Christopher Wilson from "The Rakes of Mallow" blog which follows Notre Dame Athletics requested that we exchange questions during the week before the big game. What exactly are Rakes of Mallow anyway? Are they good with crackers?
Lets start off with five questions John Berkowitz asked about Notre Dame.
1. QB Jimmy Clausen has been bothered with a nasty turf toe injury. We hear he will start and that just may be gamesmanship on Charlie Weis's part, but how will his injury and lack of mobility effect the Notre Dame game plan on Saturday? Over all are injuries going to be a big challenge to overcome on offense for the Irish on Saturday?
I can assure you that there's no gamesmanship involved with Clausen's status, as the guy has been hobbling around on one leg for the last game and a half. Weis said he's in better shape now than he was at this point last week, but who knows how the week of practice will affect the injury. Back-up Dayne Crist looked competent against Purdue, but we'd obviously rather have Mr. Clausen out there guiding the offense, even at less than a hundred percent. Beyond moving around the pocket to avoid sacks, Weis' offense doesn't require a lot of running from his quarterback, but you'd obviously rather have your signal-caller at full strength instead of dragging his leg around like a useless appendage.
Star wideout Michael Floyd is gone for the season, and has been for the last six quarters, so the Irish are already adjusting to life without him (it is not as good as the life with him). Outside of Clausen, the most important injury variable will be the potential return of tailback Armando Allen, the fifteenth leading rusher in the nation after three games, who missed last Saturday's game but looks likely to return for this weekend's contest.
2. Tell us a little about the Irish running game. We have heard that they have put in the Wildcat to pump up the productivity of the run game. Are the irish having problems running the ball?
I can comfortably say, for the first time in a couple seasons, that the Irish are not having trouble running the ball. Frank Verducci was brought in to fix up an offensive line that had been positively woeful in 2007 and 2008, and so far, so good. Through the first three games, the Wildcat was used as a change of pace to varying degrees of effectiveness (rather blah results on two plays versus Nevada, two red zone touchdowns against Michigan State).
Against Purdue, things got a little desperate, as Armando Allen was unable to play and Jimmy Clausen was limping around on one leg. The Irish moved their number one receiver, Golden Tate, back to his high school position of running back and actually ran some zone read options with the more mobile red-shirt freshman Crist. It seems like Allen should be ready to go for Saturday's game - he was a late scratch at Purdue - which should serve as a big help for the Irish. If he doesn't go, junior Robert Hughes got the majority of the carries against Purdue, with freshman Theo Riddick and sophomore Jonas Gray (who has had a slight fumbling problem in his short career) chipping in.
3. The Irish defense has been giving up a lot of yardage through the air this season. Can you give us a quick rundown on the defense and in particular the secondary?
The front of the defense is very young, and they haven't done a great job with Jon Tenuta's blitzing attack up until this point (as the numbers show). There isn't an overwhelming amount of size, but the majority of the linebackers come with a very high pedigree. Freshman Manti Teo was a surprise commit from Hawaii and has slowly been working his way into the rotation, a monster of an athlete with great instincts who should cause some problems for opposing offenses. The front seven has done a good job of getting to the mobile quarterbacks the Irish have faced - Colin Kaepernick, Tate Forcier - but actually tackling them? That's a different story. As long as The Hurt Locker is capable of an occasional side step, he is going to give the Notre Dame defense nightmares unless they improve their tackling.
The secondary has been the cause of a lot of confusion this season. If you asked any Irish fan what area they were most comfortable with before kickoff against Nevada, I imagine a majority would have gone with the secondary over any other unit, yet they have struggled immensely so far this season. Kyle McCarthy has been great at anchoring the defense from safety, but the corner play from a bunch of highly regarded guys who have performed in the past (Walls, Gray, Blanton, McNeil) has led a lot of Irish backers to wonder if it is the Tenuta scheme that's causing the problem. Regardless of whether it's personnel or scheme, the Irish need to fix it if they want to avoid thrusting every quarterback they play into Heisman contention.
4. There seemed to be a lot of backlash directed at Charlie Weis after the tough Michigan loss. Has the heat toned down a bit after beating Michigan State and Purdue or is he still on the proverbial hot seat?
