07 Sep 2005
by Russell Levine
Notre Dame is one of those athletic institutions about which there is no middle ground. Like other teams of this ilk -- the Yankees, Duke in college basketball, and European soccer's Manchester United -- the Fighting Irish arouse passions of one extreme or another in just about every college football fan. But regardless of whether it's love or hate, one thing is certain: Their respective sports are more interesting any time these juggernauts are prominently involved.
And it appears, after Saturday night's thrashing of No. 23 Pitt, that Notre Dame could be prominently involved in this college football season. Obligatory cautions about its only being one game in a long season aside, the Irish surprised many with their offensive efficiency under new coach Charlie Weis in the 41â€“21 win. With 227 yards through the air and 275 more on the ground, Weis's offense put on a three-hour display of nearly flawless offensive execution -- one that was eerily reminiscent of the last offense Weis directed: the dynastic New England Patriots.
Notre Dame's nearly suicidal 2005 schedule -- which includes dates with Purdue, USC, Washington, and Tennessee -- prompted many observers to proclaim the Irish could begin the season 1â€“5 or even 0â€“6. Instead, many are now predicting that the Irish can beat anyone they play, starting this Saturday at No. 4 Michigan (12 p.m. ET, ABC).
Michigan certainly appears vulnerable enough to Notre Dame, especially after surrendering 211 rushing yards to Northern Illinois in a 33â€“17 win in its opener on Saturday. Michigan-Notre Dame is a rivalry that has produced many grind-it-out, close-to-the-vest games, but this year's renewal has the makings of an offensive shootout more appropriate for BYU-San Diego State, circa 1991.
The Wolverines may, in fact, be even more explosive this season than last. The offense appears to have recovered from the departure of receiver Braylon Edwards, who's been replaced efficiently -- if not quite as spectacularly -- in the lineup by senior Jason Avant. A steady rushing attack with sophomore Mike Hart has been augmented by freshman Kevin Grady, who's a home-run threat in his own right. Sophomore quarterback Chad Henne is a year older and showed veteran poise in the pocket, although it should be noted that the Northern Illinois defenders rarely got close enough to Henne to disrupt his timing.
The vulnerabilities of both teams were on the defense. Not only did Michigan get gashed for the aforementioned rushing yardage, but the Wolverines allowed NIU to sustain several long drives that were halted only by turnovers. Michigan also displayed poor tackling and incorrect pursuit angles, particularly in its secondary. The performance was bad enough for legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler to call the tackling â€œatrociousâ€? and warn against anyone calling Michigan favorites for the Big Ten conference crown, much less national-title contenders.
Notre Dame, whose pass defense was one of the worst in the nation last season, had more success against Pitt, but still showed vulnerability to the pass. Panthers quarterback Tyler Palko led his team to an opening-drive touchdown, hitting receiver Greg Lee for a 39-yard score when Lee ran untouched up the seam of the Notre Dame defense.
It's always dangerous to read too much into the results of any one game, particularly a season-opener when the relative strength of the opponent is unknown, but it's clear that Notre Dame will be a more competitive, competent team than it was a year ago. How many wins that will translate into remains to be seen. But the Irish showed enough in their opening win to earn the national spotlight for another week.
This weekend's results may make Michigan-Notre Dame a more attractive matchup than otherwise thought, but it will be no better than the second most watched game of the coming weekend. The top matchup, of course, will be Texas at Ohio State (8 p.m. ET, ABC) in perhaps the most anticipated inter-conference game since Florida State-Notre Dame in 1993.
Neither team did anything to dim expectations in their openers against overmatched opponents this weekend. Ohio State was never threatened in a 34â€“14 win over Miami (Ohio), in which it flashed the playmaking ability of Ted Ginn Jr., who had five catches for 75 yards, including a 42-yard score. Texas, meanwhile, laid a 60â€“3 pasting on Louisiana-Lafayette as quarterback Vince Young threw for three scores and ran for another.
Young's passing ability will be key against the Buckeyes. As a scrambler, he's nearly the caliber of Michael Vick, but Ohio State's linebackers are as fast as any in the country and should be able to contain him enough to force the pass. Ohio State's quarterback(s) will also be a focal point -- Justin Zwick, starting in place of the suspended Troy Smith, was an efficient 17-of-23 against Miami and may have done enough to earn the start this week, even as Smith returns.
