We're less than four weeks away from kickoff. It's time for We Never Graduate's Notre Dame and Penn State diehards to start taking a deep look at what's to come this fall. It took a little Two Dudes, One Post, but we've lured Bill out of his hiatus to get his thoughts.
1. Take a look at your team's schedule. As a whole do you see it as tough, easy, or somewhere in the middle? Pick three games that will make or break your season. (Don't make specific predictions--that'll be a later post)
Mattare: This is the third year in a row that we've had a very manageable schedule. We have only three true road games (Michigan State, Boston College, and Southern Cal), Michigan is still down, and a few of our "toss-up games" will be played at home (Stanford, Pitt, Utah). This is a soft schedule by Notre Dame standards, the type dreamed up by Kevin White when he thought ND football had no chance to be relevant again unless we scheduled ourselves to winning seasons. Let us pause for a moment to thank God that he's no longer our athletic director.
Every week of the last two years has seemed as if it was the most important game in school history, which helped push many ND fans (including myself) to age an extra 4-5 years with each heart-stopping finish. A lot of that had to do with the toxic environment that enveloped the Charlie Weis regime after the 3-9 debacle of '07; a win every week became almost an absolute necessity to maintain any semblance of stability within the program. At the very least, year one of the Kelly Era will have a different feel than that which is a welcome change.
The three games I'll identify are Michigan, Boston College, and Southern Cal (with Stanford being a close 4th). Michigan's program is in disarray. The marriage of Rich Rod and the Skunkbears has been a terrible fit from day one and the ice Rodriguez is skating on right now is as thin as it gets. If Notre Dame can throttle them right out of the gate it might send their season into a tailspin that their embattled head coach won't survive. I touched on this last September--any time you have the opportunity to put the nail in the coffin of a rival you need to take advantage of it. We failed to do that last year, we need to do it this year.
The second game is little brother Boston College. The Eagles are a legitimate ACC Atlantic Division contender if they find someone better than Dave Shinskie (the worst QB we saw all of last year...who of course threw for almost 300 yards against us) to lead the offense. Alumni Stadium is an extremely hostile environment and it'll be Dayne's second true road game. There's a reasonable chance the Irish will be undefeated going into that game and if we clear that hurdle we can start talking about something really special.
The final one is of course the Trojans of Southern Cal. Just when you thought they couldn't become any less likable they go and hire Lane Kiffin. By the end of November their depleted roster should be banged up and who knows, there could be a full-throttle mutiny going on after players realize what a weasel Lane is. Their program is hurting right now with the sanctions handed down this spring, but their roster is still stocked with more talent than ND. Whether the Irish enter this game 7-4 or 11-0, if Kelly wins his first showdown with Southern Cal then it will clearly show the Irish are headed in the right direction going into the offseason.
Bill: Our schedule is very tough this year. We play 3 preseason top 10 teams on the road in Alabama, Ohio State and Iowa. The Alabama game could obviously make the season, but it couldn't break it because no one is expecting us to win (including me).
The game against Northwestern on November 6th is an obvious trap game as we should be coming off 3 straight wins and looking ahead to Ohio State, but Northwestern has moved up into the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and they have upset potential. Finally I'll go with Iowa as a season-breaker because this is an opportunity for us to play spoiler and crush their hopes early, man do they deserve it.
2. Both of your teams are replacing a multi-year starter at quarterback. How are you feeling about his potential replacement? How significant will be the drop-off with a new man at the helm of the offense?
Mattare: In the latest IBG I went over my feelings on Dayne Crist at length so jump over there for a full breakdown, but here's a quick synopsis: I feel very good about him being our team leader, but I'm very nervous about his knee and how that will affect him both mentally and physically. There's going to be a drop-off in terms of production with Crist because frankly there's nobody that could step in and totally fill the shoes Clausen left (32 TD's, 4 INT's, pinpoint accuracy, great decision-making, clutch performances).
