Always looking to further enlighten our readers not only about our beloved team, but also that of our opponents, I got together with Frank Vitovich over at UHND.com to break down the facets of each team. I sent him my thoughts on the Canes offense, defense, and special teams, along with my thoughts on how the game would go. He, of course, returned the favor. Take a good look, Canes fans, because this game is gonna be good. We hope. Please don't hurt us, Manti.
It wouldn't be Notre Dame football in the Brian Kelly era if there weren't questions under center for the Irish. Kelly and Notre Dame remain committed to breaking in sophomore quarterback Everett Golson, but the first year starter has been pulled at critical junctures in two of the last three games in favor of junior Tommy Rees - Notre Dame's steady but unspectacular veteran signal caller. Rees is a capable quarterback, but lacks the arm strength and speed to be an elite college QB - characteristics that Golson does possess. Golson, however, has experienced growing pains as he transitions from scout team player in 2011 to full time starter in 2012. Having the bye week should help expedite Golson's learning curve, but Miami fans shouldn't be surprised to see Tommy Rees in the game at some point.
Part of the problem for Golson has been a receiving corps that has yet to have someone step up and fill the role of go to guy in the wake of Michael Floyd's graduation and departure to the NFL last spring. Sophomore Davaris Daniels has looked sharp at times, but injuries have slowed him down the last few weeks. The real problem, however, has been getting Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame's All American tight end, the ball enough. Opposing defenses have been keying on #80 and forcing the Irish passing game to go elsewhere. Eifert did come up with the play of the game against Michigan - a 38 yard catch on 3rd and long that allowed Notre Dame to run out the clock - but that was his only catch of the game. Some other names to look for on Saturday are TJ Jones, Roby Toma, and Chris Brown. Freshman Davonte Neal could get into the mix too with Notre Dame having the bye week to possibly work him into the offense more.
Up front the Irish offensive line has played pretty well the last two weeks after a really bad performance against Purdue. The line is still not playing up to it's potential, but it is playing better. Cierre Wood missed Notre Dame's first two games of the season due to suspension and has yet to be fully integrated back into the offense. For the Irish offense to put up enough points to keep its winning streak going this weekend though, #20 is going to need to be prominently featured. He is head and shoulders above the other Irish backs right now even though senior Theo Riddick and sophomore George Atkinson III are both very talented.
I expect Notre Dame to come out running the ball and taking a few shots downfield early to try and soften up the Miami defense. In each of the last two weeks Golson has tried to go deep to Chris Brown very early but missed him both times despite the freshman speedster being open both times. Could the third time be the charm for a duo that has yet to connect?
It has been a long time since Notre Dame has had a defense quite like the one Miami will be facing this weekend. The Irish are allowing a paltry 9 points a game and completely derailed a Heisman campaign for Denard Robinson that was already careening off the road after Michigan's performance against Alabama.
It has all started up front for the Notre Dame defense with the front seven. Sophomore Stephon Tuitt is on the verge of stardom with 6 sacks in 4 games. The Georgia native has been an absolute nightmare for opposing offensive linemen. So far this season no one has been able to slow him down as he has collected a sack in every game. Tuitt's linemate junior nose tackle Louis Nix has been equally disruptive albeit with less sexy stats to show for it. Nix has done exactly what you want your nose tackle in a 3-4 defense to do - eat up space, occupy blockers, and collapse the pocket. Nix is starting to come into his own and growing up a Miami fan should have the Florida native extra amped for this weekend. Keep an eye on true freshman Sheldon Day as well. Day enrolled in the spring and has been impressive for a true freshman picking up 2 sacks in the first four games of his career.
