in the 2014 Shamrock Series, we reached out to our favorite Purdue blogger Travis Miller of Hammer and Rails for this week’s Behind Enemy Lines. Travis was kind enough to answer a set of questions on the Boilermakers to give our readers some more insight into Purdue and the state of it’s program.

Note:  I answered some questions for Hammer and Rails on Notre Dame that you can read over there.

1. How has Purdue been able to keep each of the last two contests close even though they’ve struggled before/after playing the Irish? What can the Boilermakers do this year to do the same?

Last year I would have to say that they played on an excited crowd and had, by far, their best game of the season. We certainly didn’t look like that at any other time, save defensively at Michigan State. Two years ago in South Bend We had a strong performance by our defensive line and Robert Marve got the offense moving when Caleb TerBush could not. In fact, if not for the ridiculously dumb move of pulling Marve in the third quarter, Purdue probably wins that game.

It’s really hard to say though how Purdue was able to compete both times. We don’t have nearly the talent of Notre Dame, but it has strangely been a good matchup. Maybe the players get up for it more or see something they don’t see against everyone else, kind of like how Danny Hope had a bizarre hex on Ohio State. Whatever it is, we’re going to need a lot of it on Saturday.

2. Notre Dame is preparing for both Purdue quarterbacks this week. How do you foresee Purdue handling their quarterback situation?

There is not a ton of difference between either one. Appleby is more of your traditional pocket passer, while Etling has shown some decent prowess moving the ball with his legs (57 yards and 2 TDs so far). He is not a true dual threat, but has been smart with his scrambling, mostly as a byproduct of running for his life last year.

That is a factor that is still troubling Purdue. Etling has had better protection so far, but has been rushing throws and has been wildly inaccurate. Central Michigan was just an awful game for him and Western Michigan, while he had no picks or sacks, wasn’t a lot better. We honestly haven’t seen much of Appleby to know what to expect in a start. His entire career spans two fourth quarters in blowout losses. Last week was the first time he even got more than a single series. He seems to be more of a leader than Etling, however.

3. As Darrel Hazell enters year two as head coach, what is the general consensus among Purdue fans and do you think he can turn the program around?

It is hard to say. Some already want him gone, especially after a second blowout home loss to a MAC team. I tend to think he is doing a lot of good thing behind the scenes and is saying the right things, but on the field we’re just completely overmatched at every position. Against Central Michigan Purdue had about 10 critical mistakes ranging from a pick six, to penalties negating big gains, to missed assignments. There has been improvement from last season, but we’re still just very, very bad in a lot of respects.

I feel like if Hazell were given 5-6 years he could slowly build something, but people want to see results. He went 1-11 with a team that at least beat six bad teams a year before. I thought before this season we could get a 3-1 non-conference start (losing only to ND) before taking 2-3 conference games and maybe squeezing into a lower bowl. The Central game was brutal, however. Now I am hoping we beat Southern Illinois (not a gimme with how we played) and maybe get one of the lower Big Ten teams like Northwestern). That would probablybe considered improvement.

4. With this rivalry ending, at least for now, what are your thoughts on Purdue’s rivalry with Notre Dame and what is your favorite moment in the series?

I am going to miss it. I think it is ridiculous that it couldn’t continue, especially on our end. I am more than aware Purdue doesn’t have a national profile on a good day, but in playing the Irish we had one guaranteed game per season where everyone was paying attention and we know it is a nationally televised game. Now we’re going to fill that spot with Virginia Tech, Missouri, and Nevada, which is far from the same.

I also know both schools had their hands forced. ND has its ACC commitments, while the Big Ten is going to a nine-game conference schedule. That rotation meant that Purdue was going to go two ND when it already had five Big Ten road games, and that costs us a home game per season. Even though it would mean eight home games in years that the Irish came to Ross-Ade, it’s hard to have just six home dates in this day and age if you’re a major conference team.

As for a favorite moment, it would have to be either 1997 or 2004. In 1997 Purdue was about as relevant as it is now, but came out of nowhere to stun the Irish and go on to a 9-3 season. I was at that game as a high school senior and no one expected it. In 2004 we finally won in South Bend, something that has now only happened once in the last 40 years. The three games before that (1998, 2000, and 2002) were incredibly frustrating because they were “Luck of the Irish” types of games where Purdue blew it (seriously? George Godsey throwing more than Drew Brees in 2000?). Those were three truly painful losses, so 2004 felt like we were finally able to vent.

5. What has impressed you the most about Notre Dame two games into the season?

Just the way that they have meshed with Golson after he sat out last year. It’s very impressive that he came back and has hardly missed a beat. I also like some of the younger players, but it stings that Drue Tranquill, who originally committed to Purdue before flipping, is already making a difference. There is no doubt he would be starting and thriving right now in our secondary.

Prediction

I will go with ND 38-10. I am not optimistic. In fact, I live 4miles from Lucas Oil and I am likely not going because I don’t want to drop $360 on three tickets, one of them for a 16-month old, to watch us get crushed. The already purchased beer in my fridge is cheaper than anything at Lucas Oil, and I don’t think they can even sell it for college events there.

Behind Enemy Lines: Notre Dame @ Purdue
Purdue Purdue mascot Boilermaker Pete prior to the game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at the Cotton Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

We are back with another installment of Behind Enemy Lines this week with some thoughts on this week’s opponent, the Purdue Boilermakers, from Travis at Hammer and Rails.  It doesn’t sound like the Boilermaker faithful are too hopeful for this weekend.

Hammer and Rails will be posting a Q&A on their site with some answers we provided them as well.  We’ll update with the link once it is live. 

1. Purdue lost its leading receiving threat Gabe Holmes in practice on Wednesday. Who do the Boilermakers have to take his place?

It looks like the top replacement will be junior Justin Sinz, who has nice size and has 10 catches for just under 100 yards and a touchdown in his career. Sterling Carter and Patrick Bade (a name familiar because he used to be on the Boiler basketball team) have already played extensively, but as blocking tight ends. They don’t have a catch yet in their career. Redshirt freshman Carlos Carvajal, who was a 4-star commitment in Purdue’s 2012 class, may also play. True freshman Matt Burke is also a possibility.

Holmes has been an interesting player his entire career. Every season was supposed to be a “breakout season” and he “had all the physical tools”, but never quite panned out. He came from Florida power St. Thomas Aquinas and was finally starting to put it all together before this injury.

2. Last year Purdue played Notre Dame very tough in South Bend but went on to have a disappointing season while Notre Dame proved to be pretty good. How was Purdue able to hang with a Notre Dame team that went undefeated a year ago?

Purdue’s defensive line had an excellent day and that allowed the secondary to play well on receivers and it masked the linebackers, which have been a weak spot for about a decade. Robert Marve also had the offense moving well before Danny Hope inexplicably pulled him in favor of Caleb TerBush. For Purdue to have a chance the defensive line needs to have a similarly strong day, and even then it won’t mean much if the offensive line continues to struggle and Rob Henry continues to be inaccurate.

3. Notre Dame fans don’t know a lot about Darrell Hazell right now. What should they know about him and what has he done so far to get Purdue fans excited about the direction of the program?

He said and did all the right things in the off-season to get us excited. He has some solid 2014 players on board including Drue Tranquill, whom Notre Dame recently offered. Tranquill, Denzel Ward, David Blough, and Gelen Robinson are four very promising guys that are already on board to start the 2014 class and they are guys getting national interest. Hazell also preached openness and accountability with the program. He hired some new, better assistants and on paper we all thought it was going well.

Unfortunately, the offense has looked worse than it did at any time last year under Gary Nord, whom Purdue fans learned to despise because of his penchant for bubble screens and multiple quarterbacks. It has made the first few games rough, but I think it also showed that the turnaround from Hope was not going to be immediate. I hope folks are patient, because Hazell, in my mind, is a huge upgrade.

4. Cincinnati scored 42 points on Purdue two weeks ago. Was the Boilermaker defense able to make adjustments last week or was it tough to tell considering their opponent was Indiana State and how to do expect them to defend the Irish offense?

It was tough to tell because they held a shutout for most of three quarters before tiring because the offense was doing so little. The previous week against Cincinnati was similar. Seven of the 42 to Cincinnati came on a pick-6, so that was on the offense. The rest came from them wearing down in the heat of the second half. From the time Purdue tied it at 7-7 Purdue’s offense had five plays before it was 28-7. It went kneel down, three incompletions, and the pick-6. The defense gave up a drive before halftime and immediately after when Cincinnati got the ball to start the second half.

Right now, I think the defense is ahead of the offense and is playing well enough to at least keep us in games if the offense can move the ball, give them rest, and score some points. The offense isn’t doing that, however.

5. Notre Dame’s last trip to West Lafayette for a prime time ABC game turned into a pretty one-sided contest. Do you expect this year’s game to resemble that game or do you see it being more competitive as last year’s contest was?

Yeah, I expect it to be more like 2011 than 2012. Our offensive line is struggling to open holes for the running game and Rob Henry has not been accurate when throwing the football. Against Indiana State Purdue twice had a first and goal situation from the one and got a total of three points because the line got no push. It was also stuffed on a 4th and one near midfield. This was against Indiana State, who probably has less collective talent in its defensive line than Louis Nix alone.

For Purdue to have any chance its offense has to be night and day better than what we have seen so far. Considering that Cincinnati gave up 41 points to a previously punchless Illinois offense and Indiana State gave up 73 to Indiana, there is little to make me think we’re going to suddenly figure this out.

6. The Notre Dame – Purdue series just doesn’t have the same hostility that either the Notre Dame – Michigan or Notre Dame – Michigan State series have. How do you feel about Notre Dame as a Purdue fan and do you the series continues uninterrupted unlike Notre Dame -Michigan?

Most Purdue fans view Notre Dame as the top football rival, mostly because Indiana is so historically bad at football. Maybe we’re spoiled because of the recent run of success against the Hoosiers, but beating Indiana is expected. I know we don’t have a great football history, but at least we’re not historically as inept as Purdue.

Another factor that has most Purdue fans not liking Notre Dame is the “reversible jacket” stereotype within the state of Indiana. I am talking about the fans that like both Indiana basketball (for which Purdue fans have far more hatred than Indiana football) and Notre Dame football. We hate those guys.

I like the Notre Dame series because it gives Purdue a “name” non-conference opponent every season that is always going to get national interest. From 1997-2004, which is when I went from high school to attending Purdue before graduating in 2002, the series was pretty exciting with two good teams playing each year. I miss that competitiveness as Notre Dame has improved under Kelly, while Purdue has faded from the wave created by Drew Brees and the Rose Bowl in 2001. Those eight games from 1997-2004 were all competitive and exciting where neither team really had an edge. I’d like to get back to that.

