With Irish fans still smarting after last week’s loss to Navy, the team and coaches have turned the page to Tulsa, who play Notre Dame for the first time in the program’s history this Saturday. The Golden Hurricane bring in a high-octane offense that’s coming off a bye week and a dominating homecoming performance against Tulane.
With Tulsa knowledge difficult to come by, I turned to the source — the Collegian, the student-run newspaper at Tulsa. Sophomore staff writer John Lepine was kind enough to fill me in on uber-short notice and get us ready for what we can expect out of the Golden Hurricane this weekend.
Inside the Irish: This is Notre Dame’s first meeting with Tulsa, who has secretly put together some scary offensive football teams under head coach Todd Graham. This year’s edition has been putting up points in a hurry. What can we expect Saturday?
John Lepine: If there is one characteristic that has defined TU’s gameplay this past month, it is explosive offense from the first tick of the clock. Tulsa has scored on its first drive in the past four games, and getting that initial momentum and confidence has been making a big difference in the team’s cohesion and success. The players realize what a monumental victory this would be, and they’ll be playing to win. Playmakers like Charles Clay (senior, Halfback) and Damaris Johnson (junior, Wide Receiver) will especially be taking this game seriously, as both of them are close to breaking records. Clay is just two touchdowns from tying the school’s all-purpose TD record, and Johnson needs only 80 more kick return yards to claim the title of most career kick yards in the C-USA.
ITI: The past few years, Notre Dame’s defense has made a habit of giving up career days to opponents. Who is the guy that’s going to potentially haunt the Irish this Saturday?
JL: There are a couple of good candidates for this on Tulsa’s squad. Sophomore Curnelius Arnick and true freshman Marco Nelson both have great stats and will be the twin anchors of the TU line in years to come, but Tanner Antle (senior, Linebacker) has a chance to really make a great game for himself. He’s 6’4”, 228 lbs, and has made 55 tackles already this year. With two sacks, six tackles for loss, and three quarterback hurries so far in the season, he has proven to be one of the key players for putting pressure on the opposing quarterback, which is one area that the defense has to emphasize in this game. If Tulsa is going to win this match, they cannot let Dayne Crist get comfortable, and Tanner Antle has the size and skill to harass him all game long.
ITI: The flip side of that coin is the Golden Hurricane defense. They’re giving up yards by the bushel through the air, but have a tough run defense. Is the passing defense that bad, or are teams shying away from running the ball?
JL: Well, the statistics don’t lie on this one—every opponent the Hurricane has faced this year has averaged more yards per passing attempt than yards per rush. At the same time, I think it would be easy to underestimate the strength Tulsa’s passing defense on the basis of its two most recent losses. TU gave up 574 passing yards to OSU, but the Weeden/Blackmon duo has overwhelmed better teams than Tulsa this year. And though SMU was a lot more effective in its passing game against Tulsa than in its rushing offense, I think that speaks more to the quality of Kyle Padron as a quarterback than the weakness of TU’s defense. So the Hurricane may have a stronger defense on the ground than in the air, but several of the teams TU has played have specialized in passing instead of running, and that changes the way those statistics should be interpreted.
ITI: A lot of coaches say they circle the Notre Dame game on their schedule, but how important is a game in Notre Dame Stadium for Tulsa?
JL: After this game, the Hurricane hosts three conference opponents and heads south to play Houston. Houston beat SMU last week, but lost to Rice the week before, which lost to SMU in early October. The C-USA West Division title is still very much in play, and Tulsa does not want to lose sight of that in face of this game. On the other hand, playing a team as prestigious and storied as Notre Dame is an exciting opportunity for TU. “This game is special, there’s no question,” says Coach Todd Graham. Beating the Fighting Irish “would be something that these kids will be telling their grandkids about.”
ITI: What’s the recipe for beating Notre Dame?
JL: What really doomed Tulsa in the OSU game was a lack of early productivity. TU scored 28 points, but three quarters of those were in the last 20 minutes of the game; OSU was too far ahead for Tulsa to catch up. Keeping pace with Notre Dame from the outset, both by pressuring their quarterback and cracking through their defense, is going to be critical in this game. The Tulsa players cannot let the crowd or the big-game nerves get to them. But if the score at halftime stays more or less balanced, then there’s a chance for G.J. Kinne and that versatile TU offense to get to work.
ITI: What do you see happening this Saturday?
JL: If Tulsa had faced Notre Dame early in the season, the Fighting Irish would likely have gotten the win without too much trouble. But Tulsa is coming off a bye week and a big homecoming blowout, so the energy level is high for this game. The Hurricane has built up a lot of confidence, losing only one of its last five games, and that one by just three points. The four most recent wins were all by more than 25 points. This contest will still be an uphill battle for TU, absolutely, but Notre Dame looks a little vulnerable with a lackluster record of 4-4, and the Tulsa squad has good positioning to try for an upset. Whether or not the Cinderella story has a happy ending is anyone’s guess.
John Lepine is sophomore Economics major at the University of Tulsa, and a staff writer for the Collegian, the student-run campus newspaper. He writes about politics, music, literature, and much more at http://www.ptbruiser.tumblr.com.