The star of the Irish defense, however, is senior linebacker Manti Te'o. Earlier this season Te'o lost both his grandmother and girlfriend within a 24 hour period and has responded by playing the best football of his career. Te'o picked off Denard Robinson twice in Notre Dame's last game earning multiple player of the week honors (Manti Awards) and landing him on the cover of Sports Illustrated last week (SI Cover). Te'o is the catalyst for the Notre Dame defense and will likely be all over the field again this weekend. Other linebackers to look out for though are junior Prince Shembo who has been a pass rushing specialist all season for the Irish as well as outside linebacker Danny Spond. Spond missed the first two games with injury but since his return against Michigan State, the play of the Irish linebacking corps has been noticeably improved.
If there is a weakness in the Notre Dame defense, it's in the secondary although so far opposing offenses have yet to be able to really exploit it because of the pressure the Irish front has been getting. Starting corners junior Bennett Jackson and true freshman Kei'Varae Russell are both first year starters who converted from the offensive side of the ball - Jackson from wide receiver last year and Russell from receiver this summer upon his arrival to campus. Notre Dame lost it's most experienced defensive back and one if it's team leaders when Jamoris Slaughter was lost for the season to injury (Slaughter Injury) , but sophomore Matthias Farley has filled in very well and senior Zeke Motta has been playing the best football of his career opposite Farley. This is a group that lack experience and can be taken advantage of if Miami can give Morris time to pass. If they are unable to keep Morris upright like Notre Dame's previous four opponents though, the Irish secondary has the skills to hold their own.
Notre Dame's return game has been lacking this year but mainly because of a lack of attempts. George Atkinson III is a dynamic return man, but hasn't had many opportunities due to the defense keeping opposing offenses off the scoreboard. Freshman Davonte Neal looks like he has the chance to be a dynamic punt returner and has had a few moments where it's looked like he had the chance to break one, but just hasn't yet.
In the kicking department, sophomore Kyle Brindza missed his first career field goal attempt, but hasn't missed since and has been very reliable for any distance he has attempted. Brindza has a big leg and is capable of 50+ yard field goals even though his longest attempt on the season is 47 yards - a kick he made with plenty of room to spare. On the punting front, Ben Turk has had some ups and downs, but overall he is having his best season as the Irish punter and has been pinning opposing offenses inside the 20 with good frequency.
This game is going to come down to how many points the Irish offense can score. The Notre Dame defense will more than hold its own although with Miami's speed at the skill positions and Notre Dame's lack of experience in the secondary, I fully expect the Hurricanes to break a couple big plays. Notre Dame's defensive front however has the talent and depth to make up for the occasional big play surrendered, however, by getting after the quarterback.
I expect Notre Dame to try and establish the run early while mixing in some play action to keep Miami honest. Golson has been at his best off the play action and rolling out wide so look for plenty of that early on. I'll be shocked if the Irish staff didn't spend a ton of time this past two weeks finding ways to get Eifert more involved in the offense as well. He is a matchup nightmare for any defense and simply needs to have more passes thrown his way for this offense to start taking steps forward.
The bye week came at a great time for Notre Dame. Three games in a row against physical Big 10 teams had the Irish a little on the mend so the week off should have allowed them to rest up and recharge their batteries. It also should have given Kelly and the Irish staff ample time to reassess what they are doing on offense and find ways to allow Golson to utilize his natural talents more.
Some Notre Dame fans are expecting an easy win for the Irish - as is Vegas with a line of 13 or so points - but I am not one of those fans. The speed of the Miami offense has me concerned because even if the Irish defense bottles up Miami most of the day, it only takes a big play here and there to get some points on the board and put pressure on the Irish offense. Because of the bye week though I do think we'll see the best Notre Dame performance on offense we've seen outside of the 50 point performance against Navy which should lead to an Irish victory - albeit closer than the oddsmakers think.
Notre Dame 24, Miami 17
This is actually one of the more conservative final score guesses that I've seen, which is either an endorsement of Miami's offense, or an over-hyping of our defense. Either way, I hope he's wrong.
As well as the UHND.com site, you can also find more Notre Dame coverage at our SBN site One Foot Down