Jamaal Williams - BYU RB
Brigham Young Cougars running back Jamaal Williams (21) carries the ball against the Oregon State Beavers during the first quarter at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Douglas C. Pizac-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012 the Irish defense allowed opponents only 3.47 yards per carry(16th best) and only surrendered an average of  105.69 yards per game, which was good for 11th best in the country. What makes these accomplishments even more impressive was the fact that Notre Dame spent the first half of the season dealing with injuries and inexperience in the secondary. The domination on the line of scrimmage during last year’s magical run can be mostly attributed to the front seven, with occasional help from secondary.

The good news for Irish fans is that most of the personnel that were responsible for those impressive numbers are back in 2013. Notre Dame will once again have a powerful cast of performers on the defensive line and in their linebacking corp. With names like Nix, Tuitt, Day, Shembo, Calabrese, and Williams, this year’s defense has the potential to be as good, if not better than their predecessors.

With Irish fans well aware of what their team will hit the field with, we wanted to take a look at what the opponents will be offering up in the way of running attacks, to try and counteract the talent and experience Notre Dame will possess and display on a weekly basis. These are who we consider to be the top five running-backs the Irish will face in 2013, and the talents they bring to the field.

5) Jamaal Williams (BYU)

Jamaal Williams Career Statistics
Year Att Yards Avg Long TDs
2012 166 775 4.7 49 12
Totals 166 775 4.7 49 12

As a true freshman, Williams had three games in which he broke the century mark, if he would have been the starter at the beginning of the year, most likely would have toppled the 1000 yard mark for the year. He had 6 games in which he went over the 100-yard mark for combined yards, and Irish fans might remember him grabbing 7 balls through the air for 46 yards, and rushing for another 64 last year in South Bend. Williams finished the year with 166 carries for 775 yards and 12 touchdowns, the most ever in all 3 categories by a freshman at BYU. While the Cougars may not lean heavily on the running attack, having a talent like Williams in the backfield for the whole year might force a change over in Provo.

Jamaal Williams Highlighes

Wake Forest Demon Deacons running back Josh Harris (25) runs the ball while being pursued by Boston College Eagles defensive back Justin Simmons (27) during the third quarter at BB&T field. Wake Forest defeated Boston College 28-14. (Photo: Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE)

Notre Dame heads into senior week this week undefeated for the first time since 1993 when Boston College ruined the class of ’93’s home finale looking to cap off an undefeated season in Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since 1998.  Standing in Notre Dame’s way are the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest.  For an indepth look at Wake, our weekly Behind Enemy Lines is brought to us this week by the Wake Forest blog Blogger So Dear.

Wake Forest Offense

Any Wake fan will tell you that Wake’s offense this season has been the complete antithesis of ‘The Greatest Show on Turf.’ Wake is 108th nationally in scoring offense at 20.1 points per game, which is tied with the vaunted Florida Atlantic offense. A major reason our scoring offense is so low is because of our complete inability to convert on third downs. Wake converts a mere 31.7% of third downs, which is good for 116th nationally. We went 1-16 against Florida State, 1-15 against Virginia, and 2-17 against North Carolina State. It’s unbelievably frustrating. I will warn your readers that it can be downright painful to watch. I don’t even want to fathom what our offense is going to look like against Notre Dame’s #1 scoring defense.

Wake has had surprisingly relatively poor quarterback play this season from Tanner Price, who is in his third season as the starting quarterback. He has completed only 55.4% of his passes, which makes him 88th nationally. What’s concerning about this is that you’d be willing to sacrifice some completion percentage if it meant more yards per attempt, but Price only averages 5.8 yards/attempt, which ties him for 100th nationally.

Wake’s offensive line was young coming into the season as we lost Joe Looney to the NFL Draft, as well as Michael Hoag, Doug Weaver, and Dennis Godfrey to graduation. But what was thought to be a weak offensive line was made even weaker due to injury. The offensive line has allowed 23 sacks on the year, and has only allowed us to run for 3.08 yards/attempt.

Backs Josh Harris and Deandre Martin have both been fairly solid all season. Harris is averaging 4.46 yards/attempt and has shown tremendous big-play ability. He plays very hard, and his homerun potential is going to have to hit at least once if Wake has any chance in this game. Deandre Martin has been a very solid freshman for us this season. He’s more of a between the tackles back, but he has also shown big play ability and his average is 4.22 yards/attempt. Senior Tommy Bohannon is listed as a fullback, but he has essentially been converted to H- Back. Bohannon actually hasn’t even run the ball once this season. This is mostly due to our shotgun formations and almost complete abandonment of the I-Form. Bohannon, however, has demonstrated good hands and has 20 receptions on the season and 5 touchdowns.

Wide receiver Michael Campanaro has been the bright spot not only of the Wake Forest offense, but of the entire team. He has 65 receptions on the season, which is good for 20th nationally, and this is despite the fact that he missed two complete games and left in the first quarter and did not return in a third. He is 7th in the nation in receptions per game and tied the ACC single game reception record with 16 when Wake went against Boston College. Campanaro has done an outstanding job filling in for receiver Chris Givens who left early to the NFL Draft and is now a significant contributor for the St. Louis Rams. Unfortunately no one else has been able to be a reliable second receiver. Terrence Davis has improved, but our receivers overall have struggled with drops, and the lack of playmakers on the outside has been a major liability for our offense.

Wake Forest Defense

Wake allows 28.9 points per game, which is 71st nationally. Wake is 65th nationally in rush defense and allows 156.9 yards/game. Wake’s passing defense is another story. Wake allows 260.9 yards/game, which is good for 100th nationally. Keep in mind that we played Army game, who threw for all of 77 yards against us. If you look at the other 9 games, Wake has allowed 281 yard/game.

The 3-4 Wake Forest defense has a solid front 7, and that all starts with nose guard Nikita Whitlock, who was 2nd team All-ACC last season and was named an All-American by College Football News. Junior defensive end Zach Thompson is solid and averages more than 5 tackles per game. Kris Redding does a solid job opposite Zach Thompson and averages 3 tackles per game. Thompson and Redding are second and third on the team with sacks with 4 and 3.5 respectively.

Justin Jackson is our best linebacker. He leads the team in sacks, sack yards, and tackles. He’s very athletic, and is strong in pursuit. Mike Olson, Riley Haynes, and Joey Ehrmann are our other 3 starting linebackers. They are decent in run support but lack the athleticism to be strong in pass coverage. The loss of Kyle Wilber to the NFL has not gone unnoticed. Everett Golson’s athleticism and scrambling ability could cause major problems for this unit.

The secondary was supposed to be a true bright spot for us this season despite losing Josh Bush to the NFL Draft and Chyl Quarles to graduation. Merrill “Bud” Noel was the ACC Rookie of the Year last season, was a consensus Freshman All-American and was named an honorable mention All-American by Sports Illustrated. This season Noel, who has had nagging injuries, does not appear to be as explosive as last season. He has yet to even intercept a pass this season. Kevin Johnson, who missed last season due to academic issues, has been very solid for Wake this season. He has two interceptions and 53 tackles. A.J. Marshall has also started to live up to his 4-star ratings coming out of high school and 2 interceptions, 61 tackles, and 1 touchdown on the season. Unfortunately, our coverage scheme is more of a bend, but don’t break philosophy where we allow a lot of underneath routes. Our players also don’t appear to be coached to play the ball when it’s in the air. That has led to a lot of missed turnover opportunities.

Wake Forest Special Teams

This is clearly a major weak spot for our team outside of punter Alex Kinal, who has been outstanding this season. Place kicker Jimmy Newman was benched after starting the season 2-6. Chad Hedlund came in against Virginia and was 3-3, but he absolutely shanked an extra point attempt against N.C. State. I don’t like our chances if it comes down to a field goal contest. Of course, I don’t like our chances of it coming close to coming down to a field goal contest.

Our kickoff returns have been terrible, and for no other reason than intelligence. I understand our athletic limitations, but there have been countless times when instead of just kneeling the ball and getting the ball on the 25, we choose to return it and we routinely fail to get to the 25.We average 16.54 yards/return. A simple kneel is all it takes. It’s just so frustrating because it’s such a correctable mistake, and it has yet to be corrected.

The scoreboard at the end of the game during an NCAA football game between the Michigan Wolverines and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium in Notre Dame, IN. (Photo: Chris Williams / IconSMI)

Brian Kelly and his staff are preaching one game at a time, one week at a time to the Notre Dame players this week to make sure they don’t get caught looking ahead coming off last weekend’s huge victory over Oklahoma.  One of the benefits of being fan, however, is we can look ahead, project future games, and let ourselves get excited about the now very real possibility of Notre Dame traveling to Miami in January for more than just  little fun in sun to escape the South Bend winter.

We’ll start taking a look each week at the other title contenders standing in Notre Dame’s path to Miami as well as how Notre Dame opponents are doing in terms of helping the Irish’s strength of schedule.  This week we’ll also take a look at where each team stands heading overall at this point in the season.

Other Title Contenders

When looking at Notre Dame’s national championship hopes, we only need to look at the remaining unbeatens standing in Notre Dame’s way since it is too late in the season for the Irish to survive a hiccup and still have a chance at the title.  That means there are three teams Notre Dame fans need to be watching closely over the final month of the season.

Alabama Crimson Tide

  • Next Game: @ #5 LSU (11/3, 8:00 CBS)
  • Most Likely to Lose: @ LSU
  • Other Games: vs. #16 Texas A&M (11/10), vs. Western Carolina (11/17), vs. Auburn (11/24)

If Alabama gets past LSU this weekend in Baton Rouge, they have clear sailing until the SEC Championship game where they would most likely take on Georgia after the Bulldogs win over Florida this past weekend.  Georgia is a very solid team but they don’t have the offense to put up enough points on Alabama so, if the Crimson Tide beat LSU this weekend, they are about the safest bet of the four unbeaten teams to reach Miami.  Getting passed LSU in Baton Rouge is a lot easier said than done, however, as Alabama lost to LSU in the regular season last year before shutting them out in last year’s title game.  Geaux Tigers!

