Friday, October 30, 2009

Cougar Town | by Pat

This Saturday marks the official start of Notre Dame's 7-4-1 scheduling model, now made official policy in the NBC contract. Much has been written about this scheduling approach and much more should be written. After all, it has to be a bit embarrassing that tickets (and entire rows) not only are still available for purchase, but they are going for $14 and include a free dinner.

But for now, since it's All Hallow's Eve Eve, we'll pass the scheduling horror stories and go for the macabre, a look at the season to date for tomorrow's opponent: the Washington State Cougars.

Hat tip to reader Épée Fencer for digging up the reason ND is playing the Cougars as the inaugural "barnstorming" opponent. As you might have guessed based on other scheduling matchups, Washington State's AD is a former co-worker of ND's former AD Kevin White.

Sterk says he immediately began pestering White for a home-and-home series, but the Irish already had signed a deal with Washington, played USC every year and were hooked in with Stanford. So the best White could do was offer WSU a 2003 game in South Bend.

"We go there, we lose to them in overtime with some highly controversial calls," Sterk said of the 29-26 overtime decision, "and Kevin swore he would never play us again."

Until he had a conversion on Sterk's "deathbed."

Notre Dame was talking with NBC, its broadcast partner for six home games a year, about a seventh game that would be held at an off-campus site in 2009.

White thought of WSU, Sterk was able to move the Stanford game to the start of the year, and the deal was made for Halloween night. At first, they tried to get the game in New Orleans, where they both had deep ties, but the Superdome wasn't open for this weekend.

So the Alamodome game was made.
Since that arrangement, the Cougars, to be nice, have hit a rough patch. A 2-11 season in 2008 featured only one win against a D1 (FBS) school and even that was a squeaker over the 0-12 Huskies. The Cougs set NCAA records for defensive futility and haven't improved all that much so far for 2009 as they sit 1-6 with the only win being a 3 point victory over Southern Methodist.

If you refuse to shake the idea that this game will come down to the wire just like all the rest of them, then here are some news and notes about just exactly who will be lining up against the Fighting Irish and if there truly are any reasons at all to be concerned about this game.

Washington State has clearly studied ND's defense as they plan to use a tried and true method of offensive success by starting a true freshman at quarterback. Tuel certianly wasn't a recruit on the level of Tate Forcier or Matt Barkley; I didn't even mention him as one of the three possible starters for the Cougars in the position preview back in August. But nonetheless he is now the Cougars starting quarterback and is one of the very few players on the team giving them a slight bit of optimism. In his last game he threw for 385 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions against the Cal defense. If this game isn't over by halftime, it will probably be because of Tuel and ND's maddening inability to slow down quarterbacks only a few months removed from senior prom. So far it seems that Tuel best chance to beat the Irish defense is to throw to Johnny Forzani. On one hand, Forzani is a junior college transfer from Canada and never played football in high school. On the other hand, he's extremely fast and a few weeks ago set a Pac-10 record with a 99 yard touchdown reception. Odds are he'll slip past ND's safeties and corners for at least one long reception.

On the other hand, Washington State has a horrendous defense (114th - rushing, 118th - passing) and just lost their best defensive player for the season.
Bland, who was the team’s second leading tackler, had been battling soreness in his knee throughout the majority of the year.

"(Bland’s) probably been our best football player on top to bottom on our defense in the last year and a half,” Head Coach Paul Wulff said.

A terrible defense with their best player out sounds like a potential banner day for Clausen, Tate, and the rest of the Irish offense. Even if Tuel has some success finding holes in the ND zone defense, it still probably won't matter.

The rest of the Cougar team has been an exercise in plugging gaps left by injuries. Consider this depressing factoid from their game notes (pdf).
So far this season WSU has missed 53 player games due to injury or illness. On the offensive line five players who have started this season have 13 missed games due to injury, while the defensive line has missed a total of 12 games from four players.
Scanning the Cougar depth chart (pdf), there are a lot of freshman and redshirt freshman either making the start or providing second string depth. Oh, and I'd expect at least one corny joke from Haden and Hammond about the name of WSU's backup strong safety Kyle McCartney.

If you're still looking for more, check out an informative Q&A between Keith Arnold of Inside the Irish and the entertaining WSU Football Blog. And for those fans who make the trip, feel free to drop us a line with a report from ND's first ever home game in Texas.