If Dayne is healthy--and that's a BIG if--then we'll still have a very good offense even without Clausen and Tate. I don't think it has the ridiculously high ceiling that last year's unit had, but if they're more efficient in the red zone then they could actually turn out to be better. Dayne has plenty of toys to play with so if his knee holds up the offense will be dangerous.
Bill: I'm feeling good because the kid (I'm assuming Newsome here, although there have been no hints up to this point) has serious wheels and we have athleticism behind him in the depth chart. I think we need to take a very aggressive ground approach this year and run a lot of QB option. That's the only way I see us being dangerous offensively.
The drop off from Clark will be significant. Say what you want about #17, but he was able to complete routine passes with ease and we almost always beat teams we were supposed to beat with him under center. That's not to be taken for granted, I'm preparing myself for a lot of telepathed interceptions and overthrows. At least they have no game film on Newsome!
3. Sticking with the offensive side of the ball--what do you think is your team's biggest strength and biggest question mark going into the season? Identify an MVP of the offense, a sleeper that will emerge, and an X-Factor (someone who you have serious questions about that could make or break your squad).
Mattare: The biggest strength is our depth, size, and speed at the skill positions. Dayne Crist's acclimation to big-time college football will be made infinitely easier because when he drops back to pass he's going to have big targets (potential All-Americans Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd, Duval Kamara, John Goodman) and fast targets (Shaq Evans, TJ Jones, Theo Riddick). When he hands the ball off it'll be to both burners (Armando Allen, Cierre Wood) and bulls (Jonas Gray, Robert Hughes). I mean look at that collection of talent. It's probably the most loaded we've been since the '92 squad.
The biggest question mark is Dayne's knee. I have driven this into the ground and will continue to do so. Runner-up is the tackle position and who will emerge from the trio of Zach Martin, Matt Romine, and Taylor Dever.
My offensive MVP is Michael Floyd. He's been a man among boys since the first day he stepped on campus and in his third season he's primed to dominate. When he was healthy last year he was absolutely unstoppable. Mark May says Floyd is his sleeper Heisman candidate--tell me if that doesn't say something.
My sleeper is Shaq Evans. He's so fast, so strong, and such a good route runner that he can't help but excel in the spread. With so much attention focused on Floyd and Rudolph don't be surprised to see Shaq emerge as a force. My deep sleeper is Tyler Eifert. His reps may be limited but he's tall with great hands and great body control. He's another player who is lurking under the radar that could be a surprise contributor.
The X-Factor is Dayne Crist. Have I made this point clear yet? The entire season hinges on him and more specifically the health of his knee.
Bill: Our strength is at RB where we're returning two guys that have two seasons of game day experience. Evan Royster is poised to become our all time leading rusher, and while its time to admit that maybe Stephfon Green was overhyped because of a couple nice runs, I'll take him as my back-up any day.
Evan Royster has to be the offensive MVP. Every time the coaching staff switches into "don't lose" mode (every other quarter or so) I see five runs off-tackle in a row coming his way...so yeah, we need him to make us go.
The sleeper is going to be one of our young WRs because we have so much talent there and someone is going to be a first year starter. Justin Brown? The big man has moves and I've been reading that his work ethic is outstanding which is the only way to get on the field at Penn State.
The X-Factor: Quinn Barham, who might be our left tackle again (he took over after the Iowa game last year). We just need him to play better, a good pocket would do wonders for these young quarterbacks' psyche. Keep them upright against Youngstown State at least...please?
4. Penn State tends to field a great defensive squad year in and year out but must replace six starters this season. Notre Dame has nine starters returning but they were all a part of the worst defense in school history last season. How do you see your defensive unit performing this year? Throw out an MVP, someone who is under the radar that will emerge as a major contributor, and a player who will be the X-Factor.
Mattare: We're going to be good. I mean, really good. Far better than 90% of experts and even ND fans think. There are two keys that will determine how high the unit's ceiling will be: whether the thin defensive line holds up and if Harrison Smith re-emerges from the Clifford Jefferson Zone to fulfill the promise he had shown earlier in his career.
