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IBG: Let’s talk Utah

Nov 11, 2010, 1:55 AM EDT

The Irish Blogger Gathering reconvenes after the bye weekend, with Anthony Pilcher of Clashmore Mike supplying the questions.

If you’ve missed this feature throughout the year, you’ll catch up soon enough. AP asks the questions, we’ll do the answering. For a wide variety of answers, check them out here:

1. Notre Dame is 4-5 with three games left in the season. First, are you surprised by the wins and losses so far? And second, given how the Irish have played, what is a realistic expectation for the remainder of the season?

Surprised? Not really. After analyzing, rewatching, and reconsidering how the Irish got where they are, it’s pretty easy to see how they found their way to 4-5. That said, yeah — I pegged the Irish for a much better season, and I was more bullish than just about everyone else out there.

That said, even with the offense missing just about every important skill player this side of Michael Floyd, I think the Irish are going to find a way to win two of the last three games, extending their season and earning some much needed additional practice. If they do end up in a bowl game, this year is a success, especially considering the turmoil and turnover that happened on the offensive side of the ball.

2. A little report card in the spirit of the bye week. What player or position unit has been the biggest surprise of the year and what player/position unit has been the biggest disappointment?

While I’d like to name Carlo Calabrese or David Ruffer as the biggest surprise (Ruffer would run away with this if I didn’t disqualify him for being a kicker), I’m going to give the Z receiver position some respect. While Theo Riddick got off to a slow start, he started to put together a dynamic season before being cut down by injury. With Riddick out with ankle problems, TJ Jones picked up the slack, and has helped to give Irish fans a peek into the post-Michael Floyd future at Notre Dame. Considering that the offense was learning a new system with a newbie quarterback in Dayne Crist, Riddick was learning a brand new position, and Jones was just — well, brand new, the production the Irish have gotten out of the slot has been great.

As for disappointing, the outside linebackers have really been underwhelming. I expected Darius Fleming to have a breakout season, becoming one of the most dynamic players on the field every time the Irish played. While Fleming has shown flashes of brilliance, he’s hardly been the player Notre Dame needed at the hybrid OLB/DE position, and hasn’t become the stalwart that Bob Diaco’s system has produced in the past.

Neither Brian Smith nor Kerry Neal has played great football at the field linebacker position. Too often Neal or Smith found themselves with their eyes in the backfield and contain lost, often times turning a play into a big gain with the Irish outside backers losing leverage on the edge. Steve Filer has once again been a special teams standout, but he’s yet to make a difference in a three down situation, something most Irish fans hoped would happen.

3. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco caught plenty of flack after the debacle against Navy, and rightly so. But his unit bounced back with arguably their best performance of the year against a prolific Tulsa offense. So which version is the real Diaco? Is it the one that had no answer against Navy? Or is the one that had his troops prepared against Tulsa (and most other Irish opponents)?

I’m staying on the Bob Diaco bandwagon until I’m forced to jump off it, just because I’ve been in the room with Diaco and seen first hand the effect he has on players. The loss to Navy was one of his worst Saturdays Diaco has had as a coach, and I’m certain that the Irish coaching staff will learn from their undressing against Navy.

For those already concluding that Diaco is just an overwhelmed assistant not ready for the big stage, take a look back at what veteran coordinator Jon Tenuta did with a defense comprised of the same players, that happened to stay healthy throughout last year.

Diaco only gets one mulligan this year, and he used it against Navy. But the defense has played much better this season, and more importantly, is getting great effort — something that wasn’t a given last year.

4. Off the heals of a near miss against Air Force, Utah was undressed by TCU in their first “real” test of the season. Are the Utes pretenders and does Notre Dame have a shot at winning Saturday? What will be the key matchup(s) next week in South Bend?

I’ll defer to the stats when discussing the schedule Utah has played so far, but the game will be decided by Tommy Rees’ ability to move the ball against Utah’s defense. If Rees can help the Irish move the ball, and avoids some of the killer turnovers that happened last week, then I think the Irish can win this weekend.

Obviously, the Irish don’t have the defense TCU had, but they were given a great blueprint on how to beat the Utes. Notre Dame will need solid defensive play, a competent running game, and a win in the special teams battle. This could be Brian Kelly’s first chance to win a game he shouldn’t with the Irish. If he gets it done with Tommy Rees at the helm, he’ll have earned his keep for the week.