By Mark J. Zavodnyik
Alamodome; San Antonio, TX; Saturday, 7:30PM ET, NBC
Notre Dame and Washington State will engage in a battle of passing games when the two teams meet at the Alamodome on Halloween night. NBC will be sure to get plenty of offense in their primetime coverage of the game as neither team defends the pass well.
Washington State head coach Paul Wulff leads a very young Cougar team that has struggled offensively and defensively this year. Wulff has been forced to start his youngest players due to injury and recruiting problems. Washington State’s freshmen have combined for a total of 36 starts this season. Five players who started the season have missed a total of 13 games due to injury.
Clearly a win would be an incredible victory for the Cougars. But beyond that, just a competitive performance against a ranked team in a nationally televised primetime game would be a huge accomplishment for a Washington State program in need of some positive momentum.
Notre Dame continues to play down or up to the level of their opponents. Other than the opener against Nevada, every game in which the Irish have played has come down to the final minutes and has been decided by seven or fewer points.
Notre Dame wants to rise up the rankings. To do so, the Irish need to prove to the pollsters that they have the ability to dominate a team with less talent and experience than their own.
Keys for a Washington State Victory
1. Protect the Quarterback: True freshman Jeff Tuel has emerged as the starting quarterback for the Cougars. Tuel made his debut in Washington State’s 27-6 loss to USC.
He has gotten better with experience, having his best game of the season last week against California throwing for 354 yards and two touchdowns. As a team, the Cougars have been effective throwing the ball this season, averaging 221.14 passing yards per game.
Tuel is the key for Washington State’s offense because the Cougars do not run the ball effectively, ranked 116th in FBS at 72.57 yards per game. Luckily for Washington State, their best offensive weapon is Notre Dame’s weakness. The Irish are allowing their opponents 282.43 yards per contest through the air.
Considering how much Washington State relies on the passing game, the Cougar offensive line needs to do a better job protecting Tuel. Currently Washington State is last in the country in sacks, allowing five per game. This number needs to go down.
Left tackle Tyson Pencer and left guard Zack Williams are two new starters for the Cougar offensive line. Both made their college debut this season. Senior center Kenny Alfred provides leadership up front for the Cougars.
Sophomore wide receiver Jared Karstetter is the team leader in catches with 24. The Notre Dame defense will also need to watch out for junior receiver Johnny Forzani. The Cougar deep threat has touchdown catches of 68 and 99 yards this season.
2. Don’t Lose the Game in the First Quarter: A major reason for Cougars’ struggles this season has been that they have fallen behind so quickly in their games that it becomes impossible to mount a comeback. Washington State has been outscored by their opponents 112-3 in the opening period. Combine first quarter offensive problems with quality defensive opponents like Oregon (19th in total defense) USC (16th), & Arizona State (11th), and it is no wonder the Cougars have struggled to stay competitive.
As this is not a true road game for Washington State, the Cougars could gain some crowd support if they can put points on the board early.
Were Washington States to win the coin toss, Wulff would be smart to take the opening kick and immediately start throwing deep on Notre Dame’s poor pass defense. No better way to get a neutral crowd on your side than to make some exciting plays from the onset.
3. Win the Turnover Battle: On defense, Washington State has proved they have a knack for the take-away. The Cougars are ranked 10th nationally, with 19 forced turnovers on the year. They will have their work cut out for them as Notre Dame has committed just five turnovers this season.
However, if Washington State can get one or two timely turnovers during the game, they will greatly increase their chances of victory. It will be vital for Tuel and the Cougar offense to capitalize on any opportunities provided by Notre Dame.
Keys for a Notre Dame Victory
1. Golden Tate: Sometimes it is just not that complicated. Tate is one of the most dynamic players in the country. He is fourth in the nation in receiving with 121 yards per game, and he is 10th in receptions per game at 7.43. Tate has caught half of quarterback Jimmy Clausen’s 16 touchdown passes.
When receiver Michael Floyd went down with a broken collarbone against Michigan State, there was an assumption that defenses would focus on Tate and do everything in their power to eliminate him as a threat.
Head Coach Charlie Weis has done a great job of combating these efforts by moving Tate around in different formations and even utilizing him in the wildcat offense. Just last week against Boston College Tate set a career record for catches in a game with 11.
Tate’s performances have been so impressive that he is now being mentioned in the Heisman conversation. If Tate and Clausen (second in the nation in passing efficiency) continue their production, it will be very interesting to see which Irish player is deemed to be the catalyst for Notre Dame’s offensive success.
The more the Cougars have to worry about Tate, the more dangerous Notre Dame’s running attack will be in this game. Armando Allen is Notre Dame’s leading rusher on the season with 542 yards on the ground. Allen seems to be running harder than any other point in his Notre Dame career. It would not be a surprise to see Allen break a long touchdown run against the porous Cougar run defense that allows 215.43 rushing yards per game.
2. Figure out how to defend the pass: While the Irish continue to struggle in pass defense, they seem to have shored up their front seven. The team’s rush defense has improved dramatically in their two recent games.
The Irish defense held Southern Cal to 80 yards fewer than their season average. Last week, Notre Dame held Boston College running back Montel Harris to just 38 yards after he gained 264 against NC State the previous week.
Linebacker Manti Te’o has played a key role in the improvement of Notre Dame’s rush defense. The true freshman has an instinctual ability to make plays and to be around the ball like no other defender on the team. Te’o was a major factor in controlling BC’s Harris last week, leading the Irish with seven tackles.
Despite the improvement up front, Notre Dame’s pass defense has regressed as the season has gone along. Productivity from the free safety position has been a problem for the Irish.
Junior Harrison Smith started the season at free safety but his struggles culminated when USC freshman quarterback Matt Barkley threw for 380 yards two weeks ago. Since then Smith was moved to outside linebacker, while Jamoris Slaughter and Sergio Brown were moved to safety to replace Smith.
The changes didn’t seem to matter as Notre Dame allowed Boston College freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie to throw for 279 yards. Prior to last week, Shinskie was averaging 116.4 passing yards per game. As long as Notre Dame continues to give up big plays in the passing game, the Irish will be at risk of losing games in the final moments.
Notre Dame’s offensive weapons will over-match the Cougar defense. Washington State starts too many inexperienced players in key positions to keep pace with the Irish.
Tuel has added a nice spark to the Cougar offense and he will throw for two touchdown passes in the game. But it will not be enough as Notre Dame’s skill players will dominate.
Score: Notre Dame 45, Washington State 17
Notre Dame Sports Information
Thursday, October 29, 2009
By Mark J. Zavodnyik