Opponent Preview

Cierre Wood

Opponent preview: Purdue

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This is the second of twelve opponent updates as we sprint towards next Saturday’s opening game in Dublin. For more, check out the preview of Navy.

The Overview:

Forgive Danny Hope if he’s been feeling snake bit. After taking over the Boilermakers program from Joe Tiller, Hope has had to battle a rash of bad injury luck and inconsistent play from his young team, short-circuiting any progress he was hoping for in West Lafayette. But with depth at quarterback, a stout defense, and 15 returning starters, 2012 might be different, and Purdue might be a dark horse candidate to make some noise in a Big Ten that’s shook up with perennial powers Penn State and Ohio State sitting out the postseason.

Last time against the Irish:

Heading into a primetime start in Ross-Ade Stadium, Boilermaker fans were excited to see their lockdown cornerback Ricardo Allen take his shot at Michael Floyd. It didn’t turn out well for Allen, who was beat long and often by Floyd, who had a big day as the Irish rolled to a 38-10 victory over the Boilermakers.

“We got off to a good start obviously on the road against a Big Ten team,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “Getting Mike Floyd the ball early on really gave us a lot of confidence.”

That confidence also wore off on running back Cierre Wood, who had his best game in an Irish uniform, running for 191 yards on 20 carries, including a 55 yard touchdown. Tommy Rees threw for three touchdowns with no picks and the Irish defense shut down the Purdue running game.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Purdue as the eighth toughest game on the schedule.

12.
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10. Navy
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8. Purdue

The Match-up:

It looks like Caleb Terbush has won the quarterback battle heading into the opener, with the senior building off a solid 2011 campaign. He’ll have the protection of an offensive line that returns four starters and a strong running game anchored by Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt. Ralph Bolden is coming back from another ACL tear, making it questionable that the former standout runner will make an impact. Wide receiver Antavian Edison is the big play threat in the Boilermakers passing game, with dynamic return man Raheem Mostert a weapon as well.

The Purdue defense is anchored by Kawann Short, a returning All-Big Ten selection that could be a first round draft pick. He’ll be joined up front by Bruce Gaston (a former Irish target), Ryan Russell, and Brandon Taylor, giving the Boilermakers a stout front four. Linebacker Dwayne Beckford will do his best to replace Joe Holland, and he’s put a December DUI behind him. All-Big Ten cornerback Ricardo Allen is back in the secondary joined by Josh Johnson and Normondo Harris. They are one of the Big Ten’s strongest cornerback trio.

How the Irish will win:

By playing solid football. Personnel wise, Purdue is improved, but the Irish are in another league still, even with Danny Hope building his program consistently. And while the Irish don’t have a great match-up with Purdue’s strengths along the front four and in coverage, neither do the Boilermakers. Running against the Irish isn’t easy, and if Purdue won’t be able to rely on a ground game that was surprisingly sturdy last season.

How the Irish will lose:

Even if it is the home opener, the let down factor is alive and well with Purdue warming up with cupcake Eastern Kentucky while Notre Dame will be battling time zones, jet lag, and cut-blocks on its way back from Dublin. While Tommy Rees will be eligible to play, Everett Golson will likely still be behind center, and he’ll face a tough defensive front and cornerbacks with play-making ability. TerBush has the skills to be dangerous both through the air and on the ground, and a special teams play by Raheem Mostert or some forced turnovers by new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar‘s unit could make this interesting.

Gut Feeling:

September hasn’t been kind to the Irish, but with the ground game humming and Everett Golson getting his legs beneath him, I expect the Irish to be 2-0 heading into their dreaded dates with the state of Michigan.

Opponent Preview: Michigan

Denard Robinson Manti Te'o
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This is the second of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. The first installment was on South Florida.

The Overview:

When Michigan failed to woo favorite son Jim Harbaugh to Ann Arbor after waiting far too long to let go of Rich Rodriguez, athletic director Dave Brandon reached out to San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke, selling the former Michigan assistant’s work as a rebuilder to the Wolverine faithful that bristled at bringing in a coach with a record hovering just below .500.

But Hoke has struck the right chord with those that love the maize and blue, harkening on the days of yesteryear where the Wolverines were known for their smash-mouth football and blue-collar roots, all while scoffing at the idea of rebuilding at his first Big Ten media day. “I don’t think we’re rebuilding. Period. I mean, we’re Michigan.”