Kansas State Wildcats

  • Next Game: vs. #24 Oklahoma State (11/3, 8:00 ABC)
  • Most Likely to Lose: vs. Oklahoma State
  • Other Games: @ TCU (11/10), @ Baylor (11/17), vs. #23 Texas (12/1)

Notre Dame’s best chances of Kansas State losing come this weekend when the Wildcats will face their third straight ranked opponent in as many weeks when Oklahoma State travels to Manhattan, Kansas for a prime time matchup on ABC.  Oklahoma State is a pretty good football team and certainly could upset the Wildcats since it is tough to get a football team up to play three ranked opponents in a row.  Bill Synder is a hell of a coach, but that is a tall order for any head coach.  If Kansas State gets passed Oklahoma State, their last remaining test comes on December 1 when they host Texas.  It is hard to imagine Notre Dame jumping KSU in the standings without them losing unless Notre Dame were to completely blow out USC since the Wildcats have wins over then #6 Oklahoma (albeit in much less impressive fashion than Notre Dame), then #13 West Virginia and #14 Texas Tech – both in blowout fashion.

Oregon Ducks

  • Next Game: @ #17 USC (11/3, 7:00 FOX)
  • Most Likely to Lose: @ USC
  • Other Games: @ Cal (11/10), vs. #14 Stanford (11/17), @ #11 Oregon State (11/24)

Oregon still has to face three ranked teams in their final four remaining games – @ #17 USC, vs. #14 Stanford, and @#11 Oregon State – but that schedule is somewhat deceiving.  USC just lost to Arizona, Stanford struggled against Washington State, and Oregon State hasn’t beaten the Ducks since 2007.   Like the other unbeatens fighting with Notre Dame for a berth in the title game, Oregon’s most likely loss could come this weekend when they travel to USC.  The Trojans did just get upset by Arizona, but they are the kind of team that has the talent to play with anyone – when they want to play.  In any given year it is always tough for a Notre Dame fan to cheer for USC, but with Lane Kiffin in charge it has become monumentally tougher to do so.  Luckily Oregon does have two other tough games although I can’t see Stanford hanging with Oregon very long, but you never know.

Notre Dame Opponents – Already Played

Navy Midshipmen

  • Current Record: 5-3
  • Last Game: Beat East Carolina 56-28
  • Next Game: vs. Florida Atlantic – 3:30 11/3

Navy has won four straight games and should have a good chance to win out this season with Florida Atlantic, @ Troy, vs. Texas State, and vs. Army.  Navy should be able to win all four games which would put them at 9-3 for the season giving a nice boost to Notre Dame’s strength of schedule since all four opponents are D1 foes.

Purdue Boilermakers

  • Current Record: 3-5
  • Last Game: Lost to Minnesota 28-44
  • Next Game: vs. Penn State – 3:30 11/3 (ESPN U)

Purdue is having a rough season and Danny Hope’s seat might be about ready to completely burn by the end of the season.  After a 3-1 start, Purdue has lost four straight and only their overtime loss to Ohio State was even close.  The best Notre Dame fans can probably hope for here is a 2-2 finish for the Boilermakers which won’t do the strength of schedule rating too many favors.

Michigan State Spartans

  • Current Record: 5-4
  • Last Game: Beat #25 Wisconsin 16-13 OT
  • Next Game: vs. #20 Nebraska

Michigan State halted a two game skid with an overtime win over Wisconsin this weekend.  The Spartans could have done Notre Dame a lot of good by winning more of their close games this season.  Michigan State has lost three of their last five games by a total of just 6 points including a double overtime loss to Iowa.  Should the Spartans pull out a win over #20 Nebraska this weekend though, they could set themselves up nicely for a 8-4 finish to the season that would help Notre Dame’s SOS down the stretch.

Michigan Wolverines

  • Current Record: 5-3
  • Last Game: Lost to Nebraska 9-23
  • Next Game: @ Minnesota – 12:00 11/3 (Big Ten Network)

Michigan had not lost since leaving South Bend on the short end of the scoreboard in September before getting tripped up by Nebraska this past weekend after Denard Robinson was knocked out of the game.  Without Robinson, Michigan couldn’t move the ball and was held scoreless in the second half.  If Robinson misses any significant time, the Wolverines could be in serious trouble the rest of the year – and so can Notre Dame’s SOS.  The win over Michigan was looking pretty good in the eyes of voters and the computers after they rattled off four wins in a row and looked poised to challenge for a 10 win season again this year.  Had Michigan won out, that would have given Notre Dame a quality win over a team ranked in the 10-15 range.  Robinson’s injury throws a major wrench in those plans though and while normally Notre Dame fans would revel in such troubles for Michigan, this season those troubles could hurt Notre Dame’s title chances.

Miami Hurricanes

  • Current Record: 4-4
  • Last Game: Lost to #14 Florida State 20-33
  • Next Game: vs. Virginia Tech – 7:30 11/1 (ESPN – Thursday night)

The Hurricanes have been in a bit of a free fall since geting blown out by Notre Dame in the Windy City.  Miami fell to North Carolina the next week and then couldn’t hang with Florida State the following weekend before getting this past Saturday off.  Next up for Al Golden’s team is a Thursday night match with Virginia Tech that will likely define their season.  A win and Miami could salvage their season and close strong with UVA, South Florida, and Duke remaining.  A loss, however, would give them three L’s in a row and Golden could be in danger of losing his team.  Even a 3-1 finish to the season, though would benefit the Irish.

Stanford Cardinal

  • Current Record: 6-2
  • Last Game: Beat Washington State 24-17
  • Next Game: @ Colorado – 2:00 11/3 (FX)

The Cardinal have won both of their games since losing to Notre Dame in overtime earlier this month albeit in rather unimpressive fashion.  Stanford squeaked out a 7 point win over lowly Washington State last weekend to improve to 6-2 on the season and should be able to walk over Colorado this Saturday to reach 7-2, but they end the season by hosting Oregon State and traveling to Oregon and then UCLA.  Best case scenario here based on recent results for Stanford looks like a 2-2 finish for a 8-4 final record.

BYU Cougars

  • Current Record: 5-4
  • Last Game: Beat Georgia Tech 41-17
  • Next Game: vs. Idaho – 10:15 11/10 (ESPN U)

BYU made short work of Georgia Tech last weekend and has an easy slate of remaining games which should help out Notre Dame SOS wise.  BYU has this weekend off, but their final three games are vs. Idaho, @ San Jose State, and @ New Mexico.  All three are very winnable games for the Cougars which would push their final record to 8-4 on the season and make Notre Dame’s win look pretty solid in the eyes of the computers at least.

Oklahoma Sooners

After ruining Oklahoma’s national championship hopes, Notre Dame now has to hope for the Sooners to win out in order to help out their own title chances.  Oklahoma has two pretty easy games coming up with a trip to Iowa State and a home game against Baylor the next two weekends, but after that the Sooners close with a trip to #21 West Virginia before hosting Oklahoma State and then closing the season out at TCU.  West Virginia has had its door’s blown off by its last two foes though so that should be a winnable game for Oklahoma despite it being on the road.  Worst case scenario here is probably a split of the WVU and OK St games with wins in its other three games for a final record of 9-3.

Future Notre Dame Opponents

Pitt Panthers

  • Current Record: 4-4
  • Last Game: Beat Temple 47-17
  • Next Game:  @ #3 Notre Dame

Pitt had a rough start to the season, but has won two straight against Buffalo and Temple – their most impressive win of the season.  The Panthers shouldn’t pose much of a threat to Notre Dame assuming the Irish remain focused and do not overlook the Panthers, but they have winnable games after they leave South Bend against UConn, Rutgers, and South Florida.  Best case scenario here would be to hope for Pitt to split their remaining games and finish up their season 6-6.  Such a record won’t help Notre Dame’s SOS much, but it wouldn’t hurt much either.

Boston College Eagles

  • Current Record: 2-6
  • Last Game: Beat Maryland 20-17
  • Next Game: @ Wake Forest (11/3 – 3:30 – ESPN 3)

Boston College halted a five game losing streak and picked up their second win of the season this past weekend against Maryland.  There’s no way around this one hurting Notre Dame’s SOS though.  The Eagles play Wake Forest this weekend so that game negates itself in terms of SOS since both are Irish opponents.  After Wake, BC closes the year with Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, and NC Sate meaning there is a very good chance they will finish the season with at most 3 wins.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

  • Current Record: 4-4
  • Last Game: Lost to Clemson 13-44
  • Next Game: vs. Boston College (11/3, 3:30 ESPN 3)

The Demon Deacons should win this weekend against Boston College, but have to face NC State and Notre Dame over their final three games along with Vandy.  BC and Vandy should be wins for Wake, but Notre Dame and NC State are looking like losses which would put their final record at 6-6 on the season.  Should Wake be able to pull an upset over NC State though, a final record of 7-5 would be pretty solid in helping Notre Dame’s SOS.

 Southern Cal Trojans

  • Current Record: 6-2
  • Last Game: Lost to Arizona 36-39
  • Next Game: vs. #4 Oregon (11/3, 7:00 FOX)

As previously mentioned, Notre Dame fans need to be USC fans this weekend, or at the very least be able to live with seeing the Trojans win at home over Oregon because it would greatly enhance the Irish’s title chances.  USC is coming off a bad loss to Arizona in which they blew a late lead, but they certainly have the firepower to win a shootout with Oregon.  After the Ducks, USC has two very winnable games against Arizona State and UCLA meaning the Trojans should be at least 8-3 heading into the season finale against the Irish.

Oklahoma Sooners take the field against the Kansas Jayhawks at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. (Photo: Matthew Emmons / US PRESSWIRE)

Notre Dame will square off with the Oklahoma Sooners for the first time since 1999 while making their first trip to Norman since 1966.  With the Sooners on tap this weekend, we have exchanged scouting reports with the Oklahoma blog Crimson and Cream Machine.  They were kind enough to provide us with a complete breakdown of the Sooners.

Oklahoma Offense

Quarterback

It is no secret that Landry Jones was returning for his super senior year as a fourth year starter in this Oklahoma offense. Many still think of Jones as lacking the natural leadership qualities his successor, Blake Bell, has. However, he does have the experience but has been known to get happy feet when the pressure gets to him. More recently, Jones has been poised and collected in the pocket while the offensive line has provided solid protection for him. He is aware of where the pocket is and where it is moving to allowing him to step up to avoid the angle of a defender to dump the ball off to the hot route or check down. While Jones is not putting up the Heisman type numbers many expected out of him this season, he is throwing for 274.8 yards a game with a 62.7 completion rate in one of the more balanced offenses in the nation. He currently has 12 touchdown passes to just three interceptions and remains Oklahoma’s best chance for victory.

