As a Notre Dame fan you get conditioned for certain reactions. Whether its bemoaning a ranking undeserved or chuckling when the team falls out of preseason favor, the opposition always finds a way to say something that gets under your skin.
The Nevada game is a perfect example.
This season’s Notre Dame story line undoubtedly begins with the schedule. It’s almost as if the universe has collectively agreed that the schedule is markedly easier. Predicting a ten-win season is uniformly attached to the scheduling rationale, as if Notre Dame was the only school to find a mix of teams that deserved mock and ridicule this year.
That’s what has me so worried about Nevada.
If you equated the opening of the football season with the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament, Notre Dame would be a 4 or 5 seed, and Nevada an 11 or 12. Nevada is the perfect upset / trap team. High powered offense, propelled with the least vulnerable asset an underdog can have: a potent running game.
The big stage does funny things to underdogs. In the NCAA tourney, the little engine that could either starts drilling big threes and gets the crowd and momentum behind them, or the rim gets really small, they get run out of the gym, and CBS cuts to a different game. The problem with Nevada from Notre Dame’s perspective is that Nevada’s offensive doesn’t depend on three-point shooting. Its excellence is also the least risky and best suited attack for an upset: a high octane running game.
It’s not as if coach Chris Ault is asking Colin Kaepernick to put the ball in the air 30 times to get Nevada the win. He’s got two (and if you believe Weis, three) running backs that can move the chains and eat the clock. That’s like combining Princeton’s back-door offense with the low post presence of NCAA sleeper Taylor Coppenrath. If the Irish can’t figure out how to stop the run, then this is going to be a very scary afternoon. Add in a 6-foot-6 quarterback that runs like a gazelle and can extend drives with both his legs and his arm, and I’m already getting armpit sweat.
As for the much maligned Nevada defense, if ND can’t figure a way to get a running game established, it’s going to force the Irish to get extremely one-dimensional, which could swing the time-of-possession battle even more into the run-happy Wolf Pack’s favor. And once you let a defense that’s set with two rock-solid pass-rushing defensive ends and cut them loose (and cut them loose against a left tackle that’s been a little nicked up and hasn’t played for a season), that’s got me already having nightmares about how many times I’m going to see the patent-pending Jimmy Clausen-reverse-peel-out-from-the-pocket-14-yard sack.
(Is it hot in here?)
It’s not as if Nevada doesn’t think they can win. I’m sure coach Ault has shown his troops footage of Notre Dame’s opening game last season, the 21-13 escape against a San Diego State that only managed to beat Idaho and UNLV.
And then there’s this from my interview earlier in the week with Juan Lopez of the Nevada school newspaper:
“The entire team, from head coach to ball boy, knows this is the biggest game in Nevada’s history in terms of national exposure. It is not just another game for anybody involved with Nevada. I’ve had guys tell me they’re losing sleep and that the Notre Dame game was used as a recruiting tool to bring them here to Nevada. This is easily the biggest game some of these guys will ever play in.”
It’s starting to feel like Notre Dame isn’t playing Nevada, but lining up against Norman Dale’s Hickory High basketball team, or Tom Brennan’s Vermont hoops team, or Homer Drew’s Valpo team that made a whole bunch of noise back in the day.
In the end, that’s what scares me the most. Take Notre Dame out of this equation, and I like everything about this Nevada team. High octane offense that’s nicknamed after a firearm, a quarterback that’s a freak of nature and who makes you prove your fanhood every time you spell his last name. (K-a-e-p-e-r-n-i-c-k… that’s what two weeks of Nevada prep gets you.)
I’ve always been a sucker for an upset story… But as a Notre Dame fan, I just hope we don’t get one this weekend.