By Mark J. Zavodnyik
An era will likely end when Notre Dame hosts Connecticut on Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium.
It is senior day for Notre Dame and Irish fans will cheer on its fourth and fifth year players for the final time in their home stadium. It is also likely the final home game for quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The junior from Westlake Village, CA is one of the nation’s top signal-callers and a likely first round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Not only that, embattled Irish head coach Charlie Weis could be coaching his last game on the sidelines at Notre Dame Stadium. After suffering the season’s fourth defeat last week against Pittsburgh, the cat calls screaming for Weis’ departure have reached a fever pitch.
On the other side of the field, Connecticut continues to press on through a season that was altered when junior cornerback Jasper Howard was stabbed to death on October 18.
The Huskies have been heroic in their ability to continue to play games while such intense pain and sadness surrounds the program. UConn has played well since Howard’s death, but has just one victory to show for their efforts.
In fact, it has been a season of close calls for head coach Randy Edsall and the Huskies. All five of Connecticut’s losses have come by a combined 15 points.
Keys for a Connecticut Victory
1) Establish the Husky running duo: Edsall’s vision for UConn to be a physical, power running attack came to fruition last year in Donald Brown, who led the nation with more than 2000 rushing yards. Brown went on to be selected in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2009 NFL draft.
This season UConn has two highly effective running backs in sophomore Jordan Todman and redshirt senior Andre Dixon. The Husky rushing duo has been the driving force behind the UConn offense this year. Together they have combined for 1,556 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns.
Todman had his best game of the season two weeks ago against Cincinnati. The sophomore from North Dartmouth, MA rushed for 162 yards on 26 carries and four touchdowns.
UConn will look to utilize Todman and Dixon early in this game in an effort to establish momentum and take pressure off quarterback Zach Frazer. It is important for the Huskies to establish a solid running attack because…
2) Edsall does not want to rely on Frazer: The passing game is merely a secondary option in the Husky offensive attack. UConn does not have the firepower to score a lot of points through the air, so it is important for them to establish a ground game. In their recent offensive shootout against Cincinnati, four of the Huskies’ five touchdowns came via the run game.
Frazer began the season as the starting quarterback but injured his knee against North Carolina. Redshirt sophomore Cody Endres was playing very well in relief of Frazer until he was injured in UConn’s loss to Rutgers on October 31. After the Rutgers game, Endres underwent season-ending surgery on his non-throwing shoulder.
The Huskies do not want to put the game into the hands of Frazer. The redshirt junior from Mechanicsburg, PA has struggled with his accuracy this season, throwing four touchdown passes against seven interceptions in just four games.
Ideally, UConn will establish Todman and Dixon and then allow Frazer to make simple reads on short to intermediate throws.
If Frazer can find some rhythm in the passing game, he will look to the Huskies’ leading receiver Marcus Easley. The senior from Stratford, Conn. has 26 catches for 559 yards and five touchdowns on the season.
Keys for a Notre Dame Victory
1) Remember how to tackle: Notre Dame’s once reliable run defense has vanished.
During the first part of the season, the Irish rush defense did well, holding a number of effective running teams to well below their season average. Nevada is the best rushing team in college football at 353.1 yards per game. Notre Dame held them to just 153 yards on the ground.
A week after Montel Harris of Boston College torched NC State for 264 yards and five touchdowns, the Irish defense held him to just 38 yards.
However, all that has changed in recent weeks. In their last two games to Navy and Pittsburgh, Notre Dame has allowed a combined 584 rushing yards.
The Irish defense has become a cautionary tale of poor tackling. The erratic unit is now allowing its opponents a generous average of 153.2 yards per game on the ground.
It is very difficult to win or even get a lead in a game when the opponent can so easily dictate the tempo on the ground.
If the Notre Dame defense plays like it did against Boston College, they will come close to making UConn one dimensional. Notre Dame has a great chance to win the game if UConn is forced to heavily rely on Frazer.
2) Expose Connecticut’s cornerbacks: The Husky defense is led by a trio of seasoned linebackers: captain Scott Lutrus, Greg Lloyd, and Lawrence Wilson. Wilson and Lloyd are the UConn’s leading tacklers.
However, after the men in the middle, UConn is highly inexperienced defensively. This lack of experience is particularly evident in the secondary.
The Huskies frequently employ a nickel defensive package, utilizing three cornerbacks.
Since the devastating loss of Howard, UConn has been forced to start two freshmen at cornerback.
With such inexperience in the secondary, Notre Dame will look to exploit the mismatch and get the ball as much as possible into the hands of its top-flight receivers Golden Tate & Michael Floyd.
The duo is arguably the best receiving combination in all of college football. Floyd is second on the team in receiving yards despite missing five games with a broken collarbone. Tate has been all-world this season, leading Notre Dame in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. The junior from Hendersonville, TN is averaging 117.2 receiving yards per game, the fourth best average in the nation.
Connecticut is arguably the best 4-5 team in the country. The Huskies play physical football and they get solid production from their two running backs. When facing a talented opponent on the road, a power running game is a great weapon to have in one’s arsenal. (See: UConn @ Cincinnati two weeks ago) The Huskies will rush for more than 150 yards as a team.
However, Notre Dame’s skill players on offense will provide match-up problems that the Huskies will be unable to overcome.
The Irish will build a lead in the third quarter and Frazer’s inconsistency will not allow UConn to mount a comeback. The fact that Frazer returns to the school from which he transferred means he will likely be throwing from a mental state that is never good for a quarterback: He will try to do too much.
Score: Notre Dame 30, Connecticut, 23
Photos Courtesy of UConn Athletic Communications, Notre Dame Sports Information
Friday, November 20, 2009
By Mark J. Zavodnyik