The other side of this two headed monster is Blake Bell. The Oklahoma coaching staff borrowed an idea from Bill Snyder at Kansas St. to implement a big running quarterback formation which has affectionately become known as the “Belldozer.” Simply put, this is a puzzle of numbers. A pulling lineman leads the way as fullbacks Aaron Ripkowski and Trey Millard lead the way to open up a crease. Everyone in the stadium knows what is about to take place but not many have found the solution to this riddle. On third and short, fourth and short, and in the redzone this is the formation Oklahoma will rely on. It is much of the reason the Sooners are 32-for-33 on scoring trips into the redzone for a 96.97% success rate. The only time OU failed to score in the redzone was ironically in the Belldozer Formation as Bell forgot to handle the snap before he dozed his way toward the line of scrimmage. With no backs in the backfield, a fumble is fatal from this tactic as Bell is the only offensive man conscious of what just took place.

Receivers

Oklahoma was left with much to question at the postion heading into the season. Several receivers were suspended making Kenny Stills the only returning player to record a reception in a Sooner jersey. But, Stills was moving from the outside to the slot to pick up the slack of all-time great Ryan Broyles. There was much talk about the incoming talent but it was unproven and young with the likes of true freshmen Trey Metoyer, Sterling Shepard, and Durron Neal. Throughout the first several games, it became apparent that something was awry between the quarterback and the receivers. However, a few transfers changed the game as Justin Brown came from Penn St. and was immediately eligible to play. Jalen Saunders recently received a waiver after the university appealed the original ruling and is now available. Stills remains the go to guy for Landry Jones with 38 receptions but Brown (23 receptions) as well as Shepard (19 receptions) and Saunders (5 catches for 88 yards, 17.6 avg) have proven they are great talents as well. Often times, the Sooners will use a double slot set and have never shied away from using the running backs as receivers.

The Sooners are not big on using tightends in the offense outside of blocking since Jermaine Gresham left the university. Sure Brannon Green has a touchdown reception but there has been little involvement since. What Oklahoma does have going for them is fullback Trey Millard who is versatile enough to play almost any position on the field. He has the hands and blocking ability to lineup as a tightend but also has the speed and agility to lineup as a tailback. Millard is a do-it-all type player that allows the Sooners to run the dreaded hurry-up offense. Because of his versatility, Oklahoma can simply shift positions instead of changing personnel.

Runningbacks

The stable of runningbacks that Oklahoma possesses are due to the success of none other than Adrian Peterson. Year after year, the Sooners reload at the postion and often have a hard time getting all the talent in the backfield enough snaps. Dominique Whaley quickly rose to stardom last season as a walk-on but has been overshadowed by JUCO transfer Damien Williams who quickly emerged as the premier back on this team. On 10 attempts, Williams gain over 100 yards against UTEP. He would repeat the feat on the same number of attempts the following week, this time going for 156 yards and four touchdowns. This is a kid who has the ability to cut upfield in a hurry along with the power and speed to run with anyone in the nation.

Part of the recent success of the Oklahoma offense has been found in the fact that they are attempting to establish the run early and often. This is where they are beginning to find their identity.

Offensive Line

From cancer diagnosis to injury leading a player to walk away from the game, the offensive line was left in a jumbled mess. While the players filling the roles were great players as individuals, this is a unit that thrives upon cohesion and Oklahoma clearly lacked that quality as it gave up multiple sacks to teams who had no business getting in the backfield. Lately, this has been a group that has given Landry Jones ample time in the pocket to find a receiver and make an accurate throw. As a group, they have also done a solid job of opening things up for the runningbacks to make a play. Pass protection is a priority across all level of football and without it, things can go downhill in a hurry.

Oklahoma Defense

Defensive Line

This is a unit that took a hit early on. DT Stacy McGee was indefinitely suspended while another DT in Casey Walker was on hiatus due to personal issues. This forced Oklahoma to slide DE David King over while allowing him to create mismatches inside for his speed and outside for his size. In this situation, Oklahoma lacked the ability to get pressure on the opposing QB consistently. Depth was already a concern but it took another hit when the Sooners lost defensive lineman Nila Kasitati to a torn ACL. Now, McGee has been reinstated and Walker rejoined the team several weeks ago giving the Sooners an experienced rotation in the middle including Jamarkus McFarland. King has moved back to his natural position while Chuka Ndulue sits opposite him. As this group has gelled together, they have found themselves being far more productive in the pass rush, getting a good push in the middle while collecting 12 sacks to go along with 17 QB hurries and one interception. The defensive line is quickly emerging as one of the best in the Big XII.

Linebackers

Tom Wort was pegged as the leader and anchor of the front seven with the departure of Travis Lewis. However, Mike Stoops was back and he brought with him LB coach Tim Kish. With the new coaches came a new schematic specifically for the linebackers. Instead of flowing to the ball while running sideline to sideline, the LBs were now being asked to be gap aware. This means that they are to know their gap assignment and stick to it during the development of the play. However, if a receiver were to come across the middle, it would mean Wort still needs to drop into coverage, a task he has never been up for. While the coaches feel like Wort as well as Corey Nelson have done a solid job this season, the fans wanted more involvement from them. Lately the OU coaching staff has employed blitz packages that were lacking during the first three games of the season. Much of the blitzing comes from the LBs and more specifically Frank Shannon due to his speed and tenacity to get into the backfield.

Collectively, the front seven have given up 139.83 yards per game on the ground. This is a major improvement from the 200+ yards that UTEP as well as Kansas St. posted on this group.

Secondary

The secondary has had the pieces to be a great unit yet lacked the correct positions for each player to succeed to achieve this goal. This first thing returning defensive coordinator Stoops did was recognize this and begin working to solve the puzzle. Standout Tony Jefferson was moved from nickelback to free safety while Javon Harris was moved from free safety to strong safety. Aaron Colvin in turn was moved from safety back to cornerback and Demontre Hurst held down his starting role as the other corner. To fill the now vacant nickelback position, Gabe Lynn had been moved from cornerback. Now that the game was reset, it was time to see the production on the field. This has been the strong point of the defense from day one giving up 164.3 yards per game through the air. In a pass happy conference, those are great numbers that land the Sooners in the top ten against the air raid nationally. Not only has this group been a lock down unit to the tune of a 51.9% completion rate for opposing quarterbacks, the safeties also lead the team in tackles, Jefferson with 48 and Harris with 34. That is a productive group to say the least.

However, the major thing lacking from the group was turnovers which start upfront with the line. As the line has progressed and developed, the secondary has reaped the benefits. Through the first three games, Oklahoma came up with a single turnover. In the past three games, the Sooners have created a total of seven interceptions and one fumble recovery returned for 45 yards.

Special Teams

Kickoff/Punt Return

Justin Brown has proven that he can be something special. He is averaging 19 yards per return and is the x-factor in any game when given the change to return a punt. Last week, Brown wowed fans as he returned a punt 90 yards to the house against Kansas. A shifty Roy Finch duplicated the feat in the same game, this time on a kickoff return as he went 100 yards for the score. Finch is averaging 35.67 yards per return and Brennan Clay averages 29.68 opposite him.

Punting

Tress Way is one of the better punters in the nation who at any time can come up with a 70-yarder. He is averaging 43.21 yards per punt but has a knack for pinning opponents deep in their own territory.

Place Kicking

Michael Hunnicutt hasn’t earned the nickname “Moneycutt” for no reason. While he doesn’t often get the chance to kick a field goal due to the success in the redzone, he is 8-for-9 on attempts this season. Thanks to a blunder against UTEP and a bad snap against Texas, Hunnicutt has also missed two on PATs maing him 32-for-34.

Final Thoughts

This is one of the biggest games of the season. Two of the most historic teams in the nation will face one another in a clash of titans. The atmosphere will most certainly be electric as the Fighting Irish come to town to take on the Oklahoma Sooners.

Notre Dame has run a gauntlet of teams boasting the toughest schedule in the nation. While a win is a win, four victories have come from a margin of seven points or less with one of those coming in overtime. This is a team that has certainly been tested but will the luck of the Irish continue to go their way?

On the flip side of the coin, Oklahoma is scratching its way back into the national title picture and cannot afford another setback. Oklahoma currently sits atop the list on one loss teams but will need a fair share of help to reach the BCS. A victory over media favorite Notre Dame will go a long way in not only helping their case but also in recruiting.

Boomer!

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson (13) looks to pass against the Oregon State Beavers during the first quarter at LaVell Edwards Stadium. (Photo: Douglas C. Pizac / US PRESSWIRE)

For the sixth straight week we have exchanged scouting reports with a blog from the week’s opponent.  With BYU in town for the first time since 2005, we swapped insights with Blue Cougar Football.

BYU Offense

The BYU offense good off to a good start in 2012. In back-to-back wins, BYU passed for over 300 yards each game and averaged 479 yards per game. Quarterback Riley Nelson was injured during game 2. He fought through the pain for games three and four, but could not finish game four. As would be expected, the offense struggled in those games. Not only was Nelson less than 100 percent, but the defenses for Utah and Boise State were better than those for Washington State and Weber State.

The best defenses, statistically, that BYU has faced were in the last two games against Utah State and Oregon State. In those games, the BYU offense was far more productive than each defenses’ averages. However, mistakes have prevented BYU from scoring more points in each of these games.

Going into the game against Notre Dame, the BYU is averaging 396.6 yards per game (173.6 rushing, 223 passing). The Cougars are converting 43 percent of their third downs (43/119) and 71 percent of fourth downs (10/14). BYU has turned the ball over 14 times (10 interceptions, 4 fumbles).

Senior Riley Nelson will be the starting quarterback (92-160, 1059 yards, 6 TD, 8 Int.). He is good on his feet, which helps to make up for his average arm strength. Typically, he is a good game manager, but when under pressure he can easily be forced into making mistakes.

At running back is true freshman Jamaal Williams. He is just 17-years old since he skipped second grade, but he plays like a 20-year old. He is the teams leading rusher with 65 carries for 345 yards (5.3) and 5 touchdowns. He almost always goes forward. He has only lost 5 yards all season. Williams can be a weapon in the passing game out of the backfield as well. He has 10 receptions for 130 yards.

The only wide receiver who has been productive this year is Cody Hoffman (41 receptions, 534 yards, 2 TD). He has had 100 yards receiving in four of the seven games this season. He is Nelson’s favorite target, and will catch almost anything thrown at him. Many have tried to stop Hoffman, and many have failed. He is both a possession receiver and a big play receiver.

