To preview this weekend's game between the Eagles and the Irish, we traded Q&A with C.W. of Rakes of Mallow, SB Nation's excellent Notre Dame blog. And when we say "excellent," we mean it in the nicest, yet harshest way possible. Let's not forget who we're playing this weekend ...
Our answers to C.W.'s questions are posted over at Rakes of Mallow.
BC Interruption: The Irish offense turned in a pretty miserable performance last Saturday, conceding sacks while having no answer to consistent pressure from the Cardinal’s defensive front. What adjustments do you expect the offense -- and particularly the offensive line -- to make before Saturday’s game against arguably just as good, if not a better, defense than Stanford’s?
Rakes Of Mallow: The Stanford defense got to Notre Dame in two ways. In the first half, it was all pressure, bringing extra guys and knocking quarterback Dayne Crist around. In the second half, after the Irish were looking for the pressure, they started rushing three and dropping eight, which led to more confusion and more sacks. It was an ugly effort all around, but considering this was Crist’s fourth career start, I’m hoping we can chalk this up as a learning opportunity for both him and Brian Kelly. If the Eagles bring pressure, look for Notre Dame to try and get the ball to players like Theo Riddick and T.J. Jones in space. If they sit back, I would guess there would be a focus on the run game, which had some success against the Cardinal in the second half but wasn’t used enough. The offensive line had played well up until last Saturday’s game, so I’m hoping some tweaks in the scheme will keep the offense flowing on Chestnut Hill.
BCI: Last season, the Irish basically couldn’t stop anything on defense. What changes has Kelly implemented on the defensive side of the ball? Have things improved from last season? Who are the key names we’ll hear called on the Irish defense on Saturday?
ROM: The team is definitely tackling better overall, especially when the corners come up in run support. The problem on the defense are what we feared in the preseason, as no one has really stepped up to replaced Kyle McCarthy at safety and outside linebacker is a mix of young, talented guys with no experience and some older guys who have experience not playing particularly well. The names you’re going to hear most often are Manti Te'o and Carlo Calabrese, the two inside linebackers who have been sensational so far this season. Te'o had between nineteen and twenty-one tackles against Stanford, depending on which stats you want to use, and Calabrese has been a very pleasant surprise as his running mate.
You’ll hear their names called a lot, but the name I’m hoping we’re hearing repeatedly is Jamoris Slaughter. A starter at safety before the season, he missed some time with an ankle injury and eased himself in against Stanford. I have a mild obsession with big-play safeties, and I think Slaughter might be able to fill that void in the Irish secondary. Considering the Irish are playing a 3-4, you don’t hear the defensive linemen get their name called too often, but Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore have all put in solid efforts so far this season trying to track down some rather mobile quarterbacks (Marve, Robinson, Luck).
BCI: Going into the season, where would you have ranked the game against Boston College in terms of degree of difficulty on the Irish’s 2010 schedule? Now knowing what you do, through one quarter of the college football season, where do you think this game ranks now?
ROM: In the preseason, I dismissed the USC game from any rankings or predictions I did because I had no idea how they would react to the sanctions or being coached by Lane Kiffin. I considered Boston College among the top tier of games, along with at Michigan State, Stanford at home, Pitt at home and Utah at home.
Knowing what we know now, I’d elevate Stanford considerably, give Michigan the Denard Robinson bump and knock Pitt way down. It’s hard to really form an opinion on BC when the opening slate included a bye week, Weber State and Kent State, but the lack of offense against Virginia Tech would cause me to move them down slightly. However, the road games at night against teams you perennially have difficulty with should never be considered anything less than a major challenge.
BCI: Notre Dame is now 1-3 on the year. What is the current state of the Irish fan base? What is the Brian Kelly approval rating currently at? What would have to happen between now and the end of the year to move the needle on said hypothetical Brian Kelly approval meter?
ROM: The majority of Irish fans are slightly disappointed with a 1-3 start but realize that it’s an incredibly small sample size and this is a long-term rebuilding process. This was a 6-6 team last year carried by Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, neither of whom is on the roster any longer. Some of the louder, more insane Irish fans you’ll find on the internet were calling for Kelly's head and decreeing him a failure after the third game of the season, but they’re a fringe minority who happen to have a large platform to scream their crazy talk.
Kelly's approval rating isn’t as high as it was in the preseason or after Purdue, but there are a bunch of winnable games on the slate he can take care of to move the needle. He needs to make sure all of the gimmes (Western Michigan, Navy, Tulsa, Army) go smoothly, then take care of what looks like a rather weak and banged-up Pitt team. Aiding the cause would be doing something that the Irish haven’t done in a while: win at Boston College and beat Southern Cal. Saturday night’s game is a big one for even the most patient Irish fans, as a loss would mean a four-game losing streak and an inability to beat a team that hasn’t impressed much so far this season.
BCI: Here's a question from one of our readers. Some Boston College fans, especially casual ones, care more about the Notre Dame game than any other game on the Eagles football schedule. How do Irish fans perceive the BC game?
ROM: I consider the Trojans and Wolverines to be the Irish’s two biggest rivals, with Southern Cal Notre Dame’s nemesis and Michigan their archenemy, which Chuck Klosterman explains in detail here. Short version: USC and Notre Dame are comparable to Batman and Joker or Superman and Lex Luthor, as things are always interesting when they tangle and there’s a long, shared history of greatness. As far as Michigan goes, if you name a terrible thing that could happen to a football program, I want it to happen to the Wolverines, only worse. They tried to destroy Notre Dame’s football program a century ago, and things have been on rather poor terms ever since.
After those two, Boston College is in a rather crowded second tier of annual or semi-annual opponents, including Michigan State, Purdue and Navy. I wouldn’t be particularly disheartened if any of them fell off the schedule from time to time (save for Navy, for tradition’s sake), but there’s a lot of history between the schools and the matchups are generally fun and backed by some bad blood. Some Notre Dame fans have the "backup college/Fredo" thing with Boston College, but I’m a Midwest guy and don’t really get that whole weird dynamic New Englanders and some older Notre Dame fans have with you folks. I’m not sure I’ve ever had an extended conversation with a BC alum about the series and considering I’m quite far from Boston, I don’t have to hear about it after Eagles victories.
BCI: Last one. Prediction time. Who you got in this one? What’s the final score?
ROM: I don’t see any way this isn’t ugly, because the Boston College offense has been meh and the Irish are still working on polishing up Kelly’s offense, which is an exercise generally not conducted on an old foe’s field, at night, against a good defense with the pressure of a four-game losing streak on your back. As you mentioned above, normally this game feels like a much bigger for the Eagles than it is for the Irish, but I think Notre Dame is just as motivated if not more so this time around. Let’s say David Ruffer wins this one for the Irish, 16-13.
BCI: Wouldn't be the first time the Holy War comes down to a field goal, and I'm sure it won't be the last time. Thanks for joining us, C.W.