The final edition of our 2011 Opponent Blogger Q&A series features an excellent conversation with the Notre Dame blog One Foot Down. Editor burger23 was kind enough to answer some questions for us about the 2011 Fighting Irish.
TN: Coach Brian Kelly's second season got off to an inauspicious start with two tough losses, but the Irish have since rebounded and finished ranked 13th by Football Outsiders F/+ rankings, an indication that the team is much better than an 8-4 record would lead one to believe. How are Notre Dame fans feeling about Coach Kelly and the 2011 season as well?
OFD: Boy, that's a bit of a loaded question. Really, it depends on who you ask. At a school like Notre Dame, there's always that annoyingly loud part of the fan base that is never happy with anything. And the fact that Kelly hasn't delivered a national championship in his second year means he's "not the right man for the job" and "in over his head" and "small-timey" and so on and so forth.
As for my opinion, I'm happy with the progress Kelly has made. Though this season was a disappointment, I see signs that this team can be really good in a year or two. The defense has made a complete 180 from where it was in 2009, Weis' last year. The offensive line might be the best ND has had since the Holtz days. And Notre Dame is finally running the ball. On top of that, recruiting has been very good, with Kelly completely rebuilding the defensive line from the ground up.
Despite all that, it remains to be seen how far Kelly can take the program. Weis left the program in far worse shape than anyone imagined, so a complete overhaul of the team's attitude and culture was needed. On top of that, the number of injuries to key players over the last two years has been staggering: Dayne Crist, Armando Allen, Kyle Rudolph, Ian Williams, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Braxton Cave, and Jonas Gray all suffered season-ending injuries in either 2010 or 2011. And when you include injuries that caused Ethan Johnson to miss games this year, an injury that sidelined Michael Floyd for one game last year, and a high ankle sprain that has slowed down Manti Te'o for much of this season, the injury bug moves into the "epidemic" category. So I think we still don't know Kelly's ceiling as a coach. The next two years will be critical in determining if he's the coach that makes Notre Dame into a consistent national power again, or if he's a guy that will win 8 to 10 games every year with an occasional BCS bowl thrown in.
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TN: F/+ ranks Notre Dame 22nd in offense and 17th in defense for 2011, lending to opposing fans the perception of a good team that doesn't lean too heavily on one unit. Do these rankings tell the tale for the Irish this year, or do you believe that the strength of the team definitively lies on one side of the football?
OFD: I think the strength of the Irish team lies on the defensive side of the ball. I think the offensive stats might be slightly skewed for a few reasons.
First, Notre Dame was lights-out on offense to start the year. I think a lot of Notre Dame's early opponents (USF, Michigan, Michigan State) didn't really know what to expect from Notre Dame on offense this year. With Dayne Crist at QB in 2010, the Irish were a finesse, spread-to-pass team. When Crist went down and Tommy Rees took over, Kelly put the offense on the back of the running game to take some pressure off of the true freshman. Notre Dame won every game with Rees as the starting quarterback, but the offense hardly lit up the scoreboard. I think many people expected to see them pick up where they left off when Crist went down with Dayne under center again. Instead, the Irish came out running the ball, playing almost smash-mouth football. I think that caught some defensive coordinators off guard and led to big games early on. However, as the season went on, defenses started to figure out how to stop the Irish offense. If they double-teamed Michael Floyd and sold out against the run on first and second down, they could put the Irish in third and long situations and then drop seven or eight into coverage, knowing Tommy Rees can't beat them deep or with his legs. If you compare the Irish offense from the first half of the season to the second half, you see a pretty steady decline.
Second, the Irish put up big numbers against bad teams. The Irish absolutely shredded Navy and Air Force's undersized defenses, and Purdue came out with maybe the worst game plan imaginable. If there's one thing Brian Kelly's offense is good at, it's carpet-bombing bad teams.
At the same time, they've had some issues against the best teams they've played. The defense, meanwhile, has been solid all season. They were the only defense to hold Stanford under 30 points and even after they got gashed on the ground early on, they held USC in check and put the offense in a position to tie the game in the third quarter.
TN: Given these rankings, it's tough to understand how Notre Dame lost some of the games that it did this year (much like Florida State). What were the causal factors in these losses and have the Irish fixed the problems that reared their heads early in the 2011 season?
OFD: Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. The Irish turned the ball over ten times in the two losses against South Florida and Michigan to start the season. Notre Dame could have tied the game against USC in the third quarter, but then... I don't want to talk about it. And ND was never really in the game against Stanford, but could have pulled within a touchdown if not for an Andrew Hendrix interception.
I would like to say the Irish have fixed the problem, but I can't. Notre Dame is sitting at 116th in the country in turnover margin at -13. A lot of the turnovers were the fault of Tommy Rees. The prevailing thought early in the season was that Rees was still growing as a quarterback and a lot of his mistakes would go away, but as the season has worn on, it's become clear that's not happening. Rees continues to force balls into coverage and put the ball on the ground.
Honestly, you could make the argument that quarterback play has been the cause of Notre Dame's four losses. The offense was stagnant in the first half against USF, Rees was overly generous in the red zone against Michigan, and Rees simply couldn't do anything against USC or Stanford. I think turnovers was the number one cause of Notre Dame's struggles this year, but this offense could have been deadly with better quarterback play.
TN: What are Notre Dame's strengths on offense and what will this unit look to do in attacking a very good Seminole defense? Who are the key players that FSU fans should be wary of on Thursday?
OFD: The easy answer is Michael Floyd, but the strength of the Notre Dame offense is along the offensive line, with left tackle Zach Martin the best of the bunch. Running back Cierre Wood has been the beneficiary of the gaping holes the line has produced for him in becoming Notre Dame's first 1,000 yard rusher since 2006.