Our front three is going to be Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams, and Kapron Lewis-Moore. I feel very good about the ends but Ian worries me a bit. To me he fits in that Pat Kuntz mold of "productive, likable, but doesn't have the chops to be effective against the most elite competition." If Williams can hold up and occupy blockers effectively that will free up a host of playmakers to tee off on opponents.
The linebackers have speed, strength, and more speed. We don't know who's going to emerge from the middle linebacker battle, but we know Darius Fleming, Manti Te'o, and Brian Smith will be out there on opening day while athletic freak of nature Steve Filer will be unleashed 2002 Justin Tuck-style on passing downs. Bob Diaco said recently that the speed and athleticism at every position is phenomenal and that if they can slow down the run on 1st down, creating 2nd and 3rd and long situations, that they're capable of being a truly special outfit.
My vote for MVP of the defense is Manti Te'o. This guy is truly a special talent and already one of the clear-cut team leaders despite the fact he's only entering his sophomore season. It's been a long time since the Irish have fielded such an impressive physical specimen equipped with top-level instincts. My darkhorse is Ethan Johnson, who should really come into his own this season.
An under the radar contributor that I zeroed in on the spring is Jamoris Slaughter. I think he locks down one of the starting safety spots during camp and doesn't let go. He's a "you better think again about coming over the middle if you want to leave in one piece" element that's been missing in our secondary since the days of Deke Cooper and A'Jani Sanders. That style of play combined with the fact that he has already locked down a spot on the all-time Irish defensive name team (others include Michael Stonebreaker, Grant Irons) means he's going to become a fan favorite very quickly.
Lastly, we have the X-Factor: Harrison Smith. I never in a million years thought someone was capable of upsetting me to the degree that Clifford Jefferson used to infuriate me. Hayseed was abysmal in coverage and missed more tackles than anyone I've ever seen in major college football--and that isn't hyperbole or exaggeration, it was literally 3-4 tackles per game.. Smith has been shuttled between safety and linebacker over the course of his time at ND and last year his lack of a true position helped contribute to his confidence spiraling somewhere between 0% and -10,000% of where it needed to be.
Smith is extremely athletic and he had shown flashes of being a good player prior to last season's abomination, but if he can't pull himself out of the deepest of funks then there will be a gaping hole in a potentially rock solid secondary. Should Harrison tap into the potential that many people think is there it should go a long way in solidifying the entire defense.
Bill: Our defense will be stubborn. Pressure applied by the defensive line should keep the secondary from having to cover for too long. Our rotation at linebacker doesn't seem to be determined yet but we have enough depth there that I'm confident the coaches will get the right guys in there.
My pick for MVP goes to defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu. He has been underappreciated for two years now and I expect him to have his best season yet as a senior. He won't put up big numbers but he'll attract attention every day and he is a known commodity on a relatively young defense.
Under the radar is Stephon Morris. He's already earned the #1 CB spot as a sophomore and performed well in the 13 games he played last season. I don't expect him to be shutdown just yet because he is still young, but Tom Bradley obviously loves the kid, and he doesn't miss on corners often.
The X-Factor has to be Gerald Hodges. Everything I read has him "making his way onto the field at some point" but he hasn't earned a starting spot yet. This is a kid who has more athleticism and size than any of our linebackers and I think he could have a huge impact if he makes the leap during training camp. If he doesn't, Chris Colasanti, Nate Stupar, and Michael Mauti will be happy to take his minutes.
5. Most publications have both of your squads pegged as top 25-ish teams that will finish with 8-10 wins and land in mid-level bowls...But what the hell do they know? Their opinions are worthless; right now the facts say your team's record is 0-0 and controls its own destiny. We wrap up with a three part question:
A. Layout a best case scenario--what needs to happen for your team's stars to align and land in the championship game?
B. Try to put into words what the six weeks from the end of the season to the championship would be like if Notre Dame and Penn State were playing for the title.