Charlie Weis is on the hot seat until this season ends, and even after that, there will be some that want his head. Some Irish fans pegged this team for winning eleven or twelve games before the season started, and Charlie will have to grapple with their expectations. I think Charlie is safe and sound at 9-3 and better, but anything below that and who knows. (Of course, the idea of firing a coach that goes 8-4 is hilarious, but what are you going to do? The people want blood, and depending on how the team looks the rest of the season, they may be justified.) With the bye week looming, it could be a long fortnight before Southern Cal for Weis if he can't hold serve at home against your Huskies.
5. You have probably seen Washington play at least once on TV and I know you have seen each Irish game at least five times. I am assuming you are predicting a Notre Dame victory on Saturday. Can you tell us how they are going to go about securing that victory? Are they going to run it down our throats after what happened at Stanford or will it be business as usual from the air?
I'm predicting a Notre Dame win, but the fourteen-point line is patently absurd against a team that outplayed LSU and beat Southern Cal. I'd say the Irish's best chance at victory will be to just focus on the running game, take shots deep when they get the chance and keep Jake Locker off the field as much as possible. I'm nervous that the Huskies played so poorly last week, because if this is to be an up-and-down type of season for the young Huskies, they're now due for the up bump. I imagine that Weis will attempt to establish the running game as much as he can early, and barring stiff opposition from the Huskies front seven, won't take to the air unless absolutely necessary. I'm horrible at predictions and try to avoid making them, but I imagine Notre Dame pulls out the win by a touchdown or so. And take the over, unless one of our defenses gets a lot better before 3:30pm Eastern on Saturday.
Christopher Wilson asks six questions about Washington.
1. Washington had a ton of starters coming back on defense, but have really struggled in stopping the run the last couple games. Would you chalk that up to going against two great running teams in Stanford and Southern Cal, or is the front seven a big point of concern?
We had a poor first quarter defending the USC running game but were able to shut it down to acceptable levels over the next three. I think a key component in that was USC taking themselves out of drives by turning the ball over. If USC plays a relatively clean game they end up beating Washington by 17 points even with the Huskies playing well.
As for the returning starters you have to take into consideration that they comprised the second worst defense in the BCS in 2008. Conditioning, strength, speed, talent level, and coaching were all huge problems while Tyrone Willingham was at Washington. The coaching and conditioning have dramatically improved. The talent level and overall speed can only be fixed by future recruiting classes. We have made some strides in strength over the last eight months but it takes a full 18 months to rebuild a football player from a total strength perspective.
Stanford is a very physical team on both sides of the ball. Jim Harbaugh has had three full years to rebuild this team and it shows. We just couldn't stop them no matter what adjustment we made. Obviously when you give up 320 yards to the Cardinal it is a huge concern for your front seven. Our linebackers are actually pretty good but the front line was simply blocked all night by Stanford. Games are won on the line of scrimmage for the most part and we were hammered on both sides of the ball by Stanford.
2. If there is a weakness for this Irish team, it is the youth up front on defense (although statistically, it's the passing defense - there are a lot of issues on that side of the ball). Is there a running back or running play we should be particularly concerned with containing?
Chris Polk is one of the better running backs in the Pac 10. He has the ability to break big one's but what is impressive is how he continues to get yards after contact. He just carries guys with him for 4-5 yards. We have a brute of a senior FB in Paul Homer. He won't carry the ball much but he is a battering ram from a blocking perspective. Johri Fogerson is Polk's backup and he has broken some big plays making catches out of the backfield this year.
Both Polk, Fogerson, and Homer can catch the ball. Polk had no room to run last week but still picked up 70 or so tough yards carrying guys with him. He is a gamer. QB Jake Locker hasn't been unleashed yet this season as a running threat. He can hurt a team when he turns the corner because he has 4.35 speed and the size of a linebacker. Think Tim Tebow West. He picked up nearly 1000 yards on the ground his freshman season.
3. Reading about the Huskies, it seems like Jake Locker is pretty much the entire offense, considering Washington's ranks in rushing the ball (94th) versus passing (38th) and Number Ten's heavy contributions to both. That plan was working rather well until Saturday night in Stanford, where Locker really struggled. Was there anything the Cardinal did to force that performance, or was it just an off game for a great quarterback? Notre Dame's defense has really struggled this year, but they've already seen some mobile guys with similar skillsets to Locker (Kaepernick, Forcier)
Jake Locker is the best QB in the Pac 10. He has a great arm and until last week thrived in Steve Sarkisian's pro-set offense. This season he is throwing first and running second, under Willingham he would run around 15 designed running plays per game. Under Sarkisian that number is closer to 2-3 and only if needed. They want to keep him healthy because if he goes down the season is over for the Huskies.
