Matchups: Notre Dame vs. Connecticut
Matt Gamber | Friday, November 20, 2009
Consecutive losses have bursted Jimmy Clausen’s Heisman Trophy bubble, but there is no denying the junior gunslinger remains one of the top passers in the country. For the third consecutive week, Clausen will have both of his top receivers — Golden Tate and Michael Floyd — in action, as the pair will try to become the first in Irish history to each record three straight 100-yard receiving games.
The Huskies secondary is statistically mediocre and, like most teams on the Irish schedule, Connecticut cannot match Notre Dame’s talent at the skill positions. The Irish offensive line should have better luck than it did against Pittsburgh, which should bode well for Clausen and the time he’ll have to stand and deliver from the pocket. Defensive end Lindsey Witten’s 10.5 sacks, however, are some cause for concern.
Still, though, the Notre Dame aerial attack has been curiously quiet early in games recently, so it will be interesting to see whether Charlie Weis opts to fire early or if he’ll repeat last week’s conservative start.
Edge: Notre Dame
Armando Allen returned from injury last week and showed why the Irish ground game missed him so much, as the junior showed speed and power, albeit with limited opportunities (14 carries, 77 yards). Draw plays were especially effective against the aggressive Pittsburgh front. Weis tried to establish the running game early but said he was forced to abandon it as his team fell behind three scores in the second half.
At defensive end opposite Witten is freshman Jesse Joseph, who at 238 pounds could be a target for a power run game — though Weis did praise his athletic ability. The Huskies linebackers are experienced, led by junior strongside backer Scott Lutrus.
Arguably, a lack of commitment has been the biggest roadblock standing in the way of the Irish ground game’s success. With Allen, Robert Hughes and Theo Riddick, Notre Dame has a trio of talented backs who have shown glimpses of explosiveness but generally haven’t received enough carries to take over a game. The game plan will likely once again dictate Notre Dame’s success running the ball.
Edge: Notre Dame
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
The good: David Ruffer made his first career field goal and Tate returned is first career touchdown for a score last week. The bad: Ruffer had an extra point blocked and Eric Maust averaged just 24.8 yards on his five punts.
Weis said Tuesday the punting job would be wide open between Maust and Ben Turk, and it was unknown whether the injured Nick Tausch could resume his normal placekicking duties. With this unit, there’s just too much inconsistency to forecast.
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
Weis said the circumstances of a hostile night game on the road dictated his conservative game plan against Pittsburgh. The Irish will be in the opposite situation Saturday on Senior Day. After two straight losses, and with the memory of last year’s Syracuse loss still fresh, this team could use a spark early in the form of an aggressive passing game downfield. The Irish are most successful when they achieve a pass-run balance, but that has been rare of late. Weis needs to just let his team execute.
Former Irish quarterback Zach Frazer has regained the starting spot he previously lost to Cody Endres, and there’s no doubt he’ll be motivated to beat the team he signed with out of high school. Frazer has a big arm but has thrown seven interceptions compared to four touchdowns, and if the Irish can generate pressure, they should be able to force Frazer into bad decisions.
Connecticut’s receivers aren’t blessed with nearly the size of Pittsburgh’s, though the Huskies do have some playmakers. How much the Huskies throw will likely be determined by the success (or potential lack thereof) of its ground game, which has certainly been its strength this year.
Still, Notre Dame has tended to make average quarterbacks look like All-Americans this season, and Frazer certainly has the talent to do just that. Pressure will ultimately be the key, and a lack of a pass rush doomed the Irish defense against Pittsburgh. Notre Dame will probably surrender yardage, but if it can create turnovers, a la the Boston College victory, it should be able to thwart the Huskies passing attack.
Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon have received almost an identical number of carries this season, and each has had games in which he was the feature back. It was Todman’s turn last week, as he rushed for 162 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries in a near-upset of No. 5 Cincinnati. Todman has three 100-yard games this season, and Dixon has posted four of his own — and in two contests, both went over the century mark. Weis said Tuesday “they’re interchangeable.”
The Huskies are big up front, with four of its five linemen weighing in at more than 315 pounds. That will be a challenge for the Irish front, which played reasonably well against Pittsburgh’s talented rushing attack. But the Notre Dame defense will have to avoid giving up the big play, particularly on the ground. The Irish suffered a pair of highlight-reel, 50-plus-yard runs against the Panthers that ruined an otherwise solid defensive effort. If the Huskies are going to hand Notre Dame its second straight Senior Day loss, it will be because it dominated on the ground.
HUSKIES SPECIAL TEAMS
Dave Teggart is 9-for-16 on field goals, including 7-for-10 from within 40 yards. Desi Cullen has dropped 18 of his 43 punts inside the 20-yard line and averages 43.8 yards per kick.
Weis noted Tuesday that the Huskies gain “hidden yardage” on kick and punt returns. Robbie Frey averages 29.5 yards per kick return and has taken one to the house, and Robert McClain averages 15 yards per punt return and has also returned one for a touchdown.
HUSKIES OFFENSIVE COACHING
Joe Moorhead’s offense relies on the run, and with a quarterback who might be a bit over-excited for his return to Notre Dame Stadium, he’ll almost surely lean on the ground game, at least early. Rushing success and Frazer’s strong arm could cause Jon Tenuta to scale back his blitzes, particularly after seeing some of Pittsburgh’s big plays last Saturday. Notre Dame’s defensive performance will, as always, come down to tackling — which is always a concern.