Conversations with the Enemy: Talking Notre Dame with Inside the Irish

Keith Arnold, who writes NBC Sports' excellent Inside the Irish blog, was good enough to trade questions with us about Saturday's game.  He'll be hosting a live chat on during the game on Saturday at NBCSports.com, which should be an excellent place to gloat once Blair White catches his sixth touchdown pass of the day.

Part one is over on his site.  Below, I'm in bold:

Notre Dame's defense was praised widely after shutting out a good Nevada offense in week one.  Then, they appeared to substantially regress by allowing 430 yards against Michigan.  Briefly, what went wrong last week, and, going forward, how confident are you about the Irish defense?

Ah... sample size? I didn't think Notre Dame's defense was good enough to pitch a shutout against a good offensive team in Nevada, but I don't think they were necessarily as bad as the 34 points and 430 yards that Michigan put up.

As much as it hurts me to admit it, I was really impressed with Tate Forcier, and I've got a feeling I'm going to just despise that kid as a player by the time he's out of college. (He and Matt Barkley are on unparalleled trajectories right now, and they've only played two games and we've already got SportsCenter debating which quarterback is better. Like it's a grade school coloring contest or something...)

Anyway, what went wrong last week was something pretty evident to Weis, Tenuta, and Corwin Brown after watching the tape, and they're pretty confident that they've made the schematic changes necessary to fix it. What my eyes saw was ineffective blitzing, a mobile quarterback that got some of Notre Dame's bigs out in uncomfortable space, and an inability to get pressure on the quarterback with the front four. While the secondary certainly didn't have its best game, covering a receiver when the quarterback breaks the pocket is tough for just about anyone.

Related: unlike in previous years, the current MSU offense will probably get the significant majority of its yards through the air.  How do you think the Irish secondary matches up with our wide receivers?

I really like (or did before the Michigan game) the Irish secondary. This is as talented a group as Notre Dame has had in the secondary since the Lou Holtz era. We've got two athletic starting safeties, three legit cover corners, and Sergio Brown is a great player that basically starts in nickel sets. I haven't watched a ton of tape on the Spartan wideouts, but again, I think the secondary is only going to look as good as the Irish pass rush allows it.

(More, after the jump.)

Michael Floyd is one of the country's top wide receivers; had it not been for his late injury, it seems to me that Notre Dame would have won in Ann Arbor.  If he's not 100% on Saturday, how devastating would that be for the Irish, and how well do you think the offense would adapt?

I don't think people realize just how good a player Mister Michael Floyd really is. You might not find a bigger admitted Floyd homer in the country than me, because I've been touting this kid since I saw him on the freshman football field at my high school alma mater. From what Weis has said, Floyd's going to be 100 percent, and if you want to see how he looked at practice Tuesday, you can see it for yourself.

But a quick word on Floyd. He could've gone for 200 against Michigan. He made those defensive backs look just terrible, and the only reason I think Clausen just played "okay" (25-42, 336 yards, 3 TDs 0 INTs) is that he left a ton of yardage on the field by leading Floyd out of bounds. The kid can leap over every guy Michigan has in its secondary! Don't throw it out of bounds! I expect Floyd to absolutely light up every team he faces this year, and be an early first rounder after next year. He's a special player and a really good kid who has worked for everything he's gotten.

Now that I'm done pumping his tires, Floyd going down against Michigan was a seismic shift in the football game. I'm on record saying that I've got no problem with throwing the ball on 2nd and 3rd down on that last offensive drive, but when you've got 3rd and Game in the Big House, and you throw it to Shaq Evans, a true freshman in his 2nd game in an Irish uniform, you know Floyd being out is a big deal. But to support your hypothetical, if Floyd isn't 100 percent, the Irish will at least be in a much better place than they were last year when he was injured, because offensive line coach Frank Verducci looks to have done wonders with the offensive line and running game.

Central Michigan had enormous success running a spread-option attack against MSU.  Do you think Charlie Weis will incorporate some non-traditional formations this week, or do you expect mostly the pro-style sets we're accustomed to seeing from Notre Dame?

