Thanks to fellow bloggers One Foot Down for writing this week's IBG questions. Let's give it a try...
1. After suffering through back to back heart breaking losses how have your expectations for this season changed? Has the rough start affected your expectations for the Brian Kelly era?
TheNDleprechaun: Not to pat myself on the back too vigorously, but the "realistically optimistic" preseason prediction that I wrote on June 1 seems to be pretty close to what is actually going on this season. Take a look:
While a former Leprechaun may be expected to predict a perfect season every year, I am going to have to temper the enthusiasm of my co-authors a bit with what I deem to be a realistic and cautiously optimistic prediction for the 2010 Fighting Irish. I have no doubt that Crist will emerge as a tremendous leader, but he has a lot to prove as he enters the season with little experience. The arsenal of highly talented weapons at his disposal should help, and I am expecting big things from the likes of Floyd, Rudolph, Allen, and Riddick. I'm looking for the combination of redshirt freshman Cierre Wood and true freshman Tai-ler Jones to provide an extra spark to the offense as well. Defensively, I am banking on a vastly improved defensive line with Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore wreaking havoc on opposing backfields. Our secondary is still suspect due to little depth at safety, but I can feel a breakout year coming from Dan McCarthy as he steps in for his older brother.With the exception of McCarthy who has been hurt by nagging injuries and Floyd who has been plagued by nagging fumbleitis, the players I predicted to step up this year have shown signs of doing so during the first 3 weeks. To answer the question, I maintain my expectation that our rough start will leave us at a respectable 3-3 with a chance to get on a hot streak afterwards. I still stand behind my prediction of a bowl victory and I am not anywhere close to hitting the panic button when it comes to my expectations for the Kelly era. He will lead us back to glory as long as we are patient enough to let him.
Most importantly, the Fighting Irish will have a new leader in Coach Kelly who will make them believe and instill them with a new sense of drive. If the 2010 team can take Kelly's "Irish Creed" to heart, they will do well.
All that being said, first 6 games on our schedule present us with a gauntlet that even the most elite team would have difficulty coming out of unscathed. I am predicting a 3-3 start for the Fighting Irish, who will then go on a tear and finish the regular season at 8-4 before extending the bowl winning streak to 2.
2. Our defense has given up 28 points in both of our last two games. But our defense has also forced a few three and outs and has looked fairly stout out times. So on D, are we Jekyll or Hyde? Or are we just a work in progress?
TheNDleprechaun: The D-Boyz have looked like a steel curtain at times, and a matador's cape at others. "OLE!" They've made several big stops on third downs while our students jangle their keys, but they've also allowed long devastating drives such as the one that cost us the game against the skunkbears (not to mention they made Denard Robinson look like Mike Vick in Madden 2004). I'd like to say we're a work in progress, but I honestly don't think we have all the pieces we need to come up with an acceptable finished product (yet). We simply can't contain outside runs, and our safeties continuously look tired and lost (probably because they are tired and lost). It all comes down to one thing that we painfully lack... speed. I'd put our D-line and interior linebackers up against any team in the nation with confidence, but give me our perimeter defense and I might even lose sleep over Alumni Hall's interhall squad (0-3-1 last year).
3. I've heard that Bill Walsh believed that if he saw a player make one great play, he and his staff could coach that player to consistently make great plays. The Irish offense clearly made some great plays against State. Our Offense also unfortunately disappeared at critical times. Are we just witnessing the process of Kelly and his staff teaching the lads to consistently make great plays?
FightinIrish1313: Against Michigan it seemed like our only successful plays were big, “great” plays to Kyle Rudolph who was wide open down field. Last week the passing offense continued this trend by making Theo look great. It seems that Kelly is working on getting the ball to the guy he really worked on improving in practice during the week, and the one that Dayne was passing to the most. I think that as the weeks go by and Kelly feels more confident in the offense and Dayne proves that he can read through his progressions better the ball will get spread out more, balancing the passing attack, and leaving guys in advantageous one-on-one situations more often. So yes, I believe we are witnessing Kelly and his staff teaching the lads how to make great plays, however, I get the feeling they are doing so one guy at a time.
4. Where would you rank Stanford among the Irish opponents? Would a defeat of the Cardinal be the biggest win of the last six years?
FightinIrish1313: The Cardinal are definitely one of the top three opponents we will be facing this year. Luck is coming off his second 4 passing touchdown performance of the year and also has 2 straight games of over 60 yards rushing; our defense will be tested.
