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Notre Dame vs. Washington: Keys to an Irish Win

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Notre Dame vs. Washington: Keys to an Irish Win

Notre Dame begins a three game homestand against the Washington Huskies this weekend. Coming off consecutive last-minute victories and laden with injuries to key personnel, the Irish need a convincing win to build confidence and the subsequent bye week to nurse the wounded.

Washington enters the game with victories against Idaho and mighty USC, a close loss to LSU, and a rather one-sided defeat at the hands of Stanford. The Huskies have played inconsistently at times, showing that the rebuilding effort is still a work in progress, but are certainly nothing like the winless squad the Irish faced last season.

Head coach Steve Sarkisian and assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Nick Holt certainly have the Huskies pointed in the right direction. The team plays with a decidedly different attitude from the recent past and is certainly capable of the upset in South Bend.

On offense the Irish will need a concerted effort to defeat the visitors, particularly if quarterback Jimmy Clausen and running back Armando Allen aren’t full speed. The Irish defense needs to build upon their improved play from last week, especially on first down and against the run.

Washington Version 2009

Despite the coaching change, the Huskies haven’t altered their scheduling trends. After finishing the 2008 regular season with the most difficult schedule, Washington enters Saturday’s game having played against the AV Ranking’s second most challenging slate of teams.

The Huskies feature almost entirely new offensive and defensive schemes, installed by Sarkisian and Holt over the off-season. With few exceptions, these new philosophies have been implemented and executed with very good success.

In the first year of a coaching change, this is more exception than rule. Part of this success is due to 18 returning starters with hardened game experience from last year’s 0-12 campaign. But part of it is also due to the coaching performance of Sarkisian and his staff.

Despite solid execution on both sides of the ball, the Huskies haven’t played mistake-free. Entering Saturday’s game Washington has averaged seven penalties for 57 yards per outing, and have turned the ball over six times in four contests.

Offense

The heart and soul of the Husky offense is quarterback Jake Locker. The dual-threat signal caller directs an efficient unit, and may be the most talented quarterback the Irish face all season. Accordingly, most of Washington’s success has come through the air.

The Husky offensive efficiency is present on multiple fronts.

Washington averages a remarkable 58 and impressive 93 percent in third down and red zone efficiency, respectively. The former is the result of Locker’s ability to extend drives with his feet. The latter has come against teams that are fairly stingy giving up red zone scores. Moreover, the Huskies are gaining nearly a yard better per play than their opposition allows.

With this level of efficiency it’s surprising Washington only holds a two-minute per game advantage in ball control, a number that undoubtedly climbs higher without the six turnovers.

But that’s about where the good ends.

Most of the offensive rankings are in the bottom half of FBS and this has come against defensive teams that average roughly 41 (LSU), 65 (Idaho), 11 (USC), and 49 (Stanford) in four major defensive categories (points per game, yards per play, rushing yards per game, and passing yards per game).

If there is a glaring weakness, it is the front five. Despite averaging 6-6, 323 pounds along the left side of the offensive line, Washington has struggled to run the ball. Additionally, the Husky offensive line has allowed seven sacks with a very mobile quarterback.

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Husky offense.

Washington Offensive Efficiency
StatisticWashingtonWashington RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd Down Efficiency58540.970
Red Zone Efficiency93237946
Red Zone TD Efficiency606250.147
Washington Total Offense
StatisticWashingtonWashington RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/Game23.88416.833
Yards143561122248
Yards/Play5.4694.641
TDs1178730
Yards/Game358.870305.536
Washington Rushing Offense
StatisticWashingtonWashington RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards4338641542
Yards/Carry3.3963.140
TDs487437
Yards/Game108.394103.837
Washington Passing Offense
StatisticWashingtonWashington RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards/ Attempt7.4556.351
Yards/ Completion12.74511.152
Completion %587156.452
Interceptions340458
TDs646437
Sacks759956
Yards/Game250.538201.755

Defense

The strength of the Husky defense is their play inside the red zone as the unit’s modus operandi has been “bend but don’t break.”

Holt’s boys have held opponents to only six touchdowns in 16 red zone trips, allowing six more field goals. Offenses have been able to move the ball well, but the defense buckles down on a short field.

At first glance it appears Washington has defended the pass well, but struggled to defend the run. A deeper look tells a different story.

The run defense has been porous, allowing over 195 yards per game at 5.8 yards per carry. To be fair, USC and Stanford both have good rushing offenses, but the Huskies’ numbers rank near the bottom of FBS teams.

This artificially underestimates opponents’ passing production because they haven’t needed to throw the ball (about 60 percent of plays against the Husky defense have been runs).

Moreover, even though offenses haven’t put up huge passing numbers, they were efficient.

Opposing quarterbacks have completed 60 percent of their passes for 7.7 yards per attempt and 12.9 yards per completion with only two interceptions (one per 47.5 pass attempts).