The rest of the receivers have struggled to be involved in the passing game. Ross Apo is big (6-foot-3), but has failed to establish any kind of rapport with Nelson. JD Falslev finished 2011 strong playing in the slot, but has just 16 receptions for only 124 yards this year.

BYU saw Kaneakua Friel emerge as the top tight end in the season opener. He had 6 receptions for 101 yards, and 2 touchdowns. For the season, his totals are now 23 receptions, 266 yards, and 4 touchdowns. Richard Wilson (5 receptions, 85 yards) and Devin Mahina (5 receptions, 61 yards, 2 TD) can also come in at any time and make big grabs.

The offensive line has struggled all year. False start, holding, and illegal blocking penalties have ruined several drives this season, and probably were the biggest reason why BYU lost to Utah. Run blocking is bad. BYU has resorted to running quarterback draws when running on the interior, and the option to be able to effectively run outside. Pass protection has been spotty. The line has given up 18 sacks this season.

BYU Defense

During the first half of the season, BYU fans learned to fall in love with defense. After six games, the Cougar D was best in the nation in rush defense. BYU was near the top in the nation in almost every major statistical category. No one could pass or run on BYU. Teams were lucky just to score. Twice, the opposing offense has not scored a single point. Four times, the BYU defense did not allow a touchdown.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy and defensive lineman Ezekiel Ansah were making headlines. ESPN commentators were gushing about their NFL potential. The rest of the players were filling their roles nicely. This edition of the Cougar D appeared destined to be the best in school history.

BYU came crashing back to reality when No. 10 Oregon State came to town in game seven. Oregon State found a way to pass for over 300 yards and rush for over 100. Was BYU overconfident, or is Oregon State that good? Was this an aberration, or was the defense truly exposed?

The weakest link in BYU’s defense, both last Saturday and always, is the defensive secondary. BYU has been getting better in recent seasons, but the way Oregon State threw the ball, it was obvious that cornerbacks Jordan Johnson and Preston Hadley aren’t quite there yet. The safeties Joe Sampson and Daniel Sorensen are hard hitters and pretty athletic.

The strength of the BYU defense is the linebackers. Van Noy is a playmaker. He has 11.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 5 pass breakups, 8 quarterback hurries, and 3 forced fumbles. He is fast and very athletic. His trademark had become chasing down quarterbacks from the blindside and drilling them, which usually results in a fumble. Opposite Van Noy is Spencer Hadley. He flies under the radar with Van Noy getting all the headlines, but Hadley is pretty good in his own right. He is third on the team in tackles and has 7.5 TFL, and 3.5 sacks.

In the middle, BYU has Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga. Ogletree is a tackling machine, but very poor in pass coverage. Kaveinga quietly has a good game week in and week out.

In the past, BYU’s philosophy for the defensive line has been to plug up holes and try to draw double teams. In other words, make it as easy as possible for the linebackers to stop the ball carrier or get to the quarterback. That philosophy has changed with the emergence of Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah. A native of Ghana, Africa, Ansah had never played football before 2010, but with all the physical gifts necessary to thrive, he has delivered this year on the potential coaches have been promising. Ansah didn’t become the starter until Eathyn Manumaleuna was lost for the season against Boise State (game 4). To go along with 30 tackles, Ansah has 9 TFL, 3 sacks, 4 pass breakups, and 5 quarterback hurries. Two other seniors join Ansah on the line. Both of them have played in over 40 games during their careers.

BYU Special Teams

The punting has been exceptional. Riley Stephenson is one of the nation’s top punters averaging 46.5 yards per punt. He is very good at pinning opponents down near the goal line. It is no longer a big deal for BYU fans to see a punt downed inside the 10-yard line. BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall uses this to his advantage and doesn’t hesitate to play the field position game.

The rest of BYU’s special teams have been unsatisfactory. Placekicking, both field goals and extra points, are unreliable. Placekicker Justin Sorensen needed to have a bone spur fixed in his back during the offseason. It was assumed that he would be ready when fall camp came around. When he wasn’t, BYU scrambled to come up with a contingency plan. That plan has resulted in 5-9 field goal kicking and 3 missed extra points.

BYU has given up some big punt returns this season. The most notable were in the Utah game. Both offensive touchdowns Utah scored were set up by punt returns.

A combination of BYU’s great scoring defense and the new kickoff rules have resulted in BYU having very few kickoff returns this season. JD Falslev has had a few nice punt returns. He isn’t super fast, but he is elusive.

Final Thoughts

For all of the big games this year, Bronco Mendenhall has been repeating the same thing: If we don’t turn the ball over, we have a pretty good shot. Avoiding turnovers will be key for BYU in this game. Turnovers have been the Cougars’ Achilles heel in big games going all the way back to 2008.

I think it will take more than just avoiding turnovers. Riley Nelson will have to play the best game of his career. The offensive line will have to play their best game of the season. Two or three other players will have to step up and have big days. It could be in the form of a turnover on defense, or one of the wide receivers not named Hoffman getting 100 yards, or a huge momentum changing special teams play.

BYU is a quality team, but the way Brian Kelly has Notre Dame playing, it is going to take more than just executing and playing assignment sound football. BYU needs to take the crowd out of the game, and find a way to shake Notre Dame’s confidence. It will also take a complete game—60 minutes. BYU can’t play well for three quarters, or even 55 minutes. If that is the case, what was a winnable game will end up looking like a blowout.

Stanford Cardinal quarterback Josh Nunes (6) looks for a receiver during the first quarter against the Southern California Trojans at Stanford Stadium. (Photo: Kyle Terada / US PRESSWIRE)

This week’s edition of Behind Enemy lines comes to us from the very strong Stanford blog Rule of Tree.

Be sure to also check out their article on the problems the Stanford defense has this year as well as their report of Ty Montgomery being doubtful for this weekend’s game against the Irish.

Stanford’s Offense

The Stanford offense was a well-oiled machine in 2010 and 2011; through five games this season, it’s required a fair amount of WD-40. Perhaps no statistic is more revealing of just how much the offense has regressed than the Cardinal’s conversion rate on third down. In 2010, Stanford converted a nation-best 57.6% of its third downs. In 2011, the Cardinal ranked third in the country at 52.6%. This year? Sandwiched between Memphis and Duke at 33.8%. With a certain quarterback no longer leading the offense, this wasn’t entirely unexpected.

Josh Nunes, otherwise known as the guy who replaced Andrew Luck, has had his struggles this season, most notably in Stanford’s only road game of the season, an ugly 17-13 loss to Washington. Nunes, who had outplayed Matt Barkley 12 days earlier, finished the game 18-of-37 for 170 yards and an interception. With some fans clamoring for a QB change – the battle between Nunes and sophomore Brett Nottingham lasted through most of fall camp – David Shaw stood behind Nunes and the incumbent quieted his critics with a brilliant performance against Arizona. His numbers were nice (21-of-34, 360 yards, 5 total TDs), but it was the manner in which he coolly led Stanford back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit that stood out. It’s cliché, but Nunes seems to have it, which compensates for what he’s lacking in accuracy, and to a lesser degree, arm strength. He won’t wow you with his throws, but he makes good decisions and he’s a surprisingly decent scrambler (one pretty juke move against USC, three touchdowns rushing against Arizona).

The running game (outside of Nunes) has been solid, if unspectacular this season, with Stanford replacing NFL draft picks Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro along the offensive line. Stepfan Taylor delivered huge games against USC and Arizona, but was held in check against Washington, as the Huskies stacked the box and dared Stanford to beat them through the air. (The plan worked.) Backup Anthony Wilkerson has been limited by an injury and underclassmen Kelsey Young and Remound Wright have been used sparingly. Coby Fleener is now catching passes in the NFL, but tight ends remain a focal point of the Cardinal passing attack. Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo have combined for nearly 600 yards and four touchdowns. Nunes likes to target Ertz on quick slants and seam routes, while he prefers fade patterns to the 6-foot-8 Toilolo. Throwing jumpballs to Toilolo has been mostly ineffective, but Stanford seems to run this play at least twice a game. Ty Montgomery, the Cardinal’s leading receiver who isn’t a tight end, is unlikely to play, which means seniors Jamal-Rashad Patterson and Drew Terrell (14 catches between them) need to step up.

Stanford’s Defense

Through four games, the defense lived up to its billing as one of the better units in the country. If the Stanford offense could’ve done anything against Washington – the Cardinal’s only touchdown came on an interception return – this team would be 5-0 and we’d be talking about a matchup of Top 10 teams. Then the Arizona game – and the Wildcat’s 617 yards of offense – happened.

The strength of the Stanford defense is its front seven. The pass rush was one of the keys to the win over USC and its absence for much of the Arizona game was part of the reason Matt Scott was able to have so much success. The linebacking corps, led by Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov has been stout. Defensive end Ben Gardner leads the team with six tackles for loss and three sacks. Stanford has been strong against the run this season, though Washington’s Bishop Sankey burned the Cardinal for a long TD run on fourth-and-one and Ka’deem Carey had a big day on the ground for Arizona.

Stanford is more vulnerable against the pass, though the secondary played well in the first four games. While opposing quarterbacks completed a high percentage of passes against Stanford in the first four weeks, most of them were short completions, and the Cardinal’s defensive backs managed to avoid giving up some of the big plays that burned them last year. One of the biggest concerns from the Arizona game is that the Cardinal was beaten deep on several occasions. Stanford replaced three of four starters in the secondary, so it’s a relatively inexperienced group that doesn’t match up particularly well against up-tempo offenses that like to spread the field and take shots deep.

Stanford’s Special Teams

Special teams have been a little shaky. Jordan Williamson, who missed three field goals in the Cardinal’s loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, is 7-of-11 this season and booted a kickoff out of bounds in the second half of the game against Arizona that could’ve proved costly. Daniel Zychlinski has done a fine job punting, with six of his 27 punts downed inside the 20 and nine punts of at least 50 yards. If Montgomery can’t go, Stanford will be without its leading kick returner. Freshman Alex Carter, the son of former Notre Dame star Tom Carter, could fill in. Punt returner Drew Terrell has one return for touchdown this season

Final Thoughts

This game is tough to figure. I think the outcome will depend partly on which Josh Nunes shows up. If it’s the Washington version, Notre Dame should roll. If it’s the Arizona version, I’m confident the Cardinal will win. More likely, I suspect Nunes will be somewhere in between awful and awesome, which should be good enough to make it a game against a team that doesn’t have quite the same firepower as Arizona. I expect a low-scoring game dominated by the defenses. It wouldn’t surprise me if the difference in the game is a defensive touchdown.