On Saturday night Jake simply had an off night and didn't respond well to the pressure even though he had plenty of it against LSU and USC. He had three drive killing turnovers which really threw him and the offense out of sync all night. I would like to credit Stanford but all three were obvious mental errors. When Jake is on his game he is pretty much unstoppable. I think you will see a different Jake Locker in South Bend. No offense to the Irish but from what I have seen of the ND defense it hasn't compared favorably to LSU, USC, and Stanford.
Even with all the running yards we gave up on Saturday our defense only gave up four touchdowns. If our offense had performed minus the turnovers we could have won that game. We just aren't good enough to beat a good team with a minus turnover ratio.
I wouldn't say Jake is the entire offense this year because we have actually gotten some pretty good production out of the running backs. The season is only four games old and we have had a brutal schedule. The balance will show in the stats as the season progresses.
4. Jon Tenuta loves blitzing, almost to a fault at this point in the season. How capable is the Huskies offensive line at protecting Locker?
Our offensive line had exceeded expectations until last Saturday against Stanford. Obviously we are used to handling speed after playing LSU close and beating USC. Our offensive line even though it has exceeded expectations is simply adequate at this point and won't get better until we bring in some better talent.
What is helping the line right now is that they are playing in front of an extremely mobile QB. When your QB runs a sub 4.35 it masks a lot of problems up front. Our running backs are excellent blockers and that helps too. If I was Jon Tenuta I would play UW straight up. When you blitz you are leaving your vulnerable secondary even more vulnerable. Jake has no problem getting around the end for a big gainer if you over run him. He actually has a better arm than Claussen and some very good receivers so if you can't catch him you can get burned by blitzing. UW uses a zone blocking scheme that features the infamous chop block this season. Notre Dame is going to have to adapt to that early.
5. If the Irish decide they want to air it out, how is the Washington secondary? Stanford only threw 14 times against them, and Aaron Corp was totally shut down in his start. I'm curious to know what to expect if Jimmy decides to chuck it deep.
We haven't really been tested by a QB of Jimmy's caliber yet except in practice. Aaron Corp really didn't have a chance and I wouldn't call him an elite QB anyway. LSU's Jordan Jefferson had two big plays for TD's when Washington had coverage errors while blitzing which left a young safety playing his first game on an island. They weren't long throws but LSU's Tolliver is just huge and super fast. So when the lone UW defender failed to stop him he was off to the races. Idaho was probably our best test so far against a QB who will play in the NFL some day. Nathan Enderle carved our secondary up with a lot of mid range stuff. They didn't break anything long but they picked up a lot of yards in front and just right over our LB's.
We know we are improved back there. We know we have made adjustments in personnel and schemes in the secondary that make us a better team. The long ball doesn't worry me. What does worry me is being picked apart on the mid range stuff. If Weis wants to stretch the field long all day I think he is missing out on what has proven to work best against our secondary. Obviously we need to get pressure on Clausen. He doesn't do well against pressure. I think the toe injury might be enough to slow him down considerably.
6. Finally, beyond the obvious advantages of ditching Ty Willingham for a coach with a heartbeat and getting Jake Locker back, what are the differences between this Huskies team and the one that got flattened by the Irish in Seattle this year?
There is a new attitude in Seattle. Coach Sarkisian and his staff our tireless workers and recruiters. They are going to turn this thing around a lot quicker than most people think. This team doesn't quit and the team you faced last year had quit on themselves. Even the coaching staff quit after the fourth game so it was a real mess to clean up.
We may not win on Saturday but your team is going to know that they were in a serious football game. The goal Washington has besides winning this year is gaining the respect of each opponent. I think we have done that so far and it will continue till the end of the season.
Washington is missing some pieces here and there but they are a sound fundamental football team in 2009. That was never the case under Coach Willingham. This team gets better every week and learns from its mistakes. They don't like losing and their is no apathy on the sidelines. Our team is playing with a lot of spirit. These kids are fired up when they hit the field. The difference between Washington 2008 and 2009 is night and day. Most importantly these guys believe right down to the very depth of their very soul that they are going to beat Notre Dame on Saturday. It worked against USC, came close to working against LSU, so why not Notre Dame?
If Notre Dame is going to win on Saturday they are going to have to kick Washington's butt in the trenches. If they don't do that and try to finesse their way through it they will come up on the short end of the stick.