The season's opening weekend provided only one upset of note, but it was a significant one as No. 7 Oklahoma, a participant in the last two BCS national title games, fell to Texas Christian in its first home loss since 2001. The game made clear that while Oklahoma had 11 players selected in the 2005 draft, it was the loss of an undrafted player, quarterback Jason White, that will have the biggest impact on the Sooners' season. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops attempted to replace him with two passers against TCU, but neither Paul Thompson nor Rhett Bomar could move the Sooners effectively in the 17â€“10 loss, especially after standout tailback Adrian Peterson was slowed by an ankle injury.
If the performance is at all indicative of the kind of team Oklahoma will have this season, Texas will likely waltz all the way to the national-title game if it can get past Ohio State. The Longhorns have beaten virtually everyone but Oklahoma in recent seasons, and this seems more and more like the year they finally prevail in the Red River Shootout.
It also appears after just one week that it's unlikely any team from a non-BCS league will reach a BCS bowl game, as Utah did last year out of the Mountain West Conference. Utah barely won its opener over Arizona and looked nothing like the dominating team of a year ago. Louisville, which nearly duplicated the feat last year in Conference-USA, has moved on to the Big East this season. And another perceived interloper, Boise State, was embarrassed at Georgia, 48â€“13, in a result that will no doubt harm the reputation of any of the so-called "mid majors" that attempt to crash the BCS party this season.
The readers have spoken and the award's name shall remain unchanged for another year. There was much gnashing of teeth over the decision of Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione to kick an extra point when his team took a one-point lead over Clemson with about 10 minutes to play, but I think it was the correct call. Even though A&M ended up losing by one on a field goal, with that much time to play there was still time for more scoring by either team. Especially with the lead, I don't like teams going for two in that spot.
Instead, this week's Martz Award goes to Arizona coach Mike Stoops. His Wildcats had a chance to upset Utah on the road, but trailing by three and faced with a fourth-and-five on the Utah 43 with less than four minutes to play and only one timeout, Stoops elected to punt. By the time his team got the ball back, it was buried deep in its own territory with under 30 seconds to play, and lost. Did Stoops honestly think he was going to get a better chance than the fourth-down play to put his team in position to win? That's over-coaching and it cost his kids their best shot at the win.
This year, I am taking part in something called the BlogPoll, hosted by mgoblog. Each week, I will post my ballot in this column.
(last week's ranking in parentheses)
1. Southern Cal (1) -- Defense has some soft spots, but that was a preseason game for them.
2. Texas (3) -â€“ Not that UL-Lafayette proves anything.
3. Louisiana State (2) -- Hate to drop them because of Katrina uncertainties, but this is going to be a more trying year than first appeared.
4. Georgia (12) -- Very nicely done, gentlemen.
5. Virginia Tech (6) -- Jury's still out on Vick.
6. Ohio State (10) -- Something tells me they'll be swapping plaeces with Texas next week.
7. Tennessee (5) -- Go with Claussen, Phil.
8. Michigan (8) -- Judgement is reserved until I see Darius Walker's yardage total Saturday.
9. Iowa (11) -- Can't really learn much when Ball State plays its JV.
10. Florida (9) -- Ragged, but the athletes are there.
11. Miami (Florida) (7) -- Based on Monday, I think they're a better team than FSU.
12. Florida State (18) -- That passing attack could mean three losses.
13. Louisville (15) -- That's your mulligan, fellas.
14. Notre Dame (NR) -- Very impressive, Mr. Weis.
15. Cal (16) -- Tough break (literally).
16. Oklahoma (4) -- Seems like a decent landing spot, could be temporary.
17. Georgia Tech (NR) -- Auburn win will look better as the year goes on.
18. Clemson (NR) -- Might be saying the same thing about their win over A&M.
19. Purdue (19) -- No data to go on.
20. Texas A&M (14) -- Just because kicking the XP didn't work out doesn't make it the wrong call.
21. Arizona State (22) -- Getting LSU at home is a huge break.
22. Auburn (13) -- OK, so maybe the losses on O will make a huge difference.
23. Virginia (21) -- Not impressed with effort vs. Broncos
24. Texas Tech (20) -- Victims of a Week One DNP
25. Fresno State (23) -- See above.
Dropped out: Boise State (17), Pittsburgh (24), Bowling Green (25).
Games I watched: Bowling Green-Wisconsin, NIU-Michigan, Miami-FSU, parts of Oregon-Houston, UCF-South Carolina, Minnesota-Tulsa, Arizona-Utah, TCU-Oklahoma, Rutgers-Illinois, Boise St.-Georgia, Maryland-Navy, USC-Hawaii, Texas A&M-Clemson, Georgia Tech-Auburn, VaTech-N.C. State.
Portions of this column ran in Monday's New York Sun
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