Nov. 4, 2005
By Alan Wasielewski
When Notre Dame returns to action following its second bye week of the year today, the Irish (5-2) will face quite a role reversal with the Tennessee Volunteers (3-4). In the three most recent meetings between these two teams, Tennessee entered the game ranked in the top 10 (No. 4 in 1999, No. 7 in 2001 and No. 9 in 2004). The Irish were ranked just once in those three meetings (No. 24 in 1999). Tennessee ended up with two victories and a close loss in the three-game run.
However, the team’s recent identities have been swapped. Notre Dame enters the contest ranked ninth in the Associate Press top 25, while Tennessee has lost three consecutive games and fallen out of the national rankings for the first time in three years.
One needs only to look at last season’s Irish – Volunteer outcome to see that although Tennessee seems to be reeling, they might pose the biggest defensive threat to the Irish this season.
Notre Dame utilized a tough hard-nosed defense to knock off the Volunteers last season. The Irish entered that contest with a 5-3 record and unranked after a close loss at home to Boston College. Mike Goolsby’s interception return for a touchdown keyed Notre Dame’s upset victory over the ninth-ranked Volunteers.
Such a scenario could play itself out this afternoon. Tennessee falls directly into the identity that the Irish found themselves in last year. A struggling offense coupled with a defense capable of outstanding performances. Even though Notre Dame’s pass defense struggled in `04, the Irish were able to eliminate opposing team’s options in the run game.
Tennessee’s defense has proven formidable this season. The Volunteers are fifth in the nation in rushing defense, 31st in pass efficiency defense, 44th in pass defense and are ranked 12th overall in total defense. This afternoon, Notre Dame will face the most athletic and potent defensive front seven that it has gone up against this season.
Tennessee’s troubles however, have been on offense where it has struggled getting the ball into the end zone. The Volunteers are 108th in the country in scoring (averaging just 16.1 points per game) and their total offense ranking comes in at 99th (315 yards per contest). Tennessee has scored over 20 points just twice this season (in two victories over LSU, 30-27, and Mississippi, 27-10) and have only been able to manage 32 points in the last three games.
Those numbers fall in line with the strength of the Notre Dame defense. While the Irish have given up yardage at an alarming rate (425 yards per game), the team is allowing 25 points per game (ranked right in the middle nationally at 60th). Notre Dame’s defense prides itself on its red zone turnovers, as the Irish have forced opposing teams into seven red zones give-a-ways this season.
Notre Dame’s defense, maligned at times, has but one job this afternoon – get the ball into the hands of Brady Quinn and the Notre Dame offense.
It is not an overstatement to say that the Notre Dame offense is performing at a level that the program has seldom seen. The Irish are averaging 492 yards per game and 340 passing yards per game – statistics that the program has approached just once in 1970 (the Irish finished second in the nation with 510 yards per game that season).
The unsung heroes of Notre Dame’s offensive success this season is the offensive line. Senior Mark LeVoir is one of the line’s leaders from his right tackle spot. As a unit, LeVoir and his teammates on the offensive line are helping the Irish average 492 yards per game (340 passing and 252 rushing).
The list of stars in the Irish offensive lineup is impressive. Quinn is third in the country in total offense, putting up 348 yards per game and he also is ranked eighth in passing efficiency (161.9). The Dublin, Ohio, native has posted 2,352 passing yards this season, needing just 401 yards to break Jarious Jackson’s school-record single-season total of 2,753 in 1999. Quinn is on pace to become Notre Dame’s first single-season 3,000-yard passer. On the career list, Quinn (6,769 yards) is just 833 yards behind Ron Pawls’ all-time mark of 7,602 yards.
And yardage is not the only statistic Quinn has been compiling. He tossed a school-record six touchdowns passes against BYU, breaking his own record of five set against Michigan State earlier this season. He has also thrown at least one touchdown pass in 12 consecutive games (a Notre Dame record) and already owns the single-season touchdown pass record with 20 in 2005.
Two players have benefited from Quinn’s emergence this season. Junior WR Jeff Samardzija and senior WR Maurice Stovall. Each have enjoyed career-best seasons and left an impression on the Irish record book – and there are still four games to be played in the regular season.
Samardzija, who entered the year with 24 career catches for 327 yards, has doubled both those numbers this season. The Valparaiso, Ind., native leads the team with 44 catches for 750 yards and 11 touchdowns. The 11 scores are tied with Derrick Mayes (1994) for the Notre Dame single-season record and Samardzija became the first Irish player to catch at least one touchdown pass in seven consecutive games this season.
Stovall has steadily become just as reliable and explosive as Samardzija in Notre Dame’s offense. After a bit of a slow start, Stovall exploded for 176 receiving yards against Michigan State and has not looked back since. His signature performance of his career so far came the last time Notre Dame took the field at home against BYU. Running a variety of patterns, Stovall torched the Cougars for a school-record 14 catches, 207 yards and took home another school record with four touchdown receptions.
It has become amazing at times to see the transformation of the Irish offensive attack this year. With identical personnel last season (only part-time starter and `05 graduate Ryan Grant is not back this year) the Notre Dame offense averaged just 345 yards per game (rated 80th in the country). The same lineup has turned into a juggernaut with the football. Running, which the Irish did well in the first four games of the season, and passing with ruthless efficiency has become the name of the game in Notre Dame Stadium.
While Quinn, Stovall and Samardzija have earned the team’s fair share of headlines, they could not produce without a solid support staff. Notre Dame’s offensive line, picked apart by critics for its ineffectiveness last season, has become a team strength. Junior left tackle Ryan Harris is enjoying a career year protecting Quinn’s blind side, while a rotation of senior Dan Stephenson, senior Dan Santucci, senior Bob Morton and junior John Sullivan have all turned in steady performances on the interior of the Irish line. On the right side, senior tackle Mark LeVoir has given the team leadership and continuity in addition to dominant performances.
With Notre Dame piling up the passing yardage in its last three games (467 vs. BYU, 264 vs. USC, 468 vs. Purdue), the Irish running backs have been a bit lost in the shuffle. Sophomore Darius Walker is still averaging a respectable 88 yards per game and has emerged as an important figure in Notre Dame’s pass protection. Junior Travis Thomas has been impressive in his appearances as well, running for a touchdown against USC and becoming a stand out on the Irish special teams.
Even as Notre Dame fans have grown confident in the offense’s ability to score points against any opponent, the team’s toughest defensive test enters Notre Dame Stadium today. Although Tennessee might seem to be a disappointment this season with its 3-4 record, the Volunteers are still the same team that was picked in the nation’s top five to begin the season. They are also the same team that plays in possibly the country’s toughest conference (SEC) and is filled with talent from several of the nation’s top recruiting classes.
If last season’s surprising Notre Dame victory in Neyland Stadium proved anything, it is that nothing can be taken for granted when two legendary college football programs meet on the gridiron.