Weis has been toying with the Wildcat, but I think for the most part, it's going to be the same exotic pro package that Weis has run these first two games. (I don't really count the past two seasons of offense as the "Weis offense" because he was max protecting or trying to do anything he could to prop up his offensive line.)

That said, while it's certainly a disappointing loss for you guys, Dan LeFevour is better than most quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and probably the best one on the field last week. (Note: I'm still incredibly bitter that I listened to some guy I met in the sportsbook in Vegas last weekend and took the Spartans to cover, so I might be biased.)

We all know that Notre Dame's offensive line is vastly experienced, though they've been much maligned over the past few years.  How would you assess their play in the first two games?  I see that they allowed no sacks against a good Michigan defensive line.

It's tough to say anything bad about what the offensive line has done in these two games. The goose egg on sacks is nice, but more importantly, the semi-finesse running game that Weis depends on in his offense looked really good. The last two seasons it's been impossible to run stretches and other outside reach plays that the offensive line just couldn't run. And while left tackle Paul Duncan has been decent, right tackle Sam Young has looked like a beast, and even though he got called for a phantom holding call in Ann Arbor, has played to the potential everybody thought he had.

Darryl Stonum returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Irish last week, and Michigan State has a kickoff returner, Glenn Winston, who has been explosive at times.  Do you view special teams as a concern, or do you consider that an isolated incident?  Relatedly, how is Notre Dame's kicking game this year?

I think (hope) that the kickoff return was an isolated incident. Stonum's return was a huge turning point in the game, and Leonard Gordon looked like a matador out there on that return, ole-ing the tackle when he had Stonum in his crosshairs inside the Wolverine's 40. I'm waiting for Golden Tate to make a big punt return, and Theo Riddick, a pretty talented freshman is back as the deep man on the kickoffs. And don't sleep on Barry Gallup, who is only back deep on kickoffs because James Aldridge is hurt. He had an awesome game last week, taking back two kicks to around midfield.

Eric Maust has really stunk punting the ball during these two games, and his shank at the end of the Michigan game is getting forgotten by the angry mob of Irish fans looking to assign blame. True freshman kicker Nick Tausch also block/fade/pushed/shanked his first field goal attempt in a real college football game, a 28-yarder against Michigan, but rallied back to make two others. And if your kickers want to fight our kickers, just remember that freshman punter Ben Turk can bench 225 twenty-six times. That dude is yoked.

Obviously, last week was a crushing loss for the Irish, and many people are saying that Charlie Weis is running out of chances in South Bend.  However, ND's remaining schedule is favorable, to say the least, and even if the Irish lose on Saturday, it's not ridiculous to expect an 8 or 9 win season.  In your opinion, how important is this game for Notre Dame and its coach?

This could be one of the biggest games in Weis' tenure at Notre Dame. He's absolutely got to get the Irish out quickly, and keep everybody's psyche in line. Notre Dame's worst enemy is themselves. If they can go out and start by playing smart football, limit turnovers, get off the field on 3rd down on defense, I think the guys will be fine. But if they get off to a slow start, the demons will start creeping into everybody's head pretty quickly.

Weis knows he absolutely needs this game, and I think the players know that, too. Reading the chatrooms, comments, and the dozens of emails I got from Notre Dame fans after the loss, it's pretty obvious that it didn't take much to get all the negativity that was bubbling beneath the surface to reappear.  And as much as Spartan fans think Notre Dame fans are entitled, arrogant idiots, you should see and hear what they write when they're chatting amongst themselves. The second guessing and negativity is insufferable, and if the Irish lose to another team that's perceived to be weaker than they are, then I'm sure the vultures will start swirling.

But for all the chatter about a weak schedule, if ND loses, the heat gets ratcheted up on every game they play for the rest of the season. Purdue? Scary -- played Oregon tough last week. Washington? Scary -- played LSU tough. USC -- wouldn't bet on us. BC -- owned ND lately. Navy, took Ohio State to the limit. Pitt, UConn, Stanford... every one of those teams could take ND out if they slipped up, and will if the Irish aren't careful. All this schedule talk sounds good in the preseason, but I honestly don't think it's a cakewalk from here out. That said, if the Irish win Saturday, I'm still penciling them in for 10 wins. 

Thanks, Keith.  I hope your team crashes and burns!

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