This is good for the 76th best pass efficiency defense in the country against a slate of teams that don’t throw the ball with overwhelming efficiency (opposing offenses average a 38th placed ranking in passing efficiency).

See the tables below for a more in-depth look at the Husky defense.

Washington Defensive Efficiency
StatisticWashingtonWashington RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd Down Efficiency37.26243.145
Red Zone Efficiency753179.269
Red Zone TD Efficiency37.51354.671
Washington Total Defense
StatisticWashingtonWashington RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/Game25.37429.650
Yards151794155943
Yards/Play6.61136.331
TDs11621539
Yards/Game379.383389.853
Washington Rushing Defense
StatisticWashingtonWashington RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards78311172936
Yards/Carry5.8116534
TDs675746
Yards/Game195.8106182.240
Washington Passing Defense
StatisticWashingtonWashington RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Yards/ Attempt7.7938.235
Yards/ Completion12.99613.436
Completion %606761.247
Interceptions278218
TDs324558
Sacks4100642
Yards/Game183.541207.668

Summary

Sarkisian and Holt may have Washington pointed in the right direction, but the 2009 squad lacks the star power to routinely compete against talented competition.

Washington plays well inside the twenty on both sides of the ball and this may be their saving grace, they thwart opposing scoring opportunities and take advantage of their own.

Locker is the strength of the offense. He is an above average passer with mobility that can extend drives. But the Huskies have a woeful rushing offense and struggle up front. Shut down Locker, and you stop Washington.

Defensively, the Huskies can’t stop the run and haven’t defended the pass well offenses that are far from prolific throwing the ball.

On paper the game seems to easily favor the Irish, but what are the critical elements of success?

Offense

  1. Run the ball. The improved Irish running game will be critical in this contest. Head coach Charlie Weis must resist unnecessary pass calls and utilize his stable of backs to wear down a suspicious Husky run defense, take pressure of Clausen and the passing game, and keep Locker off the field. This is especially true if Clausen still feels lingering effects of his turf toe injury and/or if backup Dayne Crist must provide relief.
  2. Take points when you get them (inside the red zone). Washington isn’t Purdue. The Husky defense has played well inside the 20-yard line, even against good running teams. Points will be a valuable commodity and opportunities to score cannot be wasted.
  3. PA stands for play-action. If there is one lacking area of the 2009 Irish’ offense, it is the play-action passing game. It isn’t that Clausen hasn’t been effective throwing the ball off a run fake, it’s that all the run fakes look virtually identical. In a game where Washington expects the Irish to use the run to offload pressure on Clausen and/or Crist, more diversity in the play-action pass game would pay dividends.

Defense

  1. It’s all about Locker. The Husky offense goes as Locker goes. He has a strong arm, mobility, accuracy and is difficult to tackle. Irish co-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta must learn from the Michigan loss and stop Locker from scrambling. Using a linebacker to spy is a good start, and freshman Manti Teo may be the best candidate for the job. If Locker is allowed to improvise, a la Tate Forcier, the Irish defense is in for a long day.
  2. Fix the other piece. Improvement in first down and rushing defense was readily apparent against Purdue. The secondary, however, continues to struggle. Washington has few legitimate threats at the receiver position and the Irish secondary hold a decisive athletic advantage. Soft coverage will be useless against a mobile and accurate quarterback. Darrin Walls, Raeshon McNeil, Robert Blanton, Gary Gray, et. al. must force the issue and suffocate the Husky receivers with press coverage.
  3. Exploit the front five. The left side of the Husky line is big, but slow. The right is small and inexperienced. Both sides should be vulnerable to gap stunts and heavy blitzing. Exploiting this weakness is key, but Irish defenders must maintain control, as blitzing out of position has led to poor tackling far too often.

Summary

The Husky victory over USC has many Irish fans rightfully concerned about Saturday’s game. While there were certainly favorable circumstances surrounding the win (USC coming off a tough road win, Sarkisian and Holt’s familiarity with the Trojan personnel, a “down” year for Carroll’s team), it was a monumental achievement given the decided talent advantage of the Trojans.

As the game against USC (and LSU) indicates, Washington is not to be taken lightly. They will be motivated to play well and prove that their big win was not a fluke, and there are few better stages than Notre Dame stadium.

Similar to last week, the Irish have a decided talent advantage over their opponent. But Sarkisian and Holt have the Huskies playing well above their potential and talent advantages haven’t translated into dominating performances for Notre Dame.

The Irish need this win in several ways. The past two victories over Michigan State and Purdue have been anything but convincing, and entering the mid-season showdown with USC at 4-1 has a wholly different feeling than 3-2.

The former is requisite to build confidence through the bye week. The latter would be a disappointing start to the 2009 season, especially given the quality of Notre Dame’s opponents.

Furthermore

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