While a hot start recruiting has got Michigan fans at a fevered pitch, Hoke’s true test will come when he takes to the field with a team that struggled to stop anyone under Rich Rodriguez, even when a high octane offense powered by Denard Robinson. Hoke has brought in two coaching veterans, Al Borges with him from San Diego and Greg Mattison back from the NFL, to try and install systems that erase the memory of the Rodriguez era. How quickly those changes can take hold on a roster talented but thin will be the running theme of Brady Hoke’s first season.

Last time against the Irish:

In a game that featured three Irish interceptions, three Irish quarterbacks, and a heroic effort by Denard Robinson, the Wolverines withstood a second half comeback by the Irish to beat Notre Dame 28-24. After jumping out of the gates with a picture perfect opening drive, the Irish lost Dayne Crist to blurred vision, and were stuck in neutral on offense for the rest of the first half, save a 37 yard completion in the final seconds of the half. With a first and goal from inside the Michigan five and only three seconds left before halftime, head coach Brian Kelly gambled for the first time as an Irish head coach. His bet backfired, with Nate Montana airmailing his throw into the seats, and the Irish walked into halftime down 21-7, getting nothing from the scoring opportunity.

With Crist back in command after halftime, the Irish scored ten third quarter points to bring the game within a score and with under four minutes to go, Crist hit Kyle Rudolph for a thrilling 95 yard touchdown pass. With the Irish defense needing to get one more stop and escape with a win, they couldn’t do it. Robinson ran and threw the Wolverines down the field on a 12 play drive that ended with a two yard quarterback keeper for the game’s winning touchdown with just under thirty seconds remaining. For the second year in a row, the Irish gave up a game-winning touchdown to a Michigan quarterback.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Michigan as the third toughest opponent on the 2011 schedule.

7. South Florida
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3. Michigan

The Match-up:

After being named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year, Denard Robinson is capable of challenging a defense maybe better than any other player in college football. Robinson threw for over 2,500 yards last season while running for an additional 1,702, carrying the ball 256 times, an incredible amount of wear and tear on a quarterback that’s barely six-feet tall and weighs less than 200 pounds.

While Borges’ pro-style system will keep Robinson in the pocket more than in the past, he’ll likely still be the Wolverine’s most dangerous offensive player. The top three runners on the Michigan roster return and there’s depth along the offensive line as well, led by David Molk. In the passing game, Robinson won’t have Darryl Stonum, who is redshirting this season after the second DUI arrest of his college career, but will have Roy Roundtree, Martavious Odoms and Junior Hemingway returning.

If Hoke’s squad is successful, it’ll be because he and Greg Mattison turn around a defense that returns eight starters. The strength of that unit is along the defensive line, where seniors Mike Martin and Ryan van Bergen lead the front four. The Wolverines will have to replace Jonas Mouton, but they welcome back Kenny Demens at middle linebacker and converted wide receiver Cam Gordon hopes to infuse some athleticism into the linebacking corps.

The real key to the Michigan defense will be solidfying the secondary, a unit that was 112th nationally in 2010. The return of Troy Woolfolk will help, and J.T. Floyd can only play better this season. Anchoring the secondary is Jordan Kovacs, who made 116 tackles last season, not necessarily a good thing. There’s still not a lot of depth here, but at least there’s some experience returning.

How the Irish will win:

Watching this match-up last September, it was clear that Notre Dame’s Achilles heel came back to bite them as soon as Dayne Crist was injured at the end of the first drive. Without Crist, the Irish offense was lost. That doesn’t make up for the dreadful work the Irish did against Denard Robinson in the first half, but even with everything that went wrong, the Irish just needed to stop the Wolverines one last time to pull out a tremendous comeback victory.

As the team’s enter 2011, it feels like the teams are in opposite places. It’s Michigan that’s starting anew, learning new systems and transitioning styles on the fly. With the Irish winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, they’re able to keep Robinson at bay while limiting the Michigan offense’s ability to make big plays through the air.

Also unlike last season, Brian Kelly will get Michael Floyd involved early and often. After being nearly unstoppable against the Wolverines as a sophomore, the Irish failed to get Floyd involved in the game, as the Irish’s best offensive player only touched the ball five times, with two receptions and the bulk of his yards coming on the game’s final drive.

With a crowd that’ll be electric, Notre Dame will do their best to grab the momentum early, and after two years of coming up short, the Irish should have a relative easy time dispatching a Michigan team a year behind the Irish in their renaissance and far less talented. Don’t be surprised if the Irish keep their foot on the gas, taking advantage of a national spotlight to make a statement.