Stanford 16, Notre Dame 13.

Miami Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson (8) runs for his fourth touchdown of the game against Bethune Cookman Wildcats in the fourth quarter at Sun Life Stadium. (Photo – Robert Mayer / US PRESSWIRE)

This week’s opponent scouting report comes to us from the guys over at SB Nation’s Miami blog, The 7th Floor Blog.

Miami’s Offense

This Hurricanes offense is slowly becoming a powerhouse. At that start of camp, there were basically two sure things: 1) Stephen Morris was going to be the QB and 2) Mike James was going to be the running back. Outside of those two, the rest was more or less unknown. Duke Johnson was heralded, but his conditioning and ability to play in every game was worrisome. The wide receiving corps was decimated by graduation and Tommy Streeter leaving early. The offensive line was solid, but at the same time still a bit of an unknown. Our tight ends were expected to be consistent, and were promised to have more pronounced roles in the playbook. In short, people were worried.

We had zero clue what the product would look like once it got on the field. So far, each game has peeled back a layer on this offense and shown what it is capable of doing. Against Boston College, Duke Johnson announced himself to the CFB world, and hasn’t stopped since. Against Kansas State, Morris was steady and the tight ends were productive. In the 3 games since, Bethune-Cookman, Georgia Tech, and most recently North Carolina State, the wide receivers have been taking shape.

The play calling is still a bit suspect at times, but over all this machine is starting to run as it is supposed to. Philip Dorsett is emerging as a top threat out of nowhere, Allen Hurns has been steady, Mike James is running like a man possessed, and if you don’t have the defense keyed in on Duke Johnson when he’s out there, that’s your problem, not ours.

It’s no secret that the strength of this Notre Dame team is the defense. Manti Te’o scares the bajeezus out of me, but then again, Harrison Smith is gone (so is Jacory Harris). This Canes offense will be in for a tough assignment, but if they can stick to the game plan, they will be able to move the ball against this D. They have as of late been running a steady mix of WR screens, running the ball both to the outside as well as inside, all setting up for the deep ball to Dorsett. It’s hard for any defense to cross all of those things off the chart at once, so something is bound to give.

Miami’s Defense

This is where things get infuriatingly weird. This defense is a sieve for rushing yards, and at time, can’t cover the pass. The defensive line more often than not gets almost no push up the middle, which allows for the offensive line to keep Shayon Green and Anthony Chickillo tied up on the outsides. Yet, as of late, they have been making key plays when needed to prevent the opponents from scoring. Whether it is allowing Georgia Tech to drive in overtime only to stop them on 4th and 1, or stopping NCSt after each missed red zone opportunity to even out missing out on points.

Their last game was a turnover festival, with fumbles and interceptions repeatedly ending productive Wolfpack drives. The old cliche “bend but don’t break” seems to apply here, but yet that doesn’t even feel like it covers everything. The one saving grace coming into this game is that the Notre Dame offense doesn’t seem like it is all the way there yet. Granted, I haven’t watched their games myself save for a portion of the game in Ireland, but I get the feeling that they show up in spurts, but most of the time it isn’t quite right.

There are a few players that worry me, namely George Atkinson III. Our defense hates tackling running backs apparently, so he may be primed for a big day. The QB, Golson, worries me a bit as well, as we have a tendency to make decent quarterbacks look like Vinny Testaverde.

Our defense is certainly helped out by the fact that we have Denzel Perryman back in the MLB spot after missing the past few weeks. He is our Te’o, and we need him back there for a game like this one. This also frees up our other stud linebacker, Eddie Johnson, to not worry so much about compensating for the loss of Perryman. It” either be an interesting game to watch, or it will turn into a one-sided shoot out. Obviously I am hoping that our defense shows up ready to play.

Miami’s Special Teams

Dalton Botts, our punter, was by far our best player on special teams coming into this year. He has since proved that by not only being extremely effective kicking the ball, but also in dragging 4 Wolfpack defenders on a fake punt run for a first down. The major worry on special teams is Jake Wieclaw, our field goal specialist. He was horrible against NCSt, whether it was a 20 yard chip shot or a 40 yard pressure kick. He is normally automatic, but something has gotten into his head, and I am really hoping he has it figured out. I have a feeling that we will need his services come Saturday night. As far as returns go, those are handled by Duke Johnson and Philip Dorsett, and if even 1 Irish player leaves his lane on kick offs or punts, those guys will make you pay.

Final Thoughts

I really have no clue which direction this game will go. I gave up giving predictions about this team after week 2, because even though they may look like one product going into a game, they usually end up coming out looking like another. Take their last game, they went in figuring to run the ball a lot more than they passed, and by the game’s end, Morris had thrown for 566 yards and 5 touchdowns. If I had to guess, this game will hinge on what our defense can do against Notre Dame’s offense. We all know that our offense will have to work hard, that’s not a surprise, but if our defense decides not to show up or make the right adjustments, we will be in for a long day on the Orange and Green side.

Michigan Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson (16), safety Jordan Kovacs (32) and wide receiver Roy Roundtree (21) lead out the team before the game against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Michigan Stadium. (Photo - Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE)

For the third week in a row, we have an in-depth look at Notre Dame’s opponent from a blogger covering the opposition.  This week’s comes to us from the staff over at GoBMWolverine.

The article below is meant to dovetail with the recently presented opening look at Notre Dame’s offense. In addition, several game nuances and position reports will be presented.

First off is a look at Michigan’s status entering this game. Michigan is a program in transition, even though the Wolverines enjoyed a very successful 2011 season under first year coach Brady Hoke. In the fans’ eyes the season was great. But in the coaches’ eyes the team still did not get the job done, that is, achieve stated objectives, as the Wolverines did not win the Big Ten Championship or divisional title.

Ever since Hoke and Borges arrived on campus, the staff has been endeavoring to install an Alabama style offense with power running, play action, and pro style offense. One clear problem is that in 2011 and 2012 Michigan’s best shot at winning titles is playing a spread style offense. At this time Michigan does not have a quarterback capable of thriving in an Alabama style offense. Adding to this problematic quandary is the current reality that Michigan does not have a great offensive line or an impact tight end. The knowledgeable observer can see that offensive coordinator Coach Al Borges has a dilemma that will hinder the timetable of establishing the power game.

Point two in the nuance department is that Michigan has had Notre Dame’s number the past three years in the last minutes of the game. Things can stay the same or things can change. Regardless, this game should be an interesting match-up especially after Notre Dame defeated Michigan State with some ease on the Spartans’ home turf. How will that game affect this game? How will the injuries to both teams play out? Michigan is missing several starters or players that were in the two deep. As Coach Hoke stated it is time for the next player in line to take the spot and step up.

Finally, from an historical viewpoint, this is one of the best college football rivalries ever, with the similarities of the universities, national exposure that follows both programs, the closeness of the universities, and the obvious fact that history and tradition just oozes out every time Michigan and Notre Dame take the field together. Next up is the scouting report.

Offense:

Quarterback:

This is Denard Robinson’s team. The 2012 Michigan team will go as far as Denard’s legs and arm allow. He was basically the entire offense in Michigan’s two victories. He was ineffective versus Alabama, as was in fairness the entire team. Regardless of shortcomings, in this site’s opinion (GBMWolverine) Denard Robinson is one of the more dynamic offensive players in the game.

Running Backs:

The return of Fitzgerald Toussaint coming off a suspension for off the field problems has helped. He is the team’s top running back, regardless of a less that stellar start. Thomas Rawls is an effective between the tackles type runner. Vincent Smith is the team’s third-down back, but all the coaches will tell you he is one of the strongest players on the team pound per pound. Oh, and he also blocks.

Split Ends:

Again, the lack of a true vertical threat is noticeable. Alabama and Air Force were able to crowd the line of scrimmage and make life difficult for Michigan. The freshmen have been solid and we expect them to see more and more playing time. Devin Gardner, who is Michigan’s back-up quarterback, is the best receiver on the team; he seems to get open and is a threat after he catches the ball.

Tight End:

Devin Funchess, a true freshman, is a competent receiver. At this time he is not a great blocker because of his size and youth. Brandon Moore’s injury has further weakened an already under-manned position and the only real big tight end is A.J. Williams who also is a true freshman.

Offensive Line:

As predictable Michigan has had problems replacing All-Big Ten offensive center David Molk, who was a four-year starter and the best center in the country last season. His leadership and toughness have not been replaced. This group lacks cohesion and was in position limbo, right up until the first game, where during game week practices Elliott Mealer replaced Ricky Barnum at the center position.

Michigan Defense:

Defensive Line:

The best defenders on the 2011 team played defensive line and Michigan lost three very good players. Their graduation left a huge hole that has not been filled as the team keeps searching for players that can stop run gaps and also put pressure on the quarterback. The lack of a pure edge rusher, and not adequately replacing Mike Martin (Tennessee Titans), have made this group average at best. Frank Clark has come on strong lately, but how will he do against a bigger, more powerful offensive line? We are still wondering about the outcome of this scenario going into the Notre Dame game.

Linebackers:

Possibly the worse performing group on the defense, in our opinion, is the upperclassmen linebackers. The lack of quickness and athletic ability again has been noticeable early on in the season. Jake Ryan does provide some quarterback pressure, but nobody covers well, and playing in space for this group is an adventure. The bright spots right now are two true freshman, James Ross and Joe Bolden, both have played fairly well, as did Ringer in spring practice, But again, playing true freshman and going up against excellent teams with seasoned veterans is not a recipe for instant success

Secondary:

Losing Blake Countess, the team’s best defensive back (during the Alabama game — out for the season), was and is a major blow. Lack of speed and athletic ability has been a problem for this group (and the team in general) for several years and was very noticeable against a team like Alabama. Courtney Avery has had to step up and take a bigger role besides being the nickel back. Raymon Taylor has stepped up some and has the athletic ability to progress over time. Jordan Kovacs is a player that Michigan fans love to death because of what he embodies: he was a walk-on, who got cut once, came back the following year, made the team, and now has been a starter at safety for three years and has recently been named captain this year. He isn’t the best athlete on the field, nor the fastest, but he will give you everything he has every single time he steps on the field.

Michigan State Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell (24) warms up prior to the game against the Central Michigan Chippewas at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. (Photo - Andrew Weber / US Presswire)

Just like last week, we have exchanged scouting reports with an opponent blogger to get an inside look at this weekend’s foe – Michigan State.   This week, Jim from Shaw Lane Spartans brings us his scouting report of Michigan State.

