Pat Leonard | Thursday, November 4, 2004
Notre Dame suffered one of its worst losses in years Oct. 23, and then the Irish rested.
Players nursed mental and physical wounds. Rhema McKnight caught up on sleep during the bye week. And when McKnight and the rest of the team woke, there was the remaining schedule – three opponents with a combined record of 20-3.
“To say we are anxious would be an understatement,” offensive tackle Ryan Harris said.
Notre Dame goes on the road Saturday to begin a three-game attempt at salvaging the 2004 season, beginning with Tennessee (7-1), stopping to host Pittsburgh (5-2) and ending with a trip to Southern Cal (8-0).
But the first stop is Knoxville, in Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium, which seats 104,000-plus fans.
“We’re all ready to go out there and prove ourselves,” Harris said.
“First and foremost to our teammates that we can beat a … top-15, top-five team, and also to other people involved in the program and say ‘Look, this season isn’t over. And we have a great shot to go 8-3.’ “
Though Harris evokes optimism, the Volunteers and USC are two teams that critics will favor heavily over the Irish. But Notre Dame is 23-2 when coming off a bye week, and the positive prospects of beating Tennessee (No. 9 AP/ No. 11 ESPN/USA Today/No. 8 BCS) are obvious.
“We become bowl eligible, for one, and it’s another victory, if we can get it,” McKnight said. “That would give us a lot of momentum going into Pittsburgh.”
Notre Dame is projected bowl eligible at the moment – in the Las Vegas Bowl, facing New Mexico.
The Irish can start to change that Saturday.
Tennessee wins away games. The Volunteers beat now-No. 5 AP Georgia (19-14) and Mississippi (21-17) at their respective venues, and last week Phillip Fulmer’s team dispatched of South Carolina (43-29) out East.
But Tennessee thrives at home.
“We look forward to being back home and having the fans be the 12th man in this football game,” Fulmer said.
The Tennessee band and fans create what many describe as a deafening roar throughout the game, in particular with their version of “Rocky Top,” an old-time Tennessean song.
Irish defensive coordinator Kent Baer was a coach at California when the Bears played at Neyland in 1987, and Baer knows the stadium can be intimidating. But he also has respect for the players on the field.
“They’re a typical SEC, Tennessee-looking football team with great athletic people and tremendous size,” Baer said.
Baer does not use the word ‘typical’ to indicate mediocrity.
Notre Dame is 19-13 all-time against SEC teams, but the Irish are 2-4 overall against Tennessee. And Tennessee’s quick defense and serviceable offense will give the Irish problems – as will the crowd.
“I think when you go into an environment like this, when you know that the crowd noise is going to be a factor, you have to … be focused as a player so that the other stuff is blocked out,” offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick said.
But the outcome of Saturday’s game might have more to do with the coaches.
While coaches call plays and formations from the sidelines, talent on the field is the end cause of a play’s result. But Tennessee players and atmosphere could put more emphasis on the effectiveness of the Notre Dame coordinators’ initial play calling.
“Probably what [crowd noise] does for your system, it probably prevents you from really going in and trying to utilize a lot of checks and whatnot,” Diedrick said. “So you’re probably going to be playing with a lot more locked plays.”
Volunteers linebacker Kevin Burnett is one of 12 semifinalists for the Bednarik Award, presented to the nation’s outstanding collegiate defensive player. Notre Dame’s ‘locked plays’ – plays called by Diedrick and unaltered by quarterback Brady Quinn at the line of scrimmage – will be the only method of beating Burnett (74 tackles) and a defense that surrenders just 21.1 points per game.
On the other side of the ball, the Volunteers spread the field for freshman quarterbacks Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer, though Schaeffer will not play Saturday due to a broken collarbone suffered Saturday against South Carolina.
“They use some personnel groups we haven’t seen much, so that’s going to create some problems,” Baer said. “It does for anybody I’m sure.”
Tennessee relies primarily on its running game behind Gerald Riggs (129 carries, 604 yards, two touchdowns) and Cedric Houston (96 carries, 642 yards, three touchdowns), but Baer and the defensive front have proven they can stop the run.
Baer’s game plan against the pass – and the defensive backfield’s abilities – will receive another test.
“It does make preparation more difficult [because] they really don’t have a go-to-guy,” Baer said. “I think last week they ran the ball so well [that] two guys had two catches and five or six guys had one catch. So they spread [the ball] around a lot. They use three or four wide receivers all the time, and they do a nice job of spreading the football around. You just don’t know who to.”
Wide receiver Tony Brown leads Tennessee with 19 catches, followed by two receivers with 16 catches, one with 14 catches, one with 11 and two with nine catches. Wide receiver Bret Smith leads the Volunteers in receiving touchdowns with five.
“They’re very similar athletically and size-wise to Michigan,” Baer said. “They’ve got a young quarterback like Michigan does. They’ve got great receivers [with] a lot of speed. But I think [where] they’re better than Michigan is their backfield is so strong.”
Both Baer and Diedrick know the nature of Saturday’s game will demand ultimate preparation.
Three and done
Notre Dame does not underestimate the strength of schedule in its final three games. Tennessee and USC have lost one game combined. Though Pittsburgh has played a weak schedule compared to Notre Dame’s, the Panthers did beat Boston College in overtime, 20-17.
The Irish had no such luck.
In order to find for the team to regain its footing, Harris believes he has found the key to ensuring victory over Tennessee.
“Run the ball,” Harris said. “I think [if] you look at the game Tennessee did lose against Auburn, Auburn ran the ball. I don’t how many yards their running backs had, but they ran the ball, and they were physical every play. So that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Auburn gained only 148 rushing yards to 252 pass yards, but the Tigers called 42 running plays to just 23 pass plays. Auburn won, 34-10.
“We’re a veteran offense,” Harris said. “There’s no room for saying that we’re a young offense any more. To make mistakes like the mistakes we’ve made really isn’t acceptable for a veteran offense. And we need to get beyond that, and we need to mature and be able to come back from a bad series, a bad play and perform.”
In this case, Notre Dame seeks to rebound not from a bad series or a bad play, but a bad game. But the Irish are thankful, because they have no need to hire a top ranked opponent to catapult them back towards the end season polls.
Now, there are Volunteers.