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ND Men’s Soccer: Scaling the Mountaineers

Greg Arbogast | Friday, October 5, 2007

After dispatching of rival Michigan 3-0 Wednesday, No. 3 Notre Dame will try to maintain its undefeated record in conference play and eight-game overall unbeaten streak when No. 21 West Virginia comes to town.

The Irish (7-1-2, 4-0-1 Big East) currently occupy first place in the Big East Blue Division – a half-game ahead of No. 2 Connecticut – while the Mountaineers (6-3-0, 2-2-0) enter Saturday’s game No. 4 in the Blue Division. Given the rankings, Notre Dame senior Ryan Miller expects an inspired West Virginia team to show up.

“We’re No. 3 in the country and No. 1 in the Big East, so that puts a target on us,” Miller said. “They have a lot of pressure on them because they can’t really afford to be losing games at this point.

“The Big East season is coming to a point where you really need to be gripping a position, and we’re standing in their way.”

West Virginia’s defense has been nothing short of a brick wall this season. In their nine games, the Mountaineers have conceded only three goals, and their 0.33 goals-against average is the best in the Big East. Their tough defense will test the Notre Dame offense, which has been shut out only one time in its last 23 games.

Irish coach Bobby Clark attributed West Virginia’s defensive prowess to a combination of tactics and talent.

“They’re fairly cautious, and they keep their back four [defenders] at home plus their defensive central midfielder,” Clark said. “Plus, they’re good players, and the bulk of their players are back from last year.”

West Virginia returns eight starters from last year’s team that finished 15-3-3, but one player that graduated is Zach Johnson, who led West Virginia last season in goals (14) and points (32).

The Mountaineers miss Johnson’s offensive prowess. West Virginia has not scored more than one goal a game this season, and each of its games has finished in either a 1-0 win or 1-0 loss.

“Where [West Virginia] needs to make up ground is their forwards,” Miller said. “They’re returning a really strong squad other than [Johnson], so they’re going to be really tough.”

The Irish, who have been plagued by nagging injuries, will enter Saturday’s game as healthy as they have been all season. Sophomore midfielder Michael Thomas and forward Tamba Samba both returned to the lineup Wednesday against Michigan, and they will be available to play again Saturday.

Senior forward Kurt Martin, who left Notre Dame’s 1-1 overtime tie with Cincinnati Sept. 28 because of an ankle injury, is likely to return Saturday. Junior defender Jack Traynor, who did not play in the second half of Wednesday’s game because of a muscle strain, is also likely to be back on the field Saturday.