Notre Dame opens the 2009 season Saturday by welcoming Nevada to South Bend. For many this is the “make it or break it” year for head coach Charlie Weis. Two consecutive disappointing campaigns have exhausted all the leniency from the overachieving Irish squads of his first two years.
Weis made several changes in the offseason: he elevated himself to offensive coordinator, installed co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta as the play-caller on defense, and replaced three members of his staff (offensive line, defensive line, and running back coaches).
The changes in offensive and defensive play-calling are nearly certain to be upgrades as Weis and Tenuta are both distinguished play-callers. The Irish seem anxious to put these changes to use.
Nevada comes to town off the heels of a 7-6 2008 campaign. The Wolpack return 16 starters, eight on each side of the ball, including all-world quarterback Colin Kaepernick who leads head coach Chris Ault’s unique, but dangerous pistol offense.
Speaking of the pistol, Nevada’s offense averaged 37.6 points per game (20th ranked), 508.5 yards per game (Fifth ranked), and a gaudy 6.5 yards per play (ranked 13th) in 2008. If that wasn’t enough, Kaepernick became just the fifth quarterback in Division IA (FBS) history to throw for over 2,000 and rush for over 1,000 yards in a single season.
On the year Kaepernick rushed for 1,130 yards at a staggering seven yards per attempt (including sacks). He also completed 54.3 percent of his passes for 2,849 yards at 7.4 yards per attempt and his 13.7 yards per completion indicate the ability of Nevada to stretch the field.
Lining up behind Kaepernick are two more than capable running backs. Vai Taua finished 2008 with 1,567 yards at 6.4 yards per clip while former starter Luke Lippincott sat out 2008 with an injury after gaining 1,453 yards (5.3 per attempt) in 2007.
In other words, the Wolfpack offense is capable of running the ball on just about anyone.
The Nevada defense, on the other hand, is coming off a less than stellar year. The Wolfpack defense allowed 32.8 points per game (99th ranked), about 400 yards per game (91st ranked), and almost six yards per play (95th ranked).
The Wolfpack defense was stout against the run, soft against the pass. Nevada’s defensive unit allowed only 88.6 yards per game (6th ranked) and 3.1 yards per attempt (10th ranked) on the ground while surrendering 311.6 yards per game (119th ranked) and over eight yards per attempt (108th ranked) through the air.
Both the offensive and defensive units were average in third down efficiency. Nevada’s offense was also average in red zone scoring efficiency but had a more than capable red zone defense (19th ranked).
In summary, Nevada has a potent offense, but is susceptible to the pass. Of course this is based on their play in 2008, with 16 returning starters the team coming to South Bend Saturday should have an improved defense and an offense that is every bit as explosive.
So what are the keys to winning for the Irish?
- Use the size advantage. The Irish interior offensive line (Chris Stewart, Eric Olsen and Trevor Robinson) average better than 313 pounds. The interior linemen for Nevada (Chris Slack and Nate Agaiava) average 277.5 pounds. The 35-plus pound weight differential must be exploited. The Irish need to pound the interior of the field with isolation, wham, and other lead running plays, using Armando Allen and newly converted fullback James Aldridge to wear down the Wolfpack defense. Weis must resist calling outside zone, stretch, and other running plays that ask the offensive linemen to beat Nevada’s smaller, quicker defensive linemen to the point of attack. Give the offensive line the angles, gain leverage, and exploit the size difference.
- Put them away early. The worst thing Notre Dame can do is allow Nevada to stay in the game. The Irish need to rid themselves of last season’s red zone woes and score early and often. Weis calling the plays should help, offensive coordinator Mike Haywood’s predictability in 2008 seemed to significantly hamper the ability to score in the red zone. But the Wolfpack defense was stingy inside the 20 last season. This should be a strong test for the Irish.
- It’s called ball control. The Irish offense must do its part to make Nevada one-dimensional. This means keeping the Wolfpack offense off the field. It doesn’t mean Weis must dial-up running plays ad nauseum. Methodical drives with complementary run/pass play-calling and a controlled intermediate passing game will go a long way in determining the outcome of this contest.
- Win first down. In what appears to be the defensive theme of the 2009 season, the Irish must win first down. Keeping Nevada in second and third and long limits play-calling by forcing the Wolfpack offense into obvious passing situations. While Kaepernick is a dangerous dual-threat quarterback, he isn’t terribly efficient, especially when he drops back to throw. To be certain, this will be no easy task. Ault’s pistol offense, Kaepernick, Taua and Lippincott, and a young and inexperienced Irish defensive line will make this the toughest challenge of the day for Notre Dame.
- No mixed feelings. Notre Dame’s Tenuta-led defense needs to bring it, and bring it hard. The Irish looked hesitant far too often in 2008. They cannot afford to do this against a potent Nevada offensive attack predicated on option and read football. Disguise and spacing on blitzes, as well as tight coverage, are needed to shut down the Wolfpack offense.
- Never let it cross the 50. Ault has a penchant for being risky. Nevada has nothing to lose. Kaepernick leads an extremely effective running game. This could translate to four-down series if Nevada crosses midfield. The Irish must win field position to prevent this. Stopping a good running attack is tough enough without the extra down.
While the Irish cannot afford to overlook Nevada, this game is less about scheme and more about attitude and mentality. Schematically, the most important aspect of this game is making Nevada one-dimensional, i.e. forcing Kaepernick to win the game with his arm in obvious passing situations. For the Irish offense this means scoring early and often. For Notre Dame’s defense this means winning first down.
Notre Dame holds a decisive talent advantage in this game, but the Irish have a history of playing down to the level of their competition (see Navy, Air Force 2007, and Syracuse 2008). Additionally, the Irish surrendered double-digit leads three times in 2008 (North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse), making few leads safe.
Hopefully these trends are a thing of the past and the Irish players have learned to resist complacency and close out games during the offseason.