If we pull it off this week will it be considered the biggest win of the past six years? Of that I am not sure. Again, like some of Weis’ “big wins” it’s circumstantial; we have just come off two straight last minute losses and our opponent is coming off of three straight wins, with a tested quarterback and a lot of confidence after defeating us last season and officially ending the Charlie Weis era. It would be a huge win to stop the bleeding of the last two losses, but who knows where Stanford will be ranked if they lose to us and then to the dominant Oregon offense next week. Similar to Michigan during Weis’ first season (where they came in ranked #3, we knocked them off, and they fizzled out) this could be looked at as a non-big win depending on how Stanford’s season plays out, but for now, this is a MUST win game and the biggest game on the schedule for Kelly and the Irish to get their confidence back and to kick ass the rest of the season.
5. While many outsiders and a contingent of fans have cited ND's academic standards as a hindrance to football success, many Irish supporters consider Notre Dame's unique combination of strong academics and big-time football (and faith) as an advantageous niche in the college football world. With stricter admission standards and far-less football notoriety, Harbaugh's Cardinal have burst onto the national recruiting scene to again prove that plenty of really good football players welcome academic challenges as long as they come with a chance to compete at the highest level. Could you foresee sustained excellence by Stanford Football and would you perceive a perennially strong Cardinal program as any kind of a threat to Notre Dame's niche?
tendomer: Stanford can be good at football when it has a good coach. Harbaugh's chippy attitude has been perfect for Stanford, which now expects to win or at least not back down from anybody.
Harbaugh's national recruiting model casts a wider net of offers but is similar to ND's in its aggression and 'best of both worlds' focus on a long-term decision. A 'perennially strong' Stanford would cut into ND's niche in recruiting, but the program isn't there yet. The head-to-head recruiting battles have been ND's so far with a few exceptions, notably Blake Lueders. ND wouldn't really feel ill effects unless Harbaugh stays long term (or it replaces him with another really good coach if he ever leaves for Michigan or the NFL), wins the Pac-10 at least once every 5 years, and Stanford consistently sells out its stadium.
To be clear, the reason Stanford beat ND last year and why it is a threat to do so again has much more to do with the attitude, technique, and discipline that Harbaugh has coached into his players over four years than recruiting, although he has recruited some prep All Americans.
6. Let’s talk statistics. Will they matter this weekend? a. Coming into the game, Stanford has the #3 ranked Scoring Offense nationally (51.67 pts/gm) with the 14th ranked Rushing Offense (242.33 yds/gm). Notre Dame's Scoring Offense ranks 73rd (26.00 pts) with the 99th ranked Rushing Defense (197 yds/gm). Will the Irish be able to contain Stanford's rushing attack?
tendomer: Yes. MSU entered last week with an even stronger ground game, and ND held it under 5 YPC, including the one play (the 56-yarder) that really hurt.
b. Notre Dame's Passing Offense is 8th nationally (318 yds/gm) and Stanford's Passing Efficiency Defense is 3rd nationally (74 yds/gm). Will Stanford be able to contain the Irish passing attack?
tendomer: No. Dayne's improved each game. He'll get his yardage and even touchdowns. Despite how well the OL has protected Dayne, I am more worried in this case about Stanford's pass rush forcing sacks or interceptions.
c. Stanford gave up 170 yds rushing to UCLA and 265 yds rushing to Wake Forest. Notre Dame has averaged 133 yds/gm so far. Do you expect Kelly to utilize the Irish rushing attack more?
tendomer: This isn't an apples-to-apples comparison because the ND average includes subtracted sack and TFL yards and the UCLA (subtract 18) and Wake (subtract 63) totals don't. Kelly will run the ball more than he did against MSU (against whom he claimed he liked the passing matchups) but less than he did against Purdue (where he really relied on Armando to ease in Dayne). Hopefully the ratio will be close to 50%.
d. Stanford is ranked 4th in Red Zone Defense (50%) while the Irish have the 65th ranked Red Zone Offense (82%). Stanford's Red Zone Offense is tied for 1st (100%) in conversions and the Irish Defense's Red Zone conversions allowed is 36th (75%). Will the Irish be able to stop Stanford's RZ conversions and improve theirs? How would you do that?
tendomer: In clutch situations this year, our defense has done well except its final series against Michigan. Although it went to waste, the overtime frame against MSU was probably the best three and out it has forced so far. However, red zone play concerns me against Stanford. Luck's accuracy allows Stanford to pass in the red zone and its power run game is also a staple there. It's a huge area of concern for the Irish. When ND has the ball in the red zone, I'd like to see Kelly run Armando at least on first down before resorting to Rudolph and Floyd.
7. 1-2 is pretty tough to deal with for a football team still trying to find its identity. Meanwhile, Stanford is looking like a well-oiled machine thus far. Do you think this Irish squad can really bounce back from another heart-breaking loss against the Cardinal? What if it's not all that close?
tendomer: I have no doubt that Kelly will have the team ready to bounce back, but I fear Andrew Luck will be a little too much to handle. Jamoris Slaughter's probable return this week will help, especially because it allows Motta to slide back over to nickel. ND will be inspired and desperate for a win, but I'm expecting a close loss in a high-scoring game.