C. What would you do if your team ran the table and won the title?
A - Dayne's knee needs to be healthy and needs to not miss a snap, Dayne needs to get comfortable with the offense, the offensive line needs to keep Dayne upright, the defense needs to fulfill its potential, and both units need to inflicting themselves with killer, momentum-swinging penalties. Piece of cake, right?
B - Every single day I'd be sending a package to Bill's house. One day it may be the head of the Nittany Lion, one day it may be the head of Joe Paterno, one day it may be the mug shot of whatever starting Penn State defensive end I'd just framed for some crime.
To say our friendship would be riding on the game wouldn't be an enormous stretch. It would be borderline intolerable for the loser to be around the winner probably for the rest of our lives. Frankly, I'd be willing to risk it for a chance to knock off the Nittanys and hoist the BCS Championship Trophy.
C - It'd be the greatest moment of my life. I'd take weeks off of work. When I returned I'd wear a different ND jersey every day until I was eventually fired. My first child would be named Brian Kelly Dayne Floyd Manti Mattare whether it was a boy or girl. I'd construct a Grace Hall-esque #1 to put atop my house and have it lit with Christmas lights for the entire year.
I can barely wrap my mind around how unbelievable it would be. I'm becoming vaclempt. Talk amongst yourselves. I'll give you a topic: Joe Paterno is neither living nor dead. Discuss.
A. Oh, not much. We just have to trot out a 19 year old quarterback making his first road start against the defending national champions who return everyone, beat them, and then focus on Kent State. Oh I forgot--we also have to beat two conference opponents who whooped us last year on the road too. Both of said opponents snapped our offensive line in half so its good that we have... the same exact guys back?
B. Running this situation through my head again and again and there's no way we're friends after that game. The weeks leading up to that game would be long, sleepless, and surreal. Trying to put a word to it: consuming.
C. Run my phone bill up, STRUT, antagonize every Gator fan, and name my kid Joe.
ON TO THE RAPID FIRE FINISH!
Mattare: Lebron handled "The Decision" about as poorly as humanly possible. What's a situation in your life you've handled equally as poorly?
Bill: My first job interview. I asked the interviewer to "hold on" so I could leave and take a 10 minute dump.
Bill: You recently played golf with Mark May and acknowledged that he's not a Notre Dame hater. If he gets on TV and bashes them again this year does that opinion go right out the window?
Mattare: Just because he's a straight-shooter and not an ND hater doesn't mean I won't unleash expletives/pillows/remote controls at the TV screen when he criticizes ND.
Mattare: You're going to have to do a variety of on-demand yoga poses at bars the next time we see each other...have you been working on your flexibility? Are you ready for the downward-facing dog?
Bill: I can't even sit Indian style, but that's not going to stop me from absolutely killing every pose put forth. Get ready girls.
Bill: How much football is too much football? I'm in a video game dynasty, three fantasy leagues, flag football, have the Eagles and Penn State, and recently found time for the Orlando arena team...and I still feel FRESH. Are you going to reach the tipping point this year?
Mattare: How fresh you'll stay is 100% dependent on how PSU and the Birds do. If they take the gas early then you'll burn out quicker than PSU basketball's NCAA tourney hopes.
Mattare: We're a few episodes into the new season of Jersey Shore and the reigning titleholder of "most terrible human being walking this earth," Angelina, has reappeared. What would you say to her if you had five minutes on national TV to just unload?
Bill: "Don't listen to those other guys, you're beautiful and smart and not psychotic at all..." (slowly backing away, very slowly)...
Bill: If you could ice anyone who would it be and how would you do it?
Mattare: After defeating PSU in the national championship game I'd ice you by FedEx-ing a 40 oz Smirnoff that was outfitted in an ND national championship koozy and a bottle-opener that played the Victory March to your place of work.