Offense

Perhaps you’ve heard of Le’Veon Bell? According to most fans outside of the Big Ten, he is MSU’s entire offense. Bell opened his season by touching the ball an unbelievable 55 times against Boise State. In that game he rushed 44 times for 210 yards and caught the ball six times for 55 yards and scored two touchdowns. Against Central Michigan he rushed 18 times for a more pedestrian 80 yards and two touchdowns. Backing up Bell is Senior Larry Caper. Caper has struggled with injury on and off throughout his career but appears to be completely healthy for the first time since 2010.  His YPC has improved to 6.4 after averaging under 3.9 for his first three seasons, but will be used primarily in relief of Bell.

Interestingly, Caper and Bell have lined up in an I-Formation as the Fullback and Tailbackrespectively. Caper at 220 lbs is not the size of a traditional fullback. So the advantage is that both Caper and Bell are excellent third down backs with great hands and pass blocking ability. So far this formation has only been used for designed runs, but expect MSU to use this formation to do some run/pass pre-snap trickeration against Notre Dame.

At quarterback, Andrew Maxwell has assumed the reins from Captain Kirk Cousins. Cousins has gone on to an alternate universe in where he does not overthrow Larry Caper in ND’s endzone in the final minute of the 2009 MSU – ND game. Maxwell had a bumpy first half against Boise State in which he threw three picks. He rebounded nicely against BSU going 11 of 16 in the second half. Against Central he was 20 of 31 for 275 yards and 2 TDs and looked far more comfortable in the offense despite playing in his first road game. In both games it’s taken time to establish a rhythm in the passing game.

Much like Notre Dame, MSU has a potential All-American at Tight End. Dion Sims goes 6’5” and 285”(closer to 300 than 270) and he can run. MSU’s favorite trick with him so far this season has been to have him run a five yard curl on 3rd and 7 and muscle out the other two yards. Sims is Maxwell’s safety blanket and he’ll see plenty of targets this weekend.

At receiver, MSU will have an embarrassment of riches either later this year or in 2013.  In the meantime, the WR corps of 2011 will be greatly missed. Bennie Fowler is emerging as Maxwell’s favorite go to target, but after that you will see some combination of Keith Mumphery, Tony Lippett, DeAnthony Arnett, MacGarrett Kings, Aaron Burbridge and Andre Sims Jr. They’re most likely to play in the order they were just listed. Mumphery looks solid against CMU. Arnett is challenging Lippett for playing time.

Expect the MSU offense to come out and unleash a heavy dose of Bell to help Maxwell find his offensive rhythm. ND’s front seven will be among the toughest MSU will play this season, add to that a young ND secondary and you can see why MSU will have an interest in transitioning the offense from All-Bell-All-Day to a more balanced attack quickly. If ND is able to get the blitz home and prevent Maxwell from establishing a rhythm while holding Bell in check it could be a long day for MSU on Offense.

Defense

How good is the MSU defense? The answer is that even MSU fans don’t really know yet. We do know that of the 20 points allowed to the opposition this year, three can be attributed to the defense. The other 17 are comprised of two pick-sixes and an interception that gave Boise the ball on MSU’s 15.  The tea leaves read well, but this will be MSU’s first test against a BCS quality offense.

MSU plays almost exclusively out of a 4-3 with exception of 3rd and Long where they move into a 3-3-5 package that they call their Delta package.  If it’s not 3rd and long, MSU will be in a 4-3. If you run five wide, it’ll be a 4-3, if it’s triple option it’ll still be a 4-3. The principles of the MSU defense are simple alignments and crazy blitz packages.

The defensive line suffers the loss of Jerel Worthy, but returns three starters in William Gholston, Marcus Rush and Anthony Rashad White. Junior Micajah Reynolds has taken over Worthy’s spot and is playing as well as anyone else on the line. This line is huge, they outweigh the Detroit Lions starting four by twenty pounds. Yet, they have one sack on the season and didn’t get great push in the run game against CMU. We come back to it being difficult to know whether this is in part of because of the loss of Worthy or because MSU was playing extremely vanilla offense.

Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Chris Norman all return at the Linebacker position. Denicos Allen finished fourth in sacks in the NCAA in 2011 and hasn’t yet had much chance to pin his ears back and go into quarterback kill mode. He’ll be fine when it’s time. Bullough is the quarterback of the defense, prior to every play you’ll see him moving guys into position and filling gaps. Norman excels in pass coverage and will be tasked with defending Tyler Eifert when he’s not split wide.

The secondary also returns three of four starters.  Johnny Adams is a preseason first round draft buzz type guy and Isaiah Lewis shows NFL flashes at the Safety position. Darqueze Dennard has played well and is a second year starter. The free safety position will be filled by one of Jairus Jones, Kurtis Drummond or RJ Williamson. Think of this as a position filled with three B- players. All are a bit above average, but none are significantly better than the others.

MSU has yet to deal with a rushing attack as varied as Notre Dame’s trio of running backs. Last year MSU had some success slowing down the Notre Dame rushing game, but it didn’t matter much since MSU kept shooting itself in the foot on offense. I expect MSU to hold Notre Dame in check running the ball, but not dominate like they did against a few teams last year.

In the passing game, MSU will do what it does against all of it’s opponents. It will try to defend short simple passes and leave their corners in one-on-one coverage in low percentage passing situations. If Golson tries to run, MSU will leave it’s DE’s in contain and force him to the middle of the field. Rees was very successful against MSU last year, so I’d almost rather see the freshman in his first “road” start play the whole game.

Special Teams

MSU’s special teams play this year has been solid but not spectacular. Punter Mike Sadler has managed to beef his yards per punt up to 44 from 40.7 last year, however, MSU sits 95th nationally in net punting average at 32.7. Kicker Dan Conroy is 3/5 on the season and regression to the mean for him will include an improvement(his season averages so far are 90 percent and 78 percent). He’s got the leg for anything inside of 50 and has made a 53 yarder previously. Nick Hill is the kick returner for MSU and is averaging 23.4 yards per return, good for 40th in the nation. He’s been looking ready to break one the past couple games, obviously I can’t predict whether or not ND will be the game, but don’t be surprised if it is.

Final Analysis

Michigan State will be a scary team later this year. Right now ND is coming in at a time where the Offense has not definitively gelled yet and the Defense hasn’t been challenged enough to verify their quality yet. This game will provide a great measuring stick for how far MSU has come in relation to BCS quality competition.

For MSU to win the game, on offense they must successfully move the ball in the first quarter while Maxwell finds a rhythm. Bell will need to continue to pound out quality yards on first down and put Maxwell into manageable down and distance. If the down and distance can stay manageable and control turnovers MSU will be able to score plenty.

On defense MSU must contain the run and force Golson to throw the ball long by taking away short and intermediate routes. Chris Norman will have to have an excellent game to contain Tyler Eifert. Expect MSU to have more success than last year in this department if for no other reason than it’s unlikely the defense won’t get hung out to dry as often as they did last year.

Going to the Game?

Our friend Pete assembled a great EL visitor’s guide over at The Only Colors. You should check it out for tips on where to get Burgers, Beer, you know, the essentials. We sit in the row across from one of the visiting sections at Spartan Stadium and have always really enjoyed when Notre Dame comes to town. Enjoy the game and we’ll see you on the other side.

Boston College's Luke Kuechly is a tackling machine that will be hard for Notre Dame to avoid this weekend. (Photo - Michael Tureski/Icon SMI)

Last week we brought everyone a closer look at Maryland with a Q&A with the Maryland blog Turtle Droppings.  This week we have a closer look at Notre Dame’s senior day opponent, Boston College, from the BC blog BC Interruption.  Just like last week, I also answered some questions from them that will be on their site later this week.

1. Boston College is struggling through its worst season in over a decade. What has gone so wrong this year for the Eagles that they find themselves in this situation?

Can I say everything? Right now, BC is a pretty terrible football program and plenty has gone right almost from the get-go. Preseason ACC Player of the Year Montel Harris wasn’t able to fully recover from a knee injury suffered at the end of last season and has been shelved for the year. Similarly, WR Ifeanyi Momah, DT Kaleb Ramsey and CB C.J. Jones are all out for the year.

Two of our starting defensive backs were either kicked off the team or left right before the start of the season. Our first-year offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers — you may have heard of him — stepped down just two games into the season citing personal health reasons.

Our usually reliable offensive line has looked extremely vulnerable and hasn’t helped Rettig buy time in the pocket or help establish the Eagles run game. Our offense has regressed to the point it is now easily one of the worst in the nation. And BC, like Notre Dame, is losing the turnover battle (-8 through the first 10 games).

On top of all that, this year’s schedule was particularly unforgiving – just six home games, nine bowl teams and five of BC’s last seven on the road. Also, we lost to Duke … at home, on a missed FG late in the fourth quarter. Yes, that Duke.

2. Luke Kuechly is an absolute tackling machine for BC at the linebacker spot. Has anyone been able to neutralize him this season and what if anything can Notre Dame do this weekend to limit his impact?

Kuechly is going to get his tackles. No one has really been able to stop him this season. He has a remarkable ability of knowing where the play is going and being the first to the ball carrier. While Kuechly is going to get his stops, the Irish can limit his impact by throwing the ball on medium to deep routes. #40 is going to get to Wood and Gray, but if Rees keys in on exploiting the Eagles’ young secondary, it could be a long night for the Eagles defense.

3. This is BC’s 7th season in the ACC. 7 years later, how happy are Boston College fans with the move from the Big East and what your thoughts on the idea of Notre Dame potentially joining the ACC at some point as has been suggested by a few in the college football media.

Have you seen what’s been going on with the Big East lately? Boise State? Houston? BYU? SMU? Air Force? Central Florida? Yeah, no thank you.

BC fans are obviously thrilled with the move from the Big East to the ACC. Similarly, the additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh were looked upon very favorably by Eagles fans as the ACC expands its northeastern footprint and brings two traditional rivals into the fold. The Syracuse and Pitt adds also allow the ACC to renegotiate its TV media rights deal with ESPN, which had fallen behind every other BCS conference with the exception of the Big East.

If the ACC is to expand further, having just added a pair of hoops schools (with due respect to Cuse and Pitt) it needs to enhance its football street cred above all else. Notre Dame obviously fits the mold but the Irish come with a lot of baggage in the form of a separate television media rights deal with NBC and football independence. I’d welcome Notre Dame to the ACC if they were willing to give up both of those things – both the separate TV deal and football independence. Ain’t happening.