How the Irish will lose:

For all that Rich Rodriguez didn’t do in Ann Arbor, he still beat two Irish teams that were probably better on paper in soul-crushing fashion. In Al Borges and Greg Mattison, Brady Hoke is bringing in two coordinators that’ll take the finesse out of Michigan’s team, while still allowing the athletes they have to make plays. In front of a jacked-up crowd, Michigan will get a few big plays from Robinson early and mix a capable running and passing attack, keeping the Irish off balance and unable to get to Robinson without bringing pressure.

Behind an exotic mix of pressures from Mattison, the Irish offense is kept off balance, with the running game struggling to get on track and the Irish passing attack failing to find any secondary targets after Michigan decides to take away Michael Floyd. In a victory that’ll likely have Desmond Howard, in town for both ESPN’s Game Day and university honors, crowing, Brady Hoke will upset the Irish for his first “signature win.”

Gut Feeling:

I have a hard time seeing the Irish losing this game, even though they’ve managed to do it each of the last two seasons. While Michigan’s offense has some dangerous weapons, I just don’t think the Wolverines will be far enough along to beat Notre Dame, even if it is the first time under the lights in the Big House.

Opponent preview: South Florida

Meineke Car Care Bowl
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This is the first of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. Get ready for a heavy dose of reading as we lead into the September.

The Overview:

The season opener won’t be shy on storylines when Notre Dame welcomes South Florida to South Bend for the first time in the program’s history. With former Irish player and coach Skip Holtz on the sidelines for the Bulls, even casual followers will take notice as Dr. Lou‘s son gets his first chance to lead a team against the family’s favorite team. USF is building off some late season momentum, as the Bulls won five of their last seven games in 2010, capping the season with a bowl victory over Clemson. A Big East darkhorse, Holtz will need to get more from an offense that struggled, while riding a defense that was one of the top 25 in the country last season.

Last time against the Irish:

This is the first time South Florida has played Notre Dame.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I’ve got South Florida ranked as the seventh toughest opponent on the 2011 slate.

The Match-up:

Athletically, B.J. Daniels is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks the Irish will face this year. It’ll be up to Holtz and offensive coordinator Todd Fitch to help Daniels assimilate into the offense better than he did last year, a step back statistically for the redshirt junior. Helping make Daniels more comfortable will be a running game anchored by Demetris Murray and transfer Darrell Scott, the former all-everything five-star recruit who failed to make an impact at Colorado. Auburn transfer Dontae Aycock, who looked like a another power option, walked away from the team in fall camp, making depth in the backfield a question mark, to go along with an offensive line that needs to replace three starters, including two-time All-Big East center Sampson Genus. The passing game will rely on A.J. Love‘s recovery from a torn ACL as well as converted quarterback Evan Landi, the team’s leading returning receiver. Diminutive Lindsey Lamar was the Big East’s special teams player of the year, and will likely spend more time with the offense.

Defensively, the Bulls will need to replace Terrell McClain, an All-Big East defensive tackle that went in the third round of the NFL Draft. They’ll try to do it with speed, as linebackers DeDe Lattimore and Sam Barrington return, as do a plethora of defensive ends with pass rush ability, led by sophomore Ryan Giddins. Anchoring the secondary will be safety Jerrell Young, with upperclassmen Quenton Washington and Kayvon Webster starting at cornerback. Coordinating the unit will be former Marshall head coach Mark Snyder, who spent a long time with former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel at both Ohio State and Youngstown State.

How the Irish will win:

With the Bulls breaking in a new offensive line and the Irish stout against the run, Notre Dame will use the same blueprint they did against Miami, confounding an athletic quarterback and forcing him to make a few big mistakes through the air. If the Irish can jump out front with a few quick scores, forcing USF into a one-dimensional offensive attack doesn’t bode well for Skip Holtz’s squad. Behind a strong defensive performance, and a balanced offensive performance, the Irish should be able to coast to an easy victory.

How the Irish will lose:

It isn’t hard to imagine Skip Holtz getting his team awfully fired up to play in Notre Dame Stadium and awaken a program that many think is a sleeping giant. Special teams ace Lindsey Lamar could break something open in the return game and quarterback B.J. Daniels has the legs to make it a very long day for the Irish defense. The Bulls have speed to burn on defense and if they force the Irish into passing situations they’ll be able to disrupt an Irish offense that needs balance to be successful. If Holtz and the Bulls get off to a quick start, they could shock the Irish, springboarding USF to a season that could end with a BCS appearance.

Gut Feeling:

The wise guys in Las Vegas have Notre Dame a little bit more than a ten-point favorite. That feels about right to me, with the Irish showing a far more explosive offense on opening day than they showed throughout all of 2010.