(WSCR) – Utah’s record might be intimidating for the struggling Irish, but Notre Dame’s chances of getting in a bowl aren’t shattered yet. If they can win two of the next three games, Notre Dame could make a bowl.
By RICK GANO
No. 15 Utah comes to Notre Dame on Saturday with a glittering 21-11 record against BCS teams and coach Kyle Whittingham is 12-4 in those games. The Utes have triumphed in nine consecutive bowl games and a victory in South Bend would give them four straight seasons of at least nine wins under Whittingham.
The offense averages 41 points a game, has two solid running backs and a sophomore quarterback in Jordan Wynn who has completed 65 percent of his passes. Shaky Smithson leads the nation in punt return average with three returns of at least 70 yards this season. And the Utes have scored on 90 percent of their trips inside the 20 this season, including 29 TDS.
So after all of that, the question is this: What the heck happened last week against TCU? The Horned Frogs embarrassed the Utes 47-7 on their home field, a potential season squasher if ever there was one.
The Utes (8-1) could come out flat against the Irish after such a deflating loss – or maybe they’ll be angry and determined to get back to the kind of football to which they have become accustomed.
“We got whipped and we can’t feel sorry for ourselves, and we need to move on,” Whittingham said. “Everyone wants to be undefeated. When you have got it going and it gets down to the wire and you have a chance for something special and it gets derailed, that’s tough to swallow.”
The regrouping will come against an injury-slowed Notre Dame team (4-5) enduring a disappointing first season under Brian Kelly. Freshman Tommy Rees will make his first start at quarterback Saturday for the depleted Irish, replacing Dayne Crist.
Besides Crist, Notre Dame has also lost leading rusher Armando Allen, top tight end Kyle Rudolph and nose guard Ian Williams to season-ending injuries. And slot receiver Theo Riddick is sidelined for a third straight game with an ankle sprain.
Leading receiver Michael Floyd, a junior, could be joining three dozen seniors playing their final game at Notre Dame Stadium. His decision on whether to go pro will come later.
The Irish have lost their final home game in each of the previous two seasons.
“That’s horrible,” said safety Harrison Smith, who has another year of eligibility. “Not the way you want to play your last game at Notre Dame. That’s not the last memory you want to have. Just seeing the hurt in some of the guys’ eyes when those games ended is something we definitely don’t want to go through again.”
Kelly’s goal was turn the Irish back into national contenders right away and that is going to have to wait. But if they somehow can win two of their final three games – Army and Southern Cal are left after Saturday’s home finale – they could make a bowl and get the extra 15 practices.
Kelly’s message, he says, hasn’t changed.
“It’s been the same one every single day. Now when you look at a 4-5 team the talk outside the program is ‘Hey, let’s get ready for next year.’ I’m not ready for next year. I’m still focused on the same thing we’ve been doing since we got here,” Kelly said.
“We can have those extra practices and get those reps and get a look at not only a bowl, but our future team,” said star Irish linebacker Manti T’eo. “So that’s definitely important.”
Coming off a bye, Te’o and his defensive mates will have to contain Utah running backs Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide, who’ve combined for more than 1,000 yards. TCU limited the Utes to 51 yards rushing last week.
If the Irish can’t stop the run, Wynn’s passing will be even more effective. Wynn struggled, too, against TCU, completing only 16 of 35 passes with two interceptions. But Utah’s offensive line has allowed only four sacks this season, so getting to him is difficult.
Utah, which will switch to the Pac-12 next season, still has plenty to play for.
“This is not the time to panic,” Whittingham said. “We got beat by a good football team, and we are still good and have the chance to do good things by the season’s end. We still have a chance to have an excellent season.”
Updated November 12, 2010
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