Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bowling With the Enemy | by Pat

As we head into the bowels of bowl week we've got an opportunity for a sneak peak into some of the 2007 opponents. After nearly a month of extra practice, bowl game teams often look different from the ones we saw earlier during the regular season; ND fans should remember that the first inkling we had that Jeff Samardzija had potential wasn't his diving end zone catch against Pitt, but rather the bowl in 2004 where the mostly unknown sophomore led the team in receptions.

As it turns out, eight of ND's 2007 opponents are playing in bowl games this year...

Emerald Bowl
Dec. 27th - 8:00 pm ESPN (Dan Fouts, Tim Brant, & Jack Arute)

The first opponent bowl game features a Bruin team coming off one of the biggest program wins in a long time. Backup-turned-starting QB Pat Cowan has the team behind him after the upset over SC and the Bruins have more Freshman All-Americans (3) than they do senior starters who are out of eligibility (2), so it's possible that a strong finish to 2006 could lead to even bigger and better things in 2007. UCLA's defense is the big story now, but it should be interesting to ND fans to see how the UCLA passing game has progressed. Keep an eye out for freshman wide receiver Terrance Austin (#4), a speedy player who was offered by ND last year and should play a bigger role in the UCLA aerial attack next season.

Champs Sports Bowl
Dec. 29th - 8:00 pm ESPN (Brad Nessler, Bob Griese, Paul Maguire, & Bonnie Bernstein)

Between them, Purdue and Maryland have 16 wins, but only 2 of those come over opponents with winning records (Maryland over Middle Tennessee State and Clemson). ND fans likely remember the frustrating Boilermaker pass attack, specifically the performance of Selwyn Lymon, who lit up the Irish for 238 yards and 2 TDs. But his future stardom which seemed a given after that game is far from a sure thing as he only totaled 215 yards and 1 TD over the next 8 games. Purdue remained an offensive force through the air, finishing #6 nationally in passing offense, but sophomore QB Curtis Painter saddled the impressive yardage total with a mediocre 21-18 TD/INT ratio. He'll be back next year so watch to see if he's improved his decision making during the December practice sessions. Defensively, the Boilermakers were in the NCAA cellar all season long with a #114 total defense ranking. I suspect they still won't look great, even though Maryland checks in with a paltry #96 ranking in total offense. Another quick Maryland note: the Terrapins are the new team for Southern Cal freshman Antwine Perez. The former 5-star safety recruit will transfer there and be eligible to play in 2008.

Meineke Car Care Bowl
Dec. 30th - 1:00 pm ESPN (Pam Ward, Mike Gottfried, & Jimmy Dykes)

The first of two bowl games that feature two 2007 ND opponents. It will be hard to get much from BC as they are being coached by interim head coach and former defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani. New coach Jeff Jagodzinski won't come in until after the bowl game so don't look for too many scheme clues. Instead, keep an eye out for players who will be back to make the trip to South Bend next year like stars QB Matt Ryan and FB/LB Brian Toal as well as all-conference freshmen KR Jeff Smith and LB Mark Herzlich. BC played musical chairs with their field goal kicker during the year but are down to one after the season's initial starter, Ryan Oliger,was suspended for violation of team rules.

We all know that Navy is going to feature hard-working, efficient, undersized players and the option attack isn't likely to change much for next year. I'm going to check out QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and see just how far along the sophomore has come since the ND game, his first as the full-time starter.

Outback Bowl
Jan. 1 - 11:00 a.m. ESPN (Mike Patrick, Todd Blackledge, & Holly Rowe)

ND's most complete game of the year came against the young Nittany Lions. But after a whole season and an extra month of practice, it will be interesting to see just how much PSU has matured. First-time starting QB Anthony Morelli was uneven and finished the regular season with a 53% completion rate and a 10-8 TD/INT ratio. A full month of practice will be very beneficial for the strong-armed QB and his fleet of young receivers. Still, the Tennessee defense will be a tough test so it will be interesting to see how effective the Nittany Lion passing game can be. The youthful PSU secondary also should be playing better after a full season of experience now under their belt. Look to see how they perform against Tennessee's potent QB/WR duo of Erik Ainge and Robert Meachem.

Gator Bowl
Jan. 1 - 1:00 p.m. CBS (Verne Lundquist, Gary Danielson, & Tracy Wolfson)

This is one of the bowl games that I'm most interesting in watching, with the prime matchup being WVU's rushing juggernaut against the blitzing, relentless Yellow Jacket defense. ND fans will get a preview of Tech's next starting QB as four-year starter Reggie Ball was declared academically ineligble and will not play in the bowl game. As of now, Ball is being replaced by sophomore Taylor Bennett, who played in six games this year. Calvin Johnson will likely be a frequent target, but I'd imagine that Tech will try to involve some of the younger wide receivers and get them some additional confidence heading into next year. Like UCLA, the Yellow Jackets are a young team with only one starter running out of eligibility following the bowl game so nearly everyone playing on New Year's Day will be around to make the trip to South Bend next fall.

Rose Bowl
Jan. 1 - 5:00 p.m. ABC (Brent Musburger, Bob Davie, Kirk Herbstreit, Lisa Salters, & Bonnie Bernstein)

The Rose Bowl is the second bowl game featuring two ND opponents. And not just any two oppponents, but ND's biggest two rivals. While this game is the "asteroid" game for many ND fans, it reminds me of a Chuck Klosterman article from Esquire about the Nemesis and the Archenemy. The analogy isn't perfect, but read the article and tell me you can't find some sort of similarity in the way ND fans feel versus SC (nemesis) and Michigan (archenemy).

The Trojans have lost their last two games in the Rose Bowl and certainly will be determined to halt that streak. With such a young team, especially on defense and at running back, it will be interesting to see which of the freshman and sophomores make a play for more playing time next year. Keep an eye out for the younger receivers like Patrick Turner, Vidal Hazelton, and David Ausberry, who could play the Samardzija role and give a sneak peak at the Trojan air attack post-Jarrett and Smith.

Like the Trojans, Michigan lost their last game of the season and lost their last game in the Rose Bowl. But unlike Southern Cal, the Wolverines are likely still fuming from missing out on playing Ohio State for the national championship. It will be interesting to see if they come out fired up to prove they belonged in Glendale or if the team comes out flat after missing out on the big prize. Personnel-wise, Michigan returns most of their star players on offense for next year and the winner of this game will likely be the strong favorite for #1 heading into next year.