The Seminole defensive line has certainly been formidable this season, but the Irish need to establish a running game. Tommy Rees simply cannot win this game on his own, so Notre Dame needs to pick up yards on the ground. If the Irish can move the chains running the ball, the play-action game and quick throws to Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert will be hard to stop.
If Rees struggles, expect to see plenty of Andrew Hendrix, who brings a completely different skill set to the quarterback position. The Voodoo Child can move the ball with his legs and has a cannon for an arm, though he's not quite there as far as reading defenses and making proper reads yet. When he's in the game, expect to see some speed options, zone reads, and quarterback draws.
The key players are, of course, Floyd and Eifert, but the aforementioned Cierre Wood and running back Theo Riddick will also be key. Both players are dynamic runners who can make defenders miss in the open field. Both are big play threats every time they touch the ball.
TN: The Florida State offense features an incredibly green offensive line and an injured quarterback. The ‘Noles will likely look to spread the field to get its deep wide receiver corps on the field as much as possible and will use EJ Manuel in the running game despite his injury. How does Notre Dame's defense match-up with the Seminole receivers and how have they fared against mobile quarterbacks this season?
OFD: Though the secondary has been flammable at times this season, I actually like this match-up for Notre Dame. I think the key to this match-up is actually the defensive line. If Notre Dame shuts down the run, they can force the Seminoles into becoming one-dimensional. Notre Dame simply does not give up big plays on defense, so Florida State will need to nickle-and-dime their way down the field. If the Irish are also getting in Manuel's face, chances are he'll make a mistake at some point.
Notre Dame has fared pretty well against mobile quarterbacks this season. BJ Daniels had a decent game against Notre Dame, but the Irish defense held him relatively in check. Notre Dame absolutely shut down Denard Robinson through three quarters (Michigan had less than 100 yards of total offense going into the fourth quarter) before imploding in the fourth. Caleb Ter-Bush of Purdue couldn't really do anything against the Irish. Notre Dame faced Tim Jefferson of Air Force and Trey Miller of Navy, and ND shut down both teams' option offenses. Notre Dame also went up against Josh Bordner of Boston College and CJ Brown of Maryland, but neither played significant roles in their team's games against Notre Dame.
Notre Dame did have some issues keeping contain against less mobile quarterbacks. Matt Barkley and Andrew Luck both converted big third downs on the ground when the defense broke down. I think Notre Dame will do a pretty good job of shutting down the designed quarterback runs, but I worry about Manuel picking up yards when plays break down. The Irish defensive line is young and has a habit of over-committing.
TN: In what looks to be a low-scoring affair, special teams will play an important role in deciding the outcome. Tell us a little about Notre Dame's group and how you see them impacting this contest.
OFD: Notre Dame's special teams have been good but not great. David Ruffer, Notre Dame's kicker, got off to a slow start this season but seems to have regained his form and is a reliable field goal kicker. Ben Turk's punting was very inconsistent early in the season but has been better of late. He's not the type of punter who will down punts inside the five, but he's serviceable. Kickoff returns have been solid. True freshman George Atkinson III is always a threat to take one to the house with two returns for touchdowns this season. Coverage on both punts and kickoffs has been good with a few lapses here or there, but nothing concerning. The big weakness has been punt returns. Notre Dame has exactly three total return yards on ten returns this season. That is not a typo. Three. Yards. Total. The Irish, for whatever reason, cannot block on punt returns and the return game has devolved into an endless series of fair catches. So I wouldn't worry too much when you see John Goodman trot out to return punts.
As for how special teams may affect the game, I definitely think the advantage is certainly on Florida State's side. Special teams killed Notre Dame against Boston College. Notre Dame should have won that game by two or three touchdowns, but Boston College's punter downed SIX punts inside the ten yard line. Starting field position was horrible all game and the Irish just couldn't break through and flip the field. I think both teams are evenly matched enough that field position could be a determining factor in this game.
TN: How important is this game to Notre Dame's football program in moving forward into the 2012 season? Do you have a score prediction?
OFD: I hate to put a lot of emphasis on one game, but it's hard to deny that this game is huge for Notre Dame. A win in this game could be the difference between pulling in some big time recruits and seeing them go elsewhere. If Notre Dame doesn't win the Sun Bowl last season against Miami, there's a good chance Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams, and Troy Niklas are not playing for Notre Dame. A win in the Champs Sports Bowl could go a long way towards building upon the foundation laid in recruiting last season.
As for the game, I have a feeling it's going to be ugly. Both teams are strong on defense, which does not bode well for two offenses that struggle to move the ball at times. I think Notre Dame's offense is better overall, but who knows what we'll see from Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix, and while Florida State's offensive line has been porous, EJ Manuel is a quarterback that can make plays by himself. I think Florida State's defense is better, but I like Notre Dame's ability to play bend-but-don't-break against FSU's offense.
I make it no secret that I'm an unabashed homer, but I have a hard time giving Notre Dame better than 50-50 odds at winning this game. I think Notre Dame and Florida State are very evenly matched. The one area where Notre Dame has a clear advantage is the defensive line against Florida State's very very very young offensive line. Quarterback play is a huge question mark for the Irish, but if Notre Dame can just get decent play out of whoever takes the majority of snaps under center, I think the Irish offense can do enough to win the game as long as they don't lose the turnover battle or give up big plays on special teams (I know, two big "ifs").
I'll take the Irish winning 16-13 in an ugly game with lots of field goals and punts. I'll put the over/under of total combined offensive yards of both teams at 650, and that might be generous.
Thanks to One Foot Down for their bountiful insight! Our answers to their questions will be up in the morning.