Short of that, I just don’t see the upside in allowing the Irish to dump its hoops program and Olympic sports in the ACC while maintaining football independence. While there is obviously value in associating with ND football, revenue inequality and separate TV contracts aren’t a good look for a BCS conference. Ask the Big East and the Big 12.

If we ever get to the point where it becomes “join a BCS AQ conference” or get left behind, I’d like to see Notre Dame and Rutgers / Penn State join the ACC to lock up the New York City television market. Two of those three programs would help make the ACC very relevant in New York. But because I don’t see that happening, ACC expansion beyond 14 at this point is simply unnecessary.

4. It seems as though Boston College has gotten better against the run the last few weeks. Do you think Notre Dame’s running back tandem of Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray will have success on the ground or will Tommy Rees need to put the ball in the air to move the Irish offense?

BC’s D has been better against the run recently, but I think that has much more to do with the quality of the opponent’s rushing offense and less to do with finally putting things together. The Eagles’ defense turned in its best defensive performance against the run last weekend, holding the Wolfpack to 47 rushing yards on 24 carries. The thing is, N.C. State’s rushing offense ranks 111th nationally. Similar story for games against Florida State (127 yards allowed, rushing offense ranks 96th nationally) and Duke (81 yards allowed, run game ranked 113th).

Conversely, the BC run defense has been gashed by Virginia Tech (40 carries, 214 yards), Central Florida (45 carries, 235 yards), Northwestern (54 carries, 227 yards) and Clemson (41 rushes, 180 yards). [Note: Maryland also rushed for 197 yards on 36 carries, but that game was played in terrible weather conditions and all anyone did in that game was run the ball]. A far cry from a rushing D that was best in the nation just a season ago.

Though if the Irish are to have success moving the ball, your best bet is to ask Tommy Rees to beat the Eagles through the air. As un-BC-like as the Eagles rush defense has been, the pass defense has been worse. BC is giving up 241.8 yards in the air this season. The secondary is extremely young and inexperienced, as evidenced by the fact that six of the eight DBs on the Eagles’ two deep are either freshmen or redshirt freshmen. As a unit, they played fairly well last week against N.C. State, but I’d imagine they’ll have a much tougher go of it against a much more balanced Irish offense.

5. Even though Boston College is experiencing a down season, I fully expect to see them throw their best punch at Notre Dame this weekend. Given the fact that BC can’t reach bowl eligibility this season, is it safe to say this weekend is being treated like one?

Back in December, when Spaziani was arbitrarily given a “must maintain appearances on the recruiting trail” contract extension through 2015, I wrote:

“Spaz is 16-10 through two seasons as BC’s head coach, though ultimately he’ll be judged on how his teams fare in ACC play, against Notre Dame and in our bowl games. Though two seasons, Spaz is 9-7 in ACC play, 0-2 against Notre Dame and 1-1 in bowl games (though his one win came as interim head coach in 2006).”

Fast-forward to present, where Spaz is now:

– – 18-18 overall

– – One game under .500 in ACC play (11-12)

– – Still 0-2 (soon to be 0-3) against Notre Dame, and

– – 1-2 in bowl games, with the one win of the “interim” variety

A lot of casual Boston College fans will be tuning in for the first time this Saturday to watch the Notre Dame game. If Spaz again gets embarrassed as we did during the first half of the Florida State Thursday night game, there will be a lot of angry alum come Sunday.

So while BC isn’t playing for bowl eligibility, this week and next (against Miami) are the closest things to bowl games for the Eagles. Add to this the mounting pressure on Spaz, one of two final games for the few seniors on the roster (and Luke Kuechly?) and the whole Holy War aspect of this game and I think it’s a safe assumption that motivation won’t be a factor for the Eagles this weekend.

6. Both schools having coaching staffs in the early stages of their tenures at their respective schools. What is the general consensus among Boston College fans about the job Frank Spaziani is doing and do they feel he is the long term answer on the sidelines for the Eagles?

“Do they feel he is the long term answer on the sidelines for the Eagles?” No, definitely not.

I suppose there is a small minority of fans who are willing to give Spaz another year to try to turn things around with another year with his recruits in the system. This group of fans is quick to point the recruiting failures, the lack of depth and relative inexperience on the current roster, the need for stability at the top and continuity in the coaching staff or simply bad luck in the form of injuries to key players and/or a poo turnover margin.

Each of these rationalizations is easily shot down when you dig a bit deeper.

On recruiting, Spaz was part of the recruiting process in the previous regime, so he can’t just wipe his hands and chalk up the Eagles lack of depth to Jagodzinski and the previous staff. Jags’ recruiting classes also weren’t appreciably worse than Spaz’s. And finally, Spaz retained the services of the Recruiting Coordinator that served under Jags, so clearly he didn’t see anything wrong with how recruiting was going when he took over.

As for the lack of depth / inexperience on the roster, while it’s true BC has been hit hard by the injury bug, it’s not like the Eagles are the only program in the country to have to deal with injuries. It would be one thing if Spaz was playing the injury / inexperience card in year 1. Maybe even year 2. But year 3? C’mon.

7. How do you see Saturday’s game turning out?

Not well for BC. The Eagles may turn in another solid defensive performance this weekend and will clearly be motivated to give Notre Dame its best shot. But I don’t think that will be enough. I think BC will hang with the Irish for 3+ quarters. The BC offense is really only good for 14/game, but I think the Eagles’ D will be opportunistic and capitalize on the turnover-happy Irish offense. They might even get into the end zone.

Still, I don’t think that will be enough to take down the Irish. I see a low-scoring first half – something like 14-7 Notre Dame – before Rees and the Irish passing game score a couple TDs in the third quarter to blow this game open. Final score: Notre Dame 38, Boston College 21.

As expected, Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh decided to leave Palo Alto and accepted the vacant head coaching position for the San Francisco 49ers.   Harbaugh left Stanford after four years for a five year deal worth a reported $25 million.

Harbaugh’s future had been the source of rampant speculation all week with the 49ers, Denver Broncos, and Miami Dolphins have reportedly interested in Harbaugh for their head coaching vacancies.

Earlier in the week it looked like Miami would land Harbaugh’s services.  Reports surfaced earlier today that he might actually stay at Stanford, but in the end Harbaugh went were most expected he would land at the beginning of the week when he accepted the 49ers job.

In his time at Stanford, Harbaugh transformed the Cardinal from a 1-11 laughing stock into a 12-1 Orange Bowl champion. His overall record (29-21) ended up not looking all that impressive on paper, but the reclamation project Harbaugh completed Monday night with Stanford’s 40-12 win over Virginia Tech was pretty remarkable.

In the process Harbaugh acquired a 2-2 record against Notre Dame with wins in back to back seasons including this season’s 37-14 victory in South Bend.

Stanford got some good news on Thursday when Heisman runner up Andrew Luck announced he would be returning for his senior season, but with Harbaugh’s departure Stanford’s prospects for the 2011 season have taken a serious hit.

Based on the work Harbaugh did over the last four years, Stanford should be able to attract a better head coach than say Buddy Teevens or Walt Harris, but it will be extremely difficult, if not near impossible for Stanford to caught lightning in a bottle twice like they did with Harbaugh four years ago.

Notre Dame closes out the 2011 season in Palo Alto next season, and even with Luck coming back, the Cardinal team the Irish face then could look drastically different than the team they faced in South Bend this past December depending on who Stanford hires to replace Harbaugh.

From a recruiting standpoint, Notre Dame may be able to gain from Harbaugh’s decision to opt for the NFL.  Notre Dame, Stanford, and USC are the three finalists for running back/slot wide receiver Amir Carlisle who is set to announce his decision on January 15th.  Carlisle, a Stanford commitment reopened his commitment a while back and is set to make his final decision next weekend.

Whether or not Notre Dame decides to target any other Stanford commitment in the wake of Harbaugh’s departure remains to be seen, but it’s safe to assume that their commitments will be getting calls from other schools.

It’s been apparent for a while that Harbaugh could be leaving so Stanford AD Bob Bowlsby should be prepared for this and it won’t be surprising if he moves fast in finding a replacement.   The longer it takes him to find Harbaugh’s successor, however, the harder it will be for Stanford to hold together their strong recruiting class.

With Harbaugh now gone from Stanford, Notre Dame will face four schools with new head coaches next year with Maryland (Randy Edsall), Pitt (TBD), and Michigan (TBD) being the other three.

Stanford’s Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback surprised a lot of people on Thursday when he announced he will be returning for his senior season.  Luck, widely regarded as the top prospect in the draft, was expected to forgo his senior season by most draft experts.

Stanford's Andrew Luck decided to return for his senior season even though he was projected to be the #1 overall pick in April's NFL Draft. (Photo - Icon SMI)

Luck led Stanford to a 12-1 season including an impressive performance in Stanford’s big win over the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium  in October.  His breakout season included a trip to the Downtown Athletic Club in December and an Orange Bowl MVP performance over Virginia Tech earlier this week.

There was little doubt Luck would have been picked #1 overall had he left.  Reports surfaced this week that the Carolina Panthers, owner’s of the top pick in the draft, had already decided they would select Luck if he chose to leave early.  Those would be the same Carolina Panthers who used a second round pick on former Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen last year.  With Luck returning to Stanford, not only does Clausen get some job security, but he could also get a new weapon to throw to if Carolina opts to select Georgia’s AJ Green.

With Luck returning for another year in Palo Alto, the Notre Dame schedule for 2011 just got a bit more difficult.  The Cardinal was going to have a rough time replacing Luck if he left for the NFL.  The loss of Luck combined with some key offensive line losses, would have forced Stanford to take a big step backwards offensively no matter who their coach is in 2011.

Speaking of Stanford’s head coach, for now Jim Harbaugh is still the head coach at Stanford and one of his potential NFL suitors, the Miami Dolphins, have decided to keep their current head coach Tony Sparano.  The Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers, however, are still reportedly very interested in Harbaugh’s services.

Regardless of who is coaching Stanford next year, Luck returning potentially sets up a great Thanksgiving weekend match-up between the Irish and Cardinal.  After Notre Dame finished the season 4-0, expectations will be raised for 2011 – especially if Michael Floyd decides he wants to return for his senior season like Luck.

It has been normal for Notre Dame-USC games on Thanksgiving weekends to be marquee match-ups, but this year it looks like the Stanford game could fill that void.  That is of course, if Notre Dame plays like they did over the final four games of 2010 throughout the 2011 season.